The Milwaukee Bucks have emerged as one of the NBA’s most surprising teams through the early stages of 2014-15. Much like the Phoenix Suns a year ago, Milwaukee entered the campaign with deservedly low expectations before exceeding them by stunning margins.
Through 23 games played, the Bucks boast an 11-12 record. That’s good enough for the No. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference's current playoff picture. They have more than double the amount of wins than the Knicks (4-20) and Pistons (3-19) -- two teams with playoff aspirations of their own.
Considering that Milwaukee won a measly 15 games all of last season (worst in the NBA), it’s shocking to see the Bucks have a chance to trump that total before New Year’s Day. Yet that’s where they stand due to a variety of positives. Let's take a look at some of the numbers behind Milwaukee's surprising play.
Jabari Parker's Impact
Perhaps the most interesting aspect about the Bucks’ turnaround is that they didn’t reload with a wide variety of fresh talents.
They did trade Carlos Delfino, Miroslav Raduljica and a 2015 second-round pick to the Clippers in August for veteran swingman Jared Dudley and a conditional first-round pick. Dudley, however, has been a minor contributor. He's already had his starting gig revoked.
The one new arrival on the roster who can be singled out as an X-factor is rookie forward Jabari Parker. The No. 2 overall pick in the 2014 draft has started all 23 games thus far. Even though he’s still just 19 years old, the Duke product is putting his imprint on Milwaukee’s early success.
Parker’s averages of 12.5 points and 5.7 rebounds per game ranks him second and third on the team, respectively. He stands to improve both at the free-throw line (68.8 percent) and behind the three-point arc (25 percent on 16 attempts), but his 49 percent shooting from the field is rock solid. As a point of comparison, the 2013-14 rookie who shot the highest percentage while also playing at least 30 minutes per contest was the Magic’s Victor Oladipo at a lackluster 41.9 percent.
Parker is the early frontrunner for Rookie of the Year honors, but he’s not the only young Buck getting the job done.
Growth of the ‘Greek Freak’
Giannis Antetokounmpo was drafted No. 15 overall by the Bucks in 2013. His lanky frame, as well as his ability to step out and knock down three-pointers, drew early (and admittedly unrealistic) parallels to Oklahoma City Thunder superstar Kevin Durant -- the player Giannis idolizes.
The “Greek Freak” was raw as a rookie, but he did show flashes of becoming a dynamic NBA talent due to his 6-foot-11 frame and ability to handle the ball. As a sophomore, he’s shown improvements while leaning more heavily on his strengths.
Throughout his rookie year, Antetokounmpo shot 1.5 three-pointers per game. Under new head coach Jason Kidd, he’s launched just 15 attempts from deep—less than one attempt per contest. Instead of focusing on spreading the floor, Giannis has put an emphasis on getting higher percentage looks by attacking the basket and drawing fouls.
In fact, nearly 80 percent of Antetokounmpo’s shot attempts in the early stages have come from within 16 feet of the basket. He’s shooting 80 percent at the rim and 49.6 percent on mid-range attempts from 4 to 16 feet.
That discipline has led to a big improvement in shooting efficiency (48.1 percent compared to 41.4 percent a season ago). His scoring output is also up to 12.2 points per game compared to 6.8 as a rookie, and his player efficiency rating (PER) has made a sizable jump:
The Bucks have a very bright future considering that Giannis just turned 20 years old last week.
On the most basic level, the Bucks have simply been a superior offensive and defensive team when compared to the horrific season they endured a year ago.
Their offensive rating of 104.7 has the Bucks ranked slightly higher than they were a season ago. They’re playing at a faster pace and sharing the ball more effectively -- which has translated into improved offensive efficiency. Milwaukee ranks No. 11 in the league by dishing out 22.3 assists per game.
The biggest positive impact, though, has occurred on the less glamorous end of the floor. The Bucks rank No. 12 in defensive rating by surrendering 106.4 points per 100 possessions. Last year’s squad finished dead last in that category at season’s end with a defensive rating of 111.8.
That big improvement mirrors the year-to-year transformation made by the Charlotte Bobcats (now Hornets) under head coach Steve Clifford last season. Charlotte finished sixth in defensive rating (101.2) in 2013-14 after a last-place finish the year prior.
Of course, more than anything, the new-look Bucks have just been consistently competitive.
Milwaukee has already won three games in a row on two separate occasions. For reference, it failed to win back-to-back games throughout the entirety of the 2013-14 campaign under head coach Larry Drew.
Kidd and the Bucks were criticized for the events that led to Drew getting replaced, but the future Hall of Famer has his new team playing hard and even contending for a playoff berth.
Milwaukee has certainly benefited from playing in a much weaker Eastern Conference, but with a five-game swing against the West upcoming, the Bucks have a chance to further prove themselves as this season’s breakout team.
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