Giannis Antetokounmpo is sailing toward his second consecutive MVP and the Milwaukee Bucks, despite by the Miami Heat on Monday, remain on pace to become the third team in NBA history to win 70 games. Having the best player on a historic team would seemingly add up to a pretty obvious championship favorite. But that's not the case.
Yes, William Hill Sportsbook lists Milwaukee as the +250 title favorite as of Wednesday, but the Lakers are +275 and the Clippers are +300. The Bucks are the favorite, technically, but there's nothing clear about those odds. Compare that to the MVP race, for which William Hill has Giannis as the -667 favorite with LeBron James next on the board at +850. That's what clear looks like.
It would, in other words, be a shock if Giannis doesn't win the MVP, but it would not be a shock if the Bucks don't win the title. In fact, for a lot of people's money, it would be somewhat surprising if they did.
"When it gets down to it, are the other guys going to make shots in high-pressure situations? That's the biggest question with the Bucks, and there's no way to get the answer until you just play the game and find out," an Eastern Conference scout recently told CBS Sports. "With the Lakers and even the Clippers, there's more of a known variable with LeBron and Kawhi [Leonard]. Giannis still has to show he has those same kinds of playoff counters, where, 'OK, the defense is doing this, I can do this.' I think that's where the separation comes."
Indeed, Bucks skepticism is a product of Giannis skepticism. It's what happens when a player seemingly comes out of nowhere to become an MVP without championship credentials. Stephen Curry went through the same thing in 2014-15. The Warriors were the best regular-season team that year with 67 wins. Curry was the MVP. But skepticism abounded around the championship merits of a star player who had to rely on his outside shot.
Now the equation has flipped. Now we're worried about a star player who can't rely on his outside shot. But the same "I'll believe it when I see it" dynamic exists. Right or wrong, Giannis still feels like a player for whom you can plan. You can't plan for LeBron or Kawhi. They're going to get whatever they want. Miami swarming Giannis and forcing him to play in a crowd, and in doing so holding him to 13 points on 6-of-18 shooting, reinforced Antetokounmpo's imperfections, and by extension the Bucks' vulnerability.
Is it an overreaction to base all this off one game? Of course. But the Heat could be a team Milwaukee has to face in the playoffs, and they've already beaten the Bucks twice this season -- the only team in the league to do so. The Celtics (also one of the eight teams to beat Milwaukee this season), have many of the same defensive assets as Miami, and they have a plethora of capable shooters who could get hot at the right time and exploit the Bucks' big-dropping defense that surrenders the third-most 3-point attempts in the league, per Cleaning the Glass.
This is also a matter of Khris Middleton, who is having his own historic season that, like his team, is being largely ignored. If the season were to end right now, Middleton would be the fifth player in NBA history to shoot 50-40-90 while averaging at least 20 points per game. The other four are Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Dirk Nowitzki and Larry Bird.
Middleton is an All-Star who has played superstar basketball for a period of months. But is he a championship contender's No. 2 option? If Giannis hits a wall, so to speak, can Middleton goand carry his team when it's all on the line? Because if he can't, the Bucks are littered with good-but-not-great shooters who pile up 3-pointers in the aggregate but could all individually go cold at the wrong time.
These are the questions that exist about these Bucks, and they've always been there. Giannis is becoming a better playmaker, a better shooter and providing a few made 3-pointers, and even though they won't lead to him being defended any differently, could make a big difference on the margins of a tight series. But these are, to the scout's point, unknown variables. Counting on Giannis to punish defenses with his jumper is a bad bet.
He's going to have to go around, over and through walls. He's going to have to consistently recognize where the help is coming front and kick to the right shooters, and those shooters are going to have to make shots. Betting on these things to not happen is also a bad bet; the Bucks are on pace to win 70 games for a reason. They're really, really good.
But we don't know if they're as great as their record suggests. You have to factor in the Eastern Conference, which provides the Bucks with seven non-playoff doormats -- the Wizards, Hornets, Bulls, Pistons, Knicks, Hawks and Cavaliers -- to prey on. All told, the Bucks have 26 wins against sub-.500 East teams through Tuesday.
Being on pace to win 70 games in this Eastern Conference, even with a historic net rating, isn't nearly the same thing as Golden State winning 73 games in the Western Conference in 2015-16, when there was a second 67-win team at the top of the West and far more depth at the bottom. And even that 73-win team didn't claim the championship because LeBron James had other ideas. Suffice it to say, LeBron -- and surely Kawhi, too -- has those same history-interrupting ideas this season. And that's if the Bucks get out of the East in the first place.
This is the proper context in which we should be talking about the Bucks. They're a great team, no question. They have a great player and another one having a historically great season. But they're not perfect, and there is at least some evidence that their particular imperfections could be exploited under optimal circumstances. Whether it will happen remains to be seen, but it's a fair conversation despite the huge regular-season success Milwaukee is having.