The Whiteboard: Bucks red-hot offense, Warriors new starters

Today on The Whiteboard, we're looking at the Bucks surging offense, the Warriors new starters and more.

Dec 13, 2023; Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA; Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34)
Dec 13, 2023; Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA; Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) / Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

On Sunday, the Milwaukee Bucks pounded the Houston Rockets, 128-119, their fourth straight game scoring at least 120 points. It was also their fourth win in a row and they're now 14-3 in their last 17 games.

The Bucks' early season struggles and a few notable losses — like to the Pacers in the NBA In-Season Tournament semifinals — have worked to disguise just how well this team is playing right now, particularly on offense.

The Milwaukee Bucks offense is rolling

The Indiana Pacers have drawn headlines for their historic offensive pace this season. But since Nov. 10, it's the Bucks who have the best offense in the league — scoring at a rate of 124.4 points per 100 possessions. Comparing the two teams by a five-game rolling average of offensive rating shows that the Bucks have peaked just as highly as the Pacers and have made significant progress as the season has gone along.

What should be terrifying for opponents is they're still well below their hypothetical ceiling on offense. Damian Lillard's shooting averages are still down across the board. They're running far less Lillard-Giannis pick-and-roll than they could be, and that powerful set could be spammed to infinity in a playoff matchup.

Brook Lopez and Khris Middleton are both hovering around 35 percent on 3-pointers and could be due for some progression to the mean. And while the rest of the supporting cast is shooting extremely well, they aren't necessarily benefiting from outlier, unsustainable percentages on open looks. This is an elite offense ... and it can continue to get better.

For all their offensive success, one of the reasons it may feel like the Bucks are still struggling is that they haven't been able to put it together on defense yet. This is, by far, the most efficient Bucks' offense of the Giannis era, stretching back to 2016-17. It's also their worst defense of the same stretch by raw points allowed per 100 possessions, and their second-worst by performance compared to the league average.

A five-game rolling average chart of their defensive efficiency is far less impressive, with their performance hovering around the league average with no real meaningfully sustained improvement since the beginning of the season.

There are far fewer reasons to expect improvement at this end of the floor. The Lillard for Jrue Holiday swap has had an impact but Middleton and Lopez don't have the same impact at this end. It's unlikely there's another big trade coming to shake up the roster so the biggest levers left are schematic changes (unlikely) or dramatic improvement from Malik Beasley (unlikely) or larger roles for young players like MarJon Beauchamp or Andre Jackson (possible but not as significant).

Still, the Bucks are in a far different place than they were early in November. We've seen an elite offense with a league-averagish defense win championships and their performance so far this year isn't that far off (relative to the league average) from the Nuggets last season, their own performance when they won in 2021 or the Lakers in 2020.

The Bucks still have a lot to work on but they've shaken off their rough start and firmly reestablished themselves as an inner circle contender.

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Dec 17, 2023; Portland, Oregon, USA; Golden State Warriors shooting guard Klay Thompson (11) stands
Dec 17, 2023; Portland, Oregon, USA; Golden State Warriors shooting guard Klay Thompson (11) stands / Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Early returns on the Warriors' new starters

On Friday, we looked briefly at the potential benefits of the Warriors' new starting lineup — Jonathan Kuminga in place of the suspended Draymond Green and rookie Brandin Podziemski in place of the struggling Andrew Wiggins.

The Warriors lost the first game with this new starting lineup, 121-113 to the Clippers Thursday night. But they picked up a pair of four-point wins over the weekend, over the Nets and Trail Blazers.

The new starting lineup hasn't been good — outscored by an average of 10.1 points per 100 possessions over 35 minutes — but individually everyone involved in the move has been playing really well.

In the past three games, Klay Thompson (who avoided being benched instead of Wiggins) has averaged 27.3 points and hit 17-of-31 from beyond the arc. Wiggins has averaged 16.0 points and 5.0 rebounds, shooting 56.5 percent from the field and 5-of-11 from beyond the arc. Kuminga has been shooting well and bringing energy and intensity. Podziemski's shooting percentages have been a mess since the move but he's still averaging 11.0 points, 5.7 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 2.3 steals per game.

The Warriors still have a pretty big hole to dig themselves out of and it's clear that this lineup change, in and of itself, isn't the answer. But having everyone just playing better and building some positive momentum is a huge first step. The Warriors have a huge stretch coming up, with matchups against the Celtics, Nuggets, Heat and Mavericks falling in their next six games. To get through this block with more wins and losses, they'll need as many factors as possible working in their favor.

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