How Far Can the Bucks Go?
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
If the NBA season ended in February, it would have been the perfect season in Milwaukee. With two All-Stars, an MVP candidate, and the likely Coach of the Year, the Bucks were the envy of the Association. They clinched the first playoff berth among the 30 teams in the league, they sported the best record in the East, and the advanced metrics called them a historically good team. It was hard to imagine a better picture.
Then March arrived. Let’s just say things have not gone quite as well. They have a likely MVP, but he’s been hobbled and sitting out games. They have the likely Coach of the Year, but he’s been tested by mounting injuries. They’ll undoubtedly be the one-seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, but they’ve gone from racing across the finish line to backing in. As the list of injured players has steadily grown longer, many have started to wonder how far the Bucks can really go this season.
The first bad news came two weeks ago, when it was announced Malcolm Brogdon would miss 6-8 weeks with a partially torn plantar fascia. This remains the worst injury news the Bucks have suffered, as Brogdon is an integral part of the team’s success. The Bucks will do all they can to replace him, but they will need significant contributions from a number of primarily reserve-level players.
If the Brogdon injury didn’t hurt enough, just a few days later the Bucks announced Nikola Mirotic would miss 2-4 weeks with a broken thumb. Mirotic was acquired at the trade deadline by the Bucks in an acclaimed deal that gave the team another big man who can shoot from range and fits into coach Mike Budenholzer’s system seamlessly.
While Brogdon’s injury timetable probably puts him back in an Eastern Conference semifinals series at the earliest, Mirotic likely could be back by the end of the regular season, or during the team’s first round playoff series. Still, the Bucks will need others to step up in the big man’s absence.
Adding injury to injury, the Bucks’ announced that their other late-season acquisition, Pau Gasol, is expected to be out at least a month with a left ankle ailment. Gasol hasn’t brought a lot to the court in his few weeks with the Bucks, but you can never have too many big men down the stretch, especially when that man is a playoff-tested, two-time NBA champion.
Many other contributors on this team have been battling injuries as well. Sterling Brown and George Hill are now back, but each missed several weeks with their own ailments. Donte DiVincenzo returned briefly in March, but was recently shut down for the remainder of the year, ending a lost rookie season. Tony Snell, feeling left out, also was shelved last weekend with an ankle injury.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, the aforementioned MVP candidate, has a lingering ankle injury that recently flared up again. The games he has missed appear more for precautionary reasons than out of serious concern, but the fact remains that the instead of perfecting rotations, the team is being held together with spit and glue. At least Giannis sounds determined to play his best through the injury.
The seemingly lone good news for the Bucks is that they have basically locked up home-court advantage in the Eastern Conference -- but that is good news indeed; they sit three games ahead of the Toronto Raptors with four games to go. Remarkably, the Bucks have not had home-court advantage since they joined the Eastern Conference - having last enjoyed it in the 1973-4 season, when they were part of the Western Conference, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was winning MVPs in America’s Dairyland instead of La La Land. They hadn’t won the Central Division since 2001, a feat they accomplished just over a week ago.
That kind of success comes with high expectations come playoff time. When the playoffs tip in Fiserv Forum, the Bucks will be hosting one of the Charlotte Hornets, Miami Heat, Orlando Magic, Detroit Pistons, or Brooklyn Nets in the first round of the playoffs. Milwaukee has only lost three games to these teams combined all year, and combined with home-court advantage, their first round series is likely to be a quick one. Ideally, this will allow them to ease their injured players back into action.
Should the Bucks make it to Eastern Conference Semifinals, their second-round opponent looks to be Boston or Indiana, who are virtually locked into the four and five seeds - though not necessarily in that order. The Bucks have played three tight games against the Celtics this season, going 2-1, while they have gone 3-1 versus division rival Indiana, with the one loss coming in December, before the Pacers had lost Victor Oladipo for the season.
From there the Bucks would likely face Toronto or Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference Finals, by which time the Bucks would hopefully be whole. Brogdon’s timetable puts him back on active duty if he heals on schedule, and the Bucks will need him. While they have yet to play in Philly this year, the teams split their first two games -- which were both played in Milwaukee. The Raptors beat a full-strength Bucks team at the Fiserv Forum, but Milwaukee won the other three games in the series.
Those are two of the most talented teams in the Eastern Conference and the NBA at large. For the Bucks to advance past them and compete with whoever comes out of the West in the NBA Finals, the Bucks will need to be near full health. Giannis can -- and likely will -- play at an elite level even if he’s less than 100%, but as we’ve seen the last few years with LeBron James, one man alone cannot win an NBA Finals.
It’s been a banner year for the Bucks franchise. They opened a new arena and have an MVP candidate as the face of their franchise. They made a great coaching hire in the offseason and some phenomenal personnel moves throughout the year. This is truly a dream season.
Although fortunes have shifted in the last few weeks, the Bucks continue to win and still have great potential. If they can rest players down the stretch, eliminate their foes in a quick playoff series or two, and get guys back healthy, the sky remains the limit for the NBA’s most dominant team this season.
Statistics and Injury News Courtesy of Basketball Reference