Smart analysts expected a huge improvement from the Milwaukee Bucks this season based primarily on one change: the franchise hired Mike Budenholzer as head coach, replacing last season’s combo of Jason Kidd and Joe Prunty.
Budenholzer is Gregg Popovich’s former right hand who’d led the Al Horford-Paul Millsap Hawks to a 60-win season. Kidd had some wacky schemes and a big ego, and Prunty was a mere caretaker once Kidd was fired. Just on the strength of that upgrade, and given Milwaukee’s solid talent base, the Bucks were widely picked as a potential gatecrasher in the East.
The Bucks have absolutely crashed through that gate.
Milwaukee is the only undefeated team left in the NBA, having beat the other undefeated team, the Raptors, on Monday as both Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo sat out. As the Bucks stand atop the ledger, Budenholzer is of course getting his deserved accolades. But we should be mindful that it’s not just Budenholzer who should receive all the credit.
In that spirit, here are three reasons not named Mike Budenholzer the Bucks are amazing.
1. Khris Middleton is a star
Momentum around Middleton’s rise to stardom has been building — he averaged 20 points per game last season and essentially took Jabari Parker’s job as the No. 2 weapon alongside Antetokounmpo. Middleton is often mentioned as one of the top free agent targets for teams with cap space who can’t quite get in the Kevin Durant/Kawhi Leonard/Jimmy Butler conversations, as well.
Even by those standards, Middleton is exceeding expectations.
There aren’t many high-efficiency 20-point scorers in the league who play lockdown wing defense, but Middleton qualifies. He’s shooting at a ridiculously effective clip this season (54 percent on threes, 64 percent effective field goal percentage). He used to be thought of as an effective three-and-D option, but he’s completely broken out of that mold.
If he stays on track, he’ll earn his first All-Star bid this season and might end up in the Most Improved Player race, even though he was already very good. This is a welcome, surprising development for the Bucks given that Middleton was a second-round pick, a throw-in chip in the Brandon Jennings-Brandon Knight trade, and works on one of the most affordable contracts in the league (for now).
And he’s only 27, so he has plenty of time to ride with Antetokounmpo if the Bucks can keep him this summer.
2. Everyone can pass. Almost everyone can shoot.
Something wonderful about watching the Bucks is how fearless everyone on the floor is to shoot the ball, and how free they are passing the ball. Per the NBA’s stats page, Milwaukee is No. 10 in pace-adjusted assists per game, and tops in the league at converting passes to assists.
That latter mark speaks to the freedom to shoot up and down the roster. Everyone who has played for the Bucks this season has taken multiple threes — in fact, no one on the roster is averaging fewer than three triples attempted per 36 minutes, according to Basketball-Reference. Antetokounmpo is the least frequent deep shooter on the team at 3.1 3PAs per 36 minutes. He’s also the least effective long-range shooter.
The centers all shoot and pass. Brook Lopez has been essential: he’s shooting from long-range more often per minute than any other Buck (8.8 3PAs per 36 minutes) and is hitting at a 38 percent clip. John Henson has unlocked the deep ball, too: he’s hitting 38 percent on more than four 3PAs per 36 minutes.
Eric Bledsoe is the nominal point guard in a starting lineup filled with great passers, and he has a really strong assist (6.9 per game) to turnover (two per game) ratio along with decent shooting efficiency (55 percent effective field goal percentage). Antetokounmpo is of course a talented playmaker and passer. Lopez can move the ball. Middleton is a strong passer, even off the dribble, and is shooting the lights out. Finally, President Malcolm Brogdon rounds out the starting five with solid all-around play, including as a passer (with 4.5 assists per 36 minutes).
At the fast pace Budenholzer has installed, passing and shooting are made even more important. The Bucks have plenty of players who can do both without being defensive liabilities. It’s a huge benefit.
3. Giannis Antetokounmpo might be the best two-way player in the league.
And then there is Antetokounmpo.
As noted, Antetokounmpo missed Monday’s main event against Toronto and is currently in the NBA’s concussion protocol after a nasty fall over the weekend. In the six games he’s played, his numbers are absolutely ridiculous: 25 points, 14 rebounds, seven assists in 30 minutes per game. (Milwaukee has been blowing some teams out, leading to relatively low minutes for the starters — no one is currently above 30 per game.) It’s historic production.
He does it while being the best defender on the No. 2 defense in the NBA.
Antetokounmpo was a popular preseason MVP pick because the Bucks were expected to improve, because he’s the best player in the Eastern Conference, because he’s been so good already and is still so young. Will he actually win MVP? Stephen Curry has re-entered the conversation against all odds, and Anthony Davis and LeBron James will have their say. We’ll see whether Antetokounmpo’s MVP momentum picks up if the Bucks stay hot.
But beyond that, he’s right there with Davis as the best two-way player in the world. As you can tell from the shooting numbers, Antetokounmpo still isn’t totally comfortable from long-range — there’s a smart argument that he’s the one misfit piece in Budenholzer’s system. But everything else is there: the playmaking, the driving, the defense, the rebounding, the commitment to sprinting in transition, the on-court leadership. It’s all there for Antetokounmpo.
Whether he gets full recognition is up to narrative and the whims of voters. But it’s all there.