The Milwaukee Bucks are an anomaly.
Coming off a 60-win year, the 50-8 Bucks are on track to record at least 70 victories in 2019-20. Such a feat would make them just the third 70-win team in NBA history, joining the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors (73-9) and 1995-96 Chicago Bulls (72-10).
Powered by reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Bucks are breaking records at a speedy pace. The team has clinched the fastest playoff berth in the current format’s history, doing so in just 56 games. Milwaukee also sits comfortably atop the East, holding an eight-game lead over the second-place Raptors.
After being projected to win 55 games prior to the start of the season, the Bucks have outdone themselves—and they have done it quietly in a historically loud NBA.
The Lakers and Clippers have captured much attention this season, but the Bucks have been busy carving up the East. Milwaukee has all-but-sealed the conference crown, while the battle atop the West will likely extend to the end of the season. As other teams have dealt with injuries and headlines, the Bucks have handled business.
Just as 70-win teams have done in the past, the Bucks stand out in their defensive dominance. Milwaukee is first in the league with a 101.7—an estimate of points allowed per 100 possessions—defensive rating, with Antetokounmpo, Brook Lopez and Donte DiVincenzo ranking top-three individually in the league. With their size, rebounding (51.8) and blocks (6.3) per game inside, the Bucks are holding teams to a league-low 38.4 points in the paint.
In addition, the team boasts the largest scoring margin in the league behind its third-place 113.3 offensive rating, recording a +12.2 edge. The next closest team, the 44-12 Lakers, is 4.8 points behind. The Bucks’ improvement over last season is also reflected in their mark, with an increase of +3.3 and a +13.4 edge at home.
Past 70-win teams have excelled in those categories, but rarely by such wide margins. The 2015-16 Warriors thrived on their offense, recording a league-high 113.5 offensive rating and second-place +9.3 scoring margin on the backs of Stephen Curry (30.1 points per game) and Klay Thompson (22.1). The team’s defense was powered by Draymond Green, who had a top-12 defensive rating (99.9).
Meanwhile, the 1995-96 Bulls held dominance on both ends, leading its championship-winning season in both offensive (116.0) and defensive (102.51) rating and sporting a +12.3 scoring margin. Michael Jordan averaged 30.4 points per game in his first full season following his initial retirement, while Scottie Pippen (5.9 assists) and Dennis Rodman (14.9 rebounds) rounded out the team’s threat in an instant-classic year.
While the Bucks have the makings of one of the best teams in NBA history, what has eluded them is postseason relevancy. The team fell in the Eastern Conference finals as the No. 1 seed last season in a seven-game series against the eventual-champion Raptors. Prior to that, the Bucks had two first-round exits to Boston and Toronto.
Postseason challenges may play into why Milwaukee’s landmark year has largely fallen under the radar. In their historic seasons, the Warriors and Bulls both had strong storylines to encourage viewership. For Golden State, the team was coming off its first championship season in 40 years and kicked off 2015-16 with 24 straight victories, making a splash in the West.
As for Chicago, NBA fans were following Jordan’s career following his initial retirement from the league. Prior to his departure to play baseball, the Bulls had won two straight championships and then lost another two after his departure. In Jordan’s first full season back, the Bulls went on their historic run and followed the season up with two more championships, the start of another dynasty.
The Warriors and Bulls both had superstars as faces of their team, and the Bucks have one in Antetokounmpo. While he is on track to win his second straight MVP award, he has yet to have the pull that Curry and Jordan both brought to their teams. A bigger market can brighten his star, but it will likely take him leading a dominant postseason to bring the team further into the spotlight.
Can the Bucks finish at the level of the Warriors and Bulls in NBA history? Judging on the team’s performance this season, it is possible—but it will not be easy. According to Tankathon, the Bucks have the eighth-most difficult schedule remaining in the NBA this season, with meetings against the Lakers, Raptors, Celtics and Nuggets left.
History shows that the Bucks’ legacy will truly be made in the postseason. The Warriors’ 73-9 season was capped with losing a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals to the Cleveland Cavaliers, while the Bulls took care of business and won its fourth championship in six seasons. Golden State was stopped by the likes of LeBron James, and Milwaukee will likely have to do the same.
The Bucks may win 70 games, and they may fall short. No matter the total, the one thing beyond numbers that can bring the Antetokounmpo and the 2019-20 Bucks to the level of the Warriors and Chicago is the team’s first Naismith Trophy in 49 years—and to knock down the league’s superstars when it matters most.