There’s no one easy way to start a championship story that’s been fifty years in the making. But, for the Bucks, the summer of 2013 is as good of a beginning as any.
It was then, in a thirty-five day span, that a franchise mired in mediocrity took the first steps on their final ascent to the title that had eluded them for nearly half a century. It just didn’t seem that way at the time.
Giannis was drafted on June 27. At the moment, there was nothing particularly memorable about the selection. He was a skinny teenager with zero experience against the type of talent he would find in the NBA. History was against him too. Dirk Nowitzki was the only European who had won an MVP. Only Nowitzki and Tony Parker had won Finals MVPs coming out of Europe. That standard hasn’t changed a whole lot since – through last year’s draft, roughly thirty European players had been picked since Giannis went fifteenth overall. Only OG Anunoby, who was largely raised in the US and missed the entirety of the 2019 playoffs, has won a championship.
On July 31, the Bucks traded Brandon Jennings to the Pistons for Middleton, Brandon Knight, and Viacheslav Kravstov. It was a changing of the guard, an attempt to turn the already-peaked Jennings into a younger point guard in Knight. While it isn’t entirely accurate to call Middleton a throw-in – Kravstov, who was traded to Phoenix less than a month later, certainly was – Knight was the clear focus of the trade from Milwaukee’s perspective. Middleton had played just 27 games in his rookie season and had spent a week in the G League. Like Giannis, the odds weren’t in his favor.
Those two joined a Bucks team that had just been swept out of the playoffs after somehow sneaking in with a 38-44 record. Their best player might have been Jennings or Monta Ellis. Or it might have been Ersan Ilyasova or Larry Sanders. Either way, Milwaukee wasn’t a franchise that had recently covered itself in glory. Since their infamous ECF loss in 2001, the Bucks had finished above .500 just twice in twelve seasons, topping out at 46 wins in 2010. The climb back would be long, and it wasn’t very easy to tell that it had started. In 2014, with Antetokounmpo and Middleton leading the team in games played, the Bucks went 15-67.
Then Things Got Better
The rest, of course, is history. Before he even turned 27, the lanky teen who had sold sunglasses in the streets of Greece became the only player other than Michael Jordan to win 2 MVPs, a Finals MVP, and the Defensive Player of the Year award. Middleton, a secondary thought in the trade that brought him to Milwaukee and a secondary thought to many – through no fault of his own – for much of his time here, got the last laugh as he held the trophy that his consistent clutch shotmaking and defensive effort had helped to win.
Their version of the Bucks, one that has maintained that constant duo despite all of the flips and refinements of the last eight years, scaled the mountain that had toppled so many before them. There are endless stories to tell from the first part of the Giannis and Khris era, but, today, let’s focus on the lessons that their ultimate triumph can teach us.
Keep the Old
There’s a poem by Joseph Parry that goes like this –
Make New Friends
But keep the old
Those are silver
But these are gold
The meaning is rather simple. There can be great value in expanding your horizons and adding to your inner circle, but don’t let that come at the expense of those who have always been beside you. Do not, in other words, let time and a sense of complacency decay the value of your oldest relationships.
The 2021 Bucks have much to teach us in this regard. We can begin with the simple fact that the championship would not have been won without Jrue Holiday. His defense, a level beyond that of Eric Bledsoe, turned the Finals on its head when he began to hound Chris Paul into careless offensive mistakes. Despite his struggles on the other side of the court, he still did what Bledsoe never could – provide a consistent (and elite) playmaking presence while doing just enough as a scorer to keep defenses honest.
The Bucks wouldn’t have a ring without PJ Tucker and Bobby Portis either. They gave them that edge. As Tucker would say, in slightly different words, they provided the boost the Bucks needed to get their inner dogs out into the limelight. Tucker also provided the defensive effort on Kevin Durant that few others could. Durant dominated, but in a series that was decided by literal inches, Tucker limited him just enough. Portis, meanwhile, offered the energy and scoring production that put the Bucks over the edge in some of their tougher playoff wins, especially those that come at home.
We can talk about Mike Budenholzer’s adjustments too. From an outright tactical murder of the Miami Heat to a willingness to move away from drop coverage to the decision to bench underperforming role players like Portis and Bryn Forbes at various points in the postseason, Bud consistently showed a greater ability – and want – to make the proper adjustments, something that hadn’t been done in playoffs past.
With all this in mind, there’s no doubt that the Bucks wouldn’t be where they are today without the recognition that continually running out the same players and plan simply wouldn’t get it done. Change is, at times, necessary. What works here won’t work there, and being able and willing to adjust yourself as time and situations change around you is a necessary part of life. Of course, change is also a constant in the NBA. If it alone won you titles, nearly every team in the league would be hanging banners each year. We must also remember that none of this would have happened without a continued commitment to those who were already here.
That begins with Budenholzer, the oft-maligned coach who was holding the Bucks back – until he was suddenly smiling in the middle of a confetti storm. There’s Brook Lopez, the under appreciated middle man who helped launch Milwaukee’s true return to contention and continued – despite constant trade wishes from fans – to do everything we could have asked on the way to a title. There’s Middleton, the second star who was never enough – until the last of his run of clutch jumpers put the Suns away in a Finals-deciding victory. Then there’s Antetokounmpo, the star who recognized the value in what he had, and kept it around him as he chased after his own postseason demons.
The 2021 Milwaukee Bucks taught us to adjust, but they also taught us one of life’s more important lessons – always appreciate what you have. You don’t want to lose it before you realize how valuable it is.
Hard Work Beats All
Why not begin with Antetokounmpo, who embodies this lesson as well as perhaps anyone, anywhere. You can focus on how he entered the league as a glorified stick figure and now looks the part of Greek Freak. Or his on-court journey from promising bench player on a truly terrible team to one of the best basketball players ever and the leader of a champion.
But Giannis’s story extends beyond those simple summaries. He started in a place where few run out of, and he ended up in a place that even fewer can claim to call home. Luck? Some. Divine intervention? Without a doubt. But hard work makes those things work for you. You don’t reach the summit without hundreds of hours of sweat, hundreds of hours where the sole focus is making yourself better. Antetokounmpo is famous for his love of that grind, and now he’s famous for being a champion too.
Work ethic isn’t a mean to all ends; we know this. But there aren’t many things you can do without it, and it stands at the center of most success stories. The Bucks are a great example of that.
Of course, the lesson doesn’t stop with Giannis. Tucker spent five years in Europe after a rookie season that fell short of 100 total minutes. He called Ukraine, Israel, Italy, Germany, and Greece home at various points. Playing across the ocean isn’t exactly unheard of among the American NBA ranks, but it’s unbelievably rare to see a player start in the league, move elsewhere for half a decade, and then return not only for a moment, but for a span that covers a good career all by itself. This year, when PJ was traded mid-season and dealt with a few injury flareups, was the first time he had missed more than ten games in an NBA season since that rookie year almost fifteen years ago. There are grinders, and then there’s PJ Tucker. It shows on and off the court. The Bucks don’t win it all without his effort.
They don’t win without Pat Connaughton giving every ounce of energy he had each time he took the court either. He crashed the boards with abandon, fought defensively, and gave everything the Bucks could have asked for as a shooter. The critics were loud when he signed his new contract last year. They’re quiet now. Pat put his head down and worked them to sleep.
There’s Portis’s energy too. Jrue’s defensive effort. Khris’s consistent ability to cover various needs on both sides of the court. Lopez’s commitment to do whatever the team needed him to do as hard as he could do it, no questions asked. Working hard didn’t win the Bucks a title. But it did put them in the right room, and it was a crucial part of their team DNA.
Don’t Stop Believing
Hold on to that feeling. It’s been a long time coming, both for the Bucks in general and this specific version of the team. The city of Milwaukee hasn’t won a title since 1971 despite a Finals appearance, a World Series appearance, and multiple teams that threatened to add to that list. There’s been heartbreak at the top, and there’s been plenty of long years spent on the other end of the spectrum too. It’s all over now. The Bucks are NBA champions, and the wait was worth it. Keep your eyes on the prize, and one day it will come.
Specific members of the Bucks can teach us this lesson too. That begins with Tucker, who’s journey, as we’ve already discussed, has brought him all over the world and the country. He never stopped. Not after a disappointing rookie season. Or after five years in Europe. Not even after coming so close with the Rockets these last few years. The belief never failed, and he finally caught up to the biggest of his dreams. PJ Tucker is an NBA champion.
So too are Pat Connaughton, Mike Budenholzer, Brook Lopez, and Khris Middleton. They have all heard that they weren’t good enough after playoff runs ended in disappointment these last few years. Plenty of fans gave up on them. They didn’t give up on themselves. They never let the doubt affect them. Now they’re NBA champions.
So is Giannis Antetokounmpo, whose entire journey has been fueled by a rabid sense of self belief. He pointed to the rafters as a rookie. Tweeted out promises of postseason glory not too long into his career. He stared down the throne, and then he took it for himself. Any great accomplishment requires belief. When there’s a will, there’s a way, and the absence of that will shuts many possible paths. The Bucks have taught us to keep going, keep working, keep dreaming. Because the only dreams that are too big are the ones we give up on.
There are multiple ways to go here. We can point to Mike Budenholzer, for example, who made it to the top coaching his way after so many said he couldn’t. I’ll dedicate this one to Giannis though. He embodies this lesson as well as anyone.
As in any sport, the ultimate goal in the NBA is the championship. The ring. Where the NBA is somewhat unique, however, at least in comparison to other major American sports, is the way that players move from team to team. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning both moved just once, near the very end of their careers. Drew Brees was, for all intents and purposes, a Saint for life. Aaron Rodgers will follow one of those two paths. Guys like Phillip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger, Russell Wilson, and more have all followed similar routes too, and we could say the same of Aaron Donald, JJ Watt, Calvin Johnson, and more. The bottom line is that the very best players just don’t tend to move from team to team in the peaks of their careers.
We can look at someone like Mike Trout or Albert Pujols or David Ortiz or Derek Jeter in baseball as well. The player flow in either league isn’t the same. Players like Giannis are the norm rather than the exception.
In the NBA, we’ve seen LeBron switch teams at the beginning of his prime and then switch twice more before he (appears to have) started to hit the twilight years in LA. We saw Kawhi win a mercenary ring in Toronto before going to a third team the next season, something that would be mind boggling to see in other leagues. We’ve seen Paul George and Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul fly around the league between various teams. Kevin Durant is on his third team. So is Kyrie Irving. James Harden just forced a trade in his prime. When you look at established superstars with about a decade or more of experience who have been with the same team since the beginning, it’s Giannis, Steph, Dame, and no one else.
Bet On Yourself
That’s what made this title so special. In a league where staying and fighting to win one for the home team is exceedingly rare, Giannis did just that. He did it despite unbelievable pressure from all sides, and he and his teammates made sure they got the job done once the pressure turned back into criticism after he signed on the dotted line. Giannis bet on his home city and those “old friends” of his. He bet that what he had built would come through when he needed it. Giannis bet on Giannis one more time, and it was the best bet he ever made.
It’s easy to lose track of who you are for a moment when that next step is right in front of you. The goal, however it is achieved, becomes more important than the process. Let the Bucks, not the Sixers, be your reminder that the journey makes the destination all the more meaningful. If you’re not you when you get there, what have you really achieved?
Stay in the Moment, but learn from the past
From the man himself – “When you focus on the past, that’s your ego… And when I focus on the future it’s my pride… And I kind of like to focus in the moment, in the present. And that’s humility”
There’s a lot of wisdom in those words. Focusing on past achievements and future goals is a good way to make sure you don’t do what you need to do in the middle. This is the mindset that brought the title home.
But we must also remember to learn from our past. The Bucks certainly learned from theirs. The third time was the charm, after all, for Bud’s team. They took their punches and, eventually, figured out how to address the flaws that had them falling short. That’s a crucial part of any process, and it’s not a new lesson for anyone. Milwaukee’s postseason run is not unique in its reliance on making the most of the present. Any major accomplishment requires it. Not everyone makes it such a major part of their evaluation of events though. That’s why I’ll end with it here.
First, I’ll add another piece to Antetokounmpo’s lines – When you focus on their accomplishments, that’s jealousy. When you revel in their losses, that’s a fragile ego. But when you learn from them – the good, the bad, and the in-between – that’s how you get better. The Bucks won a title, and it was pretty awesome. What this season has to offer, however, goes far beyond a ring and a banner. Fear the deer, but learn from them too.
Follow For More!
Follow me on Twitter @MikeRegan09. Check out our merch page as well. Use promo code WISCO at checkout for $1 off! To read more of our articles and keep up to date on the latest in Wisconsin sports, click here!