Unlike the last two seasons when they ran roughshod over the entire league on their way to the NBA’s best record, the Bucks are quietly in third place in the Eastern Conference this campaign.
But don’t mistake their record (29-16 as of this writing) as an indication of a lack of progress. The Milwaukee Bucks are hoping that they will be striding forward two steps by the season’s end by taking one step backward. The goal has always been to win a championship and not be the best regular-season team.
With few experts (if any) picking them to win it all, here are five reasons why the Milwaukee Bucks are the dark horse candidate to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy this season:
#1 Team chemistry
The Milwaukee Bucks may have refurbished their roster since the offseason. Still, the core players remain the same - Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, and Brook Lopez along with Donte DiVincenzo and Pat Connaughton.
Add coach Mike Budenholzer to the group, which makes it six key individuals who have been together for three straight seasons.
The players trust Budenholzer, which is likely one major reason why Antetokounmpo re-signed with the Milwaukee Bucks before the season started.
With their core group intact and firing on all cylinders, Antetokounmpo and company won 13 of 14 games from Feb. 19 to Mar. 24.
#2 The presence of Jrue Holiday and PJ Tucker
Among the most important acquisitions by the Milwaukee Bucks since the offseason are Jrue Holiday and P.J. Tucker. Both players are known for their heady play and defensive abilities - two things that championship-winning teams need during a playoff run.
Holiday gives the Milwaukee Bucks one of the best perimeter defenders in the game. In fact, none other than All-Star Paul George called him the best he’s ever faced.
Like Holiday, the recently-acquired Tucker is a pesky defender, capable of guarding players much bigger than his 6-foot-5 frame.
The Bucks need his versatility as a defender in the playoffs. There, Tucker will be tasked with guarding the best wing players in the Eastern Conference, including former teammates James Harden, Kevin Durant, Jimmy Butler, and Ben Simmons.
#3 Adaptability on defense
Speaking of defense, the Milwaukee Bucks had been inflexible in the past defensively because of coach Mike Budenholzer’s stubbornness to stick to what worked before.
However, this year, the former Coach of the Year has decided to include switching on defense rather than going mostly for drop coverage on pick-and-rolls.
This has been an experiment on the part of the Milwaukee Bucks this season. Though there have been mixed outcomes (with blowouts as a result at times), Budenholzer has shown that he is willing to adapt to various defensive strategies.
Since Feb. 19, the Bucks have been No. 5 in defensive rating (107.6), which is an improvement from how they started the Hopefully, the ultimate payoff will be in the postseason.
#4 The Milwaukee Bucks are deeper than ever
Aside from the infusion of talent with Holiday and Tucker, the Milwaukee Bucks have added to their depth with Bobby Portis. He has been averaging 11.0 points per game this season. The six-year veteran forward has been a consistent double-digit scorer off the bench and their best 3-point shooter at 48.0 percent.
Shooting guard Bryn Forbes has also contributed to the Milwaukee Bucks’ bench scoring. Forbes has barely missed out on being another double-digit scorer by averaging 9.4 points a game and shooting 44.7 percent from three.
If the rumors are true and the Bucks are indeed the frontrunners to sign combo guard Austin Rivers, they will have another impact player off the bench. He will also help offset the loss of D.J. Augustin, who was included in the trade for Tucker.
#5 Giannis Antetokounmpo's ever-expanding game
Rarely do MVPs get better. But in Giannis Antetokounmpo’s case, it looks like he has become a better all-around player this season. A quick look at his stats shows that the Greek Freak is averaging a career-high in assists at 6.4 a game. He’s also scoring more this year (28.3 points) than he did in his first MVP season.
Giannis is averaging more steals (1.2) and blocks (1.3) than last year when he was named Defensive Player of the Year too. Additionally, Antetokounmpo is also shooting a higher percentage from the field (55.8%) and from the line (67.5%) this year compared to last year.
As astounding as these numbers may be, his stats since Feb. 19 have been nothing less than astonishing:
29.0 points / 11.7 rebounds / 7.4 assists / 1.0 steals / 1.2 blocks / 56.2% FG percentage / 34.7% 3-PT FG percentage / 75.6% FT percentage
The Milwaukee Bucks forward has shown that he hasn’t stopped learning the game, and his team has benefitted from it. More than the past two seasons, Antetokounmpo may finally be ready to lead his team to a championship.