NBA's best-performing team this season, by far, getting little love entering playoffs




 

About a month ago, Sam Amick of The Athletic named his sleeper pick for the 2019 NBA championship.

His choice: The league's most dominant team.

The Bucks went an NBA-best 60-22. They ranked first in defensive rating, fourth in offensive rating and first in net rating. They have the likely Most Valuable Player in Giannis Antetokounmpo and likely Coach of the Year in Mike Budenholzer. Antetokounmpo could also contend for Defensive Player of the Year.

Why the heck are we classifying Milwaukee as a sleeper?

Oh, right. The Warriors.

Golden State is heavily favored to win its third straight title and fourth in five years. The Warriors coasted through the regular season, but they're loaded and experienced. Nobody can match their talent: Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, DeMarcus Cousins, Andre Iguodala.

Still, it seems the Bucks are getting overlooked. They've been the best team throughout the season. That ought to inspire more confidence.

Milwaukee outscored teams by 8.6 points per 100 possessions, per Basketball-Reference. That was 2.2 points per 100 possession ahead of everyone else.

Of the 22 prior teams to have a net-rating advantage of at least 2.0 over the rest of the field, 16 won the title. Six of the last seven won.

The only recent exception: The 2001 Spurs, whose net rating topped every other team's by at least 2.6. They lost to the eventual-champion Lakers, who lagged 5.0 points behind in the regular season. Those Lakers are maybe the classic case of a team that cruised through the regular season then cranked up the intensity in the playoffs.

The Warriors could certainly do the same. Heck, they're so good, they might not even need to.

But Milwaukee should be viewed as a formidable threat.

Here's every team with a net-rating advantage of at least 2.0 over every other team in a season:

The Bucks are commonly compared to the 2015 Hawks, another Budenholzer-coached team that won 60 games. Atlanta scraped through the first two rounds then got swept by the Cavaliers in the conference finals.

But the Hawks had the point difference typical of a 56-win team. They ranked just fourth in net rating, only 1.0 ahead of Cleveland. Milwaukee had the point difference typical of a 61-win team.

Sure, regular-season performance far from perfectly predicts playoff results. But Atlanta wasn't nearly as impressive in the regular season as the Bucks.

And Milwaukee rated even better before resting players late in the season with the No. 1 seed already clinched. (Though, to be fair, that effect was also felt with prior top teams.)

On paper, this seems like 2015 in some ways. The Warriors demonstrated themselves as the clear top team, but few felt confident in them entering the playoffs. Now, we look back on that title as if were inevitable.

Maybe we'll do the same with the Bucks after this postseason. They've looked the most like a championship team throughout this season. If I had any guts, I'd pick them to win the title.

But, like nearly everyone else, I just can't bet on a team other than Golden State.

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