On April 12, the Milwaukee Bucks capped a remarkable turnaround by beating the Brooklyn Nets to clinch a playoff spot. This is remarkable because it came just one year after the Bucks were the worst team in the NBA—even worse than the arch-tankers in Philadelphia and, at 15-67, worse than any team in 2015-16. That failure was not planned—the Bucks were, as had become something like the usual, gunning for a seventh seed—but it was not a fluke. Their turnaround, which happened on a timetable that would have given even the most optimistic fan pause in the preseason, is not a fluke, either.
The sense of achievement may be short-lived. But while Milwaukee is presently down 0-2 to the Chicago Bulls, both games have been rich in the complicated, unexpected thing that got the Bucks here in the first place. Though perhaps it's incorrect to say it's one thing; like the Holy Trinity, it's more like three separate things that coalesce into one.
It's usually very easy to discern why a team is good. The Portland Trail Blazers sustained a top-five defensive rating for the first half of the year; the Cleveland Cavaliers bounced back because LeBron James bounced back; the Golden State Warriors had Klay Thompson and Steph Curry, two Old Testament annihilating angels in the form of perimeter scorers. Sometimes it is as simple as it looks.
So how were the Bucks able to turn it around so fast? Let's ask Jason Kidd.
"I think it's being a team," he told me. So, okay, let's not ask Jason Kidd.
Instead, let's start here: During the regular season, the Bucks' defense was second in the league, allowing just 99.2 points per 100 possessions. There's Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Greek Freak, he of the unspellable name and delightful Twitter feed and author of awe-inducing Vines, and a player whose hype far surpassed his actual production until this year. Khris Middleton has emerged has an elite three-and-D wing, and could command a Chandler Parsons-esque contract this summer. And Kidd, tacky attempted coup d'etat in Brooklyn aside, proved a massive upgrade over Larry Drew. He did this by taking a star-free roster and using every player on it to the greatest advantage.
Seriously, every player. "Depth," forward Jared Dudley says simply, when asked to explain the team's success. "We play 11 guys, sometimes 12 guys a night. We can play so many different line-ups: go small, put me at the four or put Giannis at the four and Ersan Ilyasova at the five, (go big) putting Giannis at the two and Ersan at the four. Sometimes we'll do two two guards, with OJ (Mayo) and Middleton. I think our depth and versatility is key to us."
Dudley touches on a key point here, though he does not say it outright. Depth is a necessary thing in the NBA, but that alone doesn't make a once-awful team a defensive juggernaut. It's the type of depth the Bucks have, and how Kidd uses that length, that keys their defense. Nearly all of the players Dudley mentions have at least, massive wingspans -- from Antetokounmpo to John Henson to the majestically impassive Turkish big man Ersan Ilyasova. The Bucks leverage that length into hard closeouts at every position, and if their body can't get to the shooter in time, at least their arms can. It may only be the difference of a few fractions of a second, but that infinitesimal discrepancy can be the difference between a wide open shot and a well-contested one.
Then there is the third element, the one that binds Depth and Length together, transforming them from two assets into a tangible system. It is as cliche as it is unquantifiable, and all the eye-rolls it will launch don't make it any less true: chemistry.
It's widely supported that you need a superstar to win a title. The Bucks don't have one, yet, though it's not unthinkable that Antetokounmpo or Jabari Parker—the 2014 lottery pick who showed some truly awesome flashes before cashing out for the season with a knee injury—reach that echelon. What could and perhaps should have been another season of developmental tankage instead became a miniature renaissance, thanks to the team's successful fostering of an environment in which no one is the star and everyone is essential to the team's continued success.
"This is a very open team where everyone is unselfish, everyone plays together (and) there's not one person we feed the ball to every time," Dudley says.
If you watched the 16-11 first quarter of Game 2, well, I at once apologize for your misery and commend you for your bravery. But if you were able to get past the fact that both teams likely set an NBA record for missed point-blank shots, you saw some of what makes the Bucks' defense so formidable.
Mike Dunleavy, Jr. had what looked like an open shot from the wing, but that opening was taken away in the blink of an eye by Antetokounmpo's reach. Pau Gasol got the ball on the block, only to lose it a split-second later to Middleton, who doubled hard and quick on the Spaniard. On another possession, Antetokounmpo was matched against Dunleavy. Using a screen, Dunleavy forced a switch, only to be greeted by the waiting, long arms of Ilyasova. Dunleavy never had a chance. It seemed both strange and utterly natural. It was not enough, either, and may not be enough in this series. But it also looked like a start.