When the Milwaukee Bucks were able to trade for Eric Bledsoe without really sacrificing any of their young core, fans everywhere rejoiced. There was a question of whether Bledsoe would replace Malcolm Brogdon or Tony Snell in the starting lineup, but it didn’t really matter because Bledsoe would provide a clear boost over either of those players. Bledsoe ended up replacing Brogdon, and it worked out just as expected for the first four games, as the Bucks went from a four-game losing streak immediately pre-Bledsoe to a four-game winning streak immediately post-Bledsoe.
The honeymoon has ended with the last two games, though, as the Bucks got crushed by a pathetic Mavericks team and thoroughly outplayed by the Wizards the next time out. What happened? Well, it all seems to come down to (the benching of) last year’s rookie of the year, Malcolm Brogdon.
Brogdon’s bench blues
Allow me to present some numbers comparing Brogdon’s time as a starter with his time off the bench:
First of all, you can see that Brogdon has still played a few more games as a starter than he has off the bench, but we’ll mostly be talking about per-game stats so this doesn’t matter too much. Now, notice that while he’s obviously averaged more minutes per game as a starter, he’s not too far behind in minutes per game off the bench. Most importantly, his usage rate is about 20% regardless of whether he has started or come off the bench. In other words, while you might think that a starter would obviously get more opportunity than a bench player, Brogdon’s shift to the bench has not come with a significant reduction in either minutes or usage rate.
Now that that’s out of the way, we can look at the difference in how he has played. As a reserve, he has increased his rebounds per game from 2.2 to 3.2. That’s the only good news, though, as he has dropped hard in just about every other stat. He’s scoring a bit over half of what he was as a starter, and his assists have plummeted as have his shooting percentages (although his 3-point percentage is still good, he was shooting so well as a starter that it’s still a big difference). Remember, his minutes and usage rate are not that different than when he was a starter, so you can’t just chalk this up to playing time. You could argue that he has less on-court help when he comes off the bench, which is true, but if anything that just means the Bucks need him to step it up even more when he does play.
Now, you might be confused, because while Brogdon’s output has clearly dropped off, the Bucks still had a four-game winning streak when he moved to the bench. This just means we need to dig a little deeper. Compare Brogdon’s first four games off the bench to his last two:
||First 4 games
||Last 2 games
Now this is where it gets interesting. During the first four games (which the Bucks all won), Brogdon was playing like a great sixth man. This makes sense, because Jason Kidd told us that he dealt with being benched like a true professional (which fits in with what we know about Malcolm Brogdon as a player and a person). During the last two games (both Bucks losses), though, he has completely fallen off, playing like a typical sophomore bit player instead of the reigning rookie of the year. Aside from the above stats, Brogdon’s last two games have also resulted in his only two negative game scores of the season (and two of the four worst game scores of his career), and two of his three lowest plus/minus marks of the season.
I’m not exactly sure how to explain this, because he still played a full 50 minutes in those last two games off the bench. His usage rate did drop a bit from the first four games, but that’s at least partially due to the fact that he just wasn’t playing very well. One thing is clear, though: Brogdon’s struggles are solidly correlated with the team’s struggles.
Where do we go from here?
So what does this all mean? Should the Bucks give up on Malcolm Brogdon and write off his rookie of the year campaign as a fluke? Absolutely not, because it’s clear that the team plays better when he’s doing well. In fact, these numbers should serve to retroactively strengthen his case for last season’s rookie of the year award, if anything.
Should the Bucks bench Bledsoe and start Brogdon again? Probably not, because Bledsoe’s effect on the team’s defensive rating is undeniable, and he’s clearly a better player all around (due to experience, if nothing else). Should they bench Snell and bring Brogdon in for a dual-point guard situation? Well, Snell is still second in the entire league in true shooting percentage, so that’s probably not the answer. In other words, it looks like Brogdon’s just gonna have to figure out coming off the bench.
There is reason to be optimistic, though. Just as Bledsoe will only get more comfortable with his new team as the games roll on, so will Brogdon with the second unit. That is, as Brogdon develops more chemistry with Thon Maker, DeAndre Liggins, Matthew Dellavedova, and the other prominent bench players, we can expect his numbers to go back up.
While we can be optimistic, there is also a sense of urgency, as the last two games have shown us that the Bucks simply do not look like a playoff team when Brogdon is off. The starting unit could start playing more consistently to back up Giannis, but it’s Brogdon that really needs to step it up. If he can figure out how to make an impact off the bench (as he did in the first four games after the Bledsoe trade), he will not only replace Greg Monroe’s role on the team, he may just be able to follow up his rookie of the year season with a sixth man of the year season.
At the end of the day, whether or not he can step it up off the bench may just be the difference for the Bucks between an eighth seed (or missing the playoffs altogether) and a fourth or fifth seed. While I’m not exactly sure what Brogdon and the Bucks need to do to get his game back to pre-benching levels, it’s clear that something needs to be done. We’ll be following along all season here at Bucks Wire, though, and we’ll try to keep you in the loop.