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Last 10, Next 10: Bucks January Update

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The Milwaukee Bucks are 9-2 in their last 10 11 games.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Milwaukee Bucks Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

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. The goal is that this approach helps us better digest the slog of the NBA calendar. In case you missed out, the first entry from November is here, the second entry from earlier in December is here, and our holiday season entry is here. Unless otherwise noted, all stats are from basketball-reference.com, as of Sunday, January 12.


Bucks’ Season To-Date

Record: 35-6 (1st in Eastern Conference, 1st in NBA)

Offensive Rating: 113.6 (3rd in NBA)

Defensive Rating: 101.9 (1st in NBA)

Simple Rating System: 11.18 (1st in NBA)


Bucks’ Last 10 11

Schedule:

December 22 – vs. Indiana Pacers (W, 117-89)

December 25 – @ Philadelphia 76ers (L, 121-109)

December 27 – @ Atlanta Hawks (W, 112-86)

December 28 – vs. Orlando Magic (W, 111-100)

December 30 – @ Chicago Bulls (W, 123-102)

January 1 – vs. Minnesota Timberwolves (W, 106-104)

January 4 – vs. San Antonio Spurs (W, 127-118)

January 6 – @ San Antonio Spurs (L, 126-104)

January 8 – @ Golden State Warriors (W, 107-98)

January 10 – @ Sacramento Kings (W, 127-106)

January 11 – @ Portland Trail Blazers (W, 122-101)

Notes:

4 home games, 7 away games

5 Eastern Conference matchups, 2 division matchups

Combined opponent W/L: 176-252 (0.411 win%)

Net Rating (nba.com/stats): +9.6 (2nd in NBA); 2.1 points lower than season average (+11.7)

GIF of the Bucks’ Last 10 11:

Two losses within ten games! Sound the alarms, this is worse than when the Bucks lost three games to start the year!

Oh, it’s not? Okay. Carry on then.

There simply isn’t much about this Milwaukee Bucks team that’s going poorly. Giannis Antetokounmpo continues to build his case for repeating as the league’s MVP, and the only thing he’s truly struggled with is lower back soreness (even if it hasn’t hampered his wrasslin’ performances). Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe have each rounded into form while recovering from their respective injuries, and now that they are it presents a unique strength for the Bucks when they’re all having a good night:

Brook Lopez has been shooting poorly, sure. Donte DiVincenzo is not shooting much better, but both he and Splash Mountain have been wreaking havoc on defense. D.J. Wilson and Sterling Brown have played less than they might like, but that’s largely because most of the veterans have been performing relatively well. Ersan Ilyasova has hit a slump, but Wes Matthews and Kyle Korver have been pretty steady. George Hill is still unconscious, and Robin Lopez has very much been himself. The roster that Jon Horst and Mike Budenholzer built over the summer continues to win at a higher rate than last year’s 60-win season, which is a tough act to follow.

The thing everybody worries about, and rightfully so, is how the Bucks can be exposed in high-pressure situations and/or against high-quality opponents. Essentially, the Bucks are criticized as “pretenders” because they got pantsed on Christmas Day (in a game where Giannis played terribly and the Sixers made six more threes than they have in any other game this year). Specifically, the concern is that other teams can exploit the Bucks’ willingness to concede threes (in the interest of protecting the rim), introducing a higher degree of variance from game to game and making the opportunities for an upset that much higher. This dynamic reared its ugly head in the second Spurs game as well, so there’s something there, right?

So, let’s take a look at that. I exported the Bucks’ game logs (from basketball-reference.com) for the first half of the season and sorted them based on their margin of victory. With only six losses, I chose to expand the definition of “bad” games and split things up by grouping together games the Bucks had won by 10 or more points as “good,” and games they won by 9 or fewer (or lost outright) as “bad.” I also created ranges to consider outlier performances: any team stat that was a full standard deviation (st.dev. from here on out, for space’s sake) higher or lower than the average was counted, to determine where the risky areas are. This was useful to consider not just what games the Bucks lost, but what games they could lose, to determine what circumstances are present (and therefore which ones we should worry about). Here are some of the interesting results.

  • The standard deviations between the Bucks’ field goal percentage (0.048) and that of their opponents (0.050) is nearly identical, but the Bucks are consistently much better in terms of efficiency than their opponents. The range within one st.dev. from their average FG% that Milwaukee sits in is way higher than the teams they play.

When a game falls into the orange shaded area, the Bucks are in trouble. I call it the Danger Zone! because it’s legitimately the most realistic path opposing teams have to actually beat Milwaukee. I mentioned it on Twitter after the 30-game mark, and I’m not the only one to have made this observation, but the Bucks generally don’t lose when each team shoots close to their averages. Rather, the opponent has to be scorching hot, and Milwaukee has to be freezing cold. The Danger Zone! is shorthand for when those conditions are in play, and the correlation is taking shape.

Of the Bucks’ ten “worst” performances this season (four games won by 5 or fewer points, and six losses), they’ve had a FG% below their average in eight of them. And of those eight, five games fall into the Danger Zone!, including four of their six losses on the season. It’s no coincidence that Milwaukee has literally no other games this season that qualify as in the Danger Zone!, which is a large part of what makes them a historically good team. It’s not often that the stars align in such a specific pattern, and even when they do it’s not a guaranteed L.

  • The level of variance in three-point shooting is (obviously) higher across the league, and it’s the key to having any hope of besting the Bucks; Milwaukee’s st.dev. on 3PT% is 0.064, and opponents’ is 0.069. Other teams are on far more advantageous ground when comparing the expected range of outcomes from beyond the arc, because there’s just more wiggle room. This Danger Zone! is simply much larger and, because three-point shooting has a fairly high degree of luck involved, more likely to have an impact on the outcome of the game in a smaller sample (like, say, a playoff series).

Furthermore, because the Bucks have actually performed relatively poorly in terms of accuracy this season, the Danger Zone! basically encompasses the entire chart. Live by the three, die by the three, indeed, and the Bucks have indeed been living dangerously over the last 11 games. Since December 22, Milwaukee has gone 137/418 (0.328) from deep, while allowing 156/426 (0.366) from range. Generally, when spotting a 4+% advantage to the opponent, you’re going to be in dire straights.

And yet Milwaukee still won 9 of those 11 games.


Bucks’ Next 10

Schedule:

January 14 – vs. New York Knicks (10-29)

January 16 – vs. Boston Celtics (26-11)

January 18 – @ Brooklyn Nets (17-20)

January 20 – vs. Chicago Bulls (14-26)

January 24 – @ Charlotte Hornets (15-26) (in Paris, France!)

January 28 – vs. Washington Wizards (13-25)

January 31 – vs. Denver Nuggets (26-12)

February 2 – vs. Phoenix Suns (15-23)

February 4 – @ New Orleans Pelicans (14-26)

February 6 – vs. Philadelphia 76ers (25-15)

Notes:

7 home games, 3 away games

8 Eastern Conference matchups, 1 divisional matchup

Combined opponent W/L: 175-213 (0.451 win%)

GIF of the Bucks’ Next 10:

There are three major tests on the schedule for this upcoming dectet of games: Denver comes visiting from the West, and both Boston and Philly from the east. The upshot? Each of these games – and four others! – happens at Fiserv Forum, where the Bucks have a decided advantage; they carry an 18-2 record at home so far this season.

Unlike the .gif, just because they’re spending time at home doesn’t mean the Bucks can relax. As we noted earlier, Milwaukee will need to maintain their composure even against road-weary competition to keep themselves out of the Danger Zone! The schedule is friendly in this regard; of the 10 opponents coming up, only one of them shoots above the Milwaukee-allowed average rate of 0.366 (New Orleans, seventh in the league at 0.367).

As an additional point of interest, the NBA trade deadline is Thursday, February 6, which lines up with the very end of this 10-game set. As it stands, the Bucks are firmly in win-now mode and have only a moderate stockpile of valuable assets to work with (mostly by way of the Indiana Pacers picks surrendered in the Malcolm Brogdon offseason sign-and-trade). At the same time, the Bucks are currently on a 70-win pace and could easily subscribe to the mantra of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Maybe Jon Horst comes across a deal that’s too good to pass up. But one thing is for sure: these Bucks ain’t broken.