Bright future still in cards for Bucks thanks to Antetokounmpo

Milwaukee continues to prove how a small market can succeed

CHICAGO — No one was going to flat-out say it. But there was a sense around the Milwaukee Bucks Monday night that co-owner Marc Lasry getting fined $25,000 by the NBA for tampering might be good for the franchise’s street cred.

The idea that Milwaukee — Milwaukee! — might be a destination market enticing enough to threaten another organization is a first. The Bucks aren’t a team that tampers. The Bucks are a team that gets tampered with.

Last week, Rich Paul — the agent for New Orleans Pelicans star Anthony Davis — ramped up trade speculation by issuing a short list of teams to which Davis would consider being dealt. On it: two teams in Los Angeles, one in New York and … Milwaukee? Many took that as a smokescreen, the Bucks added to the list presumably for their current winning ways but mostly to help blur the perception that Davis and the Lakers were destined for each other.

Lasry’s comments in a Sporting News story, however, got the league’s attention. “I saw that report, and I think it’s great. It’s a little bit of what we want. We want players to come and play in Milwaukee,” he said.

Lasry also was quoted: “We hope it would be players like Anthony Davis and others who want to come to Milwaukee.”

The Bucks, however, would be more than happy at this stage to go about their business as they see it, pushing forward in the Eastern Conference atop which they currently sit. They added to their talent base (Nikola Mirotic) and dispatched someone who didn’t want to be there (Thon Maker). And retaining not just Giannis Antetokounmpo, the NBA’s leading candidate for Kia MVP honors, but the complementary pieces around him in a whole far greater than the sum of its parts.

New Orleans has a mess on its hands, a slow-mo implosion that could go on for months. Davis is around in body but gone already in spirit. It has holes opened via secondary roster moves at and after the trade deadline. It has earnest players (Jrue Holiday and Julius Randle) who never wanted to see their team spit out the bit like this. It is 25-32 with too many mathematical and mental hills to climb in the West to salvage its season.

The Bucks, meanwhile, share market size and lack of glamour issues with the Pelicans, at least in the eyes of many NBA performers. And yet Milwaukee is too busy checking boxes to fret:

— Fancy, state-of-the-art arena? Check.

— Modern, almost Space Age practice facility? Check.

— A top tier coach, Mike Budenholzer, and staff maximizing the players’ talents and with a 2019-style system? Check.

— A front office (led by GM Jon Horst) that’s active in keeping the Bucks equal to or ahead of rivals? Check.

— Ownership that, despite market limitations and relatively meager local broadcast revenues, has stated it will spend into the luxury tax to chase a championship? Check.

— A fan base resuscitated by all the above? Check.

— Finally, a superstar leader who seems sincere and legitimately happy to set up shop in Milwaukee and not grouse even once, in a public way that anyone can remember, about what he can’t achieve or with whom he can’t play.

Still ‘the same person’

Folks in Milwaukee know they can thank former GM John Hammond for drafting Antetokounmpo — then a skinny, unknown teenager in a bold, all-in move — at No. 15 in 2013. But “The Greek Freak” has been more of a godsend ever since.

It’s not only his vast array of skills (27.1 ppg, 12.6 rpg, 5.9 apg) or the way he explodes or spins to breathtaking totals of unassisted dunks that has Bucks fans thrilled. It’s how non-NBA superstar-cliched Antetokounmpo remains that gives them hope that he might actually do what he says: stay with Milwaukee his entire career.

No All-Star in the Bucks’ 51-year history has done that.

Those close to the scene cite Antetokounmpo’s background — coming to the game late, growing up and developing in Greece, learning his place in the pecking order of his strong and large traditional family — as key factors for why he has yet to show common personality symptoms of certain stars bred domestically via traditional interscholastic and AAU paths. “He wasn’t checking Web sites when he was in eighth grade to see where he was ranked nationally,” one Bucks insider said.

Instead of the yearning to “play with his pals” that leads others to concoct super teams, Antetokounmpo behaves in a manner that shows his pals are his teammates.

“He’s been like that since Day 1 since I’ve been knowing him,” said teammate Khris Middleton. The two have been together from the start and Antetokounmpo’s sense of loyalty had him picking Middleton — over Davis, Russell Westbrook and the rest — as the first All-Star reserve for Team Giannis in Sunday’s All-Star Game.

The Bucks’ stellar chemistry, fueled by winning, is as genuine as their leader. “He’s a positive guy,” Middleton said, “lots of positive energy. Likes to keep things light but then again, he likes to get down to business. Even when he’s doing great things like he is now, he’s stayed the same person.”

Bucks stand tall behind their star

Milwaukee has not gone without hiccups in his time there. Antetokounmpo has played on through Larry Sanders, Brandon Knight, O.J. Mayo, Rashad Vaughn, Michael Carter-Williams and Jabari Parker — all miscalculations of one sort or another. He had three coaches (Larry Drew, Jason Kidd and interim coach Joe Prunty) before Budenholzer, too.

He has seen favorites leave, including Hammond, Kidd, assistant coach Sean Sweeney, Parker, Maker, John Henson and Matthew Dellavedova. He has played in the same number of playoff rounds, three, as Davis. And still he smiles.

“Been around a lot of teams with a lot of great chemistry,” Budenholzer said. “Players that get along off the court, sometimes it’s reflective of how they play together on the court. This group is great. They really enjoy being around each other. And they push each other, they hold each other accountable — it’s not just all smiles and laughs. There’s a seriousness and professionalism to them. They’ve got this great balance.”

This all could turn on a dime, though. An early playoff exit or a crippling injury or roster changes can alter it all. Milwaukee’s non-Antetokounmpo starters will be free agents this summer (Middleton is expected to opt out, joining Eric Bledsoe, Brook Lopez and Malcolm Brogdon on the market).

Mirotic, who has yet to play for the Bucks, can do so, too.

Then there’s Antetokounmpo’s continued emergence as one of the league’s bright young faces. The more acclaim he gets, the more people there may be trying to convince him the grass is greener and encourage him to exercise his clout. That would likely mean the bad look of demanding out despite years left on his contract.

He notably took less than a maximum contract when he signed his four-year, $100 million extension in September 2016. If some of his teammates show an unwillingness to similarly sacrifice, you can bet he will be reminded of it by rivals and media outlets elsewhere.

Horst, Budenholzer and the team’s owners know winning is the elixir. The NBA can police tampering, but so much of that game gets played out of sight and off social media. The only thing the Bucks can control is the moves they make and the games they win.

So far, so great. The Bucks are not the Pelicans, something confirmed by a fellow who recently has been with both.

“One hundred percent,” Mirotic said Monday night in the visitors dressing room at United Center. “All this was my goal, to be on a good team and try for a championship. This is my fifth year, fourth playoffs, it’s going to be great. When I found out I was traded to the Bucks, for me it was a blessing. I am looking forward to playing with them because this team is really special.”

On the eve of the trade deadline, Mirotic put out a cryptic tweet, a single puzzle piece that had some guessing that he perhaps wanted out of New Orleans.

I was just a little bit messing around,” he said.

But the Davis ultimatums and resulting clamor did start to undermine the basketball there, he said.

“At some point, you’re more like thinking and listening to what’s happening outside of the court,” Mirotic said. “The players, we kind of felt like this was going to happen. So it was no surprise. But they say control what you can control.”

If a team and market such as New Orleans cannot keep a player like Davis, Mirotic was asked, can Milwaukee hang onto Antetokounmpo?

“Absolutely,” the Bucks’ newest addition said. “I always see him smiling.”

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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