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Winning, In Spite Of Themselves: The 2017-18 Milwaukee Bucks

Do you love the Bucks, or do you hate them? For many fans, the answer right now is probably “yes,” but it doesn’t have to be.

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NBA: Chicago Bulls at Milwaukee Bucks Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

The 2017-18 season was, by most accounts, a disappointment for the Milwaukee Bucks. There is some debate regarding the degree of disappointment (ranging from “slight” to “colossal”), but few would look back at the regular season as a success. As it turns out, people are simultaneously both right and wrong to disregard the successes of the past year.

The ongoing criticism of the franchise is as intense as it is comprehensive. According to detractors, there is not a single human* within the Bucks organization that contains any redeeming qualities. They are all incompetent, or too old-fashioned, or lacking discipline, or unaware of the changing landscape of the NBA, or any combination thereof. This is not unique to Milwaukee; fans of any major sports franchise are liable to fall into the same trap when things go poorly.

(*Giannis is usually exempt from the vitriol, partly because he’s a superhuman, but largely because he is a superstar who fans desperately want to avoid criticizing. For some, it’s because he’s nearly beyond reproach, and for others because they are afraid that any criticism will somehow drive him away.)

But this is the NBA. Things happen quickly, and things change even more quickly. Not only is there tons of data out there in the basketball world, there is so much more information available to teams that fans can’t even imagine exists, and this is used to drive decisions that armchair analysts (including yours truly) are quick to deride. It’s not necessarily easy to sit back and trust the professionals, especially when the results aren’t going your way, but there’s a stark difference between musing that “This team is so messed up!” and “This team is so messed up, but they’re still not so bad.”

In looking back upon our 2017-18 season preview, a few things had been established about the Bucks. The team had, during the summer prior, decided to prioritize continuity on the roster, and appeared to be all-in on Jason Kidd and his preferred strategies. With the way the Bucks were built, Kidd had a tailor-made group of personnel to execute his blitz-to-the-point-of-irresponsibility defense, which in turn would fuel the offensive stylings of the still-rising Giannis Antetokounmpo. This was further reinforced when general manager Jon Horst struck a deal to ship out Greg Monroe (and draft considerations) for Eric Bledsoe, who gave Milwaukee its best backcourt defender in a generation.

As the season progressed, fans’ worst predictions were proven to be true. Despite the considerable talent on the roster, Milwaukee’s defense was never able to achieve consistent success, and this translated to the larger inconsistency of the Bucks failing to win games they ought have won. Eventually, the franchise decided that expectations were not being met (despite the attempt to reset those expectations), and cut Kidd loose. While his legacy in Milwaukee is essentially set in stone, his fingerprints remained on the rest of the season. After all, everything on the roster was influenced by his presence and, in some cases, hand-picked.

They say that “hope springs eternal,” but whoever coined that phrase never met Bucks Twitter. Instead, the frustrated criticisms and (in some cases) angsty despondency was never-ending, in no small part because the team continued to provide ammunition for such critiques and complaints. Bad losses and worse defense will have that “pile on” effect, no matter where you are.

But on the other hand, if you zoom out and try to analyze the season objectively, there’s still plenty of reason for positivity. The franchise, oft criticized for hiring Kidd in the first place, fired Kidd months ago, earlier than anticipated. Giannis is an MVP candidate, and is largely considered to be the runner-up to LeBron James for “Best Player in the Eastern Conference.” Khris Middleton continues to fly under the league radar despite having the best season of his career (while shooting worse than normal from deep). Bledsoe, for his faults, has brought a dynamism to the point guard position that has been lacking, and Jabari Parker looks to have recovered from his second ACL tear and might be back on track. The Bucks actually stayed afloat when their guard depth was decimated by long-term injuries to Malcolm Brogdon and Matthew Dellavedova. The team’s role players have, when able to stay within their roles, often been able to use their talents in a way that positively influences the team.

Most importantly, and perhaps most inexplicably, this team has found some success in spite of itself this season. 44 wins (or possibly 45, depending on the results of tomorrow night’s finale against Philadelphia) might be a disappointment relative to expectations, but is still an improvement from last year. I’m not popping champagne over it, but I’m not renouncing my fandom either. Furthermore, the boring, unimaginative offense performed at a top-10 level (110.0, 9th overall) , and the overzealous, erratic defense actually ranked above the bottom-10 teams in the league (109.9, 18th overall). There is a foundation for something good here!

Despite all of their flaws, 2017-18 Milwaukee Bucks were actually a pretty good team. They weren’t great, but they were at least good, despite the presence of expectations that the team would be great. This is, at its core, the root cause of the consternation, infighting, and resentment among Bucks fandom.

To better explain my thoughts on this dynamic, I am drawn to a comparison of flying an airplane vs. flying a helicopter. I wandered across the analogy at this post on Quora, which asks why a helicopter is harder to learn to pilot than an airplane. The author of the top post summarized his thoughts below:

The airplane naturally wants to fly and fly contently. The helicopter is a bucking bronco that wants to throw you off and would prefer to thrash you and itself into a thousand pieces, if it had its way. The airplane you simply guide to your destination. In a helicopter, you have to first establish a rapport and then constantly keep it from killing you (because any rapport you think you established is temporary).

This makes sense! I am not a pilot, but I am what you would call an “air travel enthusiast,” because I happen to think that planes and helicopters are awesome (my 3-year old would agree with me). Even I can tell that an airplane can usually glide to the ground (though landing might be hard) if something bad happens, because that’s the way that lift works. But if a helicopter has some major mid-air malfunction, it’s an immediate “Mayday!”

In the summer of 2017, the Milwaukee Bucks sold fans on the idea that the team was an airplane, on the runway to a 50-win season and beyond. The skies would not always be smooth, just like for any other team, but the plan was there and the positive momentum would drive the team forward. As we know now, and a number of people opined at the time, the Bucks were actually a helicopter. They had the means to get off the ground, but they were not equipped to withstand the turbulence of an 82 game season because of the flaws in the design.

There are few things that set people off like a failure to meet expectations. This rings true whether it’s waiting on hold for 15 minutes when you were told it would only be 5, or missing out on that promotion that you were told you had in the bag, or getting charged extra for guacamole when the sign implied it would be free, or your favorite basketball team losing a game they should have easily won. Somebody messed up, and that somebody is the target when the wronged party goes hunting for a scapegoat. This might not always be productive, but it is natural.

Here’s some good news: the Milwaukee Bucks already found their scapegoat, and his name was Jason Kidd. Some fans will bring him up ad nauseam, the same way George Karl or Larry Harris are brought up, but those fans that insist on invoking his name are doing little more than digging into the past for an excuse to voice their present displeasure. He’s gone. Let him be gone.

Kidd’s basketball strategies did not walk out the door with him, since his staff largely remained in place under Joe Prunty. Perhaps they should have, but they didn’t. But since Prunty did not drastically change the team’s schemes mid-season (which would be an unfair assignment for any coach) or their overall performance (which is, and is a mark against Prunty’s quest to stick around beyond the playoffs), fans who chose to exercise patience should be rewarded when the Bucks do select their next head coach. Here’s a hint: it’s not going to be Prunty (sorry, Joe), and it’s sure not going to be Kidd (not sorry, Jason).

Here’s some more good news: the Bucks know that you’re angry. They might not necessarily care, but they know. More importantly, they recognize that they flubbed their chances this year to make good on their Media Day promises, and it’s reasonable to guess they know what it will take to turn things around.

The right coaching staff will bring new ideas and new strategies on how to better leverage the unique talents of Giannis and his teammates. They’ll blitz less. They’ll take more threes. The defense will be brought up to speed, and the offense will transform into something that makes sense with the personnel on the team. The franchise can’t afford not to.

And if you’re worried that the Bucks won’t hire the right coaches, because they hired Kidd once upon a time, ask yourself if you’ve ever learned from a mistake and been able to avoid repeating it, and apply that experience to an entire organization of people who simply cannot afford to repeat past mistakes. They may still fail to make the right choice, but they are at least equipped with the necessary knowledge of the environment they’re working in to know how crucial this decision will be. The franchise can’t afford to botch it.

The beauty of an analogy is that we’re not beholden to the real-life limitations it imposes; it might be impossible to transform a helicopter into an airplane, but it’s more than possible that the Milwaukee Bucks can transform from an underachieving basketball team into a properly-achieving one. Once they take off the rotors and put on some wings, they’ll have a new design and (hopefully) be headed somewhere.