Welcome to the NBA’s age of entropy, the year in which THIS LEAGUE turned into this league? Without the certitude of a younger LeBron James or an engaged Warriors team, there’s a growing feeling that everything is made up and the points don’t matter. Offenses have raced past the point of historic comprehension; it’ll never stop being weird that the Sacramento Kings have the best offense in basketball history or that Nikola Jokic is putting up stats that lap Michael Jordan. As such, the whole year has been swallowed by a dizzying fatberg of paratext and metatext—Ja Morant fighting a kid! Philly grievance politics! Trade demands! Ja Morant fighting another kid? Still the actual underlying text is—and has always been—very simple. The Milwaukee Bucks are the best team in basketball.
For proof, just check the standings: at 52-20, the Bucks have the best record, sitting 2.5 games ahead of the second place Boston Celtics. Through 72 games, they’ve been good in all the ways a team can be good. They’re great at home (30-7) and on the road (22-12). They have the most wins against winning teams (26-12) against opponents over .500) and the fewest losses against losing teams (26-8 against sub-.500). They have the season’s longest win streak (16) and haven’t lost consecutive games in over three months.
Over the last six months (and particularly since the start of the new year), the Bucks have flattened the rest of the league so thoroughly and so bloodlessly that it hardly even feels worth discussing. There’s a reason JJ Redick and Kendrick Perkins aren’t play-fighting on TV about what Giannis Antetokounmpo’s VORP reveals about Us As A Society.
This is all to say that the Bucks are the Bucks, having run back the same core that they’ve leaned on since adding Jrue Holiday in 2021. Even as Khris Middleton has bobbed in and out of the rotation with various injuries, their essential outline is unchanged. Their defense is still as demoralizing as ever with Antetokounmpo, Holiday and Brook Lopez each mounting a reasonable case to win Defensive Player of the year; their paint-by-numbers offense is still chugging along at a fast enough clip. For the third year in a row, they’re kind of a tough hang and are an incredible team as a result.
If the rest of the NBA trends towards freedom of expression, the Bucks represent the joylessness of competency. After all these years together, the Bucks have mastered the art of mustering just enough energy and focus to win, modulating their intensity depending on the moment; they’re 27-8 in close games with just a +2.8 net rating advantage in clutch situations. Whereas earlier versions of the Bucks ran up the score and humiliated teams as a way of announcing their arrival, they’re now basketball’s version of Floyd Mayweather or Pete Sampras, excising any surplus artistry in favor of ruthless proficiency. Watch any Bucks game and behold 12 guys who are very good at their job.
Antetokounmpo, of course, is the best at his job. Averaging an obscene 31.3 points, 11.6 rebounds and 5.6 assists per game, Antetokounmpo would be the obvious MVP choice in just about any other season in NBA history—and probably should be this year as well. Like the rest of the Bucks, he’s cut the fat from his game, mercifully escaping the clutches of Bag culture and rejecting the #mainlyjumpers grindset by taking his fewest threes per game since 2018. Space contracts beneath his feet until the defense is squeezed out of the play and he’s alone at the rim.
Absent the safety valve of a fully ambulant Khris Middleton, Antetokounmpo has sopped up extra possessions to keep the offense functional. His usage (38.7 percent), touches (79.1) and average seconds per touch (4.04) are all the highest they’ve been since Holiday arrived. While the Bucks only rank 14th in offensive rating, their relative toothlessness is hardly Antetokounmpo’s fault. When Antetokounmpo plays, the Bucks score 118.29 points per 100 possessions, the equivalent of the sixth best offense. Without Antetokounmpo, the Bucks score 111.87 points per 100 possessions, which places them among the NBA’s unmentionables between the Detroit Pistons and Houston Rockets.
Despite the fact that his skillset seems somewhat limited, Antetokounmpo is a sneakily versatile offensive weapon. No matter the situation, Antetokounmpo thrives—he’s the Bucks’ leading scorer on isolations, post-ups, putbacks and fastbreaks, their second most prolific pick-and-roll ball handler and cutter and their third best roll-man.
By operating in all these different capacities, Antetokounmpo unsteadies defenses that have grown used to the standard patterns and processes of an NBA game. Since Antetokounmpo does nearly everything, he demands that his defender must do nearly everything too. Any given NBA defense might have two bigs who can guard Antetokounmpo in the paint without it being an OSHA violation, but those two guys don’t have the juice to contain him on the perimeter or run with him in transition. Conversely, the guys who can keep up with Antetokounmpo’s speed are woefully unprepared to guard the roll-man in a pick-and-roll or box-out a seven-footer.
In this sense, Antetokounmpo represents a new mode of ball dominance separate from the dribble-dribble stagnation of a heliocentric attack that rely on one player to conjure points from scratch. Instead, Antetokounmpo is the NBA’s first geocentric superstar (well, in a metaphoric sense at least)—he’s still undeniably Milwaukee’s nourishing sun, but he provides life and light to their offense by cycling within it rather than forcibly pulling it into his orbit.
Just as Milwaukee’s offense muddles a defense’s standard rules, their own defense imposes arrhythmia on their opponents. The Bucks have no sympathy for grace or beauty. Every individual component of offense becomes a little harder—plays start later and farther out, layups require more loft, jumpers are contested a bit more tightly—until actually scoring feels almost impossible. Notably, the Bucks essentially don’t create turnovers, yet still have the best defensive rating (110.7) because they turn shooting into a hopeless endeavor. Holding opponents to a paltry. 51.4 percent effective field goal percentage, the Bucks essentially turn every team they face into a collection of Romeo Langfords. With Jrue Holiday at the bow, Brook Lopez in the stern and Antetokounmpo everywhere in between, the Bucks maintain their shape and force their opponents to find slivers of opportunity within it.
Still, none of this is radical stuff. The NBA projects a certain mysticism, but the Bucks are so sound and so tough that none of that really applies. They’re annihilating the rest of the league by resisting its prevailing trends. Other teams expand and explore open space; Milwaukee compacts it. Jokic and Embiid inspire reverie; Antetokounmpo inspires fear. Basketball is unpredictable; the Bucks are inevitable.