Think back to the beginning of this season. There were takes galore concerning what would happen as the season went along. Some of the most popular ones were as follows:
- The Celtics will run away with the East
- Golden State will run away with the West and the NBA title
- The Lakers will absolutely make the playoffs
- Giannis will win MVP
- Harden will win MVP
- Lebron will win MVP
- A second superstar will go join LeBron in L.A.
Clearly, the year didn’t turn out like most people thought it would.
The only two of those that still seem to be possibly true (unless you count Mike Muscala as a superstar) are either Harden or Giannis for MVP.
The main arguments are Harden’s PPG average for the season all while carrying a team to 53 wins. For Giannis its that he isn’t quite as marvelous statistically as Harden, even though few in history have been, but his DPOY candidacy buoys his value. It’s a close race and truthfully either candidate is deserving, but Giannis would be my choice.
What’s crazy about Giannis though is that he’s the best player on the best team this year and for some reason, people can argue that having good teammates should hurt your MVP case.
On the flip side, what that doesn’t do is make Milwaukee a seemingly serious threat for whatever team comes out of the West in the NBA finals. It seems to only work against the team in public perception. It’s felt so sure for so long that whoever wins the west this season also wins the title.
News Flash: Milwaukee is for Real
The Bucks had the best record in the regular season at 60-22. They had a net rating of 8.8 which is bonkers. Anything over 10 is an all-time great team. They have a 24-year-old alien who averaged 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game this year and could win an MVP. Those are Shaq-esque numbers by the way. Milwaukee lost one game in the playoffs and other than that seemed to be made of Adamantium. How is everyone just writing them off?
The Bucks demolished the Pistons, to nobody’s surprise. They just embarrassed Boston who, on paper, probably has the most talented team in the league. And every team that’s left in the playoffs have very serious and obvious flaws for them to exploit, which they’ve been very good at.
Now despite the comparison to the most precious metal in the Marvel universe previously, Milwaukee has a few flaws of its own. Brook Lopez had trouble staying on the floor and playing meaningful minutes against Boston. Eric Bledsoe has a track record of inconsistency so if he’s an integral part of the offense, what happens on his inevitable off nights?
The thing that has made Milwaukee underrated is their ability to overcome these problems. Other teams, even the Warriors, have had trouble adapting on the fly this season to pull-out games on nights where they weren’t playing their best. All of that is without Malcolm Brogdon who has been out for the entire postseason. His return could cover up any cracks they have in their already high floor.
George Hill has been a massive player for Milwaukee in the playoffs since Brogdon has been out. Milwaukee’s biggest strength is that most of their guys, such as Hill, can shoot AND be playmakers. They all play within the flow of the game. A line-up of Brogdon-Giannis-Middleton-Mirotic-Hill, for instance, is all guys between 6-foot-6 and 6-foot-10 who can shoot and pass and screen and switch on defense and just play smart basketball. And although their ceiling isn’t as high as GSW or Houston or even Philly’s might be, the weaknesses are much less pronounced.
The Bucks have played high-quality ball all season and are continuing to do it now. The playoffs the last few seasons have all been about schemes and match-ups. Billy Donovan, now infamously, said “Can’t play Kanter” on the bench in the 2016 Rockets-Thunder series. Portland got swept in the first round because they had no answer for Anthony Davis last year. The Spurs almost upset Denver this year just because they play methodical, sound basketball.
There’s something to be said for a team that plays as a team, in a system, and knows who they are.
And not only does Milwaukee have that, but they have genuinely talented players.
Guys like Mirotic, Hill and Bledsoe have played meaningful minutes on other teams. Middleton and Giannis are All-Stars. Lopez is just a weird enough player that he could be super effective or totally ineffective in any given matchup. And Malcolm Brogdon won rookie of the year in 2017. He hasn’t played a minute this postseason and he was one of their most important guys during the year. If he comes back it’s possible that he conceals any cracks they have on their floor.
Milwaukee knows who they are. They’re a complete team. Bud makes adjustments that work. And at the end of the day, they have Giannis. It’s only a matter of time before everyone really finds out how insane it must feel to play defense against him on the court. He’s also maybe the only guy in the league who can play competitive defense on either KD or Kawhi Leonard. And before the playoffs are over it’ll probably be both.
All season everyone has been talking about L.A. (LeBron really), Golden State and Boston. With so much focus on them and their seasons that all fell short of expectations, it’s felt like a shift in the league has been coming after what all has been relatively the same for a few years.
KD caught a lot of flack from fans all around the league, especially in the Midwest, about joining the Warriors. It has forced other superstars to team up so as to contend, but mostly to no avail.
With all the rumors of guys wanting to go to other places and continued gripes from fans, and even some players, a more competitive, gritty nature seems to be taking precedent.
How many players now have, for one reason or another, not joined LeBron in L.A.? At least PG and Westbrook. Maybe add Davis and Kawhi to that list as well, although they would have had to have been traded as opposed to just signing there.
Even Jimmy Butler has been pretty public about wanting to be the number one guy somewhere and with these superstar players that’s an important aspect. Sure, maybe one or two guys on a team together would be great, but players more and more are beginning to realize the importance of chemistry and energy and camaraderie. Its those things that enable you to give that little extra push, to be in the right spot, and not be confused in your role at the end of a close game.
Plenty of the league’s biggest stars on premier teams are rumored to be moving this offseason and so much effort has gone into predicting those destinations. All of the teams mentioned above have been a part of some sort of disastrous team chemistry headline over the course of the season more than once. In the meantime, Milwaukee has been cruising as a well-oiled machine. There have been no chemistry issues and no questions about teammates or their intentions.
Is a title run for the Bucks the embodiment of this shift?
The only logical answer to all of this would be some skinny, un-touted guy from Europe staying with one team, growing into a 7-foot, athletic, muscular Roman soldier that also plays basketball, and leading a small market franchise to an NBA title while winning his first league MVP.
The Bucks have the team. They have the best record. They have the underdog mentality. They have the narrative. They have the MVP. That’s everything on the checklist.
Milwaukee winning the title isn’t a sure thing, but it feels more and more likely with every game that gets played.