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Seventeen games into the season and the Milwaukee Bucks have the best record in the Central Division as well as the Eastern Conference. By the looks of things, they’re a shoo-in for the playoffs and possibly more.
In terms of NBA championship potential, the top three is rounded out by the Bucks at +550. They look like firm favorites from the majority of online sports betting sites, which would be just as good as the iteration that won 60 games last season. Their +90.3 point differential is best in the league and a half-point higher than last year. They also look to have an easier path to the finals with the 76ers playing below the potential of their re-tweaked and much-hyped roster.
Only one thing can really derail that narrative. We’ll get to that later. For now, let’s appreciate the mean, green machine that is the Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Bucks.
In his most dominant performance of the season, Antetokounmpo scored a cool 50 points against the Utah Jazz. While he did hoist up a few (17 of 31), he managed a very respectable 54.8 FG%, that included 3 from beyond the arc and 14 boards. So far so good. As is his way, his aim from the charity stripe was a wee bit off. No surprise there. Next highest scorer on the Bucks was Wesley Matthews who went 6 of 9 for 19 points. FWIW Eric Bledsoe took the second most shots. A paltry 16 compared to Antetokounmpo.
(For perspective, Luka Doncic took 30 shots the previous evening against the Rockets (41 pts 50 FG%) and James Harden took a very modest (for him) 24 shots scoring 32 on 45.8 FG%. So Antetokounmpo’s volume was in no way an outlier.)
So far this season, Antetokounmpo has the highest Player Impact Rating in the league (23.4). He’s averaging a hefty 31.1 ppg on a 20.2 shots per game. That’s very good. His 6.4 assists per game shows that he’s also distributing the ball. That too is very good. However, his teammates’ numbers are a little wanting. Khris Middleton is the team’s second highest scorer (18.5 ppg/14.4 FGA), followed by Brook Lopez (10.8 ppg/8.9 FGA). The drop off from first to second to third is pretty drastic. They’re a little unbalanced, something that can be exploited by more evenly balanced, high quality teams.
Their record against their conference rivals — at this point the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat — indicates it may be the case. The load is much more evenly spread in Boston: Kemba Walker (21.1 ppg) and Jason Tatum 20.5 ppg and Gordon Hayward (18.9 ppg). Meanwhile, the Miami Heat’s top scorer, Jimmy Butler, is averaging 18.9 ppg, followed by Kendrick Nunn (16.9 ppg) and Goran Dragic (15.4 ppg).
Their +90.3 point differential is best in the league and a half-point higher than last year.
With Antetokounmpo firing on all cylinders, the Bucks should be dominating teams more than they have been. Sure, they’ve got fourteen wins, but ten of them have been by a margin of ten or less. It’s a very long season and Antetokounmpo is carrying a significant load. So if he goes down the big question is: can the rest of the team pick up the offensive slack? Probably not. So that’s where defense comes in.
Antetokounmpo dominates the team’s defensive numbers as well. In terms of rebounds, it’s a long ways to the team’s next best.
Offensive rebounds 2.7 vs Eric Bledsoe 1.1.
Defensive rebounds 11.2 vs Khris Middleton 5.0.
Steals 1.6 vs Donte DiVincenzo 1.5.
The only category he doesn’t lead in defensively is blocks where Brook Lopez’s 2.6 beats his 1.3.
Obviously, in the event Antetokounmpo gets sidelined, his teammates will pick up the slack. However, they’re going to have ceilings. Lopez has averaged around 20 points/7 rebounds a game in the past but he’s some ways from there today. Increased minutes would also increase his chance of injury.
There’s a very significant silver lining to this, however. Antetokounmpo is averaging a very manageable 33.0 minutes per game. For comparison, James Harden is averaging 37.9 minutes and Lebron James is on the court for 35.2 minutes (look for him to get injured at some point after the All-Star break). At 24 years of age and in peak physical condition, the likelihood of him being out for a considerable period is slim.
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