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Making the Bucks Contenders

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Mar 14, 2012; Milwaukee, WI, USA;  Milwaukee Bucks general manager John Hammond answers questions during a press conference prior to the game against the Cleveland Cavaliers at the Bradley Center.  Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-US PRESSWIRE
Mar 14, 2012; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Milwaukee Bucks general manager John Hammond answers questions during a press conference prior to the game against the Cleveland Cavaliers at the Bradley Center. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-US PRESSWIRE

There's been a lot of draft chatter round these parts lately. Not to point out the obvious, but I feel like that has something to do with the Bucks being bounced out of contention early on. Again.

I'm not talking about a playoff spot, though there's enough support for that. I'm talking about Contention, you know, what Contenders do. We've seen two of them with the Miami Heat and the Oklahoma City Thunder. Two teams with two very different paths to Contention, but there's no questioning that status. OKC got lucky in the draft (Kevin Durant), then built a team around him (getting lucky again with both Russell Westbrook and James Harden), only making other transactions when the foundation was set (Kendrick Perkins, Derek Fisher). Miami, on the other hand, got lucky in the draft (Dwyane Wade), then won the ultimate game of chance by landing LeBron James (Cleveland's draft prize) and Chris Bosh (Toronto's) in free agency.

While they're the only remaining Contenders, there are others who aren't far behind. San Antonio, of course, got lucky in the draft (Tim Duncan) and just happened to have one of the best organizations in the history of sport. Boston got lucky in the draft a while ago (Paul Pierce), sucked for a little bit, then swung two huge trades in 2008 (Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen). Los Angeles got lucky in the draft twice (Kobe Bryant 16 years ago, Andrew Bynum slightly more recently). Chicago got lucky in the draft (Derrick Rose).

Are you seeing a pattern here yet?

So it's settled; in order to Contend, one needs to simply hit a home run with a high draft pick, then sit back and watch the wins roll in. Right?

Well, not so much. There's more to success than just chance. For example, the Timberwolves offset one great draft pick (Kevin Love) with multiple botched decisions (Jonny Flynn and Darko Milicic come to mind). Orlando drafted a star (Dwight Howard), had some historically mild success, then proceeded to let Dwight run the team into the ground as he teased them with some Favre-esque "will I, won't I". Portland did pretty well with Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge, but whiffed (through no real fault of their own) on Greg Oden, only to see Roy succumb to injury as well. Utah drafted a star and let him get away (Deron Williams). Ditto for New Orleans (Chris Paul). The Clippers offset their recent surge of luck by employing one of the worst coaches alive in Vinny del Negro and generally by being around the perpetually toxic Donald Sterling.

Some teams just never had a chance to begin with. Washington had Gilbert Arenas (entertaining, but largely ineffective and comically divisive) and now has John Wall (uber-talented, but aimless). Sacramento has Tyreke Evans and DeMarcus Cousins, but the jury is out on how good they will or won't be. Charlotte his hilariously awful across the board. Phoenix is putting on a clinic on how to stop Steve Nash. The Nets have been so preoccupied with moving to Brooklyn that they forgot how to play basketball. The Knicks are just so very Knicks.

Finally, we have our contenders. The middle class of the NBA who are contending for the chance to Contend. Indiana and Memphis are success stories in this tier. Detroit, Toronto, and Golden State are cautionary tales of how it can go bad. There are up-and-coming contenders (Utah, Denver, Philadelphia, and Cleveland, oddly enough), and those who have gone stale (Atlanta, Dallas, Houston). Then, finally, there's us. Right smack in the middle of the middle class.

The way I'm looking at it, the Milwaukee Bucks are the only team whose current stock can only be described as "stagnant". Other teams are either going up are going down, but at least they're going somewhere. If the Bucks had a dance, it would go like this: one step forward, one step back, two steps forward, two steps back, one step back, one step forward, on and on and on...

Are you pumped up yet?

* * *

If you're still reading this, then congratulations on being a truly hardcore Bucks fan. You have the distinct honor of cheering for the most average franchise in the NBA today. It takes a special type of person to persist after so much mediocrity. I'd get up to shake your hand, *shrug*! Mediocre isn't good enough! We deserve better! I DEMAND ABOVE-AVERAGE BASKETBALL FOR MY HOMETOWN. And this, my friends, is where it starts.

Right now, we have some pieces. Not a lot, but a few. Brandon Jennings, love him or hate him, is our best piece. He's talented enough and has the work ethic to someday be mentioned with the players at the top of the post, where other teams will admire how lucky we got by drafting him. Sure, he's also erratic enough to be mentioned with the litany of average point guards of the 2010s, or maybe even not mentioned at all.

Monta Ellis is also a piece. Athletic, skilled, and historically consistent, he'd be a great #2/3 scoring option on a Contender. Larry Sanders and Ekpe Udoh are also pieces, as are Tobias Harris and maybe even Jon Leuer. If you put them all together with some decent role players (like, say, Mike Dunleavy, Drew Gooden, Beno Udrih, Carlos Delfino, and Shaun Livingston), you can get a team that is guaranteed to finish somewhere around .500.

Such is the fate of a .500-ish team, the Bucks also have another piece: the 12th overall pick in the 2012 NBA draft. It's not impossible to get lucky with the 12th overall pick, but history is not on your side (Thaddeus Young is arguably the most successful 12th overall pick in the last 10+ years). This year, though, is different. Sort of.

There's going to be a lot of options available on June 28th. We could go big with a guy like Meyers Leonard or Tyler Zeller. We could go small with someone like Austin Rivers or Jeremy Lamb. We could go in-between on players like Perry Jones III or Terrence Jones. Honestly, I've found myself agreeing with any of the above choices. Each one brings something to the table, and maybe it'll work out...

Hoping to get lucky at one of the unluckiest spots in the draft. Needless to say, the odds are not in our favor.

* * *

With so many options and no realistic expectation of drafting a star, where do we go from here? Do we continue down the road that John Hammond has us on, modeling ourselves after his beloved 2004 Detroit Pistons, the only champion in recent memory to not have a superstar? Or do we recognize that a combination of individual players' peaking, advantageous rules, and a matchup against a dysfunctional Lakers squad created an environment that is likely to never replicate itself again?

So let's backtrack and see what worked well and what didn't. The Bucks offense was fueled by their high pace (96.4 pace factor, 3rd in the league), so the pace needs to stay high. They found their opportunities on offense well enough, but allowed too many at the other end of the court. The easiest way to do that is to bring in a player that can improve the Bucks woeful rebounding (26th in total rebound differential at -2.2/game, 26th in total rebound percentage at 48.7%), thus giving their high-octane offense more possessions. But that player also has to execute on both sides of the court; it would be counter-productive to bring someone in that scores one extra bucket while giving up an additional two.

Who, in this draft, can provide all this, and turn the Bucks into a Contender?

Depending on who you ask, it's Meyers Leonard. Or maybe Terrence Jones. Or Perry Jones III. Or perhaps John Henson.

I can tell you who would do all these things without as many questions: Anthony Davis. But we're never going to be in position to get him, or anyone else of his caliber.

* * *

This post isn't meant to be overtly negative or fatalistic. I don't think the Bucks have to be doomed to mediocrity come hell or relocation. There's always the possibility of creating a true team that can take down a superstar-driven unit like the 2004 Pistons did. But the truth of it? You need a superstar to win in today's NBA. And the best way to get a superstar is to a) draft him and b) try to make him as happy and successful as possible and hope to the Basketball Gods that he stays.

We can't get a superstar drafting in the late lottery all the time. It's just not feasible. Superstars get drafted in the top-5, because that's where they go. Superstars go to teams that have trouble winning in their own division, let alone the rest of the league, and turn things around. Superstars don't go to teams that are firmly on the bubble between a playoff seed and missing out; they're long gone by the time those picks come up.

So here's what I think needs to happen to make the Bucks stop contending and start Contending. Herb Kohl needs to sell the team to an owner who will impress a vision onto management that is both plausible and possible. Keep John Hammond, Scott Skiles, both, neither, so long as they're on the same page. If that means losing for a few years while gathering assets, so be it. If that means actually putting up money to sign an important player, fine. If that means trudging through a season and rebuilding from the ground up on a cornerstone player that can handle being built upon, I'm all for it.

Here's what I'm not down for: building a team that wins against good teams and loses against bad ones. Finishing the season within 3 games of .500. Looking to add a rotation player to a squad that is 85% rotation players. Trading for another team's misfit player in the hopes that he'll become what he never was. Vacillating between "Win now!" and "Build for the future!"

In other words, the usual. I hate the usual. I want the opposite of the usual.


That's not too much to ask, is it?