Let's call this a first-world problem: the Milwaukee Bucks are too good to use their best lineups. Their base rotations have been so great all year long that they just haven't felt the need to do much experimenting. There's no difference between winning by 20 and winning by 30.
Eventually, things are going to get harder. Even the Warriors started sweating when the playoffs rolled around. Their answer was to downsize. When the calendar hit April, Draymond Green became a center. Even if they've hardly used it, the same cheat code has been sitting in Milwaukee's back pocket all year. On the rare occasions Mike Budenholzer has seen fit to move Giannis Antetokounmpo to center, the Bucks have been practically unbeatable.
Such lineups have scored 116.5 points per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass. That's just a shade below the Dallas Mavericks, owners of the most efficient offense in NBA history at 116.7 points per 100 possessions, over the course of the full season. They've been even better defensively. The Bucks allow the fewest points per 100 possessions in the NBA, only 102.3 in total. With Antetokounmpo at center, that number tumbles to 94.8. The only constant has been Giannis. Though he has played 418 total possessions at center, no single lineup under that umbrella has played more than 10 total minutes. If Golden State had the Death Lineup, Milwaukee just has one killer player.
The lineups function on a unique combination of shooting and athleticism. When everyone on the floor can dribble, shoot, pass and improvise, you get possessions like this, where defenses are completely discombobulated after all of those traits are unleashed on them at once.
Giannis operates at both the nominal and figurative center of the operation. Downsized lineups already operating on a rim-protection-by-committee basis are acutely aware of what Giannis can do as a driver in a spaced lane. Look at the Dallas defenders on this play. All five have their eyes on the MVP. Three are ready to converge at the point of attack. Two more are waiting to help at the basket. Naturally, that creates passing opportunities.
Milwaukee tortures opponents by weaponizing its shooting in ways that are only possible when there isn't a big man on the floor. A favorite of theirs involves using a shooter—in this case, Kyle Korver—to set a back screen for Giannis in the pick-and-roll. With even a shooting big like Brook Lopez nesting in the corner, defenses are comfortable rotating his man over as a rim-protector and trusting the two defenders in the play to snuff out Korver's shot. But with three other shooters? The defense freezes. Follow Korver into his pop and Giannis glides to the basket. Play conservatively and you're giving one of the best shooters of all time an open look. For obvious reasons, defenses struggle with that calculus in the split second they are given to make up their minds.
Giannis is one of the very few players who can excel on either end of the pick-and-roll. Defenses are aware that he can comfortably play both point guard and center, and short of the very few combinations of players that can switch against him effectively, they've found no way to adequately cover for both. Watch as he transitions so quickly from ball-handler to roller against Golden State that Omari Spellman, like so many others, is frozen in indecision.
The cherry on top of all of this is that Giannis actually can operate as a traditional center. The smaller players put in the game to combat him at that position, however, cannot. Milwaukee draws fouls on a stellar 24 percent of their possessions with Giannis at center. Markieff Morris doesn't exactly have a lengthy list of options when Giannis posts him up here. He can foul, he can let Giannis score, or he and a teammate can double him only to watch helplessly as a shooter rains fire from above. He chooses the lesser of three evils.
Milwaukee grabs an excellent 29.2 percent of available offensive rebounds with these lineups on the floor for the same reasons. He can rebound like a center, but the small-ball players opponents throw at him can't.
The most basic benefit here comes when the Bucks realize that there just aren't any other big people on the court, so they can essentially throw goal-line fades to Giannis knowing nobody else can reach the ball.
Many of the same principles apply on defense. The Bucks don't take a hit with Giannis at center because he already does everything that a center does anyway. He forces opponents to shoot 19.5 percent worse at the rim than they do on average, per NBA.com. That's the best figure in the NBA by far, and it's why the Bucks hardly have to change their scheme without a traditional big man on the floor. Giannis is more than comfortable playing dropback coverage and denying anything at the rim.
What makes these units work defensively is that, as usual, Giannis also does everything else. This isn't even rim-protection. It's paint-protection. He's covering the floater and the basket at the same time.
With no good way of attacking these lineups, offenses have tried to force Giannis to defend the perimeter just to get him away from the basket. The problem? He does that at an elite level as well.
Pick basically any area: shooting, rim-protection, rebounding, passing, turnovers, and the Bucks with Giannis as their center do it at a high level. Even the counters are fairly underwhelming. Every Milwaukee guard that figures to be in the playoff rotation, save Eric Bledsoe, has shot at least 37 percent on wide-open 3-pointers this season, so sagging off of role players doesn't exactly seem feasible. Their midseason pickup of Marvin Williams allows them to put more overall size on the floor, so they wouldn't have to sacrifice aggregate length in the name of mobility or spacing. A handful of teams have big men that could feasibly hang with Giannis both inside and out, but it's not like Joel Embiid's grow on trees.
The question, in that sense, isn't whether or not such lineups would work, but rather, how willing Budenholzer will be to use them. Milwaukee played Giannis at center for a grand total of nine possessions during the 2019 playoffs. They've hardly used the lineups this season either. Budenholzer has developed a reputation as a coach uncomfortable with adapting to the playoffs. Forget about positions, Budenholzer had a 24-year-old MVP and played him only 34.3 minutes per game in the playoffs last season.
Milwaukee's system works. They haven't been the NBA's best regular-season team in consecutive campaigns by accident, and it's too early in their contention window to suggest any sort of fatal postseason flaw. They might be good enough to win the championship as is. Again, we're dealing with first-world problems. The Knicks would love to be debating what kind of role to use Giannis in.
But these sort of first-world problems are the ones that ultimately determine championships. Golden State took the plunge and moved Draymond to center. A moment of truth is going to come at some point in the bubble. The unstoppable regular-season Bucks are going to be challenged by somebody. And when that moment comes, Budenholzer's willingness to reach into his back pocket and deploy his secret weapon might just be the difference between championship or bust.