SALT LAKE CITY — In Portland and New Orleans, Oklahoma City and Memphis, they’re cheering for the Milwaukee Bucks. In Salt Lake City, fans have a case of low-grade Bucks fever.
At least that’s how it should be happening.
Locked into a tight conference championship series, this year’s winningest team carries the dreams of the Jazz. Milwaukee hasn’t been this popular since “Happy Days.”
A Wisconsin writer once told me during the NBA playoffs that he liked Salt Lake; it reminded him of his own city, i.e. low-key and friendly, but a place coastal elitists disparaged and NBA players avoided. That attitude could change if the Bucks win the championship.
For a long time, the San Antonio Spurs were the gold standard for small-market teams. Oklahoma City has been on and off the radar. Portland won a title back in the Bronze Age. For the Jazz, this year’s Bucks are especially significant. They’re proving, as did the Spurs, that it’s not impossible to soar in flyover country.
But the Jazz are at least one superstar shy of being Milwaukee.
That’s not even counting the 7-foot perimeter shooters the Bucks have and the Jazz covet.
Donovan Mitchell is a special player, but not yet a generational one. Rudy Gobert is a unique and ever-improving force, whose offensive game is developing. But Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo is an MVP-level player. Challenge him and he’ll swat your floating shot into last week. Meet him at midcourt and he’ll dribble past you like magic (or Magic). Encounter him at the rim and he’ll send you into earthquake protocol: drop and cover.
Great players happen, but two-way stars are rare. Jerry Sloan once said Michael Jordan could be the best at both ends of the court, every year, if he wanted. Antetokounmpo may not be the best at either, but he’s superb at both. Defensively, he has the range to harass players from everywhere on the court. He’s a finalist for Defensive Player of the Year, as is Gobert. Offensively, the Milwaukee star does practically anything he wants.
The Bucks got Antetokounmpo with the 15th pick of the 2013 draft. They were coming off a 38-44 regular season — good enough for eighth place in the talent-starved Eastern Conference. It was a fairly forgettable draft. Anthony Bennett went No. 1, Alex Len No. 5. The Jazz chose Shabazz Muhammad at No. 14 and traded him to Minnesota for No. 9 pick Trey Burke. That same year, Utah traded Erick Green to Denver for Rudy Gobert. The latter was a clever move. But the Jazz could have had Antetokounmpo.
They and 13 other teams should be kicking themselves.
Players that surround the “Greek Freak” have also contributed to the success. The Bucks grabbed Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova as free agents and traded for Nikola Mirotic. That gave them three bigs that can make 3s. The team signed Pat Connaughton as a free agent and traded for George Hill this year. Eric Bledsoe came in a 2017 swap, and in 2013 Milwaukee traded for 2019 All-Star Khris Middleton. The Bucks snagged sharpshooter Malcolm Brogdon, who is averaging 13 points in this year’s playoffs, in the second round of the 2016 draft.
Ten Milwaukee players are averaging at least 15 minutes in the playoffs and seven are scoring in double figures.
That’s depth built for the Finals.
Although the Jazz beat Milwaukee in Salt Lake this year, they lost by 12 in Brew City. But the Bucks won 10 more games than the Jazz in the regular season. In their March meeting at Vivint Arena, Mitchell scored 46 points as the Jazz overcame a 17-point deficit. But Antetokounmpo netted 43, bringing the ball down court and going straight at Gobert.7 comments on this story
“He kicked my butt,” Gobert said.
Nothing personal; Gobert just happened to be next in line.
So Milwaukee has what the Jazz hope to attain. It deftly compiled a blend of talent through trades and free agency and got a big break in the draft. The trick is picking players that other teams simply can’t conceptualize. Who knew a basketball sensation would come from a nation famous for philosophers? Now there’s a chance the champion could come out of frozen, small-market Milwaukee. The Jazz can only hope.