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Why So Serious? The Bucks’ Historic Start...and Fans’ Harried Response

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The Bucks are better than they’ve ever been, but fans seem dissatisfied with their performance.

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at New York Knicks Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Here are a collection of facts about the present-day Milwaukee Bucks:

  • They are 15-7 on the season, and currently hold second place in the Eastern Conference (behind the 20-5 Toronto Raptors).
  • Only five teams have more wins than the Bucks (the Raptors and 76ers, and the Clippers, Nuggets, and Warriors out West).
  • As of today per basketball-reference.com, no team has a higher margin of victory, SRS rating, Offensive Rating, defensive rebound rate, or effective field goal percentage.
  • They are second in true shooting percentage, three-point attempt rate, fourth in pace, sixth in Defensive Rating, and still ninth in strength of schedule.
  • Their current winning percentage (0.681) puts them on pace for 55 wins, is the ninth-highest in franchise history, and would be the highest since the 1985-86 season.

Yet, despite their current status as the most successful Milwaukee Bucks squad in many fans’ lifetimes, a significant portion of Bucks fans are not happy with how this season has gone. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the Eastern Conference Player of the Month (again) and a bona fide MVP candidate, but you wouldn’t know it if you logged on to #BucksTwitter on the wrong day. There has historically been a decent amount of anger in our fanbase, and that anger persists with some fans still today.

What’s the deal? There’s clearly a disconnect with how the team is doing and how many fans are feeling. Why? Some part of it is the appearance of old habits refusing to die; in the case of this season, the habit of playing up or down to the level of an opponent. The Jason Kidd-era Bucks were infamous for this maddening inconsistency, and they’ve lost games because of it twice (so far) this year: beat at the buzzer by the Phoenix Suns, and bombed from three by the New York Knicks. These are bad losses, and they arguably shouldn’t have happened.

Going with that argument even further, any loss is a bad loss for a team that has an Expected Win-Loss record two games better than where they are, or an Expected Winning Percentage that tops the NBA by a significant margin. Especially when that team has what (might be) a short window with their current core group; besides Giannis, all of the starters are effectively in a contract year, and the Milwaukee Bucks may not (or perhaps should not?) shell out the dough to pay them. Every game matters, no loss should be tolerated! Big wins happen, but winning on the margins is what pushes a team from good to great!

As an aside, that’s a funny thing about margins, when it comes to victory or defeat. It has long been a known fact (or perhaps a “forum fact”) that a team’s record in close games largely comes down to luck. This season, the Bucks have been anything but lucky; in games decided by 5 points or less, the Bucks are 2-6. What’s more, their 15-point drubbing in Portland makes up nearly half of their total margin of defeat; in their other six losses, they’ve only been outscored by a combined 16 points! That bad luck has to equal out sometime, right?

But then again, they also ended up down by double digits to the woeful Chicago Bulls (twice!), and a six-shot offensive possession came up empty when the game was still in reach against the Charlotte Hornets. Execution matters! These things shouldn’t happen for a team that has postseason aspirations beyond sneaking into the playoffs!

However, while the (occasional) results are the same, the process is undoubtedly changed from seasons past. In no way is this clearer than the team’s complete 180-degree turnaround on three-pointers; after languishing in the bottom-third of the league for years, Milwaukee now hoists up long range shots second only to the MoreyBall Houston Rockets.

“Live by the three, die by the three.” That’s the response you’ll sometimes get from fans that are somewhat quicker to accept losses than others. And they’re right: in wins, the Bucks hit 37.5% of their threes and allow only 32.3% (while putting up 5.0 more attempts than opponents), and in losses Milwaukee makes 33.0% of their threes while allowing a whopping 43.3% (while putting up only 3.5 more attempts than opponents). This is a massive swing when comparing the Bucks’ make rate to opponents; going from +5.2% on makes in wins to -10.3% on makes in losses leaves an awfully small margin of error elsewhere in a game.

But if we look at the team holistically, fans’ ire comes from something much deeper than three-point percentage disparity or scoring margins. The Milwaukee Bucks are now a target in the NBA, but they’re not acting like it.

Think about it. In past seasons, the team would get hyped for a marquee matchup to the point where they could overcome terrible coaching and an archaic system. That’s how 24-1 happens. But this time around, the Bucks are that team! Milwaukee is a game to be circled on the calendar now, universally. The Suns and Knicks of the world are eager to prove that they can hang with a top NBA team, and the Raptors and Sixers of the world want to get one up on a competitor.

This is a new place to be, both for the Bucks and for Bucks fans. We know that the team is vastly improved, but we don’t yet know if our expectations are too lenient or too stringent. It’s easy to demand excellence; if you’re right, you get to enjoy success, and if you’re wrong, you get to preach about What Should Have Been. Our pie-in-the-sky vision is that this team can compete here, now, and in June, and that they should conduct themselves accordingly.

Fortunately, the Bucks are the ones in control of the narrative, not us. They can put that to bed by taking the initiative to exorcise what demons they might have. And from the sound of it...

...things ought to turn out okay in Milwaukee.