We’ve been over what doesn’t work. The Bucks pack the paint and give up a lot of threes. They don’t play Giannis Antetokounmpo enough minutes in big games. They made the wrong choice keeping Eric Bledsoe over Malcolm Brogdon. (Even worse: they could have kept both for nothing more than cash from the owners’ pockets.) Khris Middleton is more of a third man; he’s not on Anthony Davis or Paul George’s level. You don’t fear Pat Connaughton in the corner, or Wesley Matthews off the dribble. There are times when George Hill seems like their second-best player, and that’s pretty alarming. What’s wrong with the Bucks? We already know. And yet they’re better than what they showed in these anomalous playoffs. You can say that with some certainty. But there’s no solace in it.
Giannis was sidelined for the final game of Milwaukee’s season with a bum ankle, in a series that had lapsed into foregone conclusion. All that was left in his absence, the collective that lost 103 to 94 in a contest the Heat seemed to take only moderately seriously, were a bunch of guys who, Middleton excepted, don’t make much sense without Giannis’s organizing genius. After LeBron left the Cavs in the summer of 2010, they immediately became one of the worst teams in the league, and though they were undeniably short on talent, they looked particularly helpless due to the fact many of their players were bought specifically to hit the open jumpers LeBron created. So of course they were atrocious with Ramon Sessions running the point. The Bucks are a less dire version of that sans Giannis, an unfair criticism in motion, but in the twilight of their aborted championship run, you wonder: do these spare parts constitute a .500 team? Worse than that?
At any rate, whatever they are with and without their superstar, they’ve suffered a dismal second round exit. If they had played Miami in a best of 101 series, they would have promptly found themselves down 20 games to five. This wasn’t a fluke: the Bucks got hammered. Outcoached, which is a problem that can theoretically be fixed with a harsh firing and sharp hire, but their inferiority was more comprehensive than that. Bam Adebayo, sure, but also Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson: these were the sort of players the Bucks couldn’t stop, could have really used, and don’t have.
So they’re now unhappily launched into a liminal state that the Cavs are familiar with, folks in Oklahoma City are familiar with too. A distinctly small market anxiety. The team’s good, they could win a title with a few breaks here and there, but the axis on which the whole enterprise revolves is entering the final year of his contract, and he won’t be eager to give management assurances that he’s sticking around. Why would he? Giannis could blow out his ACL in the middle of next season and still sign a max deal with any franchise that has the requisite cap space. He has nothing to gain by locking himself in early, given that the Bucks don’t present him with an ideal situation. Besides, even he likely doesn’t know what he’s going to do in the summer of 2021. There’ll be a quote, definitive and forbidding, at media day or shortly thereafter—LeBron set the template, Kevin Durant followed it—I’ll make that decision after the season. Of course that doesn’t mean the decision won’t be considered, ever-shifting, all season long, but the star isn’t going to talk about it, which is at least respectful to everybody involved in the process of his eventual exit or staying put.
This all feels peculiarly unfair to Milwaukee—not the people running the organization, but fans of the team. There’s a certain sour delight the perma-chatty NBA world takes in the Bucks’ misfortune, and it doesn’t compute. They’re not the Celtics, some vinegary blend of championship pedigree and inferiority complex, nor are they the Jazz, who demand respect with such importunance that it’s become a meme. Maybe we’re all transaction-poisoned; we just want the thing that seems like it’s going to happen—in this case, Giannis leaving for the Warriors or whatever—to happen already. The present is a tedious charade, the near future is where the action’s at, etc. To be fair, we’re all feeling that way at the moment, huddled impatiently in our homes, but this is a broader problem, the pervasive, dumb-ugly hopefulness that the next bit of breaking news is going to heal you. In the meantime, Giannis is in Milwaukee. There is that, whatever appreciation you can find for it.
Mike Budenholzer was tearing up on Tuesday night, not for fear of his own future—we’ll see if he keeps his job—but because he was, at the most basic and profound coachly level, Proud of His Guys for having “the humanity to stand and be on the right side of history... Winning is important. If you [have to] choose one, you’ll choose high character.” He’s referring to the brief players’ strike against police brutality on August 26th, before Game 5 of their opening round series against Orlando, sparked by George Hill and Sterling Brown and endorsed by Giannis, a spiritually galvanizing instance of a team hanging together in support of a cause they collectively believe in.
The Magic didn’t accept the Bucks’ forfeit, deciding to strike too, but it is funny, from a pure basketball perspective: the Bucks would have been fine with taking an L in that game. They were completely comfortable, confident they would close out the series in six, already looking forward to Miami. Two weeks later, they’re headed home, hopefully to attend to social justice concerns but also just to stew in professional failure, consider what went wrong and what might get worse, in the coming year. After that period of unpleasant reflection, they can dream about what might improve, because that’s a possibility too. Giannis is still in Milwaukee. There is that, whatever inspiration you can draw from it.