It's an exciting time to be a fan of the Milwaukee Bucks. After years of toiling in mediocrity, the team is poised to finally capitalize on the momentum that last season brought, both on and off the court. Coach Jason Kidd was a revelation, Jabari Parker is on his way back from a tough injury, the team landed a big fish free agent in Greg Monroe, and even ESPN thinks that the young core of the team has one of the most promising futures in the league. The franchise experienced an uptick in fan support, which translated into a strong movement to keep the Bucks in Milwaukee and a solution to the looming arena issue. All of a sudden, the team is posed to have a stadium as bright and shiny as their basketball future.
We've gotten to this point as fans and as a franchise, and we're excited to take the next steps for our team. But how did we get here? It seems like it was just yesterday that the Bucks were floundering left and right, and all of a sudden people are talking about a 50-win season with only a dash of sarcasm instead of a ladle-full.
Part of the reason for our excitement is just how quickly things have changed, and it's hard to deny that the catalyst for the new direction was the purchase of the team from Herb Kohl to the duo of Marc Lasry and Wes Edens. As we've seen over the past few months from the Sacramento Kings, building a winner isn't as easy as just changing everything from the top down. From this particularly on-point Deadspin article back when things were particularly bleak for Sactown:
"Building an NBA team is long process, the result of thousands of decisions, some of them big and most of them small. An owner can’t be—shouldn’t be—involved in every single decision, but it is their job to hire a group of people who can work together to execute a strategy to build a team."
With that in mind, I wanted to look back at the past 16 months and see if we can determine just how much they've done for the team, and whether or not they're on the right track. To that end, I went back through the Brew Hoop archives and pulled each story that I believe reports on a decision made or influenced by the franchise that, at the very least, was ran past the new owners. I took each of those stories and assigned values for these four variables:
Visibility: Did the move register with anyone outside of the organization? (I assigned each story a "weight" of Low, Moderate, or High, and applied it to the grade for Handling accordingly.)
Handling: How well did the team handle the move? (Range: graded A through F, with A meaning the move was handled well, a C meaning the move was handled well enough, and an F meaning the move was handled poorly.)
Impact: Did the move have a major impact on the franchise? (I assigned each story a "weight" of Minor, Moderate, or Major, and applied it to the grade for Outcome accordingly.)
Outcome: Did the move help the success of the franchise in the short-term and/or in the long-term? (Range: graded A through F, with A meaning the move greatly helped the team, a C meaning the move was a net-neutral, and an F meaning the move greatly hurt the team.)
At the conclusion of the article, I took all the grades for Handling and Outcome, and weighted them by either Visibility or Impact (respectively), in order to get a composite grade for the new owners' tenure so far. So without further ado, let's get into it! Set your clocks for April 2014, after Herb Kohl decided to to whom to sell the team...here we go!
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April 16th, 2014 - Marc Lasry and Wes Edens will buy Milwaukee Bucks for $550 million
Regular turnover is often confused for true rebuilding in the NBA, but a change in franchise ownership is a surefire path towards complete overhaul. The Bucks needed it, and being sold by Herb Kohl was more of a when than an if. There were several suitors more likely to move the team than to keep them in town, despite Kohl's insistence on the team staying put a condition of the sale. Thankfully, the money pledged towards an NBA-mandated new arena (from both old owner and new ones) helped to mitigate the uneasiness of the NBA's $575m buyback provision.
After the NBA approved the sale on May 15th, the new owners wasted no time in starting to reshape the team to fit their vision. Major changes to the Bucks' front office infrastructure were inevitable, as were the efforts to raise public awareness of the team's fortunes. Lasry and Edens got their families involved in the team's draft lottery events, and held court themselves in Milwaukee during the NBA Playoffs to solidify a relationship with the new fanbase. Their message (from a statement published on Bucks.com) was clear:
This draft was highly-regarded by many pundits, and as the first draft under new leadership in a very high draft position, was important for setting the tone for the team going forward. The Bucks were at least in a position to draft whichever of the two projected franchise cornerstones fell to them at the second slot, thanks to the Cavs drafting Andrew Wiggins and letting John Hammond "get our guy" Jabari Parker, and (smartly, in retrospect) avoided the higher-risk (but higher-reward?) prospects like Joel Embiid and Dante Exum. In the second round, the team went after upside in Damien Inglis...and also Johnny O'Bryant III...moves that have yet to yield any major dividends.
June 30th, 2014 - Jason Kidd heading to Milwaukee
Edens and Lasry's first major splash was also their most-poorly handled one. Larry Drew may not have been in the Coach of the Year conversation the same way Jason Kidd turned out to be, but he is an NBA-caliber coach who was firmly set in his position and, quite frankly, had the rug pulled out from under him. John Hammond was out of the loop as well, but managed to keep his job despite rampant speculation, and all for the low price of two future second round picks. Still, the handling of the move isn't a full-blown F since it shows the owners' willingness to take advantage of opportunities, and swooping in as a fallback during Kidd's falling out with Brooklyn certainly qualifies.
Before the dust fully settled with the Jason Kidd saga, the team continued cleaning house by releasing four of the five assistant coaches (retaining only development guru Josh Oppenheimer) and bringing in Sweeney and Hughes, two of Kidd's assistants from Brooklyn. This move sacrificed continuity (not a bad thing after a 15-win season) and showed a major emphasis on player development for the team, which lined up with the still-unproven prospects that are hoped to "Own The Future". It makes sense for the team to have brought in guys Kidd was already comfortable with, but those who struggled with the means used to land Kidd in the first place weren't necessarily comfortable with bringing other guys in just because they were Kidd's guys. Still, it's impossible to say it hasn't worked out brilliantly thus far.
As one of the many small steps taken early on in the arena project, the Bucks added several investors with local ties to the ownership group, which helped support the narrative of keeping the team in Milwaukee long-term. Not among the new owners were Junior Bridgeman or Aaron Rodgers, both high-profile players in Wisconsin, who would have furthered the "Keep the Bucks Home" movement.
July 19th, 2014 - Bucks claim Kendall Marshall off waivers...so now what?
When the Los Angeles Lakers cut Kendall Marshall, the Bucks were quick to snap him up off of the waiver wire, showing that they were willing to seize opportunities when they came available. Marshall, a slow-footed half-court playmaker, fit in well with Brandon Knight at the PG position, and though his ACL injury eventually gave way to his (temporary?) departure from the Bucks, the move to add him to the roster was a smart one. Though it did put into question the long-rumored Jerryd Bayless signing...
August 1st, 2014 - NBA Free Agency 2014: Jerryd Bayless officially signs
...but not for long. Bayless was the first free agent signed by the new owners, and reportedly was drawn to the team by Jason Kidd. Young for a journeyman, Bayless offered scoring from either guard position and could fill in as primary ball-handler if need be. The fit wasn't quite as solid with Knight firmly entrenched in a primary role and Marshall having been claimed previously, and a strong first half was countered by a poor end to the season -- in many ways mirroring the bench overall. Still, Bayless' contract and the idea that you can't have enough depth helps make the move a decent one.
August 26th, 2014 - Bucks turn nothing into something with Dudley deal
Trading for a versatile player is good. Trading for a future first round pick is also good. Giving up a versatile player or a future pick in a trade isn't always good. Giving up three fringe players and no picks for a versatile player and a future first round pick? That is very, very, very good. Jared Dudley's move to Milwaukee may have had some trepidation (on Duds' part), but the method of acquisition was nothing short of outstanding negotiation and asset management. Dudley's hot start to the season showed how much of a coup it was, but his back-injury-induced slump and eventual departure (see below) took the shine off the apple. Still, great trade.
October 8th, 2014 - Bucks name Peter Feigin new team president
As with any organization, having an experienced business-focused executive put into place helps to align the functions of the rest of the organization. Bringing in Peter Feigin did exactly that. Granted, most of his experience was with the New York Knicks, a franchise not high on many lists for copy-catting, but Feigin was hired in order to allow John Hammond, David Morway, and Jason Kidd focus on everything basketball-related, and leave the rest on someone else's plate.
October 16th, 2014 - Milwaukee Bucks reveal additional investors
Further diversifying the ownership group, Edens and Lasry added another major hedge fund power in Jamie Dinan, which increased the total amount of capital that could be brought into the franchise. To counterbalance the New York-ification of the group, they also added the 5 local investors that form the Partners for Community Impact. Lastly, Jon Hammes joined the fold, and brings his experience managing real estate to the team as the arena discussion progresses.
October 23rd, 2014 - Palermo's Pizza CEO Giacomo Fallucca latest to join Bucks ownership group
Another local investor with high visibility in the area, another point for the whole "Keep the Bucks in Milwaukee" movement. Palermo's Pizza had been partners of the Milwaukee Bucks for years by now, and this move brought the partnership even closer. Additionally, Palermo's is probably the best frozen pizza that I've ever had. Which is saying something, based on the amount of frozen pizza I've consumed over my lifetime.
October 27th, 2014 - Milwaukee Bucks moving expanded staff to new office space in Schlitz Park
This is perhaps one of the few moves made by ownership with no downside. In expanding the staff employed by the franchise and moving that staff into new offices further demonstrates a commitment to keeping the team in-place long-term. After all, you don't invest in the team's infrastructure if you anticipate selling in the short-term.
The first in-season roster move came a few weeks after Jabari Parker's ACL injury, and it makes sense that the team wanted to shore up the depth in the front court...even if the solution was the now-retired Kenyon Martin. Martin did have a few good minutes here and there, and the excitement of bringing in the crown jewel of the 2000 NBA Draft has to count for something, I guess? But cutting the nondescript Nate Wolters to free up the roster spot ended up hurting when Kendall Marshall injured his ACL mere days after this deal was completed.
This is the part of the project where I had to remind myself that I was looking at from the Bucks' perspective, and what was going to hurt or help them be successful going forward. With Seattle and Las Vegas waiting in the wings and ready to pounce, finding a solution to the arena question was paramount not to the Bucks being good or bad, but to them being the Milwaukee Bucks at all. Working with political leadership is a must in this sort of situation, and Edens & Lasry found a willing partner in Governor Walker.
Keeping Kenyon Martin around for the remainder of the season was a predictable move, as the team wouldn't have brought him in for front court depth if there were more-highly regarded options available in the first place. Notice how I didn't say "better", as Martin didn't last for long before an ankle injury relegated him to full-time bench duty for the remainder of his time with the team. Gutierrez was, like Martin, someone Kidd was familiar with and therefore, like Martin, not necessarily the best option available to replace Kendall Marshall (at least from an objective point of view).
February 10th, 2015 - Bucks announce partnership with Orthopaedic Hospital of Wisconsin
When rumors of a team announcement got out, people immediately assumed it was a bigger deal than it actually was. Still, further tethering the team's operations to local businesses willing to pay for the advertising is yet another good omen on the path towards keeping the team long-term; the Orthopaedic Hospital of Wisconsin wouldn't necessarily want to fork over money without a good bet for their name being attached to the Bucks after than three years.
February 17th, 2015 - Bucks acquire Michael Carter-Williams, send Brandon Knight to Phoenix in three-team deal
I still remember when I first found out about the trade; I was at my desk, recapping some of the deadline deals with my co-worker, and had started to say, "I think that's everything," when I saw a notification on my phone's lock screen. "Philadelphia trades Michael Carter-Williams to Milwaukee" it said, and my first thought was Okay...he won Rookie of the Year! That's not bad! And then the next notification came through, saying "Milwaukee sends Brandon Knight to Phoenix in three-team trade," and my first thought was ...what?...
That evening, some of my non-NBA friends asked me what I thought of the trade. I didn't know what to tell them, and on some level I still kind of don't. Yes, MCW is cheaper and bigger and tools-ier, and yes, Miles Plumlee and Tyler Ennis aren't bad prospects to have around, and yes, Giannis and Jabari need to have the path cleared for them to grow into full-time dominators, and yes, Knight has his own significant question marks...but to break up a pretty good thing in favor of something that might turn out to be a better good thing? Even though I ended up supporting it, it was a risky move, even if it helped clear an easier way for the Bucks to make a big splash in free agency.
February 21st, 2015 - Bucks request waivers on center Larry Sanders
One of the weirder stories of the season that people have (mostly) forgotten about, started when Sanders was unavailable for health reasons months prior. Then it was personal reasons. Then there was a mysterious players-only meeting that happened before Sanders got hurt. Or was he sick? Then it was an NBA suspension. Then the rumors came out that Sanders didn't want to play basketball anymore. But those rumors weren't true! Until they were, and the Bucks ended up paying Sanders to no longer play basketball in Milwaukee.
On the court, the Bucks had been doing well without their defensive anchor, and they continued to do so. But their success pales in comparison to what they could have been with a legitimate DPOY candidate holding down the center position, and it wouldn't have been surprising to hear something less-than-complimentary about the whole saga from the team. What was surprising: nobody on the team, players or staff, ever said anything to throw Larry under the bus. The team was incredibly flexible dealing with this matter, and in turn Sanders' representation negotiated a buyout that was as friendly to the salary cap as could reasonably be expected. Same as before: get well soon, Larry.
March 6th, 2015 - Bucks sign D-League's Chris Johnson to 10-day contract
With Sanders, Marshall, and Martin gone, there was one roster spot available. That spot went to Johnson, a 3-and-D (League) forward who actually played pretty well, all things considered. There was no harm in seeing what Johnson had to offer, even if the answer ended up being "not much".
March 7th, 2015 - Bucks sign Jorge Gutierrez to a multi-year deal
This far after the trade deadline, even though Ennis now factored into the PG rotation alongside MCW and Bayless, there wasn't much reason not to simply keep Gutierrez for the rest of the year. Getting the second of this "multi-year deal" non-guaranteed helped to keep the Bucks flexible during the offseason. I suppose the most notable thing about Jorge Gutierrez's NBA career is that, as of this writing, he is still on the team.
March 8th, 2015 - Report: Bucks to unveil $1 billion arena package
While not a surprise, the announcement of the package deal presented by the team for what a new downtown arena complex would look like was a big deal, as were the previously unannounced details about location, design, and funding. That last bit would obviously be the biggest story of all, considering the arena itself was estimated to cost $500m and only $250m had been publicly allocated to it by the Bucks. Thus sparked the next stages of the political conversation, which asked if/how much would be contributed by the city, county, and state stakeholders.
March 13th, 2015 - Bucks unveil new color scheme, "M" logo
Most people liked the logos and the new color scheme, as they liked the uniforms that eventually were announced months later. But the way the team handled the announcement was downright silly, I'm sorry. The painters? Interesting idea, but painful to watch live. The whole orange tease leading up to the announcement? It would have made sense if orange was involved at all. The singing? I guess...but you gotta come up with something better than Bruno Mars and Lenny Kravitz. Dope color scheme, though.
This event didn't get much press outside of Wisconsin, but I wish it had. Some of the biggest questions about the arena deal were exactly how much public funds would be used, and who would be on the hook for every dollar over the quote. Turns out that the team capped the public fund contribution at 50% ($250m) and agreed to cover all overage costs, both of which are about as friendly of terms that you'll find in recent history. I wonder if the conversation about the arena would have been easier if the team had committed to these terms earlier, but I suppose that's a part of the negotiation and leverage and all that. Lucky for the Bucks, no organized opposition had come out against the arena, which made the task slightly less formidable.
This is how you leverage your strengths. Jason Kidd, a long-time NBA superstar and coaching dynamo, has one of the more recognizable faces in Southeastern Wisconsin (as long as you've done anything related to the NBA since 1995). Convincing Kidd to go out and actively lobby for supporting the arena deal, using all the star power he brings with him, was an idea as good as it was obvious.
June 11th, 2015 - The Milwaukee Bucks actually traded Ersan Ilyasova
Who knew that John Hammond had it in him? Ilyasova was like gum on the bottom of your shoe: pretty tasty at one point, but got stale and stuck with you for far longer than you might have expected. Peak-Ilyasova is a player who can impact games in a big way, but about as predictable as Petyr Baelish (where my GoT nerds at?!). I'll certainly miss his hustle and three-point shooting, but I'm OK losing his $8m salary and the beloved pump-fake/single-dribble/pump-fake/fadeaway-19-footer.
Insurance is a weird thing. You spend money on it so that you have it, even though you hope you never have to use it...but you're glad you have it if things take a turn. That's exactly how I justify the Vasquez trade and what the Bucks paid for him. So long, cap space cleared out from trading Ersan! Hello, tall pass-first PG who can shoot! Vasquez gives the Bucks two point guards with plus-size but very different skill sets; it's basically the opposite of the Brandon Jennings-Monta Ellis "Swag Twins" experiment. I wouldn't be shocked if Vasquez plays better than expected, parleys his success playing with/behind/ahead of(?) MCW into a longer-term deal, and next season MCW becomes a perennial 6MOY contender.
At this point in the draft, while the Bucks had been tied to Vaughn already, many were clamoring for adding Bobby Portis. After all, on a team filled with versatile tweeners, you sometimes need to add a versatile tweener. John Hammond stayed true to his M.O. and took the second-youngest player in the draft, who happens to look like a guard who might know how to put the round thing into the other round thing with some frequency, someday. Of course, the chasm between the Pro-Portis and Pro-Vaughn crowd helped create that flabbergastingly off-point report about Kidd forcing Hammond out, which was fun.
They say 80% of success is simply showing up. The Bucks showed up and locked Middleton in to a hefty contract that will end up looking very team-friendly within 2 years. While Middleton may not be the biggest steal of free agency (Hey there, Danny Green!), he's an important cog in the Bucks' system and simply could not be allowed to walk. He was going to stay, everybody knew it, and nobody screwed it up.
If 80% of success is showing up, that other 20% has to be something more. And whether you credit luck, hard work, divine intervention, or something else, the Bucks used all of it to sway one of the biggest free agent signings in franchise history. It's hard to believe that Monroe agreed to sign in Milwaukee, but that's because we're not used to guys who can put up numbers like he does. Monroe is the best available fit for a roster that desperately needs scoring: his career average of 15.9 ppg would have easily been the season leader on last year's Bucks. Nothing is a guarantee, but Monroe figures to fuel Milwaukee's ascendance to the next level of NBA teams.
July 2nd, 2015 - Bucks deal Jared Dudley to Wizards for future 2nd round pick
The immediate reaction to the Dudley trade was confusion with a dash of outrage. A major contributor to the Bucks' surprising 2014-15 season making a reasonable salary was given away for basically nothing. It might have made room for Damien Inglis to get some minutes behind Jabari, Giannis, and Middleton, but if you're gonna cut a productive guy loose, you gotta get something back for him. Once it came out that Dudley had requested the trade and the Bucks basically did him a favor, it helped make the deal more palatable. Then Duds' back issues and subsequent surgery was made known, and it looks like the Bucks saved themselves a bit of a headache. I would have loved to have kept him, but In Kidd and Hammond We Trust, I guess.
July 9th, 2015 - Bucks trade Zaza Pachulia to the Dallas Mavericks
The Zaza trade was similar to Dudley in that it was a veteran player giveaway, but there was more warning and a superior replacement now on the roster (Greg Monroe). Still, Zaza was a valuable member of the team who didn't get enough credit for playing his role, and the value of shedding his moderate salary and improving the Bucks' reputation around the league doesn't quite offset his departure. In Kidd and Hammond We Trust?
Hey, Chris Copeland is a guy who can provide shooting from either forward spot! Sure, he's a bad defender, a bad rebounder, an average communicator, a non-creator, and is coming off a horrible season. He's not Jared Dudley, but we're not worried about that. In Hammond We Trust! Or rather, In Kidd We Trust, since Copeland flat-out admitted that Jason Kidd's presence in Milwaukee was one of the bigger reasons he considered Milwaukee as a landing spot.
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So now that we've spent a solid 4,000 words recapping the last 16 months, what can we glean from it? Here are my three main takeaways:
- The Bucks are not afraid to take smart risks. Carpe diem seems to be the motto with these Milwaukee Bucks, which is a refreshing change-of-pace from the way previous iterations of the team were managed. Signing big money deals for Khris Middleton and Greg Monroe, pulling the trigger on a major trade right at the deadline, and landing Jason Kidd as head coach are all proof of that. A conservative approach can keep you relevant, but it doesn't win you any rings. By the same token...
- The Bucks are not afraid to look bad. Between the Jason Kidd/Larry Drew handling, trading Brandon Knight in the midst of a successful run, and everything surrounding public financing for the arena, there have been some legitimate questions raised about how ownership has handled managing the franchise. Risk is inherent to the game, of course, but how you do something is nearly as important as what you do.
- The Bucks have a new emphasis on doing the little things. Anytime there's a fundamental change with an organization, there are a lot of signs of that change being found in the details. A perfect example is the reaction from Jared Dudley after his departure from the team. His was one of gratitude and respect for how much the organization had changed, meaning all the more from a guy who actively didn't want to end up in Milwaukee.
There's no way to truly judge the performance of new franchise leadership after such a short timeframe. But the sheer number of stories we have to talk about indicates just how much effort has been put into changing the course of the team. Based on my made-up grading methodology I mentioned above, I give the new owners a B+ for handling and a B+ for outcomes over the past 16 months. It hasn't been a perfect transition from afterthought to plucky up-and-comer, but there's no arguing that the team is in a vastly better position to contend than they have been for years, and Marc Lasry, Wes Edens, Jason Kidd and John Hammond deserve a lot of credit for that.
But enough about what I think. What do you all think?