The Bucks have the best record in the NBA, they haven’t lost a game since Jan 21 but according to the Caesars Sportsbook, the Bucks aren’t the favorites to win the NBA Championship. In fact, they aren’t even favored to win the Eastern Conference.
Should they be?
In fact… should anyone else even be close?
Milwaukee has a balanced team from top to bottom, with awesome potential on both sides of the ball. Unfortunately, injuries have prevented them from playing their preferred lineup very often. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jrue Holiday and Bobby Portis have each missed at least 14 games, and Middleton has only played in 20 games all season with seven starts. This lack of continuity has had a negative impact on the team offense, limiting them to 18th in team offensive rating on the season. But the offense of this team with the same core finished with the third-best team offensive rating last season and has been top-10 every season in the Giannis era until this one. Based on that history, the Bucks have clear upside to improve their offense as their team gets healthier and starts to play together more as a unit.
On the other side of the ball, on defense, the Bucks have been elite all season…but still have upside to improve even further. Their defense starts in the middle, where both Brook Lopez and Giannis Antetokounmpo have put together excellent campaigns that have both among the shortest odds to win Defensive Player of the Year this season.
In fact, the Bucks have been top-2 in the NBA in team Defensive Rating in three of the past five seasons, with last season (14th) as their only finish outside the top-10. Lopez missed 69 games last season due to injury and didn’t return to regular roster minutes until Middleton was lost for the season to his own injury.
When their starting lineup has largely been available, historically, the Bucks’ defense has been one of the best in the league… and so has their offense. This is with their core of Giannis, Middleton, Holiday and Lopez in place. In the last two seasons, Grayson Allen has settled in as the starting shooting guard, Portis has solidified himself as a walking double-double as a sixth man and Pat Connaughton has been a solid 3-and-D swingman. But this season, the Bucks added three new rotation players that could each be key to their postseason aspirations.
Jevon Carter settled in as the backup point guard and has gotten 33 spot-starts due to all the injuries to the starting unit. Carter’s biggest asset has been as a shooter, where he is knocking down 40.9% from behind the 3-point line.
Joe Ingles signed with the Bucks over the summer, but didn’t return to the court until the middle of December. Ingles is an excellent shooter, making 1.8 3PG on 40.8% from beyond the arc during his eight seasons in Utah. Ingles is also a playoffs-tested veteran, making 2.1 3PG on 39.2 3P% over 45 career playoff games.
Finally, just at the trade deadline, the Bucks were able to swing a deal to bring in Jae Crowder. Crowder is also a strong, playoffs-tested 3-point shooter that has knocked down 2.1 3PG on 36.2 3P% in the regular season and 2.3 3PG on 35.0 3P% during the playoffs since the 2019-20 season. But, more than that, Crowder is one of the best defensive forwards in the NBA. Last season, while starting at power forward for the Suns, Crowder led all non-centers with Defensive Real Plus Minus (DRPM) score of 6.8, the fifth best in the NBA. This means that the Suns’ defense was estimated as a whopping 6.8 points better per 100 possessions with Crowder on the court, a massive defensive impact.
All of this combined gives the Bucks a new strength: quality depth. Milwaukee run two-deep with strong shooters and/or defenders at all five positions. Interior offense, shooting and defense are important in postseason play as the game slows down and gets more physical, with fast breaks harder to come by. Creating and exploiting mismatches in the half court usually dictates the wins from the losses.
Remember a few seasons back, when Giannis first started winning MVPs with his wrecking ball style, the mantra for opponents in the postseason was to “build a wall”. To use multiple defenders to block Giannis from getting into the paint, and dare his teammates to make enough shots to defeat them. Now, outside of Giannis, the other nine players at the top of the rotation are averaging at least 1.2 3PG.
Giannis, as always, is at the top of the NBA in points in the paint. He leads the NBA in free throws with 12.6 FTA this season. He will continue to be the biggest defensive warping force in the league, and now he’s completely surrounded by waves of shooters.
With Giannis and Lopez healthy, the Bucks are the stingiest defense in the paint in the NBA. And their core is surrounded by other strong defenders as well, including multiple All-Defense selection Jrue Holiday on the point and now Crowder on the wing.
And multiple-time All Star Middleton, who averaged 23.6 PPG and 2.6 3PG during the Bucks’ championship run in 2020-21 but was largely absent late in the 2021-22 season due to injury, is slowly getting healthier game-by-game.
Put it all together, and the Bucks could enter this postseason as the best defensive team in the NBA with the proven upside to be a top-3 offense in the NBA as well. They are the most veteran team in the league, championship-tested with a title just two seasons ago, and their team is full of players that know their roles and contribute strongly in the areas of the game that are most conducive to playoffs success.
According to Caesars Sportsbook, the Bucks currently trail the Celtics and Suns with a +475 odds to win the championship and trail the Celtics with +185 odds to win the Eastern Conference. In my opinion, there is value in both of these, because the healthy Bucks are likely the most dangerous team in the NBA.