The NBA season is awfully linear. Training camp begins in October and teams point their noses toward The Finals in June and hopefully those players are on the lucky team of 30 that walks off champagne-soaked with hardware tucked under their arms.
If not? Lather, rinse, repeat. It’s a grind that doesn’t allow for too many celebrations along the way.
The odds always are the same and the closer a team gets to a title, the more single-minded it must become. The games, the countless hours it spends at practice, on planes and in hotels all necessarily narrow down to one single goal:
Championship or bust.
The Milwaukee Bucks have faced that more in 2019-20 than any other team, given events from last season hang over this one — as well as where they are in their life cycle and roster composition. The Bucks were the NBA’s winningest team last season, reaching the Eastern Conference finals and building a 2-0 series lead on Toronto there before losing four straight to the Raptors.
Their abrupt exit effectively drew a red circle around the East finals this year, a target waaaaaay down the road from training camp, the season opener, All-Star weekend or even now. There was no avoiding it, and yet it’s a grim, inflexible way to slog through nearly eight months of work.
Which prompts the question: What about now?
The Bucks have had a season — so far — not just to remember but to celebrate and savor. They won 18 straight games from early November to mid-December. They are 50-8 with an historic average-margin-of-victory. They made playoff-clinching history last week and are enjoying a second season in their gorgeous, new arena (to go with their breathtaking practice headquarters across the street in downtown Milwaukee).
Wait, there’s more: Another stellar, better-than-last-year performance from defending Kia MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. Marvelous contributions from fellow All-Star Khris Middleton and holdovers such as Brook Lopez and Eric Bledsoe. New additions Wesley Matthews, Robin Lopez and Kyle Korver are fitting in well and second-year guard Donte DiVincenzo is improving. All with reigning Coach of the Year Mike Budenholzer’s steady hand on the wheel, his staff pushing most of the right buttons throughout.
It’s about the journey. It’s always about the journey. … Even if we’re winning the championship at the end of the day, we’re not going to remember just the championship. We’re going to remember what we did to get there.”
Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo
So that’s all going to get wiped away and forgotten if the Bucks don’t reach The Finals? Man, that’s cold.
In this era of participation trophies, when we’re told by deep thinkers and TV commercials to find highlights in everyday life, the winner-take-all construct of pro sports seems punishing, unforgiving and, frankly, kind of silly.
Consider: The 2007 New England Patriots went 16-0, rolled over two playoff foes and then had it wiped away in many folks’ minds when they lost Super Bowl XLII to the New York Giants. The Buffalo Bills teams that went to four Super Bowls? Bah, trash, ‘cuz they never won.
“Celebrating? Maybe because there’s a bigger picture, a bigger prize, we don’t tend to celebrate,” Budenholzer said this week. “Or do anything where we feel like we’ve really accomplished anything that needs celebrating.
“At the same time, we’re a group that comes to work and enjoys each other and enjoys the process. It’s not just 24/7 of just boring and nothing.”
The experts don’t provide much help in dealing with this tug o’ war between the present and the (desired) future. For every philosopher that tells us it’s about the journey, not the destination, there’s a self-help guru harping on the need to begin with the end in mind. Then you get the stray poet nagging about a path not taken, and you’re in no mood to enjoy anything.
Fortunately for the Bucks’ sanity, and their right to savor a bit what they’ve earned so far, their group personality — that so-called chemistry to which good teams aspire — has allowed them to enjoy their work even as they push forward.
“I think we do a good job of that,” Brook Lopez said. “We’re all focused, but we’re loose, having fun at the same time. It’s just kind of natural — I don’t know if it’s just the group of people we have. Maybe our leadership, from the coaching staff and Giannis, all the way down. We just have a good vibe.”
There are team dinners or large groups of players hitting up attractions on the road. The Bucks’ sideline in blowout wins frequently offer a glimpse of the fun factor, too.
“I think everyone knows what our overall goal is,” Lopez said, “and even though we might be disappointed in the moment with a loss, we know what we’re trying to achieve. It’s hard to put into words. But it’s just the right feeling.”
The best, of course, would be to have and do it all: Tear through the regular season as they have, celebrate the team and individual highlights, while prepping for what’s to come. And then nailing that too.
We’re all focused, but we’re loose, having fun at the same time. It’s just kind of natural — I don’t know if it’s just the group of people we have. … We just have a good vibe.”
Bucks center Brook Lopez
That’s precisely how Milwaukee’s best player, emotional leader and unofficial philosopher is playing it. Whether it’s a ballyhooed “Finals preview” against the Los Angeles Lakers Friday (10:30 ET, ESPN), the work he and his teammates logged when they practiced after a dreary loss in Miami or an individual season that has him as the MVP favorite again.
“Personally, I’m thinking about how I can get better every day,” Antetokounmpo told NBA.com Wednesday. “Obviously life is short and you’ve got to enjoy the journey. If you really think about it, the goal does not matter as much because even if you, say, win the championship, it’s not about that. It’s about the whole journey.”
That isn’t how national media likely will portray it if the Bucks don’t reach The Finals and earn their rings.
They want to do that, of course. But should their entire season be defined by it?
Maybe we all should listen to Antetokounmpo.
“I feel like the journey finds who you are,” he said. “Like when you get to The Finals — this is a good example — and if you win the championship, are you going to stop working hard? You get a job you wanted, are you going to stop working hard?
“It’s about the journey. It’s always about the journey. How can you have fun? How can you enjoy it? Even if we’re winning the championship at the end of the day, we’re not going to remember just the championship. We’re going to remember what we did to get there.”
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