This season, an unlikely team has emerged with the NBA’s best record. The Milwaukee Bucks, along with the Toronto Raptors, have separated themselves from the rest of the Eastern Conference. Wisconsin’s basketball team has jumped ahead of bigger markets in the East like Boston and Philadelphia, while the New York Knicks are in last place.
How have the Bucks assembled a championship-caliber team without the big stage of other NBA franchises?
With a couple of exceptions, every championship team has at least one superstar. When it comes to small-market teams, drafting is the only way to get one. Teams like the Lakers, Knicks and Warriors, based on franchise value, endorsements and more, have the opportunity to lure big names to play for them.
The Bucks selected Giannis Antetokounmpo with the 15th pick in the 2013 draft. The 6-foot-11 Greek-born player has blossomed into one of the NBA’s most dominant players in only a few years. He has been an All-Star the last three seasons.
This season, the ‘Greek Freak’ is a candidate for both the MVP and DPOY awards. Antetokounmpo is averaging 27 points, 12 rebounds and six assists.
Drafting well is not easy to do, and the Bucks struck gold when they took Antetokounmpo. Teams that don’t have the allure of New York or L.A. have to draft good players if they want to be competitive.
Another way Milwaukee has overcome their small-market status is by trading for undervalued players. In the trade that sent Brandon Jennings to the Pistons, the Bucks received Khris Middleton. Middleton hadn’t done much in the league before arriving, but he has since become the second scoring option for the Bucks and made the All-Star team for the first time this season.
Milwaukee acquired Eric Bledsoe in exchange for Greg Monroe in the fall of 2017. While not known as one of the best point guards in the league, Bledsoe is still very talented and has been a big part of the Bucks’ success. In their system, Bledsoe is having a career year and just re-signed long-term with the team.
This season, Milwaukee acquired Nikola Mirotic from the Pelicans at the trade deadline. This move gives them a stretch-four and makes them an even more versatile team. Last week, it was announced that they will sign veteran Pau Gasol after he is bought out.
In addition to drafting well in players like Antetokounmpo and Malcolm Brogdon, Milwaukee has found ways to acquire new, undervalued talent in exchange for players who didn’t make as much impact on the court.
Head coach Mike Budenholzer has found the right rotations and gotten the most out of his players. He is a safe pick to win this year’s Coach of the Year award.
While Milwaukee was bounced by Boston in the first round last season, this Bucks team is on another level. The first-place standing in the Eastern Conference is all the more impressive for Milwaukee given their market size.
Not many players are looking to play in Wisconsin, but the Bucks organization has made great moves in recent years, and that is something that players look for in a franchise.
Wether or not Milwaukee’s small-market success will translate into an NBA Finals appearance remains to be seen, but they are definitely headed in the right direction.
Featured image courtesy of Getty Images.