Hunt: Time to start over
It's the fundamental question that's vexed our beleaguered franchise for years: will the Bucks finally put aside Herb Kohl's "competitive product at a competitive price" mandate and rebuild?
Any hope of a change in course seemed to be smacked down by Kohl just last week, when he dismissed the notion of rebuilding through the draft while reasserting his belief that the current roster--or whatever's left of it--can be "really good" under new coach Larry Drew. It all seemed rather out of touch given Kohl's track record with these kinds of things, though even the most hardened cynic can understand the concern over whether a rebuild/retooling/re-whatever can be reconciled with the imminent push for a new downtown arena. To that end, you can count Michael Hunt who has come around to the reality at hand, and offered up his argument for how the Bucks can spin a new direction:
"Look, we know the product hasn't been very good or interesting for a long time. We've treaded water long enough in the NBA's no-man's land of mediocrity to realize it's either getting us a so-so draft pick or one-and-done in the playoffs. We're going young and hungry and we promise to play as hard as any team in the league. Please bear with us while we go through this painful but necessary process to make you proud of this team again."
Hunt is typically something of a bellwether for the Bucks' plans, so it will be interesting to see if this reflects a growing sentiment inside the franchise or merely a high-profile voice (relatively speaking) joining the growing calls for something other than whatever it is the Bucks have been doing. I'm not holding my breath that anything changes, but let's be honest: it's a weird time for the Bucks.
While Milwaukee would have to make an effort to be really bad, the reality is that Kohl can't simply will them to be decent either. Even if you accept that last year's team could or should have been better than their 38-44 record, they'll need a major splash during free agency to even match the solid-but-unspectacular level of talent they had a year ago. And let's be honest: that's not good enough to be a real factor in the East. Perhaps the Bucks' efforts to overpay Monta Ellis are part of some broader scheme to lure Ellis' buddy Josh Smith to Milwaukee as well, but all the cap space in the world doesn't necessarily mean worthwhile talent will be willing to take your money, or that the talent on paper will fit together coherently. So it's very possible the Bucks' strike out on name brand talent and are forced to cobble together their roster with complementary pieces, which from a cap perspective would maintain flexibility but may make it challenging to even hit 38-40 wins. And then what?
Keep in mind that teams like Philadelphia, Cleveland, Washington and Toronto all figure to make renewed runs at playoff spots this season, begging the question of whether the Bucks will even be able to assemble a playoff-worthy roster come November even if they try. In that light, now would seem like a reasonable time to build around Larry Sanders and John Henson up front, remake the backcourt through the draft and deal everything else of value for picks/future assets. Adding a solid cast of veterans along with a solid coach like Larry Drew might prevent the Bucks from sinking to the very bottom of the East, but it would necessarily require a change in tone from Kohl and company as well.
Hunt goes on to cite examples of why rebuilding is the most logical approach, though some of his choices are a bit curious. For instance, the Grizzlies got the lottery part right--three straight 20-something win seasons from '07 to '09--but they didn't exactly strike it rich with draft picks. Mike Conley's turned into a nice player (4th overall in '07), but Hasheem Thabeet was a complete bust and O.J. Mayo eventually walked for nothing. And then there's Indiana, who won between 32 and 37 games for five straight seasons--mediocrity defined--before building themselves incrementally into a contender without even the benefit of a top-ten pick. Basically, they've succeeded doing what the Bucks have theoretically been trying to do.
All that speaks to my contention that the Bucks' biggest problem hasn't been their desire to compete so much as a) their inability to execute consistently on that strategy and b) their inflexibility when things haven't gone to plan. Most everyone expected the Ellis/Jennings combination to fall short, but it was deemed a necessary evil when Andrew Bogut's injury left the Bucks scrambling to make the playoffs in 2012. Moreover, the Bucks have consistently tried to be buyers (or at least not sellers) at the trade deadline, but have had only the John Salmons/Fear the Deer run to show for it (the "know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em" thing). In contrast, Golden State's decision to deal Ellis while shutting down Bogut and Stephen Curry helped them reload for an encouraging playoff run this season, while the Bucks are now facing the very real possibility that Ellis, Jennings and Redick will depart without anything to show for them. That's a major blow for a franchise that gave up a quality young asset in Tobias Harris for Redick and could have gotten something for one or both of Jennings/Ellis at the deadline.
So to me the question isn't whether the Bucks "blow it up" this summer--that would imply there's a roster full of talent to actually blow up. It's more a question of how aggressively the Bucks spend in order to keep up appearances and whether they're willing/able to package up non-core assets like Ersan Ilyasova, Luc Mbah a Moute and Ekpe Udoh for something resembling a foundational asset (hint: a #3 overall pick would qualify, but might be out of reach). Maybe you can find a core piece through free agency, but that's not easy and it usually comes at a price premium. If you have foundational assets (or core players, whatever you want to call them), then it's also easier to argue for trying to spend major dollars on complementary pieces (like Ilyasova or Redick) needed to win games now. In theory, those building blocks can grow into the kinds of pieces that can win you more than an 8th seed worth of games. But if you don't have those core pieces, what's the end game? I like Sanders and Henson as much as the next Bucks fan, but Henson has proven next to nothing and Sanders isn't a franchise player. In other words, the Bucks should be doing whatever they can to find more guys like them and hope they grow into something big, and that necessarily means placing a serious emphasis on the draft and organically developing the guys who are worth keeping for the long haul. Depending on the mix of young and veteran talent on the roster, you may or may not be able to win games while you're doing that. Indiana's managed to develop younger talent without sacrificing much on the court; Cleveland has taken a more youthful bent, and along with injuries have been unable to win with any consistency.
So where the Bucks do and can go from here is, not surprisingly, a huge question. Milwaukee could spend a lot of money this without getting much better than they were a year ago, or they could try to add pieces through the draft and go the value route in free agency in order to maintain flexibility (ie more pieces like Devin Harris, less like Ellis). I really don't see a complete tank job as a likely outcome, in part because their cap space should enable them to bring in some decent veterans, but how they prioritize keeping veteran assets (like Ilyasova) could go a long way to changing where they end up this season. Going the youth route won't win them as many games as Kohl would like, but it still might be the first step in winning back the hearts and minds of fans.
Woelfel: Larkin no "wow" for Bucks, Caldwell-Pope
Gery Woelfel's latest features a bunch of interesting nuggets, none more than this little blurb about OH GOD EVERYTHING WE KNOW IS WRONG BELIEVE NO ONE.
FALSE REPORT: Contrary to an ESPN report, Miami point guard Shane Larkin didn’t have a "wow" workout with the Bucks. In fact, two observers of Larkin’s workout said he had a decent but hardly special workout.
That ESPN report is better known as Chad Ford's most recent mock draft, which suggested the Bucks were mighty impressed with Larkin's recent visit to Milwaukee. Instead, Woelfel writes that likely second rounder Phil Pressey outplayed both Larkin and fellow lottery candidate Dennis Schroder...for whatever that's worth. In other interesting news, Woelfel writes that highly-touted Georgia shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope will be among the prospects working out for the Bucks on Wednesday.
Other bits and bobs:
- Bucks.com: Alex takes an extensive look at what the mock drafts are saying about the Bucks.
- A Stern Warning: Via the Fanposts, the Bucks will be among the teams watching New Zealand swingman Tom Abercrombie at an upcoming workout in Chicago.
- Marc Stein: ESPN's Stein reports that Israeli national team PG Gal Mekel will workout for the Bucks among others June 19-21. The 25-year-old Mekel had a fairly undistinguished career at Wichita State from '06-'08 before establishing himself in the Israeli and Italian leagues over the past few seasons. Seems like a longshot to make it in the NBA at this point, but at 6'4" and 200 pounds he does bring good size to the point guard position.