With a six game losing streak and a 4-13 record since the all-star break, the Milwaukee Bucks' Cinderella season is in the midst of its first potential crisis. But while the surprising move that sent leading scorer Brandon Knight to Phoenix has naturally attracted the most attention, the lack of output from Jason Kidd's once-dominant second unit merits just as much discussion.
Entering the all-star break, the Bucks had the second-most prolific bench unit in the league, averaging 42.3 points per contest on 47 percent shooting overall and nearly 39 percent from three point range (via HoopsStats). But that hot shooting has evaporated since the all-star break, with the bench's production dropping to just 25.4 points per game on 40 percent shooting overall and 29 percent from deep.
"Our bench has to do a better job." Kidd said Sunday afternoon after his team fell to Lebron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. "Throughout the whole season, our bench has been playing at a very high level and right now, our bench hasn't given us anything. Right now, we have to get something from our bench."
In their last 10 games, the Bucks' depleted reserve unit has averaged a league-worst 22.7 points per game, piling even more pressure on a starting five still adapting to the switch from Knight to second-year point guard Michael Carter-Williams. And while Carter-Williams' shooting and turnover struggles haven't prevented the Bucks' current starting five from outscoring opponents by 6.9 points per 100 possessions, the bench's struggles have left little margin for error.
"You look at our starters, they're giving everything they can -- even though the turnovers are high -- but this is a team game and it's not just one guy. We've got to get something better from our bench and not just rely on those five guys that are starting.
"We're playing with some guys that are hurt, but we've always believed it's a next-man opportunity to prove that you can play, and right now, those guys haven't given us anything."
Two of Milwaukee's main providers of points off the bench, Jared Dudley and O.J. Mayo, have missed significant time since the break, with the Bucks posting an 0-6 record when both players are absent. Dudley has been sidelined due to knee and back injuries, while Mayo has been battling a right hamstring issue. The good news is that Dudley and Mayo both returned to practice Monday, and both men are listed as questionable for Tuesday's critical matchup against the Miami Heat. Still, it's unclear whether they'll be ready to make major contributions even when they do return.
Until then, the Bucks are likely to face an uphill climb. The inexperience of players like Tyler Ennis, Johnny O'Bryant, Miles Plumlee and Chris Johnson (who's only on a second 10-day deal) have left Jerryd Bayless and John Henson as the two main contributors for the Bucks' bench unit. Henson has proven to be a steady shot-blocker, but not a consistent scoring threat in relief. Meanwhile, Bayless has struggled mightily this month, connecting on just 39 percent of his shots, the lowest in any month this season for him.
Those issues are also readily apparent when perusing Bucks' lineup data, which show positive margins for the starters and wildly negative differentials for reserve units. Lineups featuring both Bayless and Henson have been outscored by an incredible 18.8 points per 100 possessions since the all-star break, a big number for a pairing that's played 213 minutes together in that span. And while the Bucks have outscored opponents overall with Carter-Williams on the court, pairing him with Bayless has resulted in a negative 17.3 points per 100 possessions (84 minutes). Losing Knight's 17.8 points per night has certainly hurt, though it's clear the Bucks' issues go well beyond the swap for Carter-Williams.
Not being able to rely on his second unit has also forced Kidd to increasingly lean on his starters. In Friday's triple overtime loss in Brooklyn, Khris Middleton (55 minutes) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (53 minutes) both logged career-highs in minutes while even Zaza Pachulia played 40 minutes, roughly double the amount of time that each individual bench player played in the game. Blame that on Kidd if you wish, but Bayless, Henson, Ennis and Plumlee also went a combined 7-for-22 from the field.
Kidd knows he'll need more from his reserves in order to stop the bleeding over the season's final weeks, and with the Heat and Indiana Pacers in town this week looking to make up ground in the East playoff standings, the sooner the better. Milwaukee's second unit has provided them a huge boost most of the season, and a return to form down the stretch will be needed to turn things around.