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Point/Counterpoint: The Bucks’ Baseline for Success

The Bucks have blown away everyone’s expectations. What’s the new mark for success...and failure?

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Milwaukee Bucks Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Fans of the Milwaukee Bucks expected success this season, but nobody quite expected this. Giannis Antetokounmpo was an MVP candidate, but now looks like the MVP of the league, where the question isn’t “will he win?” but “how many will he win?” Khris Middleton was an All Star, Eric Bledsoe was a notable snub, Mike Budenholzer seems like a lock for Coach Of The Year, and Jon Horst has a strong shot at Executive Of The Year. For months, we were talking about fifty wins being the cutoff between a good and bad season, and here we are with the Bucks having won sixty.

So while the regular season is an unquestionable success, the playoffs are another topic entirely. We’re happy to be here, but where are we headed? What is success for Milwaukee in the playoffs? More importantly, what is failure? Is this a “Finals or bust?” team? Would a third (or second) round series loss be catastrophic, or merely disappointing? Adam grappled with this very question. Now, Mitchell and Kyle came together to hash it out.

Mitchell: Okay, Kyle, let me have it. What would have to happen to make the Bucks’ postseason a failure?

Kyle: Not making the Eastern Conference Finals would be a failure after the regular season this team has had. Going into the season, I was expecting Milwaukee to make the ECF. Not only was that the expectation, it’s probably the bare minimum at this point, assuming there isn’t another crucial injury.

Mitchell: Alright, so we’re at least on the same page there. The Bucks should be the favorites in the second round against any opponent, and they should advance to the Conference Finals. What if the road ends there, regardless of the reason why? Would the season be a failure if they fall short of the NBA Finals? I might say that it is, given how historically good the team has been.

Kyle: I would say if the Bucks were to lose in the Conference Finals, it would be a disappointment. Calling it a “failure” would make it seem the Bucks fell short of the baseline expectations, and while they are favorites in the East, if they were to lose against the Toronto Raptors, that’s a bit more understandable since they are the biggest threat to Milwaukee. No matter how historically good this team has been, the East is still going to be a bloodbath when it’s all said and done.

Mitchell: Bloodbath aside, this raises a question about “expectations” that I think Bucks fans have struggled with. Are we bound to the expectations set back in October, or should the evidence we’ve seen from this team force us to re-evaluate and reset our expectations? I mean, look at this:

The Bucks aren’t just among the best, but the best of the best. Knowing what we know now, should we really fall back on the conclusions we reached six months ago, now that the environment has shifted? That’s the biggest reason why I would argue that a failure to make the Finals equates to a failure on the season; this team has shown us just how good they are, and we should take them seriously. On top of all that...what if this is Milwaukee’s best shot at a trophy?

Kyle: I think the expectation has already shifted from the beginning of the season. The general consensus was a Top-4 seed and win a first round series. Now the bare minimum is make the ECF; sometimes the best regular season team doesn’t make the Finals, especially if the team they lose to catches fire, i.e. the 2015-16 San Antonio Spurs. It would be great to win the title this year, but I don’t think this is the best chance. Toronto might not have Kawhi Leonard, Golden State probably won’t have Kevin Durant, Philadelphia may have mucked up its future, and Boston is a mess. There are plenty of chances for Milwaukee to win a title if they keep the starting lineup and Jon Horst continues making the correct decisions on the margins.

Mitchell: I have no doubt that the team will do everything they can to remain in power atop the East. And while they can keep the starting lineup together (which we’ve detailed here and here), they’re not guaranteed to do so. Brook Lopez might simply get more from elsewhere than the Bucks can manage to pay him. Ditto for Malcolm Brogdon (though his foot injury makes that feel less likely). The future is anything but certain, but what is certain is how much this team dominates. Look at that net rating! Top-5 in both offensive and defensive rating! We’re literally the best team in basketball; why would ending the playoffs anywhere else be considered something other than failure?

Kyle: Playoff basketball is different than regular season basketball. It’s one thing the beat up on teams like Chicago or New York, but much different to do that against Toronto and Philly. There are still question marks that do need to be asked like which Middleton shows up, can Bledsoe exorcise his demons or what happens if the shots stop falling. Milwaukee proved over the past 82 games it’s head and shoulders better, but now it has to do that 16 times when each possession matters and the margin for error is slimmer. Not making the Finals shouldn’t be an automatic indictment that the season is a failure, as the Bucks’ floor and bare minimum expectation for the season is the highest of any team not named Golden State. Unless it happens in a dumpster fire style, losing in the Conference Finals shouldn’t mean the season needs to be written off.

Mitchell: The playoffs are only different from the regular season in that your opponent is the same over a series, and all the stops get pulled out. Regular season games have playoff atmospheres when contenders face off, even before the stakes are raised. But consider this: the Bucks are 60-22, which is a winning percentage of 0.731. Against teams 0.500 or better this year, Milwaukee is 27-12, which is a winning percentage of 0.692. That’s only a 4% difference. They have the fewest (by far) losses to winning teams out of anybody, and they beat good teams at the same rate as they perform normally. This team is just too good to accept a Conference Finals loss, “disappointment” doesn’t go far enough.

Kyle: I don’t expect the Bucks to accept a loss anywhere, but from a fan’s perspective, you have to be a little bit more calculated; losing in the first two rounds is a failure. I think assuming any team is Finals-bound is excessive (unless you are Golden State). If we were to grade the season, what would we give the team that lost in the ECF or the Finals? I would say C+; it’s not what you would want but it isn’t failing. I find this season’s Bucks similar to last year’s Brewers; what started as low expectation shifted to being a contender. Milwaukee was a game away from the World Series and fell short, but most wouldn’t say that season was a failure, but a disappointment and left you wanting more. That same logic should be applied to the Bucks. The baseline for success is make the Eastern Conference Finals, anything else is just frosting on the cake.

What’s your take on the question? How do you feel about the idea of defining the Bucks’ success (or failure) based on where they end up in the playoffs? Do they need to win it all for it to count, or is getting to a certain point good enough? Let us know in the comments either way!