There were players on the 2014-15 Hawks. Al Horford and Paul Millsap right in the middle of their primes. DeMarre Carroll before the fall. Kyle Korver fully realized and having the best season of his career. Kent Bazemore, Mike Scott, and a green Dennis Schroder bolstering the rotation. It wasn’t a loaded squad by any stretch, but that was the main thrill of watching them: all of these randos and a couple borderline stars, most of them supposedly known quantities at the time, redefining our understanding of what they could accomplish. Not transcending—the high scorer on that team was Millsap with 16.7 PPG—but playing ten, fifteen percent better than previously appeared possible. Carroll put up his most efficient scoring season. Korver shot nearly 50 percent from three-point range. Schroder, following a bleak rookie year, proved himself a serviceable sixth man.
But of course the Hawks were fragile. After ripping off 60 regular season wins and slightly laboring through the first two playoff rounds, LeBron’s Cavs lanced right through them, even without Kevin Love and with Kyrie Irving playing just two games on one-and-a-half legs. It wasn’t a wholesale invalidation of everything the Hawks had accomplished that year, but it branded them as more cute than great. And tellingly, they never hit those heights again, settling into the purgatorial middle rung of the Eastern Conference, filling a role as a squad that could beat any team in the league if their opponent wasn’t careful, but ultimately unable to do significant damage to a title contender when it counted.
They remained well-coached, though. That’s the first thing most people said about them, perhaps in part because they didn’t have much to say about Paul Millsap. The Spurs East tag was always a stretch, but Mike Budenholzer is a Pop disciple and shares his mentor’s knack for getting the most out of role players. He’s good at what he does, in other words. It’s a specific thing, and it’s ostentatious. His Hawks always looked very—how would you put it?—instructed. Marcelo Bielsa, a cult-famous soccer tactician, once claimed that “if players weren’t human, I’d never lose.” Coach Bud seems to think the same way, as if he’d prefer tweaking sliders in a simulation to bossing around actual people, who sometimes forget or disregard his advice. But his approach undeniably works. He knows what he’s doing.
Knowhow is what the Milwaukee Bucks needed after a few years of Jason Kidd’s swaggering military leadership and several months of poor, hapless Joe Prunty. Before the season started, I wrote that “Budenholzer is showing up at exactly the right time,” but I undersold his impact. I thought the Bucks would shape up and function sort of like the Eastern Conference equivalent of last year’s Pelicans: Giannis would find life easier in an honest-to-god NBA offense, the team would improve their win total, and they would prove a tough out for the Sixers or Celtics in the playoffs. It turns out they’re quite a bit better than that. Barring injury, they can credibly compete for a Finals appearance. (Where they would probably get smashed by the Warriors, but whatever.)
In retrospect, this seems like the more sensible prediction. If you compare the rosters of the 2014-15 Hawks and the circa now Bucks, each is about as talented as the other, with one notable exception. Khris Middleton and Paul Millsap are on the same level. Malcolm Brogdon and Eric Bledsoe stack up pretty evenly against DeMarre Carroll and Jeff Teague. Brook Lopez isn’t 28-year-old Al Horford, but the Bucks have better bench options. And then there’s Giannis, who has no equivalent. You would have to drop Young Kevin Durant onto that 60-win Hawks team to generate a similar effect.
It’s early days, and we’ll have to see how the relationship between Budenholzer and his charges develops (or deteriorates) over the course of the season—over the course of several, most likely—but at the moment, everybody is getting satisfaction. Plus there’s a sense that, while Milwaukee’s cast of character actors have taken to Coach Bud’s kinetic, three-happy offense extremely well, Giannis is still figuring out how to operate within it. Which is to say he’s averaging nearly 26 PPG on 56 percent shooting with 5.6 APG and 12.8 RPG, and there’s room for improvement. The Bucks could be favorites to win the East by March if Giannis finds another gear.
It’s gratifying to see the Bucks ascend like this because, after spending a not insignificant period of time stalling and scuffling, they’ve been suddenly seized by possibility. They’re disorientingly good, and we’re not really yet sure how good they can be. It’s all gleeful guessing right now, while they’re in the middle of an alchemical change. They’re not the best team in the league, but they’re probably the most interesting—definitely the most thrillingly mysterious.
And it’s all coming together for some folks who deserve it. Giannis has finally got his coach. Budenholzer has finally got his team. Khris Middleton and Malcolm Brogdon are excelling like they never have before. The broader shape of this currently ecstatic experiment has only begun to reveal itself, but that isn’t the thing to focus on—not in November, anyway. The thing is that, at the moment, it’s all happening for everybody in Milwaukee, in ways we didn’t expect. It’s hopeful and happy, which is the best you can be 14 games into a season. However it shakes out from here for the Bucks, at least it starts from a dizzily optimistic peak.