For much of this offseason, I've abstained from involving myself with the endless eyesore that was the Bucks public perception nosediving after their GM search. However, covering my ears, shutting my eyes and whispering Giannis over and over isn't likely to solve any lingering anxiety over this franchise’s impending direction. Then, the dribble of details from Zach Lowe and Brian Windhorst’s article on ESPN about the aforementioned GM search cast a Freakish-sized shadow over the organization’s ability to confidently handle the years ahead and craft a contender around Giannis Antetokounmpo.
To many who have followed the GM proceedings intimately (sadly, most of us) this article wasn't necessarily a bombshell so much as a peppering of toxic chemicals over a blast site. Elevating this search to such hyperbole is probably unfair, and I’ve generally come down on the “shrugged shoulder” side of this whole thing. Giannis still remains by far the most important part of this equation, and he’s locked up on a below-rate deal, but many a superstar’s tenure has been soiled by murky leadership. As such, trepidation on the part of Bucks’ fans is warranted.
When the triumvirate of Edens, Lasry and Dinan first purchased the team, their entrance seemed to signal new beginnings, loftier goals, the sort of stuff at odds with the pall of mediocrity that had settled in during Kohl’s tenure. They moved swiftly to rectify the dearth of Bucks press both in the league and within the state. Despite their loud first move, the unsavory hiring process of Jason Kidd, they rebounded with a slew of good press. They got a new arena passed, touting it as an entertainment hub for downtown Milwaukee. They had a boutique design firm recreate the entire franchise’s look, shoveling fresh merchandise into stores where you were more likely to see purple from Vikings shirts than Bucks garb. Giannis fully bloomed, and you couldn’t start Googling “NBA best core” without the search engine autofinishing it and Milwaukee’s name flashing there. Needless to say, it was difficult to say the optics of their franchise weren’t aligned with their ultimate goals.
Fans rightfully argued whether their moves were taking them to their ultimate destination though. Even as things turned up heads from a business sense, the outcome of their basketball decisions felt more like flips of the coin. Which, to be fair, is often the case. The NBA is a series of risks, calculated and impulsive, that can backfire or work in your favor at any time. Golden State nearly traded for Kevin Love. Houston almost signed Chandler Parsons and Chris Bosh. Still, even as the narrative, trademarks and almost entire roster changed in Milwaukee since new ownership took over, squinting one’s eyes revels an organization in an eerily similar spot they’ve been for years sans the fact they have a superstar (if it feels better, just shut your eyes and think of Giannis now).
Milwaukee’s 2016 free agency spending spree put them in a bind only one year later, and none of their signings brought appreciable value to the team. Mirza is fine, Delly was below average, Henson (while not a 2016 free agent) is dead weight. The Bucks are still carrying the same sort of frustratingly heavy carrion near the bottom of the roster they have for years, once more the product of mistaken free agency signings. Not only has it tied up their cap, but Lowe unsurprisingly mentioned Milwaukee among the list of people hoping to sell off pieces (and by extension including assets) to help avoid the tax. Lowe also discusses that Horst is known as a salary cap guru, but if he was truly Hammond’s right hand man, wouldn’t this have been a problem he’d have foreseen far before the buck started stopping with him? Instead of fresh beginnings, Horst will start his tenure digging himself out of a hole he’s willingly occupied with Hammond and co. for the past decade.
Horst is someone I’m willing to give plenty of leeway initially, particularly given his near complete anonymity to this point. As both Mitchell and Greg have pointed out in these digital annals before though, his first draft moves certainly didn’t seem like him putting his own stamp on things. Lowe and Windhorst’s reporting that Horst was also apparently already tabbed for the job despite not knowing he was a candidate feels entirely at odds with the owners penchant for bringing in diverse, novel basketball minds. Plus, the fact they wanted a protege of the man they’d essentially shown the door feels stranger still. This felt telling from the ESPN article:
“Hammond's departure cleared the decks for Zanik. Some in Milwaukee's ownership group were relieved at the clarity. Zanik's ascension would represent a fresh start and fresh ideas, as well.”
Fresh ideas. That has seemed like the mantra these owners have espoused, both overtly and implied, within the decisions and statements they’ve made. So to double back on that philosophy when your franchise has one of the most refreshing stars in the league feels peculiar. Still, I can see plenty of defensible reasons for hiring Horst. He’s apparently thought of highly, he knows more about the core of this roster than any outside candidate would, and you would hopefully trust him to use the available resources to decide who’s right to build around, and who should get the boot.
What I can’t shake, is the sensation that a fractured ownership group could undermine this franchise in the same way Herb Kohl reportedly forced John Hammond’s hand repeatedly to the trade machine to chase that sweet 8-seed high. Now, there have been almost no reports that Edens, Lasry or Dinan have seemed to steer the franchise into any particular direction. They haven’t forced win-now moves, and have generally just turned the crank and let the pieces move as they will. Still, there are subtle indications of their imprint, like the uncertainty surrounding Kidd’s involvement in personnel decisions, the clear indication they wanted to move on from Hammond and now, this bizarre GM search.
Typically, owners who rarely meddle would be a good thing, but their primary moves to this point have been placing people in power who can decide the fate of the franchise. Erring can turn Milwaukee into the drowning New Orleans Pelicans in a flash. Creating a clear sense of empowerment, and placing someone into that position with full autonomy is imperative. Wes Edens talked at Horst’s introductory press conference about the organization’s penchant for surveying many different opinions for decisions since they have a wealth of basketball knowledge to draw from. That sounds like a forward-thinking, smart philosophy. Many of the best leaders in the league do the same thing, most notably Steve Kerr when he listened to Nick U’Ren, one of his coaching staff members who suggested he start Andre Iguodala in the 2015 finals. Even then though, it’s clear who’s in charge. Here, I’m not entirely sure, despite the owners (unanimously of course) backing him for the job. When Herb Kohl still owned the team, his marionette strings were a smidge too visible. I haven’t thought that was the case with this ownership group to this point, but Horst’s lack of experience, the reporting they’re bringing in a veteran official to work alongside him and, while this may be unfair, his “modest” $500,000 salary for a lead decision maker all point to someone that makes me queasy thinking he’ll have the type of autonomy necessary to shape the roster the way it needs going forward.
Even now, there are reports Milwaukee is ready to sign Tony Snell to a deal the second the clock strikes 12:01 PM EST. I would agree with that move, Snell is young and has room to grow in Milwaukee’s system. But it still illustrates sticking with the status quo for a player who had one career year in Milwaukee who’s now getting paid relatively handsomely for it. At least that’s never burned the Bucks before...
Mitchell already touched on the issues of one decision maker in the ownership group being on a pedestal compared to the other two. The fact that will apparently rotate to Lasry in two years is even more interesting, and the group always wanting to work in unanimity is commendable. But it also feels like a fitting metaphor for potentially the same muddled decision making process that’s been happening in Milwaukee for some time. Who knows if they reached the right decision here. No one, to be honest, and we probably won’t know for a few years. What’s clear is that this ownership group has had its hand in two important decisions for this organization thus far, and both have become PR nightmares. Perhaps chocking the first one up to inexperience was the wrong move.
The most frustrating part of seeing these marginal issues reflect past Bucks missteps is that they’re finally positioned to step forward with a superstar. Giannis is all that matters, and ownership has to hope they’ve hired the right man for the job. If not, well, we’re Bucks fans. What’s more familiar than disappointment and dashed expectations?