NBA Position Battles: Why Isn't Greg Monroe the Starting Center for the Milwaukee Bucks?

Monroe hasn't started a single game for the Bucks this season, and the numbers say that's criminal.

The Milwaukee Bucks have had 11 different starting lineups this season with three different starting centers: John Henson, Thon Maker, and Miles Plumlee (now a member of the Charlotte Hornets after a midseason trade).

Meanwhile, Greg Monroe -- Milwaukee's highest-paid player and third-leading scorer behind Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker -- has not once gotten the nod to start at center in either of the 62 of a possible 63 games he's played. Bucks head coach Jason Kidd has never seemed like a very big fan of Monroe's, but his refusal to start Moose under any circumstances is beginning to look a little ridiculous, especially if you look at the numbers.

Monroe's defensive deficiencies are most likely Kidd's biggest problem, and there's admittedly some fire behind that smoke. Still, just about every statistic we could find suggests that Monroe is the best option in the middle over Henson and Maker, the remaining centers on the Bucks' roster.

First, let's look at the per-36-minute averages for all three players:

Player PTS/36 FG% 3P% FT% REB/36 AST/36 STL/36 BLK/36
Monroe 18.8 53.0% 0.0% 74.2% 10.7 3.7 2.0 0.8
Henson 12.6 51.1% 0.0% 70.7% 9.1 2.0 1.0 2.3
Maker 15.5 43.3% 43.8% 65.5% 7.3 1.1 0.7 1.7

In terms of your standard individual stat categories, Monroe gets the edge over the other two centers in every area outside of three-point percentage (he doesn't shoot them) and blocks.

What's more, Monroe is the only player in the entire league averaging a minimum of 18.0 points, 10.0 boards, 3.0 assists, and 2.0 steals per-36 minutes. The only players that even average the points/rebounds/assists baseline without the steals are Russell Westbrook, DeMarcus Cousins, Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, and Nikola Vucevic.

And if you want to talk about the blocks and each center's defensive impact, Monroe isn't as far off as you might think. While he gets fewer blocks per-36 than the other two bigs, his rim protection numbers aren't that much worse than Henson's and are actually better than Maker's:

Greg Monroe 2.7 5.0 54.5%
John Henson 3.1 6.0 51.4%
Thon Maker 1.4 2.4 58.6%

And that's where the closeness in this comparison ends.

In terms of the more advanced metrics, Monroe is head and shoulders above the competition. He's even got a better defensive rating than any other big man on the roster (and second on the team as a whole, trailing only Antetokounmpo).

Category Greg Monroe John Henson Thon Maker
nERD 3.7 0.4 0.0
Offensive rating 113 109 112
Defensive rating 105 106 109
Player efficiency rating 21.9 14.7 13.5
Win shares 4.5 2.2 0.7
Win shares per 48 minutes .159 .107 .105
Box plus/minus 2.6 -0.2 -2.5
Value over replacement player 1.6 0.4 0.0

Monroe blows both Henson and Maker out of the water in every single one of the above categories, including both offensive and defensive rating. He's second only to Antetokounmpo on the Bucks in terms of nERD -- our proprietary metric that measures the total contribution of a player throughout the course of a season, based on efficiency -- and 47th in the league as a whole.

Monroe's nERD of 3.7 suggests a league-average team would finish the season about 4 games over .500 with him as a starter, whereas the same team with Henson or Maker (both with nERDs around 0.0) would finish around .500, which could be the difference in the Bucks making or missing the playoffs.

His player efficiency rating (PER) of 21.9 is fifth in the NBA among centers who have played at least 1,000 minutes, trailing only DeMarcus Cousins, Nikola Jokic, Enes Kanter, and Rudy Gobert.

Monroe's numbers are actually better than most starting centers in the league, not just those on his own team.

And it's not just on an individual numbers basis that Monroe excels -- the team performs way better when he's on the floor than when he's off it. If you compare the on/off splits for each of the Bucks' three center options, it becomes even more obvious that Monroe is their best option in the middle.

SituationMINOff RtgDef RtgNet RtgREB%eFG%
Monroe On1,383111.9106.15.950.3%54.5%
Monroe Off1,656104.1107.2-3.148.1%51.6%
Henson On981104.8108.0-3.248.1%51.7%
Henson Off2,058109.1106.13.049.5%53.5%
Maker On313106.9108.2-1.346.6%51.7%
Maker Off2,726107.8106.51.349.3%53.0%

When Monroe is on the floor, the Bucks are better on offense (+7.8 points per 100 possessions), defense (-1.1 points per 100 possessions), the glass (+2.2% rebound percentage), and at shooting the ball (+2.9% effective field goal percentage), as compared to when he's on the bench. His 9.0 on/off differential in net rating is easily the best on the team.

Meanwhile, the Bucks are worse across the board when either Henson or Maker are playing in the middle, as compared to when they're on the bench.

Any way you slice it, the Bucks are simply better when Greg Monroe is in the game. Even if he's a known defensive liability per the eye test, the numbers indicate that the Bucks are actually at their best on defense when he's playing in the middle, as opposed to either John Henson or Thon Maker. When you then look at how far ahead of those two Monroe is in raw averages, advanced statistics, and on/off splits, it's hard to understand why he's not the starting center for the Milwaukee Bucks.

With only 19 games to go in the regular season, the Bucks are currently half a game out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. If they want to improve on the 35.9% chance our algorithms currently give them of making it, coach Kidd might want to swallow his pride and finally start Monroe in the middle.