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The X-Factors: Milwaukee

Milwaukee may very well be the league’s biggest powerhouse, but Matt John explains why certain X-Factors will determine if they can keep it up with bigger stakes.

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Welcome back to another installment of Basketball Insiders’ X-Factors series! Throughout the process, we’ve started from the bottom and made our way back to the beginning – and now, the top has arrived in the Milwaukee Bucks.

It’s not every year that last season’s winningest team actually gets better, but Milwaukee never ceases to impress. Their point differential of plus-11.2 is all-time levels of fantastic and it was even higher before Giannis Antetoukoumnpo went out briefly in March. So it begs the question: Are there even X-Factors involved here?

They’ve been the league’s most dominant team. They have arguably the league’s best coach. They arguably have the league’s best player. Even if that last subject is very much up for debate, Antetokounmpo has undisputedly been the best player in his conference. Circumstances are largely unknown for Orlando – but the Bucks will have the easiest matchups on their journey to the NBA Finals, which could make all the difference in their title hopes.

With how unstoppable the Bucks have continued to be, are there factors that could decide whether they win their first title since 1972? Yes, there are. Let’s start with playoff experience. This Bucks team – minus George Hill and Kyle Korver – don’t have a whole lot of playoff battles under their belt. In fact, most of their rotation has played in less than 50 games despite owning league experience of ten years or more. Don’t believe that? Take a look.

Brook Lopez (12-year-veteran) – 28 games
Robin Lopez (12-year-veteran) – 28 games
Pat Connaughton (five-year-veteran) – 28 games
Khris Middleton (eight-year-veteran) – 34 games
Giannis Antetokounmpo (seven-year-veteran) – 34 games
Eric Bledsoe (10-year-veteran) – 39 games
Wes Matthews (11-year-veteran) – 36 games
Ersan Ilyasova (13-year-veteran) – 48 games
Marvin Williams (15-year-veteran) – 49 games

No matter how good you are, lacking playoff experience can definitely hurt when up against teams that have learned from their successes and failures. It definitely factored into how Toronto was able to overtake Milwaukee last season.

Then again, a lack of playoff experience didn’t stop LeBron James from making the NBA Finals his second go-round in the postseason or Kevin Durant from doing the same in only his third. Antetokounmpo is now in his fifth and has earned the right to be put in the same conversation as those two. We know the Greek Freak will be on his A-Game, but will his supporting cast?

Instead of putting everyone under the microscope, let’s focus on a few select individuals. First, Eric Bledsoe. As a tenacious slasher, a lockdown defender and even a borderline All-Star, Bledsoe has been an excellent addition to the Bucks. He’s been well worth the price of a first-round pick and the expiring contract of Greg Monroe.

As productive as he’s been in Milwaukee, the one issue that always comes back to bite him is his playoff woes. His first postseason with the Bucks did not go well, averaging 13.7 points on 44/32/70 splits while having a 1.76 assist-to-turnover ratio as the Bucks were eliminated by the Boston Celtics in the first round. The next one didn’t get any better.

Bledsoe’s stats mainly stayed the same the next postseason as he averaged 13.7 points on 41/24/71 splits with a 2.04 assist-to-turnover ratio, but it was especially ugly in the conference finals when he put up 10.2 points on 30/16/70 splits. At least then, the Bucks could rely on Malcolm Brogdon to pick up the slack.

This time though, Milwaukee doesn’t have Brogdon as a safety net in case Bledsoe’s struggles resurface in the postseason. Instead, they’ll rely on Hill and Donte DiVincenzo in that department. Hill will do what he can – but DiVincenzo will be getting his first real playoff burn, so who knows how that will turn out?

It shouldn’t have to be that way though. Bledsoe is such a vital cog that his postseason shortcomings really hurts their overall gameplan.

Though it may stick out like a sore thumb, Bledsoe’s not the only one guilty of putting on a disappearing act in the postseason. Khris Middleton, who is a surefire All-Star and the franchise cornerstone’s right-hand man, also does not have the best playoff track record.

Outside of the 2018 first-round series against Boston in which Middleton was scorching, those playoff numbers aren’t the prettiest. They aren’t Bledsoe-lite, but compared to his typical premier sharpshooting levels, the numbers he’s put up should raise some eyebrows.

2014-15, six games: 15.8 points on 38/32/93 splits
2016-17, six games: 14.5 points on 40/37/82 splits
2018-19, 15 games: 16.9 points on 42/44/89 splits

Now, the 2017 performance can be forgiven seeing how he sat out most of the season with a hamstring injury – but still, those numbers aren’t great and, much like Bledsoe, his most porous performance came at the most inopportune time. Against the Raptors, Middleton put up just 13.7 points on 41/35/55 splits, and worse, those numbers were positively skewed from a 30-point performance he had in a losing effort during Game 5.

If the Middleton that torched Boston two years ago – scoring nearly 25 points on 60/61/74 splits – is in Orlando then the Bucks have absolutely nothing to worry about. His numbers haven’t dropped as concerningly bad as Bledsoe’s has, but the inconsistency in the past does make him a question mark.

The Bucks are deep enough that they could still make a run even if both Bledsoe and Middleton don’t perform up to standards, but the odds of that run turning into a title get much slimmer without their usual support.

Their X-Factors go beyond what their best non-Giannis players do. This will also be a test for Mike Budenholzer. The renowned head coach has done a fantastic job getting the Bucks to reach their potential, but he’s been on this merry-go-round a couple of times. His team wins 60 or more (certainly on pace to win that many pre-stoppage) then they flop in the playoffs. It’s time to show that he can elevate them.

Needless to say, there are some red flags. Budenholzer’s done so much right in Milwaukee, but his teams have a knack for giving up a ton of threes and this season has been no different. Milwaukee leads the league in most three-point attempts given up and, in a league that emphasizes floor spacing, you better believe teams are going to exploit that.

Even with all the X-Factors considered, we must remember that Milwaukee had Toronto on its heels during the 2019 Conference Finals. If it were not for Fred VanVleet’s playoff resurrection, the Bucks could very well be in the hunt to repeat as champions right now, but this is not the time to reminisce on what could have been.

Now’s the time for the Bucks to prove that they are the real deal. If they don’t, then the noise about suffering that potentially-crippling unspoken fate will get deafeningly loud.

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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