Does anybody realize that the Milwaukee Bucks are on pace to be the third team in NBA history to win 70 games?
With the way our national sports coverage landscape is these days, it’s safe to assume no.
The Los Angeles Lakers grab most of the daytime spotlight with LeBron James in the league’s second-largest market. A 14-game win streak from the defending-champion Toronto Raptors, an exciting young team in Boston and recent moves from the Miami Heat have all received more attention among the Eastern Conference contenders. That group even leaves out the preseason darling Philadelphia 76ers, who are constantly in the media spotlight due to recent inconsistency.
So now we get posts like this from mainstream outlets:
CASH OR PASS: The Heat are the favorites to win the Eastern Conference. pic.twitter.com/SqlCQTATDc
— SLAM (@SLAMonline) February 6, 2020
Any attention on these teams isn’t unjust. But the sheer volume of talk about them in comparison to the dominance of these Bucks is what’s overwhelming.
Despite winning 14 in a row, the Raptors are still more than six games behind Milwaukee. The Bucks are averaging 119.7 points per game! This team is shaping up to be one for the ages. The narrative should shift from “can these teams win an NBA Championship” to “can they even get past the Bucks?”
So let’s attempt to guide the public eye to Wisconsin, shall we? Let’s really go into how dominant this team is playing and why they’re vastly underappreciated.
And then let’s all stop doing that.
The Gr33k Fr3ak
Leading the way is reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, who somehow has found a way to step up his game once again. The Greek Freak is shooting 31.3 percent from deep while taking about five a game! Yes, he’s attempted more treys than Brook Lopez, Chris Paul, PJ Tucker or Nikola Jokic.
Being the focal point of the offense, the ball is in his hands a lot. Many of his treys are pull-ups, instances where defenders are daring him to shoot based off his old reputation and the fact that him taking a jumper is the lesser of two evils. But Giannis is quietly 21-44 (47.7 percent) on catch-and-shoot jumpers, which is a really high rate.
The days where teams used to be able to ignore him outside the lane are over. Opponents that have begged Giannis to shoot can no longer live with the results when giving such a large cushion and time:
These guys aren’t even leaving the lane!
Mike Budenholzer’s offense has been a 5-Out motion approach with these Bucks. They station shooters in the dead corners and try to play 3-on-3 early in the clock with reversals, screening away or quick handoffs and pick-and-rolls. The unique Giannis skillset allows him to come off the down screens, which take place at the elbows.
In the past, teams would stay below the screen and allow Giannis to hold it at the top of the key. That strategy isn’t working this year, as he’s clearly repped this shot a lot in the offseason. He feels comfortable off it, is pulling from far beyond the line and knows he can get this look whenever he wants:
The trouble with Giannis gaining a consistent jumper is that there’s now no good way to guard the action.
Go underneath and he’ll pull it from deep. Go over or try to jam him off the screen and he’ll curl into the lane, where the Bucks are vacating so he can leap like a gazelle into his finishing move:
Damned if you do, damned if you don’t, but most teams will likely still opt for the jumper. At 31.3 percent, Giannis is generating roughly 0.94 points per jump shot while being at 1.064 overall, according to Synergy Sports Tech. So the 3-pointer still is better than the alternative, but it’s still not palatable to simply give up without contesting.
Earlier this season, I wrote about the Bucks putting Giannis in pick-and-rolls where he was the ball handler while having a tiny guard (usually George Hill or Eric Bledsoe) screen for him. The article focused on how easily the Toronto Raptors could switch that action through scouting, and how teams simply slink underneath the screen to preserve their matchup and prevent their own point guard from switching onto the seven-foot MVP.
The strategy of going under is likely foiled if Giannis keeps pulling from deep and making them. Other teams have already done this and been burned:
Giannis becoming a competent 3-point shooter is akin to Superman suddenly tolerating Kryptonite. If this continues, I have no idea how to stop them.
I’m not one for cherry-picking arbitrary statistical goalposts in order to fit a player’s rare accomplishments, but Khris Middleton is currently having a 50-40-90 season. And he is doing so while averaging over 20 points, six rebounds and four assists a contest.
The only other players in NBA history to put up such a statistical feat are Kevin Durant and Larry Bird.
There’s a chance Middleton doesn’t sustain those numbers throughout the year. Regardless, he’s consistently overlooked as a legitimate All-Star, whether due to his quiet, consistent demeanor and production or the Freakishly large shadow he plays in.
While Giannis is the superhuman Gumbi, Middleton is more of the isolation scorer. He’s also the best pick-and-roll player Milwaukee has. When the Bucks go big and play Middleton at the 3, he can bully his way to mismatches and command matchups against other guards.
He’ll take them into either the post or isolate at the nail hole, while letting his shooters spread around him and go to work:
Of course, the Bucks aren’t an iso-heavy group, so Middleton needs to operate more out of the flow.
He’s fantastic at knifing through pick-and-rolls against drop coverage. If Brook Lopez is his screener, the threat of the pop can give Middleton more room to operate. If it’s Giannis, K-Midd’s gravity keeps a stunting big a half-step closer to the rim.
Those allow Middleton to get into his mid-range pull-up, where he’s smooth like butter:
This is an incredibly important shot for a championship team to make. Somebody has to be able to knock these down since they’re the shot every opponent is trying to give up.
Winning basketball is about making opponents pay for how they want to play you. If teams somehow devise a strategy to limit Giannis’ impact and prevent all the kick-out 3-pointers the motion offense generates? This type of shot will become even more crucial in Milwaukee’s chase for a ring.
Part of the reason the Bucks as a whole don’t get a ton of love is the perception that it’s Giannis and a bunch of role players.
Middleton earning his second-consecutive All-Star appearance should change the tune of many, but still, we hear Christmas Day musings about Giannis forcing his way out to play with more talent in a larger market. Our editor-in-chief Joel Cordes addressed the national media’s failures to let the Bucks and their superstar play things out and rather than force-feeding a narrative into existence.
Perhaps, if we highlighted how special Khris Middleton is, then we would understand there likely aren’t greener pastures anywhere else from a talent perspective.
That Stingy Defense
Currently, coach Budenholzer’s crew is topping the NBA in defensive efficiency, a claim they staked last season as well.
The Lopez Twins roam around the middle, swatting shots and protecting the paint as savvy veterans. Milwaukee’s defensive scheme—dropping the bigs back against all pick-and-roll and daring them to charge against a Lopez—is a finely-tuned machine. With scrappy on-ball defenders like Eric Bledsoe and George Hill, other guards get stifled.
The length and versatility of Giannis and Middleton slide them onto any of their opponents’ best matchups. Donte DiVincenzo and Pat Connaughton are two of the hardest playing guys you’ll find on that end. Wesley Matthews has long been a rugged on-ball defender. Ersan Ilyasova is a charge-drawing maestro. They just added the savvy Marvin Williams after his buyout with the Charlotte Hornets.
With all these capable individual defenders, it’s no wonder the scheme comes to life. The guards cut off the head of the snake, the bigs protect the rim and the wings fly around to contest, rebound and do the rest.
Budenholzer also has an ace in the hole against the right opponents: He can go super small and put Giannis at the 5, a spot he’s been for 12 percent of his season. The Bucks are essentially a cheat code during those minutes, according to Cleaning the Glass metrics, scoring 118.9 points per 100 possessions and giving up a mere 94.1.
You read that right. The Bucks outscore their opponents by about 25 points per 100 possessions when Antetokounmpo is the 5. Budenholzer has only rolled these lineups out for 177 minutes all season, a small enough sample to be skeptical but large enough to be excited that he’s probably saving it for the playoffs.
Right now, Milwaukee’s net defensive rating is 102.2. How good is that?
Only the 2015-16 San Antonio Spurs have been better in the last five years, per Cleaning the Glass. The Bucks are also 33-1 against teams under .500. They don’t shoot themselves in the foot and are the model of consistency. Sometimes that consistency, particularly on defense, can come off as vanilla or be taken for granted. But what this entire team is doing is pretty special.
A few years ago, we saw months of graphics, headlines and chatter around the Golden State Warriors’ pursuit of the 72-10 Chicago Bulls season. Endless conversations about the chase engulfed that team and bombarded our television sets from the talking heads and studio hosts.
At 45-7 right now, the Bucks would need to go 28-2 to match the record-setting Warriors from 2016. That mark doesn’t seem achievable. But to go 25-5 while playing in the easier conference? The odds would indicate a 70-win season is within their reach. Nobody is mentioning the blistering pace they are on, the well-rounded offense or that top-of-the-line defense.
That’s okay. The Bucks will prove them wrong.
Just let the talking heads’ apology be as loud as their disrespect was.
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are courtesy of NBA.com stats, Basketball-Reference or Synergy Sports Tech, and are current as of February 9, 2020.
Adam is a TBW staff writer and college basketball coach at Dickinson College. He loves watching for offensive schemes while specializing in individual skill development, shooting technique and coach-speak. Born in New Hampshire, Adam grew up as a Celtics fan but now claims to just love “good basketball”, which does not include mid-range jumpers.