The Milwaukee Bucks (remember them?) still hold the best record in the NBA this year. But ever since the season was placed on hiatus on March 11 due to COVID-19, the Bucks are doing the same as all of their competitors: waiting. These dates are coming up, but they’re still a ways away:
Sources: NBA's expected restart dates:— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) June 12, 2020
- July 30-Aug. 14: Seeding games
- Aug.15-16: Play-in tournaments
- Aug. 17: Playoffs begin
- Aug. 30: Family/guests of teams arrive
- Aug. 31-Sept. 13: Conf. Semifinals
- Sept. 15-Sept. 28: Conf. Finals
- Sept. 30-Oct. 13: NBA Finals
Sure, players will work out and stay ready, but no matter how many runs you take or pull-ups you rip through, there’s no substitute for actual court time with your teammates, which has been in short supply (thanks coronavirus!). Everyone has been off, resting and recovering, and at least trying to keep in shape. When the doors reopen, the goal of every team will be to reacclimate themselves to the sport, their strategies and rotations, and how to work together cohesively. Sounds almost like training camp, no?
So let’s try looking at it that way, if things actually go through and the comeback efforts aren’t cut short.. For the Bucks and their likely Eastern Conference competition, let’s compare where they were in mid-March to where they started the season from (back in October), to see if we can glean anything about how these teams might look as they shake off the rust and put their eyes back on the prize. We’ll start with our squad, and look at the competition in a later installment.
When the season stopped...
Bucks’ Record: 6-4 (last 10 games)
Offensive Rating: 112.6 (7th in NBA)
Defensive Rating: 101.9 (1st in NBA)
Milwaukee was in a bit of a flux period when play stopped in March. With a healthy lead over Toronto for control of the Eastern Conference, and a similarly-sized lead over the Lakers for home court advantage throughout the playoffs. While the standings might be the same today, the rut the Bucks found themselves in is unlikely to carry over: Milwaukee had lost three straight (and four of their last five) leading up to the hiatus.
There are lots of different ways you could look at analyzing the Bucks’ poor finish to the season’s second act, like the number of threes their opponents made or how the Bucks were out-rebounded in all four losses. But in my view of things, only two things jump out: First, Milwaukee was on the road for all four losses against good teams (at Miami on a SEGABABA, and then Los Angeles/Phoenix/Denver over the span of four days). Anytime the home team has a rest advantage, anybody is going to struggle, even the league-best Bucks. Second, Giannis Antetokounmpo missed the last two games after tweaking his knee versus the Lakers in what was initially a scary injury situation.
Furthermore, the Bucks clearly punted in their last pre-shutdown game against the Nuggets, as Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, and Donte DiVincenzo all scored DNPs on the stat sheet.
All that considered, the Bucks were still the NBA’s standard-bearer, and boasted the league’s best defense by a significant margin (the Raptors and Lakers, second and third in the league, each had Defensive Ratings that were more than 3 points below the Bucks’ mark of 101.9). Milwaukee was, at the time of the stoppage, the league’s 18th best defense (by DRtg) of the last decade, and the best since the 15-16 San Antonio Spurs (third-best of the 2010s at 99.0) and the 15-16 Atlanta Hawks (coached by Mike Budenholzer!).
The offense, though, had slipped. A lot. In the last 10 games of the season (per NBA.com/Stats), the Bucks were dead-last in offensive rating at 105.8. They were a full point behind the Charlotte Hornets, and nearly seven points (6.8) below their own average on the season (a much more healthy 112.6). Most likely, this was a short-term slump that coincided with Giannis’ minor injury and some strategic rest for veterans during a dense portion of the schedule.
When the season started...
Bucks’ Record: 7-3 (first 10 games)
Offensive Rating: 111.2 (4th in NBA)
Defensive Rating: 103.7 (9th in NBA)
The early season iteration of the Milwaukee Bucks look a bit different than where they left off. The defense had not yet found its footing, and the offense was productive but shaky. Much of this was due to the tough slate the Bucks faced: their first fortnight of the season included matchups with Houston, Miami, Boston, and Toronto, and then immediately moved into a four-game West Coast road trip in early November. Continuity certainly helped push Milwaukee over the hump when they needed it, and their 10th game of the season kicked off their now-famous 18-game winning streak.
Another problem that plagued the Bucks early on was their reliance on three-point shooting, and how badly their featured shooters were shooting. Brook Lopez, Robin Lopez, Eric Bledsoe, Wes Matthews, Pat Connaughton, and Ersan Ilyasova were all shooting 33% or worse from deep. From November, when the Bucks’ 3PAr was 0.458 (second in the league) and fell to 0.423 in March (still fourth in the league, but 6.5 points lower):
That long-ball reliance introduces a higher degree of variance in the team’s offensive output, which directly led to two of the Bucks’ three losses (Boston and Miami) both games where the Bucks had significant leads evaporate due to cold second-half shooting. The defense has also been worthy of critique, but the team’s accuracy feels more to blame. It’s reasonable to expect that at least some of these shooting numbers will normalize and work themselves out as the season progresses...which is encouraging if the Bucks are already winning 70% of their games!
As expected, these shooting numbers did normalize: currently, only Splash Mountain and Planet Pat are below the 33% mark, while George Hill, Khris Middleton, and Kyle Korver are now each north of 40%.
This is a somewhat-reasonable analogue to what we might expect from the Bucks in August and beyond. The team is obviously comfortable with one another already (hooray for continuity!), and the lengthy layoff affected each team to the same degree. The conditions are equally difficult for everybody, so even though it’s weird, it’s the same level of weird. The NBA essentially was granted an impromptu offseason, with the rough equivalent of a bulked-up preseason schedule leading into the playoffs. The early-season Bucks are probably the type of team you can expect to represent Milwaukee this summer, which is far from the worst-case scenario.