In late January, the Milwaukee Bucks were sitting at fourth place in the Eastern Conference and were only one game ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers, the fifth seed in the conference. A team like Milwaukee is used to finishing first or second in the conference and being legitimate championship contenders every year, so many were questioning whether the writing was on the wall for the Bucks this season.
It seemed like they were bound for a second-round elimination in the playoffs until everything changed.
Over the last 16 games, the Bucks have gone undefeated; they are now standing alone at the top of the Eastern Conference and holding the best record in the entire league.
So how did they flip the script?
For starters, the defensive intensity has increased drastically. Since 2019, the Bucks have been historically good on defense, but in this year’s preseason, they struggled defensively. Once the regular season started, they returned to being a good defense, but they were nowhere near the dominance of previous seasons.
Up until late January, the Bucks were a top-five defense in the league, which was good enough to win games but, considering how far behind their offense was, not enough to be considered championship favorites. In the 46 games prior to Jan. 23, they had a 112.1 defensive rating. Since then, the Bucks have posted a 106.9 defensive rating. Historically, their defense has been good during this stretch.
For context, the 2004 San Antonio Spurs are the greatest regular season defense in NBA history, with a relative defensive rating that was 8.8 points better than the league average. Over the last 16 games, the Bucks have posted a defensive rating that is 9.1 points better than the league average (–9.1 rDRtg).
Obviously, a 16-game sample size is not significant enough to call this version of the Bucks the best defensive team of all time, but it is impressive that the Bucks have managed to be this dominant defensively despite their franchise player Giannis Antetokounmpo missing games due to injury.
If you’ve watched the Bucks this year, then you’ll know that there’s more to this team’s defensive dominance than just Giannis. Jrue Holiday has made the All-Defensive Team every year that he’s been in Milwaukee and is arguably the best on-ball defender in the league. Of course, behind him is Giannis and stretch big Brook Lopez, who together have anchored some of the best regular season and playoff defenses in NBA history since 2019.
Nothing in basketball is more valuable defensively than protecting the rim, and the Bucks do that better than any team in the league. Their unique drop coverage scheme seems antiquated when you consider how many three-pointer teams are attempting, yet the Bucks have been one of the best defensive teams in the league since Giannis ascended in 2019.
Looking at their offense, the Bucks have reached uncharted territory for themselves in the past month. Since Jan. 23, the Bucks have posted a 119.5 offensive rating (+3.4 rORtg). For the Bucks, this is really good because their offense has lagged tremendously behind their defense for years. This improvement is due to not only scheming but also good shooting from stars and role players alike.
Holiday, who is an integral part of the Bucks’ entire system, has seen a drastic improvement in his numbers during this winning streak. During this winning streak, he is averaging 20 points per game and six assists on 58% true shooting. Holiday is someone who has been inefficient as a scorer for the majority of his career. Due to his incredible defense, this hasn’t really hurt his stock around the league, but now that he is averaging 20 points on league-average efficiency, he is a huge asset for the Bucks’ offense.
Bucks’ Head Coach Mike Budenholzer has also moved all-star Khris Middleton to the bench since he returned from injury. This has drastically improved the bench’s scoring production. Last season, the Bucks’ bench was 27th in the league in points per game at 27.8. They are now 11th in the league, averaging almost 38 points per game. Of course, it helps that Middleton moved to the bench, Bobby Portis returned from injury and the Bucks picked up Jae Crowder, who has been fantastic. All of this has contributed to the Bucks’ improvement on the offensive end this season.
Granted, offensive ratings have skyrocketed since the new year, so the Bucks still only have the 10th-best offense in basketball, but regardless, having a +3.4 offense combined with the –9.1 defense means that the Bucks currently lead the league in overall net rating with a +12.6.
Since the NBA/ABA merger in 1976, only one team has finished the season with a net rating higher than 12. That team was the 1995–1996 Chicago Bulls, widely considered to be the greatest team in NBA history. This statistic in no way implies that this Bucks team is in consideration for the greatest team of all time, but this should put into perspective how dominant they’ve been over the last 30 days.