As recently as a few years ago, if you wandered into a Milwaukee bar between October and April with the hopes of watching the local professional basketball team, you’d probably have had to ask the bartender, “hey, can you put the Bucks on?”
It had long been common for the Milwaukee Bucks to take a backseat to other teams in the Wisconsin sports pecking order, but the deer-fearing faithful kind of understood it. The Bucks were bad. And they were bad for a long time.
Those days are over. The Bucks are good. It feels like those of us who trudged through the Bradley Center in the darkest of seasons to watch our team lose are still getting used to saying it, but the Milwaukee Bucks are a really, really good—and maybe even great—team.
The Bucks are 20 games into the 2018-19 season, and they’ve won 14 and lost just six. That’s the second best record in the NBA. They also have the league’s best offense and 6th ranked defense. And they’re not just winning games, they’re bludgeoning teams—143-100 vs. the Portland Trailblazers; 144-109 vs. the Sacramento Kings; 134-111 vs. the defending champion Golden State Warriors—giving them the best point differential in the NBA by a significant margin, all against the second toughest schedule in the league. Racking up a few early season wins is one thing, but blowing teams out at this rate (and only losing a handful of nail-biters) is quite another.
Again, the Bucks are really, really good. And less than a quarter of the way into the season, the fun is just getting started. So if you’ve spent some time away from following the team on a night-to-night basis, or you stopped watching after the Ray Allen trade, or you’re more of a college hoops fan, or never really got into being a fan of Milwaukee’s NBA team to begin with, now is a good a time as any to jump on the bandwagon because in the Eastern Conference, the Bucks are legitimate contenders to make the NBA Finals (yes, really). And there’s nothing Milwaukee loves more than a winner.
So here’s a list of what to know before you jump on the bandwagon and make the most of out of what is sure to be a memorable season.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, “The King From Across the Seas,” is becoming a legend
Everything about the Bucks’ success starts with Giannis Antetokounmpo. The NBA is a star-driven league, and Milwaukee has perhaps the league’s brightest ascending star.
Milwaukee drafted the “Greek Freak” in 2013, and he’s come a long way from the skinny 18-year-old rookie tweeting astonished amazement after having his first smoothie, but his personality is no less fun and magnetic. Born and raised in Athens, Greece by his parents who had emigrated from Nigeria, Antetokounmpo has a breathtakingly surreal and inspiring personal story that was chronicled by 60 Minutes earlier this year. He’s impossible not to root for.
On the court, he’s a force of nature. The 6’11” 23-year-old is already a two-time All-Star, two-time All-NBA selection, an all-defensive team selection, and ranked 6th in MVP voting last year. Antetokounmpo is currently enjoying his best season, averaging 26.8 points (7th in the NBA), 13.0 rebounds (5th), 5.9 assists (21st), 1.3 blocks (23rd) and 1.4 steals (23rd) per game. Oh yeah, and he does stuff like this.
So….this is the DUNK OF THE YEAR right??
Asking for a friend… pic.twitter.com/SmbEpE2JiY
— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) February 7, 2018
— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) November 25, 2018
We could go on and on with these clips (and sometimes we have). And if you haven’t yet had the chance to see him do these kinds of things in person, you should change that. Feeling the energy of the arena swell as he goes up for a dunk or seeing him do things on the court that you’ve never seen anyone else even attempt is truly an electric experience. It’s like seeing a great band or artist’s live performance for the first time, and having them exceed your loftiest expectations.
“Antetokoumnpo” apparently means “the king from across the seas,” which is almost too perfect. He’ll turn 24 in December, which means his reign is just beginning. We are so lucky to be among his kingdom’s loyal subjects here in Milwaukee. Giannis is the best.
The new arena is actually amazing
Years were spent debating the new arena and the public funding question (and the naming rights question, and the location question, and a seemingly endless number of questions), but that’s all in the past. Now we have a fancy new arena for the Bucks to play in and we have to say: It is a terrific place to watch a basketball game.
There isn’t a bad seat in the building—the sightlines are perfect, the atmosphere is inviting, and you feel close to the court even in the furthest reaches of the upper level. The in-game extras are well-done and almost never obtrusive (unless you harbor a particular hatred for T-shirt cannons). The jumbotron and extra screens are sparkling but not overly distracting. All the details of the in-game experience have been thoughtfully considered.
The Panorama Club—which is free to all—offers a great place to stop before the game for a beverage and overlook the city skyline and the Milwaukee River. The food options are plentiful, local (Sobelman’s, Klement’s, Gold Rush Chicken, Iron Grate BBQ, a place called The Gyro Step, to name a few), delicious, and easily accessible. Beer from great local breweries like Third Space, Good City, and Lakefront is everywhere.
The entertainment block across Vel R. Phillips Avenue is not quite finished, but what’s already there makes for a great destination (the giant Milwaukee mural turned out great) and it’s easy to see that it’s going to be a massive hit once it’s filled in. And it’s already delivered one particularly memorable night, when after the October 19 opening night game (a 118-101 victory over the Indiana Pacers), thousands poured into the space to watch the Milwaukee Brewers defeat the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 6 of the NLCS. It’s safe to assume new owners and team leadership were thrilled to see the block being essentially used to its exact intended purpose on the first night of its existence.
In short, they did everything right. The Bradley Center was never an especially terrible place to watch a game, it was just never great (and maybe sometimes it was bad). And for the experience of watching an NBA game, the Fiserv Forum is great.
The Bucks made a massive coaching upgrade this offseason
Milwaukee finally fired coach Jason Kidd during the season last year, and interim coach Joe Prunty, who finished the season, was never expected to be a permanent solution. There’s no need to relive the gory details, but many argued that during his three-plus years at the helm, Kidd was among the worst coaches in the NBA. Going from Kidd to even an average NBA coach was bound to help the Bucks significantly.
Enter Mike Budenholzer. The 2014-15 Coach of the Year was hired this offseason after he parted ways with the Atlanta Hawks following five years as head coach (and two of those years spent as president of basketball operations). Before that, he’d spent 18 years as an assistant coach in San Antonio, during which time the Spurs won four NBA championships. He was among the most sought-after coaches on the market, and he chose Milwaukee.
To say Coach Bud has made an immediate impact on this team is an understatement. They’ve completely bought in on the new system, and the Bucks have gone electric. They are letting it fly from three-point range, taking (and making) more than any other team in the league (up from an ugly 27th overall ranking in made threes last season). The defense has been reigned in from the spastic, trapping approach under Kidd to a more conservative scheme built to limit fouls and mistakes. The fans are loving it, too, chanting “BUD-EN-HOL-ZER [clap-clap-clapclapclap]” at Fiserv Forum during blowouts. Bonus point for the coaching staff: The lead assistant is Darvin Ham, a fan favorite from his time on the team during the purple-uniformed “Light It Up” Era alongside Ray Allen and Glenn Robinson.
There is a “Bratzooka”
Sure, any city’s arena has T-shirt cannons and all sorts of promotional junk they toss into the crowd at any given game. But what other NBA city could possibly have bratwursts launched into the crowd by an on-court device called the “Bratzooka” during every home game? Only in Milwaukee.
(Shoutout to the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, who also have been doing their version of this glorious bit of wonderful Wisconsin lunacy for years)
Khris Middleton is a boss
The Bucks’ second best player has been with the team just as long as Giannis, both arriving in the summer of 2013 and surviving the depths of the 2013-14 season where the team posted a franchise-worst 15-67 record. Together, they’ve grown each year, and Middleton’s long-range shooting and adept playmaking is a perfect complement to Antetokounmpo’s eye-popping athleticism and barnstorming drives to the rim.
Middleton is a Charleston, South Carolina, native who has consistently—and quietly—beat the odds in his path to the NBA. He’s more of the silent assassin type—he might not deliver the viral highlight reel moments that Antetokounmpo will, but he’ll often be the player the Bucks look to with the game on the line. He’s become one of the best two-way wings in the league—now more valuable than ever, given how the game is played in 2018—someone who plays both offense and defense at a very high level at multiple positions and can shoot the lights out from anywhere on the court.
Coming off a scorching playoff series last season against the Boston Celtics in which he turned into the real-life version of an “ON FIRE!” NBA Jam character, Middleton is averaging 19.0 points, 5.6 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 1.4 steals per game to start the season, and is shooting more threes and scoring more efficiently than any point in his career. He’s on his way to making his first All-Star game, and it will be well-deserved.
There’s real potential for rivalries to grow
Who doesn’t love a good sports rivalry? Wisconsin is home to some great ones—Packers vs. Bears/Vikings, Brewers vs. Cubs/Cardinals, Mike McCarthy vs. his own team—but the Bucks have never really had that same type of rivalry that others have.
But that could start to change this year. The past two Bucks playoff series have been long, hard-fought contests with the Toronto Raptors (six games, in 2017) and the Boston Celtics (seven games, in 2018), where the Bucks ultimately came up short. Coming into the season, the two teams favored to be atop the Eastern Conference were the Raptors (who just acquired megastar Kawhi Leonard) and Celtics (who return injured stars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward to a team that took LeBron’s Cavaliers to seven games in the Conference Finals). The Bucks’ history with those teams is going to give each time they match up this season a playoff-type intensity.
There’s also the Philadelphia 76ers, another team picked to be atop the standings in the East, who also have young megastars of their own in Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid (who once called Milwaukee, or maybe just the Bradley Center, a “shithole” on Instagram), and just acquired former Marquette star Jimmy Butler. Each time the Bucks and Sixers play is bound to be a big deal.
With LeBron James leaving the East, where he’s led either the Cleveland Cavaliers or the Miami Heat to the NBA Finals in eight consecutive seasons, there’s a void atop the standings. The Raptors, with a league-best record of 17-4, currently have that spot, but the Bucks are only 2.5 games back. Milwaukee’s early-season success puts them firmly in the mix to contend with Philadelphia (14-8), Boston (who has struggled to start the season at just 11-10), and Toronto (17-4). So mark these dates on your calendar, because these games will all be must-sees.
December 9: @ Toronto
December 21: @ Boston
January 5: vs. Toronto
January 31: @ Toronto
February 21: vs. Boston
March 17: vs. Philadelphia
April 4: @ Philadelphia
The Bucks roster is incredibly fun (and really talented)
It’s not just Giannis and Middleton carrying this team to new heights. The rest of the squad is really good, too. Here’s a quick breakdown of the roster.
Eric Bledsoe, point guard: Bledsoe is an outrageously athletic player, can get to the rim insanely fast, and is a terrific defender when he’s locked in. He’s having a great start to the season and is playing more under control under Coach Bud. If he keeps it up, he could be in the mix for one of the final All-Star spots.
Malcolm Brogdon, guard: The 2017 Rookie of the Year is a strong, heady two-way player who can defend multiple positions, get to the rim, and shoot the three. Nicknamed “The President” (before the current administration, he bore a resemblance to the POTUS), he has a master’s degree in public policy from the University of Virginia, and is already doing big things off the court.
Brook Lopez, center: An offseason addition, the veteran center has transformed his career and is lighting it up from three-point range. His long-range shooting and his well-chronicled love for all things Disney have earned him the nickname “Splash Mountain.”
Ersan Ilyasova, power forward: “Turkish Thunder” is back for his third stint with the Bucks and he’s back to his old tricks—drawing charges, tipping rebounds to himself, knocking down open threes. He’s a very solid all-around player, often the first into the game off the bench.
Pat Connaughton, Tony Snell, Sterling Brown (wings): These three will come off the bench, run the floor, play solid defense, and shoot open threes. Luckily, in an offense where teams are looking to double- and triple-team Giannis Antetokounmpo, open threes are easy to come by. Connaughton, another offseason addition, has especially impressed in the early going with his otherworldly athleticism, but Snell is a very solid two-way role player who can catch fire from three, and Brown has shown flashes and could soon have more minutes coming his way.
Donte DiVincenzo, guard: The Bucks’ 2018 first round draft pick had a solid start to his career—playing multiple positions, shooting threes…seeing a trend under Budenholzer?—before injuring his knee and missing a few games (he returned to action in Monday’s game in Charlotte). He’s also collecting pretty hilarious nicknames in The Big Ragu and #whitedonte.
John Henson, center: The longest tenured Buck has been on the team since 2012 and has shocked people early in the season by shooting (and even making) a few threes. Unfortunately, right as he was learning to transform his game, he injured his wrist, had to have surgery, and likely won’t be back until after the All-Star break.
Thon Maker, center: The South Sudanese-Australian big man will be playing a larger role with Henson out. Maker can be hit or miss. Sometimes, he’ll be running the floor, blocking shots and making threes. Other times, he looks lost on defense, can’t grab rebounds and won’t stop fouling. What he always does, though, is play with tons of energy.
Matthew Dellevadova, point guard: He doesn’t play as much as he used to, but he’ll get on the court and use his veteran moxie to make good things happen on occasion.
Christian Wood, forward: Wood starred in Summer League and earned himself a spot on the team. He hasn’t seen the court much yet, but could see bigger minutes as the season goes on.
DJ Wilson, Jaylen Morris, Trevon Duval: Don’t expect to see much of these three beyond some bench celebrations in street clothes (especially from Wilson).
Playoff basketball in the spring? Playoff basketball in the spring!
With the Bucks on a 60-win pace, it’s all but certain that Milwaukee will be playing host to playoff basketball. In all likelihood, they’ll have homecourt advantage in (at least) the first round. When the weather turns in April and May, fans will be flocking to downtown Milwaukee and filling up the Forum. With a lot of luck, the Bucks will be playing in June. They’re not yet the favorites, but the Bucks have a real chance to be playing in the NBA Finals if a few things break their way.
For the long-suffering fans of the Milwaukee Bucks, it’s no longer time to look ahead and maybe one day #OwnTheFuture. The future is here. So get on the bandwagon and enjoy the ride, because this is about to get good, Milwaukee.