All the attention paid to Brandon Jennings' phenomenal start to the season may have overshadowed an important point: The Milwaukee Bucks are enjoying surprising success as a team. At 8-3, the Bucks have the top record in the Central Division and are third in the Eastern Conference.
Needless to say, Milwaukee has overachieved compared to meager expectations. Of ESPN.com's 10 experts, the most optimistic prediction before the season came from Jemele Hill. She had the Bucks 13th in the East. All 10 picked the team to finish last in the Central.
The question, then, is whether Milwaukee is for real. Can the Bucks parlay the early wins, Jennings' electric presence and a stout defense into a trip to the postseason for the first time since 2006? My research suggests there is a good chance that they can. Justin Kubatko of Basketball-Reference.com and I first took a look at unexpected fast starts in 2005-06, with the L.A. Clippers as the example. We looked at teams who, like those Clippers and this year's Bucks, started 7-3 or better the year after posting sub-.500 records and found surprising predictive value from the first 10 games. Updated from 1979-80 through last year (when no one pulled it off), 32 teams have started at least 7-3 coming off of sub-.500 seasons. This group has ended up winning an average of 46.7 games.
Two years later, here at Basketball Prospectus, I showed how the 8-2 starts by the New Orleans Hornets and the Orlando Magic (as well as the Boston Celtics) after sub-.500 seasons portended their division championships. Focusing on teams starting 8-2 or better indicated that extra win can make a great deal of difference, as all 10 of those teams ended up making the playoffs and six won their division. Still, 7-3 starters like Milwaukee have enjoyed a good deal of success. 68.2 percent (15 out of 22) have gone on to make the playoffs.
The easy explanation for cynics for the Bucks' fast start is the team's friendly schedule in the early going. Indeed, seven of Milwaukee's first 11 games have been played at the Bradley Center, while just four of those games have matched the Bucks against playoff teams from last season. While the numbers Basketball-Reference.com provided did not show schedule strength to be a major factor in determining whether teams kept up their strong early play, Milwaukee is an extreme outlier in this regard. Through Saturday, the Bucks' opponents had been 4.2 points worse than average per game when factory in home-court advantage. The next-easiest schedule in the league, faced by Boston, was 2.4 points worse than average per game.
The good news for Milwaukee is that there is some room to drop off and remain a playoff team in the Eastern Conference. After all, SCHOENE's optimistic projection of a postseason appearance (with 37.3 expected wins) was based in large part on a lack of confidence in the other East contenders. Other than the Bucks themselves, none of the other teams outside the conference's top four squads (Atlanta, Boston, Cleveland and Orlando) has really stood out in the early going. Even after accounting for strength of schedule, Milwaukee's adjusted point differential so far (+1.2 ppg) has been better than those of Toronto (+0.8 ppg), Miami (+0.2 ppg), Chicago (-1.9 ppg) and Indiana (-2.3 ppg). Surprisingly, a superior schedule does push the 5-8 Detroit Pistons (+1.4 ppg) ahead of the Bucks.
The biggest challenge for Milwaukee may be staying healthy. The Bucks were beset by injuries a year ago, and have seen more of the same early in this campaign. Shooting guard Michael Redd has yet to return after straining his left patella tendon in the home opener, though he could be back as soon as tonight's game in San Antonio. Milwaukee has weathered Redd's absence by shifting Jennings into the role of go-to scorer (he's responded by scoring 25 points or more five times in the last six games, including his 55-point outburst) and giving more of his playmaking responsibilities to Luke Ridnour, who has teamed with Jennings in a small backcourt.
Losing Andrew Bogut, who will miss two to four weeks after suffering strained ligaments and a contusion in his lower left leg last week, could be more problematic. The 7-footer has emerged as the anchor of the Bucks' defense, which improved over the weekend to third in the NBA in Defensive Rating, surrendering just 101.9 points per 100 possessions. In two wins without Bogut, Skiles has relied on veteran Kurt Thomas, a solid defender in his own right, and increased smallball.
One reason that injuries have not been as devastating to Milwaukee as they were a year ago, when the Bucks got just 33 games from Redd and 36 from Bogut, is the depth the team added over the summer. With those two and starting forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute sidelined, Skiles has been able to plug in newcomers Carlos Delfino and Ersan Ilyasova. While the more proven Delfino has been inconsistent in shooting the ball, Ilyasova has used the extra opportunity to apparently vault ahead of Hakim Warrick on the depth chart up front. As was projected by his Euroleague stats from the last two years, Ilyasova has developed an intriguing combination of skills. He's a terrific rebounder, grabbing a team-high 18.1 percent of available rebounds, but also a floor spacer as a power forward who has hit 15 three-pointers in 11 games, shooting them at a 39.5 percent clip.
Playing well over the first 11 games guarantees nothing to Milwaukee, as some fast starters who crashed back to Earth have found out in the past. For the most part, however, teams demonstrate their true ability earlier in the season than conventional wisdom would indicate. Even if the Bucks are unable to continue winning at better than a 70-percent clip, they stand an excellent chance of defying preseason expectations and claiming a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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