60 wins. An MVP candidate. The Eastern Conference Finals.
As the dust settles on a remarkable season for the Milwaukee Bucks, it’s amazing to see how a franchise established itself as a championship contender for the foreseeable future, especially after lingering questions followed last season’s playoff defeat to Boston.
Milwaukee’s impressive playoff run this season left it just two wins away from the NBA Finals. It was the Bucks’ deepest run since 2001, and just the second season they had won a playoff series in 30 years.
It’s not just Giannis Antetokounmpo alone. Khris Middleton was a first time All-Star, Eric Bledsoe made First Team All-Defense and Mike Budenholzer is a Coach of the Year candidate. There’s no question, the Bucks carefully pieced together a winning roster, a winning culture and a winning organisation.
How did this happen so fast?
Is Bucks DNA real?
When Jon Horst was introduced as the Bucks new general manger, the words ‘Bucks DNA’ were consistently used. Online mediums and fans widely ridiculed the use of the word, wondering what exactly ‘Bucks DNA’ meant for a franchise that had only gone beyond the First Round of the playoffs once in the past 30 years.
In a recent conversation with Horst, the 36-year-old laughed at the suggestion people believe it was just hot air, before proudly explaining what the term means to not only him, but the entire franchise.
“It’s not a cliché, it’s intentional,” Horst explained from his office at the Bucks’ sparkling new practice facility, the Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin Sports Science Center, that overlooks Fiserv Forum across the street. “We talk about the fact that at every level in the NBA there is talent. Talent is a key, you have to have talent, but we want guys that are high character, love to compete, have multi-skillsets, have high basketball IQ. We talk about that, we study that. That’s a thing that you can study through hundreds and hundreds of games that we’ve watched, whether that’s at the pro level, college level or high school tournaments we are allowed to do. It’s stuff that you can gather through intel, talking to coaches, talking to athletic directors, talking to AAU coaches, teammates, equipment managers.”
Horst went on to explain that ‘Bucks DNA’ doesn’t simply apply to the roster, but it spreads throughout the franchise from the front office, to the coaching staff, to the medical staff, to the interns putting in hours of hard work to make things tick on gameday.
The passion Horst exudes when discussing ‘Bucks DNA’ is clear, but the NBA is run by superstars, so what is the balance between acquiring talent and ensuring they fit the franchises’ core principles?
“You have to have a base line of talent; we aren’t just taking guys because they are good guys and fit Bucks DNA,” Horst explained. “The three of us (referring to himself, Bucks Vice President of Communications Dan Smyczek and myself) might fit Bucks DNA but we aren’t ever going to wear a Bucks uniform, so there’s a baseline level of talent that exists, but there’s also a baseline level of Bucks DNA that exists.”
Through a series of critical transactions since Horst’s promotion to general manager, the Bucks have risen from the middle of the NBA standings to a genuine contender in the Eastern Conference, something the Horst believes is attributed to those core beliefs he speaks of, but also to their leader, likely MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo.
“I think it’s been intentional. It’s how it’s been put together and that’s part of it, but of course there’s a luck factor and a, ‘see how it works out factor.’ So far it’s worked out, but then also Giannis is our superstar, Giannis is the heart-and-soul mentality of the team. When your best player, your franchise player, plays in a certain way, acts in a certain way, is a certain type of person, that can kind can of set the tone for everyone else.”
Giannis Antetokounmpo, a natural leader:
Analyzing the growth of Antetokounmpo is a mind-bending task. In the span of six seasons he has risen from speculative first-round pick to an MVP caliber player and perennial All-Star.
From day one the competitiveness was obvious, but for Budenholzer, working with Antetokounmpo for the first time was still an eye-opening experience.
“I think the thing that stood out to you was how much he wants to be great, how much he wants the team to be great, the organization to be great,” Budenholzer said.
“There’s a seriousness to it, a work ethic, a mentality that at every opportunity, how can he get better, what are different ways he can seek out different players, different coaches. He wants to be great and he wants the team and organization to be great and he’s followed it up throughout the season. He’s all about winning so that’s what stands out the most.”
Always a lead-by-example talent, Antetokounmpo has begun to find his voice in the locker room, understanding how when, and how to, use his voice in different situations, growing in confidence as the franchise’s superstar.
“It’s funny because I think lots of times the voices come out when the coach isn’t there as often, but I think you see it in timeouts, you see it in free-throws, you see it in games. When you come into the locker room and you hear what’s being said and the demeanor with which he’s handled himself when we’ve had some adversity or a loss. His determination, his will, his voice, have been a big part of how we’ve always responded when needed. I also just think he’s a good person, he has humor, he uses humor, he’s willing to laugh at himself, he just has a good disposition,” Budenholzer said.
For Nikola Mirotić, who was traded from the New Orleans Pelicans to the Bucks at the February trade deadline, describing leadership in relation to Giannis is simple.
“Leadership is Giannis. Giannis creates it. Coach Bud is a guy from San Antonio, so Pau told me that they do something very similar there as well, but most of the time it’s about your leader, and Giannis is young, but he’s a great leader and he knows what the team needs in any situation,” Mirotić said.
Although Giannis is the head of the snake, unquestionably the leader on the court, he continues to preach the importance of voices being heard right through the roster, wanting to give everybody the confidence to speak up in any situation.
“It’s different, usually you have one or two guys that are the main voices and I think we have that in some ways, but we want everybody to speak their mind and give their opinion,” Middleton said. “To me that makes everything easier, you know how everybody feels, you know what’s on their mind and you know everybody cares. The more voices the better as long as we are on the same page, which we are.”
That type of multi-faceted leadership style led by Giannis is a far cry from what Pat Connaughton experienced during his time with the Portland Trail Blazers.
“Giannis does a great job of making people feel like they have that voice,” Connaughton said.
“In Portland, Dame [Damian Lillard] was the voice, Dame was the guy. The team got along well, but at the end of the day everything was deferred to Dame, which worked well for them. But I think to take that next step, everyone feeling like they need to contribute towards that team goal, again team success breeds individual success, is what’s really made this unique and hopefully make this organization not just about one year, but about growing for years and years.”
Giannis would prefer not to praise his individual growth and leadership, but instead he continually takes responsibility for the team’s failures. This was never more evident than at the Bucks’ exit interview day after their Game 6 loss to the Toronto Raptors.
“Immediately after the game I was thinking about how I can get better and how I can help my teammates, and there’s a lot of things I can do better,” Antetokounmpo said. “Just being two wins away from the NBA Finals and being up 2-0 and not being in that situation, I don’t know how it feels to be there before, but just being up 2-0 and not being able to go to the Finals kind of hurt.”
Antetokounmpo has made an extraordinary ascension as a player, as a leader, and as a teammate, but he’s far from satisfied. In fact he believes this is only the beginning for the Milwaukee Bucks.
“It might take one year, it might take two years, it might take five years, but we are going to get it done and we are close to it. I’m not going to promise 61 wins next year, but we are going to put ourselves in a place to be a championship-contending team for many years to come and there’s not a lot of teams that can say that.”
Those words feel like more than hope, instead, they are genuine belief.
Nipping the coaching drama in the Bud:
Last summer before the Bucks could move on with the critical process of the NBA Draft and free agency, they first had to find a coach. With a talented roster led by Antetokounmpo, it was widely regarded as the prime coaching job on the market.
“I think we could have basically hired any coach that was free or any coach that was in the market to coach an NBA team. I think almost any of them wanted to coach for us,” Horst said.
Eventually, the Bucks would reach an agreement with former NBA Coach of the Year, Mike Budenholzer, who had recently parted ways after a five-year stint with the Hawks – a term that included a 60-win regular season and a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals.
“Initially why we sought after a coach like Bud was his reputation and accomplishment,” Horst said. “NBA Coach of the Year, multiple championships as an assistant in San Antonio, took the opportunity in Atlanta and did unbelievably well, had a 60-win season, took them to the Conference Finals. So, when you look at the resume he had, that’s why you go after a guy like that.”
Budenholzer has a history of being known as a player’s coach, respected as a leader that forms terrific player-coach relationships and had a history of developing young talent. Of course, those principles all fit the ‘Bucks DNA’ mantra.
“Spending time with him and talking about culture, and talking about team building and partnership and how he sees organizational structure and all these different things, it was clear to me that he was very much aligned with the things I see and the things that matter to me,” Horst continued. “The human nature of all these, communicating with people, treating people the right way, communicating to people daily, all these key things.”
The results were immediate, as Budenholzer’s squad of old and new Bucks came together from day one, forming the relationships required to build chemistry before a ball was tipped.
“We were back here in September, which is something they hadn’t done before, and we were working out as a unit and we were seeing what the media would say were slight additions,” Connaughton recalled. “But we knew they were major additions to the roster with the development guys had made and the step forward we could make with hard work and individual effort, but also the vision of coach Bud and what he saw from this team.”
For 11-year NBA veteran Brook Lopez, the instant chemistry made what could have been a difficult transition much smoother than most could have imagined.
“Pretty quickly I just noticed that everyone that knew each other had a great understanding and comfort with each other. And we just didn’t need to have to put a lot of work in to instil any sort of values because they were already there. They were already present with the guys we have,” Lopez said.
Those around the team noticed a different atmosphere to past years, as the hard work in the practice facility was accompanied with constant smiles and laughter. This team was having fun. They enjoyed each other’s company while continuing to foster a healthy workplace environment – which isn’t always present inside professional sports team’s locker rooms.
For Lopez, that makes all the difference when the grind of the NBA takes hold during the frigid Wisconsin winter.
“It makes showing up to practice, games, work every day that much easier. In any work place situation or whatever it is, if you don’t like who you are working with it’s going to make it tough and you might think, ‘oh, I don’t want to see this guy today’. It’s obviously not the case here. It’s the complete opposite here. You get excited when you see your boys and coming out here and hooping with your brothers,” Lopez said, while pointing to a bunch of Bucks’ players getting up shots after practice.
The Bucks knew they had the superstar required to contend for an NBA Championship, but as Budenholzer and Horst carefully carved out their plans for the roster, they knew the type of chemistry Connaughton and Lopez spoke of would be critical to their chances of fulfilling their aspirations.
With that in mind, Budenholzer’s principles became clear: success, trust, communication and respect became non-negotiables.
“I mean, talent and all those types of things are always at the top of the list, Budenholzer said. “But I will say sometimes there comes a point where every team is talented, and the talent becomes close and closer to being equal. Those teams that really trust each other, really communicate with each other, really hold each other accountable and do it in a good way, in a respectful way, and just genuinely enjoy and like each other, I think that can be something that helps you separate when talent is equal.”
For Horst, those beliefs were all he needed to hear when conducting the interview with Budenholzer back in May of 2018.
“The basketball stuff, it’s kind of a given to me. You’ve worked with Pop [San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich] forever, you’ve had success in Atlanta, you can show me your x’s and o’s, but that’s not my expertise, I trust you know it,” Horst said with a laugh.
“It’s more about how we are going to build a culture, how we are going to run an organization, how we are going to treat people, how are we going to work to together on a daily basis that really sold me and made me feel great about it.”
From ‘I don’t want to be here’ to long-time deer:
Sputtering out the gate to a 4-6 start in 2017-18, the Milwaukee Bucks made a significant early season trade, of the like you rarely see in the opening weeks of the season.
Undeniably talented, Eric Bledsoe and the Phoenix Suns relationship had soured to the point the explosive point guard was sitting out games, seemingly determined to find himself a new home. The situation came to a head when the Suns traded Bledsoe to Milwaukee.
The Bucks traded their marquee free agent signing from two summers earlier, Greg Monroe, along with multiple picks to acquire Bledsoe. It was a clear upgrade in talent for Milwaukee. However, some questions remained about how Bledsoe would fit in the locker room after his rocky period in Arizona.
But Horst and the Bucks did their research on Bledsoe to alleviate some of those concerns.
“In anything I do, I don’t take answers on face value. It would have been easy to look at a situation that was dysfunctional, kind of read the rhetoric that was in the media about Bledsoe and place blame on him at whatever level you wanted to, and say, ‘you know what? He’s really talented but he doesn’t fit what I want’,” Horst recalled. “That’s the easy thing to do, but we try to dig really deep.”
Prior to executing the trade, Horst and his staff put in days of work, building a character profile on Bledsoe, refusing to accept the growing thought that he was a problematic talent.
“We dug really deep to video coordinators that I have relationships with, that I’ve worked with prior to being in Phoenix to have conversations. To coaches that have coached him, to his agent, to just dive really deep. To scouts that have seen him to find out what we are getting here,” Horst revealed.
“In that case, the talent was obvious, but we had to dive into the other stuff, so we dove into the other stuff. Felt great about it, and we were aggressive about pursuing a trade and then obviously aggressive about keeping him here and extending him.”
A vital cog in the Bucks 60-win regular season, a broad smile arises on Bledsoe’s face when talking about his time in Milwaukee – the frustrations of Phoenix but a distant memory. Bledsoe consistently comes back to one guy when attempting to explain the Bucks meteoric rise from fringe playoff team to championship contender.
“It starts with the head coach. It starts with Bud,” Bledsoe said without hesitation. “Bud does a great job of getting on everybody, one through 15, no matter who you are. He gets on you and that says a lot when it’s coming from a coach like that, not just picking on one person. For us, we see that, and we can take that, and then everybody holds each other accountable.”
Bledsoe signed a contract extension in March, becoming the first critical deal in what is shaping up to be a defining summer for the franchise. Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, Malcolm Brogdon and Nikola Mirotić are looming free agents, putting even more importance on the Bledsoe commitment, which came in Phoenix of all places.
For Bledsoe, the decision was simple.
“Everything played into it,” Bledsoe said. “The team, the organization moving in the right direction, coaching staff, we’ve got a superstar on the team, we’ve got other players like Khris.
“It goes a long way past basketball with this team. I feel like we can hang out anytime, in the summer time together. It was way bigger than just playing basketball signing that contract.”
What a difference 18 months can make.
Bucks form bond off the court:
Conversing with any player on the Bucks roster, a smile will likely arise when you ask about the relationships the squad has built since they first came together in New York last August.
Introduced by Budenholzer, the Bucks would regularly hold team dinners, often on the road, using the meals as a way to unwind and enjoy each other’s company away from the spotlight of the NBA circus.
For Mirotić, this concept had become completely foreign since entering the NBA.
“I was surprised when I came that a lot of times after the game we’ll go out to dinner. We’re hanging out a lot together,” he said.
“This is something we do more in Europe. When I was with the Bulls and the Pelicans, we didn’t have dinners together, and here everybody is hanging out together, always going to dinners after the games, so it’s something great here.”
Mirotić described being traded to Milwaukee like, “winning the lottery,” a feeling that was fostered from the warm welcome he received before he even set foot on the plane to his new home.
“When I was traded here, before I even came, most of the guys texted me welcoming me and when I arrived, they all tried to help me to adjust fast. When the team is successful like the Bucks are this season, it’s not just about playing basketball, you have to have good chemistry on the court and off the court.”
For Connaughton, who was a free agent signing in the offseason, the experience was a similar one.
“I signed at the end of July, but I felt like I was a part of the team already,” Connaughton said. “I was in group chats with the team. I was able to find ways to work out with guys on the team before we even got back to Milwaukee.”
To mix up the monotony of practice throughout the season, Budenholzer would randomly give the players days of relief, setting up games of flag football or whiffle ball, among other activities, to boost the squad’s moral and keep minds fresh.
“It’s something that we did in Brooklyn a little bit, and obviously [Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson] coached for Bud, so it definitely does help build chemistry and relax guys a little bit,” Lopez said. “It just gives us a different look.”
Ask any player on the Milwaukee roster what the difference was between this season and last and they’ll tell you they enjoyed their basketball. They’ll tell you they had fun.
“I don’t know if the coach wants that to be the first word, but certainly up near the top,” Budenholzer said with a laugh when asked about that word, fun.
“I think that coming to work every day and what we try and do and accomplish, there’s a seriousness to it,” Budenholzer added. “It’s not easy to go out and win and compete and play against the best teams, the best players in the league, and we take that very seriously. But I do think while we are doing that, there’s time and opportunity and places to have fun and still be a highly competitive and successful team.”
Despite his coach’s desire, Malcolm Brogdon summarized the season simply with a smile.
“We had fun. Coach Bud brought a totally different culture here opposed to our last staff. Just having fun, enjoying what you do, having a certain level of focus and concentration on what you do, but doing it together and enjoying it,” Brogdon said.
Through simply enjoying the game, the Bucks formed a special bond.
Adding veteran leadership:
A widely believed criticism of the Bucks throughout the regular season was their lack of playoff experience, with question marks over the team’s ability to battle through adversity in the postseason.
Perhaps sensing similar concerns, Horst once again went to work, acquiring seasoned playoff veterans George Hill, Nikola Mirotić and Pau Gasol through the course of the season.
Speaking during Milwaukee’s Second Round series with Boston, Budenholzer spoke to the value players with experience playing beyond April can be for a franchise attempting to make a deep run toward a championship.
“There’s no doubt that having some guys on the bench that have been through things, and that are older and experienced, understand not just the highs but the lows of losing a game. Winning and keeping a steadiness throughout a game, their voice in timeouts, it’s really valuable,” Budenholzer said.
For Hill, making a long run in the playoffs is nothing new, having been a part of teams in San Antonio, Indiana and Cleveland that have reached the Conference Finals. In fact, Hill was starting for the Cavaliers in the NBA finals just 12 months ago. Despite being among successful teams, Hill was surprised by the comradery in the Bucks’ locker room.
“We have no egos in our locker room, we have no hatred in our locker room,” Hill said. “One through 15 and right through our coaching staff, everybody enjoys being here, everybody enjoys playing together. But like I said, beyond the players, you really have to tip your hat to Jon Horst, our assistant GM Milt Newton, and coach Bud and all his staff for making it like that. They make the egos go away. They make guys want to be here and want to play together because of what they do, so we owe them all the thanks for that,” Hill said.
Continuing on, Hill recalled only one situation that compares to the one he experienced in Milwaukee this season.
“The only situation I’ve been in like this was in Indiana where we were pretty solid for a long stretch of time,” Hill explained. “It’s a great opportunity and a great humbling experience for us to have multiple guys that can lead. Night-in, night-out you never know who is going to step up.”
That type of shared leadership is unique, even for an 18-year NBA veteran and future Hall of Fame talent in Gasol. Gasol was signed by the Bucks for the playoff run and despite playing with all-time talents in Kobe Bryant, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, the Spanish native was taken aback by his experience in Milwaukee.
“It’s a great locker room with great guys and great atmosphere,” Gasol admitted. “There’s a lot of comradery and respect for each other and just humility as well. It’s incredible and it’s very rare.
“Even with great teams or winning teams, it’s great to find this type of atmosphere and environment within a team. Yes, winning helps a lot, but I think the individuals that form this locker room have a lot to do with it.”
How would Gasol compare the Bucks’ shared leadership with a situation like Los Angeles, where he became a two-time champion playing next to one of the more renowned dominant leaders in NBA history, Kobe Bryant?
“It’s hard to compare individuals and teams because everybody has their different style and personality,” Gasol said. “But the thing about this team is everybody is very locked in and everybody is ready to contribute whichever way they can, and I think that’s what it takes as far as a winning team or winning mindset; everybody is ready to do their part.
“There’s no ego, there’s no bad people here, there’s really no selfish people here. And I’m not saying there were bad people elsewhere, but sometimes you do get a sense of selfishness at times that can divert from the team goals and from winning. But you don’t see that at all here, it’s been really refreshing.”
Mirotić would start in eight of his 14 playoff appearances for the Bucks, while Hill would provide consistent firepower off the bench, averaging 11.5 points per game in a reserve role.
Both Mirotić and Hill not only boosted the Bucks’ veteran leadership but were able to make significant contributions in the postseason, an opportunity that was not going to be present at their previous home.
“It’s a blessing. Like coach Bud said, you wake up in basketball heaven,” Hill said, reflecting on the midseason trade that sent him to Milwaukee.
“Take nothing from Cleveland, I loved my opportunity there, they gave me an opportunity to play in the Finals and the guys that are there are still good friends of mine and all the players are good friends of mine. They gave me an opportunity. But to come here to compete for another Finals that we had a chance to do is a blessing. Any time you can play late in the postseason and have fun doing it, it’s an NBA blessing.”
It was to the surprise of no one that the veteran trio fit like a glove in the Bucks’ locker room.
After all, it was by design.
Recapping the season and looking forward:
How should the 2018-19 season be remembered by Bucks fans?
“Amazing season. Successful season. To me, where we are right now is amazing. When you think about the season it can be a little emotional when you think about all the hard work you spent and the ups and downs, and you are invested in the season and the team, so you get a little emotional when you think about it, but it was a successful season,” Antetokounmpo said.
Although falling short of their ultimate goal, when taking a wider view of this past season, the Bucks set the foundation for this to be the beginning of something special. And that, above all else, may be more important than anything when this era is complete.
“Me personally, and Bud would agree, we are very proud of the accomplishments that we’ve had,” Horst said during the Bucks’ Second Round series against the Celtics. “To win 60 games in the regular season is really hard. It doesn’t happen very often. For him to do that with two different franchises, it happens even less often. It was pretty spectacular for him.”
So many important decisions are to be made by the front office in the coming weeks regarding the future of this current group, perhaps none more so than All-Star Khris Middleton.
Middleton has been by the side of Antetokounmpo since day one and drew a little smile when asked about the possibility of unfinished business playing a factor into his upcoming free agency.
“Anytime you fall short with someone you’ve been with the whole time you always ask yourself or ask the other partner, ‘can we do this?’ We’ve always felt we can do this with the guys around us and it’s something that’s going to be interesting. It’s going to fun to see what happens,” Middleton said.
Another free agent, Lopez, was a little more succinct when talking about the future.
“I’d love to come back. It’s been a great home for me, so I absolutely want to be here,” Lopez said.
Entering free agency this summer, Horst remains adamant the players know where they stand.
“Khris Middleton knows how valuable he is to us and that we want him here. Malcolm Brogdon knows that, and Brook Lopez knows that, and hopefully Nikola Mirotić knows that,” Horst said.
“Giannis is under a contract, the whole team knows that whether we lost in the First Round, or Second Round or Third Round, whether we won 55 games or 60 games, the way the group felt when they came together this summer, all the accomplishments that we’ve started to check off, we believe in this group. When I say we, I mean myself, Bud, the ownership, so when we have the chance to do something fair and appropriate, we are going to do it.”
Bucks management has gone on the record to state they will do whatever is necessary financially if they feel the franchise can contend for a championship. Horst believes they can, Giannis believes they can, and for the first time in a long, long time, the city of Milwaukee believes they can.
“We aren’t satisfied because we won 60 games or satisfied because we won a First Round series. This team wants to win a championship and this team believes that we can,” Horst said.
And so the offseason fun begins.
About the Author
Kane Pitman is an Australian freelance reporter on the Bucks beat. He covers the Milwaukee Bucks for the Pick and Roll Australia and ESPN Australia.