OKLAHOMA CITY — The Milwaukee Bucks built a perennial contender — and title winner — in a small market way. But it didn’t happen without mishaps, and Thunder fans can learn a lot from what did and did not work out for the Bucks along the way.
For starters, Giannis Antentokoounmpo wasn’t supposed to be Milwaukee’s superstar franchise player.
Historically, the 15th overall pick of any NBA draft has a low chance of becoming an All-Star, let alone a top-5 player in the league. The odds are even greater for a former second-round pick and transactional throw-in to become a multi time All-Star, yet Khris Middleton defied those Giannis-like probabilities as well.
The Bucks arrive in Oklahoma City for a preseason match, and if one looks closely enough you can see a lot of similarities in the two teams and cities. There may be more in common between these two franchises than realized.
The Milwaukee, Wisconsin metro area is the 39th largest in the country, two spots ahead of the Oklahoma City metro. That puts The Original Brew City squarely amongst the list of “non-destination markets”. The vast majority of Bucks superstars were acquired via the draft or a draft night trade. Lew Alcindor (who changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar months after the Bucks won the 1971 NBA Championship). Ray Allen. Sidney Moncrief. Bob Dandridge. Marques Johnson.The biggest name free-agent signing in the team’s history is likely Brook Lopez in 2018.
Simply put, NBA superstars don’t seek out Milwaukee willingly. A lot of this should sound familiar to Thunder fans.
Eight years before winning the 2021 NBA Championship, the Bucks were swept in the first round by the Miami Heat. Its top two players, Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings, were soon to be ex-Bucks. The Bucks hadn’t won a playoff series since 2001. And though the win total was about to sink, two moves in the 2013 offseason would set the Bucks up to compete for years. It’s just that nobody could have fathomed it at the time.
The 15th pick in the 2013 draft became Antetokounmpo, then an 18-year old raw prospect. The following month, the Bucks traded Jennings to the Detroit Pistons for guard Brandon Knight. While Knight would become the Bucks leading scorer, he would eventually become a footnote in the trade. That’s because the deal also included Middleton, put into the trade largely to meet salary cap trade rules.
Meanwhile, the Bucks plummeted to a 15-win season in 2013-14 and were rewarded with the second overall pick in the upcoming draft. The 2014 class was thought to have multiple franchise cornerstone players at the top of the draft. Historically, a team’s best chance of landing a superstar is in the top-5 of the draft. The Bucks organization was right to be elated, all the while having no idea how the franchise’s story would unfold.
Milwaukee selected Duke forward Jabari Parker, once named by Sports Illustrated as “the best high school player since LeBron James”. One pick later, the Sixers selected Joel Embiid. Thirty-eight picks later, the Nuggets selected Nikola Jokic. The bad luck didn’t end there.
Parker showed promise but his rookie season would come to an abrupt halt after 25 games due to a torn left ACL. Parker recovered but in his third NBA season he suffered the same injury again. This repeat injury would be career altering. Parker was averaging over 20 points with a true shooting percentage of 56.3. That became his statistical peak.
Meanwhile, Antetokounmpo and Middleton blossomed. Giannis became an All-Star and was named to the All-NBA second team in 2017, his fourth NBA season. This was just before a laughable-in-hindsight four-year, $100 million extension kicked in. Middleton joined Antetokounmpo on the All-Star team in 2019.
Despite Antetokounmpo’s arrival, the Bucks didn’t make immediate splashy or risky moves. Parker was allowed to leave as a free agent in 2018. Milwaukee beat the historical odds again by selecting future Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon with the 36th overall pick in 2016. Yet when Brogdon, a productive yet injury prone player, became a restricted free agent in 2019 the Bucks declined to bring him back. He was instead traded to the Indiana Pacers for a package of draft picks.
The decision was also financially motivated. Milwaukee had finally won a playoff series that season. Two of them, in fact. A trip to the Eastern Conference Finals hardly seemed like the time to clamp down on spending. But ownership chose to continue avoiding the luxury tax and save up for big spending in future years.
“Hopefully, we’ve made the right decision,” then-owner Marc Lasry said at the time.
Part of that decision was informed by Middleton’s unexpected growth. The Bucks also landed Lopez in 2018 for a little over $3 million. He turned out to become such an important piece that any money earmarked for Brogdon had to be redirected.
It wasn’t until the 2020 offseason that the Bucks finally “pushed the button” and made a blockbuster addition. A four-team trade, which coincidentally involved the Thunder, sent Jrue Holiday to Milwaukee. Eight months later, the Bucks won the Larry O’Brien trophy. Milwaukee hopes for a repeat after making another blockbuster trade for Damian Lillard.
So if you’re a Thunder fan reading all of this Milwaukee Bucks history, what does it matter to you?
The Holiday trade didn’t happen until three years after Antetokounmpo’s All-NBA debut. That move also lined up with Giannis’ eligibility to extend again. For multiple reasons, the Bucks needed to act and did so in a big way.
Such a move might have worked if it was made in any of the previous three seasons. But it took time for the Bucks to see what worked and let the roster shake itself out. It’s also possible that the right player and situation hit the market until Holiday did. Getting the right fit is worth waiting for.
Likewise the Thunder can afford to wait and see how its young core develops with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who just completed year one of a five-year extension.
Expect the Unexpected
The Thunder have already bucked trends. SGA has been on a slow build to stardom since being selected 11th overall. Jalen Williams has defied the expectations of many observers as a former 12th overall pick. Kenrich Williams went from salary filler in a Steven Adams trade to key rotation player. Isaiah Joe went from the end of 76ers rotation to a prominent place in the Thunder’s.
Just like the cities of Milwaukee and Oklahoma City are in the same population range, some of these stories are in the same vicinity to Atentokounmpo and Middleton’s rise.
Don’t Get Attached
The Bucks star duo are the only two players remaining from the 2013-14 team. Only those two players plus Lopez and Pat Connaughton remain from the 2019 Eastern Conference Finals team.
It’s easy to get attached to every young player the Thunder brings in but in reality, the league moves fast and changes rapidly. If the Thunder ever do make it to the West Finals and beyond, the team may look much differently than it does now.
It’s Fine to Miss on Draft Picks
Rashad Vaughn was the 17th pick in the 2015 draft and was out of the league three seasons later. Thon Maker was the 10th pick in 2016 — one spot ahead of Domantas Sabonis — and couldn’t live up to his amateur highlight reel. DJ Wilson was the 17th pick in 2017 and was last seen playing for the Oklahoma City Blue.
Notice how a couple of superstars can cover up a lot of mistakes?
Milwaukee splurged to sign center Greg Monroe for three years and $50 million in 2015, back when teams started spending tons of money in advance of a salary cap spike. Since then, the Bucks showed restraint and didn’t clog the books with burdensome contracts.
Even then, the Bucks later turned Monroe into Eric Bledsoe, who became part of the trade package for Holiday.
Likewise, the Thunder have taken measured steps when it comes to spending. As frustrating as that may be to some, the reality is that small markets teams have less margin for error.
The Tax Man Will Cometh, But Hopefully Later
The NBA luxury tax system is part of the league’s obstacle course. The Bucks started paying extra bucks for their teams starting in 2020. With the addition of Lillard, Milwaukee committed to being a taxpayer for the foreseeable future.
All of this is possible now because the Bucks curbed their spending in prior seasons. That sort of multiyear planning is similar to what the Thunder did during their previous title runs. OKC is undoubtedly thinking in cycles again with the current team. To make the long-term money work, don’t pay the luxury tax until you absolutely have to.