As the old saying goes, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.”
Sometimes the truth can be right in front of you, but you have to want to see it. In the first round of the 2018 East Playoffs, the 44-38 Milwaukee Bucks, a 7-seed, went the distance before falling in Game 7 to the no. 1 defense in the league, the 55-27, 2nd-seeded Boston Celtics. Those same Celtics would go on to lay a righteous beatdown on the upstart Sixers in the second round, then push the Cavaliers to the brink in the East Finals before LeBron flipped the doom switch on them to advance to his eighth consecutive NBA Finals. Boston returned two of their stars from injury this season and looked to be the odds-on favorite to come out of the East following LeBron’s exodus to LA. Yet they’ve struggled relative to expectations, continually battling to find the correct roles and responsibilities for all of their talented players.
But let’s get back to Milwaukee. After the first round defeat, it would have been easy to view their glass as half empty and look at them as just another minor speed bump to be cleared in the weak East. They fired Hall of Fame player/disappointing head coach Jason Kidd midseason last year, replacing him with the equally heinous Joe Prunty on an interim basis. The front office raised the stakes by trading for disgruntled Phoenix point guard Eric Bledsoe in November of 2017, only to see him get sonned by Boston backup-turned-starter Terry Rozier in that first round series. Sure, they had their young franchise cornerstone in Giannis Antetokounmpo, but with no head coach, a middling win total, an inexperienced GM, and a roster with a lot of cap space tied up in underperforming assets, there were plenty of reasons to think the Bucks were headed for the dreaded treadmill of mediocrity, at best.
This justifiable skepticism ignores how close that ill-fitting, poorly-coached team was to toppling the Celtics, a series win which would have completely flipped the narrative. And then, a funny thing happened, if you were paying attention: the Bucks nailed the offseason. Getting any head coach who did not actively cost the team wins would qualify as an upgrade over the disastrous Kidd/Prunty combo, but it cannot be overstated how vast the gulf is between those jokers and new head coach Mike Budenholzer. Coach Bud installed coherent systems on both ends of the floor to better utilize the immense talent and versatility of Giannis, enabling him to become one of the most dominant interior forces the league has seen in the last two decades. Budenholzer figured out how to mask some of Bledsoe’s weaknesses and maximize his strengths, leading to a strong bounce-back campaign and a genuinely surprising amount of recent All-Star buzz.
Going from the worst coaching situation in the league by a country mile to a Coach of the Year candidate was worth a bunch of wins on its own, but they weren’t done. The front office did its part with regards to the roster as well. Realizing the need to continue to surround Giannis with shooting to give his game room to breathe, GM Jon Horst brought in veteran stretch bigs Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova at relative discounts to pair with incumbent sharpshooters Khris Middleton, Malcolm Brogdon, and Tony Snell. He also found diamonds in the rough in the 2017 Draft, snagging big man D.J. Wilson and wing Sterling Brown with non-premium picks. Neither player was a factor in his rookie year, but both have turned into valuable floor spacers and role players who continue to see their minutes climb as this season wears on. The jury is still out on this year’s first round pick, NCAA Championship Game hero Donte DiVincenzo, but his ideal form certainly fits the mold as yet another floor spacer and athletic secondary playmaker to put around Giannis.
What has transpired this season could only have been foretold by the most prescient, forward-thinking analysts. Vegas pegged Milwaukee for around 48 wins in the preseason, a number which now seems comically low given their 34-12 record. By winning percentage and almost any statistical measure, the Bucks are the best team in the NBA this season. [If we’re defining “best” as “most unbeatable when they bring their ‘A’ game” or “most difficult to eliminate in a seven-game series,” then of course the answer is still Golden State until further notice, but let’s not get off-track.] Milwaukee is currently on a 60+ win pace, and their point differential (a neat +10.0, tops in the league) suggests they’ve actually been a bit unlucky. They are 5th in Offensive Rating, 1st in Defensive Rating, 5th in Pace, 2nd in 3PA rate, 5th in Assists per game, 2nd in Effective Field Goal Percentage, 1st in Effective FG% Allowed, 1st in Defensive Rebounding Rate, and 1st in opponents’ Free Throw Rate. They score efficiently, move the ball, force tough shots without fouling, clean the glass, and win their average game by double digits. But yeah, other than that they pretty much suck.
The Bucks are this year’s version of the ’17-’18 Rockets in a variety of ways. In both cases, the offensive philosophy has been to push the three-point revolution to its logical conclusion in support of a unique, transcendent superstar, in the process creating an offensive attack visually unlike anything we’ve heretofore seen. As with Houston, the evolution of the offense has overshadowed what may be the biggest reason for the jump in wins: huge gains in defensive efficiency. Kidd’s hyper-aggressive, blitzing scheme inadvertently gifted opponents with oodles of open threes, and the Bucks struggled to the 19th-rated defense last year as a result. This season, they’ve ridden a more conventional scheme, additional continuity (including Bledsoe re-discovering the point-of-attack bulldog form he displayed in his pre-Phoenix days), and the dominant rim protection of both Giannis and Brook Lopez (!!) to the league’s top defense. And with more than half of the season in the books, there is nothing fluky about what’s going on; this team is for real, on both ends.
Naturally it all starts with Giannis, who remains the MVP front-runner despite James Harden’s recent assault on the record books. Somehow just 24 years old, The Greek Freak is producing at an unfathomable level for any player, let alone a guy still years away from his peak. As Harden’s statistical output has continued to crescendo, Giannis has chugged along consistently, putting up numbers each month roughly in line with his season averages of 26.5/ 12.6/ 5.9 on 58% shooting in only 33.1 minutes a night, the lowest amount of court time he’s logged since his second year in the league. [If Coach Bud decides to play him 40+ a game when the playoffs roll around, we may be in for some bonkers stat lines.]
As I predicted, Giannis has played more minutes at center this year. B-R estimates 23% of his minutes have come at the 5, easily a career high, but also misleading. Lopez is the nominal center when he’s on the court, but this distinction only applies defensively. On the offensive end, Brook is essentially a 7’1″ shooting guard who does most of his damage from long range, while Giannis acts as a point center, initiating the offense from every level of the floor. I give Jason Kidd a lot of crap in this space for his lousy coaching, but I will afford him one back-handed compliment. Kidd caused a brief stir a couple seasons ago when he declared Giannis would be the team’s point guard going forward. He actually was onto something (make Giannis the hub of the offense and put the ball in his hands) but he botched how to build a lineup around it (by going bigger at the other spots rather than smaller). Coach Bud has synthesized the results of the prior experiments into a cohesive rotation, and adding Lopez’s combination of consistent floor spacing and shockingly stout interior defense has made the whole thing hum.
Khris Middleton has cooled off some after scorching Boston in the aforementioned playoff series and carrying it into the early part of this season. The starters outside of Giannis (Lopez, Brogdon, Middleton, and Bledsoe) all average between 12.1 and 17.3 ppg, and their contributions in rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks display a similarly even distribution. The Bucks could still end up with two or even three All-Stars (particularly in the wake of Victor Oladipo’s devastating knee injury) in the JV Conference, but while Giannis is obviously deserving of his starting spot, any additional berths — whether it be Middleton, Bledsoe, or even Brogdon, whose case is a little stronger than most realize — will amount to individual recognition for team accomplishments. [Paging the 2015 Hawks, who were coached by — you guessed it — Mike Budenholzer!]
It’s more of the same from the bench unit: solid shooting, ball movement, and defensive versatility at nearly every spot. George Hill is overpaid and has struggled with his shot since coming over from Cleveland in a trade, but his role suits his skill set at this stage of his career, and he continues to provide the same calming offensive presence and long-armed, switchable defense which have always been his calling cards. Ilyasova remains the same player he’s been for the last decade: an efficient stretch-4 (36.6% from deep) with a little more ability to defend and attack closeouts than you think. Tony Snell is still an effective-but-limited 3-and-D wing, but he is beginning to see more of his minutes annexed by Sterling Brown, who mimics most of Snell’s strengths while also showing off added athleticism and off-the-bounce verve. Young big man D.J. Wilson continues to see his role expand as he shows off the breadth of his game. His motor consistently runs hot, he has wingspan for days, a solid feel for the game, and while the sample size is small, it doesn’t hurt he’s currently shooting 46.3% from deep. Injuries wiped out his rookie season, but there’s a real player here, and one who may render the disappointing Thon Maker expendable in the long run if the former YouTube star’s game doesn’t take a massive leap forward in the near-term.
The recipe for a contender is in place: MVP-level superstar, elite coach, size, shooting, stingy defense, an ahead-of-the-curve offense, and a deep, talented bench. The formula is being borne out in the results, yet fans and media still seem to not be taking this team seriously as a threat. Since this group’s success is relatively new, the usual tropes about “learning how to win” and “paying their dues” and “not skipping steps” will all come into play, much the same way they already are for their upstart doppelganger in the West, the Denver Nuggets, who incidentally feature the same “foreign MVP-caliber point center/underrated coach/deep-but-unspectacular supporting cast/funky offense/improved defense” formula.
The difference is, with LeBron gone, Boston struggling to jell, the Raptors showing some chinks in the armor, Philly still figuring out who their alpha is, and Indy losing Oladipo, the East is wide open. This is the type of goofy season ripe for a team like Milwaukee to come out of nowhere and make the Finals. Sure, the (now) Five-Headed Death Hydra of Golden State will probably be waiting there, and the Bucks have some difficult roster-building decisions to make this summer (when Bledsoe and Middleton both likely become free agents), but let’s cross those bridges when we come to them. For the time being, let’s enjoy the new star in the NBA firmament. “Fear the Deer” is no longer just a silly marketing slogan. It is now a directive the other 29 teams ignore at their peril.
Top Photo Credit: USA Today Sports