Welcome back to Last 10, Next 10, a feature we plan on posting over the course of the Milwaukee Bucks’ regular season and (hopefully) lengthy playoff run. With 82 games, this should run eight times before the postseason comes around, where we’ll review the team’s last 10 games and the next 10 games. Hopefully this approach helps us better digest the slog of the NBA calendar. In case you missed out, the first entry from November is here. Unless otherwise noted, all stats are from basketball-reference.com, as of Sunday, December 1.
Bucks’ Season To-Date
Record: 17-3 (1st in Eastern Conference, 2nd in NBA)
Offensive Rating: 113.4 (3rd in NBA)
Defensive Rating: 103.2 (4th in NBA)
Strength of Schedule: -0.74 (23rd in NBA)
Simple Rating System: 10.06 (1st in NBA)
Bucks’ Last 10
6 home games, 4 away games
8 Eastern Conference matchups, 5 division matchups
Combined opponent W/L: 71-126 (0.360 win%)
GIF of the Bucks’ Last 10:
We knew that the Bucks would have a feast leading up to the Thanksgiving holiday, but nobody quite expected this level of gluttony. It did take a 50 burger (h/t to Kane Pitman) from Giannis Antetokounmpo to get past the Jazz (and exact revenge for the Bucks’ lone November loss in Salt Lake City), and there were some tough moments against the Hawks and Cavs, but this team has simply devoured everyone in their path. And Giannis is somehow still improving.
And while the slate of opponents was pretty weak, the Bucks weren’t at full strength! With Khris Middleton missing eight games and George Hill missing two, Mike Budenholzer had fewer options recently to create effective lineup groupings with. Fortunately, Milwaukee’s depth on the wing was able to fill in the gaps. Much like with Malcolm Brogdon, it’s not reasonable to expect analogous replication of Middleton’s All Star-level production from a committee. But as we covered before, the Bucks aren’t trying to replicate anything that’s missing; they have slightly adjusted their offense to better fit the roster, rather than asking too much of any one player.
The three players most responsible for the Bucks’ ability to not miss a beat over the last 10 games are Wesley Matthews, Donte DiVincenzo, and Sterling Brown. These three wings have been hugely impactful over this timeframe; per NBA.com, the net ratings of Matthews (+14.0), Donte (+19.1), and Sterling (+26.0) are all indicators of their positive effect. In fact, among players who have averaged at least 20+ minutes over their last 10 games, Sterling ranks first and Donte third in the entire league. (Giannis, at +16.5, is sixth.)
Some fans might notice that Pat Connaughton and Kyle Korver haven’t come up in this conversation; the easy answer is that they haven’t consistently produced positive results. Korver is of course still shooting the lights out of the ball, and Connaughton continues to make his presence felt as a rebounder and surprise shot-blocker, but both have had trouble keeping up on defense. With Korver, the reasoning is simple: he’s old and possibly washed up. For Connaughton, though, his trademark athleticism continues to fuel highlights...while also taking him out of plays when his leaps don’t end in deflections.
Another contribution worth recognizing is Brook Lopez and his efforts on defense. While his shooting has still been tepid (attempting 8.6 threes per 100, down from 10.2 last year, but converting only 28.9%), his ability to protect the rim has been even better than we’re accustomed to. For Milwaukee, Brook has put up 4.1 blocks per 100 possessions while leading the Bucks’ defense to the fourth best defensive rating (103.2). He’s a big reason why the Bucks allow the league’s lowest FG% on 2-pointers (0.449). What’s more is that, per NBA.com/Stats, other teams are attempting only 27.0 shots within 5 feet (1st in the league) and opponents make only 50.6% of those attempts (1st in the league). Maybe Brook will get recognized this season for it; when asked about Lopez’s (lack of) accolades after last week’s win over the Jazz, here’s what Giannis had to say:
“I was really shocked last year that he wasn’t in the three teams...First defensive team, but second or third? That’s supposed to be a guarantee. He’s defending the paint, whoever drives the ball, whenever our defense breaks down, he’s always there. He won us the game with the big block at the end. He did that all year last year, he’s doing it all year this year, so I don’t see any reason why he shouldn’t be considered one of the fifteen best defensive players in the league.”
If you insist on having something to worry about, you could point to the Bucks’ system and how they permit limited opportunities at the rim at the expense of allowing dangerous ones from behind the arc. Did you look at the schedule above and wonder why Milwaukee had “only” four double-digit victories? A partial reason for that is opponent three-point shooting, and how that high-variance game will come back to bite the Bucks often enough.
As you can see from the chart above, the only team the Bucks defended well from three-point land was the Detroit Pistons. Everyone else converted a significant number more of their threes; opponents increased their makes by about twice as much (28.5% on average) as they increased their takes (14.8% on average). This is a part of the zone drop package; Bucks defenders (except maybe Pat Connaughton) are not selling out to hold the line from three, they are working to cut off driving lanes, avoiding fouling, and keeping rim attempts to a bare minimum.
So is the trade-off worth it? Is sealing off the rim and limiting free throw opportunities worth risking huge swings from behind the arc? At least in the regular season, the question seems silly and the answer (Yes! They’re 17-3!) obvious. In the playoffs, where variance in a single game can absolutely turn the momentum of a series, things are less clear. However, variance (in theory) works in favor of the Bucks at times too; they’re most likely to lose when their opponent is hot and Milwaukee is cold. How often will those conditions be in place?
But even beyond that, the defense is simply not worth worrying about right now, even if the Bucks give up tons of threes. Successful offenses get their points in efficient ways: at the rim, from the line, and behind the arc. Successful defenses cut off as much of those paths as they can, but we’ve seen what happens when a team tries to take away everything – they take away nothing. It’s far more realistic to accept a weakness in one place in order to exert strength in two, and with the way basketball is played it only makes sense to focus on taking away shots at the rim and avoiding fouling to limit free throw opportunities. You might say that it argues results over process...but there is a method to the Bucks’ defensive madness, and quite frankly the results are inarguable at this point.
Bucks’ Next 10
December 2 – vs. New York Knicks (4-15)
December 4 – at Detroit Pistons (6-13)
December 6 – vs. Los Angeles Clippers (14-6)
December 9 – vs. Orlando Magic (7-11)
December 11 – vs. New Orleans Pelicans (6-13)
December 13 – at Memphis Grizzlies (5-13)
December 14 – vs. Cleveland Cavaliers (5-14)
December 16 – vs. Dallas Mavericks (12-6)
December 19 – vs. Los Angeles Lakers (17-2)
December 21 – at New York Knicks (4-15)
7 home games, 3 away games
5 Eastern Conference matchups, 2 division matchups
Combined opponent W/L: 80-108 (0.426 win%)
- Combined opp. W/L (Eastern Conference): 22-53 (0.293 win%)
- Combined opp. W/L (Western Conference): 54-40 (0.574 win%)
GIF of the Bucks’ Next 10:
This upcoming slate dials up the difficulty for Milwaukee just a bit, making it fortunate that the Bucks have so many home games in the immediate future. Even luckier is that the three of the most difficult tests coming out of the West (both LA teams and the Luka-led Mavs) are also at home, giving Milwaukee as good of a shot as could be imagined at pushing this win streak to impressive lengths.
If their victory streak is snapped, the Bucks are still primed to rack up more wins in this next section of the season. Even with the availability of Sterling Brown (shoulder) and Kyle Korver (elbow) in question, Khris Middleton is working his way back and will be at full strength again soon. Milwaukee is at the point where they should be favored in 90% of the games that they play...and in hindsight they really haven’t been anywhere else for the past year or so (with the conference finals being a notable exception).
Additionally, the Cavaliers, Pelicans, and Grizzlies are all developing teams, the Knicks are on the schedule twice and are as bad as advertised, and the Pistons and Magic are talented but inconsistent. At their current level, the Bucks could go 7-3 and look at such a performance as a disappointment. They could enter the Christmas Day game against the Philadelphia 76ers with 25 wins to their name, and that prospect is not easily dismissed. There are some tests coming up, but this team is demonstrating that they are not just up to the challenge of following up last year’s 60-win campaign, but they just might exceed those expectations as well.