The Milwaukee Bucks are nearly certain to make the Eastern Conference postseason, and they still have one of the league’s brightest futures mostly thanks to Giannis Antetokounmpo, their incredible unicorn. But we might have jumped the gun predicting them as the cream of the Eastern Conference. They’re not quite there yet.
It’s not specifically Friday’s loss that led to this revelation, because virtually no game against the Warriors is a proper barometer of how good a team can be, even if Golden State was missing Stephen Curry. No, Milwaukee is just an average roster that sits as the No. 7 seed in the East standings with a bland 22-19 record. They’re above average, but not by much.
Personally, I thought that the Eric Bledsoe trade in early November would vault them up another level. The Bucks needed another plus rotation player, and Bledsoe was more than that. He would drive players like Matthew Dellavedova down one spot, and that felt necessary. But since Nov. 8, while Milwaukee is 18-13, they have only been outscoring teams by one point per 100 possessions.
Even with Bledsoe’s boost, Milwaukee is a team that lacks depth. Only five rotation players boast net positive rotation numbers: Antetokounmpo, Bledsoe, John Henson, Tony Snell, and Khris Middleton. Malcolm Brogdon is a good NBA player, too, but the Bucks get outscored minus-1.2 points per 100 possession when he has played this season.
On-off numbers are context stats, and they don’t mean anything by themselves. (That’s why Henson’s plus-minus figures are better than Antetokounmpo’s.) Clearly, though, the rotations in Milwaukee still don’t equal out to a strong contender. When Milwaukee plays its best five players, they do well. As they start subbing in bench players, especially weaker ones like Dellavedova, DeAndre Liggins, and unfortunately Thon Maker, they struggle.
Bucks fans may suggest that some of this blame falls on Jason Kidd, the man ultimately responsible for managing the rotations and who has become a scapegoat for many of Milwaukee’s problems. I don’t completely disagree. But even as Antetokounmpo keeps destroying opponents, and even as Middleton and Bledsoe enjoy playing off each other as costars, this team also could use just a bit more talent. It’ll be extremely interesting to see Jabari Parker’s reintegration into the team, a player who is expected to return before the All-Star break.
The prettiest rebound I’ve ever seen
Wow, what!? Donovan Mitchell, Utah’s prized rookie, scored 35 more points on Friday, and he’s now averaging nearly 19 points per game. NINETEEN. It’s coming on a 54-percent True Shooting Percentage, which isn’t ideal but totally excusable. No one expects a late lottery rookie to be thrust into such a high volume role so soon in his career, but Mitchell has been because the Jazz need him, but also because he has shown that he can handle it.
Kevin Love’s incredible outlet pass
This pass ultimately went down as a nothing in the play-by-play books, but it is absurd. Cleveland was down by two points with a baseline inbounds play, no timeouts, and less than two seconds left, and they somehow got a 26-foot three-pointer for LeBron James thanks to Love’s on-the-money jump throw.
LeBron’s attempt here is still seeping with an absurd degree of difficulty, of course. It’s no real surprise that he missed it, and it’s a testament to his sheer strength that he even drew iron and came so close to hitting it. Still, that pass! That’s Love, and love, for that matter.
Karl-Anthony Towns wore more cool kicks