The Milwaukee Bucks made it to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2018-19 before falling to a team of destiny in the Toronto Raptors, who went on to win the NBA championship.
This year, Kawhi Leonard is in Los Angeles, the Bucks find themselves atop one of the weakest divisions (if the Pacers run aground on injury problems) in the league, and expectations are so high that the squad has the highest over/under win total in the league at 57.
You’ll notice that’s three wins less than the 60-22 record they put up in 2018-19, meaning that if MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, All-Star sidekick Khris Middleton, and the cast of shooters are able to maintain last year’s form, they should clear the bar without too much trouble.
But that wouldn’t be much of an analysis, so let’s dig deeper and see what’s brewing in Milwaukee:
2018-19 record: 60-22
2019-20 over/under: 57
Antetokounmpo is the best player in the league hands down, and anyone who wants to point at his 25.6 percent mark from three should probably also consider his career-high-by-a-mile 57.8 percent overall FG% and his ability to finish at the rim (76.9 percent from three feet and in.)
Nobody’s expecting him to make jump shots. That’s not his job. His job is to slash into the lane through the open midrange, Eurostep his way 23 feet in two bounds, and slam the ball home or dish to an open teammate as the defense collapses on him for an easy open 3-point look.
Giannis is more one-dimensional offensively than casual fans realize, but when you do one thing and do it so well that you pour in 27.7 points per game and post a mind-bending .644 TS%, who cares?
Greekazoid has also evolved defensively, becoming a force on the glass (a 30.0 DRB% and 12.5 rebounds per game) as his role has shifted into more of a traditional power forward/center role befitting his 6’11” frame. His DBPM vaulted all the way up to 5.0, second only to Rudy Gobert‘s 5.1, and his 7.6 VORP as a result trailed only James Harden‘s 9.9.
Put simply, Giannis is a legit MVP, and when you start with a player who is that good and is still only 24 and just entering his true prime, look out, league.
The Other Guys
Middleton made his first All-Star team last year as the second-best player on the league’s best regular-season team.
He hit 37.8 percent of his 3-point shots, scored 18.3 points a game, posted 1.7 VORP, was solid when he had to shoot from the midrange (46.1 percent between 10 and 16 feet out), and posted a .558 TS% that’s right in line with his .561 career average.
There are probably better players than Middleton at what he does, but they’re not on the Bucks.
Eric Bledsoe made first team All-Defensive last year, did a fantastic job finishing at the rim for a little guy (72.6 percent from in close, numbers you expect from a forward rather than a point guard), but he’s an awful 3-point shooter (32.9 percent), which creates problems for Milwaukee’s hybrid four-out slash-and-kick offensive style.
On the other hand, that efficiency in close did lead the Bledshow to a career-best .548 eFG%. And the 5.5 assists per game against 2.1 turnovers helped the Bucks take care of the ball well enough to rank tenth in turnover percentage on offense.
Matthews hit 37.2 percent of his threes last season, a big drop from Brogdon’s 42.6, but we’re still talking about a capable outside shooter who can hit the open looks that he will get as part of that safety valve for the Freak.
And Brook Lopez, who hit 36.5 percent of a whopping 6.3 3-point attempts a game last season, is still there to provide offensive spacing to let Giannis do his thing. Lopez’s .571 eFG% was a massive improvement over his career average, and his 2.9 DBPM and 2.8 VORP speak to how he, not Middleton, is actually Milwaukee’s second-best player.
In sum, this is the same roster as last year where it counts and enough of an acceptable substitution at “fourth-best guy” (all the more so since Mike Budenholzer’s offense does wonders for a guy’s eFG%) that it’s hard to see any real dropoff here.
Milwaukee is the total package, an MVP surrounded by guys who complement him in a way that LeBron James could only dream of when he had his second stint in Cleveland. If the Cavaliers were “make the guy drag a G-League team to the Finals”, the Bucks are “make everyone else NBA-caliber players too and the only guy who can beat you is Kawhi Leonard.”
The Raptors don’t have Kawhi anymore. The Sixers or Celtics? Not on the Bucks’ level, although if you love old-school teams in the playoffs, you can’t go wrong with running back the Sidney Moncrief/Julius Erving/Larry Bird battles from 25 years ago in the springtime with new faces.
The Bucks will win the East. And they might just get some revenge on Kawhi one step further down the track compared to last year.
As for a won-lost record? Let’s settle on a repeat of the 60-22 mark from last year and take the over. This team is Confirmed with a capital CONFIRMED.
NEXT: Atlanta Hawks.