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Swift playoff exit exposes folly of Milwaukee's "Win Now" approach

The Bucks accomplished their oft-stated goal of returning to the playoffs this season, so why does everybody seem so miserable?


It's been an eye-opening couple of months for me, as a Bucks fan.

As long as I've been writing here at Brew Hoop, I've generally functioned as the staff's resident optimist. I've been willing to don the rose-colored glasses with regard to management, player development, most stuff. Admittedly, some of that slanting was actually due to a bit of pessimism: namely my worry that the franchise wouldn't last long in Milwaukee without at least a half-decent record and a few playoff appearances to point to. That fear is still gnawing, but I'm also confident (optimism!) that new features in the NBA financial system such as increased revenue sharing and harsher luxury tax penalties will prop up the Bucks' books enough to entice a successor for owner Herb Kohl to take the reigns and recommit to the city of Milwaukee. I'm confident a rough economy in recent years has "artificially" depressed interest in such large-scale public/private endeavors as a new sports and entertainment arena, even though everybody seems to agree Milwaukee needs one (and not just for the Bucks' sake, but to spark the city's downtown as a whole).

I think I'm still an optimist, overall. I still don't view the general concept of pro basketball in Milwaukee as fatally flawed. Things are bad, but they could get better. The prevailing feeling at this point is simply enough is enough. The inevitable result of Milwaukee's incessant playoff pushes have been obvious since the ill-fated post-Fear the Deer season, when building aggressively off a surprising playoff appearance backfired about as fantastically as one could imagine. Excitement was nearly universal as the close of the FTD campaign, and one could hardly blame the organization for trying to build on it. But Andrew Bogut's injury, the fault of nobody except perhaps Amar'e Stoudemire, sapped the organization of the best thing it had going for it, and many of the team's moves immediately threw up red flags (or at least they should have).

Is that what the last few years have been about? Trying to recapture the magic of Fear the Deer? That phrase still gets tossed around quite a bit, which is understandable, because in isolation it's like the coolest slogan ever and captures the last time the Bucks were enveloped in positive feelings. But when the arena staff is trying to stir up excitement in the midst of another crushing playoff loss at the hands of the NBA's best team by leading such a chant, something like cruel irony starts to seep in, especially when the flagship section of fans instead chooses to pelt the Dear Commissioner with verbal barbs instead.

People are on to the Bucks' game. I'm on to the Bucks game, despite my stubborn reluctance to admit its childishness. It's a game they can't win, and it's time to stop playing. They've been building on an unstable foundation for years, and it took the Miami Heat just 192 minutes to completely demolish it.

This isn't limited to a critique on the players Milwaukee has accumulated and cobbled into a team. Nor is it a condemnation of the people in charge of the organization, who deal with some very real constraints and limitations every day. The grand designs on achieving respectability through accumulated Medals of Participation have had the curtains drawn back and their inner ugliness exposed. There is no denying what we all witnessed over the last week, and truly the final month of the regular season as well. Even if it was an isolated incident, brought about by mitigating factors and plenty of bad luck, it was as clear a karmic comeuppance as is possible. In this day and age, basketball teams are not meant to be run like this, with gaps in communication separating management from coaches and coaches from players. They can't survive.

The trick I fell for was thinking the collateral damage of gaming the system was worth ensuring no less than the status quo would survive. I may have overestimated the stakes and I almost certainly underestimated the cost. These Milwaukee Bucks will go down in history as one of the worst playoff teams in NBA history, a footnote on the resume of those lucky few teams blessed with lottery winnings and warm climates and long-sighted decision-makers. They're partially victims of circumstance, sure, but the biggest reason they're in this position is because they did everything possible to put themselves there. They wanted that playoff spot--to notch another top-8 finish on the belt, even if it came with an asterisk. They shaped the franchise to that end, making sacrifices to the future for help today.

What has it gotten them? A burgeoning frontcourt standout in Larry Sanders, two solid young big men in Ersan Ilyasova and John Henson, and little else of known quantity. The primary three-man guard rotation consists of a free-agent-to-be who is evidently is getting the silent treatment from his coaching staff, an enigmatic pseudostar with his own future to consider, and the ex-savior who spent the final quarter of the season watching the game from the sideline. It's reached the point where Mike Dunleavy, perhaps the only consistent bright spot of the past two years, has Bucks fans wishing he'll sign elsewhere for his own good.

This is not a good time for me to be writing this, or for anybody to make decisions. That's something I'll freely admit. In fact, it's something I want to highlight. Frustration is high; reason and restraint are in short supply. It is, however, the best possible time to acknowledge that there is no podium for the Milwaukee Bucks to stand on after beating out the rest of their downtrodden conference for the right to be "first team eliminated". The playoff programs and towels draped across seats in the BMO Harris Bradley Center might spark a shout while in hand, but they're likely to end up in the same landfill when everybody goes home.

The excitement that goes with postseason play in the NBA shouldn't be overlooked, and its something we forget about in the throes of lamentation that seem to come with the territory as Bucks fans. A city energized by a sports team, even partially, is a remarkable thing to behold. But what the Bucks captured this past week was so fleeting it hardly seems to matter. And that's nothing but a shame.

Better days are coming (there's the optimism again!). There's just no way the Bucks' leadership can look back on what happened this year and feel good about it, so things have to change. Steps backward today will be permitted in the name of greatness tomorrow. Bad days will be colored with hope and confidence. I don't see any other future because there's no longer any question about the past.

Of course, I've been wrong before.