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Do Call It a Comeback: Bucks’ Strengths and Weaknesses Ahead of Restart

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Milwaukee returns to play against Boston in the bubble on July 31.

2020 NBA Restart - All Access Practice Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images

Time marches onward, slowly but surely, and the resumption of the Milwaukee Bucks’ season inches closer, even if the coronavirus pandemic makes such achievements seem impossible. Much like with our July kickoff article, the target audience for this post is the casual NBA fan who’s just now getting reacclimated to the league. Diehards are the regulars at Brew Hoop, and they’ll be in the comments to add even more perspective to what we’re about to get into. But no matter what, if you’re here, you have interest in the Bucks’ prospects in the Orlando bubble, and we’ve got you covered. Here are the answers to some of your top questions:

What do they need to do to make the Finals?

Of all the teams with a legitimate opportunity to make it to the championship round, Milwaukee has the easiest path by far. The Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers are equally formidable candidates, but since they share the Western Conference, they share the slate of possible opponents (which in general are more potent than their Eastern counterparts), and in all likelihood they’ll have to go through each other. The Bucks, on the other hand, have the inside track on the league’s best record, and a first round opponent that is not expected to put up much resistance.

In short, the Bucks can make the NBA Finals if they stick to the script. “Dance with the one who brought you” is a cliche, but sometimes cliches are cliches for a reason; Milwaukee is the NBA’s best team by several different metrics, and it’s not like COVID-19 changed the regular season dominance that Milwaukee has trademarked for the past 18 months. The pandemic also hasn’t changed Giannis Antetokounmpo’s status as the league’s Most Valuable Player, and yet-unrecognized top dog in the whole sport. Provided that they stay healthy (both in terms of physical injuries and avoiding viral exposure within the bubble), the Bucks are the safest bet to represent the Eastern Conference.

What impact did the hiatus have on the team?

Nobody could have planned for this. The past four months (has it really been four months?!) have been the most bizarre in most people’s recent experience, and one of the defining features of a pandemic is that it’s everywhere. As a result, everyone is affected equally, but not everyone had equal standing when the shutdown first started.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: Eric Bledsoe tested positive for COVID-19, meaning the Bucks currently have questions regarding the availability of their All-Defensive team point guard. Ditto for Pat Connaughton, who has a slightly less important role. Otherwise, the Bucks have everyone else available and fully healthy, which will test the strength of their reputation as one of the league’s deepest teams before the season went on hiatus.

If you want to look at silver linings, look no further than Giannis’ knees. For the past two seasons, Giannis had been managing knee soreness, and right before the shutdown he suffered a scary (but ultimately minor) knee injury against the Lakers. After four months? He’s healthy, alright.

But silver linings don’t exist in a vacuum, and neither does the ability to use seventeen weeks of downtime to rest and recover. Milwaukee had managed to achieve dominance over their opponents over the regular season while still effectively managing the minutes distribution for the pillars of their rotation. Head coach Mike Budenholzer was well-known for prioritizing rest over regular season wins, in order to maintain freshness and avoid fatigue in the postseason. Under normal circumstances, this would have been a massive advantage. These are not normal circumstances, and the Bucks’ leg-up over the competition effectively evaporated into the ether, since everybody is now well-rested. Ah, the best laid plans...

How will Milwaukee react to playing at an empty, neutral site?

No matter what, the first games of the restart are going to be weird. Guys in the NBA likely haven’t played an officiated game without a crowd present since middle school, and a major part of the playoff atmosphere is the noise and energy generated by the crowd. The absence of fans will be jarring, to say the least, but Milwaukee is pretty well situated to navigate that particular moment.

The main reason for that is Mike Budenholzer. Coach Bud is as consistent as they come, and he and his staff exude a certain reliability, which translates to the players on the court. This team is steady, and their mantra (“get better every day”) is unchanged, regardless of if games are played in Fiserv Forum or ESPN’s Wide World of Sports. This team is not only well-built, but has a high level of continuity, which is reassuring for anybody worried about how they will respond to a lack of fans in the stands.

On top of all that, they boast a 28-3 record at home, and are 25-9 on the road. Even if you consider each and every game in Orlando a road game for each team (which wouldn’t be unfair, even for the Orlando Magic), the Bucks have the second-best away record in the league (behind only the Lakers, at 26-6).

What’s their biggest strength?

With a team as good as the juggernaut that is the Milwaukee Bucks, we can’t limit it to just one thing. But their excellence starts and ends with their defense. At 101.9 (per basketball-reference.com), Milwaukee owns the league’s stingiest defensive rating, by a long shot. They’re over 3 points better than the second-place Toronto Raptors, and it’s all because of the shots they permit. Not many teams allow fewer shots at the rim than the Bucks, and even fewer allow opponents to convert a lower percentage. And we’re not just talking this season, but over the span of decades, giving them one of the best defenses in NBA history.

What shot is better in basketball than an attempt at the rim? You might be tempted to say a three-pointer, and you’d be half-right, but the mathematical answer is the free throw. In this regard, just like with layups, Milwaukee is vigorously against committing fouls, which reduces the number of easy opportunities to score points on them.

Naturally, the progression from making their opponents miss shots is that defensive rebounds are a key to regaining possession of the basketball. In this area, the Bucks excel, with a league-leading defensive rebounding percentage of 81.7%, ahead of the second-place Philadelphia 76ers by over a full percentage point. This in turn fuels their league-leading pace (105.0), which puts opponents in the position of having to play the Bucks’ game and choose between keeping up or getting blown out.

But at the core of things, this defensive framework is all custom-built for the NBA’s MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo. Completely ignoring for a moment his candidacy for Defensive Player of the Year, Giannis’ “turn and go” is a terror to opponents, because his long limbs and longer strides make him a threat to drive to the hoop from as far away as half court. The box-out mastery of Brook and Robin Lopez enables Giannis to snag the board and put pressure on the defense from even further away than noted logo shooters Steph Curry and Trae Young. Combine that with a roster full of shooters who space the floor, an underrated sidekick in fellow All Star Khris Middleton who can score best in the ways Giannis can’t, and you have the 2020 Milwaukee Bucks: the NBA’s Best Team.

What’s their biggest weakness?

Even the Greek hero Achilles had his vulnerability, and while Giannis’ shooting performance seems like a weakness, the Bucks’ major soft spot is their three-point defense. More specifically, because the Bucks’ achieve such dominance against shots at the rim and few NBA teams are actively hunting midrange jump shots, opponents are left with little choice than to try and fight from long range.

Three-point attempt rates in the NBA have been rocketing higher and higher in the past decade, and while Milwaukee (0.423 3PAr, 4th highest in the league) puts in their fair share, opponents (0.412 3PAr allowed, 3rd highest in the league) are matching them shot for shot. On the surface, this may not look like a weakness, especially since the Bucks allow a respectable 35.6% from deep (13th overall). But the threat is not in the accuracy, but the frequency.

When you take more threes over an extended timeframe, your makes will average out, give or take a percentage point here or there. But in a smaller sample, like say a seven-game series, you’re more likely to have sizable spikes in your output, and those spikes can turn the tide of a game. Consider this, Milwaukee has only lost two games this season when their opponents make 12 threes or fewer, where 12.1 is the league average for 3PM in 2019-20. But Milwaukee has only allowed 12 3PM in about a third of their games this season; Every other game was at least 13 3PM or more, and their average 3PM allowed is a league-leading 13.7 per game. Opponents might go down to the Bucks, but they’re going down guns a-blazing, and in a neutral environment like the Orlando bubble, what affect will that have on players’ shooting performances? Will the absence of fans cause accuracy to tick upwards? If so, the Bucks are vulnerable to an upset.

Put odds on it: will the Bucks make the Finals?

Call me a homer, but Milwaukee’s odds are fantastic to make it to the championship. Vegas has them as the clear favorite to make it out of the East, while only the Los Angeles Lakers (+240) have better betting chances to take the title than the Bucks (+260). It’s going to come down to execution and health. If they’re at full strength, the Bucks have proven that they can beat anybody, literally anybody, in the NBA. It’s fun to not be considered an underdog for once, even if the two LA teams are getting all the attention.

That’s fine, there’s no reason to shine a spotlight on Milwaukee just yet. Wait until Giannis repeats as MVP, holds the Larry O’Brien trophy, and signs his name to a supermax extension after the season. We’ll take the attention then. For now, let’s count down until basketball is all the way back...