With a little luck and help from ownership, the Milwaukee Bucks could be back on track sooner than you may think.
It’s a month before the All-Star break and the Bucks are 7-31. They’re riding a seven-game losing streak and are the only team in the NBA yet to win consecutive games. Their franchise player is averaging 6.1 points per game. The player they signed this summer to be their go-to scorer hasn’t started a game in over a month. They’re the worst team in the miserable Eastern Conference and the worst team in the NBA.
Their attendance ranks second-to-last in the league. Their arena, the BMO Harris Bradley Center, is the NBA’s most outdated. If you ask soon-to-be commissioner Adam Silver, it’s “unfit” for the league.
A billboard, funded by fans, is planted a few blocks from the arena urging the home team to lose games – on purpose. “WINNING TAKES BALLS,” it reads, a reference to the ping-pong balls used at the NBA Draft Lottery. Those same fans that paid for the billboard fear that if things don’t change soon – mainly, if a new arena deal isn’t struck – the team is in danger of heading west to Seattle or Vancouver. Hell, maybe even Las Vegas – anywhere willing to provide a modern arena and dedicated fan base.
Seattle has already made its interest in reacquiring an NBA franchise known. When the Sonics were pried away six years ago, the city reserved the rights to the Sonics nickname, colors, mascot – everything. So, naturally, if the Bucks relocated to the Emerald City, not only would the team vanish, its nickname, and the history it carries, would too.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Long-time owner Herb Kohl has reiterated his stance that he will do whatever necessary to keep the team in his hometown. The former United States senator even recently announced that he’s open to expanding ownership so long as it’s conducive to keeping the franchise. But even if the Bucks do stay, which seems to be the more likely scenario given Kohl’s position, the toughest task for ownership will be reviving a downtrodden fan base that seems to grow increasingly apathetic with each passing season. Milwaukee has earned a playoff berth in two of the last four years but has not advanced past the first round since Allen Iverson sent Glenn Robinson and Co. packing in Game 7 of the 2001 Eastern Conference Finals.
Over the past decade, the Bucks haven’t been a “bad” team. Nor have they been a “good” team. Plenty of franchises have been worse off. As Behind the Buck Pass’ Mitchell Brachmann put it back in October, quite fittingly, the Bucks have simply “existed.” There haven’t been any extreme highs or any extreme lows over the past ten years, just extreme mediocrity. And in a league that overwhelmingly favors superstars – who are overwhelmingly drafted highly – sitting in limbo as a decent, or even “pretty good,” franchise is the worst possible scenario.
The Bucks were in that spot for over a decade, often hovering slightly below mediocrity, but not quite low enough to land elite talent in the draft. From 2002-13, Milwaukee’s average first-round draft position was 10th. And after improbably winning the draft lottery in 2005, they selected Andrew Bogut, who’s developed into a solid pro, but nothing near the expectations bestowed upon a top overall pick. Over the last 12 years, Michael Redd came and went. As did Brandon Jennings, Yi Jianlian, T.J. Ford, Joe Alexander and Bogut, all at one time billed as the promising young talent that would free the franchise from the shackles of mediocrity.
The problem throughout all those years was ownership’s incessant belief in staying afloat, Kohl’s idea that it was his civil duty to put together the best team he could each season. There’s no denying it’s an admirable stance and one that’s difficult to justly criticize. It’s one that nearly every owner in the league claims to take. But Kohl is one of the few, perhaps the only, that stuck rigidly to it. To him, the Bucks are a service, almost like a city park, that he takes pride in providing for Milwaukee. It’s open to anyone, and he’s not willing to let that park go into disrepair for a summer in order to save money toward purchasing a flashy new fountain the following year. Unlike most owners, it’s not about the money. Kohl is not married and has no children; the Bucks are his pride and joy. He genuinely cares about the franchise and its fans, and he feels that he’d be cheating them by not assembling the best team he can each year.
At Kohl’s insistence, the team brought in veteran after veteran, many well past their prime, to keep the team afloat.
When other franchises were content to sell high on overpaid veterans and wave the white flag for a season or two, knowing the decision would pay long-term dividends, Kohl stuck to his guns. Unfortunately for Milwaukee, many of those guns were Civil War-era muskets, if you will: Gary Payton, Stephen Jackson, Keyon Dooling, Drew Gooden, Corey Maggette, John Salmons and, now, Caron Butler. As that billboard on I-43 quite literally spells out, fans have finally had enough.
To Kohl’s credit, he never wavered and really still hasn’t. For the most part, the sometimes-puzzling signings he endorsed kept Milwaukee out of the cellar. And a few of them – signing reigning Sixth Man of the Year Bobby Simmons and drafting Bogut come to mind – were widely praised at the time and failed to work out for one reason or another. In hindsight, it’s easy to say Milwaukee should have selected Chris Paul or Deron Williams first overall, but at the time Bogut was the consensus top pick, and Simmons was coming off of a season in which he averaged 16.4 points and 5.9 boards while shooting 47 percent.
Under Kohl’s watch, the Bucks have never been the laughing stock of the NBA, they’ve been the team with enough firepower to contend for an eighth seed, but not nearly enough to contend for a title. In that position, it’s extremely difficult to land elite talent through the draft, a virtual necessity in the league’s fifth-smallest market and perhaps most unattractive combination of climate and nightlife. Kohl’s resistance to change – to drastic change, I should say – kept Milwaukee from ever reaching the peak, but also from hitting rock bottom.
I hesitate to use this analogy, but it’s often said that an addict – whether it be drugs, alcohol, whatever – must hit rock bottom before coming to the realization that change is necessary. Many serious addicts will get close to that point, but it’s not until they reach it that they see the proverbial light. At 7-31, no longer able to play the injury card, the Milwaukee Bucks have hit rock bottom.
The Bucks are on pace to finish with the league’s worst record, a dubious title the franchise has never owned since its inception in 1968. It would be one thing if it were “intentional,” but that’s far from the case. The Magic, Sixers and Jazz, fellow-bottom-dwellers, didn’t make drastic offseason moves in an attempt to improve. In fact, all three did the opposite. The Sixers dealt their All-Star point guard to New Orleans on draft night for Nerlens Noel, a high-upside center they knew probably wouldn’t play this season (so far that’s holding up). Utah let Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson walk in free agency in addition to taking on a pair of expiring deals in Richard Jefferson and Andris Biedrins, neither of whom help in the win department. The Magic stayed put, for the most part, drafting Victor Oladipo and pairing him with a strong mix of young talent in Maurice Harkless, Nic Vucevic, Andrew Nicholson and Tobias Harris. Orlando’s move came at last year’s deadline, when they shrewdly acquired Harris from the Bucks in exchange for a two-month rental of free-agent-to-be J.J. Redick, a deal viewed as a prime example of Milwaukee’s shortsightedness.
Unlike its peers, Milwaukee brought in a dozen new players this offseason, all on multi-year deals, in an effort to build a contender in an Eastern Conference that’s even more watered-down than usual. The goal was to get a fresh start after an ugly end to the Jennings-Ellis backcourt, an era defined by inefficiency, selfishness and locker room unrest. While the Bucks succeeded in bringing in a number of high-character veterans, those locker room issues appear to have resurfaced, a byproduct of consistent losing.
But for as downright unwatchable as the Bucks have been this season, a certain sense of excitement surrounds the team. In fact, it might be the most genuine excitement since that 2001 playoff run. Hear me out.
If for some reason – perhaps you’ve been kidnapped, I don’t know – you were to take a trip to the Bradley Center on a given night, you wouldn’t notice it. Honestly, chances are you’d come away feeling the opposite of excited. Save for the eruption of cheers after a Greek Freak dunk, the Bradley Center these days sounds less like an NBA arena and more like a public library – a public library where a man in a deer costume performs dangerous stunts.
The excitement, optimism even, isn’t yet tangible. But Bucks fans know what could await them if the losing continues: a high pick in the lottery. And not just the lottery, the lottery of all lotteries, what is billed as the best draft class since LeBron, D-Wade, Bosh and Carmelo (and Darko) entered the league together 11 years ago. Depending on which players declare, this draft class could be even better, and deeper, than that of 2003, which has produced eight future All-Stars to date (Josh Howard, come on down!).
But just owning a high pick in the 2014 draft doesn’t guarantee Milwaukee salvation. The Bucks need to nail the pick. They absolutely have to. And they’ll need to hit on another high pick in 2015. And probably another later on. It’s a process. I think the Bucks understand the process; they just haven’t executed it as well as other teams.
Take the Thunder, for example, the blueprint for small-market NBA success. General Manager Sam Presti receives a ton of credit for the work he’s done assembling a young roster that’s one of the best in the league right now and should be for years to come. Presti’s done an unbelievable job of building through the draft, selecting Kevin Durant (2007), Russell Westbrook (2008), Serge Ibaka (2008) and James Harden (2009) in consecutive years, not to mention Reggie Jackson in 2011 and Steven Adams in 2013. The Thunder actually drafted too well from 2007-09 to the point that they acquired too much elite young talent and couldn’t afford to keep it together (with Harden being the obvious casualty). That’s a problem every NBA team dreams of having, and it could happen again for the Thunder when Jackson hits free agency in the summer of 2015.
It’s unrealistic to expect Milwaukee to draft four All-Stars in three seasons, but the Thunder serve as an example of what it takes to rise from the ashes of NBA misery. Hitting the jackpot with a Wiggins or Parker won’t be enough, it will take subsequent savvy moves to acquire enough young talent to turn things around. In Kevin Durant’s rookie season, the then-Sonics won just 20 games, 11 fewer than the previous season. Granted, Rashard Lewis had signed with Orlando and the team was in full-on rebuilding mode (Johan Petro started 28 games), but it demonstrates that one impact rookie isn’t enough to immediately lead a turnaround. And no player in this draft is as polished a player as Durant was coming out of Texas, where he averaged 26 and 11 on 47 percent shooting.
LeBron James is the exception to the “one superstar isn’t enough to lead a complete turnaround” rule. It took a few seasons, but James almost single-handedly carried the rag-tag Cavs to the top of East. But this is LeBron we’re talking about. I’m not of the belief that Wiggins, Parker, Embiid or Randle will ever reach LeBron, or even Durant, levels of impact, though there could easily be five or six recurrent All-Stars in this class, guys good enough to be the number one option on a contending team with a strong supporting cast. If Milwaukee ends up with Carmelo Anthony 2.0 in Jabari Parker, I think they’re happy with that. Surround him with enough talent, and you have a perennial contender.
Assuming Milwaukee doesn’t draft as unbelievably well as Oklahoma City going forward, it’s that surrounding talent that will make all of the difference. Unlike teams in larger markets, the Bucks don’t own the luxury of luring prized free agents who can change the fortunes of a franchise overnight. Perhaps following a Pacers-esque blueprint, stressing homegrown talent and calculated free agent signings, is the more realistic course of action.
Like Oklahoma City, the Pacers have benefitted from hitting on a number of recent draft picks. Paul George, Lance Stephenson and the late-blooming Roy Hibbert come to mind right away. Again, luck is a necessary factor when it comes to drafting, but the roster Indiana built around its picks certainly plays into their respective successes. Signing David West at a discount after a knee injury was huge, as was acquiring George Hill from the Spurs in 2011. Neither player is considered a “star,” but each acquisition was a calculated move to acquire a player who fits perfectly within the system. The Pacers exemplify the “team” concept as much as any NBA franchise, and that style of building – one bona-fide star surrounded by several very good players – is conducive to winning in a small market. It’s much easier said than done, of course, but the right choice in this year’s draft could set Milwaukee on that path.
Part of the groundwork insofar as building a team around the young star expected to come via the draft is already done in Milwaukee. As ineffective and equally immature Larry Sanders has looked this season, it’s difficult to believe he simply transformed into a drastically reduced talent after turning 25. The off-court issues are a huge concern, especially for a team with a lot riding on his success, but it’s important to remember this is the first season Sanders has entered as a solidified starter. A Defensive Player of the Year candidate last season, Sanders only started 55 games and didn’t average more than 27.3 minutes in a month until February. His numbers this season are troubling, but he’s played just 13 games. It’s still too early to write him off as a one-year wonder. Either way, it might not matter. The Bucks are likely stuck with him for the next four seasons after inking him to an extension in July, so Sanders will be provided every opportunity to prove he’s worth the $44 million over four years.
Outside of Sanders, only a handful of current players appear worth keeping around for the long haul. Khris Middleton has proven to be a valuable contributor, though on a decent team he’s likely a seventh or eighth man. John Henson is already one of the best young rebounders and shot-blockers in the league and should develop into Milwaukee’s power forward of the future. The only issue is the frontcourt logjam created by Henson, Ilyasova and Sanders. The trio can’t play big minutes together, and it seems likely one of the three has to be squeezed out at some point. Ilyasova is the most likely to be moved, but getting rid of the five-year, $40 million deal he signed in the summer of 2012 will be a tall order.
The most celebrated young asset Milwaukee owns is 19-year-old Giannis Antetokounmpo. More so than any player on the roster, by far, Antetkounmpo carries the hopes of Milwaukee’s future on his bony shoulders. Questions swirled regarding the rookie’s NBA-readiness after playing in a low-caliber Greek league last season, but Antetokounmpo has looked every bit the part of an NBA player, and then some, through 37 games. He assumed the started shooting guard spot on Dec. 18 and hasn’t relinquished it. As impressive as Antet0kounmpo has been, though, he’s still yet to showcase much of a one-on-one game, doing much of his damage in transition and spot-up situations. But the individual skills will come. At worst, he’s the best rebounding shooting guard in the league and an ace defender with a dependable jumpshot. At best, he develops into a long-term running mate for whomever Milwaukee selects in the upcoming draft, that second star player needed to make the leap into annual contention.
Much of the Bucks’ future at this point is based on “if”s. “If” Larry Sanders can turn it around, “if” the front office makes the right draft selections, “if” Antetkounmpo becomes who we think he can be, “if” the team even stays in Milwaukee. Such is the life of a rebuilding team in a small market. There are no guarantees. But one thing is certain: the Bucks have nowhere to go but up.