Thirteen games into the season, it is yet unclear why Mike Budenholzer is dragging his feet on giving Torrey Craig playing time. The 30-year-old swingman, after all, was brought aboard to ease the loss of Wesley Matthews on defense for a re-tooled Bucks roster.
Pre-Milwaukee, he had a glowing reputation as a stout defender and was a highly sought-after acquisition in free agency.
Per Eric Nehm of The Athletic, when asked about the minutes situation, the third-year head coach had this to say:
Guys are playing well and we’ve tightened up the rotation a tiny bit, so it’s a combination of some guys playing well, tightening it up. I think we’re trying to give Giannis, Khris, these guys ways to get their conditioning…hopefully, we can find an opportunity to start incorporating him and we know he’s going to be helpful and be important to us.
It certainly makes sense in the long term, but what it doesn’t explain is Bud’s refusal to play Craig in favor of shorter and clumsier wings like Pat Connaughton and Thanasis Antetokounmpo.
The Bucks just lost two in a row for the first time and have a lot to figure out on the defensive end. For a Milwaukee defense that went from first to tenth in the NBA, Craig minutes are low hanging fruit with untapped defensive potential.
Here’s our case for why Budenholzer should free Torrey Craig.
He’s an elite defender
It’s difficult to overstate the versatility of the 6-foot-7 Craig. During his time in Denver, he was routinely tasked with clamping down on the opposing team’s best player. More often than not, he delivered.
Check out how he fared against the league’s premier wings last year, per NBA Stats.
|Matchup||MIN-GP||PTS||FGM – FGA – FG%|
|Donovan Mitchell||20:40 (3 games)||12||5-of-20 (25%)|
|Devin Booker||10:41 (2)||4||1-of-8 (12.5%)|
|LeBron James||8:39 (2)||10||4-of-15 (26.7%)|
|James Harden||8:22 (3)||11||2-of-9 (22.2%)|
Torrey Craig: textbook shutdown defense. https://t.co/eEGUfPDu7o
— Denver Nuggets (@nuggets) April 4, 2018
With a unique blend of speed, length, and athleticism, Craig can definitely keep up with the best of them, being able to defend one through four. He’s certainly skilled enough to take on the opposition’s best wing to allow Middleton to focus on scoring the rock.
He only turned it up a notch in the playoffs, where he famously clamped Kawhi Leonard en route to the Nuggets’ Western Conference Finals berth.
|Matchup||MIN-GP||PTS||FGM – FGA – FG%|
|Donovan Mitchell||21:47 (7)||32||7-of-20 (35%)|
|Kawhi Leonard||12:17 (7)||29||9-of-21 (42.9%)|
|LeBron James||11:13 (5)||9||3-of-8 (37.5%)|
|Lou Williams||11:04 (7)||5||1-of-8 (12.5%)|
|Paul George||10:56 (7)||14||5-of-13 (38.5%)|
Connaughton is not the answer defensively
Connaughton, on the other hand, has not been quite as successful in similar defensive assignments so far this season. The 6-foot-5 Connaughton spends 67% of his 17.6 minutes per game at the small forward spot and only 28% at shooting guard. He’s obviously undersized, and his defense so far has spoken for itself.
Though much-improved, we’ve witnessed Connaughton get burned by matchups against Jayson Tatum, Kevin Durant, and James Harden. He’s also earned a reputation among Bucks fans for biting on pump fakes way too easily.
With Craig sitting on the bench racking up DNP-CDs, Harden and Tyler Herro each went 3-of-4 with Connaughton on them, while RJ Barrett and Jeff Teague scored 2-of-2 with ease. For the 5.9 partial possessions guarded by Connaughton in the season opener, Tatum also scored 12 points on 5-of-6 shooting.
Though the undersized guard’s play against superstars is likely the result of an ill-conceived coaching blunder before anything else, refusing to play an elite defender is one, too.
Offensive dropoff isn’t as bad as you’d think
Much has been said about Craig’s scoring, and for good reason. Through 174 career games, he’s only scoring 5.2 points per game on 45% field goal efficiency and 32% shooting from deep.
Compared to Connaughton, though, head-to-head stats from their 2019-20 campaigns show that the offensive dropoff between the two is not as costly as initially advertised.
This is only more so emphasized once you look at their career stats so far. For all his limitations on that end, Craig has actually outscored Connaughton in his career.
Connaughton is clearly the better shooter. In a “let it fly” offense under Mike Budenholzer, it’s perfectly understandable why his play would be desirable.
However, it would also be patently incorrect to overstate the perceived gap between the two when it comes to scoring the basketball.
Rebounding isn’t a problem either
In addition, some fans might point to the athleticism and rebounding Connaughton brings to the two-guard spot, though this writer contends that this reputation has more to do with his dunk contest fame than anything else.
Surprisingly, Torrey Craig might be a better rebounder than Connaughton, too. During the past three years of his tenure with Denver, he was in the 97th percentile or higher in rebounding missed shots among guards and forwards. In that same period, he was in the 88th percentile or higher in block percentage.
Connaughton is breaking out
Still, none of this is to discount the season Planet Pat has been putting in.
After all, he’s been one of the brighter spots in Milwaukee’s otherwise on-and-off season, and it’s hard to deny the energy and hustle he brings every time he steps on the court.
Through 12 games and 211 minutes played, Connaughton is a +16.0 whenever he’s on the court—ironically, second on the team only to Torrey Craig who is +38.0. He’s been an absolute flamethrower from distance, shooting 19-for-39 on a 48.7% shooting clip—good for 11th in the NBA—and 62.7% on effective field goals.
Advanced stats favor Connaughton
Similarly, Connaughton is top 5 among the Bucks in offensive and defensive box plus-minus, VORP, BPM, offensive win shares, and win shares per 48 minutes.
Across the board, the advanced stats between the two actually say that Connaughton is the more impactful player who contributes to winning basketball. At the end of the day, he’s still a gritty, scrappy player who plays hard and deserves minutes on a winning team.
Torrey Craig is good
Given the team’s lack of size and defensive versatility, Budenholzer has let many an opportune moment pass to let Torrey Craig show what he’s made of. For instance, Craig would have been game-changing against teams like Boston, Brooklyn, and Los Angeles, where Bud elected instead to throw the aforecited against All-Star scorers.
All this is simply to say that Torrey Craig at the very least deserves a shot at proving his worth on this Bucks team. For this writer, Craig’s defense does more than enough to make up for his supposed limitations on the offensive end.
An elite defender who played meaningful minutes for a Western Conference finalist has no business being a benchwarmer.
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