By Douglas Farmer —
Sometimes I get one right. Not often, but every now and again. A bit more than a year ago, this space got it right when it trumpeted the need for Wisconsin sports fans to tune into Milwaukee Bucks games and recognize the pending rise of Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Now, let’s risk that winning streak with a bold prediction: By the time you read this, Giannis and the Bucks will have already advanced to the second round of the NBA Playoffs. If that sounds far from bold, know this column is due before the regular season ends, but will not hit the stands until two weeks after the playoffs commence.
The print media struggle aside, this is hardly a leap, presuming health. Milwaukee outscores its opponents by more than nine points a game, a rate three points better than the Golden State Warriors’ and four better than anyone else in the Eastern Conference.
Simply put, the Bucks are stronger than you have realized, borderline historically so. They have finished the leap from “an inconsistent team with baffling tendencies” to “an Eastern Conference contender oh-so-close to putting it all together,” as my column from January 2018 described. That may not lend itself to winning a title this season—this Warriors squad likely has one more parade awaiting it—but it should make the first round of the playoffs a mere formality, whether Milwaukee faces the Miami Heat, the Orlando Magic or the Charlotte Hornets.
Giannis has put together an MVP-caliber season, buttressed by the health and development of first-time All-Star Khris Middleton and the modern coaching styles of Mike Budenholzer. The three-legged stool sits atop a roster constructed for a lengthy playoff run, one even complete with championship experience thanks to the March signing of two-time NBA champion Pau Gasol.
Of course, similar thoughts accompanied the 2007 Dallas Mavericks when they finished the regular season 67-15 with MVP Dirk Nowitzki leading the way. They then ran into the “We Believe” Warriors and bowed out of the playoffs in just six games.
Yet here I am, predicting a first-round victory for the Bucks before they seal the top seed in the East, a prediction you will only read after the series. Why do so?
To underscore the need to watch what comes after that. The pertinent basketball will extend well into May in Wisconsin this year, a state that usually only watches through the Badgers’ exit in March. If things break right, Giannis could be the last hurdle between the Warriors and a three-peat in mid-June.
It would be overeager to say such a Finals could mark a transition for the NBA. By no means will the Warriors regress to the shadows next season, no matter who leaves their roster this offseason. And while the Bucks are the class of the East this season, neither the Philadelphia 76ers nor the Boston Celtics are going to make life easy in the next few seasons.
But the Bucks are not going anywhere, aside from further into the playoffs. Only five players in the 3-point era (since 1980) have averaged 27 points and 12 rebounds per game, including both Giannis and the 76ers’ Joel Embiid this season. (Add in Giannis’ six assists per game, and then that list includes just the Greek Freak.) If, as you read this, Giannis and Embiid are readying to face each other in the Eastern Conference Finals, tune in. You aren’t late to the party yet, but wait much longer and you will be.
Douglas Farmer grew up in La Crosse, Wisconsin, before covering sports across the country with stops at The Los Angeles Times, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Dallas Morning News. He graduated from Aquinas High School in 2008 and from the University of Notre Dame in 2012, and now spends his professional time keeping an eye on the latter’s football team.