Late in the fourth quarter, when the seasoned yet spirited Jason Terry was approaching his ninth straight minute of playing time in a closeout playoff game, I stared quizzically at the screen. Kidd’s penchant for riding success waves is surfer-like, the common denominator often being that such tactics often result in a sudden crash. That was not the case tonight. In this moment for Terry, despite having not made a single three in the entire playoff series, despite looking overmatched against the Raptors’ backcourt, Terry’s fountain of youth gurgled once more, and he buried threes or forced opportune turnovers to complete a once insurmountable comeback. In that moment this Bucks’ season, an 88-game odyssey replete with hand-wringing and high-fiving, felt encapsulated by this unexpected uptick that wasn’t quite enough to support the titanic load burdened upon their superstar.
The fact this season ended in a sixth playoff game, just as it did two years ago, makes for easy parallels. This year did not end in a 54-point loss, but became a surprisingly close contest. One could argue the ability to climb from that pit rather than descend further illustrates the growth of this franchise over these few years. Giannis’ story, from Bull-rusher to Raptor-wrangler, ties a neat bow on this comparison. Stare further in the Bucks’ annals, and Bucks in Six, a cheeky rallying cry borne of an ill-fated prediction from a byegone era, still echoed from the BMO during this series. This franchise is quite clearly in a better place than it was during that backwards trot on the treadmill of mediocrity, and superior to the 2015 iteration, but this fanbase feels ready to slough off those disappointing denouements. In the record books, they are still the loser of a first round series, ousted in six games, but the history that follows it cannot be the same staid script. That was the case in 2015 and 2010, those seasons looking like warning shots across the bow but ultimately resulted in their weapons misfiring the next season. Uncertainty dots at this team’s fringes, and a creeping sense of importance is burbling beneath this summer’s surface.
Terry’s presence late in the game was emblematic of the roster wrinkles still staining Hammond’s dress shirts in what will reportedly be his final season at the helm at GM. His shrewd preseason transactions plugged necessary holes and unloaded flotsam like Ennis and MCW with no future on this roster. The trio of trades for Snell, Beasley and offloading Plumlee were a prosperous series of transactions for Hammond who still had a bit of egg on his face from the MCW and Vasquez trades. Now though, this roster faces a distinct bifurcation. On one half is the young core of Giannis, Thon, Brogdon, Middleton and maybe Jabari. The other side are their veteran complements in Delly, Telly and Henson, are locked up for several more years. Finding the proper route forward, and surrounding Giannis with high-upside complementary talent is paramount.
I was a relatively staunch defender of Hammond’s moves last summer, believing Giannis wouldn’t become GIANNIS for another few seasons. Surrounding him with complementary players seemed like the optimum route to unlocking his peak potential. That’s no longer necessary. He is a bonafide MVP candidate, and bungling his surrounding cast is not something Milwaukee can afford. Anthony Davis wallowed for years, and still may not find sunshine for some time even with the arrival of the mercurial Boogie Cousins. Kevin Garnett succeeded for years but fell short of the ultimate prize before fleeing for Boston. Small markets don’t get a second chance. Cleveland is the exception, not the rule. Giannis is spoken of in such lofty generational terms it almost makes me blush. Milwaukee hasn’t had this buzzworthy of a star since Kareem, and they can’t flounder it.
This offseason is a crucial one, and the Bucks can no longer think merely about how a move will impact them in the regular season. Giannis’ presence means this team should expect to perennially be in the playoffs. Dead roster weight plagues teams across the league. The Clippers cycle through the same cinder block players only to be exposed in the playoffs. If we’re realistic, Henson, Delly, Hawes and at times Teletovic are unplayable in the playoffs. They’re the kind of depth you need for the regular season, but few of them offer an elite skill (outside of Telly and occasionally Delly) that would even be useful for a strategic chess move in a playoff series. Moving them is probably unrealistic, but the Bucks absolutely cannot lock themselves into any further salary with subpar players who would sink in the pressures of the playoffs.
Hitting on Thon Maker and Malcolm Brogdon remain the most vital moment of Hammond’s offseason. Milwaukee needed what should be their final lottery selection of Giannis’ era to hit, and Maker’s playoff emergence speaks to a brighter future than I envisioned. Whether his still raw body can withstand a season-long pummeling will be perhaps one of next season’s larger subplots. Brogdon showed his limitations as a creator, deficiencies all Bucks’ fans knew beforehand. He’ll be a tidy backup point guard who works well for Milwaukee’s switchy defense, but the Bucks need more dynamism from the position. Continuing to draft solid, beneficial players like Brogdon though, on the cheap, will be necessary to fill out the roster as Milwaukee’s stars graduate to larger deals. Making the correct decisions on Greg Monroe, Jabari Parker and Tony Snell is vital. What those decisions are hasn’t quite calcified in my thought process yet.
Fans just watched a team they believe is on the rise. Fans also thought the same thing two years ago. Yes, Giannis is a monster now and this iteration is built far better for future success, but nothing is guaranteed. Giannis will no longer be toiling away for pennies. He will be making nearly a quarter of the team’s soft cap, and that means less expenses for the fringe moves. This is a team on the brink, and too often Milwaukee’s been willing to back up the Brinks truck when they happen to win a few hands. That can’t happen this summer, not only due to their restrictive cap situation, but because that ideology has bitten Hammond’s ass too many times during his tenure. The solutions won’t come this summer, but restricting yourself from finding those players by locking into poor deals is just as foolhardy. Jettison flotsam and forge toward the future Giannis deserves.
This can no longer be some cute collection of underdogs. This organization faces the tall task of converting a fanbase too often overjoyed by merely flipping the cardtable of complacency over every few years in the playoffs. Mitchell summed this up succinctly in his piece last week. The Eastern Conference is interminably weak, its “star teams” perpetually on the precipice of mediocrity and the league’s preeminent star heading into what should be his twilight years. Lebron’s held the conference in a stranglehold for years by virtue of his all-time talent. Giannis is already the second best player in the Eastern Conference, and Milwaukee should no longer settle for plucky first round series performances. With stardom comes expectations, and the same pressure that’s on Giannis is squarely on the front office and coaching staff to deliver the same results.
Jason Terry and the bench brigade will continue to be a rotating cast of characters, and Milwaukee must choose the right ones as their expectations rise. For once, the Bucks have someone who can singlehandedly change their future: a maniacally driven athletic marvel who abhors losing and spends his free time sharpening his skills.
Bucks in Six remains farcical, but the fact is “Bucks in anything” hasn’t been a reality for 16 seasons. In the 17th, we should expect that to change.