The 2014-15 Milwaukee Bucks bench was one of the best bench units in the NBA. They finished seventh in the league in scoring with 37.7 points per game and fueled the Bucks to several marquee wins including a victory over the Bulls in Game 4 of the First Round of the Playoffs.
There’s no doubt that much of the Bucks 2014-15 success was due to their bench; but how will the 2015-16 Bucks bench unit look?
The first thing to understand is that the Bucks bench production slowed as the season progressed.
They started the season at a blistering pace, scoring 42.3 points per game pre-All Star break–good for second overall in the NBA. But after the break they slipped down to 29.1 points per game–24th in the NBA. Why the slip in production? The answer is two-fold.
First, two key bench players, Mayo and Dudley, broke down as the season winded down. They missed a combined nineteen games in March and April and the Bucks struggled to replace their combined 18.6 points per game.
Second, the starting unit got better as the season progressed. Giannis Antetokounmpo (who started the season on the bench…no, really) saw 27.2 minutes per game before the break. He bumped that average up to 34.8 minutes per game after the All-Star break.
Similarly, Khris Middleton played 27.1 minutes per game before the All-Star break and 35.4 after.
So while the Bucks bench production dipped due to injuries, the starters stole the spotlight. Their production in March was the sixth-best in the NBA, scoring 72.2 points per game–ahead of: San Antonio, Golden State, Chicago, and Atlanta. That should give Bucks fans hope.
Perhaps the starters will blossom into a five-pronged behemoth, capable of leveling NBA cities with a single glance. Think Godzilla, but younger. King Kong, but more ambitious. Indominus Rex, but more savage. It’s a future we can all hope for.
However, in the likely event the Milwaukee Bucks starters don’t conquer Western civilization they will need a capable bench.
How much does a bench matter to an NBA champion? Ask the Golden State Warriors. Their 2014-15 bench unit scored 36.4 points per game–ninth in the league.
Along with the 2013-14 San Antonio Spurs (45.1 ppg) the 2010-2011 Dallas Mavericks (40.4 ppg) led the league in bench scoring. The other champion in the last five years, the Miami Heat, were 24th and 17th in bench scoring during their championship years.
They’re the exception rather than the rule. Their own three-headed city-busting beast comprising of
Mufasa, Flash, and the Hulk LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh destroyed most competition. There may never be an NBA threesome more dominant than that trio.
So until Giannis’ fangled teeth and nine-inch claws finish growing in, the Bucks are going to need a good bench to compete.
Right now it doesn’t look great. After trading Zaza Pachulia, Jared Dudley, and Ersan Ilyasova in the off-season the Bucks replaced them with: Greivis Vasquez, Chris Copeland, and Marcus Landry–hardly an inspiring replacement cast. That amounts to swapping 27 points per game for 15.7 points per game.
Perhaps the Bucks feel that John Henson is ready for a larger role. His strong playoffs against the Bulls must have contributed to the Bucks feeling comfortable sending Zaza Pachulia away.
But will Henson be able to sustain that level of production, or was it a match-up based anomaly? More importantly–is he ready to be the clear-cut #2 center. His strong 2013-14 season indicates yes. He scored 11.1 points per game that season, coming off the bench 47 times.
This season there will be no Larry Sanders or Zaza Pachulia for Henson to look up to on the depth chart. Just one hulking Greg Monroe. Right now there’s no reason for fans to think that the three-year veteran isn’t ready. The Bucks have very good center depth.
They also have point guard depth. Greivis Vasquez is a proven quantity, and Bayless gives you hard-working minutes every night. Tyler Ennis is still a question mark, but he’s more of a deep-sleeper anyway.
In addition, the Bucks didn’t lose any guard depth in the off-season. They just added to their stockpile by trading for Vasquez. Expect this season’s PG crop to perform much like last season’s. Solid, if unspectacular.
Like the center position, the Bucks shouldn’t worry about PG depth.
But outside of their anchor positions, the Bucks ship is full of holes.
The forward position is a mess. Instead of Dudley the Bucks will be running Chris Copeland. That’s a slight downgrade.
As for who replaces Ersan Ilyasova at the PF position? Right now the Bucks have Damien Inglis–but he’s no lock for success (or even to stay healthy). It’s understood around the league that the Bucks traded away Ersan Ilyasova to clear room for a big contract. That ended up becoming Greg Monroe.
From that understanding it’s hard to complain about Ilyasova leaving town. But there still remains the question of who’s going to replace Ersan and his 11.5 points per game. Right now the propositions look murky. If Inglis cannot perform the Bucks are in trouble.
There’s always Johnny O’Bryant, of course, but unless O’Bryant did some serious off-season improving he won’t be a major contributor this season.
Things look sturdier at SG. The increasingly affable (and hard-working) O.J. Mayo slots to retain his role as the Bucks sixth man. The bench unit will look to him to provide scoring. But if Mayo is forced to miss time–he missed 30 games in 2013-14 and 11 games last season–then rookie Rashad Vaughn will take over.
What Vaughn is capable of at the NBA level no one knows. We do know that he can shoot. Behind Middleton, Vaughn could be the second-best shooter on the Bucks roster. But who knows if a mid-first round draft pick is NBA ready. His summer league performance is encouraging–but there are no guarantees in the NBA.
So what does this all mean for the Milwaukee Bucks bench heading into the season?
It means that we should expect the bench to perform more like the unit that finished 24th in the league in scoring post All-Star break than the one that was second in the league before the break.
It means that the Bucks could be very active at the trade deadline.
It means that the impetus of winning will be laid solely at the feet of the five-headed behemoth.
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