Pairing the phrases “Milwaukee Bucks” and “NBA Finals” has seemed incongruous for so long, the words still stick to the roof of my mouth when I try to utter them. We need not spill any more ink about Jason Kidd’s tenure, which felt akin to marching directly into the high tide. Under Coach Bud and Jon Horst’s steady reign though, the excuses to keep casting doubt on this team are receding, fast. Day after day, we are blessed to look at the NBA standings and see the Bucks perched atop, glancing downward at their competitors.
Still, the familiar refrain of disbelief is there, “They have to prove it in the Playoffs first.” Sure, but the same is true of every other Eastern Conference contender. The monkey on Toronto’s back dates to the dawn of Man. Indiana just lost their All-Star. Philadelphia is a strange stew with a wooden spoon atop the bowl hoping to prevent it from boiling over. Boston’s young guns got Playoff experience last year, but this team is an entirely new chemistry project who haven’t gelled yet.
So why not Milwaukee? I don’t feel like I’ve heard many pundits openly embrace them as Finals contenders, despite 538 giving them the second best odds in the East to get there, plus the third highest odds to win the whole thing. The odds of beating the Warriors is slim to none for almost any team, but even getting to the Finals would be a memorable enough feat for this fanbase. In that vein, I looked at the last 20 years of Finals participants to identify key performance indicators across all squads.
This is mostly in broad strokes (offensive, defensive rating; MVP-caliber player), so there are obviously a multitude of other specific factors also worth diving into. When one playoff matchup can make the difference between a team fulfilling its destiny or getting stopped short, that’s an important caveat. But this team’s measurables are ludicrous thus far, so let’s use particulars when the time comes and, for now, see how their overall ratings stack up among those that have reached the sport’s pinnacle in year’s past. (Editor’s Note: All stats are based on Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted)
High-powered regular season offenses have, unsurprisingly, been indicative of reaching the NBA’s preeminent Playoff series many times over. Particularly since the turn of the decade, every team that’s participated in the NBA Finals has been top-ten on that end of the floor. That’s a considerable change from the late 90’s to 2010, when plenty of runner-ups were able to squeak in with league average or worse offensive ratings, provided they had a stingy defense to go along with it. Again, these figures are not taking into account playoff performance, since we have no sample size of this Bucks team in that regard.
For strictly teams that have taken the title, a blazing offense has been even more prevalent. Only three times in the last 20 years has a team ranked outside the top-ten in terms of offensive rating in the regular season still won the Larry O’Brien trophy. One was the elite Detroit defensive team everyone points to as the paragon of a “team,” while the other two (Los Angeles and San Antonio) barely missed the mark at 11th. The deadly Warriors have made offense seem even more pertinent to reaching this goal in the past couple seasons.
Milwaukee has been one of the league’s most efficient teams all season, laying waste from the restricted area and flinging 3’s like trebuchets in the midst of a siege. Daryl Morey may have the perfect player for his evolutionary style, but the Bucks may have built a better team for his mutant mathematic-based scheme. The Bucks boast a legion of trigger-happy, relatively efficient shooters, while hoarding a host of impressive rim-finishers to accompany the league’s most deadly dunk demon in Giannis. Together, they’ve posted the league’s best FG% from 0-3 feet while taking the highest percentage of shots from that spot in the league. In one offseason, they have adapted to the league’s preferred style of play and are flourishing. Even with their 3-point attempts and percentage dipping a bit of late, they’ve still mustered an offense that is 0.1 points away from being top-five. Hitting this typical Finals benchmark shouldn’t be an issue.
This one is a little harder to draw conclusions from, particularly for the runner-up contestants from the past several years. LeBron James has mastered the art of the defensive rope-a-dope, with his teams taking lumps all season long before revving it up in the Playoffs. Since leaving Erik Spoelstra’s aggressive scheme in Miami, his teams have ranked 18, 10, 21 and 29 in terms of defensive rating during the regular season. It’s not that surprising that, among those seasons, the 10th ranked finish was when they actually toppled Golden State in the Finals.
Beyond LeBron’s singular talent and relaxation methods skewing the results, nearly every Champion has ranked in the top ten defensively, with the exception of last year’s Warriors team (11th) and the 2000-01 Lakers. They pulled a LeBron before it was fashionable and coasted to a 21st ranking before turning the dial to “absolute terror” in the playoffs.
In broader terms, a top-ten defense is nearly a prerequisite for both runner-ups and the champs. Toss LeBron’s last four seasons aside, and just four of the 16 second place teams ranked outside the top ten in the regular season, none worse than 13th. Several of those also counteracted average offense with elite performance on this end of the floor, a trade-off Milwaukee shouldn’t have to worry about given their humming on both sides of the hardwood. In fact, there might even be a slightly stronger correlation with boasting an insane, shutdown defense than a high-flying offense. Twelve of the last 20 Champs ranked in the top-five of defensive rating, while only ten hit that same bar offensively. This also seems to be the year defense died though, so historical data may not be the finest benchmark in this regard.
The Bucks currently rate out as the league’s best team on the defensive end. They’ve done it despite giving up the most 3-point attempts to opponents too, which does lead to an intriguing query when it comes to Playoff time and the probability of such high variance shots not going Milwaukee’s way for a seven game series. However, they cover-up that zit a bit by allowing the fewest percentage of shots at the rim to opponents, while holding them to the worst shooting percentage in the league from that prime paint spot. A more minute observation is that they’re only allowing the 15th highest percentage of corner threes, a notoriously sore spot under Bud during his time in Atlanta. With opponents shooting just the 21st best percentage from deep (per Cleaning the Glass), there could be some mean reversion coming, but Milwaukee isn’t an astronomical outlier to this point.
Returning to the original point of variance though, that shooting percentage could swing wildly if they get another stretch of teams hitting season best’s from deep against them. Seven (or less) games is such a small sample in the Playoffs. Personally, this is what scares me most about their possibilities of reaching the Finals.
Everyone knows this one, if your team doesn’t have an MVP, your chances of winning are almost null. I severely doubt we’ll ever see a team constructed like that 2003-04 Pistons team take a title for some time. Otherwise, you have a parade of all-timers: Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, LeBron, Stephen Curry, Dirk Nowitzki on these squads.
For mere participants, the early aughts didn’t require a player quite at an MVP-level, but there was also a seeming talent deficiency in the league post-MJ. The Indiana Pacers and New York Knicks certainly benefited from that, but the New Jersey Nets and Philadelphia 76ers had guys like Jason Kidd or Allen Iverson leading the way. Besides another Pistons appearance, Dwight’s Orlando team is the only other runner-up who didn’t have a past or future MVP in the ranks.
Giannis may have slipped behind James Harden in the MVP narrative, but I think it could swing back his way before season’s end. Chris Paul will return to lighten Harden’s massive workload (and subsequent eye-candy stats for voters), while Giannis represents fresh blood, another typical catnip for ballot-holders. Giannis’ two-way contribution will hopefully get some recognition too. Even if he misses out this year, there’s a pretty strong sense he’ll win this award at some point in his career. Another benchmark cleared.
Compared to the rest of the East, the Bucks may have a slight edge in this regard, but I’m not discounting the fact the other contenders have MVP candidates of their own. Kawhi, Kyrie and Embiid all have valid arguments to be in the conversation, not to mention the fact Kawhi and Kyrie have Finals heroics on their resume, but there’s also a reason Giannis is leading the pack at the moment. When it comes to the Playoffs, the “best player in the series wins” rule often applies.
Bumbled Despite Some Bona Fides
If there’s one thing I definitely learned with this research, it’s that only two teams can make the Finals every year. With that in mind, I stumbled upon plenty of teams that had many of the same statistical accolades the Bucks can tout, but missed out on making it to the Finals. During nine of these past 20 seasons, there has been a team that’s ranked in the top five in both offensive and defensive rating for the whole season, yet failed to reach the Finals. Here they are in order, with the subsequent rationale for what went wrong:
- 2017-18 Toronto Raptors (No one near MVP-caliber; Raptor curse)
- 2015-16 San Antonio Spurs (Facing Thunder at peak of their powers, far more fearsome than any East team this year)
- 2012-13 Oklahoma City Thunder (Russell Westbrook injury)
- 2011-12 Chicago Bulls (D-Rose injury)
- 2009-10 Orlando Magic (Boston’s Big Three’s last gasp at greatness, nothing to be too ashamed of)
- 2008-09 Cleveland Cavaliers (The darkest timeline for this Bucks team, supporting cast is just a bunch of typical pumpkins and Giannis is Linus)
- 2006-07 Dallas Mavericks (Baron Davis and crew embarrass Dirk)
- 2005-06 Detroit Pistons (Not sure anyone was stopping Wade/Shaq that year)
- 1999-00 Portland Trailblazers (Took Lakers to 7 in WCF)
Which of these teams do you fear is most analogous to the Bucks? I mentioned the Cavs as the scariest, but LeBron’s supporting cast feels woefully inadequate compared to this Bucks team. At a glance, I’m not sure any of these teams feel that similar. Perhaps the 2006-07 Dallas Mavericks given their incredible success that season, plus Dirk taking home his first MVP award only to fall flat on his face. But he had also been to the NBA Finals the year prior. I see more similarities in the NBA Finals runner-ups than these, which gives me a bit more optimism.
The Final Line
However you try and delineate these superlative teams from others, there are clear trends that emerge. The promising sign is that the Bucks tick most of those boxes. The fear is whether those trends can continue up to and through the Playoffs. We won’t have an answer to that until April, but this team hasn’t given us reason yet to doubt they’ll dip in one category or another. Despite taking team’s best punches from deep most nights, Milwaukee has still been able to topple many of the league’s best clubs, including the Warriors, Nuggets, Raptors, Rockets and Celtics. The matchup with the Raptors should be another proper proving ground for this team.
Adaptability is a more subjective criteria, but I think there’s a clear malleability with Bud’s squad that complements the rigidity with which he’s instituted his principles. The team understands the core of his offensive principles, and shifts their focus night-to-night depending on what the other team might allow or what’s humming for them. Defensively, they’ve adhered more to Bud’s set system, but the victory against Charlotte showed the Bucks have a switchable scheme for when teams inevitably go small to chase Brook Lopez off the court. Additionally, even with the franchise’s Playoff woes, I think there’s a level of experience some may be discounting with this squad.
For anyone who thinks Giannis may be stifled without a jump shot in the Playoffs, consider that Brad Stevens, considered one of the finest defensive minds in the game, couldn’t do squat to stop him last year. Some have suggested Oklahoma City may have provided a blueprint to stopping Giannis in the Bucks’ loss to them. FYI - that blueprint “held” Giannis to 27 points and 18 rebounds. Bledsoe took his lumps last year and seems more comfortable in his skin than ever. Khris Middleton shed lingering questions about his playoff capability by turning into Johnny Storm. Guys like Giannis, Middleton and Snell have several years of playoff experience together, complemented by the veteran presence of George Hill, Brook Lopez, Pat Connaughton and Ersan Ilyasova (who admittedly does seem quite washed).
My mind drifts towards that Orlando Magic squad that made the five-out style fashionable. Bud’s taken Stan Van Gundy’s sound system and supercharged it with Giannis at the helm. Sporting a quality supporting cast built to fire away around Dwight’s presence down low, Rashard Lewis, Mickael Pietrus could launch at will. Hedo Turkoglu could create offense when needed. They had a steady diet of wings to switch in. The East only had a few top teams to grapple with. It doesn’t seem that far-fetched to see a similar ascent from this Bucks squad.
Milwaukee is coming off two straight seasons where they’ve pushed top Eastern Conference playoff teams to some of their most strenuous series. Yes, both of those teams eventually caved under the weight of LeBron’s All-Time status, but the King is gone. The Eastern Conference crown is available and the Bucks are pounding on the doors of the throne room. All Giannis has to do is take it.
Editor’s note: S/o to Lohaus Fan for pointing out I’m a bimbo and forgot Shaq was on Dwyane Wade’s championship team, ergo it did have an MVP.