Despite falling short in the conference semifinals one year ago, the Milwaukee Bucks are about to embark on another season in which they're one of the top title contenders in the NBA.
With a healthy Khris Middleton, the Bucks might have advanced past the Boston Celtics in the second round of the playoffs. Without Middleton, Milwaukee simply didn't have the firepower to outlast Boston in their seven-game series. Giannis Antetokounmpo can only carry so much on his broad shoulders.
Not surprisingly, the 2020-21 champions are basically running it back with the same squad.
Joe Ingles and first-round draft pick MarJon Beauchamp were their biggest outside additions, and they re-signed Jevon Carter, Pat Connaughton, Serge Ibaka, Wesley Matthews and Bobby Portis.
Stagnation inevitably sets in with teams that largely go unchanged for a period of multiple years. In the case of the Bucks, there's little reason, for now, to think they'll take a step backward in the season ahead.
2022-23 Bucks Schedule Details
Season Opener: Oct. 20 at Philadelphia 76ers
Championship Odds: +550 (via FanDuel)
Full Schedule: NBA.com
Boston Celtics (First Game: Dec. 25)
The Celtics haven't made any transformative changes, either, on the heels of their run to the NBA Finals, though that's not for a lack of trying.
The Athletic's Shams Charania reported July 25 that Boston was prepared to offer Jaylen Brown, Derrick White and a draft pick to the Brooklyn Nets for Kevin Durant. Brown didn't seem to be overly enthused with the news:
Unless that becomes a larger issue within the locker room, Boston is poised to once again figure into the fight for the East crown.
Malcolm Brogdon gives the Celtics another playmaker in the backcourt, and Danilo Gallinari should help space the floor after they ranked 14th in three-point percentage (35.6). Those kinds of improvements around the margins can make a big difference in the postseason.
Boston and Milwaukee finished with the same overall record in 2021-22 and split their season series. Not only are these teams arguably the strongest in the conference, but their head-to-head results could also directly determine who has home-court advantage in the playoffs.
Philadelphia 76ers (First Game: Oct. 20)
If another team is going to threaten the Bucks or Celtics for conference superiority, then the Philadelphia 76ers might be the best candidate.
The Sixers certainly carry plenty of question marks heading into the upcoming season.
James Harden averaged 21.0 points, 10.5 assists and 7.1 rebounds and shot 32.6 percent from beyond the arc in 21 games following his trade to Philly. More concerning, he had another disappearing act in a decisive postseason game, going 4-of-9 for 11 points and nine assists in a Game 6 loss to the Miami Heat.
Beyond winning the title that has so far eluded him, Harden has an obvious incentive to make a return to form since he took less money on a short-term deal with the Sixers.
Despite playing without Ben Simmons at all and then having a diminished version of Harden compared to his peak, Philadelphia still matched the 51 wins posted by Milwaukee and Boston.
The biggest variable for the Bucks is how much of a priority they place on winning in the regular season.
Milwaukee finished first in the East in 2018-19 and 2019-20 but didn't make the NBA Finals in either year. One season later, the team was third in the conference and had the league's fourth-best net rating (5.8), per NBA.com, en route to lifting the title.
The Bucks were eighth in net rating (3.2) in 2021-22 yet still began looking like a formidable squad again as they dispatched the Chicago Bulls in an opening-round gentleman's sweep.
The regular season isn't totally irrelevant—just ask the Brooklyn Nets—but it's clear that finishing third or fourth is fine as long as your best players are peaking at the right time and are physically ready for the playoffs.
The Bucks are a well-oiled machine, and they know how to handle the months-long grind before the postseason.
A win total in the mid-50s is the most realistic projection, and whatever Milwaukee's finish is may not reflect how good it can be at its best.
Record Prediction: 55-27
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