Now that we’ve reached the one month mark in the season, I thought it was an opportune time to review the first month, track other conference rivals, and reset expectations going forward.
Naturally, lets start with Milwaukee:
Milwaukee (8-7) – 7th in the East:
Looking at the schedule when it first came out, Bucks fans cringed when spotting the brutal first few weeks to the season. Boston twice, Cleveland twice, OKC, San Antonio and Memphis were all on tap and realistically a .500 record appeared to be a good target before things would lighten up. The Bucks have battled to 8-7 but that probably inflates what has been a rather ordinary start.
Giannis Antetokounmpo has been the Bucks best player by the length of Lake Michigan so far, rocketing himself into MVP calculations, his 30.1 points and 10.5 rebounds a game not even coming close to showing how sensational he’s been. From ferocious dunks, to graceful euro steps, to chase down blocks, Giannis has done it all and rest assured, the Bucks would be in a giant hole right now if it wasn’t for the Greek Freak.
Acquiring Eric Bledsoe, in exchange for Greg Monroe and protected first and second round picks has been by far the biggest roster move in the league thus far, and one that changes the landscape on a level rarely seen this early in the season. Bledsoe is still finding his feet in Milwaukee, particularly offensively but defensively has lifted the Bucks to a slightly more respectable level.
Milwaukee currently sits 19th in defensive rating giving up 104.8 points per 100 possessions. The scheme itself has not changed, it still requires insane effort and intensity to the point it has to be questioned what effect its having on the other end when the guys are locked in. Nonetheless, we know Jason Kidd will stick with it so moving forward it will be interesting to see if Bledsoe can continue to have a substantial positive effect with a larger sample size.
Offensively, the Bucks sit 14th with 104.8 points per 100 possessions. It must be noted that this has been skewed heavily by the disastrous 79 point performance against the Dallas Mavericks, owners of the NBA’s worst record. The offense has frequently been simply the Giannis show, with solid help from impressive sophomore Malcolm Brogdon who allayed fears of reaching his ceiling last season by going to another level in scoring, ball handling and creating. Khris Middleton has had a frosty start shooting the ball especially from three, languishing in the mid 20% range for most of the first month before the Bledsoe addition freed him up for more open catch and shoot looks, with pleasing results. In the five games since acquiring Bledsoe, Middleton is averaging 18.6 points a game and more importantly knocking down 50% of his triples, a major boost to the Milwaukee offense.
Frustratingly, but not surprisingly given the unchanged personnel at the center position, the Bucks rebounding woes have hit new lows, ranked dead last in total rebounding basically from the start of the season. Whilst Thon Maker remains a work in progress, John Henson has given improved effort so far this season, by far being our best center including Monroe when he was here but unfortunately he still lacks the ability to defend and box out bigger bodies. With two years still left on his deal after this one, trading Henson is difficult without giving up further assets, but the center position is still one to watch moving forward with GM John Horst appearing likely to target some support, if not an upgrade as the season moves on.
The East has made a strong start to the season with 10 teams at .500 or better. With the Bucks holding aspirations of securing home court advantage in the playoffs, other contenders are trying to separate themselves from the field.
Boston Celtics (15-2) 1st in the East:
It took less then a quarter for Boston’s season to take a horrific turn, marquee free agent signing Gordon Hayward going down with a sickening leg injury in their season opener on national tv. The Celtics went on to lose to the Cavs and then to the Bucks at home, falling to 0-2.
Season over right? Don’t be stupid. The sensational Brad Stevens has instead galvanised this Celtics squad to not lose a game since, 15 on the trot, including erasing a 17 point deficit to beat the Golden State Warriors on Thursday night. Talented rookie/sophomore duo, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, Boston’s brilliant young duo take turns in taking games over, Al Horford has wound back the clock and Uncle Drew himself, Kyrie Irving has had his moments of brilliance.
Comfortably possessing the leagues best defense giving up 2.9 less points per hundred possessions then the second ranked team, the Celtics are as well drilled as you’ll see. Stevens has this team working together and firing on all cylinders right now. It’s only early but betting against the Celtics to scheme and adjust in a seven game series appears to be a fools move. They own the east, for now.
Detroit Pistons (11-5) – 2nd in the East
The Pistons raced out of the blocks to start 10-3 before being slowed by the Bucks Wednesday night in Milwaukee. They then faltered to another central division rival, the Indiana Pacers, to slip to 10-5 but recovered to impressively beat Minnesota to remain 2nd in the conference, an unexpected start for sure. The validity of said start will be tested in the coming weeks however as the Pistons face Boston twice, OKC, Cleveland, San Antonio, Golden State, Washington, Phoenix, Philly and Milwaukee in their next ten games. In that stretch only the Suns game looks like one you can pencil in, the next few weeks will be telling for Stan Van Gundy’s team.
Possessing a balanced attack with former Buck Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley and Reggie Jackson, the Pistons can hurt you in a variety of ways. Andre Drummond is grabbing everything in sight off the glass as usual, his 15.7 a game being a career high mark. A career 38% free throw shooter, Drummond is knocking down 63% of his shots from the charity stripe, reducing the amount of hack-a-Drummond attempts, in the process allowing Van Gundy to leave him and his stellar defense in the game down the stretch. If the Pistons can navigate through this next 10 games with decent results, they will position themselves nicely heading into the new year.
Cleveland Cavaliers (9-7) – 4th in the East:
The three time reigning champions traded away former number one pick and long time Cav, Kyrie Irving to Boston in the off-season, Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder the key currently playing pieces coming in return. Unfortunately IT’s hip issue has held him out and continues to indefinitely, leaving the Cavs significantly short on ball handling and play making compared to previous years. The often injured Derrick Rose was supposed to fill in the gap at point guard but as advertised, Rose has only been fit to appear in 7 games so far and even more alarmingly has produced disastrous results for the Cavs defensively. In 169 minutes, the two man line up of Rose and Lebron James has a net rating of -10.5, the defense giving up 117.7 points per 100 possessions. Ouch.
Overall the Cavs defense is ranked last in the league and continues to be a disaster, hardly an issue Thomas will be able to fix. Despite this, they do have Lebron James and regardless of whether or not he needs to carry this team earlier then usual, he’s still an irresistible force that will ensure this team stays around the top of the East moving forward.
Washington Wizards (9-7) – 5th in the East:
Washington, having made the second round of the playoffs in three of the last four seasons, are hell bent on taking the next step this year. Boasting one of the NBA’s most potent back courts in John Wall and Bradley Beal they currently rank top ten in both offense and defense. The Wizards, possess a scoring attack with six different players averaging double digit points. Beal, Wall, Otto Porter, Marcin Gortat, Markieff Morris and Kelly Oubre are ensuring the opposition is kept guessing with a mix of inside and outside potency. With wins against Detroit, Philly, Toronto and Miami already, Washington are quickly staking their claim as a contender in the East, and they aren’t shy about their goals.
The Wizards hosted LeBron James and the Cavs on November 4th, pre-game Wall and Beal were interviewed on ESPN and Rachel Nichols mentioned last season, conjuring this response from Wall:
“I think if you look at last year, people might say they did or didn’t, but I think they didn’t want the number one seed for a reason because we would have played them in the second round.”
Strong comments and it’s safe to say LeBron took notice, unloading on the Wizards with 57 points, 11 rebounds and 7 assists as they took down Washington on their home floor. I have no doubt the Wizards will be around at the business end of the season in the East, but perhaps Wall and co might take note that poking the bear isn’t always the best idea.
Philadelphia 76ers (8-7) – 8th in the East
Philly fans and the league alike were told repeatedly to trust the process. Well, frighteningly, the process is arriving before our eyes. Still learning to win and work through four quarters of basketball, the Sixers are riding two young studs to its most successful start to a season since the 2012/13 season. Joel Emiid and Ben Simmons are the type of dynamic one-two punch that genuine contenders need and thrive on. Simmons, after missing the entire season last year recovering from various foot ailments is already a nightly triple double threat and runaway leader in the rookie of the year race.
Embiid, restricted to 32 games last year on a minutes restriction, has played 13 of 15 so far, averaging 22.8 points and 10.9 boards a night. A mixture of ridiculous size and deft touch, Embiid is already tearing apart games, just ask the Lakers who had front row seats to the best all around performance of the season. Embiid had 46 points, 15 rebounds, 7 assists and 7 blocks on the night, rendering the Lakers frontline, young and old completely useless in the 6 point win.
Still largely inexperienced and raw, the Sixers winning and at times looking dominant is a scary sight for the rest of the league. Health pending this squad might not just be a team for the future, it might be a team for the right now.
15 games, not even one fifth of a long 82 game grind. The marathon has only just began and the Bucks, whilst not rushing out of the gate, managed to crucially keep themselves afloat in a conference that suddenly seems deep and competitive. Along with the teams mentioned above, Toronto will again fancy themselves to be at the pointy end while Orlando, New York and Miami rate themselves as playoff teams also.
With the schedule easing over the next month, the time is now for Milwaukee to move further above .500 and entrench themselves amongst other contenders. The integration of Bledsoe and the adjustment of players around Giannis will continue to evolve and the defense can hopefully prove to be top ten worthy. The Bucks have by far the most talented roster at the top that they’ve had in years, arguably since the big three era. Excuses no longer stick, performances like the disaster in Dallas are simply not good enough. As the rest of the East continues to rise, it’s imperative the Bucks don’t get left behind.
Follow Kane Pitman on twitter: @mkebucksaus.