It’s Time for the Milwaukee Bucks to Change Their Culture


The Milwaukee Bucks last finished a season above .500 in the 2009-10 campaign in which they went 46-36 and lost to the No. 3-seeded Atlanta Hawks 95-74 in Game 7 of the first round.

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It took the Bucks three years to rebuild the franchise, but they spent the next three years in mediocrity before the team endured its worst season in franchise history and stumbled to a 15-67 record.

This was not the first time that the Bucks had struggled through mediocrity. After losing to Allen Iverson and the Philadelphia 76ers 4-3 in the 2001 Eastern Conference Finals, the Bucks once again struggled to break free from the abyss.

However, the Bucks do have a promising young core this time around. Jabari Parker (20), Giannis Antetokounmpo (20), Khris Middleton (23) and Michael Carter-Williams (23) are all stacked full of potential, but who is to say the Bucks won’t, once again, struggle in mediocrity?

The franchise’s recent history is not on their side. 2001 was also the last time the team won a playoff series. The Bucks defeated the then Charlotte Hornets 4-3 after falling behind 3-2.

The Bucks followed up its trip to the conference finals with two .500 seasons and one season in which they finished one game above .500 before they slowly blew up the team and finally hit rock bottom at 30-52 in 2005.

Milwaukee drafted Andrew Bogut the following summer with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 NBA Draft. The team barely made it back into the playoffs and re-entered the aforementioned three year spell from 2007-09.

So what needs to change to prevent this 15 year pattern from rearing its ugly head again? Simply put, the culture needs to change, and it starts with Jason Kidd.

Kidd is the eighth different head coach the Bucks have gone through in the last 15 years. That puts them in a tie for third* with the Golden State Warriors during that time frame. Only the New York Knicks (9), 76ers (9), Sacramento Kings (9) and Detroit Pistons (10) have had more.

Feb 22, 2015; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Milwaukee Bucks head coach Jason Kidd reacts during the game against the Atlanta Hawks in the fourth quarter at BMO Harris Bradley Center. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

That is not the kind of company you want to keep, and those are not the teams you want to be mentioned with. The Warriors are the only team to dig themselves out of obscurity.

Kidd really helped turn the franchise around, and the Bucks are going to need some consistency from the head coaching position to turn the corner. This young core needs a familiar face they can not only look up to but a guy in which they can relate to.

At 42, Kidd will be a father figure for the youngsters but is still young enough to relate to them. This will be important, because they need somebody who can develop them as players and as men.

He also brings a championship pedigree as a player and that is something everyone has to respect. Kidd was the starting point guard on the team that brought down LeBron James and the Miami Heat in 2011.

Kidd averaged 9.3 points, 7.3 assists, 4.5 rebounds and 1.9 steals in the Dallas Mavericks’ championship run. He is the oldest starting point guard ever to lead his team to a ring. He truly knows what a team effort is capable of and can share his on-court experiences.

General manger John Hammond has done a solid job constructing this roster, and it started with the draft. That being said, things could not have gotten off to a worse start. Hammond selected Joe Alexander with the No. 8 overall pick in the 2008 NBA Draft. Alexander lasted one season in Milwaukee.

Things really picked up from there. He selected Brandon Jennings with the No. 10 overall pick in the 2009 NBA Draft. Hammond would later go on to receive Executive of the Year honors in 2010.

Jennings ended up resulting in the acquisition of Brandon Knight and the then relatively unknown Khris Middleton. Hammond would later switch out Knight for Carter-Williams.

Sep 30, 2013; St. Francis, WI, USA; Milwaukee Bucks general manager John Hammond responds to a question during Media Day at Milwaukee Bucks Training Center. Mandatory Credit: Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

A year later, Hammond made another quality selection when he scooped up Larry Sanders with the 15th overall pick. Unfortunately, Sanders never panned out due to mentality issues. Sanders, 26, could have been a big part of such a young nucleus. It was nothing more than an unforeseen setback.

John Henson was selected with the No. 14 overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft but has yet to turn a corner in his career. Antetokounmpo in 2013 (No. 15) and Parker in 2014 (No. 2) have at the very least provided Bucks’ fans with some real hope. They almost certainly allow for the Bucks to consistently win games.

The draft is an area Hammond has excelled in, but it’s time to step outside the comfort zone and make quality moves in free agency. He has either let cap space go unused or used it in a matter in which the Bucks did not improve.

O.J. Mayo was the most recent blunder. Mayo was given a three-year, $24 million contact in 2013. This did seem like a good idea at the time, but 2016 cannot come soon enough.

Zaza Pachulia inexplicably received a three-year, $15 million contract in 2013 as well. His veteran leadership has been vital though and has more than earned his keep.

We can’t forget that a month later Sanders was given a four-year, $44 million extension. Luckily, this has been the least of the Bucks’ problems as the two were able to reach a buyout.

Hammond re-signed Ersan Ilyasova to a five-year, $40 million deal in 2012. The only good thing that has come out of that exchange is the final year is a team option, so Ilyasova has an expiring deal that should be moved.

Free agency from hell arrived in 2010. Hammond absorbed Corey Maggette’s three-year, $31 million contract and then resigned John Salmons for five years at $39 million. Drew Gooden was given a five-year, $32 million deal days earlier only to be eventually amnestied in 2013.

Hammond tried to wash his hands from what he had done by trading for Stephen Jackson and Beno Udrih nearly a year later. He acquired bad contacts but dumped worse ones.

The first big move Hammond made as a GM was signing Bogut to a five-year, $60 million extension in 2008. Another fine move at the time, but it could not have panned out worse for the Bucks who suffered through multiple injury-riddled seasons from Bogut.

Its clear free agency has not been kind to Hammond or the Bucks. There are plenty of reasons for the team to show extreme caution when entering the fire. After all, the Bucks also felt the wrath of Michael Redd’s six-year, $90 million deal and Bobby Simmons’ five-year, $47 million contract in 2006 under Larry Harris’ tenure.

However, this is not the time to get scared or cheap. The Bucks are in a great position and in order to take that next step and rid themselves from mediocrity they have to be willing to complement their young core through free agency. This will greatly influence that necessary culture change.

The cap is projected at approximately $67 million this offseason, and the Bucks have about $16 million to work with. They weren’t willing to pay Knight the max deal that he was likely going to command so they traded him. Middleton may receive a max of his own. It’s time to put up or shut up.

The team also needs to acquire a center to solidify their starting lineup. Brook Lopez (27), Al Jefferson (30) or Roy Hibbert (29) could all be that missing link. The Bucks may end up going with a less sexy option like Robin Lopez or Brandon Wright, but they should go for it all. They have the cap space to do it, and the cap is only going to increase with the new TV deals.

Culture change is also important at the top. The new owners, Marc Lasry and Wesley Edens, seem to have the right vision when it comes to running a successful franchise. They expect deep playoff runs with championships and are looking to actively participate. They are even helping bring a new arena to Milwaukee, something it desperately needed.

Jul 2, 2014; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Milwaukee Bucks co-owner Marc Lasry (far left) speaks to the press during a news conference featuring new head coach Jason Kidd at the BMO Harris Bradley Center. From left: Marc Lasry, co-owner Wesley Edens, new head coach Jason Kidd and general manager John Hammond. Mandatory Credit: Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

The only thing former owner Herb Kohl cared about was the bottom line. I’m not sure he was even that involved. All he ever wanted to know was whether he was making or losing money and if the team made the playoffs or not.

That approach was never going to get anything done. Kohl instituted this culture of mediocrity and only now have the Bucks been able to rid themselves from that damaging culture. The worst thing the former senator ever did was let Harris run the franchise on his own and buy into a small-market ideology.

It is much harder to win in a small market. This is true, but that doesn’t make it any less of an excuse. Do the San Antonio Spurs use it as an excuse? They drafted extremely well and used free agency as a way of shuffling in players as they saw fit.

The Spurs also found an excellent coach and stuck with him. They have managed to establish continuity from the top down and set out clear goals. There is no reason the Bucks should not see themselves in the same light, but they have to be willing to fight for it. The goal is obtainable.

The Bucks have had goals in the past, but they have been counterproductive. Their goals were to stay competitive and at least make the playoffs. This wasn’t helping anybody.

In 10 of the last 14 seasons, the Bucks have finished within at least 5 games of the eight seed. They haven’t finished any higher than the No. 6 seed and haven’t won more than 46 games in any season.

Ladies and gentlemen that is the definition of mediocrity. The team was just good enough to either make the playoffs or just miss out. They lost out on numerous high draft picks, because they wanted to “stay competitive”.

The Bucks can’t change the way they approached the past, but they can change how they handle the future. Their goals can help mold the culture they need to obtain.

The organization should expect to win 50 games this year and finish in the top two of the Central Division. These are goals the Bucks can achieve and have to expect year after year.

The Eastern Conference is weaker than ever. Making the playoffs needs to stop being a goal. It should just come with the territory. Deep runs need to become the focus. This will come with time and experience. The Bucks got some valuable experience at the hands of the Chicago Bulls this year, and what should be a motivating 54-point elimination annihilation to boot.

There is no reason the Bucks cannot finish in the top four and enjoy home court. They should value the advantage at a premium and expect it in deeper playoff runs as soon as 2017. It may even be realistic to expect division banners on a regular basis. James is not going to stay the King forever.

Culture is one of the most important and underrated aspects of a franchise. The head coach needs to have the respect of the players and the trust of the management. The general manager needs to draft well and have the financial support from the top. The owners need to be active participants and set the bar high. They also need to allow the basketball guys to make the NBA decisions.

All of this creates a winning culture, but everything starts at the top. When that happens the players will follow suit, and their performance will speak for itself. However, if this young nucleus doesn’t reach its potential Kidd and Hammond are going to have a lot to answer for.

* Separate tenures were counted once and 25 consecutive games coached were required to qualify.

Next: 2014-15 Season Review: Jabari Parker

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