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So Far, So Good: The Milwaukee Bucks and the Upcoming NBA Playoffs

The Milwaukee Bucks are approaching full-strength. Does that make them the prohibitive favorites to win the title?

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NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Sacramento Kings Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

The Milwaukee Bucks are amidst one of the longest stretches of high-level basketball in franchise history. Since Mike Budenholzer took the reins and Giannis Antetokounmpo took the leap, Milwaukee has accumulated a record of 264-116 (0.695 winning percentage) in the regular season and earned a top-3 playoff seed in the Eastern Conference every year. If the standings hold where they’re at today, the Bucks will reach the top rank in the East for the third time in five years, and given the status of their roster they’re once again primed for a deep postseason run.

As recently as a month ago, the outlook wasn’t this rosy. And there are still any number of obstacles that could pop up for this team as they prepare for the playoffs, but so good. Let’s take a look at where everyone is at, with only eleven games remaining in the season.

Giannis Antetokounmpo

In his tenth season, Giannis is once again dominating on the basketball court in ways that defy description. How does he keep finding ways to make improvements to his game, to push even further despite suffering significant injuries, after everything he’s already accomplished in the past decade? In his own words:

I feel like sometimes looking at (accomplishments from the past) stops you from going out there and chasing and being desperate. Why I’m here is because I’m desperate. I’m not as talented as Steph. I’m not as talented as KD (Kevin Durant). I’m f—— desperate. I’m obsessed. I’m scared to lose what God has gave me and the life that I’ve provided for my kids and my brothers and for my mom, you know? I’m scared. So I f—— work as hard as I can, because I don’t want to lose this s—. And it’s not gonna stop until I’m out of this league. So I do have the trophies somewhere. But I try not to look at them, because I want to win another one.

But what if I told you that despite posting his first-ever 30 ppg season (31.3 as of March 21), despite performing at an MVP level (and drawing more and more support for the award), despite being widely considered “the best player in basketball,” that Giannis is actually having somewhat of a down season?

Rest assured, a “down year” for the Greek Freak is still a career-year for 99% of basketball players ever. He has never before taken this much responsibility on offense; Giannis leads the league with a 39.3% usage rating. And he’s continuing to handle the ball effectively; his assist rate (31.1%) is one of the tops at his position, and his turnover rate (12.9%) is far lower than expected relative to the increase in his usage.

But believe it or not, he’s just not scoring as efficiently as he usually does! He’s scoring an astounding 0.96 points-per-minute, but his points-per-attempt (PSA) has dropped off from his lofty standard; at 119.8, Giannis’ scoring per shot is actually below average for his position (per CtG). Part of that is because he keeps taking jump shots, the most glaring flaw remaining in his game. He’s sub-30% from three (on nearly 3 attempts per game), his midrange numbers have tanked since last year (31% this season compared to 41% on midrange shots, and his scoring at the rim is...don’t get me wrong, it’s still great, but it’s not Giannis-great. Per CtG, he was shooting 81% at the rim two years ago, but now that number is down to 74%, and all of these components add up to the lowest eFG% (56.5%) in the Budenholzer Era for Giannis.

The “slump” is real on defense, too. Giannis continues to avoid fouls at an impressive rate (no small feat for a defender that’s involved in as much as he is), but his defensive rebounding (33.3%, 65th percentile for his position) is plummeting towards “average” and his block and steal rates (1.2% and 0.9%, respectively) are the lowest-ever for his career.

So what gives? Is this cause for concern, or are these dips in Giannis’ statistical profile simply a result of circumstance? After all, he’s playing hurt (that wrist is definitely not in great shape) while also taking on more offensive responsibility this season and maintaining his status as the Bucks’ do-it-all help defender. That’s a heavy burden, even for a two-time NBA MVP. No matter what, the Bucks go as Giannis goes, and he’s already proven that he’ll show up when the pressure is at its highest. Let’s just hope the big guy holds up a little while longer before taking a well-earned break in the offseason.

Jrue Holiday

With a well-deserved All Star team designation in the rearview mirror, Holiday now shifts his focus towards the playoffs, where he’ll have to manage his offensive workload against the havoc he wreaks as one of the game’s premier defenders. Jrue has proven that he’ll make shots in crunch time, over and over again, but there’s no denying that his efficiency struggles have hindered Milwaukee’s offense this season.

The picture painted by Cleaning the Glass suggests that Jrue has simply been overworked, similar to Giannis above. Holiday’s usage (27.9%) is the highest it’s been since joining the Bucks, and while it hasn’t hampered his playmaking abilities (assist rate of 31.6%) it has taken a toll on his shooting and his ball-handling. Holiday’s turnover rate (13.3%, 34th percentile among guards) is its highest since 2019-20, and his eFG% (54.9%) is a large step lower than his past two seasons as a Buck. It still isn’t bad per se, but when 2021-22 saw Jrue’s numbers rise to the highest points in the league (except on corner threes, curiously enough), his slight regression across the board (especially on midrange shots) has a larger impact. Per CtG:

Cleaning the Glass

It deserves reiteration: Holiday has had a great season! The concern is that, if he has to continue putting in extensive effort on offense while playing defense as hard as he does, his performance will suffer as a result. It’s a good thing Khris Middleton is back. Speaking of which...

Khris Middleton

After having missed more than half the season’s worth of games, it’s reasonable to worry if Middleton will be ready to go in time. Based on what we have seen, though, those concerns will evaporate when the spotlight shines brightest.

Khris has quietly become one of the best offensive hubs in the NBA. He’s a complete scorer who can create his own shot and make them at a high rate, but that’s only a part of what he gives to Milwaukee’s offense. He generates decent looks out of otherwise-lost possessions because of his savvy midrange game. When a big switches onto him in the pick-and-roll, Middleton is all too happy to pull the ball back out and dribble into a step-back jumper over the larger opponent, and he’s efficient enough that this approach is actually a good option.

But beyond all that, Middleton’s continued excellence as a playmaker is what unlocks the Bucks’ offense. Per Cleaning The Glass, Khris is one of the best facilitators at the wing position in the entire league; despite his high usage (28.2% of possessions), he has an assist rate nearly as high (28.1%) that ranks in the 99th percentile for his position. When he has the ball, he finds good spots for it; when his teammate has the ball, he’s also adept at paying off the pass. Also per CtG, 47% of Middletons’ attempts are assisted, including 70% of his threes. Considering how rusty Khris was during earlier stretches of the year, the fact that he’s performing at this high of a level despite still not playing his normal load suggests that the best is yet to come. Right on time, that’s the Tough Shot Express motto.

Brook Lopez

Giannis said it best in his interview with The Athletic:

Sometimes, the best player isn’t the most valuable player on the team. Like, I feel like (Bucks center) Brook (Lopez) is such a valuable player for our team.

We already know that Lopez is the fulcrum of Milwaukee’s defense, and his performance this season has probably been the best of his career. 2.5 blocks per game is a career-high for the former Stanford center, and his 3.9% block rate is elite for his position. As a team defender, Lopez’s impact is felt with Milwaukee’s top-5 rebounding rate and league-leading eFG% allowed (51.5%). However, his offensive resurgence has come when the Bucks have needed his scoring most, and Brook answered the call in a huge way. His eFG% has jumped to a career-high 60.1% not just because he’s shooting well from deep (37.8%, also a career high mark), but because he’s lighting it up inside. Lopez is shooting 74% at the rim and 51% from the midrange, and his shot frequency from more than 14 feet out has doubled since last year (4% to 8% of total FG attempts), harkening back to his days as a Brooklyn Net.

Most impressive about this year, though, has been Lopez’s longevity. For reference, Brook has played 2,118 minutes in his age-34 season, the most for him since 2018. Per, Lopez has been in nine of the Bucks’ ten most-used lineups (by total minutes), and those lineups hold opponents to a paltry 105.9 Offensive Rating. Milwaukee’s Net Rating across those 754 minutes is plus-4.7, a further testament to Lopez’s impact.

Giannis already said it, so repeating it isn’t a shock: Brook Lopez might be the most valuable player to the team. His incredible season is a large part of why the Bucks are in the position they find themselves in today, and his continued excellence bodes well for their chances to win another title.

Grayson Allen

After struggling in the playoffs last year, Allen earned the ire of fans who placed an oversized heap of blame on his shoulders and wanted nothing more than for him to be shipped out. While his performance this season was in-line with expectations, Allen has made strides that show significant growth this year.

The deal with Grayson Allen is always that you play him to take advantage of his elite shooting, and on that front he does not disappoint. He’s mere tenths of a point below 40% on the season (39.8%), a mark he’s cleared twice before in his five-year career. He could stand to shoot more of them, given that’s his bread and butter, but Milwaukee’s coaches have been pushing Allen to attack the rim on close-outs more and develop his dribble-drive game. It hasn’t exactly sparked a revelation in Allen’s game, but his assist rate (10.9%) has taken a positive jump relative to last season. This versatility makes it easier to put Allen out there alongside the Bucks’ other playmakers, most of whom are wings (or Giannis).

The drawback with Grayson Allen has always been his defense, an area which significant effort has been placed this year. He’s not earning any All-Defensive Team nominations, but the work shows in games as Allen has improved navigating screens, sticking with ball-handlers, and generally presenting less of a target against opposing guards and wings on switches. Is it enough to make a difference in a playoff series? No way to know, but at least Allen has put the work in to make it a somewhat safer bet than in years past.

Bobby Portis

After returning to the Bucks on a long-term deal in the summer, Bobby continued playing to his strengths and made a legitimate push for the league’s Sixth Man of the Year award. Portis is well-suited for his reserve role behind Giannis and Lopez; as the third big in a relatively large front court (Portis is the “smallest” of the group at 6’11” and 250 lbs), his size and strength punishes smaller opponents. Bobby continues to serve as a scorer in bench lineups; his efficiency is merely fine because his three-point shooting is down (34.3% this season, compared to 39.6% last season) and he takes a lot of tough two-pointers (tip-ins and putbacks deflate his eFG% to a pedestrian 55.3%, in the bottom-third for his position). But Portis takes care of the ball and is still a plus-shooter from the midrange, and when he gets hot it can carry the offense for a quarter.

Portis’ defense has never drawn significant praise, and it likely never will. He doesn't protect the rim like Giannis or communicate as well as Brook Lopez...but those are also high bars to clear. Still, Portis’ performance on that side of the court is inconsistent, save for his rebounding prowess and his improved discipline with positioning. Bobby has always been a great rebounder, and he continues to clean the glass, per...Cleaning the Glass. His defensive rebounding rate on both opponent field goals (25.0%) and free throws (42.9%) is elite, and he’s always had a knack for grabbing errant Milwaukee foul shots (6.8%). A surprising development for this season is Bobby’s significant reduction in committing fouls; at only 2.3%, his foul rate is the lowest it’s ever been for his entire career.

Portis is a unique player because his size gives him an advantage in certain matchups while presenting a liability in others. As we saw during the Finals run in 2021, the Bucks are better when he’s on the floor and can make an impact...but if that impact is lessened because of what he gives up on the other end, they know how to adjust accordingly.

Pat Connaughton

Flying under the radar is something that Connaughton has become known for, and this season has been no exception. He’s dealt with more injuries than usual this season, and as a result he has failed to hit any sort of rhythm. His stats are down across the board; his offensive metrics, his shooting splits, and his defensive impact metrics. The only calling card Pat has been able to play this year is his rebounding; he’s always been a great rebounder for his size, and he (like Bobby) makes his presence felt by being in position to secure the ball on missed shots, while also avoiding fouls.

Pat is in a bit of a pickle when it comes to playoff playing time. He’s always had the trust of the coaching staff; he was the lone reserve who continued to play late in that rockfight of a Nets series in 2021. It’s ironic that Bobby Portis was the one to sit in that series, but when looking at it now, both players are plus-rebounders who have had their three-point shooting drop like a rock this season...but Bobby still has his post and midrange scoring to fall back on, while Connaughton doesn’t have a similar contingency plan. If Pat’s slack doesn’t get picked up in the next ten games, is he going to be playable in the postseason when Coach Bud has so many other capable options?

Jae Crowder

Crowder was a longtime target for the Bucks, and now that they got him he has provided exactly what was advertised: rugged defense, three-point shooting, and toughness. He has not played in very many games, but we’ve seen flashes of why Jon Horst went out of his way to bring him in. He can switch onto smaller players, stand up to bigger ones, but his game also has a bit more bounce than his spiritual predecessor (PJ Tucker). Moreover, he takes threes from the corner and above the break, his scoring (across a very small sample size) has been extremely efficient, and occasionally he can even put the ball on the floor. What can’t this guy do?!

It’s a foregone conclusion that Crowder is going to play; the Bucks don’t trade for a player at the deadline if they don’t want him for the postseason. Is it a reasonable expectation that he reprises the performance from PJ Tucker two years ago? Only time will tell, unfortunately.

Jevon Carter

Carter has bounced around for his first few years in the NBA, but now that he’s seemingly found a home in Milwaukee, his offensive game has blossomed to the point of making him playable in the postseason, and taking advantage of his pesky, in-your-face defense. Jevon is point guard-sized but plays more like a pure shooting guard; he doesn’t create shots for others and generally his best spots are behind the three-point line (although he does have a nice midrange jump shot that he can get to occasionally). He’s shooting well-enough from behind the line to justify minutes, and while his shot selection can raise some eyebrows his efficiency is enough to make up for the more questionable decisions.

The big question with Carter is an unfair one because he can’t help it. At only 6’1” (which is still several inches taller than most of us!), he will be targeted by larger opponents in the playoffs because he simply can’t reach high enough to contest shots effectively. He can pick up opposing guards for 94 feet, and there is a case to be made that Jrue Holiday would benefit from Carter taking on those duties for 5-10 minutes per game, simply so that Holiday doesn't have to. If Carter can continue to cash in on triples, he has a role on the court for the Bucks. If not, his opportunities will quickly diminish.

Joe Ingles

The Bucks’ offense was stuck in the mud last postseason when Middleton missed time, and Milwaukee lost its best perimeter playmaker. The solution to that, oddly enough, is the 35-year old Aussie forward coming off a torn ACL. Who knew? At 6’8” Ingles is one of the tallest playmakers in the league, and he fills that role wonderfully relative to his peers; his assist rate is only 18.5% but because he uses so few overall possessions by shooting or turning the ball over, his assist-usage ratio is a sky-high 1.25, which is in the 98th percentile for his position. Ingles is also an elite shooter, boasting an eFG% of 60.2% performing at the 60th percentile or higher for all shots away from the rim, including reaching the 83rd percentile on all threes. Yes, Ingles will commit the odd take foul (hope he doesn’t in the playoffs), and his game has a relatively low floor compared to some of his postseason counterparts. But the offense runs smoothly when Joe is a part of the action, and the defense doesn’t suffer as much as you would otherwise think.

Wes Matthews

The veteran wing doesn’t have much left in the tank, as evidenced by the fact that he’s on pace to play fewer than 50 games this season. But the Bucks don’t need him to rack up wins now, they need him to secure wins in April, May, and June, so if that turns out to be Wes’ Last Hurrah, it will be quite a note to end on. Like Jae Crowder, Wes’ job is to be tough and shoot threes, which will come in handy if Milwaukee faces off against the two-headed monster that is Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.

Deep Reserves

There’s not enough room for everybody in a regular rotation, and that’s doubly-true in the postseason. Minutes that were scarce become non-existent, and the guys at the end of the bench have a unique challenge ahead of them: stay ready, just in case. Goran Dragic was brought in at the beginning of March to serve as an emergency ball-handler, and he might have enough pop to fill the fabled “A on the group project” role perfected by Jeff Teague. Ditto for Meyers Leonard, who will be the emergency big man. MarJon Beauchamp had an encouraging rookie season, but he’s simply not ready for this playoff run yet. Thanasis Antetokounmpo is mysteriously not with the team, but assuming it’s just a publicity tour for Thanalysis, he’ll bring the energy and vibes from the bench and be an on-demand confidant for his younger brother, which is worth the roster spot.

Mike Budenholzer

Coach Bud and his staff deserve far more credit than they get on a regular basis, but their performance this regular season is possibly their best yet...if the team can make it pay off in June. Navigating the injuries to key players like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton is tough enough, but to also integrate new arrivals like Joe Ingles and Jae Crowder while promoting the development of younger talent like Grayson Allen and Jevon Carter is no easy task. Bud has also continued to put the team in position to succeed in crunch time; the Bucks lead the league in “clutch record” at 27-8, which only counts games that are within 5 points in the last 5 minutes. Obviously the players are the ones earning the wins on the floor, but Mike Budenholzer, Charles Lee, and the rest of the staff are supporting them and making the right decisions to navigate those tough scenarios. Will it transfer over the playoffs? Before July of 2021, nobody would have trusted the Bucks, but since then...well, you should probably trust the Bucks.

What are you most confident in for the playoffs, which start in just a few weeks? What has you the most worried? What takes above to you agree with, and which ones are wrong? Let us know in the comments, because this regular season is screaming towards an end...and then the real fun starts.