After last week's 3-on-3 discussion, it's another theme day across the SBN hoops network. Unfortunately this week's topic isn't so pleasant: the biggest disappointments in franchise history. Update: if you're wondering why Dirk Nowitzki isn't mentioned in this post, be sure to check out Courtside Analyst's post on why the Bucks were never going to get Dirk in the first place. So while Tractor Traylor was a bust, it's not because the Bucks could have had Dirk instead.
Disappointment can take many shapes and forms: draft day busts (Kent Benson, The Tractor, Yi Jianlian, Joe Alexander...OK, more than we'd care to list), trades gone wrong (did someone say Ray Allen for Gary Payton?) and free agent money thrown down the drain (hi, Bobby Simmons!).
But in the end real disappointment requires there to also be real expectation as a starting point. For example, Glenn Robinson had an infinitely more useful career as a Buck than Joe Alexander or Marcus Haislip, but you could make a case that the Big Dog's career was actually more disappointing--after all, as anonymous as Alexander and Haislip's tenures in Milwaukee were, neither arrived carrying the cross of franchise savior like Robinson (for what it's worth: I was a major Big Dog apologist during my formative years).
So let's be clear that my definition of disappointment is reliant on an expectation of something good coupled with the reality of something...well, not so good. It's also an inherently personal concept; I can objectively say that the Bucks losing game seven of the 1974 Finals was disappointing, and I'd certainly be right. But it's difficult to characterize the emotions of any event that predates your own birth. So as a fan who started following the Bucks in 1991, I can only really speak emotionally about the past two decades. I wasn't there when Kareem was traded or when Nellie's Bucks kept losing to the Sixers and Celtics.
It's perhaps not surprising then that my biggest disappointment as a Bucks fan traces back a decade, ironically enough to the height of the Bucks' success and the spark that helped unravel it all: Anthony Mason.
The 99/00 season was a fundamentally strange one for 19-year-old me. For one: as a freshman in college on the East Coast, I was mostly cut off from seeing the Bucks live. Going to games was only possible over the holidays when I ventured home to take advantage of my parents' season tickets, and a complete lack of TV broadcasts in my cable-less dorm meant my only recourse was following games via ESPN's online gamecasts.
And the weirder part: the Bucks were actually good. As in, really good. Though the lockout-shortened prior season had suggested good things were on the horizon, there was still something unnatural about expecting the Bucks to now win every night. And while I remember having no real sense of how far Sam Cassell, Ray Allen and Glenn Robinson could actually lead the Bucks, I do recall it being...fun. The crowds at the Bradley Center were deafening (I see you, Bark Board) and all of a sudden it felt like we were a part of something.
"So this is what cheering for a team is all about."
After the disappointment of losing to the Sixers in games in the East Finals. the Bucks found themselves in the unfamiliar position of conference powerhousees, but they weren't content to rest of their laurels. Seeing an opportunity to bolster a front-line short on names and long on journeymen, the Bucks dealt glue guy Scott Williams for a song in order to clear enough room to sign Heat all-star Anthony Mason shortly before the start of the season. For George Karl and most everyone else, Mason was in theory the missing piece; the physical bruiser to complement the more perimeter-oriented Big Three of Cassell, Allen and Robinson.
"I like Mason with my three shooters and Tim Thomas as the sixth man. I think that's a dynamite team," Karl said. "We need some toughness and leadership. We've been too much of a finesse team. When you're in one of those wars, I think Anthony Mason will help us tremendously."
The season started well enough, with the Bucks winning nine of their first ten games in spite of Mason cracking double-figures just thrice in the first 17 games.
And then things started to unravel, though Mason was hardly the only culprit. Aside from an emerging young bench player by the name of Michael Redd, virtually all of the Bucks' key rotation pieces seemed to suffer performance dropoffs. Mason's raw and advanced metrics both tanked, but it was his perceived impact on the locker room that fueled the broader view that his arrival--compounded by the departure of the beloved Scott Williams--was the root cause of the Bucks' fall from grace.
Ironically Mason would save his best for the season's final two months, but the Bucks would flounder down the stretch to the tune of a 6-16 finish and a final day blowout in Detroit when they had no choice but to win or miss out on the 8th and final playoff seed. Mason would surprisingly last one more season before being bought out, but by then the damage was done. Fair or not, Mason had arrived amid fans' hope that he could be the final piece to the Bucks' Championship puzzle; by the time he left in 2003, the team had plunged into turmoil and the Big Three had been dismantled.