Would you be surprised to hear that the Milwaukee Bucks, ranked third from last in offensive efficiency, boast two of the top three-point shooters in the NBA? Gary Neal and O.J. Mayo, ranked 2nd and 4th in 3P%, respectively, have both been on fire to begin the season. Each has hit more than 50% of their triples on a substantial number of attempts per game. Mayo in particular has been excellent--of the top ten players in 3P%, only Klay Thompson (35) has made more threes than Mayo (24).
Mayo's scintillating shooting has buoyed his scoring efficiency, offsetting serious struggles inside the arc. Mayo is attempting three more two-point attempts per 36 minutes compared to last season, but his conversion rate has plunged from 47.1% to 39.1%. His free-throw rate is also lagging behind his (admittedly still low) career average, though he's only missed one freebie all season. Essentially, Mayo hasn't been a very effective scorer anywhere inside of 23 feet this season.
But man has he been good from outside. Despite the aforementioned struggles, Mayo has managed to put up a career-best 56.4 true shooting percentage, a very nice number considering his usage rate falls just outside the top-20. Generally speaking, possessions ending in Mayo shot attempts have been very positive this season. There's a ton of regression waiting to happen: Mayo's two-point shooting should rebound and his free-throw rate will hopefully tick up, while his three-point shooting is sure to fall, though it seems possible he could stay around 40%. As the team gets healthy (if that ever happens) it should be less reliant on his shot creation, which might lower his usage. Ideally all those components will stabilize at a level that keeps Mayo's efficiency fairly high, because he's been one of the Bucks' only real perimeter threats so far.
Which brings me to another fact that might surprise you: through 9 games, the Milwaukee Bucks have been 18.3 points per 100 possessions better on offense with O.J. Mayo on the bench, according to NBA.com/stats. How is that even possible, considering he's 4th on the team in TS%? My immediate thought was turnovers. He's coughly the ball up at a mildly alarming rate--almost 17% of his plays. That's 4th-worst on the team, and two players below him (Brandon Knight and Luke Ridnour) have played very few minutes and are sporting unsustainably high TORs. What's more damaging is the familiar tendency of Mayo to lose the ball while driving to the rim, frequently leading to fast breaks for opponents.
Turnovers are the primary factor keeping Mayo's PER at just 16.1, and I had generally been assuming they were the main cause for Milwaukee's offensive malaise when he was on the court. But a closer look at his on/off splits revealed that the Bucks actually turn the ball over four percentage points less as a team with Mayo on the court. It would appear that Mayo is getting enough shots up to at least offset his own turnovers.
Instead, a more surprising split jumped out. It would appear that free throws are also playing a major role. With Mayo on the court, the Bucks sport a free-throw rate of .188, which would tie the Portland Trail Blazers for 23rd in the NBA. With Mayo on the bench, the Bucks have an astounding .376 FTR, a mark that would eclipse even the league-leading Houston Rockets. Such a huge differential screams "fluke", and there's definitely some small sample size theater at play. But it is what it is for the moment, and it helps explain how the Bucks can be so good with Mayo riding the pine.
The other problem is that the Bucks seem to be shifting into a more high-efficiency style when Mayo isn't in the game. Beside boosting their free-throw attempts, the Bucks are shooting more shots from behind the arc when he's out--26.7% vs. 23.2%. There should be no doubt at the moment: the Bucks need to shoot lots of threes if they want to win games. Milwaukee is currently 4th in the NBA in 3P% and dead last in 2P%, but they're just 18th in 3PAr (percentage of shot attempts coming from 3-point range). Yet they suddenly choose to let 'em fly whenever one of their top shooters takes a breather? Mayo's personal 3PAr of 32.8 would be 2nd in the league on a team level, so we can't really blame him for lack of trying. The change in style goes a long way toward explaining how Milwaukee's eFG% jumps all the way up to 51.4 when Mayo is out.
I should emphasize again, these are all early season numbers that may hold limited predictive value. All are primed for regression (some significantly) and all have been greatly influenced by the Bucks' decimated player rotation. But it's fair to make a few suggestions. First, O.J. Mayo needs to stop turning the ball over so much and start getting to the line more (pass that note to the officials as well). Second, the Bucks need to let the threes fly, like, all the time. Their interior scoring is simply too inconsistent at the moment, with only John Henson providing any offensive punch from down low. Advanced metrics have suggested that three-point shooting is more important than we ever previously believed, and it's time for the Bucks to embrace the movement.
And, um, I guess if there's a third point, it's that they really need Ersan Ilyasova back.