Sometimes it's really hard to be a Bucks fan. Through a series of questionable decisions and unfortunate breaks, the Bucks have found themselves in the same group of teams over and over again: the teams that don't necessarily have a direction. They're not heading down towards a rebuild and not trending upwards towards something sustainable. They're just...there. They simply exist.
This has led to a widespread disinterest in the franchise for the most part. Fans have grown frustrated with the lack of improvement (whichever direction that may stem from), and the result has been evident in the dwindling attendance numbers over the past half decade. Pair that with a 5-21 record this season heading into Saturday night's game against the equally awful Philadelphia 76ers, and one could say that there weren't many reasons left to keep coming down to the BMO Harris Bradley Center.
As I waddled across the half-inch layer of ice like a penguin to avoid slipping on the sidewalk in the bitter winter cold, I asked myself, "Why do I do this?" Why do I continue to make the trek to downtown Milwaukee to take in these Bucks games? Why do I continue to come out and put in work covering this team? Why am I still here? Why am I saying no to other plans in favor of taking in a battle between the two worst teams in the Eastern Conference, if not the NBA?
Well, the answer is becoming surprisingly more simple as this season marches on. For a team that hasn't had answers lately, the last few weeks may be revealing that Bucks fans may have something legitimate to grab on to: hope.
Allow me to clarify. Hope, in this sense, is not the same as those planting their flag in the idea of the Bucks landing a top five pick in the upcoming draft. Rather, this specific hope is more grounded in something present and tangible. That is not to say that there isn't reason to be excited about adding a Wiggins/Parker/Embiid/Randle, as you'd be hard-pressed to find a Bucks supporter that isn't already salivating at the thought of one of those guys putting on a Bucks uniform.
But as hard as we try to make it happen, June of 2014 isn't getting here any quicker than it usually does. Those players aren't available to the Bucks right now. Hell, they haven't even officially declared yet. Honestly, there is virtually nothing the fans can do at this point. This brings us back to the question of why we should care now when the answer to the reversal of fortunes for this franchise seems so clear.
For starters, no player can do it alone. This model has been attempted before and has failed (see: LeBron in Cleveland and Dwight in Orlando). There needs to be a supporting cast in place that can help shoulder the load and not place every ounce of expectation on what the star can or can't do on a given night. This the Bucks are slowly building up, even if it's been comedic roster fodder to others as of late. However, what separates the Bucks--and what ultimately is the reason to start believing again--is the promise of the young cast developing and giving the Bucks to actually legitimately build something from, an opportunity the fans honestly haven't seen in a long, long time.
Brandon Knight. Khris Middleton. John Henson. Larry Sanders. Giannis Antetokounmpo. All of these young prospects have not only proven that they belong in the league in some capacity, but have also went out and earned their time in the rotation (even if they got a little help from injuries to more experienced veterans). They are all on this roster and are all at or under the age of 25.
Knight, though he still displays up and down performances, has clear physical skills that at the very least make him an average combo guard. If the mental part of his game every comes to close to catching up, he could be a very solid player for years.
Middleton, once considered a mere throw-in in the Knight/Jennings swap, has already exceeded expectations. Nobody expected anything from him, and yet he's had two 27 point games in a month and has been hard to take out of the lineup most nights. If he continues to progress like this, he will definitely carve himself a nice role in the NBA as an efficient fringe starter/role player on both ends of the floor.
Henson has already shown to be an effective paint scorer and good shot-blocker, even if it's unconventional. He may never be a pure back-to-the-basket presence, but Henson performs so well in so many areas on both sides of the court that there isn't a decent reason to suggest he won't be a starting big man for a long time.
Sanders, for all the negative attention surrounding him, is still an elite rim protector and shot blocker (unless you want to use this season as your sample size. I prefer the larger one, though). He'll have a few issues to sort out going forward, but you can't deny how valuable he is on the court. Someone has to protect the basket to finish off stops, and there aren't many who already can do it well and still have room to get better like Sanders.
Giannis, man. Oh boy. What's left to be said about what he's done so far and what he still is capable of becoming? How about Chad Ford thinking he could be the best player from the 2013 class? Try that on for size.
I didn't even mention O.J. Mayo or Nate Wolters, who could serve as decent bench players going forward. Goodness.
Like I said earlier, pairing all of this with a potential superstar type of impact player is the logical next step. The team needs a player like that if they hope to take leaps at getting better in the coming years. But if you look at what is taking place before you right now; these young players finding ways to already make a significant impact so early in their careers and getting better by the day, playing as much as they have recently, there shouldn't be a reason to be so hesitant about jumping on board. The future seems like a good place to buy stock in this franchise, right? The future isn't just on its way, it's already on display.
As I left the arena after the Bucks pulled out their sixth win of the season (due in large part to the performances of these young players) and began the walk to my car, it began to snow. Though the peaceful precipitation looked beautiful against downtown Milwaukee, it made me a little wary of the upcoming journey. I imagine this is the case for most Bucks fans right now. The thought of adding a high pick indeed looks beautiful, but the unknown space that will be filled with the next handful of months is frightening. Nobody really has a clue how it will all shape out, and all we have the power do now is wait.
Yet, as I thought back to the game that I had just witnessed, who was mostly responsible for that outcome, and what it could possibly mean going forward, I couldn't help but smile. For the first time in quite a few years, everything felt like it was going to be okay. The pieces are slowly starting to come together, and the only direction it feels like this--all of this--can go is up.