The Milwaukee Bucks are already very good, but this team seems like it could improve internally. That’s bad news for the rest of the East.
The Milwaukee Bucks have won a very nice 69 percent of their games thus far in the 2018-19 season. A team winning nearly 70 percent of its games is very good, and very rare for Milwaukee — the last Bucks squad to win 69 percent or more of their games was way back in 1985-86.
The oldest rotation player on the Bucks, George Hill, was 14 days old when the ’85-86 Bucks ended their season with a loss to the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals. All of this to say that it’s been a while since the Bucks have been this good. That’s the good news for Milwaukee.
The even better news is that it doesn’t feel like this group has hit its ceiling quite yet. The Bucks three best players, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, and Eric Bledsoe, haven’t yet had any sustained run where all of them seemed to be playing well.
Through his first nine games of the season, Bledsoe averaged just over 12 points per game and failed to hit 10 points three times. Since then, Bledsoe is scoring 18.1 points per game on blistering shooting percentages of 53.2 percent from the field and 38.3 percent from 3-point range.
Middleton has essentially flipped in the opposite direction. He started the year off well and more recently has struggled. Middleton missed two of Milwaukee’s last eight games, and scored exactly 10 points in four of the six games he did play. A 22-point outburst against Detroit in the Bucks’ last game should have Milwaukee hopeful about him going forward.
As hard as it may be to believe, Giannis hasn’t really been as good as he could be this season either. His averages of 26.8 points, 13.1 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.3 blocks per game may make that statement sound ludicrous, but there are places Antetokounmpo could improve.
The most obvious is his shooting. A common Giannis talking point involves imaging a world in which he’s a knockdown 3-point shooter, which may never happen. That’s fine. All Antetokounmpo needs is a serviceable jump shot, and he hasn’t had that all season. Giannis is hitting a paltry 33 percent of his mid-range jumpers and a horrid 11 percent of his 3’s this season, according to Cleaning the Glass.
Giannis was never Steph Curry with the shot, but he was much better from both of those areas in the past. His mid-range percentage is usually a few points higher and hasn’t been as low as it is now since his rookie season, and this year’s performance from deep is a full 20 points lower than what Giannis shot from beyond the arc last season.
If he were managing to hit 31 percent of his 3-pointers this year, as he did last season, Giannis would be scoring more than a point more per game, assuming he took as many threes as he is now. In actuality, he would probably add more than that, given that defenses would be forced to honor his jumper like they currently aren’t.
The Milwaukee Bucks have a tough path through the East, but Milwaukee feels like a team that has yet to have its three best players all really click at once. If that happens and it carries to the postseason, the Bucks might make it even farther this year than that great ’85-86 team did when it reached the Conference Finals.
#Content you can’t miss
Teachable moments; Malika Andrews describes how some NBA coaches are adding marks like a 4-point line in practice to shape their teams’ shots
Rev it up; Ian Levy explains how Dennis Smith Jr.’s basketball identity all stems from his powerful drive
Good for Thad; Ben Gibson recaps Thaddeus Young winning Eastern Conference Player of the Week
More data to take; Chris Herring breaks down FiveThirtyEight’s new NBA team forecast model
Tim really left it all on the court; Tim Cato goes behind the curtain to describe how scrum interviews work and why cliches often come from them
Can the Rockets be trusted; Tevin Williams wonders if Houston’s recent winning streak is really indicative of the team being better off