The Milwaukee Bucks are in the midst of a historic season. In fact, the Bucks are on pace to become one of just three 70-win teams in NBA history along with the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors, who won 73 regular-season games, and the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, who won 72. Yet you would be hard-pressed to find too many people comparing these Bucks with those historic teams. How have Milwaukee pulled this off and why have they flown under the radar?
A huge part of the reason for the Bucks’ success is that they have the reigning (and probable repeat) Most Valuable Player, Giannis Antetokounmpo. According to Player Efficiency Rating, which measures a player’s overall contribution, Antetokounmpo is on pace to have the best regular-season in NBA history. Terrifyingly, for opponents at least, he is still only 25.
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Of course, one player, even the best player in the league, cannot win a title on his own. The Bucks currently have the top defensive rating in the NBA, which is only partly because of Antetokounmpo’s eye-popping length and versatile skills in thwarting opposing offenses. They have put up one of the most ferocious rim defenses the NBA has seen in years, with plenty of credit going to brothers Brook and Robin Lopez. Right now, the Bucks have the best player in the league and the best defense and, as a result, the best record.
In previous years, one could dismiss the Bucks’ record as being inflated by the fact that they play in the relatively weak Eastern Conference. Indeed, when the Bucks secured the top seed last season, it could be partially explained away by the fact that LeBron James left the Cleveland Cavaliers to join the Los Angeles Lakers. This time around it doesn’t feel like their season deserves any such asterisk.
The East, this season, is top-heavy but competitive. The reigning champions, the Toronto Raptors, buoyed by the rapid rise of Pascal Siakam, haven’t been hurt by the departure of Kawhi Leonard. The Boston Celtics were expected to take a step back after Kyrie Irving bolted to the Brooklyn Nets, but Kemba Walker has been a better fit chemistry-wise. The Miami Heat have outperformed their preseason projections. The Philadelphia 76ers have struggled to find a way to get Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Al Horford on the same page, but they’re far too talented to completely dismiss.
And yet, the Bucks have shrugged them all off, securing a playoff spot well before any of the conference’s other contenders. They are nine games ahead of the second-place Raptors and are a near shoo-in for the best record in the NBA, barring crushing injuries or an inexplicable collapse. The Bucks haven’t assembled a super-team, although Khris Middleton has rightfully made the last two All-Star teams, but they are greater than the sum of their parts. That makes them not just heavy favorites to represent the East but a legitimate threat to defeat whoever ends up emerging from the West. In fact, they have put together a 9-3 record against the other seven best teams in the league.
Here’s how those 8 teams have fared *against one another*. The strong record for Houston and the weak one for the Lakers stands out.
Bucks 9-3Rockets 9-576ers 8-7Clippers 7-7Nuggets 7-7Celtics 7-10Raptors 4-8Lakers 4-8
— Nate Silver (@NateSilver538) March 1, 2020
Still, it feels like the Bucks are being underestimated. When the Celtics played the Lakers in a thrilling contest last month, the press rushed to declare Celtics-Lakers as a dream finals matchup, completely ignoring the near-historic win pace that the Bucks are on. Part of this reason is, obviously, that the Bucks play in Milwaukee, not exactly the sexiest market. Media coverage is always slanted in favor of the teams who bring in the bigger ratings and it’s logical that many involved are salivating over the ratings bonanza that would be another installment in the famous Celtics-Lakers rivalry.
It’s also true that the Bucks won’t get the love they deserve until they actually prove themselves in the postseason. Last year they came into the playoffs as the top seed in the East, only to lose their last four games to the Raptors. While the loss felt like less of a disappointment in the wake of the Raptors’ surprising championship, there’s no doubt the Bucks missed a chance to convert the unbelievers.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how many wins they accumulate in the regular season. The main thing people remember about the 73-9 Warriors is that they blew a 3-1 lead to the Cavaliers in the finals. The Bucks have one advantage over the Warriors in that they will be operating under more modest expectations. It’s possible that no matter how impressive they are, they will still be underdogs if they make the finals.
The East is stronger than this year, but the Western Conference playoffs promise to be a grueling battle. The Lakers have a resurgent LeBron James and a never-better Anthony Davis plus, in the aftermath of Kobe Bryant’s death, they may be the sentimental favorites for the first time in franchise history. We all remember how Kawhi Leonard obliterated the competition in Toronto’s title run last year and his current team, the Clippers, are probably even better. The undersized Houston Rockets have James Harden and Russell Westbrook both motivated to overcome previous postseason failures. Whichever team emerges from this mix may well be the favorites no matter what the Bucks do between now and the finals. But they are also likely to be tired after beating some very good teams to get there in the first place.
Not that the Bucks should get ahead of themselves. The first step to win the respect of the skeptics is simply to make the finals. Should they fall short in the Eastern Conference finals – or earlier – this will be a lost opportunity.