There was bound to be a time when things weren't all smiles and good feelings for the Milwaukee Bucks this season. Heck, most of us thought that would be the norm. But even after it became clear that these Bucks were going to blow away nearly every preseason projection, we braced ourselves. The dark time would come. We just didn't expect a stunning trade of the team's leading scorer to trigger it.
It's been an uneven couple of weeks for the Bucks in the wake of the trade that send Brandon Knight to Phoenix. A pair of wins versus teams in disarray surrounded by a few rough losses...to teams in disarray. Every team hits rough patches now and then, but it's usually easy to write them off. Either the team is genuinely good and the bumps are nothing to worry about, or the team is garbage and the bumps are just part of the process. As usual, the middle is the only uncomfortable seat.
It's a situation we expected to be dealing with a lot more than we actually have this season. Milwaukee was almost universally projected as one of the worst teams in the NBA last summer, and for most of us that was just fine. Another year of toiling in the high lottery was a small price to pay if it meant a shot at another high draft pick to augment a rebuilding project that was finally starting in earnest. Instead Milwaukee has developed into an elite defensive squad fueled by young talent and led by a competent, creative coaching staff.
Despite Milwaukee's much-improved play in the season's first half, the focus remains squarely on the future (though the dedication may pale in comparison with the Philadelphia 76ers). To deprive a team squarely in the playoff mix, even challenging for a top-4 seed, of its most productive player was very un-Buckian, relative to what we'd come to expect in recent years. Specific complaints about the trade aside, the motivation was understandable, and it might suggest that management thinks about the team in much the same way as many of us. But it has put fans back in the awkward position of having to decide how much wins are really worth. "Tanking" or anything that even remotely resembles it is out of the question, and has been for some time. But "development" is still a valid goal, and contingent on playing the young guys a lot and letting them make mistakes when necessary. It was easy to go along with the plan when those young guys were playing well, contributing to wins, growing up before our eyes. Now that shooting bugs have infected half the roster, it's much tougher to watch. Losing a game like last night's in Denver, in which Khris Middleton and Giannis Antetokounmpo combined for 39 points, is one thing, but when things aren't going well for the "core" guys, watchability takes a steep dive.
Just like with any other bad stretch for any other half-decent team, it's dangerous to overreact to a small chunk of games, especially in light of the drastic change in personnel Milwaukee is still sorting through. But the question has at least been raised. Can we remind ourselves how we felt about the Bucks before the season began? If we have to, can we forget about the unexpected playoff push and focus on the improvements made by key roster pieces? Thankfully those improvements have been very visible this season, so instead of the typical lose/lose mindset, there's some justifiable optimism. The veterans on the roster have certainly contributed (much less lately), but they haven't been the main drivers of success as in dead-end campaigns past. So things are definitely better, if still sometimes the worst.
And have no doubt: this team is still on a clear path to the playoffs, and there's reason to be excited at the prospect of a young and improving team getting that experience this early. But with every flaw revealed comes another nagging reminder that there's still a long way to go, and it might be farther than we thought. But still maybe not as far as we originally thought. And it'll probably take a different route. But, you know. Process.