The Milwaukee Bucks are a mess. After a summer of seismic shakeup, they have Damian Lillard instead of Jrue Holiday, Khris Middleton on a restricted minutes plan, and a freshman head coach in Adrian Griffin who started his tenure by inspiring top assistant Terry Stotts to quit, then by trying to implement a dubious blitz-heavy defense that, six games into the season, has already been discarded. Despite this, they are 4-2 against a tough opening schedule, and only a single game behind the Boston Celtics who lead the Eastern Conference.
In other words, their series of gambles is working, so far. Disjointed, strange, and dramatic, they are nevertheless a better team in crunch time because of Lillard’s steadiness, and they're able to outperform their point differential (-3.0, currently) with sheer winsmanship. That index is likely to improve, anyway, as they revert back to the stronghold, deep-drop defensive system that has provided their high competitive floor for several seasons running. With the wispy, erasable Lillard guarding the head of the snake instead of the burly, swashbuckling Holiday, the Bucks cannot climb back to the elite defensive realm, but Giannis Antetotokounmpo, Brook Lopez, and Middleton—as he ramps up in minutes and comfort—should be able to drag them to at least league-average levels.
By the end of the season, the noise of the 2023-24 Bucks experiment will distort their season-long metrics, and we’ll be better off looking at their January, February, and March performance for indication of their championship potential. In the meantime, the November/December version of the team provides the cast for the sport’s most compelling drama. Regime change, staggering expectations, and wide-ranging results have made for a transfixing thriller. On any given night, you can’t be sure whether you’re going to see the birth of a new dynasty or a “now this is going to be fun”-level disaster. Both possibilities feel like they’re at the center of the table, on a quarter-to-quarter basis.
Shambolic losses to the Toronto Raptors and Atlanta Hawks have shown us what the latter scenario looks like: a misfitted, aging core forced to execute schemes drawn up for younger, faster men, and looking consequently like they have found themselves on the wrong side of history. Against bouncy, athletic teams with uptempo personnel, it’s clear that Milwaukee should not try winning a track meet, but instead look to impose a different kind of style. What exactly that is remains to be seen.
Certainly, though, it should be a hybrid that prominently features Lopez camped out near the rim, where he returned in the fifth game of the season against the New York Knicks. Ecstatic to be back home in the paint and away from the foot-race oblivion of perimeter defense, his familiar “come and get it” stance led to eight blocks in the contest—the Bucks’ best defensive performance of the season by far, with the Knicks shooting under 40 percent as a team. Roughly half of their offense came from Jalen Brunson, who notched 45 points and four assists.
Three nights later, however, the Bucks were porous yet again, allowing the Brooklyn Nets to tally 125 points against them. Seventy-six of those came from Cam Thomas and Mikal Bridges who, like Brunson, encountered little resistance near the arc and in the mid-range, whatever may be happening near the basket. It has always been a matter of policy for Milwaukee to let teams try and snipe them to death, prioritizing paint lockdown. The approach simply looks a lot worse without Holiday or, before him, the much-maligned, but ultimately underappreciated Eric Bledsoe.
This is not to say that the Bucks are dying because of their new-found flaws; they won the contest in Brooklyn, scoring 130 points of their own. Middleton, in his most fluid game of the season, once again became the crunch-time assassin of years past, so crucial to his team’s 2021 NBA championship. In the game’s closing minutes, he made a debilitating mid-range jumper, hit Antetokounmpo with a brilliant pick-and-roll dish, and swooped in for a game-sealing transition stop at the basket on Dorian Finney-Smith. From there, all his team had to do was get the ball into Lillard’s sure hands to bleed Brooklyn out with perfunctory garbage time free throws.
The standings don't show it, but the contrast between Milwaukee and Boston, at this point, is stark. These two teams with recent rivalry history and Holiday connecting them have been naturally compared to each other, and framed as eventual endgame heavyweight opponents come Spring. Boston’s sleek, machine-like regular season destruction is a bankable thing, while Milwaukee’s early conquests appear much less indicative or reliable in their chaotic, sweaty form. Long-time Bucksologists know better, though, and by now have come to identify this gnarlier kind of victory with Giannis himself, who is too large of a presence not to have his style define his team. Reckless, questionable, and stressful, he is still glorious at the end of it all, and this squad is now more like him than any Bucks assemblage before it.