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Quick Take, Hot Take: The Departure of John Hammond

And so the Hammond-Era closes

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks-Press Conference Sam Caravana-USA TODAY Sports

If you’re reading this, you probably already heard the news: Long-time Milwaukee Bucks General Manager John Hammond has chosen to move on to warmer pastures to take over the same role for the Orlando Magic. The mechanics of the deal are still being worked out, but it appears he will be signed to a five-year deal and will work alongside newly hired President of Basketball Operations, Jeff Weltman.

Back in Milwaukee, the departure of Hammond shouldn’t come as the greatest shock to the system. Apparent GM-in-waiting Justin Zanik was brought to the front office last summer as an assistant GM, and the writing on the wall seemed clear that, one way or another, Zanik was going to take over for John at some point in the future.

Now begins the waiting game to see what Zanik truly is all about. We won’t get a real taste of his style until the NBA Draft on June 22nd.

Between now and then, our only option is to evaluate what’s in front of us, and I’ve broken the move down into three sections: The Good, The Bad, The Future.

The Good

For Milwaukee, there are many ways moving on from John Hammond could prove to be propitious for their long-term plans. Hammond’s tenure spanned for nine seasons, his record at the helm an unimpressive 315-423 with essentially no playoff success to speak of, and he’s been an impossible enigma to figure out as an executive.

A near decade of non-success breeds at a minimum indifference, and while the team is set up to (hopefully) garner a lot more local, national, and international attention in its current state, it isn’t a hard argument to make that the Bucks have been lowest on the totem pole in not just the NBA, but in Wisconsin sports in general. With a new arena slowly being erected from the ground up, the unending potential that is Giannis Antetokounmpo, and some positive feelings after the first-round series against the Toronto Raptors, it would seem to make sense that a clean break with a forgettable recent-past was the best move. John Hammond departing from the franchise perhaps gives the team that break.

Beyond the team’s image, there were certainly question marks about how competent a GM Hammond truly was. While most largely agreed that his drafting ability enhanced his value to a small-market franchise, he seemed to consistently struggle in the other aspects of NBA GM’ing: Most of his trades were forgettable or downright painful (exception being the move that brought Khris Middleton to town), he hasn’t attracted much in the way of free agency, and Lord knows how many contracts he’s handed out to players already on the roster that got the torches and pitchforks out in the fanbase.

If the team is to take the crucial steps of moving from building to competing, someone who is able to at least do an adequate to above-average job at those other GM responsibilities will be necessary. From my point of view, building through the Draft should be a luxury, not simply the main component on which the franchise hopes to fill in the vacancies around Antetokounmpo.

The Bad

Of course, losing an apparently adept draft mind could prove costly in an NBA with sky-high player contracts, teams apprehensive about parting with even cursory second-round picks, and where a draftee is almost guaranteed to stick with his first team for at least two contract periods.

Hammond seemed to have a certain strategy in the draft: Go for the big home-run pick in the first round, and try to find serviceable talent to fill out the roster in the second. Such a boom-or-bust strategy led to the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Thon Maker, and Malcolm Brogdon, all pieces set to help the team compete (hopefully) long into the future. But it also led to Joe Alexander and Larry Sanders. As the team continues to commit more and more of its dollars to players already here (i.e. Greg Monroe and Tony Snell), the draft will become ever more important for injecting cheap talent to the bench. Losing Hammond means we’re in a grey area when it comes to reliable drafting, at least until we see the results of June 22nd

Another negative aspect of Hammond’s departure could be his connection with the players and executives around the league. He’s always had a very hands-on approach with acclimating Giannis to Milwaukee and the US, has relationships with management in all other 29 teams, and of course has relations with the players currently on the roster. While Zanik has had time both in Utah with the Jazz and in Milwaukee to inherit an infrastructure of his own, his relative negotiating power may be limited as he starts out in his new role. He at least has his background as a player agent to fall back on as he grooms relationships in his new role. How that plays out in the Draft and free agency remains to be seen, and largely rests on how much of a head-start he’s taken.

Finally, we lose Hammond just weeks before the NBA Draft, and it is safe to assume that he has a general idea now what the team’s draft strategy will be at or around pick #17 in the first-round. Orlando currently resides in the mid-lottery, and so any players we’re interested in should, theoretically, be lower on Orlando’s draft board. However, they could easily find a way to sneak into our pick range to select someone Hammond, and thus the Bucks/Zanik, may currently covet. It may turn out to not be harmful at all, but in a ceremony as filled with backroom intrigue and smokescreens as the Draft, offering any sort of tangible look inside your strategy can prove a hindrance.

The Future

As of now, I don’t have much in the way of thoughts about Mr. Zanik. He was brought in to take over for Hammond at some point, and if he signals changes across the board in both ownership and the front office, I can only welcome his arrival. From reading the Twitter tea leaves, it seems his ascension is generally regarded as a positive development. He was viewed as an up-and-coming executive with the Utah Jazz, and now he’ll really get to test his mettle as the boss of the franchise.

It’ll be interesting to see what Zanik’s dynamic is with current head coach Jason Kidd. There have been lingering worries about how much control Kidd has on talent decisions, though the truth of those rumors isn’t 100% clear. If Zanik comes in only to have Kidd wield virtual veto-power over most of his moves, I get a sinking feeling about how the team’s chances look from here on out.

Either way, Zanik has a herculean task ahead of him: Somehow, he has to balance his young roster with the desire of all involved to begin seriously competing in the Eastern Conference, he has a brand-new D-League team in Oshkosh that needs filling out, and he’s got looming roster questions in draft picks and free agents like Monroe and Snell. Oh, he’ll also have to find himself an Assistant GM too.

John Hammond has left the team with one of the most enviable collections of talent in the NBA. He may not have been the one best set to push the team over the top. Will Zanik be able to rise to the occasion?