Just Crazy Enough to Work (Maybe): Should the Milwaukee Bucks Start O.J. Mayo?

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

O.J. Mayo has mostly been a big old flop since signing a three-year contract with the Bucks. How do they get him back on track?

It seems like we've completely overlooked the strangeness of O.J. Mayo's season so far. The Bucks have given us plenty of other storylines to follow this season, but Mayo's disappearance has still drawn a curious lack of attention. Here's a guy signed to a three-year, $24 million contract, and he has 14 points total in his last four games. He's averaging just 12.6 points per game despite joining the team as a de facto top offensive option, and he hasn't started a game in more than a month.

Obviously this is all less than ideal. We were generally lukewarm about Mayo's deal immediately after it happened; paying role players near 8-figure salaries for multiple seasons isn't a great recipe for success, but Mayo's solid play with the Dallas Mavericks and relative youth suggested that a higher level of performance was possible. Frankly, we were mostly just glad it wasn't $12M a year for Monta Ellis.

We haven't seen much of "Dallas Mayo" in Milwaukee. He's scored in the single digits almost as many times (18) as he's scored in double figures (21). That's a big problem for the guy most expected to lead Milwaukee in scoring. As it is, he isn't doing much of anything helpful on the court, and his trade value is far too low to think any other team might want to take him off the Bucks' hands.

Something needs to be done. I don't suppose I'd call things "urgent" just yet--there are bigger priorities, like continuing the John Henson/Larry Sanders experiment and helping Giannis Antetokounmpo expand his game. But the benefits of turning around Mayo's season shouldn't be totally ignored either. In the context of a higher-functioning team, a player like Mayo still has plenty of value. He's still a good three-point shooter and he's at least a capable secondary ball handler who has the ability to get to the rim. There's talent there, it's just been completely marginalized by a team that, as Mayo stated himself, has no staple to what they're doing.

So I've got a radical idea that I'm not sure I even believe in, but it might be just ludicrous enough to work: put O.J. Mayo in the starting lineup. With Luke Ridnour.

Yes, I'm suggesting the Bucks send Brandon Knight, their leading scorer, to the bench in favor of the journeyman veteran. It wouldn't have to mean a drastic reduction in Knight's minutes. He could fill a Harden-in-OKC role, playing a major chunk of time at both guard spots and possibly running the show in crunch time. But right now I'm focused on fixing O.J. Mayo, and pairing him with Luke Ridnour might be the better option. According to NBA.com/Stats, Mayo attempts a higher percentage of his shots in the restricted area when playing next to Ridnour (20.0%) versus Knight (16.5%). He also shoots less often from midrange with Luke on the court (29.6% of all FGA vs. 34.6%). All in all, Mayo's TS%, admittedly poor in nearly all cases, is at least a few points higher when paired with Ridnour (49.5) compared to Knight (47.8).

In a more abstract sense, it's not hard to understand why Ridnour might make the more logical partner for Mayo. O.J. is a pretty ball-dominant 2-guard: he's 15th in usage rate and tied for 36th in assist ratio, according to ESPN.com. That style would seem to gel better with the low-usage Ridnour than the similarly ball-dominant Knight (if you were thinking about each guy's assist rate, check this out: here are the rates for each of Milwaukee's 3 nominal point guards: 27.8, 27.8, 27.6. I'll let you guess which guy is which).

Putting Mayo next to a more "classic" point guard would conceivably allow him to play off the ball more, ideally getting him more spot-up looks from behind the arc. Getting him into the starting lineup with Ersan Ilyasova would give the Bucks more floor spacing (assuming Ersan regains a consistent outside shot), possibly making life easier for Sanders and Giannis. And if things work well, it makes Ridnour look good, likely increasing his trade value.

Worried about building even a tenuous strategy around an old guy like Ridnour? Understandable. Milwaukee could try Wolters in a more forward-looking starting lineup instead, since he too is a low-usage guy with some skill in running an offense. But building up Ridnour's value for a possible trade isn't a bad reason to give him extra burn in the short term, as far as I'm concerned.

The another reason for essentially putting Knight in charge of the 2nd unit? Four words: Gary Neal, Point Guard. That hasn't been fun for anybody. And again, Knight's minutes don't have to see a significant dip just because he isn't starting. But many have speculated his future might be as a combo-guard bench scorer, and putting him in such a role now would give him largely free reign to show off his skills as he sees fit.

I know there are plenty of reasons to not try something like this. Knight is arguably a more important player than anybody in question here, so diminishing his role in any fashion might seem counter intuitive. Right now though, there isn't much to lose. I'm not saying a change has to be made. It's not like the Bucks are teetering on the edge of anything--they careened off the cliff weeks ago. At this point it's about salvaging what's left. O.J. Mayo is too expensive a player to let rust in obsolescence. He needs a jump start. This is one possible way to give it to him.

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