Milwaukee Bucks: Live Together, Die Alone

As the Milwaukee Bucks prepare to get another taste of life without Jabari Parker, how they react could make or break them in the longer term.

While the focus for many Milwaukee Bucks fans has understandably shifted to dreaming of snagging a star in the lottery of a loaded draft class since Jabari Parker’s injury, there’s still something important that the Bucks need to show on the court this year.

Regardless of how their results look from now on in, or how their record comes out in the final standings, the Bucks have an obligation to look better in terms of effort than they have in the past couple of months.

That’s not to say that the Bucks need to roll off a great run of wins (or that they’re capable of that), but if nothing more, they need to rediscover the energy, effort and most of all the united front that allowed them to kick on earlier in the season.

Through a run that has seen the team lose 11 of their last 13 games, frequent lineup changes and the inevitable tensions that emerge from consistent losing and tense team meetings have meant that much of the chemistry that was easily identifiable earlier in the season has no longer seemed like a staple of watching the Bucks play.

The potential for highlight plays with this team is always exciting, but it doesn’t replicate the basic joy that they possessed earlier in the year.

At 82 games, the NBA is a grind. It’s not easy for teams to maintain energy and enthusiasm, and that grows even more trying when you’re confronted with regular defeats and injuries to teammates. For as much as Milwaukee’s on-court identity has shifted and represented little more than a muddled mess at times in the last couple of years, the one constant has been that when the players are having fun and driving a collective effort, they play their best basketball.

After the team’s last win over a semi-competent team against the Houston Rockets on January 23, Jason Kidd pinned much of his team’s improved performance on the fact that they enjoyed themselves. As he told Charles Gardner of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, while referring to a message he was sent by team president Peter Feigin:

“Sometimes as a young team, at the halfway point you might be a little tired. Losing doesn’t help; you get a little frustrated. I thought we have to smile. We haven’t been smiling of late and I thought our president set the tone tonight.”

A team meeting that the players held in the days prior to that Rockets win, and the subsequent benching of Jabari Parker for a quarter which was a punishment decided by his teammates, left many speculating about tensions within the group.

It’s true that losses may have given cause for conflict and divisions, but when Parker went down injured on Wednesday, the Bucks should also have been provided with the context they need to look past individual losses.

As has often been the case this season, it seems that the team’s least experienced players may be the ones who’ve understood that most of all.

Speaking after Parker’s injury was announced, Malcolm Brogdon spoke of the perspective that moment has delivered.

“I think everybody was crushed yesterday and today. For me it was worse than the loss, seeing him go down. That’s the worst thing that can really happen. A guy gets injured. Even when you’re not winning games, when one of your main guys goes down, it’s tough to see.”

Although Parker’s injury is a moment that has unequivocally hurt the Bucks from a basketball perspective, it has the potential to be a moment where they learn a lesson about who they are, and what makes them most effective as a team.

Brogdon summed it up perfectly:

“This is one of those things that can either tear us apart or allow us to rebuild and be even stronger as a unit. Hopefully, it’s the latter and we come together more and we rely on each other.”

The last time the Bucks were faced with such adversity, they responded to Khris Middleton‘s injury with a surprisingly strong start to the season. They’re now firmly back in that underdog spot again.

In spite of what many fans would hope for, the rest of this season shouldn’t and won’t be about systematic tanking.

That’s not to say there isn’t a potential benefit to that approach, but realistically it’s not something that lines up with organizational, coaching and playing philosophies within this team. An ownership who continues to invest colossal amounts of money around Wisconsin isn’t going to initiate a fire sale or a strategy of intentional losing to find a superstar.

The fact is that they have one of those already, and Giannis Antetokounmpo is no more likely to go out and do anything other than put his body on the line to win every single night. A team coached by Jason Kidd, featuring veterans like Jason Terry is going to try and do the right things and win as many games as they can. That doesn’t have to be viewed as a negative either, as very simply, for all of their best efforts this team is going to lose a lot of games. They’re not good.

Having gone on a horrendous run with Parker healthy, don’t expect them to be any better without him and with a recovering Khris Middleton trying to feel his way back into game shape. If the season was to end right now, the Bucks would have the 12th overall pick. With only two wins more than the Magic who currently hold the league’s fifth worst record, expect that gap to close naturally in the coming months.

As such, the Bucks seem set to finish the year with a top-10 pick again, and likely no worse than a top-8 selection in one of the most loaded draft classes of recent years. That leaves the question as, what’s left for Milwaukee to take from what projects to be an otherwise lost few months?

Development of young players will again be what first comes to mind, but just as important is working on engraining good habits. In Milwaukee’s case, finding a more consistent level of energy and growing closer as a group would set strong foundations for the now even more challenging road to success that may still lie ahead.

What the players need to know about themselves is that they can stand up to the challenges thrown at them, and that they won’t always crumble into spells of indifference and incompetence.

Fate has once again thrown the gauntlet down to this young team. If they can show some real commitment and fight in trying to compete against those odds, we’ll have learned something important and new about the overall personality of the group.

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