Top Level Sports
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Top Level Sports

Don’t Sleep on Milwaukee, the Favorite Turned Dark Horse

Image from AP Photo/John Bazemore

In each of the last two NBA seasons, the Milwaukee Bucks finished the regular season with the league’s best record, with their star forward Giannis Antetokounmpo winning both MVP awards. Yet, after failing to reach the NBA Finals either year and dropping to third place in the Eastern Conference this season, the Bucks have become one of the most underrated teams in the league.

On Saturday, Milwaukee dismantled a Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons-less 76ers team 132–94, completing a 3–0 season series sweep of a team that held the top seed in the East for a good portion of the season. Now, it’s finally time to recognize the Bucks as the serious title contenders they are.

While the major storylines of the Nets’ big three (Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and James Harden) and Joel Embiid’s incredible season and MVP candidacy have led to Brooklyn and Philadelphia receiving more media attention, Milwaukee is right there in the standings, currently sitting just 1.5 games behind the 76ers and three games behind the Nets.

Moreover, the Bucks have the best average point differential in the East at +6.7. They could still rise to second or even first in the conference, but even if the current standings hold and they go on to face the 76ers in the second round, Milwaukee will be more than comfortable in that matchup.

While it may seem as if the Nets and 76ers are dominant teams, that’s actually not the case. With a current record of 41–20, the Nets’ winning percentage of .672 would be the 7th worst among conference one-seeds since the 16-team playoff era began in 1983–84. Additionally, both the Nets and 76ers have struggled with injuries this season, which could make their postseason runs more difficult. On the other hand, the Bucks have been one of the league’s healthier teams, with their top eight leading scorers all playing at least 47 of the team’s 59 games.

Giannis Antetokounmpo may a longshot to win his third consecutive MVP award, but that doesn’t mean the Greek Freak hasn’t been dominant. Antetokounmpo is averaging 28.4 points, 11.3 rebounds, and a career-high six assists per game with a higher true shooting percentage than last season.

Khris Middleton has once again proven to be one of the best wing players and shooters in the league, averaging 20 points and career highs in assists (5.5) and three-point percentage (.427). Offseason trade acquisition Jrue Holiday provides another ballhandler as well as one of the best defensive guards in the league while Donte DiVincenzo has grown into a solid starter and Bobby Portis has flourished in his role as a stretch big off the bench.

This year, the Bucks won’t have to face the pressure in the postseason of being the favorite. They’ve also had time to mature after becoming a top team in the league relatively out of nowhere two seasons ago. And with the second-best three-point percentage in the league, Milwaukee has the shooters to help take the pressure off Antetokounmpo.

Should the Bucks become Eastern Conference champions and reach the NBA Finals, they’ll have a good chance at winning it all. The Western Conference’s top two seeds, the Jazz and Suns, have yet to make it past the conference semifinals with their current core, and in the Suns’ case, haven’t made the playoffs at all. Health questions face the next group of teams in the standings, including the Clippers, Nuggets, and Lakers.

All of these teams are certainly capable of winning it all, but this year is unique in the lack of a clear favorite, which is another reason not to doubt Milwaukee. Despite all the attention elsewhere, the Bucks currently have +800 title odds, tied for fourth-best in the league. Las Vegas isn’t sleeping on Mike Budenholzer’s team, and you shouldn’t either.

Connor Groel is a graduate student at Northwestern’s Medill School. He is the editor of the Top Level Sports publication on Medium and host of the Slept On Sports podcast. His debut collection is available on Amazon.

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