Just two weeks ago, Thon Maker played one of his best games this NBA season. Going up against the Utah Jazz, Maker was inserted off the Milwaukee Bucks bench, scored 15 points in 18 minutes and helped his team pull away in a game that was tied during the fourth quarter.
Maker’s performance against Utah seemingly came at the perfect time, too, as he was fresh off a benching two nights earlier against the Toronto Raptors. At the time, coach Mike Budenholzer's decision to go away from Maker did appear somewhat strange, given the Australian had played in 24 straight games and has had a history of performing well against the Raptors. With that said, t’s common for NBA coaches to lean on veterans at the expense of inconsistent youngsters, especially in big games. And Maker, for all his promise and flashes, remains a work in progress.
One Raptors game was easy to overlook, and given Maker’s comeback against Utah, it appeared he had done everything possible to make his benching a momentary occurrence. Alas, it has quickly become common practice and over the past fortnight Maker has been become an afterthought in Milwaukee.
Maker has played a total of 12 relevant minutes – we are excluding garbage time here - in the seven games following his outburst against the Jazz. Not 12 minutes per game, rather 12 minutes total. He has essentially been removed from the Bucks rotation.
The answer appears relatively simple on the surface.
Ersan Ilyasova returned from injury, and D.J. Wilson has been inserted into the Bucks lineup. Ilyasova has been a long-time favourite of Budenholzer dating back to their days together in Atlanta, while Wilson, who is averaging 20 minutes per game during the past two weeks, has deserved every minute he has gotten. The 2017 first round draft pick is shooting 44% from three and is flashing the ability to competently defend on the other end.
Ilyasova’s return and emergence of Wilson provides Milwaukee with a surplus of frontcourt options. It is unquestionably a welcome development for the franchise, albeit a paradoxical one for Maker as his competition for an already limited allocation of minutes has increased. This was the reason I was concerned about Maker’s place in Milwaukee before the season started. The Bucks roster is loaded with frontcourt options and with Giannis Antetokounmpo best utilised as a nominal power forward, there is a clear surplus of players who are more deserving of minutes than Maker, or at the very least can imitate the things he does well.
Brook Lopez has stepped into the starting line-up and revolutionised the offence around Antetokounmpo. Best of all, Lopez has only been forced to play 28 minutes a night as the Bucks are blowing out opponents with frequency. His playing time will inevitably increase when the level of competition increases in the postseason and this is further bad news for Maker, given he has played a total of 47 minutes with Lopez all season. Budenholzer has toyed with the pairing every now and again – most notably on Christmas Day in New York – although the lack of opportunities provides a clear message that he doesn’t value the look.
It’s also worth noting that Sterling Brown and George Hill have found their roles over the period in which Maker has been jettisoned from the rotation. Along with Tony Snell, that gives the Bucks three multi-positional perimeter players coming off their bench. Getting valuable minutes from this trio allows Milwaukee to downside and surround Antetokounmpo with more ball handlers who offer a level dynamism that Maker at his size cannot.
The surplus of wing options means there are better options than Maker to play alongside Lopez, or Ilyasova for that matter if he is in the game. Maker’s handle hasn’t improved to the level many hoped it would when he was drafted in 2016. That hinders his ability to play away from the basketball and means Maker must be the sole non-ball handler when on the floor, if Milwaukee’s offence is to maintain its gaudy output.
Maker’s best position remains at the five. With Lopez rightfully established as the starter, a reserve role behind Splash Mountain is his best means of helping the Bucks in their quest for a deep postseason run. To regain a regular place in the Bucks rotation, Maker will likely need to supplant Ilyasova, just as he did in Milwaukee’s most recent outing against the Dallas Mavericks. Maker was given Ilyasova’s allocation of second half minutes after a sub-standard performance from the Turkish native.
Here is what Budenholzer said of Maker following the Mavericks game to our own Kane Pitman.
“Thon just helped. I thought in the second quarter we took a step backwards where we didn’t meet the standards that we’ve established for ourselves so I thought I’d shake it up a little bit. Thon always brings great energy and he can really impact the game defensively with their length and some of their lobs and stuff like that. He’s been good on a lot of nights when we’ve given Thon a chance.”
These comments give the impression that Maker is firmly outside Milwaukee’s regular rotation. When Budenholzer feels his team needs a jolt of energy, he can rely on Maker to provide it, but that is representative of a player who will play in spurts and not on a nightly basis. The Bucks are fully fit and Maker is feeling the squeeze.
Would a trade be the best thing for Maker? I don’t think we are at that point just yet, although there are is an argument he isn’t going to get the developmental minutes needed with the Bucks - not this season anyway.
Milwaukee owns the best record in the NBA, and rightfully have their eyes set on winning the Eastern Conference. This places a premium on every roster spot and every minute of action on the court. Maker has flashed improvements when given chances this season but remains a project who's attempting to find consistency in performance.
Talk of trade is invariably a moot point; the Bucks would be very unlikely to part with Maker in-season. Lopez is a free agent after the season so the Bucks would be taking a massive risk in trading a cost-controlled replacement in Maker before July.
Maker’s brief NBA career has been characterised by a series of changing roles, so the state of flux is nothing new. He could still prove to be a valuable contributor to the Bucks this season. Maker's history of breakout performances in the postseason, provide hope that Maker can excel in the most important moments if given the chance. It’s just a question of whether that opportunity will arise once more.