Takeaways for Milwaukee Bucks; What history tells us about first 20 games

Jul 14, 2021; Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA; Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) and head coach Mike Budenholzer against the Phoenix Suns during game four of the 2021 NBA Finals at Fiserv Forum. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Jul 14, 2021; Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA; Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) and head coach Mike Budenholzer against the Phoenix Suns during game four of the 2021 NBA Finals at Fiserv Forum. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports /

At 15-5, the Milwaukee Bucks have completed a significant portion of their schedule for the 2022-23 NBA season. It turns out that the quarter mark is a decisive predictor of future NBA champions.

In the history of the NBA, there are only two times an eventual champion didn’t have a top 10 record through 20 games–the 2005-06 Miami Heat (who was without Shaquille O’Neal for 18 of those first 20 games) and the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls (who were bored after winning five of the last seven Finals). More recently, each of the last 16 NBA Finals’ winners has had at least the fifth-best record at this point in the season.

That’s tremendous news for the Bucks who are just two games behind the Boston Celtics (one in the loss column) for the best record in the NBA. Even better, they just got Pat Connaughton back and Khris Middleton is set to make his season debut on Friday with Joe Ingles hopefully returning later in the month.

The first 20 games of an NBA season is an almost perfect predictor of who the true NBA Finals’ contenders are and other takeaways about the Milwaukee Bucks.

Three-point shooting woes

The Bucks rank 18th in three-point percentage and welcome Connaughton and Middleton back with open arms. Connaughton’s three-point shooting has been on the rise for years, and Milwaukee hopes that continues. He knocked down 39.5 percent of his outside attempts last year and that replication would be greatly appreciated. He provides tremendous spacing to compliment the Bucks’ big three and has a history of making clutch shots.

Middleton brings a lot more to the table, but will instantly improve their shot-creation and shot-making abilities. He’s a career 39 percent outside shooter and will open up a lot of opportunities for himself and others.

Ingles–expected to return around Christmas–is yet another career 40 percent three-point shooter who will help their woes. They’re also hoping for some positive regression to the mean by Bobby Portis, Jrue Holiday, Wes Matthews, and George Hill.

Halfcourt offense

Contrary to popular belief, the Bucks’ halfcourt offense hasn’t always been a major issue. In the regular season, at least. They’ve ranked in the top seven in regular season halfcourt offense every year Mike Budenholzer has been the head coach.

That’s dropped off dramatically this season, as they currently rank 21st in the NBA. They’re also running in transition less than ever, making this trend even more problematic.

The return of Middleton and Ingles’ pick-and-roll games will certainly help. However, the Bucks have a lot more work to do. They are better this season at moving the ball and avoiding isolation basketball where four players stand around watching Antetokounmpo go to work. That doesn’t mean they’re a good ball-movement team, however. Milwaukee would benefit from continuing to run their offense side to side, improving spacing and cutting off ball when all of the attention is on their stars.

Three-point defense

This was a big story to begin the season, as Milwaukee altered their defensive approach to take away three-pointers. Slowly, however, they’ve begun to revert to their old ways. In two of their last four games, they’ve allowed at least 45 percent of their opponent’s shots to come from behind the arc–a percentage that would rank last in the NBA. In a third, they allowed league-average attempts.

We’ll find out if it was a blip in the radar or if opposing teams are beginning to figure out their new schematic preferences. They continue to have the best defensive rating by a pretty good margin, although that’s also been slipping a bit the last two weeks.

Boring defense

In the Jason Kidd era, the Bucks thrived on creating chaos. They loved to use length to wreak havoc and force opponents into plenty of turnovers, sparking their offense in the open court. This kept ball handlers up and night and helped produce several highlight plays.

Under Budenholzer, the Bucks have always ranked toward the bottom of the league in this category and that continues to be true through the first 20 games. They focus on keeping teams off the free throw line and away from the offensive glass. This approach accomplishes a similar task in maximizing their opportunities to run off an opponent’s miss. And, boy, are there a lot of those.

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The Bucks do defense the old-fashioned way: Stay in front of their man, don’t foul and force teams to take tough, contested shots. It’s not flashy or sexy. It won’t get you out of your seat. But it’s damn effective.