We have reached the halfway point of the Milwaukee Bucks' season, and it has definitely been a bumpy road so far. All of the negatives with the team are fairly obvious...
Their defense needs to be a lot better (currently 22nd in defensive rating), Damian Lillard has not totally gotten into rhythm (43 percent from the field and 35 percent from three), they had one of their main bench guys, Jae Crowder, miss nine weeks with an injury, and overall there are still plenty of doubts about coach Adrian Griffin. With all that being said, the Bucks are 28-13 after 41 games, good for second in the Eastern Conference and third in the entire NBA.
Lillard will be fine, but the defensive stuff likely won't get better unless a trade is made to acquire one of the perimeter defenders available at the trade deadline. This probably isn't going to magically figure itself out unless some of the personnel is changed. So, at this point, expect the defense to continue to not be very good right now and hope that Jon Horst is able to work his magic at the trade deadline to get some perimeter defense. With the return of Jae Crowder and a potential new perimeter defender acquired in a trade, this defense could get to a decent level.
As far as the positives, there are still plenty of them despite the rocky first half of the season. First, as basic as it is, the Bucks still have a very good record. And while that doesn't automatically mean they are an elite team, look at talented teams such as the Suns, Lakers, or Warriors, who have all also had rocky starts to this season, but those teams find themselves 8th, 10th, and 12th in the West right now. The Bucks are still in a comfortable position as the second seed in the East despite going through their struggles, and that is something to appreciate.
Now, let's get more in-depth into some reasons for optimism with the Bucks right now.
The core is elite together
Say what you want about the Bucks' bench, but their core WORKS. It took a little bit of time for them to get used to playing with each other, and it is still a work in progress, but the numbers show just how good the main guys have been on the court together. For starters, Giannis and Dame are 27-9 when they both play. When this team has their two main guys healthy, they are pretty tough to beat. Furthermore, the trio of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Damian Lillard, and Khris Middleton has been lethal together.
According to Cleaning the Glass, Giannis, Dame, and Khris have played 1,071 possessions together, and on those possessions, the Bucks have a blistering 127.5 offensive rating (99th percentile) and a stout 114.1 defensive rating (68th percentile). Their effective field goal percentage on these possessions ranks in the 99th percentile, and they are in the 97th percentile at taking care of the ball. According to NBA.com, among all three-player lineups with at least 500 minutes played this season, this trio's net rating ranks sixth out of 121. They are elite.
Now throw Brook Lopez, who has had his share of struggles this season, in the mix with those guys, and the Bucks still have an awesome +13.9 net rating when their core four guys are on the court together. That four-player lineup ranks in the 99th percentile offensively and 76th percentile defensively. And adding in Malik Beasley, their starting five as a whole has an elite +12.9 net rating, ranking in the 97th percentile offensively and the 79th percentile defensively. In short, the starters are really good.
This is not to say the starters have always played lights out every single game together, but clearly, they are working, and it seems like the Bucks have figured out one of the most important things for the playoffs, which is having an elite core. The bench will need to be ironed out, particularly defensively, but that is more fixable than having a core that isn't working. In the playoffs, the rotation gets shortened, the starters play more, and the game really comes down to how good your top seven is.
The Bucks have shown they have a really good top five, and that foundation is key. Now, the focus will be on finding some pieces that can strengthen their top seven.