In NBA history, nine teams had a net rating of at least +10 — outscoring teams by 10 points per 100 possessions — over the course of an NBA season. Eight of those nine teams won the NBA title, the ninth was the 2016 Golden State Warriors that won 73 games but blew a 3-1 lead in the Finals.
The 2019-20 Milwaukee Bucks are the 10th team to reach that mark, +10.7 through March 11 when the NBA was shut down.
Yet there are doubts around the league that these Bucks can win the title. It’s because we saw the Boston Celtics two years ago, and then the Toronto Raptors last playoffs, block off Giannis Antetokounmpo’s path to the rim, forcing the Bucks to go to a Plan B and their role players to step up. They didn’t. Those Milwaukee teams fell short of reaching the NBA Finals.
Are these Bucks different?
It feels like they are. This looks like a team ready to take the next step.
If not, an offseason of speculation about the future of Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee — he is eligible to sign a supermax extension this offseason and the Bucks will offer it — will begin.
Everything with the Bucks starts with Antetokounmpo — a man about to be a back-to-back MVP winner and likely will join Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon as the only players to win MVP and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season. Antetokounmpo averaged 29.6 points with ridiculous 60.8 percent true shooting while grabbing 13.7 rebounds and dishing out 5.8 assists per game. Every team has a game plan to stop him, nobody does.
The Bucks are far from a one-man show, however.
Milwaukee was +4.1 points per 100 this season when Antetokounmpo was off the court (which was a fair amount, the Greek Freak averaged fewer than 31 minutes a game). That rating would have been seventh-best in the NBA this season — a top 10 team even without the league’s MVP stepping on the court. While the Bucks were +3.1 a season ago when Antetokounmpo sat, this team has looked better without their leader despite the loss of Malcolm Brogdon in the offseason.
Khris Middleton is still playing at an All-Star — maybe All-NBA — level averaging 21.1 points a game and shooting 41.8% from three, while playing elite defense. Behind him was Eric Bledsoe at 15.4 points game, the player whose improved play this season largely covered up the loss of Brogdon. Critical to making it all work is Brook Lopez, who will get well deserved Defensive Player of the Year votes and scored 11 points a game (he seems to be past the shooting woes from three that plagued him during the season).
Beyond that core, Wesley Matthews has looked strong in the Bucks’ Orlando scrimmages, Donte DiVincenzo made huge strides and played well this season, and George Hill was critical in locking down the second unit. Then there is Pat Connaughton — reportedly recovered from the coronavirus and in Orlando quarantining — and sharpshooter Kyle Korver.
What makes these Bucks different is their defense — best in the league by far with a defensive rating of 101.6. They lock teams down.
Milwaukee had the best defense in the NBA a season ago, too, but this campaign they are 3.3 points per 100 better than that team — a huge improvement.
The Bucks defensive strategy is straightforward: wall off the paint. The Bucks allowed the fewest shots at the rim in the league and the fewest points in the paint. Milwaukee takes away the easy buckets at the rim.
Milwaukee also is quick to contest corner threes and take those away — they can defend the paint and the corner because of the length and athleticism on the roster.
What Milwaukee gives up are midrange shots and threes above the break — the statistically least dangerous shots in the league. They will live with those.
It works, especially with the length and athleticism of the Bucks. The concern is that the best teams in the NBA — starting with the Celtics in the East, plus the teams likely to come out of the West — take and make those shots.
Milwaukee checks all the boxes of a team headed to the NBA Finals and a title contender: MVP player, depth and versatility, elite defense. This has been the best team in the NBA this season for good reason.
But come the Eastern Conference Finals and NBA Finals, when the other best teams in the league have the talent to limit what the Bucks have done all season to win games, will the role players be able to step up and execute Plan B.
Will coach Mike Budenholzer be willing to go to that plan, and maybe even play Antetokounmpo more than 40 minutes a game. Last season, in a six-game series with the Raptors, Antetokounmpo still averaged just 38.5 minutes a game — “If we can’t win with Giannis at 40, 40.5 (minutes), then Toronto deserves it,” Budenholzer said.
No. When you have the MVP, that series is when you lean on him. The Bucks didn’t do that enough.
This feels like the Bucks’ year. This year feels like the season Milwaukee is back in the NBA Finals.
If not, the offseason of Antetokounmpo speculation will begin.