The Milwaukee Bucks are in a similar position to where they were around this time a year ago: in first place in the Eastern Conference (and the NBA), looking nearly unstoppable.
We are now at the All-Star break (jeez, that was quick), and the Bucks are an NBA-best 46-8.
They are blazing through most of the competition.
Giannis Antetokounmpo has improved even more since last season (save for his free-throw shooting), Khris Middleton may be on his way to a 50-40-90 campaign and Milwaukee’s shooters have mitigated the loss of Malcolm Brogdon.
But like everyone else in the league, the Bucks actually do have some question marks.
The first is whether or not they are truly better than last year, when they made it to the Eastern Conference Finals and took a 2-0 lead over the Toronto Raptors before Kawhi Leonard snatched their souls.
No, Leonard is no longer in the East, but the conference as a whole is probably deeper this season than it was last year. The Boston Celtics are no joke, the Philadelphia 76ers remain dangerous in spite of their struggles, the Raptors have championship pedigree, the Miami Heat are tough and the Indiana Pacers are a huge wild card if Victor Oladipo gets right.
There is no shortage of challengers to Milwaukee in the East, and with the Bucks not really adding anyone of significance over the summer and losing one of their top three players in Brogdon, one does have to legitimately wonder if they will have enough firepower to make it to the finals.
That starts with Middleton. Yes, he is having a superb season, but doubt lingers about whether or not he can truly be a No. 2 option on a championship team.
With Brogdon gone, there is even more pressure on Middleton to step up this year, which is something he certainly did not do last spring against Toronto.
Middleton has always been good throughout his career, but he has never been an elite player like a whole lot of other No. 2 guys are. So why should we believe that he will suddenly become that dude in his eighth NBA season?
And once you get past Middleton, Milwaukee doesn’t really have any top-level talent on its roster. It has some good role players for sure, ranging from Eric Bledsoe to George Hill to the newly-arrived Marvin Williams, but the lack of top-tier ability guys is pretty evident, especially in comparison to some of the other teams in the conference.
It doesn’t help matters that Brook Lopez has taken a significant step backward from last season, and the absence of progression from Sterling Brown is also a bit of an issue.
Also, speaking of Lopez, the Bucks are actually really slow up front. The addition of Williams will certainly help in that regard, but in Lopez, his brother Robin and Ersan Ilyasova, Milwaukee certainly employs a lot of slow-footed bigs in its frontcourt, which could pose a problem for the Bucks in a playoff series.
Obviously, none of these issues have prevented Milwaukee from dominating thus far during the regular season, but let’s also remember that the Bucks had a lot of these same problems last year, and it stopped them from getting to the finals.
With Leonard now out West, Antetokounmpo is, by far, the best player in the East, so he himself can carry Milwaukee to the finals this spring. That much is true. But here is the sticking point there: Giannis is still not much of a shooter, and in today’s game, it is very difficult to win when your best player can’t shoot from the perimeter.
To be fair, the Bucks have guys like Middleton, Ilyasova, Hill, Kyle Korver and Wesley Matthews who can compensate for Antetokounmpo’s lack of a three-point shot, but again, we saw what happened when Milwaukee was forced to rely on players other than Giannis last postseason.
On the bright side, I’m not sure there is currently a standout team in the East who I can genuinely say would give the Bucks a ton of problems in the playoffs.
Last year, you had the Kawhi-led Raptors, and you had an incredibly talented and deep Celtics squad that posed a threat if guys simply bought in (which they didn’t).
This season? Boston is very good, but it lack of a bench will probably cost it in the long run. Toronto? Not having Leonard will do it in. The 76ers have all sorts of spacing problems and what seems like locker-room hell, the Heat don’t have a whole lot of starpower outside of Jimmy Butler and the Pacers’ chances are solely dependent on Oladipo getting himself back into form within the next couple of months.
So while the East may be deeper this season than last year, I don’t think any one club has fleshed itself out yet as the clear-cut biggest threat to the Bucks. It may end up being the Celtics, but again, their depth issue is a real problem.
Regardless, pointing out some of Milwaukee’s issues may be nitpicking, but let’s keep in mind that this team has not won anything yet, and the jury is out until it does.