Story by: Dimitri Tzamaras
There are two universally agreed upon ways to become a successful team (with success being defined as actual championship contention, not just playoff appearances) during this era of NBA basketball. Looking at two extremes, but for this purpose, easier to visualize examples these two ways can be broken down like this:
Either you are Sam Hinkie and Philadelphia 76ers; tanking entire seasons to upgrade your squad’s odds to land a top lottery pick to increase your odds of selecting a superstar. This math checks out, according to information gathered by Draft Express—63 percent of number one picks since 1957 became all-stars. In fact, a top five pick has just over a one in three chance of becoming an all-star as well.
There is also always the newly developed “Big Three” (or in some cases, more) method. Popularized by the Celtics, who added Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, and more recently the Heat with LeBron James and Chris Bosh. This is when savvy GM’s with stars already in place, can entice other super-stars to come play for their teams under this proven formula. Kevin Durant ditching Oklahoma City this offseason for the Warriors, a team already loaded with a two-time MVP and two other all-NBA caliber players—shows the merits of this sort of strategy.
If you are like me, and you believe that these are the two most reliable ways in building a championship contender, it brings up this question: How can you build a legitimate title contender if you find yourself in the middle of the NBA standings? Especially if you’re in an unfavorable market for free agents?
Well, the blueprint for overcoming these obstacles is located in Milwaukee. The Bucks have developed their team by shooting for the stars in the middle of the first round of the draft, while surrounding the young players they bring in with veterans to help bring along their development.
This isn’t to say they haven’t had a couple of hiccups along the way. The Greg Monroe signing was lauded at the time, a sign that Milwaukee could bring in high-demand free agents—but the production Monroe has given the Bucks hasn’t nearly met the expectations that were set when he first signed. Then there was the Matthew Dellavedova signing this past summer, and while Delly hasn’t been a total flop (and for that matter, the same can be said about Monroe), he is losing minutes to rookie breakout Malcom Brogdon.
The biggest aspect for the Bucks turnaround, both where it’s at now, and where it can (and likely will) be in the future, is the young players the team has brought in. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Thon Maker, and Jabari Parker (I would throw Brogdon in there, but he’s already 24). Antetokounmpo and Maker in particular are signs of a new wave on NBA Draft strategy. Giannis was the 15th overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft. That draft will likely go down as one of the three worst drafts in NBA history, and the fact that 14 teams passed on Giannis is still staggering to this day.
Sure, the only film of Giannis playing was from some B-level Greek professional leagues, but NBA teams got a chance to see him up close in private workouts, and his blend of size, body control, and ball handling alone should have at least vaulted him into the lottery.
Thon Maker’s draft status, while like Giannis in the fact that he too came out into a weak class, is far different. We have seen Thon Maker for a couple of years now. I remember seeing a YouTube mixtape of his when I was a Freshman in college, and telling myself and anyone who would listen for months after seeing it that he would be the future of basketball.
However, a strange family situation and what was considered to be marginal athleticism with little room to grow, coupled with age-based conspiracies (because he is from Sudan, some people believe that Maker isn’t actually 19 and may likely be closer to 24 or 25) caused many people to stop considering Thon a top prospect.
The Bucks have twice now bet on lanky, multi-talented athletic super-humans who both played their rookie seasons at 19 years old, (in fact, Giannis was 18 for a good portion of his inaugural season). The key for the team has been getting these two in their programs early and developing them not only on the court, but in the weight room, film room, and in life. Look at a picture of Giannis from his rookie year to now, it’s almost unbelievable the type of gains he has made with his body.
Both Maker and Antetokounmpo are guys who love basketball, which may sound like a cliché but is a key to the growth we have seen from Giannis and are beginning to see from Thon. Giannis is going to finish the season 20th in scoring, 16th in rebounding, 26th in assists, 6th in blocks, and 10th in steals—at barley over 22-years old. Maker, in the last 3 games (he’s starting to finally break into steady minutes in the rotation) is averaging about 14 points per game, while shooting 50% from three and 76% from the field.
After Maker had his breakout performance of his young career against Detroit, Giannis had some shinning praise to dump upon the 19-year old 7-footer, this from Eric Nehm of ESPN Milwaukee: “The way he plays, the way he practices, the way he learns, the way he gets better every day, it’s unbelievable.,” said Giannis, and he continued, “I see a guy that is like me. Hungry to get better. The drive to get better. The positivity. Whatever it takes.”
The Milwaukee Bucks are cracking the code, and breaking down the agreed-upon means to building a championship contending team. If Jabari Parker can come back from his second knee injury, and Khris Middleton can stay healthy, the Bucks could be looking down the barrel at one of the most intriguing futures of any team in the league. Imagine a lineup of Brogdon, Middleton, Antetokounmpo, Parker, and Maker—that has the potential to be the model for the future of the NBA.
Featured image for this post courtesy of OpenCourt Basketball