Should the Bucks be favorites to win the East and NBA Championship?
The Bucks have the best record in the NBA, having not lost a game since January 21, but according to Caesars Sportsbook, the Bucks are not favorites to win the NBA championship. In fact, they are not even favored by victories in the Eastern Conference.
Should they be?
Really… should someone else be around?
Milwaukee has a balanced team from top to bottom, with huge potential on both sides of the ball. Unfortunately, injuries did not allow them to play very often in their favorite line-up. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jrue Holiday and Bobby Portis have each missed at least 14 games, while Middleton only played 20 games with seven starts all season. This lack of continuity negatively affected the team’s offense, limiting it to 18th place in the team’s offensive rating for the season. But that team’s offense with the same core last season ranked third in offensive teams and was in the top 10 every season in the Giannis era before that. Going by this story, the Bucks have clear advantages 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, defensively, the Bucks have been the elite all season…but they have the potential to improve further. Their defense starts in the middle, where both Brook Lopez and Giannis Antetokounmpo have had great campaigns that have some of the shortest chances of being named Defensive Player of the Year this season.
In fact, the Bucks have been in the NBA’s top 2 defensive team rankings for three of the last five seasons, with their last season (14th) their only non-top 10 finish. Lopez missed 69 games last season with an injury and did not return to the regulars until Middleton lost the season due to his own injury.
Historically, when their starting lineup was mostly available, the Bucks’ defense was one of the best in the league…as was their offense. This is with their core of Giannis, Middleton, Holiday and Lopez in place. Over the past two seasons, Grayson Allen has established himself as the starting shooting guard, Portis has established 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 have added three new players to the rotation, all of whom could play a key role in their postseason aspirations.
Javon Carter became a substitute point guard and earned 33 points due to all starting line injuries. Carter’s biggest asset has been his shooting, where he knocks down 40.9% of shots from behind the three-point line.
Joe Ingles signed with the Bucks in the summer but didn’t return to the court until mid-December. Ingles is an excellent shooter, shooting 1.8 3PG on 40.8% from behind the arc in eight seasons in Utah. Ingles is also a playoff veteran, having earned 2.1 points from 3PG on 39.2 percent of 3 points over 45 career playoff games.
Finally, just in time for the trade deadline, the Bucks were able to strike a deal to bring in Jay Crowder. Crowder is also a strong, playoff-tested 3-point shooter who has shot down 2.1 3PG at 36.2 3P% in the regular season and 2.3 3PG at 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. Starting as a power forward for the Suns last season, Crowder led all non-centers with a 6.8 Real Madrid Plus/Minus (DRPM) defensive record, the fifth-best record in the NBA. This means the Suns defense was rated as an improvement of a whopping 6.8 points per 100 possessions with Crowder on the court, which is a huge defensive impact.
All this together gives the Bucks a new strength: quality depth. Milwaukee operates in two positions with strong shooters and/or defensemen in all five positions. Inside offense, shooting and defense are important in post-season play as the game slows down and becomes more physical and fast breaks become more difficult. The creation and exploitation of half-court mismatches usually determines wins from losses.
Remember, a few seasons ago, when Giannis first started winning MVPs with his crushing ball style, the mantra for opponents in the postseason was to “build a wall.” Engage multiple defenders to keep Giannis out of the paint and force your teammates to make enough shots to take them down. Now, with the exception of Giannis, the other nine players at the top of the rotation average at least 1.2 3PG.
Giannis, as always, is at the top of the NBA in paint points. This season, he leads the NBA in free throws with a 12.6 FTA. He will still be the biggest defensive force in the league and is now completely surrounded by waves of shooters.
With Giannis and Lopez healthy, the Bucks are the most paint-stinging defense in the NBA. And their core is also surrounded by other strong defenders, including multiple All-Defense pick Jrue Holiday on point and now Crowder on the flank.
A multiple All-Star Middleton, who averaged 23.6 points per game and 2.6 3 per game during the Bucks’ 2020-21 championship but was mostly out at the end of the 2021-22 season due to injury , gradually getting healthier from game to game.
Put it all together and the Bucks could enter this postseason as the best defensive team in the NBA with a proven lead to a top three offense in the NBA. They are the most experienced team in the league, having just won the championship two seasons ago, and their team is full of players who know their role and contribute a lot in the areas of play that contribute most to playoff success.
According to Caesars Sportsbook, the Bucks are currently behind the Celtics and Suns at +475 to win the championship and behind the Celtics at +185 to win the Eastern Conference. In my opinion, there is value in both because the healthy Bucks are probably the most dangerous team in the NBA.