Playing The Longer Game
Five years ago, the Bucks bet their future on building the NBA's longest roster. Now, behind an aggressive defense and young core -- led by Giannis Antetokounmpo and his 7-foot-3 wingspan -- is Milwaukee ready to cash in?
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In a cramped Uber ride on a frigid Saturday night this past March in Boston, a parlor game took shape. Sitting alongside an NBA wise man with a depth of front office experience, FiveThirtyEight editor Nate Silver asked, "If you had one chip to place on the NBA championship in 2025, who would you bet on?"
The former executive paused, then began enumerating how to prognosticate eight years into the future. He considered market appeal, naming Los Angeles and Miami for their palm trees. The stability of ownership to bolster franchise health is also important (Miami, San Antonio), he noted, as is the allure of championship mystique (Celtics, Lakers, Bulls).
Yet for all these yardsticks, the one irrefutable reality is that championship teams have transcendent superstars. And if you're banking on one singular talent to reign over the league in 2025, the exec told Silver, it's clearly Giannis Antetokounmpo. As long as the league's most intriguing talent stays with his current team, the smart money on that championship bet lands squarely in one unlikely spot: Milwaukee.
ON A MONDAY night in April 2012, Jon Horst, then the Bucks' director of basketball operations, filed out of a suite at the Bradley Center with his boss, John Hammond, having just watched his team get trounced by Oklahoma City. The 20-point loss was chippy, with seven technical fouls, a couple of scuffles and the ejection of Larry Sanders. But none of that concerned members of the front office.
What they'd witnessed was a Thunder team that had bludgeoned the Bucks with its length and athleticism. OKC's perimeter troop of Russell Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha and Kevin Durant had smothered Milwaukee's Lilliputian backcourt of Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis. (Sefolosha alone nabbed seven steals.) Next to a bouncy Serge Ibaka (five blocks), Drew Gooden looked as if he were stuck in the mud. The Thunder crushed the Bucks on the glass -- not because of their muscle but because of their reach.
"They just pounded us," says Horst, who was elevated to general manager this past spring. "Those guys were just so long, so athletic, and our group, at that time, we didn't have length. We couldn't do anything we wanted. We couldn't go anywhere we wanted. We kind of started from that point forward."
What they started was something of a franchise makeover. That night, Bucks management peered into the future and imagined a team that would be all arms, legs and hops. The Bucks might never attract a superstar in free agency, but they vowed to never be outlengthed and outathleticized again.
In the five years since, the Bucks have already fulfilled their plan of assembling the NBA's longest roster. In 2012, they drafted John Henson (7-foot-5 wingspan). The following year they landed Khris Middleton (6-11 wingspan) in a trade of Jennings and drafted Antetokounmpo, the 6-11 forward with the 7-3 wingspan, in the first round. In 2014, Milwaukee chose Jabari Parker (7-foot wingspan) with the No. 2 pick. Until further notice, the Bucks won the 2016 draft, snagging Thon Maker (7-3 wingspan) with the 10th pick and rookie of the year Malcolm Brogdon (a point guard with a 6-11 wingspan) in the second round. They traded Michael Carter-Williams for shooting guard Tony Snell (6-11 wingspan) just before last season, then took forward D.J. Wilson (7-3 wingspan) in June's draft.
As a team-building strategy in a small market, it's a rather bold way to exploit a market inefficiency: As other teams zig by hoarding shooters, the Bucks committed to zagging by making this physiological attribute a priority. Length can't be circumnavigated and it can't be defended. It buys you time and it covers up mistakes. But it also requires a different kind of long game -- one that involves identifying and acquiring the right talent.
When Milwaukee selected Antetokounmpo 15th overall in the 2013 draft, he barely registered on the scouting radar. As an 18-year-old in Greece's second-tier professional league, he averaged less than 10 points and 22 minutes over 26 games. The Bucks, one of the few teams to actually see him play in person, saw the sketch of a new-era superstar who had the frame of a dominant playmaker, even if the body was only in the incubation stage.
Antetokounmpo was 6-8½ and 196 pounds when he arrived in the NBA a few months later, but he immediately established himself as a basketball curio. World-class sports scientists marveled at his biomechanical attributes. With only a basic phrase book's worth of English, he carried himself with a shy boyishness, yet anyone who spent 10 minutes with him could see the nascent outline of what would become the Full Giannis Experience.
Basketball wonks argued about his natural position, but at a certain point, Milwaukee wisely tabled that discussion. Position be damned, the kid could just play.
Coach Jason Kidd, who arrived in Milwaukee in 2014, let him do just that. Kidd is demanding, occasionally cantankerous, but he also tolerates youthful failures. And he saw a fair amount of them from Antetokounmpo. Kidd recalls a practice in 2015 when Antetokounmpo repeatedly failed to execute a defensive drill, then allowed his competitiveness to wilt in frustration. Two days later, in a big game against Cleveland during a playoff push, Kidd DNP'd his young star.
"I needed to have experience with him," Kidd says. "It's going to happen again. Maybe not with him but to someone else. He can grab the teammate and go, 'Hey, look, this is what you should do because this is what happened to me.' At 22, as a leader, you have to have those experiences."
Says Antetokounmpo: "I knew a lot about basketball my rookie season, but I didn't know a lot about the NBA game. The second year, when the coaching staff came, that's when I realized, 'Now the real s--- begins. I have to know the game. I have to understand the game. That changes the way I have to look at the game.'"
Kidd's patience has paid dividends. Now Antetokounmpo has a maturity on the court that matches his physical transformation. He grew 2½ inches during his rookie season, climbing to 6-11, and now weighs 222 pounds, giving him the ability to face the league's interior brutes while also retaining the agility to glide with the slickest perimeter playmakers. He displays a point guard's vision and finesse -- second to LeBron James last season in assist rate among starting small forwards -- and might be the league's most lethal rebound-and-go threat in the open floor. He can create off the dribble -- only a single dribble if he's anywhere inside 25 feet.
Last season he made his first NBA All-Star team and was named the league's Most Improved Player. His output -- 22.9 points on a true shooting percentage of 59.9 percent, 8.8 rebounds and 5.4 assists in 35.6 minutes per game -- elevated him to eighth in MVP voting. His long-range shot needs improvement, but if he can nudge last season's meager 27.2 percentage from beyond the arc up into the mid-30s, he will qualify indisputably as the NBA's most complete under-25 player since James.
"After he won Most Improved, he said that next year he's going to win it again," says Maker. "He's basically saying he can't put a ceiling on himself."
it's mid-september, two weeks before players must officially report to training camp, but the young Bucks have been at the facility for weeks. After a couple of hours of drills, including one-on-one battles with Maker and Sterling Brown, Antetokounmpo heads over to the gym for weights and cardio, then heads home to check on his family. This is all part of a juggling act for Antetokounmpo, who balances his devotion to basketball with a caretaker's role for his parents and two younger brothers, who've lived with him since he arrived from Greece four years ago. Kostas, 19, was an all-state basketball player at Dominican High in Milwaukee and is now a redshirt freshman at Dayton. Alex, 15, is now a sophomore at Dominican (and is already rumored to become the biggest basketball talent in the Antetokounmpo family). As Giannis' pro career has exploded, he's one part breadwinner and one part guidance counselor.
"When the season starts, everything ends," Antetokounmpo says. "It's going to be me, my home, my family and basketball."
That evening, he'll leave the facility for a couple of hours to check in on Alex and make sure his class load will track him for college eligibility. Then it's back to the gym for what the Bucks call night school.
If we don't play with our hands up, Coach Kidd goes crazy. - Antetokounmpo on playing D
Kidd imported the routine from Dallas, where players would voluntarily return for a little more work, including individual film sessions with the staff. Coming back and putting in reps after practice isn't a novel phenomenon, but the Bucks have formalized it as a staple of their routine.
Though there's no hard-and-fast schedule, the session usually starts with some light shooting drills or individual work on the floor. If there are enough guys present, assistant Sean Sweeney might conduct a sneak preview of a walk-through for the following night's game. Then they'll cool off and head inside for some film tutorials.
With a core group so inexperienced, Kidd puts a premium on watching tape.
"Our biggest question for a young guy is, 'Can you read?'" Kidd says. "If they're coming down the floor at you, what are they trying to do? If you can tell me, then we're doing something right. For young players, they don't have enough experience of seeing the action. You watch your habits. Night school is a way to educate a player about how to adjust the next time you see a situation. 'Can you read the action?'"
In addition to Giannis, all that night school practice has already produced a star student in Maker; as a center, he hit 37.8 percent of his 74 3-point attempts last season. Parker's natural scoring talent remains promising, though he has torn his ACL twice in the past three seasons and will be sidelined until at least February. Of course, homegrown teams that contend need to develop more than their superstars, and the Bucks look to have developed an impressive core of non-lottery picks. With Brogdon, the only second-rounder to win Rookie of the Year in the lottery era, Milwaukee scored big. While it's unlikely he'll ever be a terrifying threat off the dribble, he's a reliable point guard, a 40 percent shooter from 3 and, in the language of Kidd, a big reader of the court. Middleton, also a second-rounder, is now the team's quiet leader and most refined player. Snell, a castoff from Chicago, provides essential spacing as the Bucks' opening-night starting shooting guard. Perhaps more important, outside of Parker, each of the young starters is contractually committed to the Bucks for at least a couple of seasons. And while the accounting will get hairy as the payroll grows, this roster should breed the kind of continuity into Antetokounmpo's prime that the NBA covets.
WITH AN OPENING-NIGHT starting lineup whose collective wingspans could bridge Lake Michigan, the Bucks may look to have completed their mission, but if their all-in focus on length is going to result in championships, they'll have to prove they can apply it. To do so, the Bucks have crafted an interesting, and aggressive, defense -- one that routinely sends two defenders at the opposing ball handler, with pressure ready to pounce behind the blitz. This half-court scheme features a set of strategic imperatives, including a couple that borrow from other sports.
"We call it 'No fastballs,'" Kidd says. "Fastballs kill us. We talk about it all the time. 'No one can throw a fastball. No one can throw a strike.' If someone throws a strike, it puts us in harm's way."
The Bucks define a fastball, or strike, as a pass delivered to an opposing player in the optimal spot at the optimal speed at the optimal moment. More than ever, the league's best offenses subsist on a healthy diet of catch-and-shoot bombs born out of drive-and-kick attacks or quick passes within a motion offense. A defense that can reroute those passes or delay them can degrade the quality of those shots.
"We actually measure air time," Kidd says. "We need a hang-time pass. We need a pass that is a ball and not a strike. If that's the case, we win."
Kindly excuse the mixed metaphors deep in Packers country, but the Bucks see their half-court defense as one part punt-coverage team. The greater the Bucks' lanky defenders can divert an opponent's passes high and wide, the less likely that opponent is to get a comfortable look at the basket. This is why the coaching staff hammers home its "hands up" directive and why it has basketball operations staffer Nic Turner chart each possession accordingly.
"If we don't play with our hands up, Coach Kidd goes crazy," says Antetokounmpo. "After a game, there will be stats on the wall of how many times Giannis has his hands down. If we're going to be aggressive on the ball, your hands have to be up. You're constantly trying to recover, so the ball has to stay in the air."
Forcing a sharpshooter to gather a wayward pass buys the Bucks' defense time to rotate back into position. Voluntarily putting a defense -- particularly a young one -- into rotation is a risky proposition, but length offers a modicum of insurance. It affords defenders like Antetokounmpo the luxury of being a little farther afield from his primary assignment yet still allows the ability to contest.
"Giannis is like a flagpole with his hands up," Sweeney says. "He can be outside of the 3-foot window of a shooter and still challenge a shot."
Take the Bucks' 104-77 domination of Toronto in Game 3 of their first-round series last season as the platonic ideal. With Brogdon and Maker rushing Kyle Lowry at the top of the floor, Lowry was reduced to floating desperate passes to any warm body among the thicket of Bucks limbs. Against the Bucks' starters, the Raptors scored 12 points in the first, then only 16 in the third.
There's evidence that the strategy is paying off: The Bucks' defense finished last season 19th overall in efficiency yet ranked 12th after the All-Star break. The high-pressure defense yields considerably more corner-3 attempts than any other squad in the league, though the Bucks defend them at about a league-average percentage. The most auspicious results come from the projected starting lineup of the future -- Brogdon, Snell, Middleton, Antetokounmpo, Maker -- which yielded only 99.8 points per 100 possessions as a five-man unit. That's better than the Warriors' league-leading defense.
The Bucks' defensive formula seems to be working. Add to that a superstar, a youthful nucleus that digs night school, and a top-notch training program and it all bodes well for Milwaukee's future.
As long as ownership doesn't muck it up.
As healthy as the Bucks' DNA appears in the locker room, a few genetic defects have been revealed upstairs.
The palace intrigue ensued soon after the current ownership group of Wes Edens, Marc Lasry and Jamie Dinan purchased the team in April 2014. Though they are each well-regarded by many, the unholy union of über-wealthy hedge fund managers with well-endowed egos has proved itself to be combustible as a partnership.
Since the purchase, Edens has served as the team's governor -- and therefore the official final word on all major decisions -- but Lasry will take over the role in 2019. That dynamic has proved problematic, particularly after Hammond left the organization for Orlando this summer. At any random moment over the 40 months he worked for the current regime, Hammond was twisting, either on the verge of losing his job or having his contract extended. From the outset, ownership was conflicted about him. It admired Hammond's affable manner and keen eye that plucked one overachieving pick after another in the draft. Yet as a basketball lifer who majored in scouting, Hammond didn't project the image of the new-economy GM, "the guy who works 18 hours a day, speaks the hedge fund language and will cut your nuts off," in the language of one league exec. Eventually, the latter condition outweighed the former in the eyes of ownership.
In 2016, the Bucks hired Justin Zanik away from Utah to become their assistant general manager, with the expectation that he'd eventually succeed Hammond as general manager. But when Hammond left, the Bucks opened up the search, despite Lasry's preference to elevate Zanik as planned.
Edens exercised his veto power, a nuclear option he'd never previously used as governor. With the franchise at an impasse, Horst emerged as a "reluctant compromise," in the words of one Bucks insider. Those who have worked with Horst rave about his work ethic and humility, but the process by which the Bucks named him their lead basketball exec has left observers around the league bemused. Multiple agents and executives expressed concern about the way ownership has managed its in-house relationships during its short tenure.
If the Bucks were to repel Antetokounmpo, it would be an especially cruel outcome. Hammond was a pragmatist who readily conceded that Milwaukee isn't a destination for superstars, but Antetokounmpo loves the city and is indifferent to market size. If his gaze turns elsewhere, it won't be because there isn't anywhere appealing to eat after midnight, or because the wind from the lake numbs his 12-inch hands, or because he can't score good endorsement deals from a small NBA market. It'll be because a bunch of hedge fund guys couldn't agree on a coherent vision.
All that's left is for Bucks management to demonstrate to Antetokounmpo that it has the competence and stability to be entrusted with his Hall of Fame talent -- a long-range plan as important as its strategy to build a roster to highlight its star's abilities.
With that road map, the hypothetical posed in the chilly Uber in March takes a tantalizing turn, one long in intrigue.