Bucks reserves Giannis Antetokounmpo (left) and O.J. Mayo have been two of Milwaukee's key contributors off the bench.
Benny Sieu/Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports
ST. FRANCIS, Wis. — The reserves of the Milwaukee Bucks have adopted a saying that’s become more of a mindset early on this season.
"As long as you stay ready, you won’t have to get ready."
Through eight games, the Bucks lead the NBA in bench scoring at 46.4 points per game and have relied on their reserves for more minutes per game than any other team in the league.
Milwaukee’s bench has a mix of young talent and veterans who have started previously in the NBA. But more importantly, they are all buying in to the way first-year Bucks coach Jason Kidd utilizes his second unit.
"We’ve talked about being a deep team and everybody having a chance to play," Kidd said. "I think you see that in the first eight games. Everybody has had a chance to touch the floor.
"That group that comes in, the ball moves and they trust one another. Defensively they’re a unit and they’re playing extremely hard."
Kidd has made just one significant change to his starting lineup over the first eight games, swapping Ersan Ilyasova in for Khris Middleton and shifting Jabari Parker from power forward to small forward.
Jerryd Bayless (8.1 points in 19.5 minutes per game) has brought energy and playmaking ability off the bench as the primary backup point guard, while O.J. Mayo has complemented him well in the backcourt of the second unit.
When healthy, Middleton has played some as the backup small forward, but he’s battled a sore right knee of late and has shot just 23.1 percent from beyond the arc.
Zaza Pachulia and John Henson have split the backup minutes at center, while Giannis Antetokounmpo has thrived played all over the floor, averaging 10.9 points, 5.1 rebounds and 1.3 assists in 23.8 minutes per game.
"When we play five-on-five against the starting lineup in practice, the games are pretty close," Pachulia said. "I’m not saying bad things about our starting lineup, but this is team basketball. It doesn’t matter who starts as long as we win."
The resurgence of Mayo has been critical to the success of the Bucks’ bench. After a well-documented disastrous first season in Milwaukee, Mayo is averaging 12.1 points and 3.5 assists in 24.6 minutes off the bench.
He’s not only helped carry the scoring load on the second unit, but he’s also looked to distribute the basketball as almost a second point guard on the court. Mayo has been a starter for most of his career, but he did come off the bench for his final two seasons with Memphis.
To him, this is a totally different role.
"In Memphis we were kind of a for-sure playoff team, a much more veteran team," Mayo said. "With this team we’re younger, so it’s more about, accept the role and lead by example.
"I’m pretty sure there’s a couple guys coming off the bench who think that they’re able to start for this team or some other teams, but at the end of the day we think the decision that was made is best for our team to win and to have a positive season this year. It’s well-accepted by me, Giannis, Zaza, guys who have started in this league.
"It is a team. There are 15 guys on a team. You’ve got 15 different roles, kind of. We all bring something different to the table."
We have a lot of guys that can play. Whenever our names are called we have to be ready. Nobody is complaining about coming off the bench.
The acceptance of a bench role is something NBA teams still struggle to get from players, especially those who have started previously. There’s still a stigma of the starting five being superior to the reserves, even though it really doesn’t matter who starts anymore.
What matters are matchups and minutes played, something most of the players feel Kidd has managed well early on despite having so many players capable of contributing.
"We’ve seen guys who don’t want to play or can’t play off the bench," Pachulia said. "You have to understand, and we do understand, that it is all about the team, all about winning basketball games and all about the Milwaukee Bucks. The fans want to see us win. You can’t be selfish about it."
With how deep the Bucks’ roster is, a few players have seen their minutes cut from last season. Henson is only averaging 12.1 minutes per game, while Ilyasova has seen his playing time cut to 18.3 a game. Bayless and Mayo have played so well that Kendall Marshall and Nate Wolters have barely seen the floor.
Marshall has played in just three games, while Wolters has appeared in only two.
But when Middleton was out Tuesday against Oklahoma City, Kidd turned to Wolters for 18 important minutes. The second-year guard out of South Dakota State scored six points on 3-of-7 shooting.
"We’ve got a pretty deep team so I don’t think anyone is complaining about coming off the bench or not playing at all," Wolters said. "We have a lot of guys that can play. Whenever our names are called we have to be ready. Nobody is complaining about coming off the bench.
"It’s fun. We have a deep team and we’re utilizing it."
It is Kidd’s belief that players can’t get into a necessary rhythm when playing just a couple of minutes in a game. While certain players may sit out consecutive games, he will usually play guys more than a handful of minutes when they are called upon.
"When you get that 7 to 8 minutes it’s hard to do anything a lot of times," Wolters said. "He lets you get into a rhythm. I think some of us played the whole second quarter (Tuesday). That allows everyone to get a sweat. I like that a lot."
Kidd tried to use a similar philosophy last season in Brooklyn, but injuries piled up and prevented him from doing so.
"I played a lot of guys last year when we were healthy," Kidd said. "Unfortunately we weren’t healthy throughout the year.
"In the playoffs we played a lot of guys. My thing is if you’ve got depth, you’ve got to play it. Especially for an 82-game season if you have four (games) in five (nights) or seven in 12, if you’re deep, why not use it?
"And I think those guys in the locker room all know that they’re going to get a chance to play."
With the Bucks, Kidd has used an 11-man rotation on most nights. Only Brandon Knight averages more than 30 minutes per game, while 10 guys are playing more than 17 minutes a contest.
"It is all about winning," Mayo said. "There’s nothing to pout about, nothing to argue about, because we feel the organization wants to win and coach Kidd wants to win and that’s the decision they made that they felt was best for the team to win. I’m down all the way."