The NBA season has been full of surprises so far, from the Kings competing for a playoff spot to the Pacers staying strong even without Victor Oladipo, but few analysts and fans appear to expect the season to end any differently than they imagined it would at the start. The Golden State Warriors, despite only being intermittently impressive, are still the presumptive favorites to win the championship in June, which is basically what everyone predicted would happen in October. Yet if one were to give the various contender’s respective statistics, they would immediately see that the Milwaukee Bucks should be considered the favorite to win it all, even though writing that still doesn’t feel quite right.
The Bucks have had the best record in the NBA pretty much all year, and are the only team in the top five in both offensive and defensive efficiency. They have also played very well against other contenders, having won three of four against the Raptors, and two of three against the Celtics, and have swept the season series against the Nuggets. They feature the likely MVP in Giannis Antetokounmpo who, along with Oscar Robertson in 1962, is only the second player in league history to average 27, 12, and 6 for a full season. So why aren’t we talking about them like they’re legitimate threats to not only come out of the East, but win the whole darn thing?
It can be hard to disabuse ourselves of previously held ideas about the world around us, and disabusing ourselves of ideas about the NBA landscape is no exception. Remember the This Is Going to Be Fun Lakers? That whole season, even as they floundered game after game, struggling to reach the playoffs, there was a part of me that kept waiting for them to flip the switch and go on a sustained winning streak that could potentially culminate in a deep playoff run. I knew it wasn’t going to happen — I could see that Steve Nash at 38 was struggling in a way he hadn’t in over a decade and that Dwight Howard and Kobe Bryant openly hated playing together — but I had expected it to happen and it was hard to let that expectation go.
Sometimes these expectations turn out to be right, as when pretty much no one expected the Raptors to get past the LeBron-led Cavaliers in the playoffs last year despite Toronto looking like the better team all year long. Now though, with seemingly everyone expecting the Warriors to waltz to their fourth championship in four years, preseason expectations are playing a larger role in that belief than their on-court performance. FiveThirtyEight has constantly updated NBA predictions and their refined CARMELO system, which takes into account factors such as playoff experience and the talent level of a team’s roster, still gives the Warriors a 56 percent chance of winning the Finals. However, their ELO system, which focuses solely on game results, the Bucks are given the best odds to win the title. Even statistical analyses are susceptible to believing the Warriors will come together more fully in the playoffs, unleashing their full power once mid-April rolls around.
Another factor contributing to this latent bias is that ever since LeBron James joined Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade on the Miami Heat in 2010, NBA teams have been in an arms race to put as many stars together as possible. One star just is not considered enough anymore, and that assumption has hurt the perception of Milwaukee this year. While Milwaukee has been objectively better than the Celtics, Raptors, and 76ers this season, there’s a creeping suspicion that those other teams have more talent with their assemblage of All-Stars and promising young prospects. On paper, the Bucks’ starting line-up just does not look as imposing as the ones fielded by other Eastern Conference contenders even as they’ve gone 6-3 against them so far. There’s an implicit belief that, in the playoffs, talent wins out and it appears, at a glance, that the Bucks just don’t have enough star power to compete.
One of the more underrated things a team can possess is a number of competent players who know their role and perform it well, without committing a ton of unforced errors. This is how the Pacers have been able to maintain the likelihood of home court advantage without Oladipo and how the Clippers have held on to their playoff positioning even after trading Tobias Harris at the deadline. Neither the Pacers nor the Clippers have a bonafide star playing for them right now, but both teams have a number of solid rotation players who play well together and don’t have anyone getting minutes who just doesn’t deserve them.
This is essentially the same situation the Bucks have found themselves in, but with the added bonus of having one of the most unguardable players in recent history. While there are definite concerns about the chemistry of the Celtics and the 76ers, and the depth of the Warriors, there are no such worries about the Bucks beyond Giannis. They may not be big names likely to appear on anyone’s All-NBA ballots, but they play well together and get the job done. Players like Brook Lopez, Malcolm Brogdon, Ersan Ilyasova, Pat Connaughton, and Tony Snell are not ones that front offices are going to offer max deals to or make their top priority, but they’re all players that any team would be fortunate to have playing an ancillary role for them, and the Bucks are lucky enough to have them all on their roster at once.
Of course, none of this would work without Giannis Antetokounmpo putting up one of the best seasons in recent memory. Despite still being a spotty shooter, Giannis remains a dominant scorer, taking over 70 percent of his shots in the restricted area, where he converts them at a rate of 69 percent, per NBA.com. And with the defense constantly having to be on guard against his drives to the basket, he opens up tons of space for shooters like Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, and Nikola Mirotic so that even as Giannis fails to consistently make 3’s himself, he still plays a vital role in the team’s shotmaking abilities.
With the playoffs starting in less than a month, the Warriors are still the favorite to win the title in June, but there’s less reason to expect them to win it all than there has been since the beginning of their dynasty in 2015. Perhaps they will be able to turn things on in the playoffs, harnessing the full power of their historically imposing starting five, easily earning their fourth title in five years. They certainly have the star power and the resume that makes such an eventuality appear quite likely, but looking solely at how the season has gone so far, the Bucks should be the favorites. Of course, we don’t live in a context-free vacuum so actually coming to believe they are truly the favorites is a lot tricker than merely saying they should be.