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NBA Finals: With a methodical process, Bucks GM built roster to compete year after year

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MILWAUKEE — Milwaukee Bucks general manager Jon Horst settled into his seat at Phoenix’s Talking Stick Resort Arena before Games 1 and 2 and put in his ear buds.

He queued up praise and worship music from Leeland and The Tenors and watched the games alongside his front-office partners Milt Newton, Dave Dean and Ryan Hoover.

"It keeps me level and pretty calm," Horst told USA TODAY Sports just before the start of Game 2. "I can see everything. I don’t need to hear the game."

There’s nothing Horst can do at this time but watch. He can’t make roster changes, can’t trade or acquire anyone. It’s all on the coaching staff and players. But Horst, 38, and his staff put the work in to build a roster that can compete for a championship not only this season but for seasons to come.

"Winning an NBA championship, that’s the implied goal," Horst said. "The goal is to be really good every year. We didn’t tip over a napkin and write it down. We studied it. How do teams become champions? How do they do it multiple times and how do you have a long run?

The acquisition of forward P.J. Tucker (left) at the trade deadline and guard Jrue Holiday during the offseason helped the Bucks reach their first NBA Finals since 1974.
The acquisition of forward P.J. Tucker (left) at the trade deadline and guard Jrue Holiday during the offseason helped the Bucks reach their first NBA Finals since 1974.

"You have to put yourself in position every single year. You have to have sustainability. From day one, we’ve tried to build something where we could be good and sustain that success at a high level and keep knocking on the door. If you do that with that right culture and right superstars, then you have a chance to win championships."

Horst, who grew up in Sandusky, Michigan, and began his NBA front-office career with the Pistons, has been with the Bucks since 2008 and became general manager in 2017. Of the players on that 2017-18 playoff team, only Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton remain. Of the players on the 2019 Eastern Conference finals team, just Antetokounmpo, Middleton, Pat Connaughton and Donte DiVincenzo are on the roster.

Horst has tried to foster a culture and environment that appeals to players. It’s his job to get them and then create a situation where they want to stay. Retaining talent has been a major part of Milwaukee's plan and a key to its success.

Some of it is standard across the league, some of it is specific to Milwaukee and the Bucks.

"It starts when they get here and we have a family-first organization from top to bottom, starting with our ownership group," Horst said. "We have the ability to resource our team from a facilities perspective, a strength and conditioning perspective, the way that we take care of our families. We try to do everything in our power to take care of our guys so that the only thing they have to think about is being on the floor and playing. I think we’ve done a good job with that."

Internally, Horst assembled a multi-faceted basketball operations staff: Newton, the assistant general manager; Dean, the vice president of basketball operations; Hoover, the vice president of global scouting; T.J. Barra, the director of research and development who came from Major League Baseball; Samer Jassar, manager of cap and strategy; Pat Haneman, vice president of basketball strategy and analytics.

The acquisition of players through the draft, trades and free agency goes through a laborious vetting process. Each group — research and innovation, scouting department, cap and strategy, basketball operations and coaching staff — submits a detailed report and then staffers have an inclusive meeting that could have 30 people attend, including interns.

A smaller group meets, makes a decision and Horst goes to ownership with the plan for approval.

"He's the most incredible partner," Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. "I can't imagine a better GM probably. Most importantly, he does an amazing job of putting together the team, whether it's making trades, drafting, free agency. He's just incredible at what he does. And then his openness and willingness to have conversations, to be inclusive with his staff, the coaching staff, the players, his relationship with our players, and his relationship with our owners.

"GM is a job that I don't think everybody understands all the things that come underneath that hat. I think he does them all at an incredibly high level, and I'm just beyond appreciative of being a part of what he's put together."

After improving the roster in the offseason, the Bucks signed Giannis Antetokounmpo to a five-year contract extension in December.
After improving the roster in the offseason, the Bucks signed Giannis Antetokounmpo to a five-year contract extension in December.

It helps that the Bucks have a superstar in Antetokounmpo, who made a long-term commitment to the Bucks in December signing a five-year $228.2 million extension.

It was a long process, but eight years of trust and relationship-building made it possible for Milwaukee to avoid free agency with their two-time MVP.

"If you’re trying to recruit, sell, establish and provide on a super-max extension for a back-to-back MVP in whatever market you’re in — you could be in Anchorage, Alaska, or Paris, France — if you’re trying do those things when you’re on the 10-yard line, you’re probably not in a good position," Horst said. "If you’re doing those things on the 1-yard line and throughout the entire drive of your time with someone you've done those things, you’ve got a good chance. But it’s not in your control. It’s their decision. That’s not a negotiation. That’s an offer and acceptance or an offer and a decline."

The day Antetokounmpo committed to the Bucks, he called Horst and said, " 'I'm staying,' and then just hang up the phone and just went about my day. That was pretty much it."

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Milwaukee has made smart decisions. Acquiring Middleton and helping him turn into an All-Star gave the Bucks a chance to keep him, but there was no guarantee he would re-sign in free agency two summers ago.

"Knowing I had the chance to compete for a championship, like I am here today, that's the main reason why," Middleton said of his decision. "The other reason why is just this organization. They believed in me once I got traded here. They gave me an opportunity, gave me a chance. ... And they have been honest with me since day one. The main thing is being able to compete, and the last couple years we have been able to compete for a championship. We may not have gotten it. We are here today. Hopefully, we do get it done.

"As players, that's all you want to do. Be able to be financially secure with your family after you're done playing, but also be able to compete."

The Bucks signed and re-signed Brook Lopez and Pat Connaughton, drafted DiVincenzo, traded for Jrue Holiday and P.J. Tucker and signed Bryn Forbes and Bobby Portis in free agency to fill out the roster with role players.

"We take that holistic view of a player and try to analyze their fit. Sometimes guys are going to fit better for us, be better for us and be better versions of themselves because we already have Giannis, we have Khris and we have Coach Bud’s system," Horst said. "We have done a good job of going out, finding these guys and plugging them in."

Acquiring Holiday in a trade and then signing him to an extension was not an overnight process. When they called New Orleans about a deal before the season began, it was not the first time they tried to trade for Holiday.

"We spent many meetings and many hours — big groups and small groups — going into Jrue," Horst said. "A lot of advanced analytics were used as to why we thought he could provide us some of the things we were missing."

The Bucks, who have the most wins in the NBA the past three seasons, have their core tied into contracts for at least the next two seasons, and Antetokounmpo beyond that.

"I feel enormous responsibility to the organization, to the owners who entrust me and their franchise and to Giannis who’s entrusted us with his career in the prime of his career and to Coach Bud to give him the best opportunities, the best weapons to succeed, to my staff who I love and care about and you want to provide for them and give them opportunities," Horst said. "There’s enormous responsibility with every decision you make, hoping it will work and you can accomplish your goals."

Follow Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NBA Finals: Bucks GM built roster to compete for title year after year