No. 7: Milwaukee Bucks
Last Season: 41-41
6th place in East; Lost 4-2 to Chicago in Round 1
You would be hard-pressed to name an NBA franchise that has made itself over faster and more successfully over the past couple of seasons than the Milwaukee Bucks. Think back two seasons. The Bucks were mired in the same quagmire of mediocrity in which they had wallowed for decades. There wasn't a bankable star on the roster, no one the fans in Wisconsin could pin their hopes on. The arena was so decrepit that the league publicly declared that it must be replaced or the team would likely be relocated. There was no personality and, seemingly, no long-term future. This was the franchise destined to become the next Seattle SuperSonics.
Since then, the positive developments have poured forth faster than an over-aerated keg of Miller beer. New owners, out-of-towners, have expanded the team's operation behind the scenes, hired a big-name coach in Jason Kidd, and led the fight to secure a new playing facility. The talent base has been revitalized, with Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and John Henson developing in-house while Jabari Parker provides hope the Bucks will soon feature a brand-name star. Ground-breaking on the new arena is now imminent, securing the Bucks' future in Milwaukee. And on the court, the Bucks roared to a 26-game improvement and earned a playoff spot in the process.
Just as the new arena and the accompanying practice facility will slowly rise from the parking lots a couple of blocks up from the Milwaukee River, construction continues on the Bucks' roster. After a splashy summer marked by the successful pursuit of free-agent center Greg Monroe, that part of the Milwaukee makeover is already in high gear. The key question entering the new season is whether the young Bucks will enter a season of consolidation after making such a large gain or, if like a triple-jumper, Milwaukee is poised for that so-difficult second leap into the NBA's elite.
The good vibes surrounding the Bucks began a few months before the season, when Milwaukee landed the second pick of the 2014 draft. Jabari Parker was the easy pick there, and not only did Parker give the Bucks the upside of a possible franchise player, he was a quasi-local personality out of Chicago thrilled to ply his trade a little further north. The fans took to Parker and he to them. Parker was having a perfectly fine rookie season until he was felled by a torn ACL in December.
While Parker rehabbed, the Bucks cemented their status as a team on the rise behind a smothering defense designed by new coach Kidd and his staff. Milwaukee finished second in defensive rating and forced turnovers at a higher rate than any team in the league. The Bucks' perimeter defense was a sight to behold with long-armed athletes like Antetokounmpo, Middleton, Henson and Carter-Williams pinching the floor in Milwaukee's hyperaggressive scheme.
The development of the offense lagged well behind that of the defense. Antetokounmpo was one of the league's most improved players but struggled with his outside shooting. Brandon Knight was having an All-Star-caliber season but was traded at the deadline in advance of a big payday in restricted free agency. Carter-Williams fit the team's defensive scheme but, like his new pal Antetokounmpo, has a poor jump shot. Yet the team played unselfishly and Middleton developed his catch-and-shoot game into a real weapon. The Bucks turned the ball over too much, but with the defense playing so well, the offense's No. 25 finish was enough to get Milwaukee to .500 and into the postseason.
In those playoffs, the Bucks gave the heavily favored Bulls all they could handle before Chicago hammered Milwaukee on its home floor to end the first-round series in six games. The Bucks simply could not score enough to seriously challenge the Bulls and Milwaukee's defense wasn't quite as sharp in the playoff format, where teams have extra time to prepare and adjust. Nevertheless, as Milwaukee entered the summer, all trend lines were pointed upward.