NBA Surprise Teams: Golden State & Milwaukee

The Golden State Warriors and Milwaukee Bucks engineered one of the major midseason NBA trades last year, when Golden State sent productive guard Monta Ellis to the Midwest in exchange for center Andrew Bogut. This season we can again lump both teams together and in a positive way—each is the most pleasant surprise if you look at the conference standings as of this morning. Today, TheSportsNotebook takes a closer look at both NBA surprise teams, the Warriors & Bucks.

Golden State: We begin with the Warriors, because the similarity they have with the Bucks stops at the general notion of being a pleasant surprise. Golden State is actually more than that, and with a  16-8 record in the superior conference, they are playing excellent basketball and while that record is only good for fifth in the West, they would be a threat to go much higher in the East.

It isn’t because of the trade piece they got from Milwaukee. Bogut, who should wear the label “Injury-Prone” the same way Daphne had to be “Danger-Prone” in the old episodes of Scooby-Doo, has been out with an ankle injury and he’s still listed as being on the shelf indefinitely.

But the injury situation making Golden State a perimeter-oriented team has been a boon and it starts with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson in the backcourt. The latter is not only gunning threes—seven a game—he’s connecting, with  36 percent rate being very solid at the high of volume. Curry knocks down 42 percent of his shots behind the arc and they combine to produce 36 points per game. Harrison Barnes is a good outside shooter at small forward, and at 6’9”, he can also go down inside, and backup point guard Jarrett Jack is a good playmaker and shooter.

Ultimately this team doesn’t miss Bogut because they have a beast down low in power forward David Lee, averaging 19 points/11 rebounds a night, and he gets help from Carl Landry at 13/7. Golden State is going to go through some tough stretches this year when outside shots don’t fall, but this is a team that’s still in the league’s top half in offensive efficiency, they’re even better defensively and they hit the glass hard.

Best of all, Golden State is young, with none of the players mentioned being over 30, and the Curry/Thompson/Barnes troika all being under 25. This franchise seems to have made the right coaching hire in Mark Jackson, and while the mistakes of youth will still be found and ultimately be the cause of whenever this team loses in the playoffs, the future is finally bright for NBA basketball in San Francisco.

Milwaukee: The acquisition of Ellis meant the Bucks were betting their future on being a backcourt team, including Brandon Jennings. The two guards have done their share of work, each playing an average of three quarters a night, and each offering an adroit combination of scoring and playmaking. Their combined totals are 36 points/12 assists per night and that’s roughly split down the middle.

What they don’t have are reliable teammates to distribute the ball to. Mike Dunleavy can hit the three, but when the 32-year-old small forward is your next best option, that’s a good indicator of a lack of team depth. There are no consistent scorers down low, meaning Milwaukee ranks just 23rd in offensive efficiency, despite having two guards who can handle the ball, create shots for others and prevent defenses from collapsing down by hitting their own shots. Help is needed.

Milwaukee does play pretty good defense, ranking 11th in efficiency, and post players Larry Sanders and Ekpe Udoh, both 25 or younger, are emerging as pretty good shotblockers. What the team now needs to do is rebound—it does little good to block shots and force misses if you don’t clean up the mess and Milwaukee is not doing that right now.

It probably comes across that I believe in Golden State, as a good playoff team this year and contender for the long haul, while I imagine Milwaukee, at 12-10 currently, is going to see this as their high-water point of the season.

That dichotomy of fortunes might get spelled out further in the coming week. Golden State has a winnable stretch, with New Orleans and Charlotte at home, Sacramento on the road and then a Saturday night visit from the reeling Los Angeles Lakers to end the week. Milwaukee has to host Indiana tonight, then visit Memphis and Boston. A three-game homestand that follows includes games against Brooklyn and Miami. If the Bucks want to show their for real, then survive the coming seven games. Golden State is a team we’ll be hearing more from.