Earlier today, my boss Jason McIntyre wrote a story about how tanking for Zion Williamson is the most interesting thing happening in the NBA right now. Yes, the Warriors appear indomitable if all or even most of their stars’ legs are working. And, as the stars have essentially appointed themselves as fantasy captains, discussion of future transactions trumps the conversation about the present season. So, I can see why he’d think that about Zion tanking, but he’s wrong: The Bucks are the most interesting story in the NBA. (Disclosure: I’m a Bucks fan.)
The Bucks’ 2019 NBA championship odds at the Superbook have appreciated from 100-1 when they opened last June to 10-1 as of last week. In a sport where it seems the best teams are preordained, an odds appreciation of 1000% like that is virtually unheard of. Giannis Antetokounmpo is in my opinion the biggest individual difference-maker in the league and everyone else fits well around him.
New coach Mike Budenholzer has been like Pepto Bismol for the Bucks’ offense, taking the team from clogged indigestion under Jason Kidd and Joe Prunty (the former was much more to blame as the latter took over mid-season) to smooth spacing on a team where the players all have infectious regard for each other.
The Bucks have the best record in the NBA and the best point differential — standing at 9.7 points per game, they’re over two points ahead of the second-place Warriors who are at 7.6. I could go on and on about all the numbers, but FiveThirtyEight wrote a primer on a lot of the normal stats as well as analytics last week.
Essentially, Giannis is a pterodactyl and very difficult if not impossible to stop with one person near the hoop. But, double-teaming him leaves someone open, and he’s more often than not standing in three-point range. The Bucks are very well constructed for this: Khris Middleton is an All-Star, Eric Bledsoe (who I never thought I’d like this much) is in that class of NBA player who is formidable but not quite an All-Star, and Malcolm Brogdon could well be on his way to being there.
Brook Lopez was a great offseason pickup and he’s added a three-point shot to his repertoire; Ersan Ilyasova, Tony Snell, George Hill, DJ Wilson, Pat Connaughton, and Sterling Brown add valuable role-playing minutes off the bench. The team also plays great defense (the team is ranked first in the NBA in defensive efficiency). They’re going to be adding Nikola Mirotic to the rotation following a trade with New Orleans last week, and he’s going to provide another three-point weapon.
I get that ESPN suits are probably praying to all their preferred deities that the Bucks (and Raptors for that matter) do not make the Finals over the Celtics or Sixers from a short-term ratings perspective, but in the long run it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to establish Giannis as a legitimate star with postseason accomplishments. Markets will always matter when it comes to this equation, but the NBA is a star-driven league and LeBron proved he could get big TV numbers in Cleveland.
Giannis is a magnetic, affable personality with international appeal, and the league could do far worse than him being the one who gets passed the torch into the pantheon of superstars.
It’s certainly not a gimme putt that the Bucks will beat two of the Raptors, Sixers, and Celtics (if they ever do pull themselves together) to reach the Finals, but if they get there the combination of Giannis inside — where the Warriors are most susceptible — with a band of three-point shooters gives them a better chance to shock the world. (If only Ben Simmons could shoot, I’d say the Sixers also could make the Warriors sweat.) No, I don’t think it’s probable the Bucks will beat the Warriors if they meet in the Finals, but I think the variance factor if their three-pointers go in at a big rate would make the series more interesting than consensus belief. It’s possible.