The NBA’s most unlikely powerhouse franchise is proving last year’s 60-win season was no fluke. With half of the regular season now complete, our Milwaukee Bucks are on pace to once again have the league’s best record after ripping off 35 wins in their first 41 games. They’re on pace for 70 wins, a number only two teams in the history of the league have ever topped. This Bucks team is really, really, outstandingly, mystifyingly, historically good. They will be the favorites to win the Eastern Conference, if not the whole damn thing.
Having come up two games shy of the NBA Finals a season ago, the Bucks were looking ahead at this season like a team on a mission, and they sure have played like a team hungry to take the next step. Not only is their 35-6 record the best in the league, they have the top-ranked defense and the number three-ranked offense to go along with the top Net Rating (+11.7) and point differential (+12.3). They won 18 straight games between November 8 and December 18, good for the 11th longest winning streak in NBA history. Last year at this point, the Bucks were enjoying their best season in decades. This year, they’ve been even better. If you’ve got questions about this team, we’ve got answers.
How is Giannis doing?
After winning his first MVP at age 24, Giannis Antetokounmpo has somehow managed to be even better so far this season. He’s scoring more points (29.8), grabbing more rebounds (12.8), and doing so in fewer minutes per game than any year since his rookie season (30.9). He’s also doing this now…
The biggest flaw in Giannis’ game was his three-point shooting, and this year, he’s second on the Bucks in made threes. He’s shooting 32.5 percent from beyond the arc—not exactly a Steph Curry (or Khris Middleton)-type number, but certainly a respectable one—and is shooting more than five threes per game. Uncorking his three-point shooting has been his “Happy learned how to putt!” moment, and now the MVP is that much more unstoppable.
Beyond his improved long-range shooting, Giannis also currently has the best single-season Player Efficiency Rating (PER) ever, at 32.87. The season he’s putting together is comparable to MVP seasons from all-time greats. He’s having an otherworldly year.
And it’s not just the numbers. What he’s doing on a night-to-night basis, willing his team to victory in games they have no business winning, is positively Jordanesque. His competitive drive is on that level and he’s been a true joy to watch this season.
Who have been the other standout performers?
While the Bucks don’t exactly have the multiple-Hall of Famer “superteam” we’ve been accustomed to seeing top the standings over the past decade in the NBA, Giannis’ supporting cast has once again been terrific.
Khris Middleton looks poised to make his second consecutive All-Star Game. Fresh off signing a big contract that will keep him in Milwaukee through at least 2024, the sweet-shooting forward is having his best season of his career. He missed seven games due to injury in November, but since returning to the starting lineup, Middleton is scoring 20.4 points per game on absurd efficiency (49.5% FG, 42.9% 3PT, 89.7% FT), and is grabbing rebounds (6.1/game) and dishing out assists (4.3/game) about as well as he ever has.
Eric Bledsoe also missed time due to injury, but is playing efficient, productive two-way basketball, and he typically has one or two plays per game that reminds you of the super-athlete he is. Brook Lopez has had a down year shooting the ball, but the man in the middle has been among the league’s best rim protectors, with 2.5 blocks per game (3rd in the NBA), and has been a key part of a defensive scheme that holds teams to the lowest shooting percentage in the Association at the rim.
Off the bench, George Hill’s outstanding start to the season is giving him some Sixth Man Of The Year hype. In his 12th NBA season, the veteran guard is leading the NBA in three-point percentage, making 51.3 percent of his shots “from downtown.” Donte DiVincenzo’s emergence in the starting lineup has helped ease the loss of Malcolm Brogdon. “The Big Ragu” has provided high-energy two-way play, and is growing into a key contributor for the team. He’s already among the league leaders in steals, and is just perpetually up to stuff when he’s on the court.
Have there been any big disappointments?
It’s hard to find anything to be truly upset about when your team is 35-6, but the Bucks’ Christmas Day blowout loss in Philadelphia is the one real disappointment from the season thus far. Giannis was outplayed by Joel Embiid as the 76ers shot the lights out in the high-profile game, giving Bucks critics and Sixers optimists an opportunity to suggest the teams are closer than their records might currently indicate. But with the 76ers coming to Milwaukee February 6 and February 22 for nationally televised games, it’ll give the Bucks an opportunity to flip the narrative once more.
How elaborate are the Bucks’ pre-game WWE routines now?
They’re getting pretty ridiculous.
— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) January 11, 2020
But will RoLo finally lay the SmackDown?! pic.twitter.com/8dLP0N9fhn
— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) December 14, 2019
This team is a big group of dorks and they’re all having way too much fun. It’s pretty great.
Are the Bucks going to make any trades this year?
After dealing for Eric Bledsoe two years ago, and making moves that brought in George Hill and Nikola Mirotić last year, it’s clear that General Manager Jon Horst is willing to make a deal during the season. The Bucks have some extra assets to put in play this year, with the draft picks acquired in the Malcolm Brogdon trade during the offseason, which includes Indiana’s first round pick, which right now would be 21st overall. The February 6 trade deadline is coming quick, and in a league where players are always on the move, we shouldn’t be surprised by anything at this point. (Over at Brewhoop, we advocated for the Bucks trading for New Orleans guard Jrue Holiday, but that seems less likely as the Pelicans have started inching toward the playoff picture with Zion Williamson set to return.)
Does it make sense to mess with the terrific chemistry the Bucks have built through 41 games? Or would it be a mistake not to use that draft pick to upgrade the team however they can with a title in their sights?
What are we looking forward to for the second half of the season?
You mean other than continued dominance and more of the best basketball this city has ever seen? Well, outside of the aforementioned Sixers rematches (with another on April 7), here are a few particularly notable dates on the schedule:
January 24 — The Bucks will travel to France for the NBA’s first-ever regular season game in Paris. They’ll play the Charlotte Hornets
February 14-16 — All-Star Weekend is being held at Fiserv Forum South (aka the United Center in Chicago). Giannis is currently leads the vote tally in the Eastern Conference and will likely once again Captain one of the two teams. Khris Middleton will almost certainly get an invite for the game, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see some Bucks appear in the three-point contest (Middleton? Hill?) or dunk contest (Pat Connaughton?)
— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) January 10, 2020
March 6 — The Bucks’ home game destruction of LeBron and the Lakers, featuring Giannis putting the crown on, was the highlight of the first half of the season. They’ll head to the coast for the rematch as the season hits the stretch run.
Rivalry games — Unlike past years when the West was overwhelmingly the dominant conference, the East is actually pretty good now. In addition to the Sixers, the Boston Celtics, Miami Heat, Toronto Raptors and Indiana Pacers are all at least 10 games over .500. The Bucks will play 14 more games against those five teams before the season is through. Each squad will surely be gunning for the top-seeded Bucks, so expect a hard-fought contest each time.
Eyes on the prize — With a first-half Eastern Conference lead like this (the closest team is 6.5 games back), the Bucks’ win-loss record takes on reduced importance in the second half of the season. Now is the time to make sure the team is healthy, most importantly, and prepared for a deep playoff run.
The opportunity to win a title and bring Milwaukee its first championship parade in nearly 50 years is there for the taking. Now it’s time to enjoy the brilliance of Giannis and night-to-night joy of this Bucks team, to cherish every moment with this special group, and to be ready for a postseason to remember come April, May and (hopefully) June.