The Milwaukee Bucks weren’t winners in last summer’s offseason like the Clippers and Lakers. The loss of Malcolm Brogdon raised questions about the team’s chances in 2019/20 despite having the best record in the Eastern Conference last season and getting to within two victories of the NBA Finals.
Fast forward to June 2020 and the Bucks have installed themselves as one of the top three teams in the NBA. Giannis Antetokounmpo is barrelling towards a second MVP with the same momentum he takes to the basket in transition. They were historically great for the majority of the regular season.
According to SBD, the Bucks’ odds to win the NBA Championship have been behind the Lakers since the start of the season. Without the cliché, and unquantifiable importance of ‘championship experience’, Milwaukee have something to prove. Giannis has a hill to get over that LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard do not.
Milwaukee has the second-best net rating in history, bettered only by the 1995/96 Chicago Bulls. Brook Lopez and Antetokounmpo are in the running for Defensive Player of the Year, and the irrepressible Eric Bledsoe leads the perimeter effort.
It hasn’t been a flat-track bully season either. Milwaukee won three of four against the LA teams, beat Houston and won their two games against the Raptors, Leonard’s former team who halted their progress in the Conference Finals last year.
An Antetokounmpo injury and a bit of a blip saw their historic pace drop off a tad before the season was suspended. They lost four of their last five.
Given that the Greek Freak will be at full health for the NBA’s bubble in Orlando, it would be unjust to pay much attention to that run. Milwaukee were conquering all before them, beating teams emphatically. Their key players could play fewer minutes as a result.
Khris Middleton just goes about his business. He’s quietly become a two-time All-Star, scoring 25 points per 36 minutes on a 57.7% effective field goal percentage. He will still be met with the criticisms that he hasn’t as accomplished a Robin as Anthony Davis and Paul George.
He’s not had a career like either of those two, but that can be overplayed as a reason to downplay Milwaukee’s chances. Middleton is a versatile scorer, a very good defender and can create his own shot late in the clock.
The postseason woes of Bledsoe play a part in the oft-heard scepticism of the Bucks, too. That’s a wait-and-see situation. Mike Budenholzer’s system has been criticised for its playoff effectiveness in the past as well.
Questioning Milwaukee is understandable. Their status as a top three team is undoubtable, however, and with Antetokounmpo developing his offensive skillset further this season, they have become a harder team to clamp down.
If we are talking about where they rank among the top three, the conferences are important. There are teams that can cause them serious problems in the East. Toronto and Philadelphia are particularly well set up to cause an upset. Their path is more favourable than both the Lakers and Clippers, though, who will almost certainly face a gruelling series against each other.
A scenario where the Bucks reach the Finals having played on 14 or 15 games doesn’t feel farfetched. They have been that good this season. Maybe their route through the East isn’t enough to put them above the Lakers right now, but it’s close.
There’s an understandable reluctance to say anyone other than LeBron James’ Lakers are title favourites. Antetokounmpo needs to prove it in the postseason for that to change.