Micah Adams (@MicahAdams13): The Milwaukee Bucks emerged from the All-Star break with the best record in the NBA. They have a 25-year-old reigning MVP who looks like a lock to make it two in a row. They currently have the fourth-best scoring margin in NBA history, even better than the 73-9 Golden State Warriors.
And speaking of those Warriors, these Bucks are also in pursuit of the vaunted 70-win threshold, accomplished by only the 2015-16 Warriors and 1995-96 Chicago Bulls.
By almost any measure, this should unequivocally be the favourite to win the NBA title.
Except ... they're not.
They aren't the favourites in Vegas.
They aren't the favourites by FiveThirtyEight's state-of-the-art projections.
And judging squarely by the reactions of talking heads on TV and throughout #NBATwitter, the Bucks simply don't get the benefit of the doubt.
In my estimation, there are five major reasons why:
- Last year's loss to the Toronto Raptors
- Khris Middleton's legitimacy as a second star
- Eric Bledsoe's postseason woes
- Mike Budenholzer's track record
- (gulp)... Giannis's (in)ability to close out games
Because two is always greater than one, Scott Rafferty is here to help me sort through the reasons why the Bucks aren't prohibitive favourites and perhaps cast doubt on my own doubts.
So close, yet so far
Scott Rafferty (@crabdribbles): This is probably the best place to start.
What's easy to forget is how close the Bucks were to making the Finals last season. Not only did they win the first two games of the series, it took a double-overtime victory in Game 3 led by a hobbled Kawhi Leonard for the Raptors to keep the series alive.
The Raptors then went on to win three more games in a row but based on the way many talk about this team, you'd think that the Bucks were swept in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Adams: Losing four straight games after taking a 2-0 lead is a bad look. I get it ... you go down like that, you don't deserve the benefit of the doubt the very next year. But I'm totally with you.
People look back at that series as if they got their doors blown off when in reality, they win Game 3 and it's a wrap. They're up 3-0 and very likely on to the Finals against a team that would have had zero shot of slowing down Giannis.
This is going to be a weird thing to say but I'll say it anyway: I don't think Leonard gets enough respect when talking about the Bucks.
Leonard gets respect. But it essentially took him turning into Michael Jordan in order for the Raptors to mount that comeback. To me, those four straight losses have far more to do about Kawhi than about the Bucks.
Rafferty: I agree with you.
And obviously the Raptors not having Leonard this season makes the path towards the Finals much more clear for the Bucks, but I will say this: I do think that the Raptors could still bother them in the playoffs this season. Nick Nurse was able to build a defensive scheme that helped slow Antetokounmpo and the Bucks down last season, and this team has the personnel to do something similar again even without Leonard.
Whether or not the Raptors can be good enough offensively to beat the Bucks in a series, I don't know - a lot of it would hinge on Pascal Siakam being able to go toe-for-toe with Antetokounmpo - but they sure could make it ugly again, so much so that I can understand why some have reservations about this team because it's not like the Bucks completely changed their roster following last season's loss.
MORE: Breaking down the Raptors remaining schedule
Adams: Leonard didn't single-handedly win that series but he was by far the biggest reason for it. And now even though he's gone, it feels like there is doubt about Milwaukee being able to get out of the East even though nobody else has proven capable of stopping him for a prolonged stretch.
The Philadelphia 76ers are getting a longer leash than the Bucks and they: A) haven't made it out of the second round, B) are 9-20 on the road and C) have a team that doesn't even make any sense.
Rafferty: I do think the Raptors and 76ers are the biggest threats to the Bucks in the East, though. The Raptors have no fear of the Bucks and if there's one coach who I trust coming up with a game plan to slow Antetokounmpo again, it's Nurse. The 76ers have been the biggest disappointment in the league this season, but we saw on Christmas Day what they can do to Antetokounmpo with all their size. It's hard for me to completely ignore that.
Now, the 76ers might have to win a series or two to play against the Bucks in the playoffs, but I don't think it's a lock that the Bucks would beat them if they were to play against each other.
I'm guessing you disagree.
Adams: You hit the nail on the head. "The 76ers will have to win a series or two to play against the Bucks." They aren't going to. It's a team relying solely on talent, a team with zero shooting, a team with zero pedigree of actually winning and a team far more likely to trip over it's own two feet than actually cause significant problems.
The Raptors are the defending champs and Nick Nurse is AWESOME, but I mean c'mon ... no Kawhi is a really big deal!
The Boston Celtics are emerging in a big way but that's a conversation for a different day and also ... stopping Giannis is still important and the answer isn't found in the words, Daniel Theis.
The Miami Heat also deserve mention and play a style that can certainly translate to a late run.
I think ultimately that one series loss becomes overblown when thinking about this Bucks team and how they project forward. Of course, there are reasons they lost four straight to begin with, which we'll get into right now.
So without further ado...
The second banana
Adams: Let me start this section off with two separate thoughts:
- I've done a 180 on Khris Middleton and think he's been sensational this year.
- He shot 3-for-16 in that Game 3 loss, which started the collapse against Toronto.
If Middleton shows up even a little bit (yes, I realize he hit the shot to force the first overtime), the Bucks go up 3-0 and probably win the NBA title.
Rafferty: He scored 30 points in Game 4, but that game was never really close. He then combined to score 20 points in Games 5 and 6, so it wasn't a great series overall for Middleton.
Since you've done a complete 180 on him, to the point where I think you had him higher than anyone else on our NBA.com Global Staff when we ranked our top-30 players in the league recently, I have to ask: Do you think he's capable of being the second-best player on a championship team? Because if the answer is no, it's a problem.
Adams: This time a year ago, I would have said no. And you know what ... I would have been wrong. Because again, they were THIS CLOSE.
It's hard to overstate how good Middleton has been this year. He's a walking 20 points on 50-40-90, plays good D, is a reliable decision-maker, has great size for his position, can do things on and off the ball.
28-year-old Khris Middleton has essentially been 28-year-old Reggie Miller, and as a child of the 90s, I'm a firm believer that Miller could have definitely been the second-best player on a championship team.
|1993-94 Miller||2019-20 Middleton|
|3-pt FG pct||42.1||43.7|
Rafferty: It's a different game now, though. What worked in the 90s won't necessarily work today, so that comparison doesn't really do it for me.
Here's where I stand on it: I really like Middleton. He's awesome. People questioned whether or not he was really deserving of being an All-Star last season, but he proved this season that he deserves to be mentioned as one of the best players in the Eastern Conference. He's the type of player every team in the league would want on their roster.
And yet, there's still part of me that doesn't quite believe in him, even though he's been pretty good in the playoffs in the past.
Adams: You're right. A game predicated on 3-point shooters operating in space wouldn't work at all today.
Look, I'm the last person to come to Reggie Miler's defence but there's no need to OK boomer me on this one. He'd be even better today but I digress.
Adams: Back to Middleton and one reason why I think he's simply gone up a level.
He's been OUTRAGEOUS when on the floor without Giannis.
Basically 32-8-6 per 36 minutes without losing any efficiency. On raw numbers alone, Middleton's overall production when he's played without Giannis is something that's been matched by only three players ... ever ... including Giannis himself, this season.
So yeah, I think Middleton can be the second-best player on a title team. We good here?
MORE: 'Can the Bucks win 70 games?' and other key storylines for the final stretch
Rafferty: It's going to be fascinating to see how many minutes Giannis plays in the playoffs, particularly when it matters. He averaged 38.5 minutes per game against the Raptors in the Eastern Conference Finals last season, which isn't much given the magnitude of that series.
I know Budenholzer doesn't like to run guys into the ground, but I'm guessing Antetokounmpo sees a bump in minutes when it matters the most.
Or maybe not. We should probably save this for another section.
The Bledsoe question
Rafferty: Let's just get to it. Bledsoe is shooting 26.4% on catch-and-shoot 3s this season. That's a problem because we know how teams are going to defend him. They're going to help off of him aggressively to load up on Antetokounmpo, basically daring him to settle for open 3s.
Adams: Of all the problems, I think this is the one that actually carries the most weight.
And I'm not necessarily even referring to that one number alone, but moreso Bledsoe's entire body of work when it comes to the playoffs.
Let me briefly spell out the body of work:
- Two years with the Clippers as a bit rotation player in which he averaged fewer than 20 minutes per game as a backup.
- 2018 with the Bucks in which he shot 31.8 percent from three and had a PER below league average.
- 2019 with the Bucks in which he at times became unplayable against Toronto, shooting just 29.4 percent overall and 17.2 percent from 3 in that series.
Is there any reason to believe he won't struggle again?
Rafferty: If there's a reason for optimism, it's that the Bucks might not have to rely on him as much this season as they did last season. George Hill, in particular, could see his minutes increase the deeper the Bucks get in the playoffs. It helps that he's a veteran, but he's also yet to miss a shot from the perimeter this season.
OK, not quite, but he's made 52.1 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts, which is outrageous.
And that's not to take anything away from Bledsoe. He's still a great player! He was a borderline All-Star last season and he was in the conversation this year. His weaknesses just became more and more pronounced as the playoffs go on, especially when he shares the court with another player who isn't much of a threat from the perimeter.
Adams: Bledsoe's liability as a shooter makes him tougher to play alongside Antetokounmpo. But even then, he's got the ability to impact the game in other ways. He's a dynamic presence in the open floor that can make life miserable for opponents and he's a pest defensively. It's that last part which at times ALSO disappeared against Toronto. It's not fair to expect him to suddenly turn into Stephen Curry, but what is fair is holding him at least somewhat accountable for Fred VanVleet turning into Stephen Curry.
Bledsoe HAS to be an impactful and disruptive defender. And he's got the tools to do it. But if not, then I'd expect a shorter leash and potentially a far heavier dose of Hill.
Rafferty: So it sounds like we're on the same page: Bledsoe's shooting is a problem, but the Bucks have the depth to make up for it.
Adams: They have the depth to make up for it ... but do they have the coach?
The game within the game
Adams: OK so ... Mike Budenholzer is a very good coach. His teams win a ton of regular-season games, he's innovative particularly on the offensive end and his players seem to love playing for him. He's a two-time NBA Coach of the Year.
So let's just get that out of the way first.
Now. All of that being said, I have some questions but I'll let you go first. What's one of the biggest questions you have with Budenholzer when it comes to playoff time?
Rafferty: The big question for me is how many minutes does Budenholzer play Antetokounmpo when it matters. Because as I said before, he didn't play as many minutes against the Raptors in the Eastern Conference Finals as he probably should have. And it was in those minutes that Antetokounmpo was on the bench that the Bucks lost the series - they went from outscoring the Raptors by 2.5 points per 100 possessions to being outscored by 10.3 points per 100 possessions when he wasn't on the court, per NBA.com.
Budenholzer took some heat after Game 6 in particular for playing Antetokounmpo 40 minutes in a closeout game.
"I don't think Giannis playing 44 minutes is the solution."- NBA TV (@NBATV) May 26, 2019
Mike Budenholzer on Giannis' minutes following the Bucks' Game 6 loss.#NBAPlayoffs pic.twitter.com/DpZAVwqV9e
Not that Antetokounmpo should play all 48 minutes of every game - that would be outrageous and reckless - but being able to rest him as much as they have in the regular season should mean that he can go all-out in the playoffs.
Adams: That quote is telling.
And listen, when you're winning it's a moot point. Nobody said a word in Games 1 and 2 of that series when Giannis played 37 and 35 minutes, respectively. But he does have a bit of a reputation for not making the necessary adjustments to try and turn the tide over the course of a series.
I look at Bledsoe as another part of the Budenholzer conundrum. He's someone with a glaring weakness that becomes magnified alongside Antetokounmpo but is certainly still important. Does Budenholzer have what it takes mid-series to make a necessary adjustment to get the most out of his pieces?
You saw the adjustment by Nick Nurse last year.
You saw the adjustment by Billy Donovan in the 2016 Western Conference Finals for the Oklahoma City Thunder in which he started playing Andre Roberson at power forward, a move which nearly led to an upset of the Warriors.
Where's the evidence of a major adjustment from Budenholzer? Remember, this is someone that despite all of the regular season success, has only been to the Conference Finals one other time (2015 with the Hawks) and that resulted in a non-competitive sweep against a Cavs team that only had Kyrie Irving for two games and didn't have Kevin Love at all.
Rafferty: The one adjustment I can remember him making as a head coach in the playoffs was starting Pero Antic at centre against the Indiana Pacers in 2014, a move that almost helped the Hawks upset the No. 1 seed in the first round.
Adams: If we're resorting to Pero Antic as reasons for optimism, I'm not so optimistic.
Beyond balancing Antetokounmpo's playing time and figuring out how to best deploy Bledsoe, the Bucks are configured in a way that in theory will need some adjustments on the fly from Budenholzer. Milwaukee is one of the league's deepest teams and rotations notoriously shorten come playoff time. How does he react to that? The Bucks rely on 3s and at times can struggle to score in the halfcourt. What does he do to remedy that? There are so many chess moves to be made that I do think it's worth questioning whether or not they'll be able to make the necessary adjustments to win when it really matters.
Nobody has a crystal ball but if there are one or two other obvious things to watch out for specifically with regards to strategy with this team, what would they be?
Rafferty: The big one for me is Giannis at the five. The Bucks didn't rely on it a ton last postseason and it won't work against every team, but it could be their version of the Death Lineup with the amount of playmaking and shooting they have on this team.
Ultimately, it just comes down to Budenholzer's ability to make adjustments on the fly. The only adjustment he really made last postseason was benching Nikola Mirotic when he wasn't playing well.
Adams: Think of the Raptors as a foil. Nick Nurse sticking with Fred VanVleet throughout his struggles. The move to put Kawhi on Giannis after Game 2. The box-and-one tactics to stifle Stephen Curry. That's at least three fork-in-the-road moments in which Nurse fundamentally played an active role in helping shape the overall tenor and direction of a series.
Rafferty: Even Brett Brown! Him having Joel Embiid guard Pascal Siakam almost changed the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Adams: Can Budenholzer do the same? It's a question worth asking. And yet ... the Buck ultimately stops with Giannis, which brings us to...
Let's talk about Giannis and Closing Time
Adams: Hot take: the end of the 2020 All-Star Game is incredibly illuminating and could potentially foreshadow Milwaukee's downfall.
There. I said it.
MORE: Appreciating Greatness at the 2020 All-Star Game
Rafferty: I was wondering if you'd go there.
Adams: Team Giannis turned into Team Non-Giannis down the stretch of the All-Star Game in part because it illuminated his inability to create off the bounce for himself in the half-court. Rather than leaning into the supposed best player in the world, his team instead resorted to hunting matchups against James Harden, something that Antetokounmpo himself said.
In other words ... his team allowed the other to dictate how they played offensively down the stretch.
Not a good look.
Am I insane?
Rafferty: To be fair to him, the spacing wasn't exactly ideal, as he was playing alongside Joel Embiid and Pascal Siakam down the stretch. As much as Siakam has improved as a 3-point shooter this season, Giannis needs better 3-point shooters around him. It's that simple.
MORE: Five players to watch in the home stretch of the season
Did what happened at the end of the All-Star Game shed light on the biggest weakness in his game, that weakness being that he still isn't much of a threat outside of the paint? Sure. But he also has a lot more space to work with in Milwaukee.
Adams: Not if he's sharing the floor with Eric Bledsoe and Brook "I'm shooting 29% from 3 as a stretch five" Lopez!
Rafferty: Look, there might not be a bigger Brook Lopez fan in the world than me. I think he's criminally underrated and that he deserves to be in the Defensive Player of the Year discussion. And yet, if he continues to shoot like this, it's going to be a problem because teams are going to help off of him and Bledsoe whenever they're on the court with Antetokounmpo.
That's not exactly a recipe for success.
That would ideally lead to more minutes of Giannis at centre, but again, time will tell if that's an adjustment Budenholzer makes if and when it's needed.
Adams: When push comes to shove, Antetokounmpo is going to have to show that his improvement as a jump shooter is real. It's one thing to do it in January against the Orlando Magic. It's another to do it in the final minute of a Game 6 or Game 7 with the season in balance.
Remember, with the season on the line in that Game 3 last year against Toronto in which Milwaukee could have effectively punched its ticket to the Finals, it was Middleton - not Antetokounmpo - which took the two biggest shots of the game.
Rafferty: I'm more concerned with Antetokounmpo's free throw shooting, to be honest. It was a problem in the Raptors series and it's been a problem this season. He doesn't have a problem drawing fouls, but he has to capitalize on those opportunities when he gets them.
Adams: Are you saying Hack-A-Shaq will return on the biggest stage?
Rafferty: Antetokounmpo is shooting 53.3 percent in crunch time this season. Teams are absolutely going to hack him to send him to the line instead of allowing him to get to the rim.
Adams: He's been Milwaukee's best closer each of the last two seasons. But last season also paints a picture as to why I'm still skeptical.
During the regular season, he "shot" a blistering 62.5 percent in clutch situations, a figure that ranked first in the entire league among the top 50 in attempts. I say "shot" because all but one of the 30 makes came from inside the paint. That's much harder to do come playoff time. Case in point? Last year's playoffs!
He went 3-8 in the final five minutes and score within five. None came in the final two minutes when it becomes much harder to rumble into the paint unencumbered and undeterred by multiple bodies.
You can watch them all right here. Are there some impressive finishes through contact or with double teams? Sure! But conspicuously missing is the late in the shot clock, clear out and create the type of looks that are bound to happen in any run to a title.
I'm not saying he can't do it, I'm just saying he hasn't done it.
As for getting reps, one by-product of the Bucks smashing teams all season long is a lack of opportunities to get comfortable taking and making those shots sure to come up in big spots. And who knows, perhaps they'll keep wrecking teams come playoff time to the point where it doesn't even matter.
But that's far from certain.
And for a team full of question marks, there might not be any larger than the one involving their best player.
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