The 23–3 Los Angeles Lakers are going on a 10-day road trip, while the 23–3 Milwaukee Bucks are riding a 16-game winning streak.
If these teams continue winning, it would set up an incredible game between two teams on a 70-win pace.
Could the Game Between the Lakers and the Bucks be a Finals Preview?
The Lakers are currently playing like Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde, except that both characters are stone cold killers.
On Tuesday and Wednesday of last week, the Lakers played incredible defense on the road in a fearsome back-to-back against Denver and Utah, holding each team to 96 points, with an average point differential of 17 points per game.
Then on Friday and Sunday, the Lakers scored a combined 278 points against Portland and Minnesota, with a point differential of 20 points per game.
The Bucks, led by Giannis Antetokounmpo, are doing their impression of Godzilla, razing stadiums as they crash through the NBA schedule.
After playing close games with Oklahoma City and Chicago, Milwaukee beat the crap out of Charlotte and the Knicks to pad their point differential to 17.7 points per game over the last 13 games. Then they beat the full-strength Clippers by 28. That’s a monster win.
Who are these teams and how far can they go?
In spite of their schizophrenic activity, the Lakers are currently #4 in offensive efficiency and #4 in defensive efficiency. The Bucks are currently #2 in offensive efficiency and #1 in defensive efficiency.
Two other teams are in the top 10 in both categories: the Clippers, and the Boston Celtics.
In terms of net rating, the teams rank as follows: Milwaukee, Lakers, Mavericks, Celtics, and Clippers.
With the Clippers load managing Kawhi Leonard, their stats are compromised. Until the Lakers actually beat the Clippers, the Clippers may still be the team to beat.
The Celtics have the lowest probability to win a title because they won’t have the best player on the floor when they play other elite teams.
For now, though, the Lakers and the Bucks are the best teams in the NBA, and we’re going to get an early Christmas present when the two teams play on December 19th.
The Lakers and Bucks are the most physical teams in the NBA.
Each team has three players over 6'11" that play meaningful minutes. Just look at these per-game stats:
- Points in the paint: Lakers (#1), Bucks (#4)
- Blocks: Lakers (#1), Bucks (#5)
- Defensive rebound %: Bucks (#2), Lakers (#7)
- Total rebounding %: Bucks (#3), Lakers (#6)
- Opponent points in the paint: Bucks (#1), Lakers (#5)
Each team has a Defensive Player of the Year candidate to anchor their defense.
Davis and Giannis both act as free safeties who superior mobility allows them to recover and protect the rim.
The Lakers’ defensive system gambles more to create turnovers, while the Buck’s defense is all about contesting shots:
- Steals per game: Lakers (#3), Bucks (#19)
- Deflections: Lakers (#8), Bucks (#19)
- Contested 2-point shots: Bucks (#1), Lakers (#18)
- Contested 3-point shots: Bucks (#1), Lakers (#23)
Opponent 3-point percentage is a little strange for Milwaukee, given their contest rate, but this number will probably change with a larger sample size: Lakers (#5), Milwaukee (#20).
In addition to the talented rim protectors that anchor the defense, each team has guards who pressure the ball at the perimeter.
Here are the top four guards in the league in defensive efficiency (based on playing at least 15 minutes per game on a regular basis), and their On/Off Opponent Offensive Ratings:
- Brown, MIL, 92.5 DRtg, (-8.6 On/Off)
- DiVincenzo, MIL, 93.1 DRtg, (-9.9 On/Off)
- Matthews, MIL, 96.3 DRtg, (-7.7 On/Off)
- Caruso, LAL, 97.0 DRtg, (-9.4 On/Off)
Avery Bradley is also a solid defender for the Lakers with a 98.6 DRtg, (-4.2 On/Off), but has been injured.
Each coach has implemented a system that maximizes the defensive strengths of his star player.
For the Bucks, Mike Budenholzer turned the Bucks into the #1 defensive team last year, so their success is not surprising.
For the Lakers, Frank Vogel has installed a defensive system that leverages Anthony Davis’ incredible agility and defensive mind.
In spite of Davis’ incredible defensive skills, no one anticipated his effect on the rest of the team.
In addition to holding LeBron accountable (who knew LeBron was going to put so much energy into his defense again?), Davis’ presence has turned every player on the Lakers into a better defender.
Caruso was a very good defender last year, but I never imagined what would happen when he played with an elite center. Watching him guard on-ball, then set up to take a charge on a different attacking player, then run out to contest a player shoot a corner three — in the same possession — Caruso is the perfect defensive fit with Davis.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (KCP) was terrible last year as a team defender because he was taking so many chances on steals. This year, he’s getting steals within the context of the defense, such as being part of a double team that pressures a ball handler, collapsing into the paint on pick and roll defense, or jumping the passing lane on the base line when a player driving to the basket can’t get up a shot over the Lakers’ rim protectors. His energy, even when he was in a shooting slump, has made him a valuable rotation player.
Avery Bradley and Dwight Howard have been reborn as defenders in the Lakers’ system, playing with great energy and physicality as they complement Davis’ defensive skills.
Even Rondo looks like he’s trying on defense.
That’s all part of the Davis effect.
The strength of schedule argument is just a backlash against the Lakers‘ early season success.
Here are the strength of schedule rankings of each team based on games played so far this season.
NBA Strength of Schedule Rankings
Our NBA Strength of Schedule rankings represents the average difficulty of those opponents that each team has faced or…
Of the better teams in the NBA, only Utah (#5), the Clippers (#9), Toronto (#10), and Denver (#13) have played tougher than average schedules.
The rest of the top teams have played weaker schedules: Lakers (#21), Bucks (#22), Heat (#23), Mavericks (#25), Celtics (#26), 76ers (#29), and Pacers (#30).
Watch for the Heat, Mavericks and Pacers slide back down in the standings as the schedule toughens up.
The Lakers (16–0) and Bucks (15–0) have been perfect in beating bad teams — that’s what happens when you have a top 5 player who wills the team to win, even on off-nights.
The top five records against teams that are .500 and above are: Clippers (7–4), Bucks (6–3), Lakers (5–3), 76ers (5–3), and Celtics (6–4).
The biggest achievements so far are the Bucks two wins over the Clippers.
Milwaukee seems well positioned to enter the big game with their streak alive, while the Lakers road may contain some bumps.
The Bucks play three teams near the bottom of their conferences followed by Dallas at home.
The Lakers will play three Eastern playoff teams and Atlanta before the game in Milwaukee.
Each game on the road trip will hold some special motivation for the Lakers:
Orlando will be a homecoming game for Dwight Howard. After all the problems he’s had the last five years, the team should be psyched up to play. (They did, holding Orlando to 9 points in the first quarter en route to a 24-point lead before easing off so much the game got close in the third quarter.)
Miami has to be one of those games on the LeBron James permanent revenge list. (After a terrible first half by LeBron, he led the Lakers to a double digit lead in the third quarter, maintaining a small advantage for the remainder of the game.)
Atlanta isn’t too good, but the Lakers suffered a humiliating loss at their building last year that helped kill any chance of making the playoffs. All the players from last year’s squad will want some pay back.
Indiana should be at the top of the Lakers’ revenge list. Last year, the team was psychologically rocked by the Anthony Davis trade rumors. The team lost badly, and the Indiana fans showed they can be just obnoxious as their more infamous Eastern Conference brethren by chanting “LeBron’s gonna trade you” at the young Lakers players.
[UPDATE] The Bucks lost Bledsoe due to injury and got dominated by a Doncic-less Dallas team to break their streak.
The Lakers lost Davis due to an ankle sprain and lost in the last minute to Indiana to break their road winning streak of 15 games, the third longest of its kind in history.
Both teams now drop to 24–4 before their meeting. It’s a little bit of a let down.
Instead of a game between two invincible teams on pace to win 72.88 games, one of these teams on pace to win 70 games will be saddled with a two-game losing streak after Thursday.
The Bucks will continue to feast in the East playing the Knicks, Hawks, Magic and Bulls, plus games against Indiana and Philadelphia. They should go 5–1 in their sleep.
Meanwhile the Lakers are scheduled to play Denver, the Clippers, at Portland and Dallas to finish 2019. If Davis and Kuzma continue to miss games, the Lakers will continue to struggle to score points.
The most interesting feature of this game will be the defensive assignments.
Which Laker is going to be able to guard Giannis, and which Bucks will be able to guard LeBron and Anthony Davis?
My guess is that Davis will guard Giannis, and LeBron will guard the least active Buck on the floor, which allows him to play as a free safety.
Khris Middleton might be the X-factor in this game because he is a gifted offensive player and the Lakers are thin when it comes to wing defenders, even more so with Kuzma being injured. I think Danny Green will get that defensive assignment.
My cup runneth over: the 12 games of Christmas.
I’ll be heading out on vacation before the Lakers-Bucks game and may not be able to see it as we will be visiting family in a far off time zone.
But the NBA has prepared a feast of important games that will tell us a lot about how the season may end six months from now.
- Milwaukee 119, Los Angeles Clippers 91 —This dismantling of the Clippers poses the question of whether we believed too much in the invincibility of the Kawhi Leonard and Paul George duo.
- Clippers 112, Toronto 92 — They may not be invincible, but having two of the best five two-way players in the league gives the Clippers the highest floor of any team in the NBA when they are load managing. Imagine how good Toronto would be if they had Kawhi Leonard… oh yeah, now I remember last season.
- Philadelphia 115, Boston 109 — For all the talk about the balanced, young Celtics, their Achilles heel surfaced again as they lost their second game to the 76ers: no answer for a superstar. It doesn’t matter if Boston has a huge advantage in coaching and complementary roster building. They have do answer for an engaged Joel Embiid (38 pts, 13 reb, 6 ast, 1 blk). They used to, last year, but refused to give Al Horford the extension he deserved.
- Los Angeles Lakers 113, Miami 110 — LeBron James played a passive, uninspired first half against the #3 team in the East, and the Lakers trailed by as many as 14 points with two minutes to go in the first half. In less than eight minutes, the Lakers went on a 33–9 run. The Lakers are showing a Golden State-like dominance in the third quarter and also distancing themselves from all but the most elite teams in the NBA.
- Miami at Dallas — Luka Doncic and the Mavericks have been on fire, currently the #3 seed in the West. Are they for real? Given the number of big strong wing defenders they can throw on the court, Miami will be a big test for Dallas.
- Dallas at Milwaukee — Part 2 of the “is Dallas really a top 4 team in the West?” question.
- Boston at Dallas — Even if Dallas isn’t good enough to maintain its current #3 seeding (they’ve had one of the easiest schedules up through December), part 3 of this Eastern gauntlet of teams should show us a lot more about the relative strength of the conferences.
- Los Angeles Lakers at Milwaukee — the game of the season, so far.
- Dallas at Milwaukee — Part 4 of the Dallas challenge will show the mental toughness of Luka Doncic. Will a series of losses against the top teams in the East break down the Mavs’ confidence?
- Dallas at Toronto— The schedule gods must really hate Mark Cuban’s guts. This might be the most brutal two week stretch for any potential top playoff team. We’re going to know if Dallas is a .500 team.
- Milwaukee at Philadelphia — A preview of the Eastern Conference Finals. The Bucks are built to dominate the regular season. That bizarre 76ers roster, where Al Horford chills on the bench in crunch time, looks like it was built to do two things in the playoffs: remove Boston as a playoff obstacle by signing the one player who frustrated Embiid, and provide Philadelphia with one of the few players who can guard Giannis.
- L.A. Clippers at L.A. Lakers — A preview of the Western Conference Finals. With the Lakers at full strength and a couple of months experience playing together, we will finally see which team can be the best team in the league.