The Milwaukee Bucks are steamrolling the NBA, on pace for 70 wins halfway through the regular season. They rank third in offense, first in defense, first in defensive rebounding and first, easily, in net rating. Giannis Antetokounmpo is only averaging 31 minutes, which would be historically low for an MVP if he wins another. Khris Middleton is on track to join Antetokounmpo in the All-Star Game again, and he’s averaging just 28.5 minutes. No team in the league takes care of business like the Bucks: They routinely blow lesser teams out, and their loss in San Antonio last week was the first time they were defeated by a sub-.500 team.
In a way, Milwaukee is an easy team to evaluate. It has a straightforward identity, and its statistical profile screams championship favorite. Things get complicated, though, in the context of recent history. The Bucks had a charmed regular season last year, and just when it seemed like they were about to go up 3-0 in the conference finals, they lost four straight to the eventual champs. The East might be weaker this time around, but they don’t feel unbeatable.
The playoffs begin in three months. How you judge Milwaukee now largely depends whether you’re looking at how it has performed in the regular season or how well it has answered the specific questions raised by its loss to the Toronto Raptors. I will try to do both in this midseason report, but the grades for the first three sections reflect only what the Bucks have done so far, not what they might do in April, May and June.
Giannis’ development: A
The most obvious thing is the shooting. Antetokounmpo attempted 3.8 3-pointers a game after last year’s All-Star break, and he has pushed that number to 5.1 this season. It is a terrifying sight when they’re falling: In Milwaukee’s signature victory, a 111-104 win against the Los Angeles Lakers in mid-December, he had 34 points on 11 of 19 shooting, including 5 for 8 from deep.
I picked Antetokounmpo as my midseason MVP because of some other positives: He has assumed more playmaking responsibility and grown as a creator. His 37.2 percent usage rate is second to James Harden this season and the eighth-highest mark in NBA history. He isn’t quite on Harden’s level as a passer, but he is making better reads than ever before, firing no-look passes to open shooters while the defense is focused on him.
Antetokounmpo is better than ever on defense, too. He’s my midseason Defensive Player of the Year based on his ability to blow up plays all over the court. He is as imposing of a help defender as there is, and he has spent more time at center this season, practically daring opponents to come at him with conventional 1-5 pick-and-rolls.
The scouting report, however, has not changed, and in a playoff context Antetokounmpo might not be meaningfully more equipped to deal with the swarming defense he saw against Toronto. His career-worst 61.5 free throw percentage is concerning, and the gains he has made as a shooter should not be overstated. Antetokounmpo made 31.5 percent of his 3s after the All-Star break last season, and he is at 32.5 percent this season. His overall efficiency is slightly down because of the increase in volume, and he does not appear to have added anything to his in-between game, despite pledging in an interview with The Athletic’s Eric Nehm in May that he would “be more skilled” and come back shooting midrange shots and floaters.
If the Lakers game was a showcase for Antetokounmpo, the Christmas Day loss to the Philadelphia 76ers was the opposite. Most of the time, though, he has made defenders look helpless.
Filling the Brogdon-size hole: A
When Milwaukee decided it didn’t want to pay Malcolm Brogdon $85 million over four years, it seemed like it would exacerbate all of the problems it had against Toronto. Brogdon was a 50-40-90 guy last season, and he was one of the few Bucks who could create off the bounce without an advantage. He made Antetokounmpo’s life easier.
The good news is that Antetokounmpo has proven capable of doing more when he’s on the court. The incredible news is that Milwaukee has been awesome even when he’s not on the court. According to Cleaning The Glass, which removes garbage-time possessions, the Bucks have a plus-7.5 net rating and have scored 114.2 points per 100 possessions with Antetokounmpo on the bench. (With Antetokounmpo on the court, they’ve scored 114.3 points per 100 possessions.) This is a testament to Mike Budenholzer’s offensive system, Middleton’s brilliance and improved depth.
A few notes:
- Budenholzer has let Middleton be Middleton. The Bucks as a team avoid midrange shots, but the 28-year-old forward is allowed to be more liberal with his shot selection. The result is a more comfortable player: He is having the most efficient season of his career despite 48 percent of his shots coming from the midrange, per Cleaning The Glass. On short midrange shots, i.e. floaters, he is shooting 51 percent; on long 2s, he’s at 50 percent. Middleton doesn’t have a reputation as a great pick-and-roll player, but he is dangerous in that situation precisely because he can score from everywhere.
- Milwaukee is running wild. It has the best halfcourt offense in the league, but it still tries to spend as little time in the halfcourt as possible. A league-high 19.4 percent of its possessions are in transition, per Cleaning The Glass, even though it plays a conservative defensive scheme and rarely forces turnovers. Nobody runs more frequently off of defensive rebounds or takes fewer shots late in the shot clock.
- The front office’s creative cap maneuvering looks pretty good, as long as you ignore how productive Brogdon has been with the ball in his hands in Indiana. George Hill is shooting 51.3 percent (!) from 3-point range, Kyle Korver still has gravity wherever he goes and Wesley Matthews has fit in just fine. Milwaukee has rarely felt the absence of Brogdon’s defensive versatility, partially because, with a Lopez brother at the rim and Antetokounmpo roving around, perimeter mistakes are quickly covered up.
- Second-year guard Donte DiVincenzo has started 20 games due to injuries to Middleton and Eric Bledsoe, and he has averaged 13.7 points, 7.2 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 2.5 steals per 36 minutes. The almost complete lack of buzz about him is a bit weird considering the Bucks’ record — he can attack closeouts, and he has a knack for making helpful defensive plays.
Milwaukee has the volume part of the equation down. It is shooting even more 3s than it did in 2018-19, and nobody creates more wide-open looks from deep. The Bucks are only making 36.4 percent of those wide-open looks, though, which is the eighth-worst mark in the league and identical to last season’s.
Some of this is because Antetokounmpo is getting his reps in, but not all of it. While Hill, Korver and Middleton have been lights out, beyond that it gets pretty rough:
Regardless of these percentages, the Bucks have a roster that is fit to play five-out on offense, and Budenholzer doesn’t want players to hesitate just because they’re on a cold streak. The numbers aren’t impressive, but if the point of taking all these 3s is to create space for Antetokounmpo to get to the paint, they’ve been good enough. Milwaukee optimists can also make the case that Brook Lopez is bound to find his form sooner or later.
The less rosy takeaway, though, is that Milwaukee remains vulnerable if it loses its rhythm at the wrong time. Playoff opponents aren’t going to leave Kyle Korver open, but they will attack him on the other end. Bledsoe will once again be ignored on the perimeter, and the other guys aren’t all that scary.
Overall Grade: A
I’m not sure you can measure a team’s playoff-readiness in mid-January, but I will try. The common refrain is that, unlike other contenders, the Bucks don’t have another gear. I reject this: Their extra gear is simply playing their best players more minutes.
Milwaukee, however, needs to be able to respond if and when it encounters real adversity. Let’s say the Bucks meet the Sixers May and Game 1 looks like what we saw on Christmas. What’s the adjustment? Budenholzer is not known for his flexibility, and Milwaukee doesn’t have a ton of one-on-one playmakers or big wing defenders. Ordinarily having a record like this means there is no pressure to make roster upgrades, but this is one of the teams I’m most interested in when it comes to the trade deadline and the buyout market.
It would be outrageous to dismiss a team outscoring its opposition by an average of 11.7 points per 100 possessions as some kind of regular-season fluke. It is fair, though, to question what that absurd number means about its playoff prospects, considering how much of it is a result of annihilating hopeless Eastern Conference teams.
Imperfect as it turned out to be, last year’s Bucks could have won the title if a few small things had gone differently. Since they didn’t, analysts like me had months to talk about how Antetokounmpo needed more moves or more firepower around him in 2019-20. I would feel much more confident in their title chances if they were a bit less predictable, a bit more adaptable and a bit more reliable from deep, but I’m not sure their flaws are more damning than the flaws of their competition.