MILWAUKEE -- When the Milwaukee Bucks begin their four-game road trip by taking on the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Monday night, they'll do so as a team desperate to regain its identity.
Once 9-0 and off to the best start in franchise history, the Bucks are now 25-14 and clinging to third place in the Eastern Conference following an embarrassing 138-109 defeat at home to the lowly Charlotte Hornets on Friday, in which they gave up an NBA-record-tying 51 points in the first quarter and trailed by as much as 32 points.
The Hornets debacle was the latest in a string of blowout losses that dates back to Dec. 15, when the Memphis Grizzlies ran them out of the gym by 41 points – the second-biggest defeat in the Mike Budenholzer era. Over the last three-plus weeks, the Bucks are 5-7 and have lost by 20-plus points four times; in Budenholzer's first four seasons combined they had 13 such losses.
"We haven't matched what it takes to be competitive in an NBA game on multiple occasions now, and it's concerning," Budenholzer said.
Ahead of this crucial four-game trip, in which they'll exclusively face other teams fighting for a playoff spot in the East, here's a closer look at what's been going wrong for the Bucks.
1. Poor health
Health always has been and always will be the main concern. That's true for every team, but particularly for the Bucks given their lack of depth, and they have never been healthy this season. Bobby Portis and Jevon Carter are the only players who have appeared in every game, while Khris Middleton (32), Joe Ingles (30), Pat Connaughton (16) and Jrue Holiday (11) have all missed double-digit games. The big three of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Holiday have only played five games together.
"It's tough," Brook Lopez said. "I don't want to pull out any excuses. I'm sure you guys have a couple, you're smart."
It was one thing to play shorthanded early in the season when everyone was fresh and they had an easy schedule that was heavily weighted toward home games. But as the level of opponents has increased and more road trips have been added to the mix, the health issue has been amplified.
No one has been missed more than Middleton, who sat out of the first 20 games while recovering from offseason wrist surgery, returned for seven games and was then shut down again with a mysterious knee problem. While Budenholzer said there's no concern that this will eventually end Middleton's season, he also would not commit to any timeline for his return. At this point, Middleton can be considered out indefinitely. Until he gets back on the court and back to playing at an All-Star level, the Bucks will not be at their best.
2. Disappearing defense
The Bucks have been one of the best defenses in the league ever since Budenholzer arrived in 2018, and that trend continued to start this campaign. Through the first month, in particular, they were far and away the class of the league. Lately, not so much. During this 5-7 stretch, the Bucks are allowing 115.4 points per 100 possessions, which ranks 21st in that span.
Health, again, is part of that equation; Holiday is perhaps the best defensive guard in the league and has missed five games during this 12-game downturn. But that doesn't explain everything.
"One of things we did very well, especially in my first few years here, it didn't matter who was in the game," Connaughton said. "We had guys who played the exact same way, we tried to get the best shot that we could, we tried to defend our asses off and we played with a chip on our shoulder. That's the identity we need to find and that's where the consistency will come from. That's what we've lacked a bit."
The Bucks have never been a team that forces a ton of turnovers, but over the last 12 games they are last in the league at only 11.3 opponent turnovers per game. Their rim defense also hasn't been as dominant as usual; opponents are shooting 68.6 percent in the restricted area, up from 62.6 percent prior, and they're giving up 55.5 points in the paint per game, which ranks 28th in the league during this stretch.
Perhaps most concerning, though, the Bucks have been getting crushed in the first quarter lately. Over these 12 games, the Bucks have a staggering minus-22.5 net rating in the opening frame, the worst mark in the league by a wide margin; the 29th-ranked team in first quarter net rating over that span is the Phoenix Suns at minus-15.0.
How to explain such a trend? Even the Bucks aren't so sure.
"In that Grizzlies game I feel like it was quick," Holiday said. "They came out, punched us in the mouth and we couldn't recover. I feel like a game like [the Hornets loss] was the same way. I don't know [how to explain it]."
Brook Lopez was similarly vague: "We just need to be better, we need to be better and more consistent regardless of all the variables and stuff like that. We just need to be ready to go."
3. Too many turnovers
On the other side of the ball, the Bucks are never going to be elite without Middleton. His iso scoring gets them out of tough spots, he's one of the best 3-point shooters on the team and he takes some of the initiation burden off Antetokounmpo's shoulders with his underrated playmaking.
The biggest issue on offense, though, has been an inability to take care of the ball, which is something you should be able to do regardless of the personnel on the floor. While Budenholzer doesn't mind what he termed "turnovers of aggression," when you're trying to make a play, he's seen too many of the other sort.
"When we're just throwing it away and giving it away, maybe being indecisive, not being strong, not being aggressive and live ball when they're scoring, we need less of them," Budenholzer said. "We have addressed and talked about it some, we gotta just get better with it."
Over this 5-7 stretch, the Bucks are last in the league with a turnover percentage of 16.4 percent. In other words, they turn the ball over on nearly one out of every five possessions. Even worse, as Budenholzer mentioned, many of them have been live-ball turnovers leading to easy points the other way. Opponents have averaged 20.1 points off turnovers per game during this stretch, so the mistakes are hurting them on both ends of the floor.
Beyond their poor injury record, the slow starts and frustrating turnovers, there's something less tangible that's off with this team.
Budenholzer lamented that they "haven't matched what it takes to be competitive in an NBA game on multiple occasions." Holiday noted there are "things we gotta figure out as a team… Win or lose, we just gotta be able to compete." Lopez said "it's about putting the work in every day, having the right energy, trusting one another, while Connaughton added, "I think we have to have real conversations."
The Bucks have had their faults during this run of contention, but there have never been questions about the team's competitiveness, especially from inside the locker room. This is uncharted territory for this group, but they do still have the best player in the league, and he's confident they can find their way again.
"There's no panic mode," Antetokounmpo said. "Have you ever seen the scene from, what do you call it? Bob Squarepants? Spongebob? He goes into his brain and he's looking for something and he goes crazy and starts burning things, and I feel like when we lose that happens. Like no, it's OK. We are going to lose some games and we are going to win a lot of games.
"I'll go to war, I'll go to battle any day. I'll take my chances with those guys any day. Whatever happens, happens. I'm proud of the group we have, but we have to be better. Everybody out there, I believe I know my teammates, they understand that and we are going to be better."