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How the Milwaukee Bucks perfected the small-market team blueprint to win a NBA title

Milwaukee Bucks championship

Seven years ago, the Milwaukee Bucks languished in 15th place within the Eastern Conference, finishing up the 2013-2014 season with a humbling 15-67 record. Considering their lack of winning basketball at the time, no one could have possibly envisioned the team capturing the NBA championship just under a decade later.

Bucks management, led primarily by former general manager John Hammond, hoped the team could find a way to become relevant again. Knowing that Milwaukee possessed the issues of many small-market teams, including a lack of attraction from star-free agents, he knew acquiring solid players would be a challenge.

When the Milwaukee Bucks defeated the Phoenix Suns 105-98 on Tuesday night to capture the team’s second NBA championship, and first since 1971, they perfected a tactical and intelligent plan all small-market clubs should try to emulate. Current general manager Jon Horst successfully manifested a vision for the Bucks he constructed in 2017.

Here are three things that the Bucks did to rejuvenate a losing franchise and how they rose to become NBA champions.

Hitting on the right superstar in the draft: Before the 2013 NBA Draft, GM Hammond was looking for the right player to help revive the Bucks, which is now viewed by many as one of the worst drafts of the last decade. Fortunately for the Bucks fanbase, Hammond saw a diamond in the rough and selected a talented but raw player named Giannis Antetoukoumpo from Greece. Antetokounmpo managed to make Second Team All-Rookie his first season; he emerged into one of the best players in the NBA. He captured the Most Improved Player Award during the 2017 NBA season, which was his first major award since entering the NBA.

In addition, Antetoukoumpo has now captured two MVP awards, made 5 All-Star Game appearances, and won a Defensive Player of the Year Award, with the DPOY and second MVP award being won by him during the 2019-2020 season.

In addition, Antetokounmpo captured the Finals MVP for his performance on the biggest stage of his career; in the six games of the series, Giannis averaged 35 ppg, 13 rpg, and five apg. His development from a scrawny stringbean entering the NBA into a dominant frontcourt specimen signified the resurgence of the Bucks. Still, several other vital moves contributed to Milwaukee’s 2nd championship squad.

Perfect coach-GM combination– Throughout the mid-2010s, the Bucks went through a transition period in ownership, as longtime owner Herb Kohl sold the team to new majority owners Marc Lasry and Wes Edens. Two years later, the team built a new arena and followed that up with the hirings of general manager Jon Horst in 2017 and head coach Mike Budenholzer in 2018.

Horst had already been a member of the Bucks organization as the Director of Basketball Operations. It was not huge for him to leap into the role of general manager, despite being only 34 years old at the time of the promotion. In just his second year in the general manager role, Horst’s efforts earned him the NBA Executive of the Year Award in 2019, and he’s established himself as one of the best talent evaluators in the league, despite being such a young GM.

Budenholzer, already established as a top-tier head coach from his days with the Atlanta Hawks, brought structure and discipline to a young Bucks squad led by Antetokounmpo and co-star Khris Middleton, who came into his own as a proven scorer and solid defender. Bud led the Bucks to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2019 and made several critical adjustments during the 2021 playoffs that propelled the team out of massive deficits.

His team managed their composure despite being down 2-0 to both the Brooklyn Nets and the Phoenix Suns in the 2021 playoffs. Despite receiving a large amount of criticism in the past, Bud’s message paid off this season, and thus the Bucks were champions.

The pairing of Horst and Budenholzer has proved to be one of the best in the league, as the former has brought in the talent that his coach needed for the Bucks to take the next step from good to elite.

Winning key trades/landing solid free agents– In 2013, Khris Middleton was coming off his rookie season with the Detroit Pistons, in which he averaged six ppg. The Bucks saw potential in him and decided to trade for him, and he has now grown into a two-time NBA All-Star.

In addition, star point guard Jrue Holiday was acquired via trade with the New Orleans Pelicans in the 2020 offseason, thus giving Giannis two stars. In addition, key pieces such as PJ Tucker, Pat Connaughton, and Bobby Portis performed to the best of their abilities as well, with all three players knocking down big shots throughout Milwaukee’s title run.

However, a big part of the Bucks’ run the last few years has been the willingness of Brook Lopez to supplement his game with an outside shot. Signed a few years ago to a four-year deal, he changed his game dramatically to fit next to the dominant Giannis, and it paid off. Lopez is regarded by many as one of the best shooting big men in the NBA, and he became one of the Bucks’ unsung heroes during their title.

It took a long time for the Bucks to accomplish their goal of reaching the NBA Finals again, and a complete overhaul was needed to reach the finish lines. Coaching changes, trades, and more took place before they realized their potential, and now they reign supreme as champions.

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Photo courtesy of Getty Images/Jonathan Daniel.

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