“We’re a good team, but we try to be a great team… I think we played a bit sloppy, even though we scored a lot… It’s good to win, but at the end of the day we gotta get better.” That’s part of what Giannis had to say after the Bucks dropped 148 points in a win over the Wizards. It’s not a surprising thing to hear from the Greek Freak, or any member of the Bucks. Even when they play well, they aren’t completely satisfied. They focus on the small things with a singular goal, to be the best they can possibly be. This is not strange, nor should it be. All good teams want to get better. Make no mistake though, there’s something different brewing in Milwaukee.
Talent only gets a team so far. It takes a winning culture and a unified mindset to be great, something the Bucks haven’t had in recent memory. As Phil Jackson, an 11-time champion as head coach, said, “it takes a number of critical factors to win an NBA championship, including the right mix of talent, creativity, intelligence, toughness, and, of course, luck.” Phil Jackson lost some of the luster he’d built up during his failed years with the Knicks, but he’s still the man that coached Michael Jordan for all six of his championships and then helped guide the Kobe Bryant Lakers to five more. 11 championships in 20 years as a head coach is beyond impressive, regardless of who the players are. Many people have thought for years the Bucks had great talent, but this season, with the help of Coach Budenholzer, they’ve infused creativity and intelligence into the equation and what has unfolded is something special. We’re watching the best basketball team Milwaukee has seen in several decades. What’s more, Bucks fans faith in the team can be based in more than merely their impressive record.
A team can have all the factors mentioned by Jackson and still lose, so what separates the great teams from the champions? Jackson focuses on this difference between great teams and champions in his book, 11 Rings: The Soul of Success. What he describes is, as I said before, a strong culture. It’s easy to say but hard to achieve. According to Phil, the essential ingredient is love. Now, you may think that is cheesy or overstated in a professional sport, and if that’s the case I’d encourage you to think of it as a brotherhood, a care for one another. Whatever you want to call it, the Bucks have it this year. It’s obvious, just listen to what they say. Early on they mentioned the difference it made having a coach who genuinely cared about them as individuals and people, not just as basketball players. Night in and night out they look like a group of friends on the court, and the results speak for themselves.
Giannis spoke about some of the differences with Coach Budenholzer earlier this year, saying, “Jason [Kidd] would have yelled at us and we probably would have stayed closed in a shell. And sometimes when guys got yelled at, they had a tendency to not play as hard and play a little bit more scared… But with Coach Bud, he’s always coming from a good place. He gives you the green light, but he’s going to scold you, he’s always going to talk to you. When you’re messing up, he’s going to let you know. But when you’re doing good stuff he’s always going to tell you, make you feel positive and make you play for the team.” Eric Bledsoe added his own take on how things are working this season; “When I first got here we didn’t know each other. I didn’t know the team, they didn’t know my game. This year everybody knows what everybody wants to do. And we’ll accept it—everybody gotta sacrifice for the team, and it’s working. We’re in a great spot right now.”
In short, the Bucks have the talent, they have the care for one another, they have the desire to be great, but do they have the right culture? The culture of champions. Forgive me as I pull from Phil Jackson one last time. He’s spoke of a book called Tribal Leadership and how it influenced him as a coach. Though I doubt very much that any of the Bucks know it, they are slowly checking every mark of a successful group that the book discusses at length. It’s about groups of people and how the culture of a different group correlates with and often predicts success. The book focused on businesses and organizations, but the message rings clear in the NBA and in all sports. Allow me to explain.
To summarize it simply with a basketball-shaded lens, there are five stages that teams can be in, with teams improving as their culture moves through these various stages. The low stages are teams with despairing players. Think of somebody who says, “my life sucks. Sure, other teams have it great, but we don’t.” That attitude fits a lot of losing teams, like the Knicks or Bulls, and even ones with good players, like this years Lakers. From the outside it looks like the Lakers have no cohesion as they shop players and ignore all aspects of chemistry. They have the LeBron, but they don’t have the culture of a winning team right now. Moving up a stage you have teams filled with single minded players, guys who want to be great individually and who don’t sacrifice for the team. In many respects this is where the Bucks resided for several years. They ran a system that didn’t focus on ball movement or teamwork and often resulted in sloppy team play. They were a playoff team but that style of play and that culture (that, as Giannis said, had players retreating into their personal shells) was never going to win a championship, no matter how good the players were.
The next stage up is where teams make the leap, and, at worst, it’s where the Bucks are now. It’s a pride-filled team that is out to prove they are better than everybody else. These teams can rise to championship levels, but it doesn’t always work out that way. Think of the Thunder during the last year with Kevin Durant when the blew a 3-1 lead against the Warriors, or the Cavs team that came back and beat the Warriors that same year. Those teams had a single minded focus, to prove that they were the best by winning against specific opponents, like the Warriors. They played as a team, and sometimes it was enough, sometimes it wasn’t.
The last stage, the stage that Phil Jackson claims that only a few of his Bulls teams ever reached (and none of his Lakers teams), is a paradigm shift away from specific opponents and towards the game itself. Look at the Warriors team the last four years. Even in the year they lost the championship (but went 73-9 in the regular season), they never worried about other teams. They were dominant before Durant or DeMarcus Cousins came, and they often sounded as if they were playing against the game itself. That is to say, they only wanted to be better and take the game to a new level. It’s not something that happens over night, it takes time.
With all that in mind, the Bucks appear on the verge of tapping into the mindset of those final stage teams, and you can tell both by how they play and how they speak. As it stands, the Bucks have four winning streaks of five games or more in which they won each game by an average of over 10 points. Nobody else in the NBA has one such streak. The Bucks have the most wins and the least losses in the league, and are dominating in terms of points scored and points allowed per possession. On top of it all they have perhaps the best individual player in the NBA this season. They look every bit the part of a true championship contender. What’s really special though goes beyond the record or the scores, it’s the way they’re doing it. Their perfectionist mindset and focus on the game itself rather than on any specific opponent is not particularly normal. Sure, analysts and broadcasters talk constantly about the Eastern Conference opponents such as the Raptors, 76ers, or Celtics, but the players and coaches seldom, if ever, do. What do they talk about? They talk about perfecting their ball movement, their court vision, their defense, you name it, even though they are already tops in the league. Until they win a championship it’s unfair to say they have the culture of a dynasty, like that forged by the Warriors or the 90s Bulls, but it’s in the works if they can keep the team together.
Ultimately, there’s no one thing to point to for the Bucks success this season compared to years past. They’ve added just a few players, brought in an incredible coaching staff, and continued to work as hard as they possibly can. The real center of what they’ve done, however, is create a new culture. A winning culture. A culture that goes beyond the individual, beyond the opponent, and focuses on the themselves as a team and the game itself. Forget the Bucks versus the Raptors, Celtics, whoever. This season they just keep fighting to be better than they were yesterday. It’s the Bucks versus the Bucks, or, put differently, it’s the Bucks versus Basketball itself.