Milwaukee Bucks Owe Some of Their Success to the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons

Joe Dumars was a Hall of Fame player and longtime president of basketball operations for the Detroit Pistons. Never was he affiliated with the Milwaukee Bucks. John Hammond left the Bucks in 2017 after a nine-year run as their general manager. But as Milwaukee prepares for its first NBA Finals in 47 years, the fingerprint of the Bad Boy Pistons is visible in the team’s two stars.

Building a championship-contending roster is still more art than science, despite the rise of advanced analytics and more player tracking than ever. Dumars was a member of two championship teams in Detroit, though he may have been the mellowest of the Bad Boys. He later assembled a championship club for the Pistons in 2004. Hammond, meanwhile, spent six years as Dumars’ right-hand person in the Detroit front office before going to Milwaukee as GM.

Understanding how the two franchises are connected involves looking at the construction of the 2020–21 Bucks.

The first two pieces of the Milwaukee Bucks puzzle arrived the same offseason

Khris Middleton arrived from the Detroit Pistons the same year the Milwaukee Bucks drafted Giannis Antetokounmpo
Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) and Khris Middleton (22) of the Milwaukee Bucks defend against Carmelo Anthony (7) of the New York Knicks on October 30, 2013. | Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

The 2013 NBA draft was one for the books. Just not necessarily a book for the entire family. Instead, it’s a title you might find in the horror section, at least for the teams at the top of the draft. The Cleveland Cavaliers led off the night with Anthony Bennett. Woof. Other lottery picks generated Cody Zeller, Alex Len, Ben McLemore, Nerlens Noel, and Shabazz Muhammad.

The highest Value Over Replacement Player from the 2013 draft class has been compiled by a guy that went 15th overall. You may now know Giannis Antetokounmpo as the two-time NBA MVP and the centerpiece of the Milwaukee Bucks.

It’s easy to look at that draft eight years later and wonder how, in the world, almost half the GMs in the league could pass on Antetokounmpo. Revisionist history is fun and all, but of six mock drafts still available from that time, the highest anyone placed Antetokounmpo was No. 19. He also showed up at No. 21, No. 22, No. 29 (twice), and nowhere. So, anyone who claims to have seen Giannis coming in the form he now exists is flat-out lying. Period.

Later that offseason, the second piece came to the Bucks in a sign-and-trade deal. Spoiler alert: It was not the player most prominent in the trade.

The afterthought becomes a star in Milwaukee

In late July 2013, the Detroit Pistons and Milwaukee Bucks agreed to a sign-and-trade arrangement to send high-scoring Brandon Jennings to the Pistons. The Bucks would sign Jennings, then trade him to Detroit for a package headlined by Brandon Knight. Dumars tossed in Viacheslav Kravtsov and Khris Middleton to help make the salaries work.

Knight was a former lottery pick who had started his first two seasons for the Pistons. Save for an unfortunate decision to challenge DeAndre Jordan on a dunk, he was off to a solid start. Kravtsov was an undrafted free agent from Ukraine, a pure project at 7-feet and 260 pounds

Middleton, meanwhile, came to Detroit as a second-round pick in 2012. He entered the draft coming off a knee injury as a junior at Texas A&M, and his stock dropped accordingly. He played 27 games for the Pistons as a rookie and three with the G-League’s Fort Wayne Mad Ants.

Where the Bad Boys come into the mix

The Detroit Pistons of the 1980s were a formidable team that played somewhere in the gray area between physical and criminal. While the Pistons had their high-profile stars, there were also a lot of grinders in the group. Isiah Thomas was a second-overall pick in 1981. Vinnie Johnson was a top-10 pick, while Mark Aguirre went in the spot ahead of Thomas.

But Dumars was a late first-rounder. Dennis Rodman was a second-round selection, Bill Laimbeer was taken in the third round and played in Italy before getting an NBA shot. The lesson Dumars took from that was to be on the lookout for considerable talents in unexpected places. Middleton was one of those players. He was available at No. 39 in 2012, and Dumars jumped on the chance.

Meanwhile, Dumars also groomed Hammond with the same philosophy. That led Hammond to correctly project a skinny 6-foot-9 kid who had never played above Greece’s second division as a potential future star. The fact he grew two inches and filled out by roughly 50 pounds didn’t hurt the process, but it was Hammond who was willing to roll the dice.

The Bucks have done an excellent job of surrounding Middleton and Antetokounmpo with the pieces needed to contend. But the foundation has a Detroit flavor to it.

Draft and transaction information courtesy of Basketball Reference and RealGM.

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