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The Milwaukee Bucks and 2020 Vision

Why Milwaukee must have a laser focus on the future for all their successive moves

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Oklahoma City Thunder Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

This guest post was written by Ben Thompson, occasional Locked on Bucks guest, owner/founder of tech business site Stratechery and most importantly, an ardent Bucks follower. He was kind enough to share his thoughts for Brew Hoop about the Bucks and his vision for the future in the wake of John Hammond’s departure.

John Hammond, who was just hired by the Orlando Magic as their GM — the same role he filled for the Milwaukee Bucks the last nine years — deserves the gratitude of Bucks’ fans, and the reason is simple to state and hard to spell: Giannis Antetokounmpo.

The NBA is a superstars’ league — no team (with respect to the 2004 Detroit Pistons) is winning a title without a superstar—and the Bucks now have one, thanks to Hammond. Moreover, unlike most superstars, Antetokounmpo wasn’t a top draft pick: Hammond chose him at 15 in 2013.

That the Bucks were picking at 15 in the first place was the result of a decision that, for me anyways, was one of the low points of my Bucks’ fandom. Reportedly under pressure from then-owner Senator Herb Kohl, Hammond traded away 2nd-year player Tobias Harris for free agent-to-be J.J. Redick in a desperate bid to make the playoffs; by that pathetic light the trade was successful, as the Bucks backed into the 8th seed in the east with a 38–44 record, only to be swept by the champion-to-be Miami Heat.

That trade encapsulated everything that was wrong with the Bucks’ front office: a constant focus on short-term “success” at the cost of any long-term plan. In this case, the pursuit of a first-round sweep meant turning a 2011 first-round pick (plus Beno Udrih and a 2nd round pick) into basically nothing (the Bucks did get two conditional 2nd-round picks; one was actually used to compensate the Nets for the hiring of Jason Kidd).

To his immense credit Hammond pursued the exact opposite strategy in the ensuing draft: taking Antetokounmpo was a rejection of the short-term and a bet on the long-term:

Again, I can’t emphasize this enough, Antetokounmpo was a career-defining pick, and to that Hammond added two other brilliant moves: the first was the trade of Brandon Jennings for Brandon Knight, Slava Kravtsov, and a throw-in named Khris Middleton; the second looks to be the selection of Thon Maker with the 10th pick in last year’s draft (the selection of Malcolm Brogdon in the 2nd round merits a mention as well; Brogdon certainly had a more immediate short-term impact than Maker but, in the best case scenario for the Bucks, will have a less consequential long-term impact, simply because Maker will have been so good).

Unfortunately, the rest of Hammond’s tenure is much more disappointing. When he has made good moves, they have usually been trades to unwind truly egregious one. Witness this chart from the RealGM forums tracking how Hammond’s bad signings either sat on the books or turned into trades that at best reset the Bucks’ cap:

The chart only goes up to that J.J. Redick trade, but there have been more examples since then. John Henson, for example, was signed to a 4-year, $44 million extension back in 2015, despite the fact he had shown nothing on the court to warrant such a number, and still had a season on his rookie contract followed by restricted free agency. That extension only kicked in this last year, when Henson was the 3rd-string center (and -8 in an inexplicable 8 minute stint in the Bucks’ first round Game six elimination to Toronto); at best the Bucks can unload him without having to give up an additional asset.

Another missing transaction was probably the worst Bucks move since that Redick trade: that is, the trade of the Clippers’ 2017 first-rounder (pick 23) and Bucks’ own 2015 2nd-rounder (which became Norman Powell) to Toronto for Greivis Vasquez, who is now out of the league. To be sure, no one could have predicted Vasquez’s injury troubles, but he was 28 years old, at a time when Antetokounmpo and 2014 2nd-overall pick Jabari Parker were both only 20. Even if Vazquez had been in perfect health there is no way he would have been on the team when Antetokounmpo and Parker were in their prime; the players taken with those picks might have been. Once again, instead of thinking about the long-term, the Bucks focused on the short-term.

It was last summer, though, that really showed the best and worst of Hammond specifically, and the Bucks approach generally:

  • As noted above, Hammond nailed the Bucks’ draft picks: Maker looks like an above-average starter on a championship team, with the potential to be a defensive difference maker, and Brogdon will at a minimum be a superbly competent guard off the bench.
  • The Bucks actually had a third pick in the draft, their own 2nd-rounder, pick 38. However, instead of taking a flyer on another player whose prime might have matched up with Antetokounmpo, the Bucks sold the pick to Golden State, who proceeded to pick Patrick McCaw; McCaw will likely play in the NBA Finals this year.
  • In free agency, the Bucks signed 26 year-old Matthew Dellevedova to a four-year $38.5 million deal, and 30 year-old Mirza Teletovic to a three-year $30 million deal. The Teletovic deal in particular made zero sense simply because of his age: when Antetokounmpo hits his prime, Teletovic may very well be out of the league, but the Bucks decided to prioritize the 2016 season over the long-term. In fact, the summer of 2016 was the Bucks’ last opportunity to have significant cap space, but instead of signing a player who could be a core piece of a future championship team the Bucks spent on $122.5 million on players that will never play a role on such a team.
  • That $122.5 million includes the 4-year $52 million contract given to restricted free agent Miles Plumlee. Keep in mind Plumlee was in the same draft class as Henson: that meant the Bucks had committed $96 million to two centers that were backups at best. Fortunately, in another classic John Hammond trade, the Bucks were able to unload Plumlee and his atrocious contract to the Charlotte Hornets; the penalty is (likely) one more year of Spencer Hawes (and Hawes’ inexplicable minutes in a Game 2 loss to Toronto). The bigger penalty, though, is the same as all those other Hammond bad-sign-rescue-trades: the opportunity cost of using the money on someone better.
  • Finally, the Bucks traded Michael Carter-Williams for Tony Snell. It is tempting to place this trade in the same bucket as all the other “rescue” trades: it sure would be nice to have that Lakers pick. That said, I do think the original trade of Brandon Knight for Carter-Williams was justified for reasons I explained in this podcast; basically, the Bucks needed to trade Knight before restricted free agency, but the stadium vote was coming up and getting nothing more than a draft pick during a playoff run would have been too risky politically. It was the ultimate example of choosing the long-term over the short and medium-terms. Plus, Snell was a great addition, and a much better fit next to Giannis. He is a player that could be on that future championship team; unfortunately the Bucks didn’t extend Snell, so he will be a lot more expensive (although, after the Henson disaster, I can understand the hesitation).

There is a very clear yin and yang to last summer’s moves, something that was repeated throughout Hammond’s tenure: the decisions that were focused on the long-term (the draft picks and Snell) put the Bucks closer to contending for a title; the ones that were focused on the 2016 season (the free agency signings and the sold draft pick) put them further away.

At the time I am writing this, the Bucks have not yet announced Hammond’s successor, even though Justin Zanik was supposedly hired to be the GM-in-waiting (which was already pretty weird, to be honest). Honestly, I’m ok with the delay: this decision is probably the single most consequential one the Bucks’ new ownership group will make.

Antetokounmpo is a superstar. He is one of the seven or eight players that could conceivably lead his team to an NBA title, the most difficult challenge in team sports. It is possible that the current Bucks’ ownership will never have a better chance to win it all.

That said, Antetokounmpo isn’t ready yet: he is only 22 years old (seriously!), and is in many respects still learning how to play basketball. To be clear, this is amazing news: it is very reasonable to expect a 25 year-old Antetokounmpo to be a far better player than he is today — and today he is already good enough to be 2nd-team All-NBA.

What that means for the Bucks, though, is that every single decision must be made with the goal of building a championship team in 2020, not 2017. The nature of player development and the salary cap is that decisions made this year have effects many years down the line; to take a particularly egregious example, Larry Sanders will count for $1.86 million against the salary cap until 2022. Admittedly, that was a bit of a bad luck case (and Sanders was another great Hammond draft pick), but Teletovic is on the cap until 2019, and Henson and Dellevedova until 2020. And Patrick McCaw and Norman Powell are on the Warriors and Raptors, respectively.

The Bucks simply cannot afford to make similar mistakes going forward. 2020 vision would have meant not signing Dellevedova or Teletovic, and it would have meant acquiring more draft picks, not selling them. 2020 vision would have meant dumping centers after acquiring Maker, not re-signing another one. And 2020 vision would have meant paying Giannis every cent he deserves, because he is the only reason that vision is even a possibility.

I am a mere fan; I won’t pretend to know who the Bucks should draft or sign, or who should be their next general manager or coach going forward (although I obviously express my feelings on Twitter!). For what it’s worth, though, in my day job I write about technology, specifically the strategy and business of technology. That is, I don’t opine about product features or speeds and feeds; rather, I examine how company’s make decisions, the effects of culture, and the impact of business models.

That is the perspective I have attempted to take with this piece: I strongly urge the Bucks’ ownership group to approach the selection of general manager with 2020 vision. Don’t worry about winning the news cycle this week, or finding a big name looking to cash in sooner rather than later. Find someone who will build for 2020, for Giannis’ prime, and not a moment before. Make a focus on the long-term part of the culture.

And, I’d add, give that general manager authority over whom the Bucks’ coach is going forward. I give Jason Kidd a great deal of credit for the impressive player development up-and-down the roster; I am also critical of his schemes, rotations, and in-game adjustments. At some point between now and 2020 the Bucks will need to decide which particular coaching skill is the most important for a championship team, and I strongly believe it is the general manager who should be empowered to do that; after all, the reason they will have the job is because of their clear articulation of a 2020 vision.

NBA: Utah Jazz at Milwaukee Bucks Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports