At 32-6 the Milwaukee Bucks are running away with the East once again and look to be a legitimate NBA title threat.
With Giannis Antetokounmpo running roughshod over the league with another MVP-level season, this is the most critical moment for the Bucks since the days of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
We knew that Milwaukee would look like this. When you have a force as physically dominant as Antetokounmpo surrounded by shooters, that formula generally produces a highly competitive team.
The Bucks are one of the league’s stingiest defenses and are fourth in three-pointers made per game averaging 14 triples per contest.
All of these things are nice, but the concern for title-contending teams is not the regular season.
Last season’s 4-2 series loss to the Toronto Raptors was their first Eastern Conference Finals appearance after several years of disappointing early playoff exits.
With their franchise star Antetokounmpo’s supermax decision looming, the 2020 NBA Playoffs will be a defining moment for the franchise’s direction going forward.
Their last two losses have been to the San Antonio Spurs last night and the Philadelphia 76ers on Christmas. In those games, Antetokounmpo took only four free throw attempts each and was 0-12 from deep.
On a night-to night-basis, most teams will not have the personnel to keep Giannis out of the paint. But will longer teams like the massive Philadelphia 76ers and Toronto Raptors be able to scheme him out come playoff time?
The Celtics and Raptors had success against the Bucks in the 2018 and 2019 playoffs by employing similar methods that the Spurs and 76ers used to beat them over these last few weeks. They sag off, effectively daring Giannis to shoot and living with the results.
Antetokounmpo was up and down in December from range but shot 36% on his 83 attempts coming into the new year.
If he can maintain that number consistently the Bucks’ chances to make the Finals improve dramatically.
The problem comes when teams force Giannis to be a jump shooter and win the game from mid-range and beyond. In last year’s playoff series against Toronto, he shot 44% from the field, 33% from deep, and had an abysmal 25 turnovers in six games.
Teams with multiple big bodies that limit their fouls will continue to have a puncher’s chance against this team until Giannis hits his jumpers at a more respectable clip.
There is room for hope with just over a third of the season in the books. Giannis has made 59 threes, already more than the 52 he netted in 72 games last season.
There is no reason to think he will transform into a great shooter by season’s end, but he has transformed from a Ben Simmons-esque non-factor into a slightly below average shooting threat. Even that will move the needle and keep defenses somewhat honest if the trend holds.
Milwaukee will have to turn to the supporting cast to win them games at some point when better defensive teams turn Giannis into a shooter and passer.
The good news is that this team is even better than last year’s team top to bottom.
Their depth was a question after losing Malcolm Brogdon to free agency, but they have several stout defensive pieces and role guys that have stepped up.
Best Rim Protectors, 2019-20*
FG% Allowed At Rim
1. Giannis, MIL ………….. 39.4%
2. Robin Lopez, MIL ….. 45.3
3. Brook Lopez, MIL ….. 47.0
4. Jakob Poeltl, SAS ….. 48.9
5. Jarrett Allen, BKN ….. 49.2
— Kirk Goldsberry (@kirkgoldsberry) January 8, 2020
Per ESPN, the Bucks are a +6.8 net rating with Antetokounmpo on the bench.
For contrast, the Los Angeles Lakers are -5.7 when LeBron James sits even with Anthony Davis on the roster.
Donte DiVincenzo, Sterling Brown, and Robin Lopez are all stout defenders off of the bench. The Bucks lead the league in opponent FG% at the rim, allowing only 51.7%.
You will be able to shoot threes against this team but they are not going to let you inside.
San Antonio and Philly both had team record-breaking shooting nights against the Bucks to secure victories. Are these losses outliers or the product of giving professional shooters more space than usual?
The Milwaukee Bucks will spend the rest of this season cruising towards a No. 1 seed behind their juggernaut MVP candidate. It is imperative that they keep the end goal in mind and make adjustments as necessary to give Giannis the security to re-sign once June hits.