Off To a Good Start
The Milwaukee Bucks have been a good team and a good franchise for a very long time. In writing game previews before each game, I like to look at the all-time records vs the opponent that night. In almost every case, the Bucks lead the all-time series. For example, the Utah Jazz lead the all-time series vs Milwaukee 58-48 but the Bucks lead the all-time series vs Houston, Sacramento and Portland. (All Western Conference teams.) The Milwaukee Bucks deserve a better reputation in the NBA as a team and franchise that have been historically very good.
These midseason grades reflect that sentiment. The Bucks are going to make the playoffs-they have a 97% chance according to teamrankings.com- but will they be able to compete for an NBA Championship? They have a 3 ½ game cushion on avoiding the play-in tournament. As a team they have yet to experience a moment where everyone felt 100% healthy. And they still are 26-14.
This section features what I’m calling “the big 3.5”. The Bucks “big three” is Giannis, Jrue and Khris. But I think this year Brook Lopez gets a nod. Having led the NBA in blocks for most of the year, Lopez has been an anchor in the middle and deserves all-star consideration. Bobby Portis gets a good grade and might end up winning NBA 6th man of the year. But right now, he is not in the Bucks “Big 3.5”.
The 26-14 Milwaukee Bucks midseason grades are in for the 2022-2023 season and for an overall team grade, it is good. (A-) The Bucks lead the Central Division and are the third overall seed in the East. Again, they have a 97% chance to make the playoffs. Our grades this year are “top-heavy” with Giannis, Brook and Jrue being worth a ton of points and value for the Bucks. Khris Middleton is going to receive an “incomplete” and some more time in hope that at/around the all-star break he is ready to go.
Will the Bucks make a move to put them as a clear front runner? Will they sit back and wait and hope for a healthy Khris Middleton? Is this veteran team going to have enough in the tank to make a run?
The NBA is a fickle sport in the sense that with such a long season (late September- late June) teams turn it off and on at-will, playing great for stretches and poorly for others. Eighty-two games PLUS a playoff is just a lot of basketball and all NBA teams have some ups and downs. But as the old sports and life cliché goes, “the cream rises to the top”. And the Milwaukee Bucks appear ready for a post all-star break run that will continue to assert that they are a top-three team in the Eastern Conference, along with the rival Brooklyn Nets, the Boston Celtics and maybe the Cleveland Cavaliers. Plus remember, the Bucks are (via RealGM) the “oldest” team in the NBA. This is a veteran team that knows how, and when, to ratchet up the intensity.
The regular season is halfway over. We can start to project out where the Bucks record should land. (All grades are subject to NBA standards and of course are highly up for debate. Please comment below.) Nobody likes a bad grade but unfortunately for the Bucks, those are really coming out in part 2 of this story.
Giannis Grade: A+++
(Can you even get higher than an “A”?)
Giannis is averaging 32 points per game, is rebounding at career-high levels (11.8 per game) and is averaging 5.7 assists per game. He is top ten in the league in scoring and in rebounds. When he plays, the Bucks win. He is a superstar. He even has his own Fortnite character.
The current odds that Giannis wins MVP are +400. That is not a bad bet.
Something that comes up quite a bit is that Giannis is still relatively “new” to basketball. He started playing when he was 13. He was 18 when he made his NBA debut. His past and all the hard work it took for him and his family to simply survive have been well chronicled.
The league-wide perception is that Giannis never takes off any plays or that he never gives less than 110%. That seems remarkably true. The only thing that seemed to stop him in the first half of the season was his knee soreness and “load management”. His downhill, attack the basket playing-style might not hold up over a twenty year career. But that seems like a “future Bucks fan problem”, not something anyone is worried about now.
Another newly minted league-wide thought is that because Giannis is a foreign born player and was never subjected to the AAU grind of basketball in the US, he is still continuing to learn the game and improve. He is interested in winning, not in creating and picking out the best AAU squad. Now that is a scary thought. Giannis, at his own whim, will simply play for a Greece National team.
Why is it important that Giannis never played AAU? Well, he just plays to win. He’ll play on any team and isn’t a part of an AAU culture where kids work together to pick “super teams”. He is getting better and is only now starting to enter his prime. The Milwaukee Bucks franchise is blessed to have him.
As long as he stays healthy, he gives Milwaukee a chance to win.
Khris Middleton Grade: INC
Khris Middleton is the engine that makes the Bucks go. But he simply has not been able to play enough because of injuries.
Also, while it is tough to “get inside the head” of a player (or anyone for that matter) Khris lost his father in the offseason. That trauma certainly does not help.
Middleton offers so much to this team. He can shoot the three and is great at creating his own shot. And of course, like Aaron Rodgers has fondly said, “he has that great mid-range.”
Jrue Holiday Grade: A-
What can you say, Holiday is a defensive stud who can win you a game. (Aka The Knicks comeback win)
He is playing well statistically- 18 points per game, 5 rebounds and a 7 assists per game- all of these numbers are above his career averages. Holiday is 32. This is a year for him where he wants to win.
An interesting factor in this grade also has to be that “locker room presence” we read and hear about all the time in sports. His charity (along with his wife Lauren which you can visit at www.jlhfund.org) appears to be the Tesla of NBA charities. It is hard to think of a charity more targeted and impactful for an NBA club. There is no way that work has not helped this team feel more like, well, a team.
Brook Lopez Grade: A-
Brook Lopez is playing well. After missing so much of last year with a back injury, Lopez really looks “right”. Splash Mountain is shooting 38.4% from the three point line and is leading the Bucks.
Zach Lowe on Brook Lopez:
“I’m saying it right now. Given the time [Khris] Middleton has missed and [Jrue] Holiday has missed and the Bucks have the best record in the league. He is a real All-Star case… Brook Lopez belongs in the All-Star conversation.”
— Legion Hoops (@LegionHoops) December 21, 2022
He is also leading the NBA in blocks. That is impressive. Lopez and his play have helped provide some stability to the Bucks this year, leading again to a strong 26-14 record. Where could Lopez improve: he needs to set stronger screens to develop that “brickhouse” reputation needed in the playoffs.
To be continued…
Part two and the rest of the Bucks grades will be out and up next week. This one, of course, is easy to write: these are four great players. Where will the rest of the guys fit in? Keep an eye on Wi Sports Heroics for more great Bucks coverage.
Follow me on Twitter at @authorrudylb and check out my other writings at www.rudylb.com. Follow us at @WiSportsHeroics! For all things Wisconsin sports, click here! Also, check out our merch store for some amazing WSH merchandise!