The Milwaukee Bucks head into this weekend on the back of 16 game win streak, their 22-3 record is the best in franchise history.
Only the Los Angeles Lakers are on par with them in this regard. So why are the Bucks being overlooked as both a season narrative and a realistic title contender?
There are a few obvious reasons that immediately spring to mind:
- Milwaukee is barely a hot-spot for the league, frequently ranking near the bottom in terms of both market size and franchise value. Almost the antithesis of the Lakers. Bluntly, not enough fans care.
- They play in the East and have benefited from a slightly easier than average schedule.
- Having raised the hopes of many with their regular season play, their four straight losses in the Eastern Conference Finals last season left a bitter taste and perception of their limitations. It almost feels like a “fool me once” scenario.
The numbers the Bucks are putting up are good. So good in fact that they feel like an anomaly, unsustainable for the entire slog of the regular season, let alone through the ensuing playoff run. They lead the league in pace, which whilst impressive is rarely a barometer of postseason success. Their defensive rating of 101.6 also leads the league and they rank third in offensive rating.
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Their leader, Giannis Antetokounmpo, is somehow better in just about every metric than he was in last seasons MVP campaign. Leading the league in several advanced categories including Player Efficiency Rating (PER) and whilst also ranked second in points per game.
But of all these stats, the one that is impressing me most is the often overlooked minutes per game (MPG). Antetokounmpo ranks 51st in the league. Fifty. First. In essence, the front-runner for this season’s MVP award is putting his campaign together on fewer minutes than the top two players on every other team are averaging. That. Is. Incredible.
It goes beyond Giannis. Khris Middleton, Milwaukee’s de facto “second star” ranks 115th for MPG, meaning there are 3.83 players averaging more court time than him on the 29 other teams. Could you really imagine another team, with this record and these stats, who were also able to prevent their stars from logging heavy minutes?
That the team is winning without their stars on the court, and by such a margin, is a testament to their depth and execution of their roles. Something unique and refreshing for the NBA.
Ok, I hear you. Well, what happens when the pace slows down and the games tighten up in the Playoffs? According to Cleaning the Glass, 76.3% of Milwaukee’s plays come from within the half-court (i.e. against a set defence) and, yep, you’ve guessed it, they lead the league in points per possession here as well.
However, despite all of the praise I’m lauding over this team… I have a reservation. And that is, does winning by such a margin mean are they going to struggle to create in crunch time when the game is on the line and the pressure is ramped up? The Bucks (unsurprisingly) rank in the bottom three for “clutch minutes” played this season, with “clutch” defined as a game was within five points with five or fewer minutes to play.
Next Thursday’s showdown with the Lakers is set to be a true test of this team’s abilities and a potential preview of this summer’s NBA Finals.
Friday 13 December, 12am (Saturday morning) – LA Lakers @ Miami Heat
The soaring Lakers (22-3) head to Miami (18-6) for the second of their five-game road trip. The Heat refuses to cool down, continuing to surpass expectations sitting in the second spot of the Eastern Conference. These two teams met a little over a month ago in a defensive bout that ended 95-80 in Los Angeles favour.
Saturday 14 December, 1am (Sunday morning) – Washington Wizards @ Memphis Grizzlies
I’ve gone a bit left field with this one, with neither of the featured teams in with a chance of making the playoffs in April… but there is some interesting talent on display. Bradley Beal is putting together an impressive season as the Wizards (7-16) lone star and Rookie, Rui Hachimura, looks promising too. For Memphis (8-16), likely Rookie of the Year, Ja Morant continues to showcase his talents and assert himself as a young star in the league.
Sunday 15 December, 11pm – Philadelphia 76ers @ Brooklyn Nets
Still not quite clicking, but having won twelve of their last fourteen games, the 76ers continue to tease us with how good they could be. The Nets, in Kyrie Irving’s continued absence, are a surprise 9-4. The return from suspension for Wilson Chandler should help bolster this squad, depending on how quickly he can get back into court-shape and what he can offer in year twelve. Spencer Dinwiddie, who leads the team in Irving’s absence, will face one of the league’s toughest defences with players like Ben Simmons, Josh Richardson and Matisse Thybulle roaming the perimeter.