Maybe there really is such a thing as The Midas Touch. Maybe these new owners of the Milwaukee Bucks can’t do anything that doesn’t wildly succeed.
It certainly makes sense considering that the Bucks went from dregs of the National Basketball Association to one of the more inspiring stories in exactly a year.
Of course, the King Midas of Greek Mythology was forced to beg for his original wish to be reversed. Having everything he touched turn to gold was a debacle of tragic consequences rather than the blessing of riches he foolishly thought it would be. His lesson learned, he shared his great fortunes with his people.
The new owners of the Bucks, on the other hand, are finding all the success without the handicap of everything around them turning inanimate or inedible.
A year ago this afternoon, Marc Lasry and Wes Edens were introduced to Milwaukee as the new owners of the Bucks. In the weeks and months after, new investors were added to the ownership group, including Jamie Dinan. The ownership group also includes many local names, But Lasry, Edens and Dinan are the three faces of the ownership group – each of them with a net worth estimated between $1.6 billion and $1.7 billion.
When the sale of the Bucks was announced on the afternoon of April 16, 2014, a reeling squad took the floor later that evening and suffered the final defeat of an embarrassing season – the worst in franchise history at just 15 wins and a depressing 67 losses.
The one saving grace of that was the fact that the Bucks had the best chance to land the top pick in a loaded draft. They ended up with the second pick, but when the Cleveland Cavaliers tabbed Andrew Wiggins, the Bucks happily selected Jabari Parker – the player many believe the Bucks would have taken if they had the first pick.
If the Bucks were to turn things around immediately, certainly Parker would play a big part. Another player that figured to be key center Larry Sanders – a man to whom the team committed "face of the franchise" money with a contract extension of four years and $44 million.
So what happened? Neither played a minute after Christmas. Parker tore up his left knee in a Dec. 15 game at Phoenix. Sanders’ last game was Dec. 23, followed by absences for what was first termed "illness," then "personal reasons." Eventually those "personal reasons" led to a buyout of the last 3 ½ years of that big contract. For reasons known only to him, Sanders just didn’t want to play the game anymore.
Yet there the Bucks were, still winning games. How, was anyone’s guess.
Then again, maybe it was that Midas touch.
One of the first things Lasry and Edens did was their first public blunder. They obtained permission to talk with New Jersey Nets coach Jason Kidd. Problem was, the Bucks still had a coach – though no one was surprised that Larry Drew didn’t survive the disaster of 2013-’14. Still, it was a public relations mess to leave Drew dangling in the wind.
Nonetheless, the arrival of Kidd has to be considered one of the major steps in the Bucks’ turnaround. Kidd credits the players. The players credit Kidd.
"I think it’s a testament to the coaching staff and the players following their lead and game plan," said forward Jared Dudley, a newcomer who brought veteran leadership to a team in sore need of it. "I think we have a team that’s pretty good in depth, and I think the culture Coach Kidd set in here with everyone playing for each other – hard defense, everyone playing together – I think guys kind of fed off that.
"Anytime you get a chance where there’s no politics involved and it’s not about the name and the best guy plays, you kind of gain respect, and that’s what we did for him."
For his part, Kidd praised his players.
"Those guys in the locker room and their work ethic," Kidd said when asked what were the biggest factors in going from 15-67 to 41-41. "I think, one, believing in each other and trusting the coaches, and, two, their excitement of learning and competing at a very high level. It’s real simple."
The new and improved Bucks will open their return to the playoffs Saturday against the Chicago Bulls. The teams last met in the playoffs in the 1990 season, a 3-1 Chicago victory in the first round.
Chicago won the season series with the Bucks, 3-1, but the Bucks’ one victory came in the final meeting, 95-91, on April 1.
While Sanders was once hoped to be the face of the franchise, it is now clear that Giannis Antetokounmpo is a huge part of the future. The second-year forward from Greece, who started the season as a teenager, made major strides and seems poised to become a star.
"He’s gotten better," Kidd said. "It’s simple: He’s gotten better, he’s gotten more time on the floor and the more time on the floor, hopefully the better he gets. His game is going to grow."
Having arrived as an 18-year-old and having suffered through that brutal, 67-loss season, Antetokounmpo pointed to obvious differences in this year’s Bucks.
"The coaching staff is different and the way we approach practice and games is different," Antetokounmpo said. "Everybody improved a lot from last year; we have new players – ‘Dud,’ (Dudley). (Jerryd) Bayless – that have helped a lot."
Another huge key has been Khris Middleton, who became a big shooting guard this season as opposed to a "normal-sized" small forward a year ago. Middleton hit two of the biggest shots this season – buzzer-beating 3-pointers to beat Phoenix on Dec. 15 (the game in which Parker went down) and Miami on March 24.
"We’ve taken a huge jump," Middleton said. "The ownership changed, they brought in a new coach, they brought in some different players. We all bought into what they were trying to do, and it’s worked."
Considering the injury to Parker and the tale of Sanders, it’s worked better than almost anyone could have expected. Now it’s time to see how the Bucks stack up as a playoff team.
"This is new for a lot of these guys," Kidd said before Wednesday’s regular-season finale. "This would be the last game of the year and they would go on vacation and not come back till next year. So (they need to) understand we can’t relax. There’s no time to exhale. We have to keep working, keep getting better in the playoffs and understand that each possession means something. We got off to a slow start in Philly (on Monday) and we talked about it at halftime, and it was a different team in the second half."
Before Wednesday’s regular-season finale, Lasry was greeting fans at the northwest entrance to the BMO Harris Bradley Center handing out T-shirts. He seemed to be having a great time.
"We haven’t exceeded my expectations," he said. "We’ve still got to win the championship, so we’ve got plenty of room.
"But let’s be honest. Last year we were the worst team, this year we’re in the playoffs. Did I think we were going to do that? I sure was hoping we were going to do that. That was one of our dreams."
As one of the men with the Midas Touch, the first dream has come true. The dreams to still be met – including a new arena – make the Bucks a team to really watch in the next few years. Who’d have guessed that a mere year ago?