NBA Win Total Betting Odds: The Bucks Are the Best Team and Biggest Headache

Credit:

David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images. Pictured: Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks.

Milwaukee Bucks Win Total Odds

Sportsbook Over Under
DraftKings 6.5 (+185) [BET NOW] 6.5 (-250) [BET NOW]
PointsBet 6.5 (+160) [BET NOW] 6.5 (-223) [BET NOW]
FanDuel 5.5 (-130) [BET NOW] 5.5 (+110) [BET NOW]

Odds as of Tuesday July 28

The Milwaukee Bucks are why the NBA gives me headaches.

When I say this, it is not meant as a platitude or offhand. I mean this with every fiber of my being.

The Milwaukee Bucks should win the NBA title. They should annihilate whatever poor remnant of a team winds up as the 8-seed.

They should manhandle the rest of the East, losing no more than four games through the course of the East playoffs, if that.

The Finals should be tough, and the Bucks would likely finish as an underdog based on public betting moving the series price before Game 1 tip, but they should win. Not handily. But convincingly.

This is not about any one thing. It’s not about Giannis Antetokounmpo, the soon to be back-to-back MVP. It’s not about the Bucks’ record, which could still reach 60 wins even in a truncated season. It’s not about their offense, (sixth-best in the league and second-best in the halfcourt), or their defense (No. 1 overall and in the halfcourt).

It’s not about their bench, which finished No. 1 in net rating among benches and 10th in points per game.

It’s about all of it, at once. It’s about how they should have won last year. They were the better team, and were hit with close losses decided by superior shooting from unlikely places and poor shooting from high quality shooters on good looks.

It’s about their dominance of both conferences this year. It’s easy to pull the “Yeah, but they play in the East” card when you don’t actually examine their performances. The Bucks had the second-best net rating vs. the Western Conference this season behind the Lakers. What’s more, the Bucks had a +5 net rating against the top-13 teams in the league overall. The Clippers were +2.1. The Lakers? Just +1.6.

[See updated NBA title odds ahead of the Orlando restart here.]

The Bucks beat everyone, and they won big. They played in four games decided by three points or fewer for the entire season. They won 36 games by 10 points or more. The second closest team was the Clippers with seven fewer such wins.

This should be a cakewalk. I should be nabbing the Bucks +250, or at plus money anywhere, every chance I get.

But I can’t.

I’m frozen in place, because the Bucks should have won last year, and they didn’t. This gets into the mythological, the narrative, but it’s not a thread that is made of smoke and mysticism. It’s built on recorded fact.

If the best team comes from the state of California, they win the title. If the best team comes from anywhere else, fate tends to rear its ugly head to disrupt things. Deciphering whether that’s overthinking it or not is what keeps me up late (beyond the global pandemic and rising social unrest and generally everything that’s happening in 2020).

Is Bucks history doomed to repeat itself?

THE CASE FOR MILWAUKEE’S ETERNAL RECURRENCE

Ten of the 30 NBA teams got a win over the Bucks this season. Eight teams got a win over the Bucks with Antetokounmpo playing more than a minute. Of those eight teams, seven teams split the season series or won it outright. Only three teams had more wins over the Bucks than losses when the reigning MVP played.

The Dallas Mavericks went 1-0. The Denver Nuggets went 1-0. The Miami Heat went 2-0.

Therein lies the concern, along with the Boston Celtics going 1-1 vs. the Bucks this season. Those teams lie very much in the path between Milwaukee and the Finals, along with the Toronto Raptors — you may recall the Raptors turned the Bucks from “should win” to “didn’t” in four straight games last postseason.

I’ve ruminated a lot on that series because of what it represents. Ultimately, it was either a once-in-a-lifetime outlier that can easily be avoided this season, or the Raptors were a team of destiny (because their shots fell) and the Bucks, as a small-market team trying to keep their vaunted MVP, were doomed to fail (and so theirs didn’t).

Many go back and talk about various factors that led to the Raptors’ upset, chief among them Kawhi Leonard’s brilliant play, and Antetokounmpo’s free throw issues.

But let me put this into visual form to make it the easiest I can, in two simple graphs. (Avert your eyes, Kevin Durant.)

This is data from PBPStats.com. The “actual” data is the effective field goal percentage, factoring 3’s as being worth more. The “expected” data is based on the average eFG% of all NBA players from where all the shots of the split were taken. So the Bucks were expected to have an eFG% of 52.07% vs. the Celtics, and actually shot a 51.43%.

In both charts, you’ll notice the insane plot twist that occurred. The Bucks, one of the best shooting teams in the league with one of the best offenses in NBA history, shot 49% eFG in that series vs. the Raptors. Toronto should have had a 50.24% eFG and instead shot 51.4%. The Bucks, based on where they shot from, were expected to have a higher eFG% than the Raptors, and the Raptors in actuality had a much higher eFG%.

This is all a super-complicated way of telling you that it’s a make or miss league.

Here’s why this matters for the Bucks over the next three months:

The Bucks gave up the most 3-pointers per 100 possessions last season. They gave up the third-most this season. This is seemingly illogical on its surface. How can a team that gives up the most efficient shot in basketball outside of a layup/dunk more frequently than the rest of the NBA have the best defense?

Ben Falk at Cleaning The Glass broke this down a year ago. The value of preventing 3’s diminished as more and more teams embraced the shot, and once that occurred, who you were allowing to shoot 3-pointers began to matter more. Milwaukee did very well at limiting 3’s to great shooters.

In the East finals, the Bucks held the Raptors’ regular-season-rotation best 3-point shooter, Danny Green, to 17% shooting from deep. Second-best, Marc Gasol, made 41% — really good but you’ll live with it, especially compared to the 44% he shot in the regular season. Kawhi Leonard, who shot 37% in the regular season, shot just 34% and made one fewer than Gasol.

But Kyle Lowry, who shot 35% from deep in the regular season, made 20 3’s vs. the Bucks and shot a monstrous 47% from deep while newly-first-time father Fred VanVleet hit 16-of-28 for a preposterous 57%.

Now, these are both great players. Truth be told, FVV was one of the best point guards in the entire league this season on both ends of the floor. But what happened in those final four games was Milwaukee’s plans largely working to deny the best shooters good looks, and so many players getting hot at once, it didn’t matter, especially when the Bucks went cold on their own.

This is all the past. Why does this matter for what happens in Orlando?

Because both the Heat and Celtics are possible opponents and both can shoot the lights out, particularly against how the Bucks defend.

One posit of the Bucks’ defense is to drop consistently. This isn’t new, I harp on it with every team. Most squads do this in the regular season because it’s the easiest scheme to manage weaknesses and prevent 3’s. But in the playoffs, it allows guards to come off screens, rise up from mid-range, or deeper if they have the range, and take uncontested shots.

In short, star players can destroy you if you play this coverage.

Miami in particular is terrifying in this aspect. Not only do they have Jimmy Butler to take over the game in spots, not only were they third in eFG% in the regular season, but Miami generates 9.6 possessions per game from handoffs, by far the most in the league.

They also run off screens incredibly well. Playing drop against these kinds of sets leads to doom, hence Miami going 2-0 vs. the Bucks.

 

Miami’s defense is suspect; I wrote about how they would likely slide back in January and sure enough, they slipped from a top-10 defense to 15th from the time I wrote that article until the league’s play was suspended in March.

They have defensive issues, but they also added players to help with that, adding Andre Iguodala, Jae Crowder, and Solomon Hill, three solid defenders at the trade deadline.

They also have a big man that can flip the script on the Bucks’ excellent rim protection in Bam Adebayo. They have stretch 4’s and 5’s like Kelly Olynyk and Meyers Leonard to drag the Milwaukee bigs out.

There are Milwaukee counters to all this, of course. The easy option is going to Giannis at the five and just switching everything, something Milwaukee can absolutely do well. But Mike Budenholzer is always resistant to getting away from what the team does well, what their identity is. Truth be told, it’s very Gregg-Popovich-like.

Boston presents a similar array of issues without the interior threat. The Celtics, on the other hand, have so many perimeter weapons, it’s easy to see one getting into FVV mode in a series. Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward. That’s five guys who can all create their own shot off the dribble. Those are the kinds of guys Milwaukee can struggle with.

Domantas Sabonis’ injury shifts some of this, as I wrote here. It’s now unlikely the Celtics will face the Sixers, making the new-look Sixers Miami’s problem in the first round.

The Bucks, quite honestly, would rather see the 76ers in the second round. As good as Joel Embiid is, Milwaukee has the size and athleticism to combat him, and while the move to put Shake Milton at point guard with Ben Simmons at power forward helps their offense considerably, it’s still trying to catch up too much compared to the firepower Milwaukee brings to the table with phalanx after phalanx of shooters available around Giannis.

Toronto remains the wild card. The Bucks went 2-0 against the Raptors this season, and the loss of Leonard alone should constitute enough of an offensive drop off in the halfcourt to make them easier to solve.

But never underestimate the heart of a champion, or whatever. If the Eastern Conference finals is Raptors-Bucks again, there will be a feeling very much backed up with reason that Nick Nurse will figure out enough to slow that Bucks “actual eFG%” down to the point they can slip by. Will it be harder this year without Leonard? Absolutely. But Toronto’s entire ethos is built on doing it the hard way.

In short, yes, the Bucks should be able to work the Heat’s soft defense enough to put up 120 and win in five. Yes, the Bucks should be able to hit the Celtics’ weak bench with enough waves in the second and fourth quarters to slip by in six. And yes, the Bucks should absolutely trounce the Raptors, the same way they should have last year.

But they didn’t. And that gives me pause because all it takes is one hot series for an opponent for the Bucks to go home.

Now for the good news.

THIS ISN’T THE SAME SQUAD FROM LAST YEAR

The differences are slight. I’m not going to pound your brain with Synergy play-type percentages but the big takeaway is that the Bucks transitioned to more pick-and-roll. They took a slight dip in the amount of time they are in transition and took a handful of fewer spot-ups per game.

Antetokounmpo finished plays as the roll man in pick-and-roll 91 times last season in 72 games (1.3 times per game). He finished them 106 times in 57 games so far this season (1.86 times per game). That seems like a tiny increase, but it’s significant for just adding a few more possessions where the Bucks didn’t need Antetokounmpo initiating.

Last season, Giannis screened on-ball 15.8 times per 100 possessions and the Bucks scored 1.09 points per possession, per Second Spectrum data provided to Action Network. This season, that number is up to 16.7 times per 100 possessions, and scored 1.17 points per possession. If you were wondering, that offensive mark would be the No. 1 offense in the league on its own. So, yeah, using Giannis as the screener is pretty effective.

Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe are the main beneficiaries of this and both are excellent in pick-and-roll. Watch Bledsoe weave back to get a very good Thunder defense flummoxed. Once you get Giannis on the catch in space, good luck stopping him.

 

Domantas Sabonis looks tiny here:

 

This really brings another dimension to the Bucks’ offense. It’s not about how much they use it, it’s about their capability in using it. It’s about the increased responsibility and diversity of their offense.

Not needing everything to go through Giannis as the rams himself into the wall the Raptors or Sixers build against him over and over again helps. Lob some catapults over the wall with Middleton.

Of course, this all again falls to Bledsoe, whose career has been marred by playoff foibles. He struggled vs. the Celtics in 2017 and then was better vs. them last season, only to struggle vs. the Raptors. No one fully trusts Bledsoe outside of Milwaukee, and that’s a danger.

But the depth of the Bucks helps. They can go to more small-ball lineups with Wesley Matthews and Marvin Williams who they added since last year. They have Donte DiVincenzo and George Hill as alternate playmakers.

They have more options. But is it enough to get past that trap of how one bad shooting run can doom them?

AS FOR THE RESUMPTION

The Bucks’ over-under for wins is 6.5 in the bubble at most books. That means you need to find enough loss possibilities to take the under.

Here’s a snapshot of their schedule.

The Nets, Wizards, and Grizzlies are all should-wins. Even if the Bucks are resting in the final games of the season, their backups are so good they can beat Washington and have at least a coin flip vs. Memphis.

Miami should be considered a loss, given not only the 0-2 results from this season, but the matchup problems Miami presents above. The Bucks have done well vs. Houston the last two years.

Dallas likely does not have the defense necessary to slow them down, though they are similar to Miami in some respects. Toronto is absolutely a coin flip, especially in the third-to-last game.

Let’s mark it down:

  • Should-wins: Houston, Brooklyn, Dallas, one of Memphis/Washington
  • Coin flips: Boston, Toronto, one of Memphis/Washington (based on rest)
  • Should lose: Heat

Bear in mind that the Bucks need a combination of two wins or Raptors losses to clinch the No. 1 seed.

So their floor is 4-1 with three coin flips to decide the remainder. Again, these lines are very sharp.

I still give Milwaukee the edge vs. Boston and Toronto. They’re better, and have consistently beaten them across the last two seasons except for those four games last May.

And here’s a key with Washington and Memphis: they may both not have anything to play for, either. Memphis may be locked in as the No. 8 seed with advantage for the play-in no matter what, and Washington may be so far out of it they can’t force the play-in vs. Orlando/Brooklyn.

In those instances, Milwaukee has the advantage.

You’re getting +185 on the over at DraftKings. Of their 10 losses to teams over .500, four came vs. teams on their seeding games schedule, with two against the Heat.

The Bucks may slow down towards the back end of their schedule, but that’s also when it becomes easier. There’s value on the over, just slightly.

As for their title odds? I have to hold off, no matter what all the evidence tells me. I’ve just seen this situation before and am not ready to get back in the water.

[Bet now at DraftKings. CO, NJ, PA, IN and WV only.]

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