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Bucks Temp Check: What Questions Remain For the Regular Season?

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NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Golden State Warriors Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

The Milwaukee Bucks are 33-20 and can be said to live in a class of their own in the NBA’s Eastern Conference. Unlike the past two seasons, they are not the leader by record (that distinction is being bickered over by the Philadelphia 76ers and the Brooklyn Nets), but given the circumstances both in and outside Milwaukee’s control this season, regular season results are not a priority this time around. No, the major goal is the playoffs, and the regular season is just an 82 72 game runway leading to the postseason.

Before the Magic game, I posted a poll on Twitter asking Bucks fans how they expected to feel at the end of the regular season, given what we know so far and what remaining questions exist. The results were pretty evenly distributed overall; only about 42% of fans who responded indicated any level of satisfaction with the regular season and the Bucks’ level of playoff preparedness, while 17% (I can assure you, a vocal minority!) had all but written off the team.

I then followed up by asking what areas most fans had concerns with, considering what we’ve seen from the team this year and the significant roster changes that have enabled Milwaukee’s evolution. The results to this question (with a smaller sample size) were not surprising: 45% of respondents cite “coaching concerns” as the Bucks’ biggest worry, with “playoff matchups and seeding” as a distant second.

This led me to ask: what other questions do we even have about the Bucks right now? With nineteen games left on the schedule and the reigning MVP still in street clothes, where should our focus be?

Health and availability

The Bucks will go exactly as far as Giannis Antetokounmpo takes them. An uncontroversial statement of fact, Giannis’ place at the center of Milwaukee’s basketball universe means that anything that keeps him from performing at the height of his powers is cataclysmic for the Bucks’ NBA Finals hopes. He has been inactive for five straight games and missed seven of the team’s last 12 games (since the San Antonio contest, where it’s theorized that the injury was originally suffered), easily the longest stretch of his NBA career without being available. Moreover, the Bucks have six back-to-backs remaining on their schedule, further raising the level of concern about his physical health and likelihood to be playoff-ready when the playoffs start.

Running parallel to the overwhelming concern about Giannis’ knee is the health of new teammate PJ Tucker, who has missed 10 straight games with a lingering calf injury that was even bothering him before the trade, while in Houston. During Tucker’s brief 3-game stint as an active rotation player, he showed off some toughness and defensive versatility that Milwaukee will assuredly need in a playoff matchup, but with such little time remaining before those matchups come around, will Tucker be ready to contribute at that level? And even if the heady vet can flip the switch, will he be on the same page as his teammates without game-time reps to rely on and iron out all the wrinkles? Once the rotation shrinks to 8-9 players, Tucker’s impact will be magnified significantly...hopefully for the better.

The Bucks have struggled since the end of March, going 3-4 in the games that Antetokounmpo has missed and 7-6 overall since the Spurs game. This indicates that the rest of the roster may be good enough to win a single playoff game in his absence (they were last year!), but an entire series is all but guaranteed to end in disappointment. At this point, there still isn’t a tangible reason for panic, but the groundwork is laid and can only be undone by seeing Giannis back at full strength, and soon. Once that happens, what does the playoff rotation look like with a healthy Giannis and a healthy PJ Tucker?

Coaching and strategy

Mike Budenholzer has remained a target of fans’ ire, and nothing short of a championship parade in Milwaukee will cool those coals. People are quick to take credit away from him, despite the significant departure from his tried-and-true schemes from the past two seasons, and confidence in his ability to lead the team through a tough seven-game series from the bench is low. Unfortunately for him and his coaching staff, the only way to prove that they can win in the playoffs...is to win in the playoffs, but there some markers that suggest the team should be better-situated for the postseason.

On the surface, the team’s statistical profile is a more muted version of what we’ve come to expect from the Budenholzer-era Bucks. They are solidly in the league’s top-5 by net rating (+6.0, fourth overall), but this metric has fallen off from the world-beating levels of yesteryear (+8.6 in 2018-19, +9.5 in 2019-20). No surprises here; between the lengthy absences of Giannis and Jrue Holiday, the integration of new rotation pieces like Bobby Portis and Bryn Forbes, and significant structural changes on both offense (hello, dunker’s spot!) and defense (hello, switching!), a drop off was to be expected. What’s encouraging is that Milwaukee has maintained their standing in the top-10 in both offensive rating (116.6, tied for 6th with Portland) and defensive rating (110.6, 8th overall), despite all of the changes outlined above.

But how much of that is due to the positive changes the Bucks have made, and how much is due to the volatility of this season in particular? Milwaukee has still struggled against the league’s other top teams this season, and even their execution has been hit-or-miss against lesser competition. How much of this is due to getting the right (or wrong) guidance from the coaching staff, and how much is simply a failure to follow through on the court? Much of the criticism of Coach Bud focuses on a perceived lack of adjustments in-game and “staying the course” until forced to switch gears, often when it’s too late to make a big enough difference. This is a mark that can’t be washed out during the regular season; only playoff success will change the narrative, meaning we have not much left to do but “wait and see.”

What’s left?

What questions do you have about the Milwaukee Bucks for the remainder of this regular season? What answers are you looking for between now and the start of the playoffs? Let us know in the comments below and let’s see where the conversation goes.