MILWAUKEE — Take a glance at the NBA standings after the first two weeks and you’ll be greeted by a surprising sight: The defending champion Milwaukee Bucks sit in 10th place in the Eastern Conference at 3-4.
They have lost three straight games at home, including two against the Minnesota Timberwolves and San Antonio Spurs, both teams not expected to make the playoffs. This is the latest in a season they’ve been under .500 since 2017-18, which was also the last time they had a home losing streak last this long.
In short, this has been a rough start for the Bucks. But while it obviously isn’t good to put yourself in an early hole, there’s also very little cause for actual concern. Here’s why.
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These aren’t the real Bucks
On opening night against the Brooklyn Nets, the Bucks sent out a starting lineup of Jrue Holiday, Grayson Allen, Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez. That’s their best five — certainly until Donte DiVincenzo returns from offseason foot surgery, and maybe even when he does depending on how you view him compared to Allen — and they’ve played a grand total of six minutes together.
Holiday left the win over the Nets early with a heel injury and later sprained his ankle, which has limited him to just two games so far; Lopez has not played since opening night due to a lingering back problem that does not currently have a timeline; DiVincenzo hasn’t played yet; Bobby Portis is still working his way back to full fitness after a hamstring problem and has appeared in two games; new additions Rodney Hood (foot soreness, hand) and Semi Ojeleye (calf) have played four and two games, respectively; even Khris Middleton was absent against the Jazz due to illness.
Those injury problems become a compounding issue. Not only are you playing without your best guys, but you get forced into weird lineups and rotations that no one is used to, and likely won’t be seen once everyone is healthy. So far they’ve already used 161 different five-man units, and just one of them has played more than 14 minutes together.
“We’ve had a lot of different combinations and we’ve got a decent amount of new guys this year,” Pat Connaughton said. “So how do we find that chemistry, how do we find that continuity, how do we find ways to get guys into rhythm? I think for us, we’re still in the learning process. It feels similar to last year when we struggled a little bit at the beginning of the season because the continuity doesn’t happen overnight.”
When a team is as banged up as the Bucks, it’s sort of a waste of time to do too much serious analysis of their play. If anything, this period highlights how important some of the missing pieces are to the team’s success. Multiple players have commented on missing Lopez, in particular.
“But, for sure, I need Brook to get back,” Giannis said after the team’s loss to the Timberwolves. “I need Brook to get back. Brook, I don’t know, maybe you are at home right now, Brook, please come back. We need you to rebound the ball, brother.”
“I know how good of a defender Jrue is, but as a guard though I kind of miss Brook’s presence most,” Allen said after the defeat against the Jazz. “Especially with him usually holding down that back line underneath the basket, cleaning up any mistakes, a lot of the stuff in the pick-and-roll he can drop back and defend too. He takes a lot of pressure off us guards, so he’s definitely missed.”
The good news for the Bucks is that Lopez is progressing well with his rehab work, and it’s expected to be out long term. Likewise, none of the other injuries that players are dealing with appear to be major problems, and they should be back to full strength in the next few weeks.
Bad 3-point shooting luck
The Bucks have been amongst the league leaders in 3-point attempts ever since head coach Mike Budenholzer arrived, and this season they made a concerted effort to bolster their outside attack. They added Allen (38 percent career 3-point shooter), Hood (36.8) and brought back George Hill (38.4). Even Semi Ojeleye, though he doesn’t have the track record of the other players, is coming off two solid seasons from 3-point land.
So far, however, the shooting just hasn’t been there. Through the first seven games, they’re eighth in the league in 3-point attempts at 40.7 per game, but are 22nd in percentage at 31.9. That would be by far the lowest mark in the Budenholzer era, and doesn’t accurately reflect the kind of shooting talent on this team. Furthermore, it doesn’t accurately reflect the kind of great looks they’ve been creating.
The Bucks are averaging 20.6 wide-open (closest defender six-plus feet away) 3s per game, which is the third-most in the league. They’re shooting 29.9 percent on those opportunities, however, which is not only dead-last, but historically bad. For reference, since the NBA started tracking this data (or at least posting it publicly) in 2013, the 2017-18 Oklahoma City Thunder are the only team to shoot below 33 percent on wide open 3s for an entire season, let alone 30 percent.
Simply put, this slump is bad luck, and it’s come at the worst time for the Bucks. With all of their injuries they don’t have the necessary offensive firepower to make up for missing so many open 3s right now. Over the course of the season, however, you can expect the percentages to start going up, especially with chances like these:
On this front, the Bucks don’t have too much to say. They know they’re making the right plays and taking the right shots. To a certain extent that’s all you can do.
“Shoot to get hot, shoot to stay hot,” Connaughton said following the loss to the Jazz. “Can’t stop shooting.”
“Know that, gotta let it fly,” Portis responded. “I know [me and Pat] are anyway, miss or make.”
After their various postseason failures, the Bucks reached a point where people around the league largely stopped caring what they did in the regular season; it was put up or shut up when things real in the playoffs. Last season, they put up in a major way, securing their first title in 50 years. And now, in a weird twist, the regular season once again doesn’t matter so much, but for the opposite reason.
This group proved that they have what it takes on the biggest stage. They overcame their playoff demons, battled through key injuries and won huge games on the road. Success has given them a newfound level of self-belief.
“We definitely got a lot more confidence to ourselves,” Middleton said back on opening night. “It’s natural, we should. We are the champs. We’ve been through every type of situation you can go through so you know what to expect so there’s no need to worry about failing or whatnot because you know what to do. You know what’s expected of you to get back to that point.”
That confidence will not only help them when they go up against other elite teams this season, but it will also make it easier to stay even-keel through rough stretches like the one they’re in now. They know who they are and what they can do when they’re healthy.
“There’s always a confidence that comes with winning and a confidence that comes with maturity and a team that’s been together,” Budenholzer said after losing to the Jazz. “We could be healthy and struggle during a stretch. It happens and it probably happens a couple times. We are banged up, we’re injured, but you gotta go out and compete. Nobody feels sorry for you. Nobody’s gonna worry about you. We gotta keep playing, keep competing, keep going and keep developing.”