Milwaukee Bucks are green and growing

The 20-year-old Antetokounmpo averaged 12.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 31.4 minutes in 81 games last season. (David Tulis/AP)

Years ago in a rebuilding phase, the Milwaukee Bucks franchise used the slogan “Green and Growing”. Given what’s happening with the current club out in Wisconsin, it may be time for them to pull it out of the blue box and recycle it.

The 2014-15 Bucks are attempting something that seems impossible on paper: to go from 15 wins last year to the post-season this year. With 33 games remaining, that impossibility is looking more and more like a reality.

Milwaukee wasn’t supposed to be as bad as they were last year, but they ended up in the lottery nonetheless. The ping pong balls fell just right for them, and they came away with a quality pick in Jabari Parker. That stroke of luck seemed like a cruel trick when Parker tore his ACL 25 games into a promising rookie campaign. But, amazingly, that tremendous loss hasn’t stopped the Bucks from moving forward and even shocking the league under new head coach Jason Kidd.

Kidd garnered what seemed like more than one year’s experience last season, when he led the Nets to a come-from-behind series victory over the Toronto Raptors. Many in the coaching fraternity commented on Kidd’s growth as a young coach, and he’s showing it off in Milwaukee this season. The Bucks are the sixth-youngest team in the NBA, and only one team with a younger average age currently sits in a playoff spot (the Phoenix Suns, an eighth seed to Milwaukee’s sixth).

Kidd’s team is a reflection of who their coach was as a player. They are a hard-nosed, unrelenting group that plays together and rolls out playoff-style basketball just about every time they hit the floor.

Last season, the Charlotte Hornets (still the Bobcats at that point) used a similar formula under the direction of Steve Clifford. Don’t stress about a poor offensive rating—last season Charlotte ranked 24th in the league at 101.2, while the Bucks currently sit 17th, scoring just 101.7 points per 100 possessions—it’s defence that keeps you in games and gives you a chance to win, particularly in the post season.

And the Bucks definitely play D.

Milwaukee currently ranks fourth in opposition scoring (tied with Charlotte) and opponents’ three-point percentage and third in opponents’ field-goal percentage. They also boast a defensive rating of 98.7, good for second in the Association behind the NBA’s best team, the Golden State Warriors.

The other comparison that comes to mind is a more qualitative one. Jack Armstrong has said these Bucks remind him of the Raptors a few season ago: Young men learning to play together and winning enough to keep them motivated.

Milwuakee has only lost two more games than the Chicago Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers, two teams still regarded as distinct possibilities to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals.

Kidd and his players aren’t the only ones who deserve credit, GM John Hammond—who helped build the championship teams in Detroit a decade ago—has earned his fair share. The pieces fit well in Milwaukee.

Kidd has turned Giannis Antetokounmpo loose. The second-year “Greek Freak” has put on some muscle and is handling the ball regularly. Brandon Knight is playing like an all-star at the point. Ersan Ilyasova is a tough, quality stretch forward, and with some veteran help in Zaza Pachulia and Kenyon Martin the youngsters are learning to be professional. And what would a Jason Kidd team be without the requisite grinders—journeymen like Jerryd Bayless and Jared Dudley. Throw in some shot blocking with John Henson and Larry Sanders (when he’s playing), and some shooting from O.J. Mayo and Khris Middleton and you have the recipe for a playoff team in the East.

Milwaukee may not make it past the first round, but you can bet opponents will know they’re in a battle. It’s about subtle upgrades and gaining experience for these Bucks. Though green they’re already putting together a successful campaign. Just think of what’ll happen when they grow.

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