The Milwaukee Bucks will begin their latest playoff push with a roster that captures the spirit of the franchise’s previous great teams.
As the Milwaukee Bucks get set to enter the postseason with the NBA’s best record and at least 60 wins under their belt, the team’s fans will desperately be hoping that things will be different this year.
That hope is a product of an outstandingly successful regular season campaign, but the need for it only comes about thanks to Milwaukee’s decades of playoff ignominy and heartbreak.
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Of course, that kind of postseason despair hasn’t always been a factor for the Bucks.
Prior to this year, Milwaukee had won 60 games or more on four occasions. Separate to those, they’ve racked up 50 wins or more on nine occasions. In other words, on average, more than one of every four Bucks seasons has seen the team win at least 50 games since their foundation in 1968.
Going further, the Bucks have won at least one playoff series in 12 separate seasons.
Even within the wider range of positives that can be identified in franchise history, it can mostly be condensed to two specific eras of Milwaukee basketball, though.
There’s the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar era, which delivered both of the Bucks’ Finals appearances and their sole championship, and there’s the Don Nelson era, which provided sustained winning for the best part of a decade.
The hope for everyone involved with the Bucks is that the Giannis era will mark a notable third chapter in the team’s overall story, and looking to the franchise’s past creates reason for optimism on that front.
My colleague Jordan Treske recently noted:
"“Becoming the sixth Bucks team in franchise history to hit [the 60-win mark], this year’s squad helmed by head coach Mike Budenholzer may have cemented themselves as the amalgamation of the Kareem-Abdul Jabbar-era Bucks and the run of teams led by Hall of Fame coach Don Nelson throughout the late 1970’s and 1980’s.”"
That sentiment is undoubtedly true too. Tracking the shape of the current Bucks will inevitably lead to reflection on Antetokounmpo’s status as the greatest singular talent Milwaukee has seen since Abdul-Jabbar, while considering the team’s formidable depth and team-oriented approach will naturally draw comparisons to Nelson’s teams from the late 70’s into the late 80’s.
Does the key to a second championship, or at the very least realistic aspirations of achieving that feat, lie in understanding and balancing the strengths and weaknesses of the franchise’s best teams of years gone by?
It’s not entirely that simple, but that doesn’t suggest there isn’t a lot that can be learned from the team building that shaped great teams of years gone by either.
That thought exercise likely leaves the current Bucks worse off in terms of second and third options compared to the great Milwaukee teams of the early 1970’s. For as good as Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe are, comparing them to Oscar Robertson and Bob Dandridge certainly leaves something to be desired at this point.
Yet the fact remains that a freak injury to Lucius Allen, and a lack of depth to cover his absence sufficiently, likely cost the Bucks a championship in 1974. This year’s Bucks have weathered a brutal injury crisis over the past month or so, and showcased the value of Mike Budenholzer’s well-rounded and extensive range of options in the process.
Turning our attention to the 1980’s, for as phenomenal as players such as Sidney Moncrief, Marques Johnson and Terry Cummings were, when the playoffs came around they frequently found themselves to be second best to rivals such as Larry Bird and Julius Erving.
The Bucks should have no such problems this year. At their best, Kawhi Leonard and Joel Embiid may well have claims to being just as accomplished as Antetokounmpo, but there certainly isn’t an Eastern Conference series where someone could say with certainty that the best player on the court wasn’t going to be wearing Milwaukee colors.
In that context, the balance between superstar and outstanding team that’s present in the 2018-19 Bucks is cause for real excitement, even when measuring the group against the greatest teams ever to suit up for the franchise.
Perhaps the Bucks will finish their postseason journey feeling as if they need to find their own Oscar Robertson to push them over the edge, or cursing the stellar play of a rival.
But the point is, heading into the action, none of those elements, let alone the problems that have plagued far lesser Bucks teams, need to be at the forefront of anyone’s minds.
For anyone who doesn’t already know, this is a special group and a special season. When the playoffs open this weekend, you’d be brave to put anything past this version of the Milwaukee Bucks.