Bucks’ Playoff Drought: From 2001 to 2019 Promise


Basketball doesn’t generally do as well as other sports in trumpeting its past. Sure, we know about Jordan and Kobe. But how much do fans know about, say, Wilt Chamberlain other than, “uh, he scored 100 points!” Thankfully, the Bucks are the exception. Milwaukee does a tremendous job in highlighting the past glory of the Kareem dream years. It even uses intriguing numerology to prove today’s players are standing on heroes’ shoulders. But you’ll find a stark lack of mention of the past 18 years. Unfortunately, this is because the team is amid an epic 18-year series win drought. But with the Bucks very likely to break that curse this year, now would be a good time to review just how far the franchise has come from two decades lost in the woods.

2001 Glory

In stark contrast to today’s success, the ’01-’02 Bucks started a disappointing 3-9. A  49-21 finish, however, propelled the Bucks to the second seed. Behind three-point savant, Ray Allen and esteemed coach George Karl Milwaukee advanced to the East finals, where it faced a 2-3 deficit to Allen Iverson and Philadelphia. Behind an epic performance from Allen, the Bucks forced a decisive game seven:


Unfortunately, the deer fell 91-108 in the finale to conclude an allegedly fixed series. To make matters worse, teams aren’t guaranteed success in the NBA. With its top five players all missing time (even Allen, who had played in 400 games in a row), the 2002 Bucks slumped to 41-41 and out of the playoffs.

The 2003 team, on paper, slightly rebounded to a first-round ouster to New Jersey. But then Ray Allen cursed the Bucks. Milwaukee traded Allen to Seattle for Gary Payton and Desmond Mason. It wasn’t until the drafting of the Greek Freak that Milwaukee would even begin to recover from voluntarily relinquishing its best and most popular player.

2004 marked the beginning of a very troubling trend under then-owner Herb Kohl. Not to demean Kohl, of course. The Bucks wouldn’t have stayed in Milwaukee, to begin with, were it not for his purchase. Also, he helped set a state-first focus only a local business success could foster. But one mistake he made with management was the incorrect “eight seed or bust” mentality. Although the Sixers’ method was extreme, the process proved that excellent teams usually need to be very bad for at least a couple years. But the next decade’s Bucks were sometimes good enough to qualify barely, not too hard in the east, but never good enough to win. The Wizards’ recent collapse proves the frustrating nature of coming up short in the same spot repeatedly. The Bucks needed over a decade to learn the same lesson.

Draft and Bogut no shortcut

Between ’04-’06, the Bucks lost two quick playoff series. The biggest excitement of that span was the Bucks, despite having only a 6.3% chance, won the NBA lottery in 2005. (For those into such games themselves, note the Bucks’ winning numbers were 5-7-10-14). The excitement over drafting Andrew Bogut was palpable:

However, there’s just no easy way to become a championship team. The Spurs and Cavs are the only teams to win a title with a #1 pick drafted by the team, and the Bucks couldn’t become another outlier. One pleasant outlier was Michael Redd‘s 57 points on November 11th, 2006, against the Jazz, still a franchise record:

After three awful years, the 2010 Bucks earned the sixth seed behind John Hammond‘s executive of the year wizardry. Sadly, the team blew a 3-2 lead against the then competent Hawks, leading to another collapse to the lottery. After a boring sweep at the hands of the Heat in 2013, the Bucks reached a level of infamy in a 15-67 ’13-’14 catastrophe. When soon-to-be fired coach Larry Drew welcomed a smattering of fans on a downer of a fan appreciation day, it appeared Milwaukee would always be a “bad baseball town, bad basketball town, but sure likes football!” But even in the depths of the basketball pit, the sun still shone in the form of Jason Kidd.

Kidd Saves City

Although overwhelmingly hated now, one can’t fairly deny Kidd’s contribution to the Bucks’ improvement. The Bucks rapidly improved to .500 in 2015, and although the team was smoked to end a Bulls playoff series, it was improving. The ’16 Bucks slipped a bit but bounced back to an extremely competitive showing against Toronto in the ’17 playoffs. Management fired Kidd as the team seemed to hit a ceiling last season, but behind a rapidly improving Giannis, Milwaukee very nearly pulled an epic upset over mighty Boston. The Bucks predictably dismissed Joe Prunty and then made a brilliant hire of former Hawks success Mike Budenholzer. The rest isn’t history or “the future” (the much-overused team marketing) it’s a beautiful today.

Present Success

With the team shooting a beautiful three-point artistry barrage, Milwaukee has clinched the best record in the entire NBA! The Bucks will officially open with two games at home against an already swept 41-41 Detroit. It’s time to forget the specter of traded stars and busted drafts. The east playoff marathon is finally calling Milwaukee, and a superbly talented and committed Bucks franchise is racing to embrace the challenge ambitiously.


About Jeffrey Newholm

"Jammin Jeff" Newholm had been a basketball fanatic since his high school days, and remained a casual fan as a student in Whitewater. Wishing to check in as an active participant, he also completed a writing certificate program at UWM. He loves seeing Bucks games more than any other activity in hometown Milwaukee and especially screaming really really loudly to get someone to miss a free throw. Twitter: @JeffreyNewholm

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