On January 22, 2002, the Milwaukee Bucks were in second place in the Eastern Conference with a record of 26-13 - winning two out of every three games. They were fresh off an appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals the year before, in which they fell in seven games to the Philadelphia 76ers. They had also just crushed the Pistons one night earlier, 97-79, to extend a winning streak to eight games.
By all accounts they were a contender and things were going well. They had a highly respected coach. They had a "Big Three" of Glenn Robinson, Ray Allen, and Sam Cassell. There was a young scorer by the name of Michael Redd who was looking promising.
But then they lost by 11 points to the Phoenix Suns at the Bradley Center. And lost eight of the next eleven games. And lost just under two out of every three (65%) of their remaining games that season to finish one game shy of the playoffs. It was an unbelievable collapse, and things haven't been the same ever since.
It doesn't seem that there was anything special about that Tuesday Night in Milwaukee. Ray Allen and Tim Thomas combined to shoot a pretty awful 4-for-29 (14%), but a loss is a loss and everyone has a bad night occasionally in the NBA.
So what changed? Who knows for sure. But starting on January 22, 2002, the Bucks finished the George Karl era with a record of 57-68 (0.456) in the regular season. The collapse in the spring of 2002 had destroyed the chemistry of the team. Perhaps the chemistry was destroyed before then. A lot of people laid the blame on Anthony Mason, whom the Bucks signed prior to the 2001-2002 season. Perhaps that was the first notable instance of the Bucks being unsatisfied with building the roster that they had - trying a little too hard to make that one free agent signing or trade, something that would become more prolific in the decade to follow.
Glenn Robinson was traded after the season to the Hawks for Toni Kukoc and a first round draft pick. In the middle of the subsequent season, the Bucks traded Ray Allen (and Flip Murray and Kevin Ollie) to the Sonics for Desmond Mason and Gary Payton. And at the end of the season, Sam Cassell (and Ervin Johnson) were traded to the Timberwolves for Joe Smith. George Karl was also fired. NBA veteran Gary Payton left after only playing 28 games for the franchise.
In the blink of an eye, the team that had been so close to the NBA Finals had been dismantled. It was a disastrous year and a half for the Milwaukee Bucks.
The good ol' days - "Milwaukee Bucks Light it Up 2001 Version"
Since July of 2003, the Bucks have signed players 104 times, waived players 57 times, and have conducted 25 trades involving 84 players total, according to the transaction history at RealGM. That's assuming I counted correctly (there was a lot to sort through). Granted some of these players were merely "camp bodies" or journeymen players or short contracts, but it is still a staggering rate of roster turnover that I believe has basically prevented the franchise from ever finding anything resembling stability. It's as if the front office is playing a video game, and is constantly looking to reshuffle the deck based purely on attributes and rankings without any thought given to team chemistry.
Meanwhile, Ray Allen since 2003 has been to seven All Star games and won an NBA title, with a good chance of winning another one this year. The Bucks have had one All Star in the same span - Michael Redd in 2004.
The Bucks have been wandering around in the dark looking for the light switch, but have mainly just wound up stubbing their toe or knocking some things off the shelves, with a few minor victories in between.
They just seem to lack a strategy or long-term vision. That's my main complaint.
They seem to be structured and managed with the goal of "getting to the playoffs", rather than doing something while they're there.
So, where do the Bucks go from here?
Clearly they need a long term vision. They either need to pick some players on their current roster to build around, or acquire players to build around and stick with that plan. An endless stream of trades and signings is good for a new marketing pitch, but I think we now have tons of evidence that strategy doesn't work.
People are getting tired of watching the Bucks scrap to a near-0.500 record every year and be around the cusp of playoff qualification. What's the point? They either end up with terrible odds in the lottery, or get eliminated swiftly in the playoffs.
But that doesn't seem to be connecting with the front office. They seem to like engineering big trades, holding big press conferences to introduce their shiny new players, recycle the same lines about how these will be the guys who help us finally improve, and so on. Rinse and repeat. It has been an endless cycle for years now and it's hard to be optimistic about the direction of the team given all that.
However, they have a golden opportunity to change course this offseason. Bucks broadcaster Ted Davis has floated the idea that this could be the most important offseason in the history of the franchise. They should have cap room and the ability to start fresh with a new coach.
Call it the "curse of Anthony Mason" or the "curse of the Ray Allen trade", or whatever you like. But the fact remains that since the Bucks reached the Eastern Conference Finals in 2001, they haven't made it past the first round of the playoffs - something that 12 of the 15 current Eastern Conference teams have done in that span. The only exceptions, other than the Bucks, have been the Bobcats and Raptors.
The question is whether or not the Bucks have learned their lesson, or if they'll stick with the same formula. Time will tell.