MILWAUKEE — Once considered the little brother to the Goliaths of the West, this year’s Eastern Conference is as deep and competitive as ever. Through all of the blockbuster trades, star rookies and elite talent returning from injury, the steadfast Milwaukee Bucks remain at the top of the league through 31 games.
Stabilized by the best player in the world and a cast of reliable contributors, the Milwaukee Bucks are the only NBA Finals winner intact in the modern-day Eastern Conference. Shortly behind them in the standings are last year’s Eastern Conference champion Boston Celtics — the very team that eliminated Milwaukee (sans Khris Middleton) from the second round of the Playoffs in 2022.
Boston isn’t alone in its pursuit of the throne either. Milwaukee was outclassed by the No. 3 seed Cleveland Cavaliers on Thursday night, led by an outstanding core of Donovan Mitchell, Evan Mobley, Darius Garland and Jarrett Allen. The two Central Division rivals have split the season series 1-to-1 thus far and are only separated by one game in the standings.
The Brooklyn Nets, while tumultuous, have one of the more talented rosters of the modern era. Perennial MVP candidate Joel Embiid has a complete lineup including James Harden to pursue an NBA title. And now two and a half seasons removed from their last Finals appearance, the Miami Heat are hungry for another shot at the title.
Needless to say, the Milwaukee Bucks won’t have a cakewalk back to the NBA Finals — even with a proven championship core. So how can the team give itself the best chance to contend for a title this year? Believe it or not, it begins with offense.
Even with a 31.6-point-per-game scorer in Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee ranks just 18th in offensive rating this year. ‘The Greek Freak’ and fan favorite Bobby Portis are the only Bucks players hitting at least 50 percent of their shots this season. Their true shooting as a team is at 56.7% thus far, which is ranked 18th in the league behind non-Playoff teams like the Orlando Magic, Washington Wizards and Los Angeles Lakers.
Although it becomes easy to lean on Giannis to keep the offense afloat, the Bucks need Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton at their best to contend. Holiday is having his least efficient season by field goal percentage since 2016 and Middleton has struggled through seven games since returning from injury.
The team has moved away the unselfish offensive style implemented by head coach Mike Budenholzer. Instead of swinging the ball around the court to keep the opposition off balance, the ball is sticking in one player’s hands for too long these days. Generating more team assists would open things up for players like Middleton, newcomer Joe Ingles and 3-point specialist Pat Connaughton, who haven’t found their groove yet this season.
Defensively, the team needs to focus on generating more turnovers. The Milwaukee Bucks rank fourth in shots blocked per game, but just 28th in steals forced and dead last in opponent turnovers per game. Hounding the ball to create more fastbreak opportunities would demoralize opponents and generate easy looks both in the paint and from the perimeter.
When canvassing the league, it’s clear that the Milwaukee Bucks are a true title contender. In fact, the Bucks are widely regarded as the No. 2 in title odds by national sports books. Nonetheless, this is not your mother’s Eastern Conference — it’s more intense than ever, and while the Bucks are the team to beat in many eyes, there’s still plenty of work to do in the 51 regular-season games leading into the Playoffs.
Want to hear the Bucks in their quest for a third championship? Tune into WTMJ: The Flagship Radio Station of the Milwaukee Bucks on Friday night at 6:00 p.m. as they take the road to visit the Brooklyn Nets; the team they eliminated in last year’s first round.
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