Having a strong bench is paramount to building a championship contending team. Have the Milwaukee Bucks’ offseason moves done enough to bolster their depth?
In the NBA, more than perhaps any other sport, depth is essential. While star players garner much of the media attention and contract dollars, they are often dependent on their team’s role players to maintain production while they are not on the court.
We’ve seen time and time again that any one star player, even a generational talent such as LeBron James, is not enough to will a team to the pinnacle of the sport; it takes help in large quantities from the other 14 men on the roster.
Injuries or other circumstances may also force backups into larger roles than expected, and a team without talent behind its main contributors will be a squadron quickly exposed on the court.
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The Milwaukee Bucks have done well to establish a promising young core of Giannis Antetoounmpo, Jabari Parker, and Khris Middleton, but the unit behind the “Big Three” was severely underwhelming last season.
Individual flops like Rashad Vaughn, O.J. Mayo, Johnny O’Bryant, and others combined to form the second-worst unit of reserves in the whole league, scoring only 27.4 points per game. The Bucks’ non-starters also put up an average plus-minus of -2.2 points, finishing ahead of only the cellar-dwelling Minnesota Timberwolves, Brooklyn Nets, and Philadelphia 76ers in that category.
Because of this poor performance, it’s no wonder that starters like Antetokounmpo and Middleton had to carry an exorbitant load, each playing over 35 minutes per game, numbers that ideally would come down to avoid overworking and endangering such valuable assets.
Injuries did hit the Bucks hard last year, as key backups John Henson and Michael Carter-Williams missed a total of 53 games, forcing lesser talented and inexperienced players such as Vaughn into larger and more demanding roles than their skill-sets merited, but failing to construct a roster in such a way to where losses of this type can be minimized is borderline unacceptable in a league where injury troubles are a virtual certainty.
Luckily for Bucks fans, the front office focused their efforts and available dollars this offseason on bolstering the once-hapless bench rather than wasting time seriously pursuing big-ticket free agents that would likely hinder future development and cap flexibility (looking at you, Dwyane Wade).
Even before the free agency period began, career substitutes and fringe NBA talents Johnny O’Bryant and Damien Inglis were released, signifying an era of change for the Bucks’ bench.
The Bucks also let a majority of their available free agents go, parting with Jerryd Bayless, Greivis Vasquez via the 76ers and Nets respectively, and distancing themselves from O.J. Mayo by way of drug related expulsion from the league.
As many predicted, Miles Plumlee re-signed officially with the team on Tuesday largely because of his fit with the core, and although nothing has been made official, it seems like we may see journeyman Steve Novak make his return to the Bucks next season.
With this new vacancy opened up, John Hammond and company then focused upon addressing specific needs beyond simply a better-preforming second unit.
A common pitfall for last season’s iteration of the Bucks was an inability to make three-pointers at a solid rate, as the Bucks ranked dead last in field goals both attempted and made beyond the arc. Although we will presumably see improvement from the likes of Antetokounmpo and Parker in this area, signing new players to fill this void was certainly a priority.
Along with drafting Thon Maker and Malcolm Brogdon, who each project to be viable shooters in due time, the Bucks successfully inked former Cleveland Cavaliers point guard Matthew Dellavadova and former Suns stretch four Mirza Teletovic to long term deals (four and three years respectively).
Both are preeminently floor-spacers, and both have experience coming off the bench and playing off the ball, which should come as music to the ears of a franchise handing the proverbial reigns to Point Giannis.
Our own Tim Wray detailed exactly what impact these two would have on what is arguably the Bucks’ greatest need – perimeter shooting.
Clearly, although the duo of Delly and Telly alone can’t be expected to completely solve the Bucks’ weakness, it is undoubtedly a step in the right direction.
Being the youngest team in the league at an average age of just 24.6 years old, players such as Tyler Ennis, Rashad Vaughn, and even the aforementioned young core should improve simply by way of maturing and adding to their individual skillsets.
Rookies Thon Maker and Malcolm Brogdon may not see as much court time from the end of the bench, but Brogdon’s mature presence and facilitating acumen during summer league may mean he gets some run should injury strike one of the Bucks guards, while as I detailed earlier, Maker may struggle to see time behind a glut of frontcourt talent.
The Bucks bench could also see a new member beginning games on the pine in talented but perhaps unwanted center Greg Monroe. The team experimented with starting Plumlee in lieu of the former Detroit Piston 14 games last season, and although no word has been given as to the starting lineup going forward, it wouldn’t be remiss to believe that Plumlee’s new contract could propel him into the starting lineup for good.
Even though the Bucks have been trying to trade him for what seems like years, in the event a deal is not reached to move Monroe, his coming off the bench would actually not be an isolated incident among talented scorers on the low block, as ESPN’s Zach Lowe notes.
"The league has arrived at an interesting near-consensus that post-up brutes who struggle on defense work best as reserves. They don’t need studs to create shots, and first-line enemy offenses feast on them. It’s feasible that Al Jefferson,Greg Monroe, Jahlil Okafor, and Vucevic all spend time as reserves. Enes Kanter is already a backup, and the Grizzlies tried to coax Zach Randolph into that role last season."
Monroe would provide an instant scoring boost to the Bucks’ bench, and his offensive gravity down low would likely open up shots for marksmen like Dellavadova and Teletovic on the perimeter.
Even just factoring in newly arrived signees, it’s abundantly clear that the Bucks have trimmed the fat from their bench and added talent in greater proportions than before, as the numbers show using a format similar to Tim’s.
A net gain of 5.5 win shares from two signings alone makes it clear that the Bucks have made some great, focused moves to strengthen their bench for the season to come.
With expected improvement from the established core, and free agent assistance addressing weaknesses, the Bucks appear primed to contend for a playoff spot in the East, with no little credit going toward the bench.