Milwaukee Bucks: An opportunity to look at staggering the starters

With Khris Middleton coming off the bench as he settles back into the team after injury, the Milwaukee Bucks have a chance to re-assess their rotation approach.

Almost by accident, the Milwaukee Bucks may have unlocked something in the first quarter of their win against the Atlanta Hawks that could prove to be incredibly valuable in the future.

This wasn’t a groundbreaking change or innovation by any means, but it was something quite basic that they hadn’t previously been doing until circumstance forced their hand somewhat.

Coming back from seven games out with a left thigh contusion, Khris Middleton started Wednesday’s game on a minutes restriction, and coming off the bench.

On the season to date, Middleton has played 82 first quarter minutes, with 59 of those coming alongside Giannis Antetokounmpo. Although the pair are guaranteed a steady share of minutes together in their usual roles as starters, there has also been an apparent reluctance from Mike Budenholzer to split his stars a little more extensively across his rotation.

It’s incredibly commonplace in the modern NBA for teams to stagger their stars as a game progresses, ensuring that the time without any of them on the floor is minimized. But to date, in the Budenholzer regime that hasn’t always been the approach.

Last season, that was largely down to the considerable ability of Malcolm Brogdon, who would often spearhead bench-heavy lineups while Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Eric Bledsoe would take their seat.

With Brogdon now in Indiana, though, the early stages of this season have led to the Bucks trotting out all-bench lineups with disconcerting regularity.

Milwaukee’s fourth most frequently used lineup, and most used in first quarters outside of the two starting lineup combinations that we’ve seen so far this year, consists of an all-bench grouping of George Hill, Pat Connaughton, Sterling Brown, Ersan Ilyasova, and Robin Lopez.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, that group has struggled on both ends of the floor in their 25 minutes together, and has been outscored by 10.2 points per 100 possessions by their opponents.

With Middleton coming off the bench, though, at the spot that lineup would generally come in, on Wednesday it was the All-Star who joined that group and significantly bolstered their firepower and overall control.

At the 4:51 mark, around when Antetokounmpo and Middleton would often sub out together in first quarters, against the Hawks the latter replaced the former. From there, with Middleton leading that second unit, the Bucks rolled off a 13-0 run to finish the period and transformed a three-point lead into a 16-point lead while their best player got some rest.

For the Bucks to truly unlock their full potential this year, spells like that will have to become a more regular feature of the rotation.

Middleton is undoubtedly going to return to the starting lineup very soon when his minutes restriction is lifted, but that doesn’t mean Budenholzer can’t be bolder with how he divides minutes between Middleton and Antetokounmpo.

For all of the Bucks’ depth, all-bench lineups are asking for trouble. Those combinations force great role players into doing more than they should have to, and therefore negate a lot of their value. Ensuring one of Antetokounmpo, Middleton or even Bledsoe is on the floor at all times would go a long way to remedying some of the more unconvincing elements of Milwaukee’s play.

Right now, and against most opposition, the Bucks can likely get by with losing ground in bench minutes, but if this season is really all about preparing for the road ahead in the postseason, it would be wise to lay the groundwork for a more robust rotation now.