One Way To Make The Bucks Better

by Alex Boeder Writer

When the Bucks went 2–0 against the prime Shaq/Kobe Lakers back in 2000–01 — a team they were one win away from meeting in the Finals later that season — they did so on the backs of their Big 3. Ray Allen (25.5 points), Sam Cassell (26.0 points), and Glenn Robinson (26.0 points) took turns outscoring what turned out to be one of the most dominant playoff teams in league history.

Those three stars rightfully attract the bulk of praise for the two wins over the Lakers, the 52 wins in the regular season, and what should have been (at least) three playoff series wins.

Supreme also, though, was a bench unit that outscored the eventual champs by a combined 33 points in their two wins — and which was statistically the best in the NBA throughout the regular season. On a per-minute basis, the Milwaukee bench outscored opponents by an even greater margin than the starters did. Think about it this way: When Cassell went to the bench that season, he watched his teammates outscore the other team, decisively. Big Dog, same thing. Even without Allen on the court, the Bucks were nearly even.

Things have not been so rosy this season without Giannis and the starters. The Bucks bench ranks second-to-last (29th) in point differential.

Contrast that with the bench squads of the three previous best Bucks teams this century (along with four key reserves):

  • 1st in 2000–01 (Tim Thomas, Scott Williams, Lindsey Hunter, Ervin Johnson)
  • 8th in 2009–10 (Luke Ridnour, Ersan Ilyasova, Kurt Thomas, Jerry Stackhouse)
  • 8th in 2016–17 (Greg Monroe, Malcolm Brogdon, Jason Terry, Michael Beasley)

Now, the starters are not absolved from their role in what is an underwhelming 23–22 record. They rank 13th in the NBA in point differential, which actually puts them ahead of Cavaliers, Pelicans, Trail Blazers, and Heat starters, to name a few. But they have not been elite. They have not been very-good enough to make up for the bench, which is precisely what starters are supposed to be.

The starters this season, though, have been about as good as the starters from those three teams noted above. (Note: While the 2009–10 team ranked higher, the current team has a better point differential.)

Season: Starters Rank — Bench Rank
2000–01: 11th — 1st 
2009–10: 8th — 8th
2016–17: 20th — 8th
2017–18: 13th — 29th

Dare to mention a present-day Big 3 at your own risk, but the Giannis/Bledsoe/Middleton trio has still been one of the best in the league this season — only six teams have a three-man unit that has performed better.

While the Bucks starters and Big 3 are not blowing teams away (the Rockets being 17–0 when the Harden/Paul/Capela trio plays is what blowing teams away looks like), there is encouraging evidence and talent. It is not inconceivable that they step up the rest of the way and emerge as one of the eight or nine best starting units.

Critically, the bench, too, should soon be better. The extent to which it improves may go a long way toward determining whether the team slides into (or, yikes, out of) the playoff bracket or makes a run in the playoffs. A competent bench may also alleviate starter workload, thereby lending everyone harmony. The Bucks rank fifth in the league in starter minutes played.

Jabari Parker is expected to return to the lineup in early February. Far be it from me to position Jabari as some sort of savior (and any attempts to do so reflect trying times), but his addition will prompt a welcome rewriting of the depth chart, regardless of whether he starts or comes off the bench. Starters are staggered with reserves once the game gets going anyway; the point here is the addition of what should be a quality player.

Meanwhile, by the time Jabari is back, Sterling Brown may have carved himself a regular rotation role. That 4–6 line beyond the arc in his first career start (and 12–25 overall mark from deep) may not be fool’s gold — he shot 45.1 percent on threes in four college seasons. His dear follow-through pairs nicely with a promising aptitude for defense.

Speaking of, what has plagued the Bucks bench most is defense, barking- DeAndre Liggins-in-defensive-stance or not. Jabari does not figure to be a cure or even help for that, but a nine-man core unit with Jabari, Brogdon, Brown, and Maker off the bench, for instance, should not make for the worst bench in the league. Particularly if Brown is what he appears and Maker ceases jumping on pump-fakes (or if the Bucks deal for frontline help).

In the playoffs, rotations are shortened. But all that is too top-heavy still crumbles. Statistically, no playoff team bench in the last 20 years performed worse than the Thunder last year; their ludicrous first round was fated to end right there. In those same playoffs, the Warriors and Cavaliers ranked first and second respectively, in point differential of both starters and bench.

Now with one of the seven or eight best players in the world, the Bucks are closer to having the harder and more important part (a top-10 starting unit) than the easier though still-difficult part (a top-10 bench). To eclipse the other Bucks teams talked about earlier in this story — which is not unreasonable — they may need a bit of both. The hope is that improvements (Maker etc.) and comings (Jabari etc.) and goings (Liggins etc.) make it so.



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