The Milwaukee Bucks entered the COVID-19 coronavirus stoppage of play on March 12 with a remarkable 53-12 record. That’s six games better than any team in the Eastern Conference and two games ahead of the Los Angeles Lakers in the West.
One of the individuals credited for helping put this powerhouse squad together — the Bucks went 60-22 last season and lost in the 2019 East finals to Toronto — is former University of Kansas forward Milt Newton.
Newton, 54, has been Bucks assistant general manager under GM Jon Horst since August of 2017 after previously being the Minnesota Timberwolves GM from 2013 to 2016.
“It is a ‘we’ environment here, a collaborative environment. I’m really fortunate to be part of this group,” Newton told The Star in a recent phone interview, in which he spread the credit around for Milwaukee’s current success.
“I’ve been in the league a long time. I’ve seen a lot of management styles. I’ve been involved in a lot of management styles. I’ve learned a lot in terms of how to effectively manage a team,” added Newton, a starter on KU’s 1988 NCAA title team who also held the title of vice president of player personnel for the Washington Wizards from 2003 to 2013.
“We’ve got young guys here who are very smart (GM Horst is 37). Hearing everyone’s viewpoint and opinion is how you grow. I want to grow in any situation. Working here has helped me grow as a manager. Like they say, when you win, everyone gets a little credit. It doesn’t change in this situation,” Newton added.
The Bucks are a team noted for a high-powered offense that averages a league-leading 118.6 points a game. Milwaukee’s defense allows 107.4 ppg, fifth best mark in the league.
Superstar power forward Giannis Antetokounmpo averages 29.6 points, 13.7 rebounds and 5.8 assists a game. Forward Khris Middleton averages 21.1 points, 6.2 rebounds and 4.1 assists per contest; point guard Eric Bledsoe 15.4 points and 5.4 assists and center Brook Lopez 11.0 points and 4.5 rebounds. Ten Bucks average over 16 minutes a game.
Impressed with the Bucks’ overall play, Newton thinks the team can pick up where it left off once the season resumes — or make that if the season resumes amid the pandemic.
“Our players and coaching staff understand we were having a special season,” Newton told The Star. “We understand what our goals are. Whenever we resume playing we’ll be in a good situation to continue pursuing the goals we had.
“We have one goal and the goal is to win a championship,” he added. “From our best player on down everyone cheers for each other when we do well. Everyone wants their teammates to do well. Guys understand it’s a team game.
“The way the staff (led by head coach Mike Budenholzer) wants them to play — unselfish, taking the best shot we have that is available, passing it up when there’s a better shot … all players have bought in to do what it takes to be successful.”
Newton said he’s been busy working from home during this two-month stoppage of play with plenty of things to consider and evaluate such as the 2020 NBA draft.
“All teams are in the same situation, but speaking for us we’re working every day like we are in the office,” Newton said. “It’s a day at the office only at home. Just because there is no combine to attend (for NBA prospects) or no individual workouts to conduct, this is for now the new normal. (We’re) doing interviews through Zoom, talking with people in the scouting department … we’ve done a good job knowing who the players (potential draftees) are. We did a lot of the work before the crisis. Moving forward we’re making the best of the avenues we have available.”
Newton was able to watch the recent replay of KU’s victory over Oklahoma in the 1988 NCAA championship game shown on a recent Saturday on CBS Sports HQ. Newton went 6 of 6 from the field and scored 15 points with four rebounds and two blocked shots in KU’s 83-79 win over the Sooners on April 4, 1988 in Kemper Arena.
“When they replayed it, I had people all over texting me saying, ‘Hey I’m watching you right now,’ ” said Newton, a starter who played 32 minutes that day. “The guys on the team were texting, saying, ‘Do you remember this?’ I reached out to coach Brown (Larry, KU coach in ’88). I always keep in touch with him. He saw the game. He’s been watching a lot of our old games whether the Big Eight or tournament games.
“Even to this day,” Newton added, “it’s a great feeling seeing us playing that game. You watch it and know we are going to win, but you are on the edge of your seat watching that game.”
Of course in watching the ’88 title game a few weeks ago, some people learned for the first time how well the 6-foot-5 Newton played in that contest.
“A lot of people think it’s incredible, my field-goal percentage in that game, not missing any shots,” said Newton, who played for Rockford (Illinois) and Grand Rapids (Michigan) in the Continental Basketball Association and in Belgium and Australia before turning to front office work.
“From an overall standpoint, we weren’t the best team. We had the best player (Danny Manning), the best coach (Brown). Pipe (Chris Piper), Kevin (Pritchard), Scooter (Barry), Lincoln (Minor), Jeff (Gueldner) … everybody contributed. If people knew what we went through that season and knew how difficult our practices were and fighting through all that adversity (injuries and players leaving team) … guys left it all on the table. To win against that (OU) team that beat us twice that year and had superior talent … it’s a testament to guys not giving up, willing to do whatever it takes, putting egos on the backburner, playing their roles. It was fun watching that again.”
Newton said he felt sorry for the 2019-20 Jayhawks (28-3), who may have won the 2020 NCAA title if not for coronavirus. KU was expected to be the overall No. 1 seed entering March Madness.
“It’s the most exciting time of the year for basketball, KU specifically,” Newton said. “It’s a disappointment something was taken from them. They don’t know how great they’d have been in the tournament, if they’d won or not. Everything is left suspended. I feel bad that the players around the country couldn’t end the season on their own performance and feel bad for the university.”