After finishing the 2013-2014 season with a league-low 15 wins, not much was expected out of the Milwaukee Bucks this season. Even with the addition of No. 1 overall pick Jabari Parker and a new coach, swapping Larry Drew for Jason Kidd, most predicted the Bucks would once again be at or near the bottom of the Eastern Conference, especially considering the team’s most note-worthy offseason acquisitions outside of the draft were Jared Dudley and Jerryd Bayless.
However, just over halfway through the season, the Bucks are 21-21 and firmly in the running for a playoff berth sitting at sixth place in the East. There have been a number reasons behind their resurgence: Jason Kidd has done a terrific job in his first year, young phenom Giannis Antetokounmpo continues to develop and Brandon Knight is putting up career-best numbers on the offensive end. While each of those factors has played a vital role in the Bucks’ surprising start, it’s been the play of their bench that has been the biggest difference maker.
The Bucks are one of the youngest teams in the league. They have seven players under the age of 25 and are led in minutes by 23-year-old Knight and 20-year-old Antetokounmpo. With so much youth on their roster and in their starting lineup, it’s no surprise that those young starters have been inconsistent over stretches. While their starting group may lack experience, the same can’t be said about their second unit. Although Coach Kidd has used a number of different lineups throughout the season, the Bucks have fared best bringing many of their veteran players off the bench to stabilize the game when their starting five is struggling.
Since the start of the season, Kidd has relied heavily on his bench. The Bucks are near the top of the league in almost every bench statistic. They rank first in minutes (22.3), first in assists (10.9), first in steals (4) and second in points scored (43.6). There isn’t one single player, a Jamal Crawford type, who carries the group; instead, the Bucks rely on a number of different guys to provide the team with a balanced attack off the pine.
The acquisitions of Dudley and Bayless may not have grabbed headlines last summer, but they have already proven to be key pieces. Dudley began the season in the starting rotation, but struggled to find his stride. In the 10 games that Dudley started, he shot only 30.2 percent from the field and a putrid 17.6 percent from three, averaging just 3.2 points per game. Since being moved to the bench, Dudley has looked much more comfortable. His numbers have been dramatically better, shooting 51.2 percent from the field and 43.8 percent in the 32 games he has been used in a reserve role. Like Dudley, Bayless has been an essential piece of the Bucks’ impressive bench. Playing on his sixth team in six years, Bayless seems to have found a home on the Bucks’ bench. Bayless is shooting a career-best 44.3 percent from the field and has been a steady contributor behind Knight all season long.
There is no question that Dudley and Bayless have been key cogs of the Bucks’ second unit, but no player has played a bigger role than O.J. Mayo. After signing with the Bucks to tune of three years and $24 million in the summer of 2013, expectations were that Mayo would be the Bucks’ starting two guard for the duration of his contract. That certainly hasn’t worked out as planned, as Mayo has started in just 38 of his 94 games with the Bucks, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t played a critical role. Mayo has developed into the leader of the Bucks’ terrific bench. Despite coming off the bench, Mayo is third on the team in total minutes played and is the team’s fourth leading scorer at 11.7 per game.
Unfortunately for the Bucks, due to a number of injuries, the depth of their bench will really be tested going forward. Jabari Parker, who started in all 25 games he played in, has been out since mid-December and will miss the remainder of the season with a torn ACL. In addition, just last week backup point guard Kendall Marshall experienced the same fate as Parker, tearing his ACL and will be sidelined for the rest of the season. Marshall had done a great job of moving the ball and creating for teammates all season long, ranking second on the team in assists at 3.1 despite playing only 14.9 minutes per game. Not only have the Bucks been hit by injuries, but once again are missing center Larry Sanders because of off-court issues. Sanders was suspended on January 16th for 10 games after failing a drug test; his second failed test in the last year.
With Sanders out, the Bucks have needed other guys to step up in the frontcourt. Zaza Pachulia has become the team’s starting center and has been a more than sufficient replacement. As a starter, Pachulia is averaging just shy of a double-double at 10.3 points and 9.5 rebounds per game. He certainly isn’t the defensive presence that Sanders is, but has been an asset on the offensive end with his ability to pass the ball. As a result of Sanders’ absence and Pachulia being inserted starting lineup, young big man John Henson has been forced to play increased minutes. Henson has stepped up since being called upon to play a bigger role and is having his best month of the season, averaging 7.4 points, 4.3 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game in January. Kenyon Martin was also added on two 10-day contracts to bolster their frontcourt.
While the Bucks haven’t had much luck with injuries, there has been one piece of positive news lately, as veteran forward Ersan Ilyasova has returned to the lineup. The return of Ilyasova couldn’t have come at a better time, as the Bucks continue to jockey for playoff position.
The Bucks’ bench will have to continue their strong play for the team to maintain their current position in the East. Having lost Parker and Marshall for the season and Sanders for the foreseeable future, the play of Dudley, Bayless, Mayo and Henson among others will now be more important than ever.
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