Milwaukee hasn’t won a playoff series since the 2000-01 season.
Editor’s Note: This piece was written by Mitch Brachmann, a recent addition to the Behind the Buck Pass staff. Mitch is a senior at UW-Madison majoring in English. You can find him on Twitter @sandmitches_.
The Bucks are in limbo.
Like Leonardo DiCaprio in Inception, since Milwaukee acquired Gary Payton for a 28 game lease in the 2002-03 season, the Bucks have occupied a dark, murky space in the limbo that is mediocrity in the NBA. They are neither good, nor bad. Neither talented, nor talentless. They are, quite simply, *there*.
And in the NBA, that’s the worst place a team can be.
Professional basketball differs from the other professional sports because of its lack of the classical “underdog” narrative. Very rarely are its fans treated to Cinderella runs, fluky championships, or “young, scrappy teams” who simply “know how to win”. The anomaly that is the Thunder of Oklahoma City aside, small-market successes are infrequent; players flee for greener pastures at the conclusions of contracts, rendering creating a strong “farm system”—that is, gathering and cultivating talent in one city—useless. This “farm system” approach is how the Bucks’ neighbor, the MLB’s Brewers, struck gold. This idea, though, has been generally rendered obsolete in a star-driven league like the NBA, where teams overpay for the hopeful return of immediate dividends.
For better or worse, the NBA relies on its individual stars and most storied dynasties for the majority of its revenue and success; as a result, the stars and the franchises are often directly proportional with one another. Three of the largest fan bases in the league—New York, Los Angeles, and Boston— are also three of the most tenured teams in the Association’s existence. These densely populated locales immediately made their historical footprint in the annals of the NBA, racking up titles and laying claim to some of the most dominant teams and athletes in major sporting history. Backed by constantly-growing fan bases that have grown in direct proportion to the city’s populations themselves, the league has become increasingly top-heavy in terms of history, titles, and where its individual stars call home. When expansion teams arrive, they don’t receive the benefit of a giant, unoccupied market, as those markets have already been established and reinforced in the hierarchy of the league as far back as 80 years ago. Even LA’s second team was mired in 20+ years of futility before it eventually overcame its purple and gold big brother.
The Milwaukee Bucks, however, prove to be an interesting case study. Their past, despite being as successful as many of the large market teams wins-wise in the beginnings of the NBA, has fallen by the wayside and been rendered irrelevant in the league today. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, one of the 10 best players in league history, won three MVPs and a title with the team before bolting for Los Angeles. Oscar Robertson—although, admittedly, in the twilight of his career— was on that same 1971 championship squad with Abdul-Jabbar. The two were both ambassadors for a young, growing league and helped usher in years of relevancy to the sport, yet Abdul-Jabbar is remembered more for his years with the Showtime Lakers while Robertson’s famous “triple-double” season occurred early in his career with the Cincinnati Royals. Even Ray Allen, who spent more years with Milwaukee than any other franchise, will likely retire in a jersey that isn’t 90’s-Bucks purple. It’s not to say that these players didn’t contribute to the franchise enough—they most certainly did—but for one reason or another, they preferred playing (and succeeding) elsewhere. But why?
Quite frankly, the city of Milwaukee doesn’t have an identity in the NBA that players can align themselves with.
What do you think of when you think of the Lakers—or, even at this point, the Clippers—of Los Angeles? Jack Nicholson. Hollywood. Showtime. Glitz. Glamour.
The New York Knicks? MSG. Celebrities littered throughout the stands. The largest city in the United States. Tabloids. Attention.
It doesn’t even necessarily have to be a gigantic or pre-estbalished market to have a memorable identity. The Miami Heat joined the league as an expansion team in 1988; now free agents flock there for beautiful beaches, women, and, of course, no taxes.
San Antonio? Teamwork. Harmony. Success. The opportunity to minimize your weaknesses and maximize your skill set for the betterment of the team.
Teams establish identities. It happens in every sport. But in the NBA, a league where securing a star player is of more importance than any other team sport, a team’s ultimate goal is to establish an identity that invites stardom. Stars win titles. As a result, the image that the most successful franchises in the NBA perpetuate is one that reflects and builds upon its individual star’s branding.
The league’s players are as much brands as they are people. LeBron plays in Miami. Kobe and CP3 hold court in Los Angeles. Derrick Rose is the king of the Windy City. Melo is playing in the Bronx. These players are aware that their brand is at its strongest in the markets that are the most able to strengthen it.
Of course, an argument can be made that there are players who prefer small markets—the second-best player on the planet plays in Oklahoma City. OKC, however, has done as much for Durant’s brand as Hollywood has done for Kobe. Durant is universally beloved for not only his game, but also his quiet, almost passive demeanor. Dating back to college, he talked about how he loved simply hanging out in his dormitory, playing video games. Durant, unlike LeBron, has never expressed interest in being a global icon—he simply wants to play basketball. His name being tethered to Oklahoma City strengthens his brand just as much as French Lick, Indiana did for Larry Bird’s; it paints a picture of these individuals as superstars who simply “love the game”. In truth, it’s impossible to prove that Durant “loves” basketball anymore than LeBron “loves” basketball. However, the markets (and, obviously, how each handled their free agency) have certainly cultivated a certain image for both players that have furthered their individual branding.
The industrial, scrappy, don’t-forget-about-us attitude that permeates Wisconsin sporting culture works wonders in baseball and football; the Brewers had one of modern sports most underrated stars in Hank Aaron, while the fan-owned Packers were the NFL’s first true dynasty and had one of the most celebrated players in league history, Brett Favre, play 16 years straight with them at the most popular position in American sports. Those adjectives that have spelled success for other Wisconsin sports franchises, however they simply don’t appeal to a league whose image is predicated on rhythm, visual flair, and personal brand.
Until Milwaukee establishes an identity itself, it will continue to prove that it is a glass ceiling on the success it can have. The city has yet to prove – whether through style of play or number of rings – that it can be a viable destination for a star player to simultaneously build himself as a brand and as a legacy in the history of the league. As it stands now, the Milwaukee Bucks are amorphous; without identity, without a direction, and most unfortunately, without a shot at an NBA title.