Milwaukee Bucks: The need to beat winning teams under Mike Budenholzer

BOSTON, MA - FEBRUARY 02: (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - FEBRUARY 02: (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images) /

Having struggled against the NBA’s better teams of late, the Milwaukee Bucks will need to improve in that area in the upcoming season under Mike Budenholzer.

If the Milwaukee Bucks are serious about approaching the 50-win mark, and then going on to win a first playoff series since 2001, there are a number of problems that new head coach Mike Budenholzer will have to rectify.

The most obvious areas in need of improvement come in the form of constructing a more conservative, stingy defense, and instilling a more modern, fluid offense, but below the surface there are other challenges remaining too.

For much of Jason Kidd‘s time as head coach, the consensus was that the Bucks had issues with beating, and getting motivated to play perceived lesser teams, while arguably being able to over-perform from time-to-time against more talented opponents.

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In reality, that script has flipped over the past couple of years, though, with Milwaukee’s record against above .500 teams actually growing worse last season than it was in 2016-17.

Following a respectable 20-27 (.425) mark against .500 teams in 2016-17, under the combined guidance of Kidd and Joe Prunty last year, Milwaukee went a more underwhelming 17-29 (.369) against teams with winning records.

Luckily for the Bucks’ playoff prospects, those struggles against winning teams were counteracted with a refreshing dominance against below .500 opponents. The Bucks held a record of 27-9 (.750) in such matchups, which still leaves room for improvement yet shows progress in terms of a young team’s ability to take care of business.

Of the eight Eastern Conference playoff teams, the Bucks were the only franchise not to have picked up at least 20 wins against above. 500 opponents. Even more pressing, Milwaukee was well below the level required of teams with aspirations toward securing home court in the playoffs.

Between the two conferences, only the Cleveland Cavaliers managed to win 50 games without boasting a winning record over above .500 teams, and they still managed to fall just one game below .500 (22-23) in those encounters.

Of the East’s top-three, who will be the Bucks’ biggest rivals and the picks of many to finish in similar positions this year, the Raptors finished the season 24-21 against winning teams, Boston finished at 25-21, and the 52-win Sixers came in at 24-23.

When considering Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe‘s abilities, the impact of solid free agent additions, and the potential influence of Budenholzer and his staff, it’s relatively easy to pencil the Bucks in as a team who could win 50 games this season.

But if that proves to be the case, where exactly will those wins come from? Following 44 wins last season with a stellar record against lower quality teams, any realistic path to such an improved win total will almost certainly have to arrive via an improved record against the NBA’s heavy-hitters.

It doesn’t necessarily mean the Bucks will need to beat the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets, but they will need to at a minimum hold up against competent teams.

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Kidd’s Bucks could be picked apart with ease on the defensive end and stifled by packing the paint on the other side by any team with competent coaching and high-IQ players. The challenge for Budenholzer will be to seize the initiative in forcing adjustments, and to then reap the rewards as a result.