There has been no shortage of exciting new storylines in the NBA this year.
The Chicago Bulls have used free agency to reinvigorate a team that hasn’t made the playoffs in four years. Stephen Curry has been in MVP mode from the start of the season and has the Golden State Warriors looking like upper-echelon championship contenders once again. And the Cleveland Cavaliers have so far made the prognosticators look foolish as they’ve used a six-game winning streak to surge to third in the Eastern Conference.
But, sometimes, while looking at the shiny new things in the league, we can miss what is still there. Teams that didn’t have a lot of turnover may not be fun to talk about in a new year, even if they did win the championship the year before and sport a 27-year-old future Hall of Famer in his prime.
It hasn’t just been stasis that has kept the chatter about the Milwaukee Bucks to a minimum. Injuries to start the year and the latest COVID outbreak have caused many to turn an eye away from a team that has been short-handed more than most other teams in the league. But make no mistake about it, the Bucks, when fully healthy, have shown they need to be mentioned in the first breath of championship contenders once again.
The Greek Peak
There is a joy to watching a player at the peak of his powers that has been unburdened by a championship. Fair or not, any superstar who has been to the playoffs several times without winning a title will hear the dreaded “Yeah, but…” no matter what is accomplished in the regular season. “Yeah, but can he do it in the playoffs?” “Yeah, but what happens when teams key in on him for an entire series?”
Those questions have lingered over Giannis the past couple of seasons. He won back-to-back MVPs in 2018-19 and 2019-20, but his team couldn’t make the NBA Finals in either year. It felt like he wouldn’t have won MVP last year even if he put up prime Wilt Chamberlain numbers because the lack of playoff success had soured people on his overall value.
You know the rest. He closed out a dominant playoff run with a 50-point, 14-rebound effort in the clinching Game 6 of the NBA Finals against the Phoenix Suns. And now no one needs to worry about the, “Yeah, but…” anymore with Giannis.
He’s come back as good as ever this year, and helped the team stay afloat while Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday have both missed time, and, until he landed on the COVID list, kept himself on the peripherals of the MVP conversation again.
There might not be a player in NBA history that is harder to guard in transition. He leads the league in points per game and field goal attempts per game in transition. He’s a 6-foot-11 blur built like a truck with a 7’3 wingspan. If he gets a full head of steam, even if the defense is mostly aligned, there’s not much anyone on Earth can do to stop him.
DRIP projects Giannis as the fourth-best player in the league among players that have played this season, and he’s within striking distance of Nikola Jokic for second. He also has the second-most D-DRIP of any player in the league, trailing Rudy Gobert.
His relentlessness in attacking the rim is still his greatest offensive trait. Giannis is leading the league in field goals attempted and made per game within 5 feet. He is seventh in field goal percentage in that area among players who have made 100 shots there. And, unlike a lot of the players who shoot a high percentage on shots near the rim, he generates a lot of these looks himself.
Going to the rim is also a great way to get to the line. Giannis leads the league in free throw attempts by a whopping 2.3 per game over any other player (DeMar DeRozan is second). And DRIP now projects him to have the highest free throw rate in the league, as his surge in attempts this year has moved him past Joel Embiid.
With his relentless attacking, improved playmaking, and suffocating defense, there aren’t many players in the league that bring as much to the table as Giannis. And even though he hasn’t had many drastic changes to his game this year, he is still a must-watch player every time he steps onto the floor.
The Supporting Stars
The Bucks “Big 3” may not be as famous as some other recent examples, but the team has an undoubted hierarchy with Giannis at the top and Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton right behind him as the two most important players on the reigning champions.
Holiday has been called underrated so often in his career that it seems implausible that anyone could still underrate him. But he’s the exact kind of player that certain advanced stats and statistical models will rate higher than the eye test at first glance, because he does almost everything at a B or higher level and is flexible enough to play multiple roles on both sides of the ball.
The Bucks point guard has the 14th most DRIP among players that have played this year and is one of only four players to be in the top 30 in O-DRIP and D-DRIP, alongside Nikola Jokic, Chris Paul and Giannis.
While it can be hard to think of Holiday as one of the 15 best players in the league, his versatility is critically important to the Bucks. There aren’t many players that can be effective in low-usage and high-usage roles and are willing to take a back seat when necessary, but Holiday is one of them.
With Giannis sidelined the last two games due to COVID, Holiday was asked to do a lot more. He had 26 points and a season-high 14 assists in a win over the Indiana Pacers on December 15. Then, he put up 40 points on a whopping 36 shots in an overtime loss to the New Orleans Pelicans on December 17.
After a brutal shooting month in November in which he shot 28.6% from three, Holiday has rebounded to shoot 41.5% in December. Although there were some rocky games in the postseason last year, he has proven to be the piece that has vaulted the Bucks to the next level.
Khris Middleton hasn’t looked like himself yet, with his shooting percentage from both 2-point and 3-point range down significantly this year. And he’s missed the last three games with a knee injury that isn’t believed to be too serious. But if he is healthy, there’s no reason to think he won’t be the lethal shooting, underrated playmaking wing that the Bucks have come to rely on over the past few years.
Although the Bucks have been fine this year without all three of their best players playing, everything is unsurprisingly much easier for them when all three are playing together. Teams have to send multiple bodies at Giannis, and Holiday and Middleton’s combination of shooting and playmaking make a lethal combination when the defense is scrambling to recover.
When all three of the team’s best players are on the court, the Bucks have three guys with top-level two-way impact. There aren’t many teams that can say the same.
It is a little cliché to say that you should surround your stars with role players who are good 3-point shooters, but there aren’t many teams where that’s more important than the Bucks.
Giannis mandates such attention when he’s going to the rim that the entire defensive has to lean in one direction to stop him. And Holiday and Middleton tend to make the right quick decisions when they have the advantage, as both are adept at finding the open shooter.
The Bucks have found accurate shooters that are willing to let it fly. With all the open looks they get, DRIP projects Grayson Allen, Bobby Portis and Pat Connaughton to be among the top 25 most accurate 3-point shooters in the league. Allen and Connaughton are both among the league leaders in percentage of shots taken from 3-point range.
Portis has been a revelation in Milwaukee as well. He shot below 36% on 3-pointers in four of his first five seasons but shot an eye-popping 47% on them last season on 2.4 attempts per game. This year, he’s taking 4.7 attempts a game and still shooting an excellent 40%. He’s an excellent pick-and-pop partner when he’s being guarded by a center, as he can get a shot off with even a small amount of separation.
Milwaukee is eighth in offensive efficiency this year despite the fact that they’ve dealt with a rash of injuries and a COVID outbreak that has kept them from being near full-strength most of the season. And if the team gets healthy, it’s plausible they could creep even higher in that category when their best players are all able to get back on the floor. Combine that with their top-10 defensive efficiency, and the Bucks look like a team ready to defend their crown.