Whether we're discussing the roster, front office, or coaching staff, there's only one thing that seems certain with the Milwaukee Bucks at the moment: it's going to be an interesting summer.
The rumormill is getting an early start in the case of the front office, with Bucks' GM John Hammond rumored to be both on the hot seat in Milwaukee while also in demand in Portland. Though Chad Buchanan has been Portland's interim GM since billionaire owner Paul Allen abruptly fired Rich Cho last May, the team has recently begun the hiring process anew while sending mixed messages about Buchanan possibly vying the job full time. Team president Larry Miller has thus far publicly focused on more experienced, higher profile names such as Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak and former Suns GM Steve Kerr, with Hammond first being mentioned late last week by the Oregonian's Jason Quick. Hammond and Skiles both declined to comment following Sunday's practice.
Adding fuel to the fire, Gery Woelfel discussed the possibility of Hammond leaving on WSSP 1250 this weekend (mp3), noting that Portland would likely be able to double his current $2 million salary should he get the job. The Blazers have yet to ask the Bucks' permission to talk to Hammond and it's not clear where he stands on their wish list to begin with, so for the moment we're only talking hypotheticals. But Hammond and coach Scott Skiles ($5 million) both have one year remaining on their current contracts, raising obvious questions about what Herb Kohl will do following a likely second straight 9th place finish in the Eastern Conference. Both Hammond and Skiles received one-year extensions following the Bucks' 46 win season in 09/10, which saw Hammond claim NBA Executive of the Year honors.
Even if Kohl wants to keep Hammond, it would seem unlikely that he would roadblock a potential move to Portland, which can offer not only a big raise but also a fresh start with multiple first round picks, up to $25 million in cap space and all-star LaMarcus Aldridge to build around. Not that Allen is a particularly rational owner to work for, but Hammond would seem to have some experience in dealing with, shall we say, hands-on owners after working under Kohl for four seasons.
However you want to parse out blame for the Bucks' inability to make meaningful progress over the last two seasons--Kohl's overall win-now directive, Hammond's execution of that directive, bad luck/injuries/etc--the bottom line is that Milwaukee went all-in on a limited-upside team and saw how quickly things can go south when injuries and chemistry issues seem to conspire against you. Retaining John Salmons while adding Drew Gooden and Corey Maggette in the summer of 2009 backfired immediately, and Hammond then spent the following summer trying to unwind those moves, only to end up having to do similar damage control getting rid of Stephen Jackson along with Bogut this year.
Hammond probably did about as well as could be expected salvaging something from those situations, but in the end the Bucks mostly just spun their wheels and didn't end up any better off than before. Looking ahead now, the Bucks have a fairly clean cap situation and a decent base of assets, but the overall direction of the franchise remains fairly vague. There's no transcendent talent to build around nor an appetite to rebuild entirely, leaving them planted squarely in the late lottery/playoff fringe class of teams.
Should a deal with Portland actually happen, Hammond would likely be just the first domino to fall in that scenario. As Woelfel notes, assistant GM Jeff Weltman and Director of Scouting Billy McKinney would also presumably join Hammond in departing to Portland or elsewhere, unless of course the Bucks offered Weltman a chance to take the GM job in Milwaukee (just my unfounded speculation).
Woelfel also mentions long-time director of player personnel Dave Babcock as a possible replacement, and that would be perhaps the most convenient option. That said, you'd hope Kohl would think beyond convenience for a position as critical as general manager, though turning over your front office decision-makers just a couple months before the draft and free agency would be anything but convenient. Either way, if something does happen it would be best for it to happen soon. The departure of Bogut and the team's vicious cycle of mediocrity over the past decade has left the franchise at a crossroads, with critical decisions to make around the futures of Monta Ellis, Brandon Jennings and Ersan Ilyasova (among others). And while the Bucks are hardly in dire straits with regard to their roster and cap situation, they're also lacking clear direction for the future.
Babcock also served under former GM Larry Harris and was retained when Hammond arrived in the spring of 2008, providing some continuity as Hammond and his new regime settled in ahead of the 2008 draft. Considering the Bucks selected Joe Alexander that year, you could argue that continuity wasn't worth a whole lot, and Babcock's overall track record in the draft is fairly mixed--while highlights include Brandon Jennings, Ersan Ilyasova, and Luc Mbah a Moute, he also was a part of some notable whiffs in Alexander and Yi Jianlian. Ultimately, the makeup of the front office and coaching staff would be at the discretion of a new GM, so there's no end to possible scenarios.
Should Hammond depart it would also seem to spell bad news for Skiles, whose teams have gone 34-48, 46-36, 35-47 and 30-33 in four seasons to date. Coaches typically don't survive front office regime changes, with Skiles' current lame duck status making his return all the more complicated. That said, it'd be naive to think the Bucks' broader problems--lack of top-shelf talent, an imbalanced roster, and an increasingly indifferent fanbase--are rooted in their head coach.
While the Bucks have had the talent to make the playoffs the past two seasons, injuries made Skiles' job difficult a year ago and it's unlikely another coach could have steered them to much more than the 7th seed this year. On the flip side, Skiles reportedly clashed with Andrew Bogut before the trade that sent the Australian to Golden State at the deadline, and his previous tenures in Phoenix and Chicago also came with expiration dates of about four years. But despite his reputation for stubbornness, Skiles has also presided over a complete turnaround of the Bucks' league-worst offense from a year ago, installing a more up-tempo, motion-oriented approach that has both made the Bucks both easier on the eyes and more competitive in the standings, weakened defense be damned. But have they been competitive enough for Skiles to survive a turnover of the front office or the potential impatience of his owner? Stay tuned.