It’s almost time for the NBA playoffs, meaning the stakes get raised every night from here on out. There have been a great deal of change this year, and more than a fair number of surprises: the Boston Celtics vastly underperforming with a relatively healthy roster, the Denver Nuggets going blow for blow against the Warriors, and the LeBron-led Lakers missing the playoffs entirely. One relatively minor surprise was the Milwaukee Bucks taking the top seed in the east, with plenty of games to go, no less. Giannis Antetokounmpo’s development continues to stun audiences across America and the team seems to gel as well as any in the NBA today. But last season the Bucks were forcibly removed from the playoffs by the Celtics. In seven games. Without Gordon Hayward, Kyrie Irving, or a number of other key players. Clearly the Bucks weren’t ready then, but currently atop the eastern conference they look like a different team. A team that just might be able to win.
The Bucks are averaging 117.5 Points Per Game (PPG) this season, leading the entire NBA. That’s an 11.0 PPG jump from last seasons league average 106.5 PPG and it can largely be attributed to more efficient shooting inside the arc (a jump from .531% to .565%), as well as better assisting; a full 2.8 more assist per game (APG). All this points to a better and more cohesive team, as well as improved individual play, but is it enough to topple the east in three rounds of playoffs?
Unfortunately, one of the realities of playing an 82-game season is that not everyone makes it to the end in one piece. It’s commonplace in the NBA to see a team in the playoffs that looks quite different to the way it did for much of the regular season. The Bucks are no exception. Losing role players like Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic for extended periods of time can change the way teams like the Bucks play in the long term. Whilst both may be eligible to return during a playoff run, their effectiveness may be limited and their unit cohesion may fail as result. Players like Donte Divincenzo, may not be huge losses, but they effect the depth of a team and more crucial players may overexert themselves in their absence. The real losses for the Bucks however, are Malcolm Brogdon and (in a limited capacity) Tony Snell. If the Bucks can endure any first round competition, they’ll need to count on players like them to return in time for the second heat. Can Giannis himself lead this team to victory, however? It remains to be seen if his success this season translates to playoff success as well, and his recently re-aggravated ankle injury might just cost the Bucks their shot this year.