Every year ESPN convenes a panel of basketball analysts to rank a number of components of every NBA organization. One of the most notable is their front office rankings, which get their yearly update this week. ESPN is revealing rankings for three individual components (chief executives, coaches, and owners), but the overall rankings instantly reveal one very visible fact: no team improved in the rankings more than the Milwaukee Bucks.
It's a turnaround that mirror Milwaukee history-making first half on the court this year. Next to last in 2014, ahead of only the New York Knicks (30th again, whoo!), the Bucks leaped all the way up 14th overall this season.
The individual rankings will shed more light on the improvement, but there are a few safe assumptions as well as a few lingering questions brought up by these rankings. Let's consider a few.
Much of the improvement is driven by coaching and ownership.
We're not really shy about saying it anymore: Larry Drew simply didn't get it done last year, and there was little evidence to suggest he was capable of ever doing so. Jason Kidd's arrival was unsavory, but it's hard to argue with his results. While internal improvement from the roster deserves the lion's share of the credit, there's no denying Kidd's system simply puts the players in a position to succeed far more than Drew's ever did.
As for ownership, we shouldn't underrate Herb Kohl's tremendous effort in keeping the Bucks in Wisconsin, but it was clear in his final years that he wasn't providing the organization with the tools and flexibility it needed to achieve real greatness. His predecessors bring significantly greater financial resources to the table, as well as presumably more leeway in "playing the game" a bit more in pursuit of a complete organization rebuild and future runs at true contention.
Management may be largely unchanged, but the ownership change affects them too.
We rarely had more than anecdotal or secondhand evidence, but the general suspicion regarding the working relationship between the Bucks' top executives and Kohl was mired in concerns over differing points of view and restrictive "mandates." Left to their own devices, many assumed John Hammond and David Morway would have done things differently. This left fans to bicker among themselves too often--one side saying the folks in charge just needed a chance to run free, the other saying even a sprinter with rocks in his pockets should at least be able to finish the race.
It's likely too early to make a real determination of which side was more right, though the early returns have leaned a bit in their favor. This much is clear, though: the excuses are gone. If Hammond and Morway really do have solid plans to build an elite team, there should be nothing holding them back now beyond the unavoidable constraints of market size and relatively fewer billions of dollars at their disposal than a few other organizations.
All that being said, how much credit do all these people really deserve for Milwaukee's surprisingly quick turnaround?
Hammond and Drew didn't plan to put together a team last season that would break the franchise record for losses in a season. But the team did just that, and in doing so catalyzed the drastic changes that have the franchise on a decidedly different path. Call it luck, call it serendipity, everybody's thanking somebody for it in any case.
How much does a lost season and the resulting #2-overall pick diminish the impact of the other organizational changes? Jabari Parker didn't exactly play a huge role in this season (wipes tears from eyes), and what was kicked off by disaster has unfolded as something that looks a bit more meticulously planned. The Bucks as led by Hammond and Morway have swung a fair number of solid deals in recent years. The
Knight Jennings MIDDLETON deal can hardly be considered less than highway robbery at this point, and an offseason trade that landed a future first-round pick in exchanged for something as ethereal as salary cap space was another encouraging sign. It seems unfair, even unduly harsh, to say these moves aligned with the Bucks' upturn in fortunes as pure happy coincidence, but alas, "sample size" isn't only a concern for three-point shooters.
Nobody would quibble with the simple statement that the Bucks are better off now than they were one year ago. When you start putting numbers to such qualitative statements, that's when people can get antsy. It's definitely a good sign, but let's be sure not to lose sight of the real goal here. After all, from where the Bucks started, even a 15-spot jump means there are still 13 teams ahead of them.