Giannis Antetokounmpo is a top-tier MVP candidate. Khris Middleton has maintained his high level of versatile play while increasing his reliance on the three-pointer. Eric Bledsoe has been a defensive revelation; ditto for Brook Lopez on offense. Malcolm Brogdon sometimes draws fans’ ire, but he has been improved. Donte DiVincenzo, Pat Connaughton, Tony Snell, and Ersan Ilyasova have all been better than expected. Thon Maker doesn’t look consistently useless. Matthew Dellavedova, Sterling Brown, and Christian Wood are relied upon for minimal contributions. John Henson shoots threes now! This all adds up to some serious “Coach of the Year” momentum for Mike Budenholzer, and some surprising buzz for Jon Horst as “Executive of the Year” as well.
Back in October, we put together an official season prediction roundtable, and there’s no better time to revisit those prognostications than the first quarter mark of the season. Here’s how things are shaking out.
Milwaukee is 14-6, which extrapolates to a 57-win season. This is undeniably positive, given where the team has been in years past and where our expectations started from. Then again, the team hasn’t had both a bonafide MVP candidate (Giannis) and a bonafide COTY candidate (Bud) at the same time. Few of the Brew Hoop staffers thought the team would be this good, but Sylvan was spot on with his prediction:
Call me the optimist, but I think the Bucks can be the best team in the East. The Celtics seem like a hydra that only Bud and Giannis might slay, but I can’t see any other competition if we continue at the level of the preseason. 58-24, 2nd in the East, and I’m betting that we make it to the ECF, but don’t look all shocked if that ends up being the floor.
Moreover, the Bucks have compiled this record against a veritable murderers’ row of opposition, and they’ve done so by regularly blowing teams out of the water. To date, Milwaukee boasts the highest margin of victory (11.05, over 2 points ahead of second place) against the fourth-hardest strength of schedule (1.27, where 0.0 is the average). There are caveats that can be applied to certain wins (no Kawhi Leonard against Toronto, or no Draymond Green and an injured Stephen Curry against Golden State), but the records of the Bucks’ opponents don’t lie.
Offensive & Defensive Rating
These ratings give a decent overview of how effective a team is on either end of the court, and the answer (per basketball-reference.com) for this year’s Bucks is “very.” Their offensive rating? Tops in the league, at 116.3 (followed by the Golden State Warriors at 115.7). Defensively, they’re getting it done just as well, ranking sixth in the league with 105.7 (with only Oklahoma City, Boston, Indiana, Memphis, and Denver ahead of them). How are they doing it?
Funnel to the Middle
It is said that defense wins championships, and the Bucks’ defensive performance has shockingly met that standard. They might not force the most turnovers or closely contest every shot, but what they do is gently encourage the opposite offense to fall into a sub-optimal rhythm in the NBA’s no man’s land: the midrange.
The strategy has been explained extensively, but here are the broad strokes. In the pick and roll (the NBA’s favorite offensive action), Milwaukee’s center will drop away from the coverage and plant himself well below the three-point arc, sometimes as low as the free throw line or in the paint. There are some recent variations on this, but the main strategy fits this description.
The center’s defensive partner, whether it’s a point guard or a wing, will then almost uniformly go over the offensive screen, chasing to regain position near the ball-handler’s hip before they find an open window to pull up for three. Against the most elite shooting PGs in the world (aka Kemba Walker), this is a dangerous recipe, but against 90% of opponents this works as designed. The ball-handler wanders inside the arc and, seeing that the center is blocking any driving lane and the other defenders are simply staying home, has to make a split-decision: take the open two-point jump shot, or be patient and work the ball elsewhere.
There are a few ways where this shows up in the numbers, but the most evident is when you look at the percentage of opponents’ shots from 0-3 feet. The team was consistent under Kidd; running his system, the Bucks either allowed the most (2015, 2017) or second-most (2014, 2016) close-range shots in the league, between 32-34%. This season, that number has dipped down by twelve points, and 20.7% is the best mark in the league. It doesn’t hurt that the Bucks also lead the NBA by only allowing only 9.4 points per game in transition.
The increases in opponent’s shots inside the arc (but outside the paint) has risen as dramatically as shots at the rim have dropped. 14.1% of opponent field goals are from 10-16 feet, and 12.0% are from 16 feet to the 3-point line; these marks rank sixth and seventh in the league, respectively. And while Milwaukee’s defense does give up more threes as a percentage of overall field goals than most (38.1%, third in the NBA), this symptom was present in Kidd’s defenses as well, bu the Bucks are simply better at defending the three (35.0 3PT%, 16th in the league).
In order to score the ball, you need to have possession of the ball. It logically follows then that, in order to score the ball more, you need to have possession more. This equation is simplistic, but often times teams will chase possessions off of their own misses, whereas Budenholzer’s Bucks take the simple path and simply secure misfires of the opponent, made all the more frequent by their defensive scheme.
The system deserves a ton of credit, but no Buck has been more impactful in this area than newcomer Brook Lopez, and all RPG rebounds/game of him. Lopez’s penchant for physicality makes him one of the toughest box-out bigs in the game, and Milwaukee has skyrocketed up the defensive rebound rankings. For years, the team was content to leak out in transition and leave the rebounding responsibility up to “someone else,” but now the focus is on disciplined execution of the fundamentals.
Like with opponents’ shot profiles, this difference shows up in the numbers, too. Milwaukee’s defensive rebound rate (81.3%) is the highest it’s been in years, and just so happens to lead the league.
After years of languishing in the bottom third of the league, the Bucks have improved their pace to 103.5. The 7+ point jump puts them in the top-5 of the NBA, and has fueled the team’s offensive surge. However, increased pace is not simply instructing players to “get out and run;” rather, the new focus has been to use defensive rebounds as opportunities to push the ball over half court, and to treat time remaining on the shot clock as a suggestion as long as the shots are open.
At 15.3, the Bucks rank eight in points in transition, and they’ll always keep defensive coordinators up at night with Giannis and Bledsoe leading the charge. However, Milwaukee’s sense of urgency goes beyond fast break opportunities, as they’ve sped up their offense to take advantage of “secondary transition,” and when that doesn’t work they’re simply encouraged to fire at will, if they’re open.
So far this season, 41.1% of the Bucks’ shots take place with 15 or more seconds on the shot clock; it’s not quite the Seven Seconds or Less Phoenix Suns, but it’s pretty dang close. For comparison, Kidd’s Bucks teams hovered at around 35%. As possessions wear on, the Bucks have gotten much better at avoiding hesitation; only 14.2% of their shots go up with 7 or fewer seconds on the shot clock, whereas they averaged about 21% over the previous four seasons.
Let It Fly
For years, the Bucks’ offense was a reflection of Giannis’ game (at least under Jason Kidd): get shots near the basket, and take jumpers only if the rim is unreachable. Over the last four seasons, here are the Bucks’ three-point attempt rates, and their ranking in the league:
And today? The Bucks boast a top-end attempt rate (3PAr: 0.444, 2nd in the league), bolting from the middle of the pack to the forefront of the evolution. Among players who qualify for the “minutes played leaderboard” at basketball-reference.com, the Bucks have five players in the top-50 in 3PAr, led by (who else?) Brook Lopez (at second in the league, to Danny Green.)
I feel pretty good about this nickname for Brook Lopez: Splash Mountain.— Ugh (@2LTDiesel) November 12, 2018
Rock the Rim
Despite their newfound shooting prowess, the Bucks’ offensive strength will always be buoyed by their ability to get shots at the rim. It helps that, in their pursuit of taking the only shot more valuable than a corner-three, they have Giannis, who is tailor-made to get shots up close.
Giannis has some of the best footwork in the NBA. It's incredible how far he's come pic.twitter.com/JukPHG7rTp— Milwaukee Bucks’ Film Room (@BucksFilmRoom) November 21, 2018
Giannis for MVP?
The easy answer is “yes, of course he is!” However, we should never miss an opportunity to dive into everything that Giannis has become for Milwaukee basketball.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, who turns 24 next week, is now averaging 27 points, 13 rebounds, and 5.7 assists— Shane Young (@YoungNBA) November 25, 2018
The list of players to maintain 27-13-5 for a full season (age):
• Wilt Chamberlain (27)
• Wilt Chamberlain (29)
• Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (28)
• Elgin Baylor (26) pic.twitter.com/YAEtyWrFzO
Giannis is nothing short of a basketball revelation. Across the entire NBA, he appears on a number of leaderboards and holds elite-level ranks.
- Field Goals Made: 4th (195)
- Free Throw Attempts: 4th (167)
- Total Rebounds: 7th (247)
- Total Points: 7th (510)
- Player Efficiency Rating: 2nd (28.4)
- Win Shares per 48 Minutes: 4th (0.243)
- Value Over Replacement Player (VORP): 1st (1.8)
Who’s the Bucks next-Most Valuable Player?
At last, a question without an obvious answer. The candidates are numerous; each member of the starting lineup has a claim (some stronger than others) to this throne, and even some of the Bucks bench players have shown how important they are. This is an obvious testament to the system that Mike Budenholzer has installed, but credit is still due to the players for executing in their roles.
So I put the question to you, the readers. I don’t have an answer, but I sure would like to know yours.
Over the first 20 games, who has been the Bucks most valuable (non-Giannis) player?
This poll is closed
Other (post in the comments!)
Milwaukee might boast a top-end SoS (strength of schedule) rating over their first 20 games, but their next 20 look far less daunting. Of the teams who are currently sub-.500, Milwaukee faces off against Chicago, New York (three times), Cleveland (twice), Miami, Brooklyn, and Atlanta. They also have three contests against the notoriously-inconsistent Detroit Pistons, meaning that twelve of the Bucks’ next twenty contests ought to favor Milwaukee. Of the remaining eight, two are against Toronto, and one apiece against Boston, Indiana, Golden State, New Orleans, Utah, and Houston. If we hypothetically count games against “lesser” opponents at 75-25 odds to win, and games against tougher ones at 50-50, the Bucks could hit the halfway mark of the season with 10-game cushion above 0.500, and that’s if they significantly underperform.
There’s a world not too far from possibility where Milwaukee enters their 41st game with a 30-10 record! And over the second half of the season, the Bucks have more games against opponents with losing records than those with winning ones; this underscores how impressive and crucial the team’s early success has been. It also clearly outlines the team’s path to 50 (...60?) wins; taking care of business against teams with lesser talent, and using the system to bury more evenly-matched squads early.
As always, health will be a key factor during this next stretch. The Bucks are already struggling with blows to their depth: John Henson’s extended absence has pushed Thon Maker up in the rotation (with mixed results), and both Ersan Ilyasova and Donte DiVincenzo have missed chunks of time. Will Brook Lopez stay available to bomb threes from the center position? Can Eric Bledsoe maintain that same energy without succumbing to any nagging injuries, like earlier in his career? If the answers to these questions is positive, Milwaukee’s old #OwnTheFuture slogan might be perfectly suited to apply to this season.
What’s your perspective on the Milwaukee Bucks so far? Has their first 20 games gone better – or worse– than expected? What changes did you see that you expected, and what was unexpected? Can the team hold up this level of performance, or are there troubled waters ahead? Let us know in the comments, and we’ll see you here again after Game 41!