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Reintroducing the Contenders: Milwaukee Bucks

Giannis and Co. are the title favorites in Orlando, but what do they have to do to fulfill that promise? We’re looking back and ahead for Milwaukee going into the NBA’s restart.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Four months is a long time. So we’re getting reacquainted with the title race by looking at the nine NBA teams with at least a 1 percent chance of winning the title according to our in-house playoff odds (a.k.a. Zach Kram), plus the 76ers, who defy all math and logic, leading up to reopening night on July 30.

The Basics

Team: Milwaukee Bucks
Record: 53-12 (first in Eastern Conference)
Numbers: 112.3 offensive rating (tied for fifth), 101.6 defensive rating (first), 10.7 net rating (first)
Seeding opponents (in order of schedule): Celtics, Rockets, Nets, Heat, Mavs, Raptors, Wizards, Grizzlies

Last Time, on the Bucks …

They were in a rut. Well, relatively speaking. Milwaukee had won 23 of its 27 games since New Year’s Day before losing three in a row prior to the season being suspended. After the Bucks dropped a highly anticipated matchup with the Lakers, Giannis Antetokounmpo sat out the next two games with a minor left knee sprain and Milwaukee lost to the Suns and Nuggets. Until then, the team hadn’t lost back-to-back games all season. By every definition, Milwaukee was a juggernaut. Its net rating was tops in the league by a staggering 3.6 points, about the same gap between the no. 2 team (Lakers) and the no. 7 team (Rockets).

Between the loss to the Lakers and the injury to the reigning MVP, the Bucks weren’t exactly showing weaknesses, but they were opening the door for a couple of things: doubt and a late MVP run by LeBron James down the stretch. Instead, the season was halted for four months, Giannis is now fully healthy and has a back-to-back MVP all but clinched, and the Bucks are the prohibitive favorites to win the title in Orlando.

How They’ve Spent Quarantine

Aside from being with his months-old baby instead of sleep-walking through a series against the Wizards, Giannis played chess, poked fun at the media, went live multiple times on YouTube and Instagram, and tried to learn the guitar:

Emphasis on “tried.” The rest of the Bucks stayed relatively quiet, but some of them, along with Giannis, joined protests in Milwaukee:

Both Eric Bledsoe and Pat Connaughton tested positive for the coronavirus, which has delayed their arrival in Orlando, but all signs point to their both being on the court once games begin.

Seeding-Games Goals: Keep the No. 1 Seed, Keep Giannis Healthy

Given that their remaining schedule is the 11th toughest and the Raptors have the most difficult slate of the 22 teams in Orlando, it would be a shock if Milwaukee were to somehow blow its 6.5-game lead for the top seed in the East. So what to do with the eight games beyond try to get into a rhythm? Keep Giannis healthy. Even if every indication is that he is fully healthy, the Bucks should take load management to new extremes. Any kind of injury would capsize the team’s chances in the playoffs, to say the least.

Biggest On-Court Bubble Question: How Much Will Mike Budenholzer Put on Giannis’s Shoulders?

It’s remarkable that Giannis seems to be the runaway MVP despite averaging only 30.9 minutes per game (tied for 63rd in the league, behind names like [checks notes] Kevin Huerter), which is nearly two fewer than he averaged in his first MVP season last year. But what’s viewed as a positive during the regular season turns into a point of contention once the playoffs begin. Last season Giannis averaged only 34 minutes a game in the postseason, and it was only until the Bucks were on the ropes against the Raptors that head coach Mike Budenholzer seemed to break from his regular rotations and minute restrictions to let Giannis go full steam.

The Bucks’ strategy makes sense—they don’t want to burn out or injure Giannis by overplaying him. But it’s clear that with so much hinging on him, the Bucks may need to flip that switch earlier than they did last postseason.

Player in the Spotlight: Eric Bledsoe

Giannis’s minutes are crucial, in part, because when he sits it’s unclear who will step up and initiate beyond Khris Middleton. Ideally for Milwaukee, that guy would be Bledsoe. It’s why the team signed him to a four-year, $70 million deal last March. But when the playoffs came around last spring, Bledsoe suffered a severe drop in nearly every statistical category. By the end, Budenholzer was relying more on George Hill.

The drop-off in Bledsoe’s playoff performance is a recurring concern. Bledsoe isn’t even in the bubble yet due to his positive test, meaning he’ll miss not just practice time, but scrimmages and potentially even seeding games. And Hill is still a serviceable point-guard option who can reliably knock down 3s—he leads the league in 3-point percentage this season—so it’s up to Bledsoe to earn his minutes.

Sure, Milwaukee can probably waltz through the first two rounds of the playoffs without stellar Bledsoe performances, but when the Bucks play the Raptors, Lakers, or Clippers, a disappearing Bledsoe could once again be the difference between a title and having to worry about Giannis’s free agency next summer.

On a Scale From Wizards to 10, Where 10 Is the Best Shot at a Title, What Are the Bucks’ Odds of Winning the 2020 Title?

Whether you’re a number cruncher or an eye-test person, there’s no doubt the Bucks are a 10. They are one of only three teams, along with the Lakers and Clippers, who can claim a 10 on this scale, but Milwaukee also has all the numbers and advanced stats pointing in its favor. By the book (and the sportsbook!), the Bucks are the true favorites.