As the NBA more or less sits at the quarter mark of the season, it’s becoming only slightly easier to separate fact from fiction. Many teams still require a little more time (or more challenging schedules) before their lineups stabilize and definitive judgments can be passed. Others are more fully formed and humming along smoothly. The Bucks, last year’s best regular-season team, fall into that latter category. And through 21 games, the Deer are already outpacing what they did a season ago, emerging as perhaps the only juggernaut in the NBA.
If Milwaukee was dominant last season, it is, uh, dominant-er through the first month and a half of this one. Through 21 games, the Bucks have a better offensive rating, defensive rating, winning percentage, and effective field goal percentage compared to last season’s version.
And despite losing a potential All-Star in Malcolm Brogdon in the summer, the starting lineup is also performing better than the 60-win 2019 team. The five-man group of Eric Bledsoe, Wes Matthews, Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Brook Lopez posted a preposterous 21.4 net rating in its first 117 minutes of action together. (Last year’s group, with Brogdon in place of Matthews, had a 5.7 net rating in 597 minutes.)The Bucks’ starting lineup is neck-and-neck with the Sixers’ and Heat’s for most efficient starting unit in the league (among lineups who’ve played at least 100 minutes together.) It’s hellacious on both ends of the floor, and throttles opponents while playing at a fast pace.
Phew, okay, so let’s try to put all these numbers in context. Are the Bucks the runaway best team in the league? Does it even matter that they lost Brogdon in the offseason? It’s not quite that simple. While Milwaukee did miss Middleton for a good chunk of time, the Bucks have benefitted from a good deal of continuity this season. Unlike say, the Clippers or Lakers, Milwaukee hasn’t had to fold a bunch of new guys into the rotation—or like the Clips, load manage its stars. The Bucks also play in the East, which gives them ample opportunities to pummel awful teams like the Knicks, and rack up big wins on hapless foes to increase some of their efficiency numbers.
Still…whoa! Maybe Milwaukee’s hot start is surprising to no one, but I wouldn’t have been shocked if the Bucks took a slight step back this year. They lost Brogdon, a two-way stalwart who at times looked like the team’s second-best player during Milwaukee’s most recent postseason run. It also would’ve been a tiny bit unfair to expect Giannis to be substantially better after his first MVP, and last year felt a little bit like a perfect storm moment that propelled Milwaukee to a league-best record.
Instead, even in what’s supposed to be a season awash with parity, the Bucks have taken a step forward. The starting group plays fast, and coach Mike Budenholzer is still encouraging everyone to shoot early and often (the Bucks are one of three teams averaging at least 40 three-point attempts per game.) Matthews isn’t the player Brogdon is, but he fits cleanly on this team as a three-and-D guy, and his natural slotting on the wing allows Bledsoe to focus on his duties as a ball-handler.
This is all wildly promising for a team that flamed out against the Raptors in the summer, thanks in large part to an offense that couldn’t get going in the halfcourt. Milwaukee still relies on transition buckets for a good chunk of its points, but there’s one somewhat secret weapon the Bucks have that could swing a game or two in the playoffs: The Giannis Pull-Up Three.
I haven’t talked much about The Greek Freak so far. Compared to his MVP season, he’s averaging more points, rebounds, and assists per 40 minutes this year. His usage rate is higher compared to a season ago—currently a career-high 37.4%—but his player-efficiency rating is at a career high as well. Simply put, by many measures, Antetokounmpo is playing even better than he was a year ago, and he’ll once again have a great case for MVP.
Perhaps the most important change in his game is his willingness to shoot from the outside. Giannis is currently averaging a career high in three-point field goals attempted per game. After never averaging more than three attempts a night for a full season, the Freak is launching nearly five threes a game through the quarter mark of the season. The vast majority of his threes come from pull ups, and he’s connecting on 30.3% of those shots.
That number by itself is not remarkable. But Giannis’s willingness to shoot from outside, and any confidence he gains in his three pointer, could pay serious dividends down the line. Antetokounmpo may never be a knockdown shooter, but the more he makes defenses respect his shot, the easier the game will become for his entire team.
Remember when the Raptors swarmed Giannis in the paint and Milwaukee’s offense bogged down in the halfcourt? If Antetokounmpo can hit even one or two threes from the top of the arc, he could loosen a defense just enough to help the rest of the offense. It sounds very small in the scheme of things, but playoff games are often won in the margins. Coaches and players may gameplan to let Giannis shoot all he wants from the outside, but that strategy is a lot easier said than done in the event Giannis confidently hits a shot or two when left alone on the outside. Willingness from Antetokounmpo is the first step, and he’s shown so far this year he won’t hesitate to shoot from deep.
For now, by basically any conceivable measure, the Bucks are playing like the best team in the NBA. And the reigning MVP has both improved and expanded his game. It’s still far too early to pencil in Milwaukee as a Finals participant. But while other contenders may still be figuring themselves out, the Bucks already seem to be hitting their stride.