How Are the Bucks Doing This?

The Bucks look like the team to beat in the East so far. After last year’s playoff crash, how did they get here?

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Giannis Antetokounmpo / Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Last summer, following a first round exit at the hand of a hobbled Celtics roster, the Milwaukee Bucks faced a crossroads without a clear path forward. After five seasons of emerging MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo and four seasons of #2 overall pick Jabari Parker, the team faced a harsh reality: The roster they had put together was only good enough for the 7th seed in a weak Eastern Conference. With no lottery pick to be brought into the fold and three teams clearly ahead of them in the Eastern Conference pecking order, a less patient team may have anxiously submitted to a blow-up trade or panic-signing in the offseason.

But not the Bucks. Instead of overpaying to extend a player they drafted number two overall four years ago, they swallowed their pride and let Jabari Parker walk. And instead of getting distracted in the sweepstakes of the likes of LeBron, Paul George, Boogie Cousins—or even veterans like Rajon Rondo or Dwight Howard—the Bucks zeroed in on free agents with skill sets that would match Coach Bud’s system. By signing the less sought-after Ersan Ilyasova, Brook Lopez, and Patrick Connaughton, the Bucks’ roster improved without sacrificing substantial cap space. Simultaneously, they steered themselves toward their new identity as a floor-spacing squad that creates room for Giannis to operate.

New coach Mike Budenholzer's more offensive-minded approach to the team’s style of play has opened up things on that side of the floor. And yes, drafting a top-five player as a 19-year-old helps, too. But drafting a superstar is no longer an instant ticket to the top of the conference—the Pelicans landed Anthony Davis as a 19-year-old and still managed to miss the playoffs in four of the last six seasons.

The key to the Bucks’ progress, however, has been their patience and ability to find success for complimentary players. Even though Giannis is a transcendent force, the Bucks’ success in 2018 may be better symbolized by forward Khris Middleton. Middleton was scouted as a tweener with concerns of where he would fit in at the next level. But after being drafted in the second round then traded for by the Bucks, it’s fitting that the Bucks helped shape him into one of the most complimentary players in the league. It's that approach that has yielded major results so far.

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