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Features

Mediocre no more: The Bucks' journey to NBA glory

July 22, 2021, 12:00 PM ● Miguel Flores

The Milwaukee Bucks started becoming a mediocre team in the '90s after achieving success in the decades prior. But drafting Giannis Antetokoumpo in 2013 turned the franchise's fortunes around.

What's your earliest memory of the Milwaukee Bucks?

If you’re a millennial, Michael Redd probably rings a bell. Maybe you even remember the 2001 squad that went all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals led by Ray Allen, Glenn Robinson, and Sam Cassell who lost to Allen Iverson and the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 7. 

Maybe you even watched a documentary or two that off-handedly mentioned how great the ‘80s Bucks were (led by Sidney Moncrief and Terry Cummings, the Bucks had the third-best regular season winning percentage in the ‘80s behind the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics). If you’re a zoomer, then Brandon Jennings probably comes to mind. 

The point is unless you were there for the ‘70s, the Bucks have been mostly unremarkable in NBA history. In the ‘80s, it was a timing issue. Trying to break into a league dominated by Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Julius Erving, Michael Jordan, and Isiah Thomas was a near-impossible task. From the ‘90s to the early 2010s, mediocrity was often the standard in Milwaukee.

So you’d be forgiven for only knowing the pre-Giannis Bucks only through a few moments ( Redd going for 57 points, Jennings tying the rookie scoring record with 55), or a couple of solid former players (Redd, Allen, Robinson, Bogut, Salmons) and some memes.

Pre-2013, the Bucks were best known for being in the middle of the East – around the 7th to 10th spots. They were always sniffing around for one of the last playoff seeds in a relatively weak conference. They made moves, but none big enough to turn them into more than a first-round-and-out type of team. This mindset was what got the team to trade their former first pick in Andrew Bogut for someone only sort of better in Monta Ellis. This mindset was what scared them away from re-signing a productive Charlie Villanueva for not a lot of money. This mindset was what conditioned the team to trade a young prospect like Tobias Harris for a marginally better JJ Redick. 

They were going to avoid tanking for a high draft pick at all costs because postseason revenue was that valuable. While most teams sought innovative ways to break out of the middle of the league, the Bucks were comfortable taking up one of those spots. This is what people called the treadmill of mediocrity. There was no reason to be mad at a team that was sort of good.

In 2013, the Bucks were pushed off this treadmill. With a 38-44 record, the Bucks stumbled into the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, where they got bounced quite easily by the Miami Heatles. The 2013 Draft was considered light on prospects so the Bucks’ 15th pick was unlikely to yield a star. That's probably why they took a chance on Giannis Antetokounmpo, an 18-year old Greek whose only experience was playing in the lower division of the Greek professional league. At best, they were supposed to get an athletic power forward. No one knew just how good Giannis was going to be. From his first flashes of absurd athleticism to his early tweets, it was clear Giannis was going to be special. For the first time since drafting Lew Alcindor, the Bucks had something special.

 

Mediocre was no longer going to cut it. As Giannis improved and developed into an MVP, the Bucks front office was challenged into actually trying to build a contender. For this first time, they had a modern superstar – someone empowered to choose the team they would play for once they became free agents, to choose what was going to make them happy. Like most sports teams that luck into a generational talent, the Bucks struggled to build their super team. They let Malcolm Brogdon go in restricted free agency. They couldn’t get solid role players, let alone sign superstars in free agency, aside from Brook Lopez. Their big move in the wild summer of 2019 was re-signing Khris Middleton.

Luckily for the Bucks, Giannis is truly unique. In the player empowerment era, Giannis used his power of autonomy and chose to stay with Bucks in the least dramatic way possible – signing his extension one year before his then-deal was set to expire in 2020. No drama. No big public relations article in a magazine to express where he was taking his talents. Maybe it was this loyalty that egged the Bucks on to trade two future first-round picks and two pick swaps for Jrue Holiday. Future first-round picks have been the NBA's NFTs for a long time. Not having first-round picks has broken so many franchises. But would any future first-round pick have been better than Giannis? Highly unlikely.

Luckily for the Bucks, Giannis’ knees are made of vibranium. Just weeks after twisting his knee in the Eastern Conference Finals, Giannis was dropping 50 to close out the NBA Finals. This run wasn't perfect. Had Kevin Durant just stepped a few more inches beyond the 3-point line in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, we might be talking about a new coach for Milwaukee or a few trades to improve the roster. But because Kevin Durant’s foot was one inch too long, the Milwaukee Bucks are the 2021 NBA champions.

Winning an NBA title requires a lot more luck than the average fan dares to acknowledge. From Giannis ending up in the 2013 Draft to Kevin Durant's foot size, the Bucks would be in a million different places had a few instances gone just a bit differently. If anything, the Milwaukee Bucks are a lesson that once you recognize that you got lucky, do everything you can to capitalize. After Giannis, it's going to be hard for Milwaukee fans to be content with mediocrity again. 

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