Milwaukee Bucks: The challenge of following up a 60-win season

BOSTON - MAY 6: (Photo by Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
BOSTON - MAY 6: (Photo by Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images) /

Off the back of a 60-win campaign last year, the Milwaukee Bucks won’t have it easy as they look to improve upon that base in 2019-20.

When the Milwaukee Bucks take to the floor for the opening game of the 2019-20 season, somewhere in the back of their minds there’s sure to be a niggling question.

That is: How do they go about following up a 60-win season?

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In the abstract, there’s nothing overly complicated about the answer, as players and fans alike would certainly have been happy to trade in some of those regular season wins for six more victories in the postseason last year.

With that in mind, the bottom line for the 2019-20 Bucks is going to be focused solely on how they perform in the playoffs. Before they can get to that point, there will be 82 games and the best part of seven months for Mike Budenholzer and his players to navigate, though.

Perhaps one of the lessons of last season’s run will be improved pacing coming into the postseason, but considering the comfortable position the Bucks found themselves in down the home stretch, and the rest that allowed them to get while rivals were sweating on seeding, it would be wrong to place too great an emphasis on any theory of the Bucks burning themselves out in the regular season.

Beyond that, it would also be wrong for the Bucks to place any lesser emphasis on regular season action. It may be a slog, and 82 games represents an undoubtedly arduous task, but the regular season is where winning habits are formed.

Heading into next year, Milwaukee will certainly need new wrinkles to add to their game to ensure their gameplan is better set up for success when they next taste postseason action, and in the process of honing them the Bucks will first have a chance to assert their dominance as the East’s best team.

The changes in the East this summer may make that statement less questionable than it was even entering last season’s playoffs, but that doesn’t mean throwing down a gauntlet to a rival like the Philadelphia 76ers will have any less value.

Of course, tied into all of this, much like it was connected to the Bucks’ breakout season last year is the fact this is now unfamiliar territory for Milwaukee basketball.

In recent memory, he Bucks have rarely had to worry about 60-win seasons, let alone following them up. The 2018-19 season marked just the fifth time the Bucks had logged 60 wins in a year, and the first occasion since 1980-81 where they had hit that milestone.

On that occasion, Milwaukee’s encore amounted to just 55 wins and then a Conference Semi-Finals exit for the second consecutive season. That may be good in a vacuum, but considering the opportunity facing the Bucks, and the urgency to convince superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo to sign a long-term contract next summer, it’s also exactly the kind of follow-up the franchise will hope to avoid this time around.

The Bucks’ three remaining 60-win seasons arrived back-to-back-to-back between 1971-1973. That run included Milwaukee’s sole championship, and only ended with a 59-win season in 1974 which still yielded a Finals appearance.

That’s the kind of sustained excellence Budenholzer’s Bucks will be hoping to emulate. In ’81, 60 wins represented a high point from where the team would gradually tail off in the years that followed. In the early 70s, 60 wins was just representative of the team’s established position of dominance.

Reaching those heights again will be difficult. That goes for both another 60-win season and the prospect of matching the success of the great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar led teams that went before them.

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For the first time since that point, though, Milwaukee has a player capable of making all of that a reality. Now, it’s just up to Giannis and his teammates to back up the promise of last year with an even stronger second act.