The Milwaukee Bucks are the best team in the NBA by almost any measure, but exactly how far ahead of the rest of the pack are they?
Headed into the All-Star break, the Milwaukee Bucks are an incredible 46-8. They’ve outscored opponents by 12.1 points per game, best in the NBA. Their 25-3 home record and 21-5 road record are each second-best in the NBA, and their 28-4 record against intra-conference foes is the best in the league.
The Bucks have 31 double-digit wins and only four double-digit losses, and each of those figures is also the best in the league. Milwaukee is also 12-7 against teams that are .500 or better and 34-1 against teams below .500, and those marks are also tops in the league.
Milwaukee currently has the league’s third-best offense and the best defense, by far. Milwaukee is not the only team with a top-five unit on both sides of the ball (the Los Angeles Lakers are second on offense and fifth on defense, while the Boston Celtics are fifth on offense and third on defense), but they’re the only team with two top-three units, and they’re only 0.1 points per 100 possessions behind L.A. for the second-best offense in basketball at the moment. The Bucks’ 11.5 Net-Rating at NBA.com is the best in the NBA. They play at the league’s fastest pace, lead the NBA in effective field goal percentage on both sides of the ball, and they’re the best defensive rebounding team in the league as well.
It’s difficult to argue the Bucks are not the clear-cut best team in the league without being at least a little bit intellectually dishonest. But by how much are they actually the best? The answer varies depending on the measurement you use, but the general consensus is, “by a pretty decent amount!”
Milwaukee’s current 0.852 winning percentage puts it on a 70-win pace, seven wins ahead of the next-closest team (the Lakers, who are on a 63-win pace). Their plus-12.1 point differential is 4.7 points better than the second-place Lakers, and gives the Bucks a Pythagorean expectation about 8-9 wins better than LA has. Milwaukee’s Net Rating is also 4.3 points per 100 possessions better than the one the Lakers have posted, so the effect of their faster pace doesn’t make a significant dent in their lead over the next-best team.
If that seems like a pretty big gap between the performance of the first- and second-best teams in the league at the All-Star break, that’s because it is. NBA.com keeps these stats going back to the 1996-97 season, so we can even contextualize how much better the Bucks have been than the next-closest team by comparing it to how much better the first-place team has been than the second-place team in previous seasons.
The difference between the Bucks’ 0.852 winning percentage (third-best for any team pre-All-Star break since 1997) and the Lakers’ 0.774 winning percentage is 0.078, which works out to the season-long equivalent of about seven wins. There have only been four larger differentials since the 1996-97 campaign, and this is the largest differential since the 2010-11 season, when the San Antonio Spurs played at a 67-win pace before the break while the Celtics played to a 61-win pace at the same time.
The Bucks’ 11.5 Net-Rating is the fifth-best mark any team has posted prior to the All-Star break since 1997, and it is 4.3 points per 100 possessions better then the Lakers’ current mark. That 4.3-points per 100 difference is tied with the 1996-97 Bulls for the largest difference between the first- and second-place teams at the All-Star break during this time period.
The difference between the Bucks and the next-closest team in Net-Rating (4.3 points) is actually equivalent to the distance between the Lakers and the 11th-place Mavericks. That outpaces even the ’97 Bulls, who were 4.3 points better than the next-closest team at the break (Detroit Pistons and Seattle SuperSonics); but those teams were 4.3 points better than the seventh-place squad (Lakers) as opposed to the 11th-place finisher at the break like this year.
How much this matters in the grand scheme of things is up for debate. The Bucks looked like the best team in the league this time last year, and they finished the season with the best record and point differential and Net-Rating. And then they lost in the Eastern Conference Finals.
But the distance between the Bucks and second is even larger this year than it was a year ago, and the team that knocked them out of the playoffs (the Raptors) is far different now than it was then; the team that looked like the unstoppable juggernaut last year (the Golden State Warriors) now has the worst record in the NBA; none of the other Eastern Conference teams appear to be in their class at the moment; and the best teams in the West look like they don’t quite measure up right now either.
People are obviously going to be in “prove-it” mode with these guys unless and until they win a title, but that doesn’t mean we can’t start properly contextualizing how far ahead of the pack they are today.