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Three Strikes: The Struggles of Milwaukee’s Ownership Triumvirate

Basketball might be a business, but how well are the Milwaukee Bucks actually handling their business?

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks-Media Day Mike De Sisti-USA TODAY Sports

When Wes Edens and Marc Lasry bought the Milwaukee Bucks from Senator Herb Kohl at the close of the 2013-14 season, a sense of cautious optimism arose. An infusion of new viewpoints after decades of stagnation from the top down appealed to a dormant and frustrated fan base, as long as these two New York hedge fund managers (joined later by a third, Jamie Dinan) would cement the team’s future in Milwaukee. They did.

Edens and Lasry made immediate pushes to prove to an always-skeptical fan base that they were there to not only keep the Bucks in Milwaukee, but make them the Milwaukee Bucks again. No more irrelevance buried under the feet of Wisconsin snow that covers the lakeshore every year. No more afterthought for city-dwellers and suburbanites deciding what to do on a chilly February night. This team would elbow their way back into the city’s sports conscience, something the Brewers had pulled off a decade earlier and the Packers have managed for a generation. This would be a three-team town again.

The new arena came together with lightning speed, aided by a slew of Milwaukee-based minority owners brought in shortly after the ownership switch and an unfortunately rare bipartisan push in Madison. A practice facility next door came with it, and a bevy of grass roots humanitarian and charitable programs followed. A new logo, prepared with the city and state in mind with every detail, all while embracing the franchise’s long forgotten past with throwback nights and a game at the old MECCA. These New Yorkers tapped in to a sleeping giant of a fan base by actually putting in the effort to find it again.

The business of the Milwaukee Bucks has never been more prosperous. The ownership group recognized a booming NBA product and a burgeoning Milwaukee downtown and brought the two together in a multitude of ways. Nearly every business decision that has been made has been a winner. But the basketball decisions? Hoo boy…

This ownership group has made three pivotal decisions regarding the on-floor product in their tenure – the hiring of Jason Kidd, the promotion of Jon Horst, and the firing of Jason Kidd – and none of the three have been executed with any semblance of cohesion.

A chaotic few days brought in Jason Kidd from Brooklyn, a close friend of Lasry, in the summer of 2014, all while Larry Drew was still under employ as head coach. Once Kidd took his spot, he influenced many of the roster decisions, and the always amenable general manager John Hammond obliged with his new co-worker.

Last summer, Hammond took the GM position in Orlando, and the three person ownership team spent weeks in contentious disagreement over who to bring in. Lasry, Dinan and Kidd all signed off on Justin Zanik, who joined the club the year prior with the intention of replacing Hammond, but Edens wouldn’t agree. After much infighting, Edens won out, promoting Jon Horst from the basketball operations office and making him the unlikely new GM.

The introductory Horst press conference (featuring only Edens) housed the now-infamous line from Edens, taking an out-of-left-field dig at the Philadelphia 76ers, saying “...guys in Philly want to talk about the process, I’d rather talk about the results...”. Fast-forward to last Saturday, when the Bucks were embarrassed in Philly with a hideous fourth quarter, and the underachieving Bucks had become a national punchline.

Since Sunday is a day of rest, Horst made the call to fire Kidd on Monday, but only after morning shoot around and mere hours before hosting the Suns. All three owners allowed Horst to pull the trigger, a point made with the subtlety of an anvil in a washing machine in Horst’s official statement. Later, we’d find out that this decision came together rather quickly, which seems insanely reckless. That would help explain why the entire roster knew about the firing before Kidd, and why Giannis Antetokounmpo called him to make an effort to save his job prior to Kidd knowing he no longer had it.

What could have possibly changed in the ownership’s mind from Saturday’s humbling loss in Philly to Monday afternoon? All the post game excuses about lack of energy and effort and the hypocrisies of unattainable expectations for a *clears throat*... young team... weren’t published Monday morning. The stubborn offensive structure and the flawed defensive scheme didn’t suddenly implode over the weekend. The mountain of evidence against Kidd had been there for weeks. Or did the fallout from the loss anger Edens so much that the dominoes started falling?

The two decisions regarding Kidd (hiring and firing) were the correct decisions to make in a vacuum, but handled exceptionally poorly. Larry Drew’s days needed to be up after a ghastly ‘13-‘14 season, and whether or not you agreed with Kidd being the replacement, you likely were ready for Drew to no longer patrol the sidelines in Milwaukee. Additionally, there was no more doubt that Kidd needed to follow suit this week…but both men deserved a simpler and calmer exit.

The jury is still out on whether promoting Horst was the correct call (the Bledsoe trade was an encouraging first chapter), but even if this does wind upbringing the Bucks to the promised land, the soap opera that led to it should have been avoided.

All of this dysfunction points to one thing… the Bucks are owned by businessmen, not men in the business of basketball. These three have no doubt hired, fired, shuffled, promoted and demoted people in similar ways to this in their other ventures. The world of hedge funds was not built on playing nice. Neither is basketball, to be fair, but parameters exist within this sport that owners oblige by. You don’t hire a coach when you have one already. You don’t wait to tell a coach he’s been fired after you tell his team.

On top of this… who is in control of this team? When Edens and Lasry purchased the club, the two said they are partners and will work as partners, as they have in previous ventures. Then Lasry brought in his good friend to coach the team. Was Edens’ denial of Justin Zanik his counter to that move? We know that month-long debacle fractured the group in some capacity, but Edens now seemed to seize the reins over Lasry and the more recently-added Dinan. And now this move, which eventually got all three owners on board, but wedging the firing in between a practice and a game reeks of someone dragging their feet, or simply not being within reach to consult with first. You would understand if Lasry was reluctant on firing his friend and needed convincing, but you would also believe he would make sure his friend was notified of his schedule opening before everyone else found out (I mean… everyone…). Or maybe their relationship soured more than we have realized over the last six months when they were in sync with who the new general manager should be.

Where does the relationship between Wes Edens and Marc Lasry sit now? What is Jamie Dinan’s impact on the power structure? Are three people jockeying for control of this team, and has Horst aligned himself with one of the one he feels will win out? Are they actually in alignment, as they had advertised originally? Whatever the current hierarchy is, the Bucks certainly aren’t being run in the harmonious manner we were told about in the spring of 2014.

There is no denying that these owners have been a masterclass on reviving a dormant brand and making it thrive. But in three separate occasions, they’ve shown their inexperience in how a basketball business functions. Chaos like this may be how the stock market operates, but not how an NBA franchise should be managed. And with a franchise-altering decision looming in the coming months, these three need to get on the same page. So far, it feels like everyone is reading a different book.