ST. FRANCIS — With the sting of their frantic but failed Game 6 comeback effort still fresh in their minds, the Milwaukee Bucks returned to their practice facility Friday morning to pack their things and head their separate ways.
The Bucks consider themselves a team on the rise in the Eastern Conference, a belief no doubt reinforced by a furious 14-4 run late in the season that propelled them to sixth place in the East and solidified by a strong, though inconsistent, effort against Toronto in the playoffs.
"We thought we were the better team," forward Giannis Antetokounmpo said. "We thought we could beat the Raptors and go to the second round. We feel like we got the Raptors' attention so hopefully next year ... we can go deeper in the playoffs."
To get to that next step, which includes gaining home-court advantage and winning a playoff series for the first time since 2001, a lot of work needs to be done. Milwaukee needs Antetokounmpo to continue his rapid development, but will be looking to young additions like Thon Maker and Malcolm Brogdon, the Bucks' two picks in last year's draft, to refine their bodies and their games this summer.
Maker was one of the biggest surprises in the league. The 15th overall pick was a relative unknown and figured, at the outset, to be a draft-and-develop pick. Instead, he made a strong impression on the coaching staff with his commitment to defense and made opposing teams panic with his ability to shoot the 3 and wound up starting all six playoff games.
"It was amazing," Maker said. "Unexpected. I thought I was just going to be on 'Project: Build Maker' and build my body but that's (what I'm doing) this summer now. I thought that's what this year was going to be about but everything turned around. I worked hard and it turned out to be way more than I expected. I don't like the end results — it could have been way better — but you live with the results and you learn."
Brogdon might have been an even bigger surprise. He was Milwaukee's second-round pick and began the season on the bench behind free agent acquisition Matthew Dellavedova. But he, too, put in the work and by season's end, was not only the starting point guard but a key piece of the Bucks' core.
"I think it's strong," Brogdon said of Milwaukee's nucleus. "I think it's going to be one of the strongest in the NBA, as long as we're able to stay together and as long as we're able to stay healthy. I think we're going to be one of the best teams in the NBA."
The Bucks have been in this position before. They were considered a team on the rise in 2010, when they forced the Hawks to seven games but stumbled the next season and didn't return to the postseason until sneaking into the eighth spot in 2013.
Two years later, Milwaukee was thought to be a sleeper after the Bucks finished .500 in Kidd's first season at the helm, but again they faltered the next season and missed the playoffs.
Maintaining the momentum will be a major focus as preparations begin for the next season.
"My first year we had seven or eight free agents, so we knew that wasn't going to be the same team," forward John Henson said. "(The) second year we had a new coach, more free agents.
My third year coach Kidd coming in, we knew there was going to be some stability. He's had the same core guys and this is what happens; not have a letdown like we did the year before."
Milwaukee should benefit with some roster stability. The team's young core appears set in place with Antetokounmpo, Henson and Khris Middleton locked into long-term contracts, as are Dellavedova and Mirza Teletovic.
Tony Snell, who went on to start 80 games after being acquired late in training camp, is a restricted free agent. Greg Monroe, who became one of the league's best sixth men, holds a player option for next season.
The Bucks will likely be open to bringing back veteran guard Jason Terry for a 19th season, too.
"I think that's how you become a team that doesn't regress next year - keeping some of the pieces together," Henson said.
General manager John Hammond also faces a tough question with Jabari Parker, who will miss at least the first half of the 2017-18 season after tearing his ACL in February. The No. 2 overall pick in the 2014 draft is eligible for a contract extension this summer and was in line to earn something close to the $100 million Milwaukee gave Antetokounmpo last year.