The Milwaukee Bucks dropped their fourth straight game last night to fall to 16-12 on the season, which is still youngish but entering those middle years where teams really emerge as what they'll ultimately be. Like a 31-year-old who meets someone nice and decides that while the screenplay dream is a fine dream, there's no shame in abandoning it to become an assistant manager and devoted father.
And that's really the concern. That despite Giannis Antetokounmpo's otherworldly efforts, the Bucks plateau as the fourth-best team in a middling East and must make it through some combination of Philadelphia and Brooklyn to get to the NBA Finals. It's mildly eye-opening to realize that this is a very likely possibility for this year and years in the future, potentially rendering the much-ballyhooed and celebrated retention of basketball's longest superstar more pomp than circumstance.
Those are all future imploding bridges to cross when we arrive there. The gray winter sky is not falling on the Western shores of Lake Michigan but the visibility has become a bit cloudier. Because if one were to sit down and create a list of the best NBA teams right now from scratch, it might be a considerable amount of time before the internal argument of one E or two E's in Milwaukee materialized.
The primary reason for that and the Bucks' inability to establish themselves atop a very winnable race for the East's top seed is a complete inability to execute in high-leverage minutes. From ESPN:
They are now 0-9 when trailing after three quarters this season, and they entered the night with the second-lowest win rate in games that went to clutch time this season at 22%, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Only the Detroit Pistons (20%) are worse. Clutch time is defined as any time in which the score is within five points in the final five minutes and can be at any point during that span.
One need not have an advanced degree in statistics to realize that not being able to emerge victorious in close games is a fatal flaw for a basketball team with intentions of progressing deep into the playoffs. The good news is that this is probably a small-sample-size anomaly that will return to the mean as the season continues. The bad news is that it's probably indicative of some structural problems that need to be addressed in order to achieve the self-stated lofty goals.
Antetokounmpo is taking the long view and keeping the panic button in the glove compartment. Jrue Holliday, who has missed the last five games, will cure many ails when he returns. And no one in the East has established themselves as a titan imposing consistent fear. Milwaukee still sits atop ESPN's BPI, a powerful clue that their record is not reflective of how well they've played.
Still, Antetokounmpo and the Bucks will be judged by their final line, their ability to compete for and win at least one championship. Anecdotally, it's fascinating to consider how the two-time MVP has largely been a niche storyline this year nationally. Perhaps that will emerge as a footnote. Perhaps it will emerge as a retroactive warning sign that the long-term marriage may not have has high of a ceiling as previously thought.