The Milwaukee Bucks are still the reigning NBA champions. That phrase doesn’t get old, and it won’t go away until the Bucks are no longer able to defend their title next season. But there are a number of threats to that defense, and it’s no sure thing that Milwaukee will claim the name “NBA champion” for a second year running. The Bucks were, for most of last season, at a crossroads, standing at the intersection between “Championship or Bust.” They took the right turns to get where they wanted to go…and in the words of Giannis Antetokounmpo: “…how Coach Bud say, we got to do it again.”
But do they?
Of course, the preferred answer is “yes.” The full answer might be more along the lines of, “yes, of course, you twit, obviously they should win another NBA Finals.” And that’s all well and good, the Bucks are clearly good enough to remain atop the NBA’s power structure and vie for a return to basketball’s promised land. But my main question is this: should fans still treat the Milwaukee Bucks as a “championship or bust” team?
The Bucks’ recent offseasons were geared all the way towards win-now, in ways that differ greatly from previous attempts of the franchise that all fell laughably short. The main difference is that these moves worked, and other ones came nowhere close. With all the main contributors returning for 2021-22 (save for PJ Tucker, who will be missed despite predictions that he might be on the verge of a sudden decline), the Bucks are primed to win this year just like they won last year, even if they eventually have to win in different ways.
So yes, everyone will be happy if they win the championship. At this point in the year, all 30 teams can say the same thing. But for the Bucks, specifically these Bucks, what other outcomes can we live with?
The Milwaukee Bucks are a written-in-ink playoff team, and figure to be in the mix for the top seed in the Eastern Conference. Barring injury, there is no other current group in the East that can mount a credible threat to Milwaukee besides the Brooklyn Nets. Last year’s top seed, the Philadelphia 76ers, technically could repeat as the number one seed, but they’re currently embroiled in a game of chicken with Ben Simmons, who has seen his trade value plummet (not that he cares, mind you) and is threatening to sit out of the Sixers don’t move him. Admittedly, Philly might be a top-tier team in the East (they were last year!) depending on what they get in return for the Young Socialite, but for now they’re stuck in the mud with no clear way out. It’s hilarious.
But anyways, back to the real threat. The Brooklyn Nets gave the Bucks everything they could handle last time around, and it’s unwise to expect another rash of injuries the second time around. Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and James Harden are not interested in a repeat disappointment, and the Brooklyn front office has reinforced the roster that might be one of the most talented teams…ever (on paper). Maybe the Bucks will play the Nets better this time around (missing Donte DiVincenzo was an undertone of the series that nearly disappeared with Harden’s hamstring and Irving’s ankle injuries), or maybe their conference semi-final triumph really was a fluke, as so many outside Bucks fandom claim. Either way, there’s a pretty good chance we’ll find out how the Bucks and Nets stack up in May. If Milwaukee falls short, will fans conclude that it was a failure, when Brooklyn boasts so much raw talent?
But let’s say the Bucks’ emerge victorious in May, and they get all the way to June to face off against the winner of the Western Conference. History suggests that simply getting to the NBA Finals is just as important as winning the ultimate series; give yourself a chance to compete for the trophy, and let the chips fall where they may. We saw that against the Phoenix Suns, with a still-recovering Giannis. The Bucks pulled off a stunning 0-2 series turnaround, making the narrative more dramatic, but the fact that they got there was proof that they were worthy of the challenge. If the Bucks get there again, and square off against the Suns, or Jazz, or Lakers, or someone else out of the West, is winning the only acceptable outcome?
Health is the great equalizer; sometimes the most important ability is availability, and Milwaukee has historically performed relatively well in that area. What if that changes? Giannis has cheated basketball death more than once, so what if that string of luck runs out? Or another major contributor gets sidelined, whether it’s injury or illness (remember: COVID-19 is still a thing), and the Bucks aren’t at full strength? Are they able to survive without Khris Middleton bailing them out, or Jrue Holiday shutting down opponents, or Brook Lopez mucking up the middle? Can fans still appreciate a campaign that gets cut short in this way?
It’s fair to read through this article and conclude that I’m hedging my bets before they’re even placed, that I’m prematurely preparing for disappointment. Some might call that “loser talk,” and they might even be right. Truth be told, that’s not what I’m doing. Rather, I’m talking through the possible outcomes – honestly, the more likely outcomes, only one team can win it all! – and trying to get a sense of where fans are now, specifically after the Milwaukee Bucks have actually won a championship with Giannis, Bud, Khris, Jrue, and company at the helm.
So indulge me: what’s the minimum threshold for you, as a Bucks fan, to be satisfied with the 2021-22 NBA season? What must Milwaukee accomplish for the upcoming campaign to not just avoid the label of “failure,” but to maintain interest and stay in the good graces of sports fans in Milwaukee, in Wisconsin, and beyond?
In short, what exactly is “good enough” for you?