They had just suffered a Game 7 loss in the Eastern Conference Finals after a hard-fought playoff run. Allen Iverson went nuts, scoring 44 to go with 7 assists and 6 rebounds. Dikembe Mutombo was too much for Ervin Johnson, dropping 23 with 19 rebounds. It was a tough ending, but there was endless optimism that the Bucks would be back for years to come.
Sadly, it didn’t happen. The next season they’d go into March with a 35-25 record but go 6-16 the rest of the way. The 22-year-old Michael Redd had come onto the scene as a reliable shooter – the lone bright spot on an otherwise disappointing squad – but the issues remained the same. They’d never recover.
When I look back on years of Bucks fandom, that squad stands out. That year was the pinnacle of “The Big Three”, a stellar trio that never had the chance to show its full potential. Allen, Robinson and Cassell were potent on offense with a team that swarmed on defense. In 2001 they finished with 52 wins in the regular season before running into Iverson late in the postseason. There have been playoff teams since then, but rarely has there been hope of a future championship.
Enter the new, “bigger” three of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jabari Parker and Khris Middleton.
Only bigger in the sense that these guys don’t match the mold that the 2001 trio was made of. Cassell was a 6’3” PG, Allen was a 6’5” SG. The smallest of the new crew is a tie between Parker and Middleton at 6’8”. Perhaps the only perfect comparison in style is Robinson and Parker – big bruising PF/SF hybrids who could take you to the rack or pull up from the arc. Allen and Middleton also have their similarities, but Giannis doesn’t have a true comparison in NBA history yet (unless you want to make him the next Durant, but that’s simply in body type).
But the comparisons don’t have match physically to be. The old guard led the Bucks to a championship, and so can this one. Antetokounmpo is locked up for the next 4 years following this season, Middleton is under contract and Parker can’t be far behind following the recent salary dumping of Miles Plumlee. And for the first time since 2001, Milwaukee can have three true stars.
But this isn’t yet meant to be.
I edit this day after writing it to add that Parker won’t be filling out this big three until 2018 after tearing his ACL last night. But when he’s back, they should still be able to follow the blueprint left by Allen, Robinson and Cassell.
Allen and Robinson led that team in scoring, each averaging 22.0 PPG. Cassell averaged 18.2 with 7.6 assists. Assuming Middleton, when fully healthy, can be near last year’s 18.2 PPG average, that would give the two trios an eerily similar combined PPG.
After Parker’s injury, we’ll see Khris Middleton will fit after sitting out the first 50 games of the season. After leading the team in scoring last season, it’s expected that he’ll be a third cog in the machine to be a “3 and D” guard, spending time guarding the best opposing scorer, and doing what he does better than anyone on this squad – hitting clutch shots. He’s the perfect player to fit in with two ball-dominant players and making his entire team better when Parker returns.
One thing in particular was working against the 2001 Big Three – time. They were at different points in their career. Cassell was 31, Robinson 28 and Allen 25. This isn’t too drastic a difference, but the 2016 version has far more time if they can stay together. Jabari turned 21 in 2016 and Giannis is only a year older than he. Middleton is the old, wily veteran at the ripe age of 25. They are young, talented, and improving. This trio is focused on a future that also includes rookies Malcolm Brogdon and Thon Maker as well as whatever major pieces are added along the way.
It may be a few years before the Milwaukee Bucks see another Eastern Conference Finals. But with a future MVP candidate like Antetokounmpo playing alongside Parker and Middleton, history is bound to repeat itself with the mold set by the original Big Three. Finally, I could experience what 9-year-old me couldn’t – an NBA Championship.