At this exact point last year, following a round one Playoff series defeat, I recall penning this article imploring fans to raise their expectations for the franchise. The most relevant point was likely the last one:
“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.”
Once more, the 17th season brought about another playoff run that rammed right into the first round wall. We’ve watched the monkey on the Milwaukee Bucks’ back now grow to near-adulthood. Even if a Game Seven win would’ve resulted in a Sixers sweep next round, at least it would’ve sent that primate scuttling away from Milwaukee. Instead, the franchise stink lingers as stubbornly as Herb Kohl sticks with his 90’s era headgear for games. Still, fans entered this season with raised expectations. The players espoused the same sentiment. For however many failings this season had, those expectations likely cost Jason Kidd his job. Depressingly, that was also the most likely leap forward this franchise took all season.
Last night encapsulated the entrenched ineptitude that seems to preclude this team from success. Joe Prunty, by all accounts a great guy, found himself scatterbrained and tossing crap at the wall in a must-win game seven. When the going got tough, his solution was to bring out rusted, dull knives to a gun fight. It seems whenever Milwaukee has found success over these past 17 years, they’ve effectively found a way to stunt that progress. Whether it was signing free agents like Greg Monroe, Corey Maggette, trading stars like Ray Allen or hiring lame duck coaches who either flamed out (Skiles) or blossomed elsewhere (Stotts), no Bucks’ rise is complete with a subsequent slide. The fact last night’s tilt featured the strategic decision to deliberately avoid tactical choices that led to success felt all to Bucksian. It’s no surprise then that the primary continuity for this franchise has been it’s persistent ability to underperform.
When new ownership was ushered in, the prospect of a sea change finally felt possible alongside Giannis’ immense talent and a young team entering a future they intended to own. As is often the case, the reality of these intervening years was far messier. Many pundits have been fond of referring to the Bucks as a “weird” team. Much of that came from Giannis’ unique skillset and their propensity for drafting long-armed personnel, but it also stuck like a burr to Jason Kidd’s reputation. His radical defense, lauded in its first year, was ultimately built out of straw. By season two, it already felt reliant on outdated concepts. The Platonic Ideal remained, but Kidd’s stubborn insistence on sticking with it made him feel like one of the individual’s trapped in Plato’s cave.
This notion of the Bucks as weird always felt puzzling. As the “radical experiment” of the Bucks continued, the juxtaposition of their predilection to avoid modern basketball concepts grew all the more frustrating. When the league started shooting more threes, the Bucks doubled down on snagging paint points. When switching defenses seemed like the next defensive schematic breakthrough, the team perfectly primed for that evolution opted for a hard pass. I would’ve settled for any traditional tactic teams now employ. At some point, weird just became a stand-in for illogical.
With the offseason looming, this is Milwaukee’s final chance at a refreshing approach while Giannis enters his youthful prime. Instilling a culture and cohesive play style starts with their coaching decision this summer. Despite all the chatter to the contrary, there was a sick voice in the back of my head somewhat hoping the Bucks might lose this Celtics series if only to absolutely, unequivocally ensure that Joe Prunty wouldn’t return. Now Jon Horst and ownership have a chance to wipe away the spectre of Kidd, his aura smirking in the rafters like the Cheshire Cat over last night’s loss, and give Giannis and co. the kind of coaching staff that utilizes their talents correctly. What is that exactly? To be honest, I’m not sure any of us know. But we do know it likely includes a switching defense and an offensive system that integrates a generous amount of deep balls. If nothing else, we learned what it likely doesn’t involve while Kidd was here.
While Milwaukee certainly has too much money tied up in insufficient talent, I don’t buy that Giannis and Khris are bereft of the help they need. Tony Snell, absent as he was in this series, played well against Toronto in the Plaoyffs last year and was yanked around by a coaching staff that knows he thrives on confidence. John Henson can be a competent backup when he’s not overexposed. Thon Maker can be unlocked in the right system. Malcolm Brogdon is calm, collected and a steady hand at the helm with bench units. Early candidates like David Fizdale or Mike Budenholzer got far more out of lesser talent at their last jobs.
For years, Milwaukee has continued to fall ass backwards into mediocrity. Their time to capitalize is likely running out. Giannis Antetokounmpo is still young enough to be impressionable and malleable on the court while he’s grossly underpaid. He will need to take leaps forward for this team to achieve their destiny though. The fact that for every Giannis-sized leap he takes forward developmentally, the franchise takes a Delly-sized tiptoe backwards performance-wise is troubling. The development curve of each isn’t anywhere near proportional. The Bucks need the latter to catch up with the former. Part of that comes from yet another Giannis improvement, as sometimes superstars need to take it upon themselves to capture the moment. The other relies on internal improvement, holistically and individually, both of which stem primarily from this offseason’s coaching hire barring some blockbuster Horst move.
If Wes Edens is a man of his word, ownership will be talking about the results of this season. This year, they speak for themselves. It’s time for a different process.