Through the first two weeks of the 2018-19 NBA season, the Milwaukee Bucks remain the only undefeated team with a 7-0 record.
On most nights - especially in the Eastern Conference - the Bucks will have the best player on the court in Giannis Antetokounmpo; this was the case last year as well. Yet, within the first seven games of this season, the team has already racked up 15.9% of their wins from last season (44).
Not much has changed, but certain tweaks in the right areas have helped this Milwaukee team match their best start in franchise history (1971-72 season). We'll highlight those tweaks in due time, so without further ado, let's get to the stats that matter:
Through seven games, the Bucks are averaging 26.9 assists per game, which is tied for 4th best in the league with the Los Angeles Lakers. In comparison, last season's average of 23.2 APG was ranked 14th in the league. However, this change should come as no surprise when we consider the new head coach who took over in the offseason, Mike Budenholzer.
Budenholzer, a member of the Gregg Popovich coaching tree from San Antonio, has always emphasized ball movement in his five-year stint as a head coach in Atlanta. Irrespective of the team's competitiveness, the Hawks always ranked in the top 10 in assists per game under Budenholzer. In fact, in the team's most competitive phase during Budenholzer's first three seasons with the franchise, they ranked second in assists per game, behind only the San Antonio Spurs (2013-14) and Golden State Warriors (2014-15, 2015-16).
The new culture of ball movement in Milwaukee starts with its best player. After a slight dip in his assists average last season, Giannis, having played six of the seven games, is averaging a career-high 5.7 assists per game. The other two major ball handlers on the team - Eric Bledsoe (5.1 to 6.9 APG) and Malcolm Brogdon (3.2 to 3.9 APG) - have also seen their assists averages going up from last season.
Another factor driving Milwaukee's assist average up is just the simple fact that the team is making more field goals. Although its FG% has only improved by the decimal (47.8 last season to 48%), the team is averaging 4.2 more field goals (39.7 to 43.9) on 8.4 more attempts (83.0 to 91.4).
In this era of pace-and-space basketball, the Bucks struggled last season from beyond the arc. They were ranked 22nd in the league (35.5%) in 3-point shooting on 24.7 attempts but those same numbers for this season have jumped. Through the young 2018-19 season, Milwaukee ranks 6th in 3-point shooting, making 38.4% of their 40.6 attempts per game. In fact, this season its percentage of points from beyond the arc is at 38.9% (3rd best), far higher than last season's 24.7% (3rd worst).
It's highly remarkable that the team was able to improve their efficiency from 3-point land this season while attempting close to 16 more 3s each game than last season. It's here where their key offseason acquisitions - Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova - come handy. Both players are high volume above average shooters who have most certainly helped the team's spacing problems from last season.
It also doesn't hurt that Khris Middleton, the team's starting small forward, is having a career year from distance. Through seven games, he's making 54.9% of his 3s on 7.3 attempts per game (both career-highs).
Surely you have heard of the popular phrase in basketball - "Offense wins games but defense wins championships."
At the time of writing, the Bucks have the second-best defensive rating in the NBA - 98.2, second only to the Boston Celtics' 96.2 rating. By rating and ranking, this is a huge leap for Milwaukee from last season. In the 2017-18 campaign, it was ranked 18th with a 109.1 defensive rating.
It's their superior defense combined with their offense, (which is, at the time of writing, the sixth-best in the league - 113.1), that gives the Bucks the best net rating in the NBA - 14.9.
Mid-range is kryptonite
The influence of analytics in the playing style of multiple teams across the league over the past few seasons has been quite evident.
The Bucks might have joined the party late, but they are certainly leading the charge when it comes to embracing certain key analytical bullet points. Through their seven games so far, the Bucks have averaged the second-least field goals per game from mid-range - 6.6. Only the Houston Rockets are taking fewer - 6.2.
On the other end of the court, Milwaukee, as part of its second-best defense, are forcing their opponents into the second-most mid-range field goal attempts - 19.3. Only the Brooklyn Nets are forcing the opponents into more mid-range field goals - 21.3.
Bench holding down the fort
Roster depth is an essential part of a championship's contending squad. The reserves in Milwaukee aren't making headlines by dominating the league but their current numbers per 100 possessions show a vast improvement from last season's second unit.
In the 2018-19 season so far, the bench has a net rating of +3.6 (6th best in the league), quite clearly better than last season's rating of -2.7 (26th best).
There are two ways of looking at this. Either this 7-game display is a flash in the pan and all of these numbers are a simple overreaction to a short sample size or it's the beginning of a new championship contending era in Milwaukee.
Having said that, it's important to note that it's still the beginning. They still have quite a lot to work to do this season with respect to their turnovers (currently averaging 17.1 per game, 27th in the league). In addition, their schedule so far, has been underwhelming. Four of their seven games so far have come against teams with a .500 or worse record. And their most recent matchup against the highly competitive Toronto Raptors came in the absence of their superstar Kawhi Leonard.