MILWAUKEE — Steel beams and giant cranes tower over a lot next to the Bradley Center, a busy construction site that will turn into the next home of the Milwaukee Bucks.
A new downtown arena offers the most visible sign of progress for a franchise in transition.
From the emergence of Giannis Antetokounmpo as an NBA All-Star to a return to the playoffs, this has been an important season for the Bucks. They return home on Thursday to host the Toronto Raptors in Game 3 of a first-round series tied at 1-1.
"In a very real sense, we're in the process of fulfilling the commitment we made ... building the arena and building in downtown Milwaukee," co-owner Wes Edens said. "Every time you go out there, you can see the arena rising before your eyes."
Edens was part of an ownership group that bought the franchise from former U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl in 2014. The goals seemed lofty back then: turning a 15-win team back into a winner while also building a new arena that would keep the Bucks in town.
While the road to reaching both targets hasn't always been smooth, the Bucks are brimming with optimism.
On the court, Antetokounmpo blossomed into the team's first All-Star since 2004, and first All-Star starter since 1986. He's now in the top 10 of NBA jersey sales, the first Bucks player on that list since Gary Payton's brief tenure with the team in 2003.
A 6-foot-11 forward with freakish athleticism, Antetokounmpo is a triple-double threat every night.
"His length is unbelievable," Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. "He plays so hard, the kid plays so hard. He has a heart as big as this table."
A first-round draft pick in 2013, the 22-year-old Antetokounmpo is part of a young group for the Bucks at similar points in their development, including fifth-year forward-guard Khris Middleton and third-year forward Jabari Parker. Middleton returned from a hamstring injury that sidelined him for the season's first 50 games on Feb. 8, the same night that Parker was lost with a season-ending left knee injury.
The Bucks still made the playoffs and finished above .500 for the first time since 2009-10 on the strength of tougher defence and winning close games in a 14-victory March.
"One of the things that I've learned is that no one feels sorry for you. At one point (we were) 22-30 and struggling," Edens said. "It starts with the very high play of Giannis. ... Khris came back and he's such a good basketball player, you see him down the stretch being so effective.
"Look at the record in close games, were much better down the stretch. More broadly, the team is a very deep team," Edens added.
After the new ownership group took over, the Bucks began using the slogan "Own the Future." They've tweaked that slogan on a highway billboard in recent days to read "Come See the Future," a nod to the playoffs and the arena project.
"We have a two- to four-year plan to be an extremely successful, sustainable NBA franchise," team President Peter Feigin said. "You tell the promise and then you deliver on it."
The $524 million project is expected to be completed before the 2018-19 season. A public financing plan covered $250 million toward construction, with current and former team owners having committed $250 million and expected to cover any cost overruns.
The Bucks are scheduled to move into a new 60,000 square-foot practice facility across the street from the new arena this summer, what the team says will be a state-of-the-art space that will be among the best in the league. It promises to be a big upgrade over the current facility just outside Milwaukee.
The new downtown project would be the centerpiece of a multi-purpose entertainment district on what was 30 acres of mostly vacant land or parking lots. The goal is to turn the area into "a vibrant neighbourhood activated by sports, entertainment, residential and office uses," the team has said.
A playoff berth for the Bucks allows the rest of the NBA to also get a glimpse of the team's future.
"It means a lot for the franchise and the city of Milwaukee," Middleton said. "We've come a long way."
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