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Do Great Regular Seasons Matter Anymore In The NBA? (Asking For A Friend In Milwaukee.)

After beating the Philadelphia 76ers 112-101 on Thursday night, the Milwaukee Bucks’ historic season keeps on rolling. Last year’s Bucks were already great, going 60-22 with the league’s best point differential. But this year’s version has been even more dominant. Right now, Milwaukee is 44-7, on pace to win 71 games, with a scoring differential of +12.4 points per game — higher than any team’s full-season rate in NBA history. Under normal circumstances, you might expect these record-chasing Bucks to be at the center of the basketball world.

But they aren’t really getting as much buzz as their historic year warrants. According to Google news searches since the start of the season, the Bucks have received less attention than all of their peers atop the championship odds leaderboard. Some of that might be a function of market size; Milwaukee is the NBA’s fourth-smallest, ahead of only Oklahoma City, New Orleans and Memphis. But I think something else is going on, too, related to the league’s collective yawn at regular-season accomplishments these days — and skepticism about how much value they have in predicting the playoffs.

On its face, the Bucks’ regular season does deserve celebrating. Although it’s somewhat misleading to compare their partial-season numbers with teams that played a full 82 games, Milwaukee also has the seventh-highest points-per-game differential of any team ever through 51 games. It’s truly been a testament to the performance of reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, who somehow has gotten even better this season — improving his RAPTOR rating from +6.8 to +8.6 — as well as the stellar work of supporting players like Khris Middleton and Donte DiVincenzo (+5.2 apiece). With an efficient offense, a suffocating defense and a fast-paced playing style, the Bucks are everything we could ask for in a contender.

But as other NBA analysts such as Seth Partnow and Kostya Medvedovsky have pointed out, a team’s regular-season point differential can be distorted by blowout wins and generally feasting on bad opponents. Indeed, the Bucks have a much better per-game scoring margin against teams that are below-average in point differential (+16.3) than they do against teams with a positive net differential (+4.6), even after crushing the Sixers this week. Compared with other great scoring-margin teams through 51 games, that 11.7-PPG gap by the level of competition is extremely large … and that +4.6 differential against “good” teams is also quite low.

The Bucks have been beating up on weaker teams

For NBA teams with the best points-per-game differentials in history through 51 games, split between PPG diff. vs. good opponents (positive overall PPG diff.) and bad opponents (negative overall PPG diff.)

Points-Per-Game Differential
Team Year W L Overall vs. Bad Tms vs. Good Tms Diff
MIL 1971-72 40 11 +13.5 +18.5 +6.4 +12.1
SAS 2015-16 43 8 +13.4 +15.6 +8.1 +7.5
LAL 1971-72 44 7 +12.9 +16.6 +8.4 +8.2
GSW 2016-17 43 8 +12.8 +12.6 +13.2 -0.6
MIL 1970-71 42 9 +12.8 +17.7 +8.1 +9.6
GSW 2015-16 47 4 +12.6 +14.2 +9.7 +4.5
MIL 2019-20 44 7 +12.4 +16.3 +4.6 +11.7
CHI 1996-97 45 6 +11.5 +15.1 +8.4 +6.7
MIL 1973-74 40 11 +11.4 +14.3 +5.6 +8.7
CHI 1995-96 46 5 +11.2 +11.0 +11.3 -0.3
PHI 1966-67 46 5 +11.0 +12.4 +4.7 +7.7
GSW 2014-15 42 9 +10.9 +14.3 +7.2 +7.1
SAS 2004-05 40 11 +10.8 +12.9 +8.4 +4.5
BOS 1964-65 43 8 +10.7 +10.4 +11.2 -0.8
NYK 1969-70 40 11 +10.3 +10.5 +9.8 +0.7

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

This isn’t to say the Bucks are somehow frauds who have built up their entire championship resume by crushing overmatched opponents. Antetokounmpo can make a legitimate case as the best player in all of basketball; he and his teammates came within two wins of making the NBA Finals last season. The Bucks are near the top of the championship pecking order in all the ways that matter — their historic point differential just might not be one of those categories. And in some ways, this kind of split is simply inevitable for a league in which only 13 teams are better than a game over .500, and 11 teams (a little more than a third of the league) have gobbled up over half the available wins.

With tanking becoming so commonplace across the league, it’s not Milwaukee’s fault for running roughshod over weaker competition. Perhaps more teams could do this, but they don’t — whether because of load management or other mechanisms of pacing oneself for the playoffs. The realities of the league have just played havoc with what qualifies as a historic regular-season performance.

We’ve been down this path before. In an earlier era of our NBA projections, we relied heavily on regular-season results to fuel our playoff forecasts. It, um, didn’t always go well. Ironically, we found the projections became much more accurate as we gave less and less weight to the regular season. Eventually, we reached the point at which our model only incorporates those results in as far as they affect the player ratings that drive the long-term forecast. Although the NBA has a long, rich history of contending teams coasting to the playoffs, there are plenty of reasons to think they take the regular season less seriously than ever before.

That makes logical sense, from the perspective of saving your best performances for the games that matter the most. But it also makes it difficult to interpret the greatness of a historically dominant regular season like the one Milwaukee is currently enjoying. Should we consider this team to be on the same level as, say, the 1996 Bulls, or even the 73-win Warriors from just a few seasons ago? In some ways, that will hinge on how far Milwaukee can go in the playoffs (and we give the Bucks an 18 percent chance of winning it all, behind the Clippers’ 22 percent and the Lakers’ 20 percent). Right or wrong, that is the way any team will ultimately be judged in 2020. But as a byproduct, it also downplays the greatness of all 82 games that came before the postseason, no matter how transcendent the brand of basketball Milwaukee has been playing all year long.

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Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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