If you asked a casual NBA fan to name the team that leads the league by a wide margin in overall record, average point differential and defensive rating, nearly all would guess the Golden State Warriors. This would be a reasonable guess — the Warriors possess perhaps the richest collection of talent in NBA history. However, those fans would be wrong, as the team currently dominating the league in most statistical measures is the relatively unknown Milwaukee Bucks.
On Friday, the Bucks became the first NBA team to clinch a playoff berth with a win over the Los Angeles Lakers. They currently boast a 48–15 record and are on pace for 63 wins. This development has come as a surprise to even the most seasoned NBA experts, as Milwaukee has nearly the same roster that posted a mere 44–38 record last year and was eliminated in the first round.
The Bucks’ primary change this past off-season came not on the court, but on the sidelines, as they hired respected coach Mike Budenholzer. Budenholzer is a well-known disciple of legendary San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and led a surprising Atlanta Hawks squad to 60 wins and a conference finals appearance in 2015. There are few coaches in the NBA who truly make a difference, both by commanding the respect of their players and installing a clear system — Budenholzer is one of these select few. The key to his game plan is spacing: running a smooth offense by spreading the floor with shooters.
While Budenholzer has inserted himself as the clear favorite for Coach of the Year, the catalyst behind Milwaukee’s rise is 24-year-old superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo. “The Greek Freak” — a seven-foot-tall perimeter player with incomprehensible reach — stands as perhaps the most terrifying physical specimen in the NBA. Budenholzer’s system has finally allowed him to maximize his unlimited potential.
The Bucks’ acquisitions of sharp-shooting bigs Brook Lopez, Ersan Ilyasova and Nikola Mirotic have created the perfect environment for Antetokounmpo. He is constantly surrounded by four players who can knock down 3-pointers, preventing the defense from clogging his driving lanes. Lopez’s development is particularly remarkable: known as a classical back-to-the-basket big man who didn’t even shoot threes until two years ago, he now ranks 12th in the entire league in 3-point makes.
The Bucks’ roster is the epitome of modern NBA basketball: Nearly everyone can shoot threes and switch across multiple positions on defense. Khris Middleton, a sweet-shooting, multi-positional wing, constitutes the perfect wingman for Giannis. Both are capable of defending the best perimeter player on opposing teams as well as commanding the offense. The Bucks’ backcourt similarly fits this mold — Eric Bledsoe and Malcolm Brogdon double as lockdown defenders and legitimate offensive threats. Overall, the Bucks’ greatest strength is their depth of well-rounded players. Analysts tend to dismiss teams lacking star power as non-playoff threats, but the Bucks have the tools to break this stereotype. While they possess only one true superstar, the bulk of their rotation players possess no major weaknesses. Milwaukee is a perfectly constructed team, built for the nuances of pace-and-space basketball.