Hope, Henson and the struggle to balance minutes in Milwaukee

I don’t live far from the BMO Harris Bradley Center. Thus, I walk to games. In the winter, the walk ranges from annoying to nearly unbearable, depending on wind, snow and slush. I hate slush. With snow you get the possibilities of sledding or snowboarding or skiing, whatever you’re into. At the very least, there’s some aesthetic appeal to snow, even if you’re not one for outdoor fun.

But slush is the worst. It’s dark. It’s wet. It finds its way into your shoes about 99% of the time if you don’t wear boots, almost like it knows and exists only to punish you for not wanting to wear uncomfortable and bulky footwear.

The spring typically isn’t such a bad time to be walking to and from the arena. It’s often warm enough to go without a coat and the light rains mixed with improved temperatures remind me of Milwaukee’s last playoff appearance and meaningful season. It was fun walking to the BC in late April and early May in 2010. I thought it would be 80 degrees and sunny forever.

It was 40 degrees and raining on Monday when I stepped out of the building and began my trek home.

This is Spring in Milwaukee this year. When the garbage truck comes to run into the many dumpsters directly outside my window between six and seven every weekday morning, I glance up towards the outside world, see an absence of sun, evidence of strong winds, assume rain is coming and ruin my morning by laying my head back down in an attempt to get one more hour of sleep. It’s hard to be optimistic to start the day when a day starts like that.

Believe it or not though, I felt good about the Bucks Monday night as a light rain fell on me. I was glad it wasn’t pouring. I was pleased that the Bucks kept things interesting against the Nuggets. Sure, they lost late, but Denver’s a very good team, Milwaukee’s offense played well and I got to say that I called it, so that’s all pretty fun for me.

There was more that had me intrigued, something specific.

John Henson has been intriguing lately and really whenever he’s played a lot. (AP Photo/Bob Leverone)

Over the last four games, John Henson has often looked like a prospect and sometimes looked like a rookie. More often the former than the latter though. With Larry Sanders having injured his back on a hard fall in Orlando, opportunity opened up for Milwaukee’s rookie big man. As he’s done when presented with some opportunity this season, Henson responded well. He’s averaging 11.8 points and 14.8 (!) rebounds in 31.5 minutes.

Not that this should really be much of a surprise. Whenever Henson has been given minutes this season, he’s produced.

Less than 20 50 437 8.7 205 4.1 142 2.8 18 0.4 40.75%
More than 20 12 317 26.4 147 12.3 139 11.6 24 2.0 49.05%
Totals 62 754 12.2 352 5.7 281 4.5 42 0.7 42.35%

Henson’s averaging 12.3 points and 11.6 rebounds when he’s played more than 20 minutes in a game. The obvious caveat here is that Henson wouldn’t be pulled out of a game if he were playing really well, so naturally his numbers are going to be inflated in games where he plays more minutes. I recognize that. But what’s bizarre about the last couple months, when considered in context with something Jim Boylan said upon taking the reigns of the Milwaukee Bucks, is how often Henson was pulled out of games where maybe he wasn’t playing well. Here’s Boylan on Henson in January:

“I just know what he can do and if he is sitting on the bench, he can’t do it. We want to get him in there. He is going to make some mistakes and we will live with that so we can develop him. I said this earlier in the week that come April and we are playing these really important games, we want John Henson to be a part of that because we want him to get that kind of experience and we want him to develop into the kind of player that we think he can be. If we don’t play him now, we don’t get that in April.”

Henson played 9.6 minutes per game in March. He did not play, per coach’s decision, on seven occasions.

The natural reaction is probably to heap scorn upon Boylan. HOW COULD YOU NOT PLAY JOHN HENSON HE’S THE FUTURE ESPECIALLY WITHOUT TOBIAS BUCKS COACHES NEVER PLAY YOUNG GUYS AND WHY ISN’T SAM DALEMBERT PLAYING EITHER I HATE THE TOBIAS HARRIS TRADE JJ REDICK MISSES TOO MUCH LOL BUCKS!?!? But it isn’t that simple, because if there’s one thing that’s good about these Milwaukee Bucks, its their power forwards and centers.

As Boylan surely looked to distribute more minutes to John Henson, he had to look down his bench and see both Ersan Ilyasova and Larry Sanders. Ilyasova and Sanders have played 879 minutes together in 35 games since Boylan took over, 25 minutes per game together, by far the most popular purely front court duo the Bucks have used. Both of them have played well too. Larry’s success has been well documented and Ersan averaged nearly 20 and 10 in the month of March.

As far as the other 23 minutes a game have gone? Boylan has to find a way to work in Ekpe Udoh and Henson, occasionally Gustavo Ayon and Sam Dalembert too, along with his starters. The occasional small ball lineup has even left Mike Dunleavy, Luc Mbah a Moute or Marquis Daniels up front as well.

The minutes have been tough to manage. Maybe that’s no excuse for ignoring your own words of wisdom spoken just months ago, but I can see how the hunt for the final playoff spot has occasionally clouded Boylan’s judgement and perhaps forced his hand. Coaches will default to whoever they feel they can trust the most. That’s how guys like Dunleavy, Daniels and Dalembert get minutes, regardless of performance.

But it should not be lost that Henson has played well, even if he hasn’t played enough, whatever the reasons may be. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to assume a larger role will be in store for him next season. His play could even make Ilyasova, who I’m often told is paid quite fairly and is an asset, available. Maybe the Bucks don’t need to be trading good players at this point, but if they can trade from a position of strength, rather than a position of weakness, that might be a fun switch. Perhaps Ilyasova could land Milwaukee a piece that could help the team going forward at a spot where they aren’t quite so strong.

Ayon, Dalembert, Dunleavy and Daniels all seem unlikely to return next season. But Mbah a Moute is at his best as a small four and Milwaukee would be wise to grab another backup big on the cheap. Perhaps Ilyasova could bring in a guard or shooting small forward that could defend. There is some hope that has sprung out of these last few days of what’s been a long, arduous Bucks season.

Things have to turn around eventually. Maybe Henson will be apart of that.

That’s what I thought to myself as I hit the door of my apartment building and pulled out my phone. The weather app predicted another week of rain. Maybe things would clear up after that. Maybe around the 26th or 27th, the sun will shine again and temperatures will rise. We’ll all be able to move past both this weather and this season onto brighter days.

Categories: ROTATIONS!

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  1. jeremy my roommate and i are ardent followers of your blog and though we often found ourselves banging our collective heads against our laptop keyboards because of your comments about the tobias harris trade, i certainly agree with you almost 100% in this post. ersan is a 6th man w/ a unique skill for his position on a title contending team. he’s nowhere near strong enough to bang with 4s around the league and i do not see that changing one bit ehem… paul millsap. henson however with his length and the assumption that he’s going to bulk up over the next couple summers seems to be a flash in the rusty pan that is bucks basketball if you will. it’s too bad we will lose the majority of our frontcourt depth, but this should provide good opportunity for henson moving forward. and with monta likely to move on per league sources, we should have a loooooot of money come free agency.. let’s just hope john hammond does f it up, which i’m sure he will. go bucks! optimism!

    • Thanks for the comment, Blair.

      I got back and forth on the Harris trade. He probably should have been playing more before he was traded, but the organization had pretty much put him in a situation where he couldn’t win. He wasn’t going to be a factor with the Ellis/Jennings lineup, he wasn’t going to get minutes as a four and Dunleavy wasn’t going to lose minutes in a playoff run at the backup three spot.

      I get why they traded him, why they weren’t playing him. Because they made a series of terrible decisions that they were stuck with. In that universe, they had to make the Redick trade, because it was what would justify all of the other short-sighted things that had been done.

      But yeah, he’s doing well in Orlando. Hopefully things work out with Henson.

      • The Harris trade was really iffy because he needed somewhere to play this year, as a talented 2nd year player. But the Bucks were competing for a playoff spot (big deal for Bucks) and Reddick could help them have the biggest chance to go up in the seedings than anyone else. its tough.

  2. No, no, no, no!

    The Bucks needed to play Tobias because he was
    the only big man who could create his own offense
    both going to the hoop and pulling up for a jumper.
    As we are seeing now with the Magic, Tobias is also
    a good rebounder and a decent shot-blocker. He’s
    also a recent first-round pick and only 20 years old.
    This was a really, really stupid trade and no excuses
    should be made!

    As the archives show, what I wanted for Tobias
    was 15-30 minutes per game. Not a starring role
    but a supporting role, with a solid number of minutes
    to get an opportunity to show what he could do.
    I thought Tobias could contribute to the Bucks
    right away, this season, as well as growing for the
    future. The other forwards weren’t good enough to
    keep Tobias from this modest amount of playing time.

    After the Tobias trade, I wrote not to make the
    same mistake with John, but to give him 15-30 minutes.
    Instead, he sat and sat and sat while the Bucks
    continued to sputter along in maddening mediocrity.

    The stats for John Henson listed above are very
    revealing regarding him and Tobias. When Tobias was
    playing earlier in the season, I think he was generally
    getting 13 minutes or so per game, which was not
    enough for him to get in the flow and have a decent
    chance to display his skills. Apparently the same
    problem has hampered John Henson. Plus our guards
    take a ton of shots and don’t seem to have the best
    passing skills, which I would think tends to leave
    their teammates frustrated.

    A coach should be able to figure out these kinds of
    things. A coach (and GM) shouldn’t sacrifice the future
    of our team for a lousy 8th seed. It bears repeating
    that John wouldn’t have been playing this past week
    or two if not for injuries. The Bucks were treating
    John with the same short-sighted stupidity as they
    treated Tobias.

    It would have been so sweet to have a young frontcourt
    of Larry, Tobias and John (supplemented perhaps by Ersan
    and Luc). Going forward, let’s take good care of Larry
    and John (and all of our guys) as players and people.
    Let’s teach and encourage and nurture them, not as
    interchangeable parts but as human beings to develop
    and appreciate!!!

    Finally, let’s not assume that our managers and coaches
    are always smart enough or selfless enough to put the
    best interests of the players and fans above their own!
    At the very least — after so many years of insipid,
    uninspiring performances from the Bucks —
    let’s at least be ready to question their decisions.

    • I don’t like the harris trade either, i get it, but i don’t like it. However, Harris is not a 3! He is a 4 and henson will be starting there hopefully in the near future. After tonights showing against the thunder(granted their backup group), i think he will do just fine. I think they should have kept him and tried using him in another package to get someone better than Reddick. Although Reddick has helped to show us who’s future we should invest in between jennings and ellis which is potentially worth millions.

  3. I too live near the BC, and unlike you felt quite wet by the time I got home, but I too felt more lighthearted than I had in a few weeks. Bc the Bucks played hard and looked competitive, and the end of the game was exciting. And I guess bc they did better than I expected…

  4. Pingback: B-Team Bucks beat B-Team Thunder. The Playoffs kind of start now. : Bucksketball – A Better Milwaukee Bucks Blog

  5. happyfeethustle

    I was ALL for the Radick trade, didnt buy-in to the hype about Tobias.
    Was pleased the Bucks would seriously go after a potential “game changer” in Redick. Ugh…now I find myself frustrated at the lack of consistency for J.J. outside the arc-what is it about Milwaukee-players show up here and struggle? Harris showing some legit scoring talent -but I do understand that he was relegated to bench here.Tough deal for us…probably will regret this trade for a decade-painful.

    Still…two good pieces in Sanders,Henson-worth building around. lets hope Hammond decides to build around them, get away from the guard heavy scoring deal. I keep positive-cmon draft day!