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John Hammond talks to Brew Hoop, Part I

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Last Friday I was fortunate enough to sit down with Bucks GM John Hammond, less than 24 hours after both his first draft and first trade as an NBA general manager.  Needless to say, I'd like to thank John for providing both his time and his candid, thoughtful answers. 

We'll be rolling out the content from that discussion all week, starting today with a look at John's first couple months on the job.  We'll focus on the process of hiring Scott Skiles, his goals in putting together his staff and what aspects of his Pistons' experience he hopes to emulate in Milwaukee.  But don't worry, we'll get to the Jefferson trade, the draft, and John's view of the future, too.  For more on those questions, I recommend you also check out audio from draft day and watch video from the Joe Alexander and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute press conferences.

"Right now, this isn't going to be fun.  It's going to be a lot of hard work." 

Perhaps more than anything else, that was the statement that stood out from John Hammond's first press conference as the Bucks' new general manager on April 12. Rather than giving a pep talk full of promises, Hammond instead seemed all too aware of the challenges ahead of him.  An undisciplined, defensively-indifferent team that amassed a staggering 114 losses over the previous two seasons.  No cap room likely for at least two years, with the possibility of luxury tax issues in 09/10.  And an increasingly disillusioned fan base that was losing both patience and interest.  It all led many to wonder why he'd left Detroit--a magical land of 50-win seasons and annual trips to the conference finals--in the first place.

Fast forward eleven weeks and Hammond is indeed working hard, though his energetic demeanor and general positivity suggest that he just might be having some fun, too.  Of course, the progress he's made with his roster and in revamping the organization might have something to do with that as well.  Still, when asked to descibe his GM experience thus far, Hammond takes a deep breath, as though he's barely had a chance to reflect.  After a moment of contemplation, he settles on an answer: "all-consuming and all-encompassing."

After watching his new team lose its final three games, Hammond promptly relieved Larry Krystkowiak of his coaching duties and immediately began looking for an experienced coach, quickly focusing on former Bulls and Suns coach Scott Skiles. Of course, picking who he wanted was easy; actually getting him signed took some work.

"We went through an extensive period of first and foremost hiring Scott Skiles, which was almost an 18-hour process a day for probably a week. But that tells you the importance of what people think of the head coaching position in the NBA and why you take that kind of time." The hard work paid off, as the Bucks inked Skiles to a four year deal just nine days after Hammond officially came on board. While higher profile teams like Dallas, Chicago, Phoenix and New York weighed their coaching options, the Bucks were (for once) the decisive ones. 

Though the Pistons and Bulls eventually decided to hire young, inexperienced head coaches--former Buck teammates Michael Curry and Vinny Del Negro, respectively--the cheap and youthful route was never really an option for the Bucks.  Not after the ultimately disappointing tenures of Terry Porter, Terry Stotts and Krystkowiak, none of whom had any significant head coaching experience before coming to Milwaukee.  Yet all of a sudden the Bucks not only had a coach with a proven track record, but one who excelled at getting his teams to play defense?  It almost sounded too good to be true.

But while the Skiles hiring dominated the headlines and talk radio, in truth it was only a part of the organizational overhaul underway.  With less fanfare, Hammond set about hiring everyone from new trainers to assistant coaches, not to mention his own front office staff. Among that group, none were more important than assistant GM Jeff Weltman, whom Hammond had first worked with back in the early '90s with the Clippers.

"The positions were what I thought were essential ones in order to have a good organization from the personnel side.  I think you need an assistant GM, and for me someone like Jeff is the perfect guy because his strengths are my weaknesses.  He's a great worker, extremely bright, he has a very analytical mind, great on trade analysis, likes to evaluate players from an analytical side and has also been evaluating guys from a scouting side for years and years, which is a great combination."

Just as Hammond complemented Joe Dumars in their years in Detroit, Weltman appears to be now taking a similar role for Hammond after following him to Milwaukee from Detroit.  Weltman had only joined the Pistons' in the summer of 2007, having been hired by Dumars following the departure of Scott Perry to Seattle (ironically, Perry is now back in Detroit having succeeded Hammond as VP of Basketball Ops). 

"Joe said 'I want to hire the best person available.' Joe is a guy who always reacts fairly quickly in making decisions, and two days later he says 'I'd like to hire Jeff Weltman.' And everybody thought I persuaded Joe to do that, but I actually hadn't had a chance to mention it to him. And the fact that Joe said he wanted to hire the best person available told me a lot about what he had seen from Jeff."

After Weltman took the assistant GM position, Hammond hired another member of the Pistons staff in Jon Horst, who took over as director of basketball operations. Along with Dave Dean, who was promoted internally from a scouting position, Horst provides Hammond support in all phases of decision-making. Not surprisingly, their offices at the Cousins Center are right across the hall from Hammond's. And even late on the Friday afternoon after the draft, Dean and Horst were there, waiting to meet with Hammond to go over the next phase of the Bucks' offseason plans.

"You need young guys like that--the jack of all trades.  Someone that has the mindset that no job is too big, but more importantly no job is too small.  They're basketball guys, but also kind of like project managers.  When we're preparing for things, whether it's the draft or free agent issues, those guys always jump on projects like that."

Hammond had to wait until June before making his final major addition, when he hired Minnesota broadcaster Billy McKinney as the Bucks' director of scouting. The move was a no-brainer for Hammond, who actually got his start in scouting with Minnesota in 1989 thanks to McKinney, who was the team's director of player personnel at the time. Almost 20 years later, things had finally come full circle.

"Without him I wouldn't be sitting here today.  He's a guy who could be a GM, has been a GM. To have a guy like Billy McKinney in that position is really a steal for this organization given the experience he has."

With the organizational overhaul now complete, there remain only a handful of familiar faces left, most notably director of player personnel Dave Babcock and assistant coach Bill Peterson. Following seven consecutive 50-win seasons in Detroit, Hammond is putting his stamp on the Bucks, but it's clear that he isn't simply trying to copy and paste the Detroit formula, whatever that might be. If anything, he's trying to capture something that's a bit more intangible.

"What I really liked about Detroit was not so much how we did it.  I can't tell you how many people would come into the office in Detroit and used to say 'I know why you guys win.'  Because they could feel a real team atmosphere with the people that were working in the organization. The coaches, the front office, in our practice facility.

"So what would I like to emulate out of Detroit? I'd like to emulate the wins of course.  But not so much 'this person handles this responsibility' or 'this was a strength of Detroit so we'll try to take that strength.' At the end of the day, I would love to have people walk in here some day and say 'I can see why you guys win.'"

Check out Part II of the interview here.