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The Bucks’ Trade for P.J. Tucker Should Be Only a First Step

Tucker can help the Bucks, but Milwaukee still has holes to fill. To get Giannis and Co. over the top, the Bucks need to stay aggressive before the trade deadline.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The most important part of Milwaukee’s trade for P.J. Tucker is the mentality behind it. The Bucks admitted a mistake by dealing a couple of offseason signings who haven’t worked (D.J. Augustin and Torrey Craig, the latter of whom was sent to the Suns in a separate trade) and created assets out of thin air by tweaking future draft pick obligations they already owed to the Rockets. It’s the kind of aggressive move they haven’t made in the past. Milwaukee now has two open roster spots it can fill without going into the luxury tax. That’s good because the Bucks can’t count on Tucker being enough to win an NBA title. They have to keep pushing.

Tucker has been an elite role player for most of his time in Houston. The best version of him was an elite interior defender with the strength and toughness to play much bigger than his size (6-foot-5 and 245 pounds) and the quickness to defend on the perimeter. He always has been fairly limited offensively, but could make open 3s (career 35.9 percent on 2.9 attempts per game) and space the floor.

But we haven’t seen that version of Tucker this season. Harden forced his way out of town, the Rockets imploded, and the 35-year-old Tucker appeared to age overnight. His averages in points (4.4), rebounds (4.6), field goal percentage (36.6), and 3-point percentage (31.4) fell off a cliff. He looked a step slow and unable to play the type of intense defense that he’s known for. The question is whether it was a physical decline, or Tucker taking his foot off the gas until he was traded. He wasn’t playing with as much effort, but he’s also an older player with a demanding role who has put a lot of miles on his body.

He should help the Bucks, either way. His shooting percentages will likely improve now that he’s once again playing with stars who can create open shots for him. The Rockets didn’t have anyone who could do that after Harden left. Milwaukee has three players who can in Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, and Jrue Holiday. It’s one of the most top-heavy rosters in the NBA, which explains why they will take anyone who can knock down 3s and defend a position.

The Bucks have only four players in their supporting cast (Brook Lopez, Donte DiVincenzo, Bobby Portis, and Pat Connaughton) whom they can count on. Milwaukee emptied its roster to trade for Holiday, and had to scrounge through the bargain big in free agency. Most of its signings flopped. Augustin is an undersized guard nearing the end of his career. Craig never clicked with Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer. Bryn Forbes is younger than Augustin but nearly as small, and has little chance of surviving on defense in the playoffs.

Even the reliable figures in their supporting cast, with the exception of DiVincenzo, don’t inspire confidence. The league has figured out Lopez. He hasn’t shot as well as he did in his first season in Milwaukee, so defenses are leaving him open on the perimeter, and they can take advantage of his declining speed on the other end of the floor. Portis supplies offensive punch off the bench, but is an unreliable defender. Connaughton has struggled in the playoffs, and doesn’t have the size (6-foot-5 and 209 pounds) or offensive creativity to make a difference on the wing.

Trading for Tucker gives them a ready-made crunch-time lineup. They now have a fifth option to put around Giannis, Middleton, Holiday, and DiVincenzo, who have a net rating of plus-11.9 in 342 minutes together this season. The Bucks can put four shooters around Giannis, and play five quality defenders at the same time. That is the kind of lineup they have needed in the past two postseasons, when Budenholzer kept Lopez on the floor even when opponents downsized and left him with no one to guard. He’s a stubborn coach who stuck with what worked in the regular season rather than making adjustments in the playoffs.

The best-case scenario is that Tucker flips a switch and allows them to play a more aggressive style of defense. He has plenty of incentive now that he’s competing for a title and playing for a new contract in the offseason. If he can still defend on the perimeter, the Bucks can switch screens across all five positions and cover up the holes in their schemes that the Heat exposed in last season’s playoffs. The Bucks have been switching more this season, but experimenting with different defensive coverages isn’t enough without the personnel to execute them.

But expecting that much from Tucker is an awfully big “if.” The Bucks need other options. Milwaukee already had an elite small-ball center in Giannis. Their net rating this season when he plays without Lopez or Portis is plus-14.9 in 97 minutes. The problem is that sliding him up a position exposes their lack of depth on the wing. That still needs to be addressed.

That’s where Milwaukee’s offseason moves were so disappointing. They were operating on the margins. Portis, Augustin, and Forbes were never going to be able to fit in their best lineups. Craig is their only signing who could have, and Budenholzer gave up on him almost immediately. That lack of foresight is the underlying issue for the Bucks. They don’t proactively identify problems and address them ahead of time. Their biggest need has always been a 3-and-D wing who could allow Giannis to play more at the 5. They have not even tried to fill it.

There is one potential solution on their bench. Jordan Nwora, the no. 45 pick in the draft, is a big wing (6-foot-8 and 225 pounds) who made 3s at a high clip (39.4 percent on 4.9 attempts per game) in three seasons at Louisville. He’s also an older rookie (22) with an NBA-ready body. He has played in just 10 games this season with ankle issues, but is no longer on their injury report. They can’t just assume that he’s unable to help because of his lack of experience. Thanasis Antetokounmpo has been in their rotation this season, even though it should be clear that his limited offensive game will make him a liability in the playoffs. Nwora may not be the answer, either, but it’s at least possible that he could be.

The refusal to give chances to younger players has been a longstanding problem for the Bucks. It’s unfair to blame them for not playing Christian Wood when the rest of the NBA also passed on him, but they had him two seasons ago and never used him. It was the same issue with D.J. Wilson, whom they dealt for Tucker. Budenholzer buried Wilson on the bench even though he’s the kind of switchable big man that they needed. Milwaukee could use more imagination. No one would have blamed Brooklyn for not playing Nic Claxton, a second-round pick in 2019 who missed most of his rookie season with injuries. But the Nets realized his skill set could help them, gave him a chance to prove himself, and are now benefiting from it.

The Bucks can’t afford to sit back and hope for the best. They need to maintain the same aggressiveness that allowed them to beat out other contenders in the trade market for Tucker. There are still two holes in their second unit, at guard and on the wing. They have another week before the trade deadline, as well as room to sign two players from the buyout market. Trading for Tucker is only the first step. Milwaukee has more moves to make.