When the Milwaukee Bucks acquired Jrue Holiday from the New Orleans Pelicans for a package that included three unprotected first-round picks1 and swap rights on two more, it was not difficult to foresee a massive contract coming Holiday’s way.
Over the weekend, Holiday got exactly that when he and the Bucks agreed on a reported four-year, $135 million extension2 that includes a whopping $36.9 million player option for the 2024-25 season. By midday Monday, Holiday was also named as the Eastern Conference Player of the Week for the week that concluded the day he signed that extension, thanks to averaging 26.8 points, 5.8 rebounds, 8.5 assists and 2.5 steals per game across four contests. (Side note: Eastern Conference Player of the Week is probably a pretty nice thing to have as your second-best accomplishment in a given week.)
Holiday had the Bucks over a barrel when it came to extension talks given how much they traded away to secure his services, but it’s not like he hasn’t been everything they thought he would be and more when they made that deal. He missed a 10-game stretch in February due to a bout with COVID-19, but he has otherwise sparkled this season, averaging 17 points, 4.6 rebounds, 5.4 assists and a league-best 1.8 steals per game while shooting 51 percent from the field, 39 percent from three and 82 percent from the line. The team is 27-11 in games he’s played and just 5-6 in ones he hasn’t, while he’s one of just 14 rotation players3 whose team has a net rating of plus-10 or better with him in the game.
His two-way impact has been remarkably strong, with nearly every all-in-one metric painting Holiday as a top-30 overall player this season. He ranks 17th in FiveThirtyEight’s total RAPTOR, 21st in ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus, 24th in Box Plus-Minus, 29th in Win Shares per 48 minutes, 31st in Value Over Replacement Player and 39th in Bball-Index’s LEBRON.4 It’s typically folly to put all that much stock in any one of these numbers or another, but when they’re all saying the same thing, it’s not a bad idea to listen.
Holiday’s adjustment to playing alongside Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton has barely seemed like an adjustment at all. Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer has tended to keep Antetokounmpo on his usual rest and rotation schedule while rotating Holiday and Middleton a bit more haphazardly, and Holiday has not appeared bothered by it in the slightest. He’s fit in seamlessly as the No. 3 offensive option.
His usage rate has dropped to just 21.4 percent and his assist rate is at its lowest point since his third year in the league, but Holiday’s true shooting percentage sits at a career-high 60.1, and he’s working on a career-low turnover rate. He’s also toggled rather effortlessly between working mostly off the ball with Giannis in the game and as the primary playmaker when Giannis is out.
Holiday’s time of possession rate,5 per Second Spectrum tracking data, has nearly doubled so far this season in minutes that he’s played without the Bucks’ superstar, and his usage and assist rates have ticked up accordingly — but neither he nor the team has seen a dramatic drop-off in performance. Milwaukee’s 115.5 offensive rating with Holiday in and Antetokounmpo out is the equivalent of the seventh-ranked offense in the league. (Jrue himself has actually been a more efficient scorer with Giannis out than when they have shared the floor.)
Jrue lifts his game without Giannis on the court
Stats for Jrue Holiday and the Milwaukee Bucks during the 2020-21 season with Giannis Antetokounmpo on and off the court
Of course, offense is arguably not even Holiday’s best asset. He’s one of the NBA’s premier defenders, and the Bucks trust him to guard perimeter players of all stripes.
“He takes the toughest matchups every night,” Budenholzer said in December. “He can guard guys with more size. His range of ability to guard different types of players is about as unique as I’ve seen.”
That’s borne out in the league’s matchup data. Holiday has been the team’s primary defender on everyone from Damian Lillard to Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James to James Harden, Jayson Tatum to De’Aaron Fox and Luka Dončić to Bradley Beal. Those are all vastly different types of players, with the commonality being that they are their team’s most dangerous perimeter threat. Holiday is typically tasked with defending those types of guys for every one of his 31.7 minutes a night. For example, among the 154 players who have played 1,000 or more minutes this season, Holiday ranks fifth in Bball-Index’s Matchup Difficulty statistic, which utilizes NBA.com’s matchup data to combine the average usage rate and average offensive impact (as measured by LEBRON) of a defender’s halfcourt matchups to determine their average strength of matchup.
Holiday is a menace on the ball, working beautifully within Milwaukee’s system to prevent ventures into the paint. Milwaukee prioritizes protecting the rim at all costs (even if it means giving up a metric ton of threes), and Jrue’s ability to thwart opposing drivers at the point of attack plays nearly as important a role in those efforts as the looming help defense of Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez. There’s a reason that Bucks opponents have averaged 6.1 fewer drives per 100 possessions with Holiday in the game than when he’s on the bench. He’s that much of a deterrent.
His size (he’s 6-foot-3, 205 pounds, with a 6-foot-7 wingspan) is also an excellent fit for Milwaukee’s newfound willingness to experiment on defense. The Bucks had one of the NBA’s most static systems during their first two seasons under Budenholzer, the hallmark of which was the extraordinarily drop-heavy pick-and-roll defense wherein the Bucks’ guards forced defenders to drive while Antetokounmpo and/or Lopez sat in front of the rim, waiting to deter, alter or otherwise bother their shot. The Bucks rarely strayed from that style of coverage, for better or worse.
Milwaukee still plays a ton of drop coverage this year, but the Bucks have also switched 18.8 percent of ball screens this season, per Second Spectrum. That’s up from just 7.3 percent over the past two years, and it will come in handy if and when they face a playoff opponent that starts tearing apart their drop coverage with pull-ups and snake dribbles, necessitating a change in strategy. Holiday, even more than his predecessor (Eric Bledsoe), is well-equipped for such a change. (And as mentioned, he has done a more admirable job keeping the offense afloat when Antetokounmpo hits the bench.)
Of course, while the Holiday trade became worth it for Milwaukee the moment Antetokounmpo put pen to paper on his five-year, $228 million supermax extension, whether the Holiday contract extension yields its desired value will likely depend on how he and the team fare in those playoff runs.
Bledsoe pulled one disappearing act too many at important moments in previous playoff series, and the hope is that Holiday will rise to the occasion. Holiday has been to the postseason just four times in his previous 11 seasons, and only once in the past five. But he memorably smothered Lillard in that most recent trip, a four-game sweep wherein Dame averaged just 18.5 points per game while shooting 35.2 percent from the field and 30 percent from deep. More than two years later, Lillard himself brought that series up when he called Holiday the best defender in the league on the podcast of former Holiday teammate J.J. Redick.
That series was arguably Holiday’s coming-out party as a two-way star, when people realized just how valuable his unique combination of size, length, strength and skill could be. He’s been even better as an overall player in the years since, never more so than this year. He’s working on the most efficient season of his career, playing well enough defensively to merit serious consideration for his third All-Defense selection, and he has now been paid at a level commensurate with his impact. All that’s left to do is what the Bucks brought him there for in the first place: help them get over the championship hump.
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