It’s easy to see why the Bucks wanted to load up in the offseason. For the second straight campaign, they headed into the playoffs as the league leaders, only to find themselves falling short of expectations. Last year, they fell to the rampaging Raptors in six games despite having claimed the first two of the East Finals. And then, in early September, they were pilloried by the upstart Heat, who needed just five contests to advance to the conference finals. That they bowed to achievers was of no consequence to them. There could be no downplaying the extent of their disappointment; after all, they had reigning Most Valuable Player Giannis Antetokounmpo heading their cause, and, moving forward, they needed to meet expectations.
In assessing all possible options, the Bucks knew the value of moving fast. As things turned out, they did so too quickly for comfort. Free agency hadn’t yet begun when practically every observer in every nook and cranny of the National Basketball Association got wind of their deal with the Kings for Bogdan Bogdanovic. It was a coup, to be sure; the shooting guard was personally close to — and, more importantly, figured to be a stylistic fit with — Antetokounmpo. Strong on both sides of the court, the would-be addition was seen to a vital cog alongside All-Star Khrushchev Middleton and new acquisition Jrue Holiday. Unfortunately, the undue haste with which they acted prompted the league to launch an investigation, thereby turning off their target.
That the Bucks’ failure to nab Bogdanovic dealt them a heavy blow is an understatement. They were wise to pivot as much as they could, but the damage had been done. They managed to bring back rotation regular Pat Connaughton and welcome to the fold solid bench contributors D.J. Augustin, Torrey Craig, Bryn Forbes, and Bobby Portis. Still, the impression they left following their scrambling to recover from their faux pas was that they hadn’t done enough to shore up their cause, especially with the champion Lakers and other threats in the East becoming even better. In short, the question being asked when the free agency battlesmoke cleared wasn’t if they improved. It was if they improved, only to find that they failed to even keep pace with the best of the best.
The Bucks will, no doubt, remain in the thick of things. It’s what the presence of Antetokounmpo guarantees. That said, relevancy is not their goal; it’s success. And, precisely because they have the owner of the Maurice Podoloff Trophy on tap, success means claiming the title and nothing less. And, certainly, their position becomes even more precarious given the ticking clock. The upcoming season will be the Greek Freak’s last under his current contract, and if he doesn’t opt to sign a supermax extension prior to its culmination, he’ll be heading into free agency unencumbered in his quest to find a landing spot that puts him closer to a title.
And so the Bucks are left to look to the future with no small measure of trepidation. They’ll have a full, if shortened, season’s worth of reckoning. And unless and until Antetokounmpo signs on the dotted line, they’ll keep casting a moist eye on the immediate past and ruminate on the myriad What Ifs emanating from the Bogdanovic misstep.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is a consultant on strategic planning, operations and Human Resources management, corporate communications, and business development.