So, um, about last night...
Tobias Harris, the Milwaukee Bucks' first-round pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, scored 30 points and grabbed 19 rebounds against his former team. It's a stat line only one other player has ever accomplished before his 21st birthday, and his name is Shaquille O'Neal. Harris' performance featured a game-tying three with just over a second remaining and an emphatic open-court dunk at the end of an overtime period dominated by the Magic. If the game as a whole was pushing Bucks fans closer and closer to the edge, the three shoved them over and the dunk...well, the dunk was like getting kicked in the gut after hitting the ground.
Reactions were, predictably, severe. This was the tipping point for many fans frustrated with an organization willing to ship out a promising young player just two years after drafting him in order to chase a playoff berth that was, in their eyes, already in hand. The goals of the deal may have run deeper than that--Milwaukee couldn't have known for certain teams like Toronto and Philadelphia would collapse so completely, leaving them largely unopposed in their pursuit of the first postseason appearance in three years. And the standings were so tight that potentially moving up in the Eastern Conference seeding still seemed possible (maybe even likely, given the problems facing some teams ahead of them). But to many, this was a dramatic step taken to solve a simple problem, and the cost was just too great.
It's hard to argue that point after watching the former Buck thrash the squad that shipped him out just a few months ago. Last night quickly became a one-game referendum not just on the deadline deal that brought J.J. Redick to Milwaukee, but on John Hammond's entire tenure as Bucks general manager. That's not exactly a wise way of going about things, especially if it leads to an unfair short-changing of past decisions and future opportunities. Still, it's obviously time to revisit the Magic deal and take stock of just what's happened to the Milwaukee Bucks since Harris was sent packing.
Frank, via email:
It's obvious the early returns are rather terrible from a Bucks' perspective, if only because Harris has flashed the sort of big-time young talent that every franchise wants--especially one like the Bucks.
No question, Harris has impressed with the Magic. He's put up plenty of big scoring nights as a primary offensive option with an unlimited leash. He's also had a few rough games, as Frank points out, which is certainly to be expected of a 20-year-old playing mega minutes with a new team and little support. That also explains why his advanced stats in Orlando aren't as bombastic as some of his raw numbers (16.9 PER, 52.7%, .095 WS/48) but you can't blame Magic fans for feeling like they've unearthed a potential gem. Right now it's the dominant element in the post-trade triage, because young guys putting up big numbers is always an attention-grabbing headline. In the game preview I pointed out that Harris' production is generally in line with what he did in Milwaukee, though he's been used differently by the Magic than he ever was (or was ever likely to be) by the Bucks. Whether the Bucks didn't appreciate that potential or just weren't in a position to see it actualized is another question, but not one many are willing to debate while Harris is driving and dunking over his former teammates.
Not helping matters is the relative letdown that has been J.J. Redick's tenure in Milwaukee. There were signs Redick's arrival would spark a higher level of performance from the Bucks, particularly the backcourt: see Monta Ellis' sensational reinvention as a go-to scorer, or Brandon Jennings' sudden focus on a purer brand of point guarding. And he hasn't been terrible by any means, ranking 5th on the team in per-minute scoring. But his true shooting percentage is way down from his time in Orlando, and the team as a whole has struggled since his acquisition.
That last point is critical in the whole matter, I think. It's tempting and easy to label the trade a disaster because the Bucks haven't obviously improved since pulling the trigger. But that perceived failure doesn't only fall on John Hammond's desk. The coaching staff and roster as a whole has to take some blame as well. It's not just Redick or Hammond's fault the Bucks' defense has collapsed down the stretch. The move was never intended to be a cure-all, it simply shored up a weakness the front office felt put the team in a bad position. Say the team had taken off after bringing Redick on board--wouldn't public opinion be much more positive? I expect it would, because "winning cures all ills" remains the truest cliche in all of sports.
There has to be a measured response if we're ever to learn anything from the mistakes the Bucks have made over the past few seasons. After all, the true revelation of this whole escapade shouldn't just be "Tobias Harris is more valuable than J.J. Redick, ergo this trade blows". The question is why things seem to have blown up in Milwaukee's face yet again. I'd argue the answer is a failure to grasp subtlety.
Steve was adamant back before the season even began that the Bucks would find themselves in need of another floor-spacing three-point shooter in the wings. The Marquis Daniels signing gave Milwaukee a veteran guard with well-documented defensive acumen, and I think most would agree he's been solid in that regard, when used right. But he wasn't ever likely to open up the floor for anybody. In fairness, the Bucks struck out on attempts to land Kirk Hinrich and Randy Foye, two players shooting 40.8 and 37.0 percent from deep this season, respectively. If either of those guys was wearing a Bucks jersey these days, it's a fair bet that J.J. Redick wouldn't be.
Yet Milwaukee's perimeter needs were never satisfied in the offseason, and despite Ersan Ilyasova's sustained brilliance from beyond the arc and improvement from Brandon Jennings, the starting lineup struggled to keep the floor stretched. When this fact became clear, Hammond and the Bucks seem to have said "Well, who's the best guy on the market who fills that need? Redick? Ok, let's get Redick." From the outside there seemed to be no consideration of what other options were available, no consideration of the asking price in relation to those alternatives, just a single-minded pursuit of a high-profile trade target. Make no mistake, Redick is a better player than he's shown thus far in Milwaukee and he's probably the best guy of anybody the Bucks could've gotten via trade or in free agency. But for now the Bucks appear to have bought a name rather than numbers, a strategy that goes against nearly every sensibility in the post-Moneyball sports landscape. And beyond that, what were the Bucks hoping to gain from the move in the first place? A more concrete hold on their playoff spot? A marginally higher chance of advancing to the 2nd round? To give up an asset like Harris in pursuit of such a goal is, as Frank puts it, "like buying some expensive running shoes so you can run really fast on a treadmill in your basement with the lights out."
I defended the trade (with reservation) when it happened because I knew the Bucks wanted that playoff spot. Frank was concerned with giving up any asset for a player like Redick on general principle. They wanted to give themselves the best shot at success this season, and that meant doing their best to escape the 8th seed and a date with the Miami Heat. Redick was a strong candidate to help them do that, maybe the best out there, and it didn't seem to cost the Bucks that much in terms of who was contributing at the time (I haven't heard much lamentation on the departure of Beno Udrih or Doron Lamb). They also didn't tie themselves into long-term commitments, meaning they were somewhat insulated in case things went south.
Truthfully, I viewed it as a relatively well-reasoned method of working within the ever-present win-now mandate seemingly imposed by Herb Kohl. If the Bucks were truly set on making J.J. Redick a Buck, they were always going to have to give up something valuable. Steve sums up an inconvenient truth:
Ultimately, Harris trade will become easier to swallow for fans when draft arrives. It was Tobias or the 1st round pick. People love picks.— Steven von Horn (@StevevonHorn) April 11, 2013
People do love picks. I love picks. A pick could be anything! And that's important, especially if we get into the details of just how Tobias Harris fit in this Bucks roster. Harris has flourished as a power forward in Orlando, spending more time around the basket than he did in Milwaukee. He's still not a great three-point shooter or passer, two important skills for modern small forwards (especially in the modern paint-packed NBA). The Bucks meanwhile are still stocked at the power forward spot: John Henson has blown up more than once this season, and Ilyasova has been one of the Bucks' most consistent players. Could Harris have stuck as Milwaukee's small forward of the future? Probably not, at least not with the roster as currently constructed. There was a fair amount of data suggesting it wasn't working for myriad reasons, on defense and offense. There was probably some desperation behind this deal and something had to give. That's win-now at it's finest: opportunity cost down the road seems cheaper than the bill in your hand, and somebody's gotta get paid. It's the same issue we grappled with after the Andrew Bogut trade, except Bogut has had limited positive impact on the Warriors due to injuries and Ellis has had stretches of excellence.
There are tons of questions about the Milwaukee Bucks right now. There are holes and uncertainty at nearly every position. At this point it's easier to focus on what we know rather than what we don't. We know Tobias Harris is a talented player who looks like he has a bright future, but in a somewhat specific role. We know the Bucks made a move that helped balance the roster and brought in a talented player, and the team responded by playing below-average ball and falling four games below .500. We know frustration is at an all-time high (or something, who keeps track of these things?) and that I, a consistent optimist when it comes to the Milwaukee Bucks, have started to question my faith that the current organization will be able to turn things around.
But perhaps most importantly, we know that snap judgments based on a convenient narrative are rarely the most accurate. That this gamble has flopped doesn't invalidate the good things John Hammond has accomplished as GM, and it doesn't preclude him from making smart moves in the future. But it's clear the current direction of the franchise--flat--isn't satisfying the fanbase as a whole. Maybe all it will take for the people in charge to notice is a beatdown at the hands of the defending champs. A fitting end to the whole ordeal, don't you think?