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When “Good Enough” Isn’t Good Enough: Reconciling Expectations for Milwaukee

The Milwaukee Bucks are currently 14-15, but it sometimes feels like they’re either 141-5 or 1-415. What gives?

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NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Toronto Raptors Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been nearly 30 games for the Milwaukee Bucks, and in that short time we’ve learned a great deal about the team. We’ve learned that Giannis is real, and he’s spectacular. We’ve learned that Jabari’s NBA evolution is far from complete, but has shown great promise. And we’ve learned that Jason Kidd’s switch-heavy defense seems to work better with smart vets rather than energetic youth. This is but a small sampling of takeaways thus far from a team that had low expectations on opening night.

On the whole, it seems like our initial expectations have been exceeded. That’s good! But as we go through the season, each tick in the wrong column seems to affect fans differently. Some accept them as miscues or growing pains, but other Bucks fans react to each L as if it’s an irreversible backwards leap for the franchise. Why?

Mitchell: Adam, help me out. The Bucks are better than we thought they were, so why do we see so much more focus put on the losses than the wins? If you want an example of what I mean, check out comments on the game thread and recap of the Bucks’ win over Washington, and compare them to to the next game thread and recap of the Bucks’ loss last night.

Adam: I think some of it certainly has to do with the decades of pent-up frustration over a franchise perpetually stuck between neutral and reverse.

Mitchell: That’s fair. The Bucks have been hapless since I was in middle school, and have gone through a number of changes year-to-year (beyond just the roster) without any significant improvement. That said, we’re also less than three years out from a complete change in ownership, and less than a year away from Giannis establishing himself as an elite NBA talent. What’s the rush?

Adam: I don’t think there should be one, I’m on record as thinking this team would be far below their current win pace. Some of it might have to do with the fact Giannis is such a transformative talent. His gifts are so wholly unique, Kevin Arnovitz penned an entire article about how he’s something even a basketball laboratory even cook up. That, compounded with the “aw shucks” attitude he entered the league with has made for a very protective fanbase. I’m not advocating for letting Delly or Snell take as many shots as they sometimes do down the stretch, but it sure seems like some fans would only be happy if Giannis was used at an Embiid-level rate right now.

Mitchell: Let’s be clear: we agree that Giannis should be the focal point of the team. I don’t think that there’s a single mind not made up on that topic. But even though he’s capable of doing everything, there are still more questions on the roster that need answers. Jabari Parker has a lot of questions, despite showing off some significant improvement. Malcolm Brogdon has preemptively answered questions, Rashad Vaughn’s questions are still unanswered, and Thon Maker is a gigantic question mark.

And those are just the team’s youngest players! Their presence on the roster doesn’t preclude Jason Kidd from finding out what he has in more established vets, from Dellavedova and Monroe all the way to Beasley and Plumlee. And in the NBA, finding answers to questions doesn’t translate directly to wins...and I’m OK with that. Why do I feel like I’m in the minority?

Adam: First off, we’re in complete agreement on Giannis as the focal point. But some angst may come because finding out whether Snell can shoot 32% or 36% from three is a lot less satisfying to most fans than winning even 36 games. I actually think finding out what they legitimately have in guys like Delly and Henson is pretty paramount, given they signed them to longer deals and need to figure out whether those are contracts they could move if needed.

If we circle back to the core idea of angst over losses though, even in a year that was billed as a developmental one, some of the hurry could be tied back to staring an ironclad short-term future right in the face. Giannis, Jabari and Middleton are going to be paid enormous sums of money soon, and losing a year of Middleton in what is effectively a four-year contract (he’s going to decline his fifth year player option) has given Giannis/Jabari the chance to spread their wings, but some people may look at the Bucks’ presumed two core pieces playing plenty of minutes, putting up numbers, and yet this team still can’t win. They were the chosen ones Mitchell!

Mitchell: “Were?” Are we writing them off so quickly because of a December loss to a -still-talented Wizards team? Giannis just turned 22 a few weeks ago. Jabari Parker is 21 for a few months yet. In terms out outlook, the Bucks have nothing but time to work with, and time is a precious resource that many NBA teams don’t get. Would you rather the team rush the rebuild? (Don’t answer that, Adam, I know you don’t.)

My thing is this: the Bucks should use their time to tinker, to experiment, to try certain things out. Jason Kidd is notorious for tinkering, experimenting, and trying certain things out. The signature item on that menu comes with a full serving of failure, with some success on the side. Jason Kidd has been an NBA coach for as long as Giannis Antetokounmpo has been an NBA player. Are we piling on Giannis for all of his flaws, or are we basking in the warm glow of his potential?

Adam: Look, Giannis’ potential feels like some piping hot souvlaki right now, but it’s much harder to parcel out a coach’s ability for growth. Certainly, Jason Kidd’s penchant for some positional experimentation with his players should be rewarded, but I think the natural trend toward smallball makes some of that credit a little misguided. I also honestly have no idea how to dole out credit for player development. Jason Kidd had a hand in all of that, but it sure seems like Sean Sweeney has been the one hanging around Giannis the most. I’ve long advocated that Kidd’s best attribute may be his ability to delegate, but that’s inevitably going to boil down to who you surround yourself with. Coaching payrolls don’t have any sort of cap, so it comes down to trusting Kidd’s judgment on the defensive and offensive minds around him. I’m not sure how that works in the long run...

Mitchell: Maybe it all works out wonderfully and the Bucks win 60+ games for a decade, or it all crashes down as the Bucks perennially underperform (like we’re accustomed to). But right now, though, it’s not even conjecture, it’s reading tea leaves while the tea is still brewing. We still have so many more answers from this season that we need to find before we can start looking so far ahead.

You could say I’m tired of seeing the coach act as a scapegoat for problems that no coach could single-handedly solve. I see some welcome discussion and debate about how certain issues could be fixed, but more often than not I see complaints about the Bucks losing without recognizing just how far they’ve surpassed expectations already. Beyond even that, though, I’m growing tired of seeing an existential crisis bubble up every time the Bucks drop a game, as if the future were truly in jeopardy. Does that make me somehow out-of-touch?

Adam: Nah, I preach patience above all else. You’re right, there are still a ton of answers we need to solve; that’s basically the whole point of this season. Getting caught up in wins-losses at this point is probably going to hurt your enjoyment of this team. Sometimes teams lose, especially in a year when over half your conference is pooling into the .500 bog. This year’s team didn’t even have expectations of making the playoffs, and that’s a blissful thing to have while waiting for a superstar to emerge.

That will change though. Milwaukee answered its biggest question: whether they have a superstar on their team. That’s the most integral ingredient to any potential championship concoction. With Giannis’ larger contract and playing at an elite level, people will start to expect more. For now though, it seems prudent to just enjoy what he’s doing knowing the team’s potentially second best player isn’t even on the court.

Mitchell: I’m looking forward to expectations changing. On the eve of the 2017-18 season, I’m going to have very high standards for the Bucks to hit, far higher than they are now. I also happen to think that they’re well-equipped to meet those standards based on what we’ve seen so far, and what we will continue to look at for the next 50+ games.

For now, though, I just wish we could take each loss like the team that we are, not the team that we want to be. We’re just not there yet. In twelve months, my tune will be different, but we’ve got a year until that happens.

How do you feel about the Bucks’ expectations and the fan reactions? Are we too lenient, or too demanding? Let us know in the comments!