Let's be clear about something right away: What's happening to the Milwaukee Bucks this season might be just what the organization needs. But if anyone out there thought there wouldn't be casualties in the ill-conceived rebuild/tank job the Bucks have cobbled together this year, hoo boy.
Losing a game to the Phoenix Suns, who are actually a good team competing for the playoffs in the brutal Western Conference, isn't the end of the world. It doesn't mean the Bucks should just close up shop and pack their bags for Seattle. It's one game in a season filled with losses, and every loss sucks for the players involved. There's no glory in defeat.
Last night, though. Yikes. The Bucks were disorganized, lazy, and ineffective. They seemed to have no game plan on offense and no clue on defense; Channing Frye, noted three-point gunner, employed the subtle art of camouflage known as "standing at the top of the key, hands raised in anticipation of a pass" to get himself free for a bunch of open triples, making 6 en route to 25 points. The Bucks dribbled themselves into contested long two-point shots all night, and when they weren't content with taking them, they lofted passes across the court that the Suns eagerly swiped and slammed on the other end.
It was a mess, with sweet relief only coming in the form of the final buzzer. Or so we might have hoped. Instead, post-game reporters walked in on a heated locker room argument, primarily between Larry Sanders and Gary Neal.
According to multiple reports, Neal and Sanders got into a face-to-face argument as O.J. Mayo worked to move reporters out to the hallway. After the locker room reopened, Neal left screaming obscenities at Sanders.
"I earn my money, you should try it some time," Neal yelled to Sanders, according to the Associated Press.
A couple of Bucks addressed the situation to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel afterwards but blew off the incident as nothing major.
"Team bonding, man," Mayo said. "A little kumbaya, man. It's all good.
You can make of this whole deal what you will. On one hand, however many locker room arguments a team might see in a year, they don't typically happen under the eyes of reporters, meaning coverage is usually secondhand and lacking in detail. This thing sort of unfolded in front of everybody, and the players involved weren't exactly shy. On the other hand, this is just more evidence for the "Larry Sanders, Bad Teammate" folder, even if the details are fuzzy and teammates shrugged it off as nothing to worry about.
The fight might be an issue, or it might be nothing. Neal could come out later today and blow the whole thing off as a heat of the moment thing. Sanders had a bad game, and missing a large chunk of the season after signing a rich extension isn't a great way to engender warm feelings in one's teammates. But he deserves some time to work his way back from injury too, and one bad game after a few decent ones isn't a fair time to jump down his throat. It's a problem if other players in the locker room are taking issue with Larry, but they need to give him some time to right his own ship. Don't place all the blame for a rough season on the feet of the team's soon-to-be highest-paid player just because it's convenient.
And now it's my turn to overreact, probably, but is it time to start being frank about Larry Drew's performance as a coach? There are tons of other young teams in the NBA who are losing lots of games, but they don't often display the kind of unpreparedness the Bucks do. Granted, he's in the same sort of tough spot as Scott Skiles found himself, trying to win games with a poorly-designed roster, and for an organization that might not be best served by winning games. He's not going to put his own future in jeopardy by rolling with a lineup that gets shellacked every night. Yet we still see players making the same foolish, sloppy passes, taking the same contested 20-footers, making the same defensive mistakes every game. There's no obvious adjustments being made, the kind that suggest a player or coach has recognized a mistake and moved to correct it.
The team is starving for some order in the second unit, yet Nate Wolters, arguably the Bucks' best pure point guard this season, has suddenly stopped playing. Milwaukee has gotten decent production from Larry Sanders in the pick-and-roll, yet they tend to abandon it after the first quarter. I don't fault Drew too heavily for the Bucks' record: nobody could win many games with the injuries and ineptitude they've displayed this season. And in general, fans are too quick to demand changes in the rotation--we don't have the same information as the coaching staff, nor do we have complete knowledge of their motives or intentions. But some of these problems are clear as day, and they're not the sort of things a professional team should still be struggling with. Not at this point in the season, and not when the Bucks' most effective players have generally been the ones with the most promise for the future. We should all be thankful for the long leash being afforded Giannis Antetokounmpo right now, but there shouldn't be the same sort of "competitive dissonance" they've faced in years past anyway. Yet we're still grappling with the vets vs. youth debate.
Rebuilding can be done right and it can be done wrong. The end result might be the same, but it's going to come with battle scars if comes via the latter. The Bucks need leadership, and they need that leadership to be aligned with a clear goal. Right now they're missing both, and things aren't going to be pretty until they find them.