Young players grabbed the headines for the Milwaukee Bucks this season, but the truth is the Bucks couldn't have reached the heights they did without help from a handful of veteran players. Begrudged because of bad contracts, seemingly undeserved minutes, and a lack of consistency with a "rebuilding" team, these guys take a lot of heat when things go bad. For that, we should take some time to highlight the good these veteran players did for Milwaukee, and we'll try to determine who was the team's Most Valuable Veteran. Here are the candidates.
Snagged on a 2-year, $6 million deal last summer, Bayless was intended to serve as a veteran backup point guard behind Brandon Knight, who would be given plenty of opportunity to make his case as the Bucks' lead guard of the future. Knight's trajectory took a surprising turn, but Bayless remained steady through most of the season. Simply put, he did exactly what the Bucks should have expected him to do, turning in a season-long statline nearly indistinguishable from his career averages while splitting time between both backcourt positions.
Because Knight (and Michael Carter-Williams after him) were such important "exploratory" players for Milwaukee, extensive playing time for Bayless was frequently met with disappointment. And to be fair, Bayless wasn't outstanding or anything. He shot just above 30% from three which often adversely affected already cramped spacing for the Bucks, and his assist percentage was the lowest of the five PGs Milwaukee had at their disposal throughout the year. Moreover, after being part of a stellar second unit before the all-star break, Bayless was a major negative player (-10.2 pts/100) after the trade deadline.
Still, for the price, Bayless was a capable and steady backup, and he was capable of putting together excellent stretches in clutch situations when his bail-out jumper game was working. Also, he hit one of the biggest shots of the season.
It was easy to get behind the Dudley acquisition even if you weren't a fan of him as a player. The deal landed a future first-round pick for the Bucks at essentially zero cost, a great investment even if the pick is still a ways off and likely to be late in the first round.
Dudley made the deal even easier to support after a sensational first half of the season in which he served as a terrific bench scorer and occasional small-ball starter. In 53 pre-All-Star Game appearances, Dudley had a True Shooting Percentage of 62.0 and a plus-minus of +7.6 according to Basketball-Reference.com, proving instrumental in Milwaukee's first-half success.
Unfortunately, his second-half struggle also mirrored the team's. Injuries limited Dudley to just 19 games after the All-Star break, and he was woefully ineffective when he was able to take the court. His TS% plummeted to 41.2 and his plus-minus made a complete reversal (-7.8). It's not fair to blame him for a troubling back injury and sore knee, but there's no denying his absence and poor play put the Bucks in a tough spot during a time when they were desperate for reliable offensive performances. Thankfully, he appeared to be back to his best by the start of the postseason, hitting 8-14 threes (57.1%) against the Bulls and making the key inbound pass to seal Milwaukee's game four win.
Three years after he signed a $32 million contract with the Bucks, are we any closer to figuring out if Ersan Ilyasova is a nice guy to have around? This season didn't really make that question any easier to answer.
In simplest terms, Ersan played well this season. His scoring efficiency made a dramatic recovery from a disastrous 2013-2014 season as he finished with the highest TS% since his breakout campaign three years ago. Even more encouraging was how he molded his game toward his strengths -- his three-point attempt rate was the highest since his rookie year, and his per-minute scoring trailed only Knight.
However, where the Ersan of three years ago was exceptionally valuable because he combined great three-point shooting with excellent rebounding, this season's iteration saw a continued slide in production on the glass. His total rebound percentage was the lowest since his rookie season, surely contributing to Milwaukee's season-long rebounding struggles. Even if Ersan shot the ball well this year, that was pretty much all he did.
Did his hot streak to finish the season (57.7 TS% through March and April) leave a strong enough positive impression to get folks back on the board the Ersan Hype Train? The skill he provides is critical, but is it enough if that's all he does?
Khris Middleton's emergence marginalized O.J. Mayo tremendously, but it wouldn't be right to say O.J. was bad the way he was last year. Did he play well enough in a bench role to justify an $8 million price tag? No way. But he made improvements, and settled into a bench scoring role that seemed to suit him nicely for a good chunk of the season.
Mayo's three-point shooting has always been a bit underrated, and he deserves credit for cultivating a nice-looking shot distribution this season. Nearly 40% of his shots came from behind the arc, and his long-2 attempt rate was way below his career norms. Crazy as it sounds in light of anecdotal criticism, an O.J. Mayo shot attempt of most any kind was far from the worst way to end a possession for Milwaukee this year.
The problem remains one of expectations, because Mayo clearly wasn't and isn't the player Milwaukee hoped he would be when they signed him to a $24 million deal two summers ago. He doesn't do much more than score at a slightly-above-average rate, and turnovers continue to be an issue (as they were for everybody on the team this year). Next season seems likely to be his last in Milwaukee, but he won't be chased out of town with torches and pitchforks. Barring a late-season swoon from him and his bench compatriots, we might have seen this as a pretty nice season for Mayo. Instead he looks a lot like the Bucks as a whole: good, but not where he needs to be.
There's nobody on this list who's gotten more flak from me than Pachulia, and it's long past time for me to relent. Pachulia's contract made little sense to me when it was inked, but while it remains a valid thought experiment to wonder if the Bucks missed any opportunities due to his presence on the roster and cap sheet, his impact on the team can't be considered anything but positive. Whenever Larry Sanders stepped away from the team, Pachulia was there, ready to fill in with his own curious brand of basketball.
By all accounts a strong locker-room leader and by far the most experienced member of the team, it's not hard to imagine Pachulia played a big role in repairing the disastrous team chemistry of last season. And he wasn't too shabby on the court either. Pachulia was the Bucks' best rebounder and a deft passer from the interior. Despite a shockingly-high 18.2 turnover rate, advanced metrics smiled on Pachulia -- ESPN's Real Plus-Minus rated him the second best center in the NBA among qualifiers. He was reliable as well, playing in 73 of 82 games and tallying the third-most minutes on the team. That last point might be frustrating given the squad's long-term outlook, but with limited options behind him, any extended absence by Pachulia might have crippled the team.
There are still some very real limitations to Pachulia's game, and center remains a critical need for the team going forward. Pachulia's offense is lacking and the guy simply can't jump. At 31 years old, he's not over the hill just yet. He's just not necessarily a perfect fit for the long term. None of that diminishes what was a genuinely solid year by Zaza this season.