It wouldn’t be completely accurate to say the Milwaukee Bucks had a banner year in 2018. That would imply the addition of, well, a banner. While they do end the calendar year with the best winning percentage in the NBA, they’re still not quite to that point, yet.
But there is no doubt 2018 was a special year in Bucks history. You might even call it a “leap” year. Over the course of the year, every aspect of the franchise jumped forward.
The Bucks went from playing in one of the oldest buildings in the NBA to the gleaming new Fiserv Forum, a fabulous arena by any standard. A coaching change, a few roster tweaks and a new style of play have taken the Bucks from talented-but-underachieving to the analytics darling of the modern NBA as owners of the league’s best net rating, a smart shot chart and exciting to watch to boot.
These changes, from the start of the year to the end, have changed the face of Bucks basketball.
“I hope that they recognize and realize the shift in Bucks basketball,” general manager Jon Horst said when asked what he hopes people think when looking back at 2018.
“This is not a Bucks team that’s trying to compete for mediocrity. We’re not happy and satisfied with just making it into the playoffs, even though that’s always a great accomplishment in its own right. I hope that they see it’s a team led by a young superstar in Giannis (Antetokounmpo) that has high character and wants to win at the highest level with great people throughout the organization from the top down.”
The Bucks rang in 2018 in Toronto, hoping to build off the momentum of a thrilling, last-second win over the Thunder in Oklahoma City. They were 19-15 at the time, one game shy of their peak of five games over .500 earlier in December. Collectively, the team’s hope was that it was about to turn the corner instead of just treading water.
But the turn never came. Milwaukee fell to Toronto in overtime on New Year’s Day, kicking off a slow, three-week slide that ended with coach Jason Kidd being fired for leading the team to an underwhelming 23-22 record in his fourth season.
Thanks largely to a weak schedule, the Bucks surged to 30-23 in Joe Prunty’s first eight games as coach, but didn’t get much higher. By season’s end, they were 44-38 – a better record than the previous season but still only good enough for seventh in the East. The Bucks pushed the Boston Celtics to seven games in the opening round of the playoffs, but in Game 7 the wheels fell off.
The Bucks were left shaking their heads and for a second successive year, with Antetokounmpo and others voicing the belief they were the better, more talented team but just didn’t have what it took to get the job done.
Milwaukee needed to hit a home run with their coaching search and Horst swung for the fences in hiring Mike Budenholzer in May. With him came a sound coaching pedigree, a specific, proven scheme and the belief he could tap into the roster’s potential.
To fit Budenholzer’s five-out scheme, the Bucks drafted Donte DiVincenzo and added Ersan Ilyasova, Brook Lopez and Pat Connaughton in free agency. They also decided to let former No. 2 overall pick Jabari Parker walk in free agency when his price got too high.
“Last year, I think we had the makings talent-wise,” Horst said. “Tweaked the coaching staff, changed the coaching staff, added to the roster and I do think we’re much more capable and able to do that, but we haven’t done it yet. Still a young team, still an evolving team. I don’t know that we’ve realized our potential, but I think we’re further along on that curve. I still think there’s a ton of upside with this group.”
The results of those moves have been positive. In addition, the Bucks have seen individual growth up and down the roster, including from recent draft acquisitions D.J. Wilson and Sterling Brown. They also have a path forward next summer after an early December trade sent John Henson and Matthew Dellavedova to Cleveland and netted the Bucks George Hill and extra salary-cap space in the offseason.
“Each year I think we’ve grown as a group,” Khris Middleton said. “A lot of faces have changed in here, but the mindset hasn’t and that’s to get better and to keep growing each day.”
Another new year is approaching and even at 25-10, including 16-3 at Fiserv Forum, the Bucks are again hoping to keep their momentum rolling. They’re riding a three-game win streak and have won seven of their past eight.
The Bucks aren’t just fattening up on cupcakes, either, going 8-4 against the nine teams behind them in the top-10 of the league standings. They’re no longer considered an interesting upstart team, but a legitmate contender with an MVP frontrunner in Antetokounmpo that’s capable of making a deep run.
While 2018 may not have been a banner year, it could prove to be the foundational one that makes future unfurlings possible.
“It’s amazing,” Antetokounmpo said of the changes over the past year. “Got a new building, a new facility, a new head coach, a new system, everybody’s having fun, new atmosphere – it’s been amazing. … Moving on to 2019, I hope we can do big things and accomplish big things with this team.”