The Milwaukee Bucks’ have struggled to get production from the bench for a variety of reasons. A combination of injuries, under achieving players, and youngsters being thrust into situations unprepared, contribute to the poor result. The stats reflect this reality.
As a unit they average 80.2 minutes, 26.3 points, 12.4 rebounds, 7.4 assists, 2.2 steals, 2.5 blocks, and shoot 42.9% per game, according to Hoops Stats. That puts them 29th overall in the league for minutes and rebounds, 28th in points and steals, 11th in assists, 1st in blocks, and 21st in field goal percentage per game.
In comparison, their opponents are averaging 14 more minutes, about 11 more points, 4 more rebounds, 1 more steal, and close to 1 one more assist per game from the bench.
Because Bucks bench players can’t stay on the floor, the starters are averaging the 2nd most minutes per game as a unit. Khris Middleton and Giannis Antetokounmpo average 36.0 and 34.6 minutes per game respectively, which puts them both in the top 25 for minutes played per game (Middleton is 10th in the league), according to NBA Stats.
Last year, the Bucks had one of the NBA’s premier benches. They averaged the 4th most minutes, the 8th most points, 12th most rebounds, and the 3rd most assists, blocks, and field goal percentage per game, according to Hoops Stats. That is a significant drop-off between seasons.
The change is easy to identify and is entirely down to personnel. Last year, the Bucks could rely on bench players like Jared Dudley, John Henson, Jerryd Bayless, Ersan Ilysaova (he came off the bench 28 times), O.J. Mayo, and Kendall Marshall (before he tore his ACL). The Bucks knew that they would miss regular contributions from Dudley, Ilysaova, and Marshall this season -- especially their three-point shooting. So, they sent a lottery protected 1st-round pick (!!!) to Toronto for Greivis Vasquez, and signed Chris Copeland to a 1-year, $1.15 million contract. (The Bucks received that 1st round pick from the Clippers along with Dudley for J.J. Redick in a sign-and-trade deal). Both players were supposed to provide three-point shooting off the bench. Subsequently, Vasquez has missed 36 games due to an unfortunate foot injury and Copeland can only get on the court during garbage time.
The Bucks still have Mayo, Henson, and Bayless, but all three have missed chunks of the season. Mayo averages 27.1 minutes per game but has missed 23 games due to a persisting hamstring injury. Bayless averages 28.1 minutes per game but has missed 18 games due an ankle injury. Henson has missed 10 games this year, but is only averaging 16.7 minutes per game, the least amount he’s played since his 2012-2013 rookie season.
When healthy, Mayo and Bayless provide valuable minutes. Mayo averages 9.1 points, 2.6 rebounds, and 3.1 assists per game. Bayless averages 10.5 points, 2.7 rebounds, and 3.5 assists per game, while providing valuable three-point shooting by going 2.0 – 4.6 per game from three. Bayless’ value showed on Friday night when he scored 15 points, going 3-3 beyond the arc in the second quarter of the Bucks’ loss to Utah. Because Henson, Mayo, Bayless, and presumably Vasquez if he was healthy, make up a large chunk of the bench minutes, their absence is felt when they are hurt. Their injuries have resulted in increased minutes for Rashad Vaughn, Johnny O’Bryant III, Miles Plumlee, and sometimes Tyler Ennis.
Vaughn has played nervous all season and often passes up open looks. The Bucks picked him 17th in this past summers draft because of his pure shooting stroke. Although he is the second youngest player in the NBA, they hoped he could provide a few three-pointers off the bench while they developed him into an elite shooter who could be real force as a sixth man later in his career. Although still a little timid, Vaughn has shown confidence and even a little swagger while seeing more minutes. In a loss against Memphis last Thursday, he took five three-pointers in 21 minutes of action. He may have missed them all, but the fact that he took those shots and kept on taking them while missing is a good sign.
According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Bucks staff and Vaughn’s teammates have been encouraging the rookie to look for his shot more often. “We are encouraging him to shoot it and to play,” Bucks coach Jason Kidd said. “We’re telling you to shoot it, but you don’t always have to shoot the three. If you’re covered, put it on the floor, take it to the basket and make a play for a teammate.”
Vaughn has felt the positive energy from his teammates and is trying to turn that energy into confidence. “My teammates have been giving me a lot of confidence to shoot the ball, so I’ve just been going in games and my confidence is growing a lot. It definitely will make us better if we can spread the floor out more. It’s going to give us more driving lanes for our slashers and people that like to get to the rim.”
In 11 minutes against Miami last Friday, Vaughn scored 8 points while shooting 2-3 from beyond the arc. His threes came during a key moment of the third quarter when the Bucks were on an 8-0 run. The first of which gave the Bucks their first lead since the first quarter, with the second coming soon after, bringing the Bradley Center to its feet. The following Monday, Vaughn played 18 minutes in a tough loss to Sacramento. He scored 9 points in that game, shooting 3-5 beyond the arc.
O’Bryant was the butt of a few jokes by Bucks fans last year, but this year he has showed tremendous hustle on the offensive glass, averaging 1.1 offensive rebounds in 14.3 minutes per game. His play isn’t flashy, but if he can continue to play with a high level of energy, he could be a decent role player in the NBA. Like O’Bryant, Plumlee has taken advantage of his increased minutes. He played 14 minutes Friday night before being ejected for a flagrant two. However, in those 14 minutes he contributed 3 rebounds, 6 points, 3 blocks, a steal, and was +9 in point differential.
For now, neither Vaughn nor O’Bryant are ready to contribute quality minutes off the bench in the NBA. But, in a way, this is a glimpse into next season – discounting any offseason moves the Bucks brass make. All three of Mayo, Bayless, and Vasquez are playing on expiring contracts and it’s highly unlikely that all three are back next year. At best maybe one of them rejoins the team.
In fact, it’s entirely possible that the bench has an entirely new look come trade deadline day on February 18th. Rumors continue to swirl about the availability of Michael Carter-Williams and Greg Monroe. While the expiring contracts of Mayo, Bayless, and Vazquez make for interesting trade value for teams looking for shooting or expiring contracts. If the Bucks can get a few picks or a couple of young pieces to add to their assets, they will likely okay a trade. That means Vaughn, O’Bryant, Plumlee, and possibly Ennis would continue to see increased minutes off the bench.
The circumstances surrounding the poor play by the bench are unfortunate. Theoretically, general manager John Hammond built a decent rotation with Mayo, Bayless, Vazquez, and Henson coming of the bench, and Middleton, Jabari Parker, or Antetokounmpo putting in some minutes at the 4 with the second unit.
Injuries have been rampant this season and the bench has been affected. Right now, there is no quick fix for the Bucks’ bench woes. A young team with high aspirations over the next few seasons is going to experience a number of growing pains. Learning to deal with injuries is just another lesson.