Before an NBA season begins, the upcoming schedule is best symbolized by an unwritten book: empty pages, binding, a spine. It is a skeletal system, waiting for players to breathe life inside of it.
No two games are the same, and an NBA season is long and taxing. Last season, the Milwaukee Bucks rostered six players who ran more than five combined marathons over the course of their regular season games. Giannis Antetokounmpo, who ran 143 miles in total, did so while drawing 570 personal fouls, the most in the league. Consistency in the face of such physical demands is difficult to attain. It takes time and effort for the story of an individual team’s season to become clear. Like any good book, teams need an identity, a voice, in writing a success of their season.
For a veteran, playoff-tested team like the Milwaukee Bucks, that identity is often summed up as pride. These Bucks have spent years proving that in facing both victory and defeat.
In 2019, the Bucks suffered a surprising playoff loss to the Miami Heat to bow out of the second round of the bubble playoffs. The following season, the Bucks only had to wait four games to rematch the Heat in the regular season, and their pride made a vocal statement. On Dec. 29, 2020, the Bucks smashed the Heat 144-97. It was the seventh-largest margin of victory in franchise history, the tied-11th-highest scoring game for Milwaukee, and the second-most anyone has ever scored in a game against the Heat. Milwaukee swept Miami in the playoffs that year en route to winning a championship.
This time around, Milwaukee will need to wait one fewer game for the early-season Miami rematch; the Heat will visit Fiserv Forum the third game of the 2023-24 season.
Since the start of the 2019-20 season, Milwaukee has played 28 games total against the Heat, including both the regular season and playoffs. That is the second-most games played between any two teams over the same time period. They’ll add the 29th contest three games into the season. And the 30th matchup on Nov. 28 will also carry special significance.
Milwaukee’s in-season tournament pool features a number of Eastern Conference playoff mainstays beyond the Bucks themselves, including Miami. East Group B will also include the New York Knicks, Washington Wizards, and Charlotte Hornets.
Milwaukee was dominant last year against the members of East Group B
|Team||2022-23 Record||Record against East Group B in '22-23||Date of Milwaukee Game|
|New York Knicks||47-35||8-6||Nov. 3|
|Miami Heat||44-38||7-9||Nov. 28|
|Washington Wizards||35-47||7-9||Nov. 24|
|Charlotte Hornets||27-55||5-9||Nov. 17|
Milwaukee will play one game against each of the other members of the group, and those games will count equally towards regular-season records. The winner from the groups, as well as one wildcard team chosen from each conference, will advance to the knockout rounds to be played in December. The first two games of the knockout round will also count towards regular-season records. The only game that won’t count towards regular-season records will be the championship game played on Dec. 9.
For the second year in a row, the Bucks will face the Philadelphia 76ers in their season opener. Last year’s 90-88 Milwaukee win was the second-least efficient post-up game of the year for the Sixers. Joel Embiid and company struggled against the size of the Bucks, managing only two points in eight post-ups, according to Second Spectrum. Embiid’s scoring average in the season series against Milwaukee was 26.5 -- his fourth-lowest against any team last year.
That low-scoring season-opener against Philadelphia last year set a trend for Milwaukee. The Bucks had the best defense in the league when facing a top-10 offense, but their own offense was only middling against such teams. Milwaukee notched four wins last season while scoring 105 points or fewer against playoff teams, the tied-third most in the league. While other teams might try to outscore the best offenses in the league, the Bucks simply chose to win in the mud. (And they did win, going 18-10 against top-10 offenses last year, notching the most such wins in the league.) When they face the best offenses this year, expect low-scoring contests. Don’t be surprised if neither team breaks 100 to start the season on Oct. 26.
Milwaukee will also play three “revenge” games against rotation players from last year’s squad who joined new teams in the offseason. Joe Ingles, Jevon Carter, and Wes Matthews will all be on new squads this year.
Milwaukee has important games against former Bucks
|Former Buck||New Team||Date of first game against|
|Joe Ingles||Orlando Magic||Nov. 11|
|Jevon Carter||Chicago Bulls||Nov. 13|
|Wes Matthews||Atlanta Hawks||Oct. 29|
Carter, especially, should play a significant role in Chicago. He and Jrue Holiday formed one of the most tenacious point-of-attack defensive combos last year, and Carter and Alex Caruso should do the same for Chicago this upcoming year. Last year, according to Second Spectrum, Carter defended Zach LaVine for 124 possessions across four games, the second-largest possession total any player in the league spent against LaVine. And Carter was exceptional, holding him to an effective field goal percentage (eFG) of 34.8, far below his full-season eFG of 55.8 percent. LaVine averaged only 18.3 points per game in the matchup, his third-lowest average against any team last year, and far below his season average of 24.8 points per game.
Now Carter will pair alongside LaVine, likely spending his time guarding Holiday rather than flanking him in the backcourt. That Nov. 13 homecoming will be a stiff test for Milwaukee’s defensive core, without Carter, and offensive structure, having to face him.
Overall, though, the Bucks are poised for another big year. According to Positive Residual’s statistical work, the Bucks have the sixth-easiest schedule in the NBA this year. (It helps, of course, when you don’t have to play yourself -- the Bucks have the tied-third-best preseason odds to win the 2024 championship.) Furthermore, Milwaukee will travel 36,310 miles throughout the entire regular season. That may seem like a huge number -- it’s more than 10,000 miles longer than the entire circumference of the Earth -- but it’s in fact the fourth-fewest miles to be traveled of any team in the league. That means less jet lag, fewer time zone changes, and a relatively easier regular season than other teams will face.
But the ease and difficulty of the schedule isn’t evenly distributed. Milwaukee’s toughest games are backloaded, meaning the Bucks could jump out to a huge record in the first half of the season. Milwaukee doesn’t travel to the Western Conference until 2024, when it will face the San Antonio Spurs on Jan. 4 and Houston Rockets on Jan. 6. The Spurs and Rockets had two of the three worst records in the league last year.
MIlwaukee won’t play a Western Conference road game against a winning team from 2022-23 until Jan. 29, against the defending champion Denver Nuggets. That game will be a significant measuring stick. Last year, Milwaukee split the season series against Denver 1-1, winning the Jan. 25 contest in which neither Nikola Jokic nor Khris Middleton appeared, and losing the Mar. 25 game in which they both played.
Milwaukee was fantastic at blowing up Denver’s handoffs, one of their most important offensive sets. The Nuggets ran the third-lowest rate of pick and rolls in the league last year, even fewer than Milwaukee, who ran the fourth-fewest. While Jokic spent plenty of time in the post, the Nuggets also built a large portion of their offense through running cutters around Jokic when he held the ball -- a means of chaining together his post-ups with his guards’ abilities to run pick and rolls. Last year, Jokic organized the second-most handoffs of any player, according to Second Spectrum, and he scored with the highest efficiency among the 15 players who set at least 400 handoffs.
Yet against Milwaukee, Jokic set a lower frequency of handoffs and scored at a much lower rate. Holiday was fantastic at using his length to deter plays from flowing into handoffs, forcing turnovers or difficult shots after Denver’s offense failed to flow down its desired path.
Jan. 29 will be a significant measuring-stick game. Denver will be a difficult test for a variety of reasons: The Nuggets are the reigning champions, and they play a unique style of offense that asks much of a defense. On top of that, it will be the first game of the season for the Bucks that will be played so many time zones distant from Milwaukee. It will be a significant marker as the Bucks enter the hardest stretch of their season.
From that Denver game until the end of March, Milwaukee will have the hardest schedule in the league by far. According to Positive Residual, Milwaukee has the easiest strength of schedule in the league in 2023, but that will change in February and March. The Bucks will play 10 back-to-backs in 2024, the second-most in the league, and will appear in eight rest-disadvantage games, also the second-most.
That Jan. 29 Denver game will mark the beginning of a five-game West Coast road trip. Denver will face another four-game West Coast road trip in the beginning of March against a murderer’s row of the Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers, and Sacramento Kings.
Each of those games represents a different type of defensive test. The Warriors and Steph Curry combine accuracy and frequency in pull-up 3-point shooting like no other team in the league. Led by LeBron James and Anthony Davis, the Lakers pound the rim, attempting the third-most shots from within five feet in the league. The Clippers have two of the best wing initiators in the league in Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, and they take more pull-up 2-pointers out of isolation than anyone else in the game. Finally, the Kings are the handoff leaders in the NBA, scoring more than 200 total points more than second place out of such actions.
Containing such disparate offensive styles, all within one week on the road, will require extraordinary defensive execution. NBA teams rarely have enough practice time to adapt their approach from game to game in the regular season, so using one style against four such different offenses will be revealing. Last year, Milwaukee’s defense was fantastic -- but it didn't imprison all types of offense equally.
The 2022-23 Bucks were fantastic against some offensive approaches but susceptible to others
Play and shot type by defensive frequency, efficiency, and league rank (30=most, 1=least)
|Play / shot type||Defensive frequency per 100 possessions (league rank)||Points allowed per chance (league rank)|
|Pull-up triples||14.051 (30)||1.077 (23)|
|Isolations||14.256 (1)||0.973 (9)|
|Paint shots||43.459 (19)||1.139 (2)|
|Handoffs||22.800 (29)||0.998 (20)|
It’s not clear how Adrian Griffin will change Milwaukee’s defensive system. Last year the Bucks used a deep-drop approach to maximize Brook Lopez’s defensive value, but it also opened pull-up triples to opposing offenses. That four-game row will be a significant test for whatever new system Griffin implements.
Yet the last month of the season will again be a return to an easy schedule. From Apr. 2 to Apr. 14, the last day of the regular season, the Bucks will face only three teams that made the playoffs last year. Milwaukee will have five home games and the sixth-easiest April schedule. If Milwaukee has short-term injuries throughout the season, expect April to be a time of relative rest and recovery. Once the March West Coast trip is over, it should be smooth sailing to the playoffs.