The Milwaukee Bucks are, by a number of measures, the best team in the NBA. They have the best record, the best point differential, the best defensive rating. Mike Budenholzer is one of the best coaches in the league; Giannis Antetokounmpo is one of the best players. Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, and Malcolm Brogdon are all playing great. Nikola Mirotic was an inspired trade deadline acquisition. In action, the squad has a pleasing frictionlessness to it. They seem to always know what they’re doing, together, all at once. If you watch the Bucks, and then flip over to even a pretty good team’s contest—the Blazers or the Celtics, let’s say—the difference is noticeable: it’s assuredness. The Blazers and Celtics are trying things out, scrambling, and sometimes just overmatched. The Bucks, up big or trailing by a few, are constantly handling the situation. You feel confident they’ll do what needs doing before the final buzzer sounds. They’re not cute, and they’re not a fluke. Yet it remains unclear exactly what they are.
Earlier this month I wrote that, with the Tobias Harris trade, the Sixers have probably transformed themselves into the Warriors’ closest rivals. It’s entirely possible that I’m wrong, but just looking at the facts and figures, it’s strange that that’s even a reasonable possibility considering the Sixers are a prickly, not-totally-optimized hodgepodge of talent and the Bucks haven’t put a foot wrong all season. It’s not anti-small market bias (I like Milwaukee!), and it’s not a preoccupation with stars (I love Middleton!). It likely has something to do with Budenholzer’s 60-win Hawks squad getting thrashed in the playoffs by LeBron’s Cavs, but those Hawks didn’t have anything like Giannis on their roster. Perhaps it’s the simple reality that we haven’t seen the Bucks perform in the postseason yet, and we won’t totally believe that they can until it actually happens, but not so long ago, before they had won their first title, we sensed that the Warriors were special. Why aren’t we making the same proclamations about Milwaukee?
Some of it is the existence of the Warriors themselves. They’re the hard ceiling against which everyone else butts up. In a different NBA, the Rockets would have been good enough to win a title last year. The same goes for the Cavs team Golden State nearly swept in 2017. If you removed the Warriors from the league, we’d be talking about the Thunder or Nuggets having a decent shot at a championship. The Raptors would be in the conversation too. It can’t be overestimated the degree to which Steph, Klay, Draymond, and Durant, in occupying an entire echelon by themselves, flatten everyone else out. Sure, the Bucks are better than the Celtics, and that matters because the NBA is not, thankfully, all about who’s going to win at season’s end, but the whole enterprise does feel like a race for second place, and that’s not ideal. It’s fun to imagine Giannis, who at this time last year was playing for a dubiously extant man named Joe Prunty, lifting the Larry O’Brien trophy several miles over his own head, but we know that’s almost definitely not going to happen. So we have to settle for: the Bucks are terrific, but of course…
And they do have their weaknesses. Their depth is a fine asset in February, but it won’t matter much in the playoffs. The Raptors have had robust rotations for years now and have tended to flag somewhat when the chips are down in part because their opponents are happy to DNP Jimmy Below-Averageson while the Raps fret over which pretty good backup big they’re going to leave on the bench. If the Bucks are going to make a Finals run, Sterling Brown and Pat Connaughton are hardly going to have anything to do with it. Brogdon, Middleton, and Bledsoe, along with Giannis, are going to have to adjust to playing an extra five to 10 minutes per game, and Coach Bud is going to have to tweak his substitution patterns. This is a surmountable problem, but disrupted rhythms and fatigue management are at least minor concerns.
Also troubling is the fact that the Bucks allow a ton of three-point attempts. While it’s hard to argue with their methods, because they give up a league-average percentage from behind the line and have an excellent defense overall, the NBA’s best teams tend to shoot really well from three. Packing the paint rather than getting out on shooters could be a fatal strategy against, for example, the Warriors (38.4 percent from deep, 3rd-best in the league), the Celtics (37.2 percent, fifth-best), or Sixers (36.1 percent, eighth-best). While it’s not impossible to alter elements of your defensive approach during the course of a seven-game series, it’s difficult to break habits you’ve been installing for six months. You can change tactics, but you can’t overhaul your identity, and the Bucks are built to defend the rim rather than patrol the arc.
The big things, of course, are inexperience and the lack of a clear number two. Nobody on the squad, save for the moderately washed up George Hill, has participated in the deep playoff run before. Hell, Eric Bledsoe didn’t exactly thrive under pressure against the Celtics in the first round last year. You can’t put numbers to nerves or naivete, but they matter. You can, with great confidence, gauge how well the Bucks are going to fare if Giannis doesn’t play up to his standards in the postseason: they’ll be headed home early. There’s no Westbrook to his Durant, or Kyrie to his LeBron. The team around him is rock solid, but he’s the one who has to make the entire mechanism hum. That’s a big ask.
To put a positive spin on things, maybe the Warriors’ supremacy takes some of the heat off the Bucks. Nobody is predicting that they’ll win the title, so perhaps they’ll be able to operate a little more freely than they otherwise would. It assuredly won’t be that simple, nor will it seem that way if they’re down 3-1 to the Raptors in the Eastern Conference Semis, but they’re such a likable and beautifully organized team—you don’t want them to suffer beneath the weight of expectation. Whatever the Bucks’ full potential is, whether we’re seeing it now or they find another gear when the games matter most, they’ve accomplished a lot already. Anything else they think they deserve—respect, fear, whatever—is going to have to be earned in April and May. These next couple of months, no matter how dominant or impressive, will be nothing more than a lengthy tune-up. This might not be altogether fair, but legitimacy is a hard-won thing, and every emergent team is a paper tiger until they show some teeth.