By any objective measure, the Milwaukee Bucks are a historic team. They have the best record in the league at 41-6, they have the reigning MVP in Giannis Antetokounmpo, and they’re on pace to win 71 games. The Bucks rank first in Defensive Rating and second in Offensive Rating, behind a historic Dallas Mavericks offense. They would pass any old school eye test—they score in the paint (3rd in the league in points in the paint), get to the free-throw line often, and prevent teams from getting to the basket by walling off the paint with a conga-line of seven-footers (1st in the league in opponent points in the paint). At the same time, Daryl Morey would have few complaints with their offense. They are first in the league in fast break points at 18.8 a game, they take the fifth most threes a game at 38.5, and they attempt the fifth most free-throws a game at 24.7. They give up only the least desirable three-pointers and there is a full season’s worth of data validating this unique defensive strategy—they were first in the league in Defensive Rating last year.
The only thing the Bucks are incapable of doing is drawing the interest of the average fan. The Bucks are so dominant in such a specific, ruthlessly efficient way, as to make the outcome perfunctory, eliminating most if not all intrigue. The Bucks are defined by a sedated precision. If they get out in transition (and we know they often do), they dissect your defense in waves of threes and Giannis dunks. If you aren’t making the above-the-break threes, their defense is built to concede, the game is over before its even begun. Even if an opposing team starts hot and sprints out to a sizable lead against the Bucks, they often find themselves only up, or worse, down single-digits by half-time. The Milwaukee Bucks are methodical and consistent. They have a plan and they stick to that plan. That plan has them on pace to threaten the all-time wins record in the NBA.
Much of the Bucks dominance on the defensive end is built on the Lopez twins, well, tallness. The Bucks at large and Brook Lopez especially, have mastered and are now punishing the league with verticality. They also employ the charge-taking, verticality-gawd in Ersan Ilyasova. Even if opposing players manage to wiggle past the Bucks herd of solid perimeter defenders—Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, George Hill, and Donte DiVincenzo—there is almost always a long-armed Lopez twin waiting at the basket, often with Giannis lurking nearby. But let’s be honest, watching Brook Lopez block shots without jumping isn’t all that exciting. Neither is watching Ilyasova’s Oscar-worthy flops. And that’s the rub with the Bucks, they are good in the most boring of ways.
Everyone but Giannis is the embodiment of complimentary skill and fundamentals. The teams second star, Khris Middleton, isn’t a true star—though his recent play, including a 51 point, 10 rebound, and 6 assist night on January 28th has been a spirited response to my claim. I’ll grant that Middleton might be rounding into form and we may only see better and better versions of him going forward, but I can’t bring myself to believe he’s some sort of Klay Thompson clone, as some have suggested. Brook Lopez, the anchor of their league-leading defense and therefore the team’s second-most important player, isn’t living up to his Splash Mountain nickname this season—shooting just 29.7 percent from three. (More like Droplet Mountain or Spray Mountain to me…) Lopez mostly stands four-feet behind the line waiting to shoot a three off a Giannis kick-out on offense. On defense, he shuffles around with his arms extended, rarely more than ten feet-from the basket. It’s not exactly “Lob City”, or Magic-Era Dwight Howard levels of excitement on either end of the floor.
It’s true I’m talking about aesthetics, but I’m also talking about the mesh point of scheme and aesthetics. The Bucks have a near perfect system and they systematically destroy their opponents night in and night out. But outside of Giannis’ greatness, the team doesn’t bring the same level of game-to-game intrigue that we’ve come to expect from the league’s best teams. If you want to see Giannis, you better get to the game or to a TV screen early because he typically sits fourth quarters after the Bucks have mounted an insurmountable lead. This is not a first. It was the same during Steph Curry’s 2016 unanimous MVP season, but the lead up to the fourth-quarter then was must-see TV. The Bucks success is one of collectivism, as a result, the contributions from players like Eric Bledsoe, George Hill, Pat Connaughton, and Robin Lopez take on greater import, greater focus. Those contributions simply aren’t that exciting.
There is nothing to figure out for the Bucks as there was initially for the Heat and the Durant-Era Warriors. The Bucks lack the overwhelming star-power that characterized those teams as well. There are no Philadelphia Sixersesque questions about fit with the Bucks. There is no unspoken tug of war for control of the team or the teams play style. The team fits and fits perfectly. Giannis is the star that everything else orbits around. There is no drama, either. Last season Khris Middleton summed up the Bucks chemistry this way, “…we don’t really have assholes on this team.” But sometimes assholes are fun. Jimmy Butler and Draymond Green are assholes, in the best sense. They play with an underdog mentality, they remember every slight, and if they get the better of you they’re going to tell you about it. They make for great television. The disdain opposing fans had for Draymond helped drive ratings. Ditto for LeBron during his Heatles tenure.
No one hates the Bucks. Everyone respects them, everyone expects them to get to the Eastern Conference Finals. No one would be surprised if they made it to the Finals. Some might be surprised if they won the NBA Finals. Collectivist teams have rarely won championships. Although Giannis is arguably the best player in the world, there are other players in his realm, one in particularly in Los Angeles who was a member of the team that bested him and the Bucks last season. The regular-season malaise plaguing the NBA is certainly related to the Bucks. There are questions still to be answered for the Bucks and they cannot be answered in the regular season. I don’t think there is much the Bucks can do to attract more interest from the casual fan, but if Kobe Bryant taught us anything, it’s that winning cures most things. “Just win, baby.”