Parity may be the theme of the 2019-20 NBA season, but each conference has a clear powerhouse leading the way nearly 30 games into the year.
At 24-4, the Milwaukee Bucks have a four-game lead over the Philadelphia 76ers for the top spot out East. The Los Angeles Lakers, 24-3, lead the No. 2 Los Angeles Clippers by 4.5 games out West.
On Thursday, these two Goliaths will face off for the first time this season in what could be a preview of June's NBA Finals.
Bleacher Report asked its NBA writers to answer the question "Which team has the better roster in a potential Finals showdown?" and break down a specific matchup from each side.
Dan Favale: 2 Stars > 1?
Defaulting to the team with two entrenched superstars is the usual play when it's such a close call. That would seem to favor the Lakers. They should, in theory, have a path to winning more of the overall minutes, if only because there will be fewer instances in which they don't have a superstar on the court.
And to their credit, the Lakers are deeper than they first appeared. Their bench is third in point differential per 100 possessions. To have that luxury on top of Anthony Davis and LeBron James is unfair.
Except, well, the Bucks have proved just as deep.
They had little trouble navigating Khris Middleton's absences and aren't being held back by the net-negative minutes Eric Bledsoe has spent without Giannis Antetokounmpo. They're plus-6.7 points per 100 possessions overall without the MVP favorite, and their bench is second in net rating. The Lakers haven't even enjoyed that kind of success when they run out Davis sans James; they've lost those minutes.
This big-picture stuff might not mean as much in a singular series. The Bucks offense bogged down to the point of their undoing in last year's playoffs. They don't have any more shot creators in their employ now. But the Lakers aren't teeming with emergency playmakers themselves. Their offense may face some of the same obstacles when it matters most.
The Bucks, as of now, have the more reliable supporting cast, which, in this case, makes all the difference.
Point Guard Matchup: Rajon Rondo vs. Eric Bledsoe
Anyone looking to litigate this matchup Thursday will have to wait. Eric Bledsoe is going to miss at least the next couple of weeks with a right fibula evulsion fracture.
Not that we need to see him in action against Rajon Rondo to render a verdict. This is an easy call.
Rondo is shooting a ridiculous clip from three (45.5 percent) and has the higher offensive IQ, but his aggregate value doesn't come close to matching Bledsoe's. Neither should be charged with running an offense on their own, but Bledsoe can put more pressure on defenses in the half court, is the better finisher at the rim, gets to the line more and, above all, remains an All-NBA stopper.
Andy Bailey: Depth > Star Power
This is basically a philosophical question between star power and depth. The Lakers have the superior top duo with LeBron James and Anthony Davis. And even though Giannis Antetokounmpo is ably defending his MVP, his No. 2, whether it's Eric Bledsoe or Khris Middleton, is nowhere near AD's level.
If you're looking at the rest of the guys on each roster, though, Milwaukee has a solid advantage.
The Lakers have 12 players who've logged at least 200 minutes this season, six of whom currently sport an above-average box plus/minus. Eight of Milwaukee's 12 players with 200-plus minutes are above-average.
And what's most intriguing about that supporting cast for the Bucks is the shooting. Milwaukee is third in the league in three-point-attempt rate, taking 43.1 percent of its shots from beyond the arc. Its three-point percentage (37.0) ranks eighth, and that's with Brook Lopez struggling to find the accuracy he had last season. The team percentage could still creep up.
If these two teams meet in the Finals, Giannis and LeBron could probably go down as a wash. Given their respective ages, you might even give the edge to Giannis. Davis has a clear advantage over Milwaukee's No. 2, but the depth and three-point shooting of the Bucks should be enough to overcome that.
Trading twos for threes may be a bit less dicey in the postseason when things slow down and teams have time to game-plan, but you have to figure Milwaukee will catch fire a couple of times in a series. Combine that with two standout Giannis games and you might have your four wins right there.
Shooting Guard Matchup: Wes Matthews vs. Danny Green
By the time he's done, Danny Green might have a spot on the NBA's unofficial All-Time Underrated Team.
Over the course of his career, Green is 10th in the league in total plus/minus (plus-2,964) and fifth in plus/minus per 100 possessions (plus-9.1). It's not because he's going out and dropping 20 every night. It's because of an ability and willingness to both defend any wing or guard and hit threes off the catch. He excels in a limited role.
Matthews is in a similar role, but time and injuries have sapped enough athleticism to create a significant gap between the two.
Grant Hughes: Lakers Built Better for Postseason
For me, this question isn't about lining up the Lakers' and Bucks' rosters and comparing them position by position. It may be the case that Milwaukee's ninth man is a little more productive than Los Angeles', but we know that doesn't really matter in the postseason when rotations shrink and exploitable flaws define how a series progresses.
That's why I'm going with the Lakers, a team that can lean on LeBron James, the single most reliable superstar of the modern era and a player who cannot be effectively schemed against.
Giannis Antetokounmpo's free-throw shooting looks like a problem, and we saw good defenses build a wall in the lane to slow him down during the 2019 playoffs. He appears improved this season, particularly as a three-point shooter. But I'd like to see him and the system-based Bucks prove themselves before I afford them anything close to the level of trust James' track record deserves.
Antetokounmpo has the length to bother Anthony Davis, but I don't see Khris Middleton, Wesley Matthews or anyone else bothering LeBron.
Flip it around and I feel more comfortable relying on Danny Green (who's seen more Finals action than anyone in this series other than James) to consistently harass whichever of the Bucks' smaller ball-handlers—Eric Bledsoe and George Hill, primarily—needs the most defensive attention. If Green has to tend to a wing assignment, the Lakers can turn to either Kentavious Caldwell-Pope or Avery Bradley for three-and-D duties.
Milwaukee's best chance is to spread Los Angeles out, force AD to guard Giannis on the perimeter and hope the James-Davis 4-5 combo doesn't beat it up inside on the other end. I'm betting L.A.'s roster—downsized or not—has the personnel to take Milwaukee.
Small Forward Matchup: Khris Middleton vs. LeBron James
This isn't fair to Middleton, as the only guy I'd pick over 2019-20 LeBron in a head-to-head setup like this is 2013-18 LeBron. Unless the Bucks have been avoiding the luxury tax all these years because they're spending billions on R&D for time travel and cloning tech, I don't think they've got the guy they need to win this matchup.
Middleton has great size on the wing, and he's graded out as a capable defender for most of his career. But he'll be at James' mercy.
Mo Dakhil: Lakers Have the Spice of Life
The Bucks roster is built around Giannis Antetokounmpo and therefore dependent on him to carry a heavy load. He has a usage rate of 38.6, and that is more than 12 points higher than the next Buck, Khris Middleton.
The Bucks play in one gear, and that can carry them to a monster win total in the regular season. But being able to change gears is crucial to success in the playoffs when teams will game-plan to take their first choice away.
The Lakers have two of the NBA's top eight players in LeBron James and Anthony Davis, which allows them to play in different ways. They can add variety by putting James and Davis in the pick-and-roll, they can throw the ball to Davis in the post, or they can spread the floor and let James find open shooters.
The Lakers are better suited for a Finals run because of that variety and have several players who have either been to or won in the Finals in James, Danny Green, Rajon Rondo and Dwight Howard.
Power Forward Matchup: Giannis Antetokounmpo vs Anthony Davis
There are very few times when the Bucks don't have an automatic advantage at the power forward position. Antetokounmpo vs. Davis is about as even a matchup as they can expect to see during the season.
Davis has been great defensively this year. He has the agility, speed and strength to challenge Antetokounmpo's offensive game. It will be a team effort to defend the reigning MVP, but it will start and end with Davis slowing him down in transition and bodying him up before he gets to the paint.
This matchup is a draw, which is uncharted territory for the Bucks.
Nekias Duncan: Wouldn't Bet on the Bucks
It’s hard not to view the Lakers as the favorite. Though Giannis has been the best player in basketball this season, LeBron James and Anthony Davis might just be the next two options on the list. Both players have the tools to at least bother Giannis, and that’s before mentioning the rim protection of Dwight Howard or JaVale McGee behind them on the backline.
It would be up to Milwaukee’s “Others” to swing the series. Khris Middleton would have to unleash from all three levels; Eric Bledsoe would need to get past his postseason demons. Unfortunately for them, the Lakers have quality defenders (Danny Green, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope) to throw at them as well.
The path to the Bucks winning would be running a bunch of inverted pick-and-rolls to get Giannis downhill, forcing the Lakers to help, and hoping that the role players can bomb away from deep. It’s a formula that can work, but not one I’d bank on.
Center Matchup: Dwight Howard can't match Brook Lopez
Dwight Howard has been a revelation this season. His actual production shouldn't be a surprise. He's a rebound magnet (12.5 per 36), strong play-finisher (79th percentile as the pick-and-roll big, via Synergy Sports) and shot-swatter (2.5 per 36). It's more surprising he's happy with his bench role.
Brook Lopez can pose issues. He's been one of the NBA's best rim protectors and box-out artists. His length could limit scoring and rebounding opportunities for Howard. Offensively, Lopez's ability to stretch the floor can pull Howard out of the paint, opening driving lanes for Giannis Antetokounmpo and others. Advantage: Bucks.
Greg Swartz: LeBron's Playoff Experience Tips the Balance
The Bucks and Lakers are a combined 48-7 this season, have arguably the three most talented players in the world and should be considered the favorites to meet in the Finals.
When it comes to roster construction, both are built around true superstars with plenty of complementary pieces. With apologies to Dwyane Wade and Kyrie Irving, Anthony Davis is the best teammate LeBron James has had in 17 professional seasons. Never before has he played alongside someone with such a combination of size, handles, scoring and defensive dominance.
In the event that Davis needs a rest, Kyle Kuzma can slide into the starting lineup and provide a scoring spark, as evidenced by his 22 points on 58.3 percent shooting in his lone starting opportunity this season. Los Angeles finally realized putting shooting around James is important, and Danny Green, Alex Caruso and Troy Daniels can light it up from deep.
For Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks, Khris Middleton leads a supporting cast that can control a game on both ends of the floor and runs 10-plus deep. Milwaukee has done an excellent job covering for Antetokounmpo's poor outside shooting (32.1 percent) and the loss of Malcolm Brogdon in free agency with the additions of Wesley Matthews and Kyle Korver, as well as the rising play of Donte DiVincenzo and Sterling Brown.
While the Lakers have more star power at the top, the Bucks possess the deeper roster, one that has already embarked on a lengthy playoff run together. Of course, this may not matter if James is playing at his previous Finals levels. With no back-to-backs in the playoffs and a shrunken rotation, the two-man wrecking crew of James and Davis should continue to be impossible to contain, even for the Bucks' top-ranked defense.
As long as guys are spacing the floor and hitting shots around them, it's tough to bet against the Lakers in a Finals matchup, especially since it would be James' 10th trip overall.
It should come as no surprise that these two teams have some of the NBA's best benches. Milwaukee's reserves are second in the league with a plus-5.0 rating, while the Lakers rank third at plus-4.9.
While the combination of Kyle Kuzma, Dwight Howard, Rajon Rondo and Alex Caruso is quite good, the Bucks' bench of George Hill, Donte DiVincenzo, Robin Lopez, Ersan Ilyasova and Co. ranks higher in scoring, field-goal percentage, three-point percentage and rebounding.
Zach Buckley: AD Is The Ultimate Difference-Maker
Falling in love with the Bucks is easy—and tempting.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is the NBA's new Superman, an interior force unlike any we've seen since Shaquille O'Neal. Milwaukee has loaded up with complementary pieces around the Greek Freak, and the results are incredible. This was last season's most efficient team by a mile. If current trends hold, it'll be this season's most efficient team by several.
And yet, if this star-driven league has taught us anything, it's that the team with the most elite players will typically triumph.
With all due respect to Eric Bledsoe and Khris Middleton, neither one is Anthony Davis (or LeBron James, depending on how you rank the Lakers' hierarchy). As good as Milwaukee is during the regular season, there still isn't a second star to take over when clubs play anyone-other-than-Antetokounmpo defense.
L.A. doesn't have that issue. Throw too much at James or Davis and the other will torch you. Stay at home and they can carve you up in isolation or punish you in shared pick-and-roll action. Focus on stopping both and you're now vulnerable to the Lakers' snipers or lob-finishers.
That sounds like a puzzle not even Milwaukee can solve.
Coaching Matchup: Mike Budenholzer vs. Frank Vogel
This looks like Vogel in his Indiana Pacers days, as the Lakers have used length and commitment to construct an elite defense. This also seems like the smoothest transition LeBron James has had with a new skipper, and the King has this offense humming as a result.
But Budenholzer is the reigning Coach of the Year, and he could contend for another.
The Bucks look even better than last season on both ends. Bud's three-heavy attack creates the optimal offensive environment for Antetokounmpo, and it's made some of the support pieces as efficient as ever.
Vogel is a good coach, but Budenholzer is a great one.
NBA Champion, co-host of the “Talking Blazers” podcast, and co-host of “Handles” on NBA TV, Channing Frye, joins “The Full 48 with Howard Beck” to discuss the Portland Trail Blazers, trading Damian Lillard and/or CJ McCollum, James Harden, Andre Iguodala, Kevin Love, and the Buffet Of Goodness.