The Milwaukee Bucks notched perhaps their most satisfying win of the season on Monday night against the New York Knicks, claiming a 101-98 victory at home. Point guard Brandon Knight stuck a game-winning three-point dagger in the heart of the Knicks with less than two seconds left on the clock, much to the delight of Giannis Antetokounmpo's family.
My family is so proud and happy. pic.twitter.com/XKqlWG8yzN— GiannisAntetokounmpo (@G_ante34) February 4, 2014
It was a nice moment, made all the more poignant by the fact that smiles like that have been few and far between in Milwaukee.
With the win, the Bucks matched their win total for the entire month of January—Milwaukee finished the month with a 1-14 record. They established themselves as the league's worst team early in the season, with a 3-13 record in October/November, and have only gotten worse since then.
Things are so bad in Milwaukee at the moment that the Bucks are now giving their tickets away to children, per The Wall Street Journal's Chris Herring:
Bucks just announced over the PA that kids get into Bucks' games for free for the rest of the month. Wow.— Chris Herring (@HerringWSJ) February 4, 2014
The only team within shouting distance of Milwaukee's 9-39 record is the 13-37 Orlando Magic. But the Bucks still have a comfortable three-game "lead" on Orlando for the league's worst record. They've also lost both of their contests with Orlando this season, including a 113-102 defeat on Jan. 31.
Statistically, Milwaukee also has a lock on the title of "NBA's worst." According to Basketball-Reference, the Bucks rank 30th in offensive efficiency and 29th in defensive efficiency. They also rank dead last with a minus-10.19 in Basketball-Reference's "Simple Rating System" (SRS)—a team rating system that combines average margin of victory with strength of schedule. The Philadelphia 76ers are at 29th with a minus-9.29 rating.
Unlike the Sixers, who have been legitimately trying to get a high 2014 draft pick since trading All-Star Jrue Holiday for the injured Nerlens Noel last summer, the Bucks did not come into 2013-14 looking to tank. Their owner, Herb Kohl, outlined his disdain for tanking to Bleacher Report's Howard Beck at the start of the season:
I feel real strong about trying to put out a decent product—a good product—for our fans. So I'm always saying to our basketball people, 'We need to be as good as we can be.' This year's no different.
But this season has been different. The 2012-13 Bucks made the playoffs with a 38-44 record. They weren't great by any means, but the 2013-14 version will likely blow past the 44-loss mark before the end of February.
What makes these Bucks so terrible? For starters, their highest-paid players are all performing at an unfathomably low level. Check out the Bucks' seven highest-salaried players and their ratings in both player efficiency rating (PER) and win shares per 48 minutes.
|2013-14 Salary||PER (15 is average)||WS/48 (.100 is average)|
|Caron Butler||$8 million||12.2||.016|
|O.J. Mayo||$8 million||11.1||-0.006|
|Ersan Ilyasova||$7.9 million||11.2||.010|
|Zaza Pachulia||$5.2 million||13.1||.059|
|Ekpe Udoh||$4.5 million||8.3||.013|
|Luke Ridnour||$4.32 million||9.5||-0.001|
|Gary Neal||$4.25 million||11.0||-0.011|
It is no wonder, then, that this team is on pace to finish below the 20-62 record posted by the 1993-94 Bucks and take the mantle of the worst team in franchise history.
But exactly what kind of history will these Bucks be making? To understand just how bad the 2013-14 squad has been, it is important to understand the history of the Milwaukee Bucks.
An Underrated History
Where do the Milwaukee Bucks fit in the annals of NBA history? They are not a marquee franchise like the Los Angeles Lakers, but they are not a historically inept franchise like the Los Angeles Clippers. In truth, they are often not considered much at all.
But Milwaukee has a history worthy of respect. Sure, the franchise has won only a single championship in its history, but that is not uncommon in the NBA, the most unbalanced of the major North American sports leagues (a mere nine franchises have won an NBA title since 1980).
That lone championship team, the 1970-71 Bucks, was a memorable group, winning 66 games with the help of NBA legends Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson. According to NBA.com, Abdul-Jabbar led the league in scoring, averaging 31.7 points and 16 rebounds per game. He won the regular-season MVP (the first of six) and the finals MVP.
The Bucks haven't exactly been hibernating since Abdul-Jabbar left for Los Angeles in 1975...real bucks don't hibernate, after all. Though the franchise has not made the finals in that time, it has been to the conference finals four times.
The Don Nelson Bucks teams of the '80s went to the conference finals on three occasions, each time losing to a powerhouse team: the '83 Sixers (65-17), the '84 Celtics (62-20) and the '86 Celtics (67-15).
The Bucks have been in the conference finals as recently as 2001, losing in a tightly contested seven-game series to Allen Iverson and the 76ers. One of the stars of that Bucks team, Ray Allen, is still playing in the NBA.
Collectively, the Bucks franchise has a 1903-1787 record as of Tuesday, good for a 51.6 percent winning percentage. The team currently playing in Milwaukee is not only historically bad, but also atypical of the Bucks franchise.
Cause for Hope?
When a team is as bad as Milwaukee, the most important statistic is the number of 2014 draft picks. While the Bucks haven't been stockpiling first-rounders like the Celtics and Phoenix Suns, they still have their own precious first-rounder. That's more than can be said for other losing teams, such as the Knicks, Brooklyn Nets and Cleveland Cavaliers.
According to RealGM, the Bucks do have several second-round picks and favorable pick-swaps coming to them over the next few seasons. Those second-rounders are nice, but it's clear that the Bucks franchise will either sink or swim with its next few first-round picks.
Fortunately for the good people of Milwaukee, the Bucks look like they may have already struck gold with last year's selection of Giannis Antetokounmpo, an athletic marvel who has already charmed much of the NBA.
Sports Illustrated's Rob Mahoney recently hypothetically gifted Antetokounmpo to the Cavaliers with the No. 1 overall in his 2013 re-draft, saying: "Such a remarkable 19-year-old prospect at a position of weakness for the Cavs might be too good to pass up."
Don't worry, Bucks fans, you still get to keep him.
The Bucks will likely be picking in the top five of the draft for the first time since selecting Andrew Bogut No. 1 overall in 2005. It is now up to the Bucks front office to overcome Milwaukee's lackluster recent history with high draft picks:
- 2011: Jimmer Fredette, No. 10 (traded to Sacramento Kings)
- 2009: Brandon Jennings, No. 10
- 2008: Joe Alexander, No. 8
- 2007: Yi Jianlian, No. 6
- 2005: Andrew Bogut, No. 1
- 2003: T.J. Ford, No. 8
- 1998: Dirk Nowitzki, No. 9 (traded to Dallas Mavericks)
Of course, it was the 1998 pick (and subsequent trade) of Nowitzki that continues to haunt Milwaukee to this day.
But the time has come for the Bucks to look forward. The present is bleak, but if they can continue to unearth gems like Antetokounmpo, the Bucks will be back in the playoff race sooner rather than later.
Unless noted, all statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.