Drawing parallels to the 2014-15 Golden State Warriors is a dangerous exercise, but spend some time with the Milwaukee Bucks and you'll see glimpses. A once unremarkable 44-38 squad that bowed out of the 2018 playoffs early is now focused and growing comfortable in its identity. More than two months into the season, the Bucks sport the NBA's best point differential and rank among the top five in both offensive and defensive efficiency -- the only team in the league to do so.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is an early favorite for the 2019 MVP award, and the team will play on Christmas Day for the first time since 1977. Under a new head coach, the Bucks are learning on the fly how to master an unfamiliar system designed to maximize an elite superstar.
Here are seven portraits that capture what's different in Milwaukee this season, from the inner fire of their team leader to the implementation of a system designed to give the players the freedom to succeed -- if they can master and trust it. It's a steady work in progress, not without hiccups. But a franchise that's wallowed in mediocrity has its best shot at a championship in nearly 50 years.
IT'S A THURSDAY morning shootaround in Indianapolis and Giannis Antetokounmpo is still brooding. The mood began to crescendo three days earlier, when he sat out a Dec. 10 game with a precautionary DNP for neck soreness on the second night of a back-to-back -- a game the Bucks won with ease at home over the Cleveland Cavaliers. Regardless of circumstance and outcome, not being permitted to impose the full force of his lithe body and skilled game on the floor leaves Antetokounmpo stewing. Playing is what basketball players do.
Then there was the debacle 48 hours later in Indianapolis, a 113-97 loss in which Antetokounmpo scored only 12 points and generated just six field goal attempts, his lowest output on both accounts in nearly two seasons. All night, the Pacers threw a wall of defenders at Antetokounmpo, who responded, per standard operating procedure, by kicking the ball out to teammates. But shots didn't fall, and the Pacers' aggressive defense tightened the vise around Antetokounmpo. After the game, he marinated in frustration, sitting at his locker for eons as teammates filed out to the bus one-by-one.
"I never had the ball," he said. "I had to pass the ball and the game did not come back to me. We never as a team forced the issue for the ball to come back to me. My team wants me to be unselfish. I'm going to pass the ball and that's going to be it."
The loss to Indiana will be stuck in his craw over the next two days. He'll view the game tape multiple times with assistant coaches, and after Thursday's practice he'll see it with coach Mike Budenholzer, the architect of this new system, which can be as confounding as it can be liberating for Antetokounmpo. But there's no satisfaction in this binge watching, and as the Bucks move on to Cleveland, the rumination only builds. Teammates and coaches cower; staffers stay clear. It's an intensity so searing that it commands as much admiration as fear.
This is the side of Antetokounmpo few outside of Milwaukee catch a glimpse of. They know the playful 18-year-old who entered the league with puppy energy and a broad smile. But that portrait is dated, and at the conclusion of shootaround on Friday, he's sitting with assistant coach Ben Sullivan, listening to some encouraging counsel, but still replaying Wednesday night. Like an inconsolable relief pitcher consumed by a blown save until he can get back on the mound, Antetokounmpo's mood won't lift until he takes the floor that night in Cleveland.
"It's the competitiveness -- the guy wants to do anything it takes to win," Budenholzer says. "I think there is a variance in the degree of competitiveness [among NBA players], but he's off the charts."
As the Bucks' team bus pulls into Quicken Loans Arena on Friday night, there's a consensus among teammates and staff: Antetokounmpo, who has been stalking around all week in practice, on planes and buses and at meetings, will unleash his irritation on the poor, unwitting Cavs.
The predictions hold: Antetokounmpo matches his career-high of 44 points on 14-for-19 shooting, gobbles up 14 rebounds and dishes out 8 assists in the Bucks' 114-102 win.
The second chance
MIKE BUDENHOLZER WAS five minutes away from becoming Antetokounmpo's first NBA coach. In 2013, the Atlanta Hawks had just hired the longtime Spurs assistant for his first head-coaching job, and general manager Danny Ferry had his eyes set on a young Greek prospect averaging fewer than 10 points a game in his nation's second-tier professional league. Few NBA teams had scouted the mysterious, uber-athletic pogo stick who could play every position on the floor yet whose talent was still raw, but Atlanta was sold.
A few weeks before the draft, Antetokounmpo and his brother Thanasis landed in Atlanta, Giannis' first moment on American soil. Ferry hosted the Antetokounmpo brothers at his home, and Budenholzer got a glimpse of the basketball world's curio at a midnight workout on the Hawks' practice court inside Philips Arena (now State Farm Arena).
Later that spring in the draft room, the Hawks' designs would be foiled when the Bucks snatched Antetokounmpo at No. 15, one slot ahead of the Hawks' pick. The Atlanta draft room erupted in exasperated anger. At that moment, the fortunes of two franchises changed dramatically. Budenholzer would go on to win NBA Coach of the Year two years later for leading the Hawks to 60 wins without a true superstar. Three years after that, Budenholzer found his way to Milwaukee, where he had installed his efficient system. But this time, it would service the phenomenal skills of a transcendent top-five NBA talent, the very player Atlanta came within a whisker of acquiring.
Though he rarely betrays much of anything in his compulsory news conferences, Budenholzer is almost constitutionally incapable of revealing anything but his unvarnished feelings and beliefs in one-on-one conversation (perhaps this explains his news conference filter). And when you talk to him about the opportunity to coach Antetokounmpo, he swoons -- a coach who feels he has died and gone to heaven.
"I'm beyond impressed at how he sees the court, how he reads defenses and makes quick decisions, hits teammates, passes on time/on target," Budenholzer says. "Talking with him and visiting with him, I think that's how he sees himself. This is naturally who he is -- a really unselfish guy who can facilitate and make reads and can score. It's going to be hard because he's got to do a little bit of everything. But it's exciting to think he's capable of being a guard, being a big guy, being a scorer, being a passer. He's just so unique."
As much as Budenholzer admires Antetokounmpo's game, he's a coach of Spurs lineage who demands a specific brand of leadership from his best player. Spoiled by Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker (and on a smaller scale by Paul Millsap, Al Horford and Kyle Korver in Atlanta), Budenholzer senses that Antetokounmpo has that almost ineffable combination of qualities the Bucks need to win at the highest level: a steely competitiveness coupled with a natural empathy. This particular star player must be self-motivated but also embrace the process of being coached. Call it the Duncan Metric.
"He's blown me away and is off the charts on that metric," Budenholzer says. "Very early, he made it very clear to me that he wants to be coached; he wants to be great.
"He's very determined, very focused, very hungry. 'Nobody is going to get in my way.' It's a huge part of who he is. And you follow it up with this unselfishness, the quality of the character. Those two qualities speak to me. He's got them in spades."
THEY CALL HIM Splash Mountain, a 7-foot behemoth who has been firing 3-pointers at will this season -- and with the enthusiastic encouragement of teammates and the Bucks' coaching staff. This is Brook Lopez, the Bucks' starting center whom general manager Jon Horst and his front office team nabbed off the free-agent market for $3.4 million in July. Nine weeks into the NBA season, Lopez stands as the summer's savvyist bargain. Admittedly, it's a dubious distinction for the guy on the receiving end of the paycheck.
"It's tough," he says of the NBA's chilly market for big men. "There are a lot of bigs out there doing great jobs and great things for their teams even the way the game has trended, but for some reason, that's the way it's gone."
So Lopez did what any sensible person facing professional obsolescence would do -- embrace the new economy. Lopez extended his range and now personifies the brave new world of the Bucks' offense, which ranked 26th in 3-pointers attempted per 100 shots in 2017-18. This season, the Bucks are second overall.
For his part, Lopez has jumped from 350th in 3-point shots per 36 minutes in 2015-16 all the way to 12th -- right behind Eric Gordon and JJ Redick. Lopez is one of the few significant additions -- including Budenholzer and Ersan Ilyasova -- to a team that has gone from merely average to East contenders. In fact, Lopez has the most impactful on/off numbers on the Bucks.
"Here, there's been such a high volume of [3-pointers] because in coach Bud's system he's given me the green light to shoot," Lopez says. "It's a different level. Shoot it, that's your job. And if I pass up an open shot, I'm coming into the next timeout, they're like, 'You didn't shoot that one. You need to shoot that one.'"
Lopez remains one of the league's most endearing weirdos, a consummate professional and the world's tallest kid. A Disney freak since his childhood in Southern California, where he visited Disneyland regularly with his mom and siblings, he chose to make his offseason home on Disney property in Florida to be in close proximity to Walt Disney World. (Disney is ESPN's parent company).
"It's a different life," he says. "Instead of being like, 'I'm on vacation, I've got to get my park time in,' it's sort of more leisurely. You're hanging out at home. And you're kind of living your day-to-day. You get your workout in. You're home chilling. One of my boys will be over, or my girl and it's, like, 'Let's run into the park, go do Haunted Mansion.'"
QUALITY LOOKS FROM beyond the arc and easy shots around the basket are the objectives, but those attempts are the product of a well-orchestrated system, one designed to decongest the floor for Antetokounmpo with optimal spacing.
"When guys are knocking down shots, he knows the paint is going to be wide open for him," Khris Middleton says. "That's a place he thrives -- driving on his guys, posting up and whatnot. Our offense is constantly moving, sprinting and knocking down shots, [defenders] are hesitant to go double-team him. If they do, he's able to make the right play. But he's too good to guard one-on-one."
In addition to the proficiency from long range, the Bucks also rank second in the NBA in shots at the rim per 100 attempts and, even more important, second in effective field goal percentage at the rim at 72.2 percent. Antetokounmpo leads the NBA in dunks by a wide margin with 127 on the season. Those shots from Kenosha and the ones at point blank? It's a symbiotic relationship.
One of the defining features of the motion-oriented scheme is its reliance on players making reads in the offense -- that is, identifying how the opposing defense is committing itself, then making the play that will yield the best opportunity. This general concept works in contrast to offenses that are predicated on running predefined sets, as the Bucks had done more regularly in recent seasons. And while the free-flowing offense sounds like a blast, it requires a bit of an adjustment for many NBA players, especially those who appreciate knowing how, when and where their shots are going to materialize on a given possession.
Middleton, who has been a standard-bearer for the Bucks the past several years, understands the appeal of the new setup: "You realize what the system can do when everyone gets inspired at the same time, everybody is playing in sync -- It's hard to guard." But during a recent offensive slump, Middleton had moments when he dearly missed some of the scripted plays that yielded him specific looks at specific spots.
"You're used to knowing where you're shots are coming from," said Middleton at the tail end of that slump he snapped out of three nights later. "Right now, I don't as much. It's kind of new to me. So now I have to figure it out on the fly. You're not in rhythm. You just have to figure it out -- keep playing, keep shooting and hopefully find your way out of it."
Middleton and his coaches are confident this will soon become second-nature. In the meantime, they can marvel at the evolution of Antetokounmpo's game under the direction of the new order.
"The system has freed Giannis up," Malcolm Brogdon says. "It's organized his game a little bit more. The system we play allows Giannis to get easier shots. It still allows him to play to his strengths, getting downhill, finishing, but Giannis is dunking the ball more than he ever has this season, and part of that is because of the spacing and the system."
EVERY MINUTE OF the Bucks' hourlong game-day shootaround is accounted for. A walk-through of the primary sets of that night's opponent will last seven minutes. Players will get shots up for six minutes. They'll do another six minutes of running, and then the team will spend eight minutes on their own scripted plays.
No more, no less -- and players love it.
"It's really efficient," Lopez says. "Everything here has a purpose and a reason."
Players appreciate that everyone is expected to apply maximum focus for every last task, drill, or film session, but there's also zero busy work in Milwaukee. Whereas some coaches like to send a message with a grueling two-hour practice or an interminable walk-through that exhausts the entire playbook of the opposing team, the Bucks don't put on airs. Nobody is more or less impressed with a player who performs two-a-days on off-days during the season, and no assistant coach will ever get a gold star for sleeping on the couch at the facility.
Practice days are similarly streamlined, and the Bucks call their daily routine vitamins -- "As in, you take your vitamin every day," Lopez says.
The vitamin goes something like this: Start the day with 10 or 15 minutes of physical therapy, followed by a personalized 20-minute regimen in the weight room. After that, the player gets an individual workout of about half an hour with an assistant coach. It's not the same vitamin with the same coach each day. Point guard Eric Bledsoe might work one morning with assistant coach Charles Lee on a defensive skill, then with assistant Taylor Jenkins on a move he wants to refine off the dribble. Then, it's on to practice, which operates under the same brisk efficiency.
Budenholzer has implemented lockout days at the facility, where players are prohibited from working out. Cognizant of a regular season with too many games and too many flights, the Bucks are focused on entering spring healthy and rested. And who doesn't want an office policy that tells employees on a regular basis to get away from the grind and take some personal time?
Giannis Antetokounmpo, that's who.
"This work ethic that's becoming legendary? It's insane," Budenholzer says.
Antetokounmpo is the kind of player who voluntarily fits in two or even three workouts per day during the offseason. Left to his own devices, he's more likely to be inside a gym at midnight than a club. If Antetokounmpo is not with family or his girlfriend, there's a high likelihood he's lifting weights, performing cardio or just watching film, whether or not those activities can be found on the Bucks' new work-smarter-not-harder schedule. So the new ethic has been a little challenging.
"It's harder -- all I know is how to work," Antetokounmpo says. "Working hard gives me confidence, so when I feel like I'm not working hard, it takes away from my confidence. Working is not just about getting better, but it gives you a lot of confidence. When you go out there and compete, it's knowing you've done the work that gives you the confidence."
Antetokounmpo has adjusted and has acknowledged against his nature that rest and recovery are vital ingredients to the Bucks' prospects of long-term success. Still, the concept of lockout days remains completely foreign to him, however emphatically they're imposed by the coaching staff.
"There's nobody in the world who can lock me out of the gym," Antetokounmpo says. "I'll find a high school gym and go shoot there."
The beer button
IN THE THIRD quarter of a mid-December home game, the Bucks are testing out the beta version of an innovation, one motivated by a common source of irritation that plagues sports fans at any live game.
"I just want a beer," says Matt Stanton, the Bucks' director of digital platforms. "That's the one thing that gets me mad -- waiting in line for a long time for a beer while there's a game going on."
As the Bucks prepared to move into their bright, new arena, Fiserv Forum, this season, they were looking for ways to, in the parlance of sports-biz-speak, enhance the fan experience. In the digital age, that also means developing a mobile app that feeds users with highlights, contest entry forms, an easy way to buy tickets to future games -- and what can essentially be described as "Uber ... for beer."
Rather than schlep up to the concourse and stand in line at concessions, fans in the first three quarters can open up the app, navigate over to the Bucks Beer Button and press "Beer Me." They'll be prompted for their section, row and seat and then will select the number of beers (limit two per order). The selections are currently limited to Miller Lite and Coors Lite, but the Bucks have aspirations to expand the menu.
Once the purchase is completed, a vendor with a cooler outfitted with a tablet is alerted to the order. The vendor promptly shows up at the seat location, pops the beer and the fan is sated. When recently asked to name the coolest thing another team has developed that they wish they'd thought of first, a Western Conference CEO identified the beer button in Milwaukee -- whimsical, high-tech, egalitarian (typically you've had to buy a premium seat to be waited on) and city-specific.
"What's more on-brand for Milwaukee than beer?" Stanton says.
Beyond the procurement of beer, Fiserv Forum and the Bucks' new training center adjacent to the arena, vaults Milwaukee from dead-last in facility appeal (less than two years ago Joel Embiid geotagged an Instagram post from the Bradley Center as "S---hole") to near the top of the NBA. The arena's public spaces and exterior plazas are every bit as airy as the Bucks' five-out offense.
The place is packed on weeknights, and the intimate design makes 17,500 fans -- a relatively small capacity for the NBA -- feel as if they're hovering over the hardwood. Though Milwaukee might not rank as a sexy free-agent destination, the overall vibe offers a similar appeal to the product on the floor.
AN HOUR AFTER his first game as a Buck, George Hill is all smiles.
"I'm super excited," he says. "This is a blessing. I knew Bud for three years in San Antonio. Cool coach who just wants to win, demands that you play hard and lets you play free. It's great to be here. Now I just have to find some hunting spots."
The Bucks are aggressively surveying the landscape for targets who can help them contend for a title now while maintaining flexibility next summer. It was with this goal in mind a couple of weeks ago that Horst acquired Hill from the Cavs to add to Milwaukee's backcourt depth, long-range shooting and court savvy. (Sources say the Bucks came tantalizingly close to acquiring both Hill and Korver from Cleveland before being edged out by the Utah Jazz for Korver's services).
Some call it "the window," others the "ticking clock." Loosely defined, it's the urgency with which the Bucks' organization must operate while it has Antetokounmpo under contract through the 2020-21 season. Between now and then, the Bucks have two inextricably linked objectives -- to win big and to convince Antetokounmpo that Milwaukee is the best place to achieve his professional goals long term.
An NBA franchise considers the presence of a window or a ticking clock a sign of good fortune. It means there's a generational talent like Antetokounmpo on the roster, and even though every team regards winning a title the ultimate mission, a team with a window isn't just speaking in hypotheticals. It means it actually has a shot to win a title. But a window also comes with all kinds of exigencies that can keep players, coaches and execs awake at night. Exhibit A for Milwaukee: Apart from Antetokounmpo, not one other member of the Bucks' starting lineup is under contract for next season.
For an NBA team, this can be the ultimate combustible situation. Players looking to get paid tend to want shot attempts to prove their worth. A staff can preach the virtues of the system all it wants, but unselfishness is a far more attractive proposition to a coach on a four-year deal than to a player in his final year. Having multiple free agents on a roster presents the ultimate irony to a general manager like Horst and the Bucks' ownership group -- the more the team succeeds, the more difficult the job becomes to meet the financial demands of the players driving the success.
But these are the first-world problems that accompany a first-rate superstar like Antetokounmpo. When a player lacks a ceiling, how do you construct a roof over his head?