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NBA betting: Who holds the key to the second half of the season? The disappointing Bucks

Frank Schwab
·4 min read
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When the 2020 NBA season came to a halt amid a global pandemic, the Milwaukee Bucks were the best team in the league. Through 65 games, Milwaukee had 12 losses.

This season, with one game left before the all-star break, the Bucks are 21-14.

There's nothing wrong with winning 60 percent of your games, unless you were winning about 81 percent of your games the previous season and loaded up for a championship run in the offseason. The bar for the Giannis Antetokounmpo Bucks is not winning a bad Central Division and maybe making the second round of the playoffs. More is expected.

In that way, the Bucks have been one of the NBA's biggest disappointments heading into the All-Star break. Whether we see that pre-bubble Bucks team in the second half of this season, or they have just become a good team that's not a true title contender, is the riddle that will shape the rest of the NBA season.

Bucks have been up and down

The Bucks are hard to figure out because there have been times they've looked like the team from the past two seasons.

The Bucks were 60-22 two seasons ago and up 2-0 on the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference finals before falling apart. Milwaukee never found its rhythm in the bubble and a 56-17 regular season turned into a decisive second-round exit against the Miami Heat.

The Bucks tried to make moves around Antetokounmpo — a trade with the Sacramento Kings for Bogdan Bogdanovic fell apart but they did acquire Jrue Holiday — and it looked like they were still the team to beat in the East. Some metrics say they have been better than their record. They have the second-best point differential in the NBA. Their net efficiency ranking is second too, well ahead of the Phoenix Suns in third place, though well behind the No. 1 Utah Jazz. A five-game winning streak (which included the return of Holiday from the COVID-19 list) over the past couple weeks was a good sign, but a 31-point home loss to the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday brought back the same feeling of malaise.

Are the Bucks still the best team in the East, whose good-not-great record is belied by advanced metrics? Or are they a clear step behind the Philadelphia 76ers and Brooklyn Nets? If bettors have a good read on what's to come for the Bucks in the second half, perhaps there's profit to be made.

Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks have stumbled a bit in the first half of the season. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks have stumbled a bit in the first half of the season. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

Can Bucks' defense rebound?

The futures market hasn't pushed the Bucks down too far. They're still +750 at BetMGM to win the NBA Finals, behind only the Lakers, Nets and Clippers. The Nets are the favorite to win the East at +130, but the Bucks aren't far behind at +275. The one lock is that the Bucks will win the Central Division. They are -5000 at BetMGM to win it.

Perhaps the Bucks aren't quite so concerned about being a regular-season monster after two hard playoff disappointments. Their defense is way off from last season, when they had the most efficient defense in the NBA. While Antetokounmpo has been great lately, he's not in the MVP discussion this season after winning two in a row. While getting the No. 1 seed and avoiding Brooklyn and Philadelphia in the second round is huge, Milwaukee has to understand that playoff success is all that will define this team, not regular-season wins.

Maybe the Bucks will reverse last season and come alive late. If Holiday returns to form, the team amps up the defense as the postseason gets closer and they can find a way to add a much-needed depth piece at the trade deadline, Antetokounmpo can lead a deep playoff run. That's clearly still possible.

But to this point, the Bucks have just been inconsistent and confusing. Bettors, like everyone else, will keep trying to figure out which direction Milwaukee will go after the break.

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