Think back to December 12, 2015 in Milwaukee. It’s the end of the game. The BMO Harris Bradley Center is packed with fans screaming as loud as they can. The home team dribbling out the clock. The opponents looking dismayed as they count down the moments until they can flee to the locker room.
NBA championship victory? Nope. Not even a playoff win over a hated rival. This was the scene for a December game. December 12, 2015 to be exact, when the 10–18 Milwaukee Bucks faced the 24–0 Golden State Warriors. The Bucks, of course, prevailed. Despite a huge turnout of folks who had been die-hard Warriors fans for about 6 months at that time, it was a playoff-like atmosphere for the Bucks. Prior to this game, a double-OT victory against the Cavaliers in November was the only game with such a vibe. This would end up being the last such game for 2015–16.
Despite the excuses, the Warriors being on a long road trip, coming off a double-OT win of their own in Boston the previous night, being without Harrison Barnes, etc., it was a huge game for the Bucks. This was one moment throughout a disappointing season that reminded people of the promise of the future. Milwaukee built on this the following week when they went into Golden State and lost, but played the Warriors very tough. Validation that the young roster of the Bucks seemed to have some of the right pieces in place. The length + athleticism formula of the Bucks helped them lower the three point shooting percentage and slow the offensive pace of the Warriors. This same formula was put on display recently when OKC took the same Warriors to 7 games.
Of course, it took the Thunder using that model with incredible intensity and two of the most talented players in the league just to make a playoff series close. The Bucks don’t have that, and they never came close to sniffing the playoffs. You know the rest. The Bucks are a lottery team, Golden State is in the Finals again and (as of writing this) making an incredibly good Cleveland team look incredibly bad.
Remembering this game is actually sad. Wins like the streak-breaker against the Warriors are a familiar experience for Bucks fans, and not for positive reasons. The 2015/16 Milwaukee Bucks oldest starter was Greg Monroe, born in 1990. Since Monroe was born, the Bucks have won two playoff series. Both of those were in the same year, 2001. For the last several decades, the most memorable games the Bucks have played were largely in the regular season.
Throughout that stretch, you can point to plenty of numbers that are typical of bad teams with poor ownership. The Bucks had two head coaches during their first 20 years as a team. They’ve had 12 in the following 32. Stability in coaching, players and the executive ranks is virtually always a priority for teams that win. It’s non-existent for the losers. Bad owners rarely treat sports franchises the same way they treat the businesses that made them wealthy. Instead of investing in long-term growth and sustained greatness, they think there’s always a quick fix. Coaches, especially, are like junk stocks. If there’s not immediate returns, you dump it and move on.
The few remaining loyal Bucks fans have become jaded and expect failure. Irrational fans demand the team be blown up after a bad stretch of games, want coaches fired, think every player is a bum. This is not unique to bad teams. What is unique, is even the more rational fans just assume all those things will happen. We’ve all become conditioned to believe a 1st round playoff loss is the goal every season. If that goal isn’t met, major and short-sighted moved must be made to achieve it next year.
It appeared that even though the new ownership group said the right things, they may be following that same ugly pattern. Kidd was the perfect type of higher profile hire that could go badly, especially with his desire to control personnel. The actual GM, John Hammond, is coming up on the final year of a contract with no extension in sight. The team signed Greg Monroe, a move said to be made in order to prove to other players that Milwaukee can be a viable destination for them, but that had all the makings of a quick-fix. And as the 2015–16 season went on, we started to hear rumblings that owners were not happy with Jason Kidd. Here we go…
But suddenly, it appears that may not be the case. At the end of May, the Bucks hired Justin Zanik away from the Jazz to be their assistant GM. Zanik is very well respected around the league and it’s said he had a big part in building the impressive Utah roster. Whether it’s for one year or slightly longer, Zanik is going to learn the ropes from Hammond and take over the full GM job.
This move is positive by itself, but it has interesting ramifications for Jason Kidd. For one, Zanik and Kidd have different agents. There’s been talk and worry that Jeff Schwartz had too much influence on the Bucks, with several of his clients getting roster spots on the team. This creates some needed separation there. It’s also interesting as investing in the grooming of a hot GM candidate seems a strong indicator that Jason Kidd will not be making personnel moves, officially or unofficially.
You’d think this could be the beginning of the end for Kidd’s tenure. But the public statements are that he’s working on an extension. This could be all PR, but it would be perfect timing to just not talk about Kidd’s contract and let the relationship dissolve. The Bucks could say they liked Kidd as a coach, but didn’t see him as the future GM, and decided to part ways. But at least saying they’re working on retaining him as coach hopefully is an earnest statement.
Both of these moves set up to be great for the Bucks. Kidd has shown promise as a coach just as Zanik seems to have the tools to be a good GM. They’re each very raw though. Securing them in a position where they can learn on the job with a team that has no serious expectations to win is a solid move and a big change of direction for this team. Assuming these two men pan out, they are on a timeline similar to the players. When Giannis and Jabari are hitting their primes in 2–3 years, the coach/GM combo should also be comfortable in their roles. Theoretically this sets up for a serious opportunity to compete. Coincidentally, that timeline also lines up with the opening of a new arena that will feature higher ticket prices and a lot of pressure to grow attendance.
There’s a ton of variables at play here. We’re assuming Antetokounmpo and Parker can be the foundation of a contender. We’re assuming you can take those two and build a roster around them without major deficiencies in spacing, shooting or defense. We’re assuming Kidd doesn’t want to battle for more power or bolt for a situation with less pressure. We’re assuming people in Milwaukee will pay money to watch a team that isn’t a winner yet.
But for now, there’s hope. For the first time in decades, the Bucks appear to be staying true to their #OwnTheFuture marketing mantra. For now, we’re not seeing knee-jerk decisions in effort to get a few wins now at the expense of the long term. And the “future” we’re being sold isn’t some imaginary destination that requires winning multiple draft lotteries or signing free agents that would never play in this town. The future is largely in place, the only hope is the growth continues. If the young core develops at the same pace they have, there’s a very real glimmer of what could be a winning team.
Will they be a title contender? That’s an extremely bold statement. But if you have two young all stars (or more, depending on Middleton and/or anyone else who joins the team), one of them potentially a superstar player, you’re far ahead of the bulk of the league. At that point, the moves needed to fill out the rest of the roster are more realistic. So assuming that growth continues, you can legitimately start thinking in those terms.