If you’re a Milwaukee Bucks fan, it’s extremely easy to get lost in daydreams while watching the late rounds of the NBA playoffs. It’s even truer if you root for one of the small market teams, or one of the clubs shaking off a recent stretch of bad years. Oklahoma City fits the former while Philadelphia matches the latter; Indiana fills both of those roles. The Thunder are fighting in their conference finals while Philly and the Pacers made strong underdog runs. The questions begin to pour in: Why can’t the Bucks be like that? Why can’t Milwaukee be a destination for free agents? When will luck roll the Bucks’ way with roster decisions?

You look at the way the teams mentioned above were built. In the last decade, Seattle finished 3 straight years among the worst 5 teams in the league. Within those years they added All-Stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in the draft, but they also suffered through a tough relocation to Oklahoma City. Philadelphia and Indiana both had 6 playoff appearances in the last 10 years and never once finished within the worst 5 records in the league, though Philadelphia made a leap to the 2nd overall pick one year. Neither Philadelphia nor Indiana dwelled in the league cellar, and they were still able to develop solid teams in the draft. The 76ers, for example, drafted 73% of their team scoring this season.

So what was different for the Bucks? In that same decade, they had 4 playoff appearances (the same as Seattle/Oklahoma City) but had 2 seasons in the worst 5 league records. The draft lottery helped them one year with a leap to the 1st overall pick but hurt them another by bumping them down a few spots, missing out on All-Stars like Durant or Al Horford. Luck can’t fall everyone’s way, and the Bucks made some good and bad draft picks.

But it wasn’t the draft that plagued the Bucks. It was money. Use the Los Angeles Clippers as an example. The Clippers made the 2nd round of the playoffs this year after a successful season. Their method? Money. After finishing as one of the worst teams for the majority of the 2000s, the typically modest-spending Clippers went out and took on a lot of big money. Trading for star point guard Chris Paul put them solidly over the luxury tax level in the NBA, but that isn’t going to hurt a big market team from Los Angeles.

The Bucks can’t spend like that, but they tried. Oh boy, did they try. A lot of long-term bad money was given out to bad players. When their “blank check” general manager was given the boot, they were left scrambling for years to sort out money problems while attempting to field a competitive team. Like Indiana and Philadelphia, the Bucks didn’t want to get stuck as bottom-feeders.

Starting this offseason, the financial problems of the old Bucks are gone. It is now time to begin the phase in which they become the next Indiana, Philadelphia, or better yet, Oklahoma City. They have some solid young pieces in place, and need to make just a few additional moves. One crucial remaining step to replicate their success is to be active in free agency. In the last couple years, Oklahoma City, Philadelphia and Indiana added key players such as David West, Kendrick Perkins and Elton Brand to compliment the pieces they drafted. And you’ll see all three teams as playoff staples for the next few years.

After tonight’s NBA Lottery assignments, the Bucks get the 12th pick in next month’s draft. Watch for Milwaukee to target big, physical post players through the draft as well as free agency. It’s been a number of years since Milwaukee could be active in free agency, and they really have to make it count. I’ll start with a player like unrestricted free agent Chris Kaman from New Orleans, who would do well in a Bucks’ uniform. But there are plenty of decisions; the Milwaukee Bucks aren’t an overnight fix, but they have a golden opportunity to put themselves on the right track. There will be a lot to cover this summer as those decisions get made.

 

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