It’s not that goal setting is difficult for the Milwaukee Bucks, last year’s Eastern Conference runner up. Typing out “To reach the NBA Finals” is easy enough for any literate person. It’s staying objective when all your subconscious biases want to do is buy into the hype that makes this tough.
Best-case scenario is a knee-jerk reaction for fans, but let’s take this in an organized direction. We can start with the broadest goal, which is to reach the NBA Finals. From there we can create the likely road to get there, smaller and more specific goals being placed as the we go down the list.
Goal One - Reach the NBA Finals
Milwaukee hasn’t hosted the NBA Finals since 1974. What was happening in 1974? Well, Richard Nixon made history by becoming the first president forced to resign, George Foreman and Muhammed Ali had another bout in the ring, and Kareem was still hiking up his green-hued shorts to uncomfortable heights. Since then, George Foreman decided his passion is grilling and Ali became a national icon before his tragic death in 2016. There’s a reason I’m not jumping from Eastern Conference Finals to NBA Champions, history isn’t giving me that pass, yet.
Making the Finals is, in a lot of ways, a must for Milwaukee. To come up short, whether it’s an Eastern Conference Finals loss or a second round slip-up, would be to get worse from last year to this year. The only way up is an NBA Finals, and win or lose, propelling this far up the pecking order is a massive coupe.
Bucks fans could feel pretty comfortable with the rigor of the current Eastern Conference landscape. There’s depth in the playoff picture, sure, but there’s maybe one roster that would be favored in a seven game series with Milwaukee and that’s the Philadelphia 76ers. Especially after shuffling around their lineup this offseason, Philly will be a team without identity or continuity, a double-whammy of crucial intangibles for any title contender. But that’s not all on this Sixers team — we’ll get to them later.
Goal Two - Finish With the Best Record in the East
This has roughly the same principles as the above goal. There’s no place to go up, but to finish anywhere below the top spot would be to lose sovereignty over the East.
Milwaukee could humor a more strategic approach, though. Load management is the current NBA fad. It’s not without the disapproval of the NBA’s mid-aughts and tough-guy-era sports broadcasters, but growing injury concern has caused franchises to pursue more control of their star’s health.
We saw it with Kawhi Leonard, who sat out around 20 games in the regular season only to look unstoppable in the playoffs. It’s the process of reducing injury risk during meaningless regular season matchups to help compensate for the months of culminating fatigue that hits hard during playoff time. For a team like Milwaukee — a team deep enough to survive without a Khris Middleton or Giannis Antetokounmpo for a decent chunk of games — load management could limit meaningless wear-and-tear on their max contract players and give them a leg-up during the postseason.
Goal Three - Finish 3-1 in Series with Philadelphia
I noted above the looming threat in Philadelphia. Allow me to reiterate that they too have Finals expectations, and it’s an arms race for advantages come May and June. In an ideal world, a regular season sweep would stake a divide between both franchises. A 3-1 record makes Milwaukee the unquestioned better of the two. Not to leave out, dominance in the regular season bodes well for a playoff series, which could likely be the case this postseason.
Goal Four - Restock the Rotation With Under-25 Talent
Title windows close unexpectedly, just as free agency turns championship rosters on their head. Squeezing the very last bits out of the bottle of Milwaukee’s past-primers is to put their eggs in the win-now basket. At the expense of peak production now, it’s a vitality move to develop their youth.
Two under-25 guys have the potential to be impact players down the road: Sterling Brown and D.J. Wilson (and Giannis, but that’s not the point). Brown bootstrapped out of his bench role late in the year with hot stretch during the starter’s load management. He’s a small forward, maybe the Buck’s best one behind Khris Middleton. and could prevent lineups where Milwaukee plays three bigs to make up for a vacancy at the small forward position. Wilson also plays that forward role, and his annual improvements have reached a point to where he can contribute in extended stretches during meaningful quarters.
Goal Five - Go Undefeated In October
The Bucks started off last year by finishing October without a single loss. Looking back on that, it was their official entrance into the NBA’s contender pool. Doing it again would keep their name alongside the biggest and brightest franchises.
This goal really doesn’t hinge on other goals like the previous ones mentioned, but after a Hollywood scripted offseason, contenders can’t fall back on last year’s success, because it’s not as pertinent anymore. With new rosters and new standings, new evidence needs to be displayed for every wanna-be contender in the league.