Are the Bucks the Favorites to Win it All?
Winners of 18 straight games and 22 of their last 23 (their only loss came at the buzzer to Utah), the Bucks have firmly established themselves as one of the best teams in the NBA. Their 2-2 start appears firmly in the rear-view.
The current win streak is second only to the 20-game win streak put together by the 1971 championship Bucks. And the 24-3 start the best start for through the first 26 games of a season in franchise history.
With such an incredible run comes high expectations. Title expectations grow with each win, especially as Giannis Antetokounmpo continues to perform at an MVP-level. It may be championship or bust in Milwaukee. But are the Bucks currently the favorites to win it all?
Let’s start within the East. Currently, Miami is hot and a viable threat; the Heat is the only cub to win a game at the Fiserv Forum so far this season. The Sixers are right there as well, and a big matchup in Philly on Christmas Day could be a Conference Finals preview. The new-look Celtics also loom large, having already defeated the Bucks this year with a big comeback win at TD Garden in October.
Still, the Bucks may very well emerge from the Eastern Conference, but the West is even more daunting.. The Jazz, the Nuggets, and the Rockets all are quick-paced clubs which can challenge Milwaukee. Dallas is an upstart team that has the NBA’s next great star in Luka Doncic, and the Clippers, despite losing big in Milwaukee over a week ago, still have two of the league’s best players on a team that will only get better.
And then there is the biggest current threat to the Bucks championship hopes: LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers.
LA also has a 23-3 record at the time of this writing, having only lost to the Clippers, Raptors, and Mavericks, all very formidable opponents. Anthony Davis and LeBron are indeed the dynamic duo we thought they would be, and this Lakers team is deeper than expected. The Bucks and Lakers clash in Cream City this week.
Milwaukee should still be considered the Title favorites. For the Bucks, everything starts with Giannis. Last year’s MVP is playing at an even higher level than last season, averaging 31 points per game to go along with 13 rebounds. One potential reason for his scoring increase has been the long-awaited development of his three-point ball, which he is shooting at a 31 percent clip this season, up from 25 percent last year. Giannis is taking a career-high five threes a night.
All of this is coming while averaging his fewest minutes per game since his second season in the league. Stopping the Bucks means stopping the Greek Freak.
The Bucks depth may be flying under the radar, however. The starting five of Giannis, Middleton, Bledsoe, Matthews, and Lopez is long and athletic, and the bench unit has been phenomenal. Milwaukee may enjoy the best backcourt depth in the league. Often George Hill and Pat Connaughton are first off the bench for head coach Mike Budenholzer, but guys like Donte Divincenzo and Sterling Brown have made significant contributions over the first quarter of the season. Kyle Korver hasn’t been great so far but is still a guy you want on your side down the stretch.
In the frontcourt, the Bucks have leaned on Ersan Ilyasova, who is offering reliable play on both sides of the ball. Robin Lopez, meanwhile, isn’t just rebounding the ball at a high clip. Lopez has already attempted a career-high 44 threes and is shooting at a 30 percent clip from downtown. D.J. Wilson, has developed into a high caliber player, and could be starting on quite a few teams in this league. Wilson is a victim to this deep roster, but when he gets playing time he shoots the ball well, makes the right decision, and is very athletic.
The roster is deeper than any other team in the league and it’s a credit to not only general manager Jon Horst for assembling the roster, but also to Coach Bud for developing a lot of these players and having every one of his guys ready to play night in and night out.
Milwaukee has experience and cohesiveness to anchor their incredible depth. The core of the team has been together for multiple playoff runs now. Painful losses and blown opportunities from seasons past serve as learning opportunities.
Once we hit the postseason, the Bucks are going to have a nucleus which has played together for far more games than their competitors. Philly, Boston, Houston, Miami, and both LA teams will need to make adjustments as they integrate big new pieces. There is something to be said about cohesiveness and keeping a team together. Just ask the San Antonio Spurs.
The Bucks have had a historically great start to the year. They have the deepest roster, and arguably the league’s best player. Their experience together gives the Bucks a real advantage, and barring any injuries to this squad, Milwaukee should be hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy come June.
Statistics Courtesy of Basketball Reference and accurate as of 12/15/19