Milwaukee Bucks: Have They Mastered the “Small” Market Blueprint?

Jul 20, 2021; Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA; Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) celebrates with the NBA Finals MVP Trophy following the game against the Phoenix Suns following game six of the 2021 NBA Finals at Fiserv Forum. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Jul 20, 2021; Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA; Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) celebrates with the NBA Finals MVP Trophy following the game against the Phoenix Suns following game six of the 2021 NBA Finals at Fiserv Forum. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports /

The Milwaukee Bucks have done it. World Champions. For the first time in 50 years, the 414 is home to a championship team.

This journey to hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy was a rocky road that entailed more than its fair share of trials and tribulations. However, through all the disappointing draft picks, heartbreaking losses, and years of frustration, the 2020-2021 Bucks squad vanquished those demons and captured the title.

This championship run was not a fluke, nor was it lucky. The Milwaukee Bucks had been laying the groundwork for the historic run for years.

In the modern NBA, big markets and star-studded super teams have dominated. In a league that relentlessly promotes and pushes its premier players to teams in cities such as Los Angeles, New York, or Miami, a small media market like Milwaukee is oftentimes an afterthought in terms of great basketball cities. However, as every Bucks fan has known, and as people around the world have come to know, the Cream City has one of the best basketball cultures in the world.

The organization as a whole has been operating at a very high level. The fans have been among the best in the league, and the team has been constructed masterfully to bring home the Larry O’Brien Trophy.

Let’s look into a couple of key aspects to the Bucks’ blueprint to winning a title.

The Milwaukee Bucks are Built, Not Bought

The Milwaukee Bucks core of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton did not become dominant together overnight. The two were both very young, raw prospects when they joined the Bucks but showed flashes of greatness. In the present day, the Greek Freak and Khris “Khash Money” Middleton are not only one of the most talented tandems in the league but also one of the longest-tenured pairs throughout the entire NBA.

Their rise from bench players to stardom in a lot of ways embodies the Bucks’ climb from the depths of the Eastern Conference to becoming NBA Champions. The Giannis and Khris story started in 2013, and the franchise would be changed forever.

The Milwaukee Bucks, fresh off a 38-44 record and stuck in a rut of mediocrity, decide it was time for a culture shift. Led by GM John Hammond, the Milwaukee Bucks select a relatively unknown and very raw prospect from Greece with the 15th pick in the NBA draft, Giannis Antetekounmpo. Fast forward to a little over a month later, starting point guard Brandon Jennings is dealt to the Detroit Pistons for Brandon Knight, Viacheslav Kravtsov, and the little-known prospect, Khris Middleton.

From that season on, the Bucks’ success went with the unlikely duo of Middleton and Antetkounmpo. They each had their own struggles and shortcomings early on, and the two were at one point competing for minutes. However, their journey to becoming complimentary stars in the league aligned with the Bucks’ rise to the top in the NBA.

The former G-Leaguer and the unknown Freak from Greece evolved and improved year after year and eventually became one of the best duos in the NBA. Despite Giannis winning a plethora of awards, including 2 NBA MVPs and Middleton becoming a multi-time all-star, the two were still missing the illustrious and coveted designation as NBA Champions–until now.

What sets this duo apart from other stars in the league is their dedication and loyalty to Milwaukee. Both Giannis and Khris re-signing and committing to not only Bucks’ fans but the state as a whole to bring a championship back to Wisconsin puts them in elite company within the state.

The theme of this Bucks team is similar to the Giannis and Khris Story; don’t run from the grind…embrace it.

Having a Vision

When the Milwaukee Bucks were bought in 2014 by Wes Edens and Marc Lasry, Herb Kohl, the previous owner, ensured they would keep the team in the 414 forever. With a pledge to build a new arena and field a winning team, a new era in Milwaukee basketball was founded. However, the on-court performance was nowhere near where they needed to be.

The Bucks had an end goal, a destination in mind, a quest to win the franchise’s second-ever NBA Championship. The only problem, the team, was not contending for championships—they were barely even competitive in the NBA.

Being in a small market and having very little success in signing big-name free agents, the Bucks had to draft well. Not only well, but with a mindset of drafting for upside. Going with this strategy leads to lots of whiffs on picks. However, it also can lead to drafting a generational talent with the 15th pick.

Besides the Giannis pick, the Bucks’ success in the draft has not been the best, but I cannot knock the rationale behind some of the high potential selections they made. Thon Maker is a prime example. Selected 10th overall in the 2016 NBA Draft, Maker was largely unknown but had the potential to become a star in the league. Ultimately, much to the dismay of Bucks’ fans, Maker did not pan out and never really amounted to anything for the Bucks. But taking risks in the draft and trying to find the next diamond in the rough is what small market teams need to do.

If the Milwaukee Bucks took the safe route in the draft and went for immediate impact players, Giannis would not be on the team, and the Milwaukee Bucks might just be in Seattle.

Drafting well and constructing a contending team is something obviously very pivotal to the Bucks’ success, but the front office and ownership group’s foresight into the future also paved the way for this historic title run. Starting with the #OwnTheFuture campaign, the Edens and Lasry led organization started to turn the ship in Milwaukee. Generating more and more buzz around the league every year, the Bucks were more than prepared for the spotlight.

Investing in the community and taking some risks ultimately came to pay dividends for the Milwaukee Bucks leadership team. While the team on-court performance was still not very competitive and the Bucks were struggling to survive, a new state-of-the-art arena, Fiserv Forum, was constructed. Not only was the arena developed, but also the Deer District and the entire surrounding land, which has become an international spectacle during this playoff run.

Edens and Lasry were betting on themselves that one day they could help assemble a roster that would have the Fiserv Forum, Deer District, and downtown Milwaukee as a whole be packed to the gills to watch the home team capture a Larry O’Brien trophy. This was definitely a risky move, and if the team had struggled to get out of their stretch of mediocrity, that space would have been a waste of money, and who knows what that would have meant for the Bucks’ future in Milwaukee. Thankfully, through their leadership, along with the help of GM Jon Horst and the rest of the front office, crowds flooding the Deer District to watch playoff basketball has become a tradition in southeastern Wisconsin.

The Bucks’ championship run is a historic moment not only for the state of Wisconsin but for small-market sports fans all over the globe. The chips are stacked against the teams in the “small” professional sports cities, yet somehow, the Bucks were able to overcome all adversity and become World Champions.

Having patience and grooming talent in-house, investing in the future, and drafting players with high upside were some parts of the Bucks’ blueprint to success, but for every team, it is different. I know one thing for sure, other teams have taken note of how the Bucks rose to the top and will try to mimic it.