The Milwaukee Bucks exit the NBA’s all-star break with a league-best record of 46-8. They are on pace to become the third team in NBA history to win at least 70 games. Yet as of Feb. 19, William Hill processed more than double the amount of tickets on the Los Angeles Lakers to win the NBA championship (15 percent) than the Bucks (7 percent) and took in more money on the Lakers (22 percent vs. 18 percent for Bucks) to win it all.
So which team is the best bet to claim the title? Sure, the Lakers have three-time NBA champion and four-time MVP LeBron James, plus three-time all-NBA team member Anthony Davis. But Milwaukee’s résumé is hard to dismiss. The Bucks are the third-most efficient scoring team on offense (113.3 points per 100 possessions) and boast the best defensive efficiency rating in the league (101.7). The Bucks also have the best net rating at home (plus-12.7) and on the road (plus-10.3), although that latter figure might not matter as much because they probably will end up with home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.
“If the Bucks were ever going to win it, now is the time," said Nick Bogdanovich, William Hill’s director of trading in the United States. “They will likely have home-court advantage throughout the playoffs, have the best player in the world and the easiest road there.”
After adjusting their overall margin of victory for strength of schedule, the Bucks are outscoring opponents by about 11 points per game more than you would expect from an average team, the highest figure in the league. Only 10 previous NBA teams have produced an adjusted scoring margin of 10 or more points per game during the regular season. Seven won NBA titles.
|Team||Adjusted scoring margin per game||Playoff result|
|1970-71 Bucks||plus-11.9||Won NBA title|
|1995-96 Bulls||plus-11.8||Won NBA title|
|1971-72 Lakers||plus-11.7||Won NBA title|
|2016-17 Warriors||plus-11.4||Won NBA title|
|1996-97 Bulls||plus-10.7||Won NBA title|
|1971-72 Bucks||plus-10.7||Lost in conference finals|
|2015-16 Warriors||plus-10.4||Lost in NBA Finals|
|2015-16 Spurs||plus-10.3||Lost in second round|
|1991-92 Bulls||plus-10.1||Won NBA title|
|2014-15 Warriors||plus-10.0||Won NBA title|
The Lakers, by comparison, are outscoring opponents by 7.6 points per game more than an average team this season after accounting for strength of schedule. In other words, if these two teams met on a neutral court, the Bucks should be favored to win by three points, giving them a 77 percent chance to win a seven-game series with home-court advantage. According to Basketball Reference’s playoff probabilities report, entering the all-star break Milwaukee had a 54 percent chance of winning the NBA championship this season, more than triple that of the Lakers and more than eight times better than that of any other team.
The Bucks, of course, have a superstar of their own in Giannis Antetokounmpo, the reigning MVP. Antetokounmpo is averaging 44.3 points, 19.9 rebounds and 8.6 assists per 100 possessions while using a league-high 38 percent of his team’s possessions and producing a true shooting percentage of 61 percent. He also leads the NBA in personal efficiency rating (32.2), win shares per 48 minutes (.289) and box score plus-minus (plus-12), an estimate of the points per 100 possessions he contributes above a league-average player, translated to an average team.
His average game score this season (24.7), an all-in-one number that weighs different aspects of a player’s box score stats, is second only to James Harden of the Houston Rockets. James’s average game score (21.8) ranks eighth, while Davis (23.1) ranks third. Basketball Reference’s NBA MVP award tracker also forecasts Antetokounmpo will win his second MVP award in as many seasons, and it isn’t close.
Antetokounmpo doesn’t have a running mate as good as James has with Davis, but Bucks starters Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe are averaging game scores of 16.6 and 12.8, respectively. No Lakers other than James and Davis are in double digits. Even when the Bucks field a lineup without anyone from their most-used starting five (Antetokounmpo, Middleton, Bledsoe, Brook Lopez and Wesley Matthews), they still outscore opponents by 4.3 net points per 100 possessions. The Lakers are outscored by more than four net points per 100 possessions when their most-used starting five is on the bench.
Los Angeles produces the second-most points per 100 possessions in the paint (53), but stopping such scoring is one of Milwaukee’s specialties. The Bucks allow a league-low 36.7 points per 100 possessions in the paint this season and Antetokounmpo is among the league leaders in defensive contested rebounds won per game (2.7). Lopez is also effective patrolling down low, holding opposing shooters to a 47 percent field goal rate around the basket (not including post ups), placing him in the 68th percentile of the league’s rim protectors, per data from Synergy Sports. In fact, no team grabs more contested rebounds on defense than Milwaukee, which in turn allows the Bucks to push the ball in transition. They score 18 points per 100 possessions on the fast break, the third-best rate in the NBA.
The Clippers and Philadelphia 76ers are also title threats, but both the Clippers and 76ers figure to be even bigger underdogs than the Lakers in a series against Milwaukee. The Bucks would be an almost six-point favorite over the Clippers on a neutral court and an eight-point favorite over the 76ers. That would suggest Milwaukee should have an 85 percent and 94 percent chance, respectively, against those two teams in a seven-game series with four games played at home at Fiserv Forum.
“Our job is to take it, obviously, day by day,” Antetokounmpo recently said. “We can’t lose track of our actual goal, which is get better every day, keep learning every day and win the whole thing.”
Barring a dramatic change, their chances look good.
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