Over the past week or two, I’ve been watching the Bucks games and nearly every one has come down to the wire. It’s been a mixture of quality games (think Nuggets) and comebacks against lesser opponents (think Bulls or Knicks). I’ve continually thought to myself (and aloud to annoyed family and friends), is this it? Are the Bucks not as good as their record? Are we going to tumble back to Earth? On the other end of the spectrum I’ve also been asking, Are these the trophy Bucks we’ve been looking for? Are we going to make some noise in the playoffs this year? Is this our best shot since 2001?
Let’s dive in and see if we can get some data to support whether or not these Deer can keep racking up wins!
When you look at the team’s current record of 15-7, it’s pretty rosy, but you are always going to have folks wondering if it could be better or should be worse. A great metric for gauging a team other than their actual record is Point Differential.
Alright, let’s talk about Point Differential. This is a pretty simple statistic, it’s based on the number of points the Buck’s have scored versus the number of points that their opponents have scored in each game. To give you a baseline here, according to ESPN, the Milwaukee Bucks lead the league in Point Differential per game at an average clip +10.1. This breaks down to the Bucks scoring 121.4 points per game and their opponents scoring 111.3 points per game. Let’s take this a little further… below I have mapped out each individual games point differential.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to go full statistics nerd on you here, but you can see from this chart that this team tends to win by a decent margin (let’s eyeball it and say 10-20 points is their average) and they also have been losing by a very small margin (again, eyeballing it shows around 2-5 points). Okay, so the Bucks win by a lot and lose by a little, and we can tell from the wins against the Hornets, Nuggets, Spurs, and Bulls that they are also able to win by a little. That’s just to say they aren’t always losing these close games. The one concern that this brings up is why they have lost these close games (6 total). While you can’t complain about 15 wins at this point, it’d be pretty amazing if they turned some of those losses into wins and we were sitting at a cool 19-3 or 20-2.
The fact that the Bucks currently lead the league in Point Differential overall bodes well moving forward. It’s not a guarantee of things to come but it’s nice to see that they are currently even able to play close games even when they aren’t at their best. Would it be better if they were winning those close games against the so-so competition? Yes, but the season is 82 games long and you can’t expect their best every night.
The Bad Games
Now that we’ve looked at Point Differential and an overall understanding of the team’s record, let’s review some of these games that could have gone either way and what they mean.
A pretty recent game (and a pretty terrible outcome) was when the Buck’s played the Suns at Fiserv Forum and we lost by 2 points. Yes, we lost to one of the worst teams in the NBA at home… pretty disappointing. This was the type of game that should have been an easy win. Looking at what happened, it was pretty clear the Bucks weren’t putting forth a solid effort (reminiscent of last year’s team) and they couldn’t consistently sustain offense because of this. This is the type of game that shows the Bucks still have a long way to go to be elite, in my opinion. They need to take games seriously regardless of the opponent and put forth the effort every night for a full 48 minutes. I realize some nights aren’t going to go their way (they only shot 22.7% from three), but you should still be able to beat a team like the Suns even when that happens.
One other game to analyze is the one the Bucks lost at the Hornets on November 26th. Although this was just a 3 point loss, they trailed by as much as 25. This game brings up several concerns. In both games against the Hornets this year Kemba Walker has looked unstoppable. He may not have scored nearly as much this game, but he was still a difference maker. While you can often expect that from stars, the Bucks still need to find a way to limit them. It’s embarrassing to watch what happens on defense each time the Bucks attempt to switch (or maybe not switch) a pick and roll and they end up leaving someone unguarded. Another concerning part of this game was Malcolm Brogdon. He looked very out of sorts as if he was trying to play Giannis’ role instead of being an available passer and shooter. In a few of the other recent games, he has shown how well he can fit in as a bystander on offense to be available to launch a three (6 for 6 on threes) or keep the offense moving (6 assists).* Which Malcolm continues to show up to games will be an important factor as to whether or not he is going to help or hurt this team. Lastly, I’m questioning the last play call and/or execution. No one appeared to want to take the last shot or even try and get open for a clean look. I’m hoping that wasn’t the drawn up call from the coaches and that it just broke down (credit the Hornets D a bit here), but it’s impossible to be sure either way and it’s still on the Bucks for not executing something that could have sent this game to OT.
*Both stats are from the game against the Chicago Bulls 11/28/2018.
Can they keep winning?
Between the stellar statistics (leading the league in Point Differential and other key stats) and most of their losses being close games, I’m confident that the Bucks can at least keep up the pace (currently approx. 56 wins). Yes, some of these losses and issues could have (and should have) been avoided, but all great teams have a few weird losses here and there (remember when the Bucks ended the Warriors undefeated season*?). In a perfect world, they’d be on an even more torrid pace of 60+ wins. Moving forward it will be important to watch how the team and coaching staff improves in these situations and if they can show more consistency against all competition night in and night out.
*The Bucks finished the 2015-2016 season with a 33-49 record and a -4.2 Point Differential.
From my perspective, the fact that the Bucks are already showing immense improvement year-over-year is a great sign. It’s always going to take time to remove some of the old habits and truly contend. One of the reasons I am looking so intently at Point Differential here is because it historically breeds success in the playoffs. Reviewing the last decade or so of teams in the Conference Finals, almost every year 3 (if not all 4) of these teams have a top 5 Point Differential rating for the regular season. Let’s enjoy the exciting ride they have started this season and hope we can use these impressive numbers to make some noise in the postseason!