The Bucks are absolutely dominating the competition this season. After finishing 44-38 last season, seventh in the Eastern Conference, they’re sitting at a pretty 43-14 record at the All-Star break this year. If they continue their pace, they’ll win 61 games, seventeen more than last year. Not only does Milwaukee have the best record in the league, they’ve got the best point differential and net rating, boasting top five ratings on both offense and defense. They should be the big favorites to win the East.
This type of rise doesn’t happen often. When the Warriors suddenly began playing elite basketball in the 2014-2015 season, people had a difficult time believing they were a legitimate threat for the title. They increased their win total from 51 to 65 games, had top five ratings on offense and defense, and won the championship. The similarities between the 2015 Warriors and 2019 Bucks are notable, and the Bucks could very well follow the same path.
It’s difficult to transform from a good team to a great team in the NBA, especially without a history of success in free agency or the playoffs. Neither the Warriors or Bucks added star players during their rise, and mainly developed through internal growth and on the fringes. They’re both blueprints for how teams can get over that hump to become championship contenders.
In 2015, Stephen Curry made the jump from All-Star to superstar. With the ball in his hands, he began shooting off-the-dribble at a skill level that had never been approached before. His ability to stretch the floor gives his teammates so much space to work with, leading to open threes, unstoppable pick and rolls, and killer isolations. The pressure to guard the ballhandler five feet beyond the three-point line opens up the lane for layups and kick-outs.
Four years later, Giannis Antetokounmpo made a similar leap. Though he might not win MVP, he’s been indubitably one of the top few players in the league, dominating on both ends. Defensively, he’s a monster with the length and athleticism to both defend on the perimeter and stuff shots around the rim. Offensively, he can’t shoot, but he’s been unstoppable around the rim, where his hops, long arms, and underrated touch make him one of the best paint scorers of recent times. Funnily, he ends up having the same effect as prime Shaquille O’Neal or prime Dwight Howard: a generational paint scorer that sucks in defenders to give his teammates open shots, working the offense inside-out.
For the Warriors, the difference in coaching between Steve Kerr and Mark Jackson was ridiculous. Jackson’s old-school style fractured the locker room and led to an ancient offense ill-suited to the strengths of its stars. When Kerr began as coach, the emphasis on ball movement, pace, and shooting immediately opened up the Warriors’ offense.
The Bucks also got rid of a terrible coach in Jason Kidd, who too had a contentious relationship with the front office. The interim coach, Joe Prunty, had no new inspiration. In Mike Budenholzer, the coach of those solid Atlanta Hawks teams from a few years ago, they found someone who could properly use Giannis’ talent on both ends. Putting as many shooters around Giannis works offensively, and allowing their perimeter players to defend the paint aggressively enables them to use their length most effectively.
Length and versatility
The Warriors’ defense revolutionized basketball with the arrival of Draymond Green. Shorter than most small forwards, he’s strong and long enough to guard centers and quick enough to cover guards. The team ended up relegating power forward David Lee to the bench because of his defensive struggles and inability to stretch the floor offensively. He was a casualty of basketball evolution.
The Warriors built their defense on players who could guard multiple positions. With Shaun Livingston, Andre Iguodala, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, and Draymond Green, the Warriors could switch pick and rolls and force teams to beat them through isolations. They were the top team in defensive rating that year.
The 2019 Bucks have the same type of length and positional versatility. They too ditched a power forward with acute defensive weaknesses, Jabari Parker, and focused upon players who could establish their defensive identity. Antetokounmpo, like Green, can guard almost every player in the league while providing tremendous help defense for his teammates. Eric Bledsoe, Malcolm Brogdon, Khris Middleton, and D.J. Wilson can also guard multiple positions. And although Ersan Ilyasova and Brook Lopez aren’t quite as quick on the perimeter, their length and discipline in the post make it extremely difficult to score inside. The 2019 Bucks also have the best defensive rating in the league.
Adding veteran role players
In the years leading up to their first championship, the Warriors added bench players to support their core. Players like Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, Leandro Barbosa, Marreese Speights established real depth on the Warriors that has kind’ve evaporated in recent years.
The Bucks’ offseason signings of Ersan Ilyasova and Brook Lopez have bolstered their outside shooting and post defense, and their midseason trades for George Hill and Nikola Mirotic make them one of the deepest teams in the league. How they divvy up the rotation minutes in the postseason will reveal a lot about how they intend to matchup to the other good teams in a playoff environment.
The Bucks can beat the Warriors in the Finals this year, but they’ll have to make it there first, and need a bit of luck to overcome the talent level of the Warriors’ five All-Stars. But they do have a generational superstar, loads of shooting, a deep bench, and a top defense. Don’t expect a Warriors’ sweep.