Milwaukee’s outright refusal to rebuild has left the franchise in an all too familiar situation.
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_.
NFL players dress like 21st century gladiators. Aside from their arms (which almost regularly have extra padding), their skin is covered. When a team takes the field, they take it as a collective whole. Despite the last names and numbers on the back, every player is in identical uniform. Only when they reach the sideline or post-game podium are we offered a true glimpse into NFL players as individuals. It is, perhaps, the reason it is both the most popular sport in the US as well as its most dangerous. These superhuman beings seem indestructible, inhuman, in their coats of armor; it isn’t hard to dissociate the realities of human pain from the exciting, vicious, violence that takes place for nine hours every Sunday afternoon.
In the MLB, fans usually get, on average, four chances per game to see their favorite hitter at the plate. After that, they’re back in the dugout, where baseball players are likely at their most “real”; they prank and engage in camaraderie with teammates, dip, chew seeds, and generally exhibit all the traits exhibited in “team sports”. When a player receives a whipped cream pie to their face following a win, the typical fan associates this playfulness with reminiscence in regards to their past history in team sports. The nostalgic aspect of baseball, along with its leisurely pace during the dog days of summer, make watching an individual game as nostalgic an experience as any other sport; we smell the freshly cut grass, we taste the sunflower seeds.
Basketball is, undoubtedly, the most individualized sport of the major four in America. Its players wear the least— we’re able to see Tyson Chandler’s gangly appendages, Zach Randolph’s general doughiness, LeBron’s hairline. Their emotions are projected clearly. Every interaction, physically or verbally, between Russell Westbrook and Durant is scrutinized. Tim Duncan’s expressionlessness parallels his frighteningly efficient, mundane statlines. Arguments over the best baseball players or football players don’t boil with the same vigor as best basketball player arguments because with basketball we think we can actually see it. We “see” the look in Kobe’s eyes with two minutes left, we thought we saw LeBron pass away game-winner after game-winner out of fear. The beauty of the NBA is that we feel—despite not possessing a fraction of the talent that they have—that we can relate to them mentally and emotionally because of what we see with our own two eyes.
Milwaukee’s problem, then, lies with the fact that we’re simply unable to relate with the city and, as a result, its players. The most common feeling in the years following the exodus of Ray Allen, Glenn Robinson, and Sam Cassell have ranged from “ugh” to “meh”. The fact that its fanbase is generally stuck in ambivalence in regards to the team’s success is indicative of how its fanbase feels the franchise has handled the past ten years.
Ideally, Milwaukee Bucks fans would like to see the team take a similar approach to rebuild like OKC did; draft well, harvest talent, give it time to grow, and hopefully reap the benefits in several years. The Bucks have not, like the Thunder, found a transcendent, once-in-a-generation talent like Kevin Durant. Milwaukee has instead been maddeningly insistent and seemingly complacent with being a fringe lottery/playoff team. Sitting on the perpetual line of mediocrity is no way to invite talent; they can neither offer a star complete control of an otherwise empty team in free agency, nor can they present a team with enticing enough young prospects to exchange for a true game-changing player. As it is, they’re stuck with complementary pieces—too good to be bad, yet too bad to truly succeed.
They have, however, shown some competency these past few seasons in generating young talent. Larry Sanders and John Henson have shown flashes of brilliance in their young careers, providing a glimmer of hope for the future (and we traded away Tobias Harris, a young forward who seems destined for 16 and 8 on a young Orlando squad! Yay for J.J. Redick!).
Furthermore, Sanders has expressed his love for the city of Milwaukee, which hopefully stands as an arbiter for a long, successful career as our defensive anchor. Even more importantly, it serves as a potential tentpole moment for Milwaukee in the context of other NBA markets— a young, exciting, talented player loves Milwaukee. Will others follow suit? More importantly, will management make it a point to build around a potential star?
Perhaps in what is the most intriguing news out of Bucks’ circles, rookie Giannis Antetokounmpo has indicated that he may be ready for far more responsibility on the court at an age much younger than anybody in the organization was expecting. Now, it’s up to management to harness the young Greek’s skillset and, if he proves able, build around him. If they’re able to do so, the fan base will grow and so will Milwaukee’s appeal as a destination for NBA talent.
What if one of Milwaukee’s young talents does become a star in the league? What happens when their contract expires? What will their feelings towards Milwaukee be when Los Angeles can offer them stardom and sunshine? Milwaukee’s prior history in handling talent and building contenders will be enough to cause consternation—if not outright dismissal—from players across the league. However, if Milwaukee sticks with its young talent and establishes an identity as a location where talent can indeed come and succeed, fans will be able to root more comfortably for an NBA franchise in Brew City and for the players it recruits.