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How Milwaukee’s Journey to a Championship Offers Lessons of Patience for the Sacramento Kings

The Bucks rise to a title took 8 seasons. The Kings are in the second season of relevance.
By | 12 Comments | Jan 14, 2024

Dec 7, 2022; Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA; Sacramento Kings forward Keegan Murray (13) guards Milwaukee Bucks forward Bobby Portis (9) in the third quarter at Fiserv Forum. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

The Milwaukee Bucks are 27-12 and second in the Eastern Conference. Yet, they might be the most concerned contender in the league. Milwaukee has changed its identity this season, which from the outside looking in seems to have prognosticators questioning the long-term potential of a team reliant on offense rather than the balanced offensive and defensive juggernauts it once was.

The Bucks defensive rating has slipped to 18th in the league (right below the Kings), allowing 119 points per game (24th). With this, Milwaukee seems to look to outscore opponents (they are 3rd in offensive rating) rather than shutting them down defensively. This is a big shift from years past and an approach, built around the scoring talents of Damian Lillard and Giannis Antetokounmpo, that has had NBA pundits wondering if the Bucks have it in them to make a deep run again in the playoffs. Because when the shots aren’t falling, what happens then?

Sound familiar?

The Sacramento Kings have similar characteristics. When the threes drop, they are tough to beat. When they don’t the team is much easier to beat.

While the Bucks have their own issues this season that are similar in nature to the Kings, it is Milwaukee that serves as a good reminder to the Kings and Kings fans as to what the climb to a championship contender looks like – the patience and strategy it takes to get to the top of the hill.

Because just a few seasons ago, the small market Bucks raised a championship banner.

A celebration that was eight seasons in the making.

The Bucks drafted Antetokounmpo in 2013. (The Kings took Ben McLemore over him. Sorry, I had to.) The team made the playoffs in 2014-15 with a defensive rating of 4th, offensive rating of 26th and net rating of 15th. It lost in the first round, only to miss the playoffs the following season. In the 2016-17 season the team finished 42-40 and lost in the first round of the playoffs. It was 19th in defensive rating, 13th in offensive rating and 16th in net rating. The next season looked pretty similar. The Bucks finished 44-38 and lost in the first round again. It was 19th in defensive rating, 9th in offensive rating, and 20th in net rating.

After getting bounced in the first round three times in the early years of Antetokounmpo’s career, the 2018-19 season is when the Bucks truly arrived.

During that summer, the Bucks drafted Donte DiVincenzo, and signed Brook Lopez and Pat Connaughton. Connaughton served as a solid defender with his athleticism. He may have struggled with quicker guards, but still was able to deliver a good amount of resistance, and early in the 2018-19 campaign had the best defensive rating on the squad. DiVincenzo was a pesky and intelligent pressure defender with athleticism and quickness. And most importantly for the Bucks, Lopez could hit shots from three, was a great shot blocker and an overall stellar defender in the post.

Meanwhile, Khris Middleton had grown into a solid two-way player.

The Bucks also replaced Jason Kidd with Mike Budenholzer as head coach, who emphasized defending without fouling. Additionally, he implemented an offensive strategy of taking more threes to help spread the floor around Antetokounmpo. He instilled a drop pick and roll coverage scheme through Lopez that transformed the Bucks into one of the most consistently robust defensive teams in basketball. Antetokounmpo and Lopez protected the rim with force.

The combined moves catapulted the Bucks to a record of 60-22 and the top defensive and net rating in the league, to go along with the 4th best offensive rating. Though the team lost in the Eastern Conference Finals, the rest of the NBA was put on notice. The following season featured a slight regression as the offensive efficiency experienced a downtick. The team still maintained its top defensive and net rating though, finishing with a record of 56-17, but losing in the second round to the Miami Heat.

That summer, Antetokounmpo was entering his 8th NBA season. Jon Horst, the general manager, went all in on adding energy, toughness and even more defense.

In November 2020, Horst struck – signing Bobby Portis to a two-year deal and trading Eric Bledsoe, George Hill and several picks for Jrue Holiday.

Portis was full of energy with a relentless work ethic and underdog mentality. He brought tenacious rebounding, some scoring and team spirit/desire to win that was contagious.

Holiday was a versatile addition. He added space for Antetokounmpo and Middleton with three-point shooting. Plus, his playmaking abilities gave Budenholzer more options on offense. Additionally, he was one of the top defensive guards in the NBA, frequently matching up against opponents’ top players. He also performed well under pressure, giving the team another option in crunch time.

Horst didn’t stop there. In March of that season, he traded D.J. Augustin and D.J. Wilson for P.J. Tucker. Tucker has a relentless playing style defined by toughness and determination. He sets hard screens, goes after loose balls, and attacks for rebounds. He’s the type of player opponents don’t enjoy going up against, but wish they had on their side.

These are the types of players who aren’t going to give up on plays. They will push back on their opponents and dive to the ground for loose balls. They will get after their teammates when they aren’t playing up to the team’s standards. They know their role and bring a gritty attitude to an already established core of players and complement the offensive talents already in place.

Portis, Holiday and Tucker all ended up playing pivotal roles in that season’s playoff run, which ended in a 4-2 NBA Finals victory over the Phoenix Suns.

And all three of these guys are exact examples of what the Kings need to take the next step in its climb up the playoff ladder. A group of “others” to do the dirty work.

Of course, Tucker is now on the Los Angeles Clippers, Holiday is on the team ahead of the Bucks in the standings, the Boston Celtics, and Budenholzer has been replaced by Adrian Griffin. Milwaukee is still a really good team, but now it must figure out what sustained playoff success might look like in its new era.

The point is that the rise of the Bucks through the 2010s shows just how long a team’s contender construction can take – the changes and gambles that must be made along the way. The Kings have one season complete on their journey.

De’Aaron Fox is 26.

Domantas Sabonis is 27.

Malik Monk is 25.

Keegan Murray is 23.

The Kings are 23-15.

In the season of the Bucks third playoff appearance with Antetokounmpo (2017-18), it had a net rating of 20th and a defensive rating of 19th. In this second season of the Kings climb to relevance it is 17th in net rating and 17th in defensive rating. This isn’t apples to apples, of course. The Bucks have Giannis, the Kings do not. The Bucks also hired the coach that brought them a championship after already having reached the playoffs, a different situation than the Kings had with Mike Brown, who is coming off winning Coach of the Year. Just to name a few.

But there is plenty of time to find the peripheral pieces that will round things out in Sacramento.

It isn’t easy of course, but it is about timing and patience. As Horst said in 2020, “Pursuit of championships is not linear.”

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murraytant
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January 14, 2024 12:33 pm

thanks for the astute comments.
The Bucks had the Greek, the Bucks made the right trades and lost not much (Holiday) and the window in the East was open for them.
The Kings face a tight window and timeline- Denver is strong, Minnesota will be ‘around”, the LAC are strong for 1-2 years. But OKC, SAS, Houston and Utah are all on the rise. The Bucks did not face competition like that.

They also had Giannis who was transcendent for a couple of years.
It may be possible that patience and adding on the periphery will help the Kings. It may be.
I may be suffering from recency bias, but it just seems like they are missing something- a lot of somethings: the obvious length on the wing with defensive abilities to stop the ball at the point of attack. I will harp on this some more- there is way too much 3 man keep away with Fox, DS and Monk.
They could use a wing with length that the 3 man keep away team is willing to pass to. Not a dumb move like Siakem rental. So go big- Kuzma or LaVine or add on the side like Caruso, Thybulle etc. But the Bucks added these extra pieces and used then right away. Adding for the Kings does not mean they can use the fully.
Bucks added Holiday, Tucker, Lopez and boom! they got good right away. Will Thybulle or Caruso do that for the Kings.?

Adamsite
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Nostradumbass 14
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January 14, 2024 12:48 pm
Reply to  murraytant

I really think those defensive cogs, like a Thybulle or Caruso, are what is missing from this team. The Bucks excelled with solid wing defenders in Holiday and Middleton.

I keep going back to the core 4 of the Kings and how offensively minded they are. Keegan is the only one that looks to be a true two way player. The odd one out for me is Monk. Sure, he’s a spark off the bench and 6th man of the year winner, but I did a little digging and found something quite interesting.

Do you know when the last team to win the title had a 6th man of the year winner? It was the Bulls with Toni Kukoc in 1995!

Now, do you know how many teams have won a title without an all-nba defensive team member? Just 3 this century! Last year’s Denver, Cleveland with Lebron, and Miami with Wade and Shaq. That’s it!

Basically, if you want to win you need all-nba defenders or first ballot hall of famers carrying the load.

The Kings really need a Thybulle/Caruso type.

Jack
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January 14, 2024 2:27 pm
Reply to  Adamsite

I agree and this must be first and foremost. The Kings need that wing defender. If possible if anything is left over a possible 4(this would place Murray at the 3 where IMO he needs to be) someone ;like a Tari Eason or even a Wendell Carter Jr. to replace Barnes would really bring the starting five up to par and beyond.

NorCalKingsFan
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January 14, 2024 3:24 pm
Reply to  Adamsite

agree, you need a few good defenders to be a consistently good defensive team.

RPO
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RPO
January 14, 2024 12:39 pm

it is Milwaukee that serves as a good reminder to the Kings and Kings fans as to what the climb to a championship contender looks like

And to Kings management. I fear that the dismissive little chap will start firing coaches and GMs if there’s no championship within 2-3 years. Hopefully he’s learned to let the basketball minds run basketball affairs.

Hobby916
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January 14, 2024 12:47 pm

Good stuff here.

The main difference I see is that the Bucks main pieces for many of the years were all good to great defenders (giannis, Lopez, middleton). Fox is average, Keegan is getting better, and sabonis has some work to do. So adding defenders is probably even more important for the Kings.

It takes time, which is why when ancillary pieces are available, Monte has to go get them.

murraytant
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January 14, 2024 2:27 pm
Reply to  Hobby916

the defense is a clear liability. At the same time, so is rebounding, so is free throw shooting and so is the recent tendency to play 3 man keep away with Fox, DC and Monk.

Jman1949
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January 14, 2024 12:53 pm

The Beam goes straight up, so I expect the Kings to progress accordingly!

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MichaelMack
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January 14, 2024 2:27 pm

Excellent piece Blake. Thanks.

Klam
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Nostradumbass 18
Nostradumbass 19
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January 14, 2024 2:39 pm

The Bucks drafted Antetokounmpo in 2013. (The Kings took Ben McLemore over him. Sorry, I had to.)

To add insult to injury, Geoff Petrie was recommending Vivek and his group give Giannis a good look too…

Leading up to the actual sale of the team, it was obvious the team was going to be sold. What became of the bidding match between the Ballmer group and ultimately Vivek’s group, through the league office, people were concerned about their jobs, what their future was going to be, what it would hold for them. And really, we had a group of people there that had been there, and we had worked together for a long time and were part of the best heritage that the Kings have ever had in Sacramento. I brought everybody together at different occasions and said, “Look, we’re going to be professional here, we’re going to continue to work like we’d work any other year, we’ll prepare for the draft like we would every other year, and ultimately we will assist any new people that may come in here and try and make them comfortable and get them situated.”

And that’s what we did.

We took all of our draft information, statistical information, put it all on iPads and gave it to him and other people so they would have it. We had ongoing draft workouts, we had them scheduled. We went over to Greece to scout Giannis [Antetokounmpo], the kid that Milwaukee took. We had a workout set up for him to come in, highly recommended that they work this kid out, and of course they didn’t.

NowLoveThemOnceAgain
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January 14, 2024 3:11 pm

The Kings took Ben McLemore over him. Sorry, I had to.”
Says it all.

NowLoveThemOnceAgain
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January 14, 2024 3:13 pm

McLemore hasn’t been in the NBA for 3 seasons, and his career tanked after leaving the Kings. So much hope, so little results.
Compare and contrast to Giannis.

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