It was April 28th, 2018, a Saturday night in Boston, and the Milwaukee Bucks had just been eliminated in the first round of playoffs for the second year in a row. The Bucks hadn’t made it out of the first round since the 2000-2001 season, also the last time they finished higher than the 6th seed in the Eastern Conference. The frustration continued for Milwaukee fans, who had to watch their team lose in Game 7 at TD Garden in a back-and-forth series.
Fast forward less than one year to this season’s All-Star break and the Milwaukee Bucks find themselves atop the Eastern Conference Standings and just 1 win away from matchings last season’s total of 44. So what exactly has changed in just 10 months? In short, a lot.
Milwaukee’s front office fired 4th-year head coach Jason Kidd 45 games into last season in which he posted a record of 23-22, good for the 8th seed at the time. This marked the official rebuild for the staff. Milwaukee promoted assistant coach Joe Prunty to interim head coach and began their search for the next head coach that the state of Wisconsin could put their hopes in.
They found their guy. Mike Budenholzer, 2015 NBA Coach of the Year, was hired to be the head coach of the Milwaukee Bucks in the summer of 2018. Budenholzer was previously a head coach for the Atlanta Hawks where he went 213-197 over 5 seasons. His appeal was his experience as a successful head coach and his modern offense to contrast the Bucks’ previous head coaching hires.
This wasn’t the only move that Jon Horst, Milwaukee’s General Manager, made in the offseason. Horst and the Bucks’ front office went out and signed veteran center Brook Lopez to a one-year contract worth $3.4 million. In retrospect, this was the most impactful signing made in the offseason (aside from LeBron’s move to LA). Lopez is having a career year, already breaking his previous record for 3-pointers made in a single season by a center. He’s averaging a career-high 38% from deep and is one of two players in the NBA currently averaging more than 2 3-point field goals and 2 blocks a game. The other, new teammate Nikola Mirotic.
Ersan Ilyasova was Milwaukee’s second and final addition before this season began. Ilyasova spent the end of last year on Philadelphia’s playoff roster but was released at the end of the season. While Ersan isn’t having his best year, he is still a big body that has been able to stretch the floor on offense. One thing he does better than anyone in the league is take charges. Ersan currently has 38 charges drawn, 13 more than the next man on the list, Blake Griffin. Ersan’s combination as an offensive shooting threat and pesky defender make him a perfect fit in coach Bud’s system.
Mid-way through this season, a rather low-risk deal took place between the Bucks and the Cleveland Cavaliers that sent guard George Hill to Milwaukee. Hill was just meant to be a veteran player that could be a leader to the Bucks’ young guys both on and off the court. He’s done much more than that and has become a reliable bench option for coach Bud. Since coming to the Bucks, Hill is averaging just over 6 points, 2 assists, and 2 rebounds a game on 41% shooting in 20 minutes a game. This isn’t elite by any standards, but he does enough to have a positive impact. On Hill’s first day with the team he brought together all of the Bucks bench players and told them that their job is to support the starters and be ready at any time because you never know when you’re going to get your shot. D.J. Wilson was one guy who finally got his shot.
Wilson was a first-round pick for Milwaukee in the 2017 draft out of Michigan. D.J. barely saw the floor in his first season, appearing in just 22 games and averaging just 3.2 minutes in those games. This season began where the last left off. Wilson hadn’t found his spot in coach Bud’s new system until a couple months into the season when he started getting minutes in the fourth quarter. Those minutes turned into first half minutes. Today, those minutes have turned into first quarter minutes. D.J. is now averaging 19 minutes a game and 39% from deep. Coach Bud frequently substitutes him in for Giannis and let’s him play the 5 in some of the smaller lineups. He’s still a very young guy who has a lot of growing left to do but this season has proved that he’s nowhere near his ceiling.
While he hasn’t played yet, Nikola Mirotic will be a guy who can stretch the floor while taking a big defender out with him. See my previous post on Nikola Mirotic for his season stats and history.
Obviously a team can’t just keep adding players without losing some along the way. Notable Bucks that were on the roster last year but don’t remain today include John Henson, Matthew Dellavedova, Thon Maker, Greg Monroe, Jabari Parker, and Jason Terry. Milwaukee has arguably been able to upgrade at every spot. The statistics support this claim.
Here’s a list of some of the important stats that the Bucks have greatly improved in from last year to this season’s All-Star break. Last season will be listed first followed by this season. (In parentheses is league rank.)
- Win Percentage
- .537 (t-15)
- .754 (1)
- Defensive Rating
- 110.98 (19)
- 104.50 (1)
- Net Rating
- -.31 (20)
- 9.28 (1)
- Points in the Paint
- 47.3 (7)
- 54.5 (3)
- Fastbreak Efficiency
- 1.688 (12)
- 2.203 (4)
- Points from 3-pointers
- 26.5 (27)
- 39.4 (2)
- Total Rebounds Per Game
- 47.1 (30)
- 56.4 (4)
The only real area the Bucks struggle in is allowing opponent’s to shoot and make a high volume of 3s. Coach Bud’s system has proven he is able to overcome this for the most part and has improved the team in so many areas of the game.
The Milwaukee Bucks are 43-14, the best record in the NBA. They have a one game advantage over Toronto and at least 5.5 games over Indiana, Philadelphia, and Boston. They still have yet to lose in back-to-back games or the same opponent twice. With 25 games to go, the Bucks will try and keep the home court advantage in the playoffs but it won’t be easy with all of the firepower that sits atop the East. However, with the moves and proof that we have now seen this season thus far, I think it’s time to believe in Milwaukee.