This entire season we’ve been led to believe that the league is wide open. Several high-level players teamed up in the off-season and the NBA’s Goliath in the Golden State Warriors is dead for at least this season. Before the season began, there were as many as seven or eight teams that were considered title contenders. While there have been a number of good teams this season, one in each conference has been head and shoulders above the competition. The Milwaukee Bucks and the Los Angeles Lakers have been straight pummeling their opponents this season. While they both have had relatively soft schedules to start the season (Bucks second easiest and Lakers seventh easiest with less than 0.4 difference in their opponent rankings) they have destroyed bad teams and earned marquee wins against good ones. The Lakers have knocked off the red hot Heat and Mavericks, while the Bucks thirty balled a contending Clippers team with all of their stars healthy and playing.
The Bucks have won eighteen straight games and the Lakers have won seven straight. They both sit atop of their conferences at 24-3. They play against each other on Thursday. This has the makings of one of the best games of the year. Whoever wins this game will be crowned the title favorite for the next couple months. The Lakers will be validated should they win. The relatively under the radar Bucks (compared to the media attention the LA teams get) will be too hard to ignore should they win. In preparation for this December Derby (as I have dubbed it), lets take a look at both teams.
The Bucks are first in plus/minus and Net Rating. The Lakers are second in both. The Bucks rank first in points per game, rebounds per game, and field goal percentage. The Lakers rank eighth, twelfth, and second in those categories. On the other end of the ball, the Lakers rank first in blocks per game and second in steals per game. The Bucks are seventh and thirteenth. The teams are only two spots apart in three point percentage (the Bucks are tenth and the Lakers are twelfth) but the Bucks are second in three pointers made while the Lakers are merely twenty-first. The Lakers are hitting at a similar clip but the Bucks are taking and making more threes. The Lakers are one spot ahead (sixth) than the Bucks (seventh) in assists per game.
Perhaps the most telling statistics come in the form of offensive and defensive rating. The Bucks are first in offensive rating and second in defensive rating while the Lakers are fifth and third. A lot of these statistics seem to show that the Bucks are better on both ends but all it truly shows is just how elite both of these teams are. Despite the Bucks’ lead on most of the statistics they aren’t by much and even if I were to say they are the better team (I’m from Milwaukee cut me a break) I would say they are better by the smallest margin imaginable. Despite the similarities in their dominance, their roster construction is entirely different from one another.
The Milwaukee Bucks and the Los Angeles Lakers have entirely different roster constructions due to how the teams were built. Only three of the Bucks players that get regular playing time were not on the team previously. The rest were drafted or brought over in a series of shrewd trades and free agency deals. Their starting point guard, Eric Bledsoe, was acquired for a protected first round pick (that hasn’t been lost yet) and an expiring contract. Last season he was first team All-Defense. Their starting shooting guard, Wesley Matthews, was signed to a veteran minimum contract to (partly) make up for the loss of Malcolm Brogdon. He is a perfectly solid three and D shooting guard for this team. Khris Middleton was a throw-in included in the package Detroit sent Milwaukee for Brandon Jennings ages ago. He has been a perfect second option and made his first All-Star game last season. The Bucks start Giannis Antetokounmpo, the reigning MVP, at power forward. They drafted him in 2015 and he has gotten better every single season, becoming one of the three best players in the league. At center they start Brook Lopez, a sweet-shooting big man who can defend and bully in the post.
They bring three to four guards off the bench depending on the game. George Hill (leads the NBA in three point percentage), Donte DiVincenzo (has started several games and is a talented young combo guard), Pat Connaughton (freakishly athletic and can hit threes), and Sterling Brown (a bully of a three and D shooting guard). They bring Kyle Korver off the bench as well but it is more-so spot minutes for the 38 year old. They also will bring three big men off the bench depending on the game. Ersan Ilyasova (a three and D power forward who is a bully on the boards), Robin Lopez (the prototypical back up center), and DJ Wilson (has gotten more opportunities with injuries and looks electric). They are a pace and space team that loves to get out in transition and is willing to let it fly from three.
The Lakers were built differently, and they needed to. They spent many years in the cellar of the NBA, hoarding picks and young players. They signed Lebron James, another one of the three best players in the NBA, last season. In the offseason, they traded nearly all of their young players and draft picks for Anthony Davis. It was the most anyone had ever traded for a player at the time. It was well worth it. Anthony Davis is a top five player and fits seamlessly with Lebron. With two top five players and not much else on the roster, the Lakers built the team around their star tandem.
They resigned Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (a combo guard who has struggled at times), Javale McGee (shot blocker and rebounder that fits very well next to AD), and Rajon Rondo (tenacious defender and all-time passer) to cheap deals. Kyle Kuzma and Alex Caruso remained from last year’s roster and they have both been given bigger roles. While Kuzma has been banged up for most of the year, Caruso has been electric in limited minutes. Jared Dudley and Avery Bradley haven’t been putting up gaudy statistics but they are the types of savvy veterans that every contender needs. Their biggest free agency splashes have been Danny Green and Dwight Howard. Danny Green is the best non-star three and D player in the league and has won a title on every team he was on before the Lakers. Dwight Howard was only signed due to Demarcus Cousins‘ (supposed to be Lakers’ biggest FA splash) torn ACL. There have been concerns of his attitude and work ethic in the past years and he appeared especially washed last season. The new Dwight came to play for the Lakers. He looks skinny, bouncy, and energized by doing the little things for this team. He has been one of their best defenders and has hoarded boards all season.
So the Bucks and the Lakers will duke it out December 19th. The Bucks will be without their star defensive point guard Eric Bledsoe, who will be out for two weeks following a minor shin fracture. The Lakers will likely be without Kyle Kuzma, who has been in and out of the lineup with injuries all season. I don’t see either team using the injuries as an excuse. They both want this game. The Bucks may have a more complete roster and much more depth, but the Lakers’ second best player (whether you consider it to be Lebron or AD) is leaps and bounds better than the Bucks’ second best player. Budenholzer may be a better coach and strategist than Fred Vogel, but Bud rarely changes his game plan for anyone not named James Harden while Vogel has been the perfect coach (praises defense and hustle but allows his stars to dictate the offense) for a team with two top five players. This game is going to come down to the last five minutes and I’m sure everyone will be paying attention. Both teams have incredible offenses and defenses, I think the game will come down to the rebound battle.