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Bucks Have Found Their Missing Link in Jrue Holiday

Holiday’s presence in Milwaukee has been a bright spot that could possibly get the team over the championship hump.

The make-believe label for the rest of this season’s “most important non–All-Star” has several fun candidates. Jamal Murray, Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, CJ McCollum, Deandre Ayton, Mike Conley, Kemba Walker, Tobias Harris, Kristaps Porzingis, and half of Toronto’s starting five are all in position to affect the title race.

Jrue Holiday might not even be the first nominee on his own team (Khris Middleton was robbed!) but he’s the only one out of every name mentioned who can claim to be that elusive missing piece. Back in November, the Bucks traded Eric Bledsoe, George Hill, three first-round draft picks (including R.J. Hampton) and two pick swaps (in 2024 and 2026) for the 30-year-old one-time All-Star and free-agent-to-be who famously eviscerated Damian Lillard’s Blazers the last time he competed in the playoffs.

Now, two months into his Bucks tenure, recently returned from a 10-game coronavirus-related absence, Holiday’s impact in Milwaukee has been a steady (albeit subdued) delight. When their hopeful difference maker was out, the Bucks were mediocre, 5–5 with the 10th-ranked offense, 17th-ranked defense, and an unimpressive +2.8 net rating.

But before that point, the Bucks were a league-best +10.0; Holiday thrived with fewer offensive demands and was never more efficient or accurate scoring inside the arc (somewhat thanks to a career-high 49% of his shots being assisted). His usage is still the lowest it’s been since he was a rookie and his assist-to-turnover ratio has never been better. Going back to 2014, when pull-up threes started being tracked, the 38.6% he's knocking down are a high.

When Holiday plays, the Bucks have looked invincible, boasting a top-four defense and the best offense in basketball. When he’s on the floor with Giannis Antetokounmpo and Middleton, Milwaukee’s defense allows just 104.9 points per 100 (non-garbage-time) possessions, good for first place.

Holiday’s impact has also been felt in some areas that previously torpedoed Milwaukee’s championship dreams. Their half-court defense—which fell apart in the bubble—is fourth-worst in the league without Holiday and league average when he plays, which is the most positive difference on the team. And then in minutes when Holiday plays without Giannis, Milwaukee’s offensive rating rises 2.5 points while Holiday’s true shooting percentage rises from 56.5 to 62.5, despite a significant spike in usage.

To watch the Bucks during Holiday’s absence was to see a flawed roster that screamed for the exact type of relief he’s able to provide, be it with smaller five-man units Mike Budenholzer can explore without giving much up on either end or the gross need for additional shot creation on nights Middleton goes cold and Giannis isn’t able to batter through opposing walls on command.

Even if Holiday has attempted only eight field goals in crunch time, there will be late-game chances for him to create with the ball when opponents load up to take away Antetokounmpo. The task shouldn’t be too tall. For most of his career, Holiday has been a terrific isolation playmaker who can shred defenses without a screen. It’s one reason Milwaukee generates a lot more corner threes when he’s on the floor.

He’s plenty comfortable as a bully down low, too, which isn’t good news for Kyrie Irving, Seth Curry, Kemba Walker or any other short guard Milwaukee can pick on during a seven-game series.

Theoretically, Holiday is the impetus for this team’s stylistic evolution. And so much of his value as that transformative lynchpin is unknown until it’s not there. But in the here and now, what we do know is Milwaukee has finally taken baby steps in the right direction. Switching more ball screens might be the most important example, a strategy that will serve the Bucks well in most matchups. Without Holiday, they don’t have the right personnel—i.e., they’re too small—to pull it off as effectively as they’d like, but over the past few weeks they’ve started to dig a foundation.

In a mid-February loss against the Jazz—a game Holiday missed—Milwaukee switched a ton in an attempt to stifle Utah’s high-volume three-point shooting. Sometimes it worked, as seen below:

But more often than not they struggled. In addition to being outworked on the boards whenever Brook Lopez or Bobby Portis switched out to the perimeter, the Bucks also allowed their all-time highest free-throw rate in any one game since Budenholzer was hired. With Holiday, there’s less concern about committing to more resourceful units that put Giannis at center, groups that won’t be so awkward executing a scheme that feels forced and necessary at the same time. (His presence also lets the Bucks bury that Portis, Lopez, Giannis combination that somehow isn’t already 25 feet underground.)

Against the Clippers on Sunday, Holiday’s size on a backline rotation might’ve won Milwaukee the game. Paul George likely scores here if D.J. Augustin or Bryn Forbes are the last line of defense.

Assuming Coach Bud will acquiesce to more on-the-fly adjustments in a series against, say, a Nets team that decides to roll out Kevin Durant, James Harden, Kyrie Irving, Bruce Brown, and Joe Harris at the same time, Holiday’s versatility in lineups we haven’t even seen yet will be essential. (Giannis, Middleton, Holiday, Forbes, and Donte DiVincenzo have never played together, for example. Substitute Torrey Craig in for Forbes and that group was a blip in two measly games.)

Like most contenders, the Bucks may need to make another move before the trade deadline, if for no other reason than to add more punch when small (it’s here where Bogdan Bogdanovic would’ve been cool). But simply playing Holiday more than they have will also be a good thing. His minutes and usage will rise in the playoffs, when Milwaukee will need to axe offensive possessions where Giannis pulls up for a three whenever his man begs him to.

Holiday is trustworthy enough to remove the ball from his two-time MVP teammate’s hands and position him to finish more than initiate. Then, when traditional roles are reversed, Holiday might be the most useful screener Giannis has ever had, given his size, outside shot, point guard vision, and likelihood that whoever’s involved in the action really won’t want to switch.

At this stage, in early March, measuring Holiday’s true value as the brand-new third option on the best team he’s ever played for is a conjectural exercise. As he resettles into championship-or-bust expectations, there’s still time for the Bucks to be vulnerable, tinker with different rotations, diversify their strategies, and search for fresh ways to maximize their best players when games matter most.

But it’s still somewhat of a question mark whether the Bucks actually will. Can they sustain their open mind and use the rest of this regular season to become more flexible in time for the playoffs? If the answer is yes, Holiday can be far more helpful than he’s already been.