Elles porteront sur leur poitrine ces mots gravés : LE PEUPLE FRANÇAIS, & au-dessous : LIBERTÉ, ÉGALITÉ, FRATERNITÉ. Les mêmes mots seront inscrits sur leurs drapeaux, qui porteront les trois couleurs de la nation.)
Translated: “On their uniforms engraved these words: FRENCH PEOPLE, & below: LIBERTY, EQUALITY, FRATERNITY. The same words are inscribed on flags which bear the three colors of the nation.”
At this point, your question might be this: what does a speech made by an 18th century French revolutionary have to do with the Milwaukee Bucks? It’s a fair question, and my answer...is everything.
The Bucks were the best team in the NBA last year. They had the best record and a number of advanced metrics that blew other teams out of the water. Giannis Antetokounmpo won MVP, Mike Budenholzer won Coach of the Year, and Jon Horst won Executive of the Year, each recipient as deserving as the other two. The window was wide open for Milwaukee to cap off the campaign with a title, until Kawhi Leonard and the Toronto Raptors managed to upend the Eastern Conference Finals and square off against the severely-depleted Golden State Warriors, earning the Larry O’Brien trophy just in time for Kawhi to depart for Los Angeles.
How does a team come back from that? What’s the strategy, when six of your major contributors (Eric Bledsoe, Khris Middleton, Malcolm Brogdon, Brook Lopez, George Hill, and Nikola Mirotic) are facing free agency and you may be forced to retool a contender on the fly? The prevailing wisdom was simply “run it back;” if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it (even if it costs a fortune to keep it together), because you simply don’t have the ability to transfer money from your guys to any other guys.
As we’ve determined already, the Bucks technically could have retained everyone, as long as the salaries were acceptable to the players involved. They even got a head start by extending Bledsoe before the playoffs, enabling them to enter the offseason with a bit more wiggle room (Bledsoe’s cap hold would have exceeded his new contract’s starting salary). If Brook was willing to accept an MLE-level deal, or Hill was alright getting waived and coming back on a minimum contract, everybody could have stayed, damn the luxury tax!
Milwaukee did not do that. Nikola Mirotic was not made a priority to re-sign, and he ended up returning to Europe anyways. Malcolm Brogdon was also cut loose without too big of a fight, heading to Indiana in exchange for some draft capital. Tony Snell, quiet and beloved, was moved out of necessity with the Bucks’ #30 pick in exchange for the right to stretch Jon Leuer’s contract. These moves all drastically reduced the Bucks’ salary obligations, and the rest of the major players from last season were retained as a result of the available cap space. Perhaps the motivation was to avoid the luxury tax for as long as possible (when we know that they’ll be in the tax in the near future), but we still had to see what other moves were made.
From there, the Bucks made decisions that were, at first glance, curious. Robin Lopez, brother of Brook, was brought in. Thanasis Antetokounmpo, brother of Giannis, was also signed. Wesley Matthews, alumnus of Marquette University and close teammate of Robin in Portland, got picked up. Suddenly, the Bucks look remarkably less talented when you compare the players who left (Brogdon, Mirotic) to the players who replaced them (Robin Lopez, Matthews, Thanasis).
But what if the name of the game for the Bucks right now isn’t talent, but fit? And when we talk about fit, are we focusing too much on the court and not enough off of it? What if the secret of basketball isn’t about basketball at all, but about the relationships that exist between and amongst the coaches and players?
It is at this point in the piece that I must call out that all that follows is conjecture and speculation. There is no hard evidence referenced, no reporting unearthed, only connecting the dots that we can see and trying to see what picture it creates. How complete – or compelling – is that picture? Let’s just see.
Let’s revisit that French motto again: “Liberté, égalité, fraternité.” How do these three things apply to the Milwaukee Bucks?
Liberty is easy, and it’s even easier when we substitute the analogue “freedom.” Much has been made of the liberty with which the Bucks play, and how Coach Bud’s approachable nature and equally-approachable systems are a breath of fresh air compared to the rigid schemes of Budenholzer’s predecessor. Each Buck – even John Henson, bless that man! – is free to let it fly on offense. And each Buck plays his role on defense as a part of the player-first design that Bud instituted; rather than fit the players to his scheme, Bud fit the scheme to his players, which allows everyone to be free to be the best version of themselves. For example, Eric Bledsoe was free to defend James Harden in a most awkward fashion...and the team benefited from it.
Last Night, In Basketball (3-26-19) #LNIB— Yaya Dubin (@JADubin5) March 27, 2019
In a game featuring the two MVP frontrunners, Eric Bledsoe stole the show and was the best player on the floor. He went for 23 points, 7 assists, 1 steal, 2 blocks, and held James Harden to 4-11 on 37 defensive possessions. pic.twitter.com/hRFm4kPzjV
Liberty is also a cornerstone of the Bucks’ reliance on transition; no environment is more free than the open court, and the Bucks seek to maximize their leverage on it. Giannis and Bledsoe are two of the league’s best in transition; Eric is elite while Giannis is other-worldly. The zone-drop-and-box-out approach allows the team’s faster players (i.e. not a Lopez brother) to grab the rebound and go, trusting their speed, agility, and judgement to put pressure on the defense and fully utilize the space of a transition possession.
Equality is pretty simple too; Budenholzer’s systems are described as “egalitarian” or “merit-based,” and the equality is not necessarily referring to treatment, but the equality of opportunity that each player is afforded. Those fabled “blue squares” on the floor of the practice facility don’t have names or numbers on them; they simply exist to be filled, no matter who fills them. It doesn’t matter if you’re the team’s best shooter or the worst, or if you’re a guard, wing, or center.
Yes, even centers. At the beginning of last season, the center rotation included John Henson and Thon Maker, and each was given chances to contribute. The guard rotation was equally even in terms of time in the spotlight; Donte DiVincenzo, Sterling Brown, and Pat Connaughton were each given extended opportunities to back up (and fill in for) Malcolm Brogdon. Eric Bledsoe, new contract and all, was moved around in the priority order in favor of George Hill’s steadier hand in the playoffs, and Nikola Mirotic’s cold streak slid him all the way to the end of the bench. The rules aren’t always the same for each player, not in the NBA, but at least with Coach Bud the rules for each tier of player were applied evenly, and that provided a sense of respect and transparency that seemed to bring out the best in everyone.
So now we come to fraternity, and determining just how that fits in with the Bucks. As most of us know, you aren’t necessarily friends with your co-workers, and that extends to professional sports. NBA players are the best of the best, and they hail from all over the globe, regardless of whether it’s Albany, Australia, or Athens.
The bonds of fraternity (and I don’t mean whichever group of alpha males with questionable morals you may have encountered at a college or university) can come from different angles but are all forged in the same way: spending time alongside those who are focused on the same goal, and being willing to respect one another enough to put in the effort to achieve that goal. And even though I’m not talking about Greek life, the Milwaukee Bucks’ fraternity begins with the Greek Freak.
Maya Angelou once said, “when people show you who they are, believe them the first time.” With Giannis, he showed us someone who was humble, hard-working, and wholly genuine, and he is just as much those things now as he was in that DraftExpress video we all have memorized. Not only does he carry himself that way, but he exudes the work ethic that defines basketball legends, and has turned himself into a franchise cornerstone and league MVP at the ripe old age of 24. Who wouldn’t want to work alongside that guy?
Khris Middleton does, and Khris Middleton has. Giannis and Khris joined the Bucks in the same summer; Giannis by draft and Khris by trade, and they were a part of one of the worst seasons in NBA history together, as was current teammate Ersan Ilyasova. They were both learning the ins-and-outs of the league, and their relationship was shaped by practice court battles...against one another. From Brew Hoop alumnus and writer at The Athletic Eric Nehm (subscription required):
“You cannot imagine how hard we went at each other at practice,” Antetokounmpo said. “Like, I went home and when my family came, I was showing them the scratches I had on my arms. He used to come down and I’d grab him hard. And he’d push me off. I used to hate him. You know: ‘Fuck this motherfucker. I’m going to take his fucking minutes.’
“I hated playing against him and practicing against him because he was playing hard. And I was playing hard. And we’d always clash at each other.”
Middleton remembers feeling the exact same way.
“We hated each other on the court because we were fighting for minutes,” Middleton said. “Me and him were kind of in the same position. It was a battle every day in practice. We were making each other better, but we were really trying to get into that rotation and start playing.”
Nowadays, with Giannis having grown into a full-time power forward’s body and the forward logjam cleared last summer with the departure of Jabari Parker, Khris and Giannis are an excellent complementary duo. They work outstandingly well together on both sides of the ball, and where one is weak the other makes up for it. But beyond how they fit on the court, they fit even better off of it, because of the mutual respect they developed for each other when they were simply fighting to get their careers off the ground. And look at them now; one is among the best of the best in the NBA, and the other has gone from a no-name second-round pick to have earned an All Star berth...and they were both there for each other’s journeys.
Brook and Bledsoe are more recent arrivals to Giannis’ Bucks than Khris, but they’ve also done their part to ingratiate themselves to the franchise on a personal level. Eric (in)famously questioned his desire to remain in Phoenix, and the Bucks were more than willing to provide him a much-needed change of scenery. Not only did he fit in well on the floor, but he slotted into the Bucks’ pecking order naturally; Bledsoe never needed a certain number of possessions to play his game, and the reduced pressure may have helped him focus on the things that make him special, especially on defense. But on a personal level, Bledsoe found the opportunity to play in a place that wanted him to be him, and sometimes being wanted is all someone needs. He was featured alongside Giannis during the team’s Media Day event preceding last season, and gave every indication that yes, he does want to be here.
And Brook? He’s more than happy to have found a new home in Milwaukee. After an unceremonious departure from the Lakers (who could have really used a stretch-5!) Lopez proved that his transformation was for real, and he anchored one of the league’s premier defenses while stretching the floor for one of the league’s elite offenses. Maybe he wasn’t the best center in basketball last year, but he was the best center for the Bucks; he was perfectly suited to make their systems work smoothly. And there was no doubt that Brook was happy to be playing for real stakes on a team that needed his unique combination of skills, making his re-signing all the more impactful for the team’s chemistry.
Perhaps not all brothers get along, but these ones do. Giannis and his brothers are so close that he has all four of them (Francis, Thanasis, Kostas, and Alex) named on the heel of the Nike Zoom Freak 1s. Giannis and Thanasis have a storied history when it comes to sneakers, and they’ve gone from sharing a single pair to sharing a locker room with Thanasis’ now official minimum-level deal with the Bucks. And while his on-court impact is projected to be minimal (or worse), Thanasis being a member of the team as a part of Giannis’ close-knit support network is yet another established relationship being added to the Bucks locker room. By all accounts, Thanasis is also a hard worker and positive presence, making his addition something that should further reinforce a positive environment that the Antetokounmbros are known for. And speaking of brothers...
Why have one Lopez when you can have two? And while Robin will likely get ribbed for his relationship with Splash Mountain, his relationship with the Bucks’ Splash Mountain is both strong and longstanding. From an interview in the Chicago Tribune in 2017:
But when the game is over, and their dialogue resumes. Perspective returns.
“They’re both very unselfish players,” [the twins’ mother Deborah] Ledford said. “They understand the game, the angles. They know how to help defensively. They cooperate with their coaches and teammates. It’s all about the team first.
“It’s most important to me that they’re well-rounded, kind people who have time for others. I’ve always wanted them to be grounded and humble. And they are.”
The two human towers haven’t played on the same team since their college days at Stanford, so it’ll be interesting to see if they find any reasons to skip an NBA practice in favor of visiting a theme park. It’s unlikely, but I’ve learned to never rule anything out when it comes to a LoBro. In all seriousness, though, Brook and Robin are well-regarded around the league for how they carry themselves in the locker room and get along with teammates, so even if Robin’s three-point range isn’t there, his interpersonal skills – and his Twitter game – is on target. And if you don’t believe that Robin can get along with his brother...
...take some comfort knowing that he goes way back with one of the Bucks’ other new arrivals, Wesley Matthews Jr. Matthews, once a Golden Eagle and Lopez shared an NBA locker room in Portland, back when the Trail Blazers had Lillard and Aldridge and won 50+ games in the West. And if we look back at it, what a shock! It turns out that Robin and Wes got along pretty well on that team!
What’s that? You can think of another former Trail Blazer who’s known for having good relationships with his teammates? Well, don’t look now...
Pat: Giannis, can you touch the rim without jumping?— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) July 12, 2019
Pat Connaughton, perhaps unexpectedly, is one of the most gregarious members of the Bucks roster, and that’s saying something when you consider that both Antetokounmpo brothers, both Lopez brothers, and the immortal D.J. Wilson are on the team. When asked by The Athletic’s Eric Nehm, Planet Pat shared his view on how seriously he takes relationships, from his childhood all the way into the pros, and how it fits in with the culture the Bucks are creating:
“For me, as for an atmosphere, a home, the guys that I played with this year, the guys on this team, I’d go to war for each and every single one of them,” Connaughton said. “And I think that’s the unique part of this team.
“Roster, one through 15, I’d do whatever they needed me to try to help win a game and beyond, far away from basketball. I think that’s the coolest part of the family mentality and culture we built here.”
Of course, this is all connecting dots that technically exist but may not actually mean anything. The Bucks probably did base their decisions on wholly separate criteria other than personal relationships between players. However, given how close we have seen some of these players grow, both in Milwaukee and outside, it’s difficult to completely discount interpersonal chemistry as a factor in the choices we’ve seen the Bucks make. Does that mean that it impacted not only the players that Milwaukee brought in and kept, but also the ones that left?
To be clear, this is an unfair insinuation towards both Malcolm Brogdon and Nikola Mirotic. Both players were consummate professionals during their time in Milwaukee and were well-liked in the locker room. Their departures were not caused by any imagined or perceived personality clashes; the Bucks’ financial situation was – and continues to be – a powerful driver for the front office as they continue to support the Bucks’ bid for contention. But we do at least know that Mirotic (who presumably had a decent NBA market) strongly preferred returning to Spain, and we’ve gathered that Malcolm has a strong interest in playing point guard, an eventuality that was unlikely with Eric Bledsoe in the fold. Both of these details perhaps weren’t prominent in the decisions for either, but they weren’t nothing either.
When it comes to the Bucks’ future, it begins and ends with Giannis. If he’s both happy and successful playing in Milwaukee, he will stay. By virtue of the basketball reasons behind the team’s roster building, it is widely expected that the Bucks will be successful next season and beyond. But when it comes to whether or not Giannis is happy, that is a tougher equation to solve, but for a player who holds his teammates in such high regard, it certainly can’t hurt that Jon Horst, Coach Bud, and the rest of the Bucks’ leadership is putting a premium on personalities that fit the team’s culture. They may not all be brothers with one another (even though enough of them are), but the Bucks are in the process of forming a true fraternity that will reap benefits on and off the court.