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Choppy Waters: Trade Rumors, Secret Lists, and the Bucks’ Latest Sideshow

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The Bucks’ performance on the hardwood has been forgettable, but the drama that follows them off the court is anything but.

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Milwaukee Bucks Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

The Milwaukee Bucks, a team widely expected to be on the rise, has found themselves aimlessly drifting through the final quarter of the season. At 37-34, they are firmly planted in the 8th seed of the Eastern Conference, and with a 5-9 record since the NBA All Star Break, their performance of late has been as inspirational as a middle school student council meeting.

Tucked into the team’s most recent disappointing stretch are a number of recent stories that, by themselves, might otherwise be mere blips on most fans’ radar. However, given the current state of the team and the seemingly-perpetual level of frustration and discontentment among the Bucks’ fanbase, these stories are met with intensity and vitriol instead of analysis and scrutiny. One could say that fans are going overboard, but the entire week is worth a closer look.

The first story comes to us from the New York Times (of all places), where veteran NBA writer Marc Stein tossed some chum into the water on Monday with some reporting on the Bucks’ alleged approach to filling the head coach role long-term:

There’s a belief out there that the Bucks’ ownership, heading into a new building next season, wants to make the biggest splash it can manage. It’s a greater given that there will be no shortage of external interest in the job, whatever holes this roster sports, thanks to the presence of the superstar forward Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Current TV analysts Jeff Van Gundy and Kevin McHale, league sources say, are among the marquee names that can already be found on the Bucks’ list of candidates. The former New Orleans coach Monty Williams and [David] Fizdale have also been mentioned as likely candidates — and word is that even former Louisville coach Rick Pitino could get an exploratory look here.

Few fans are heartbroken over the notion that head coach Joe Prunty might not be given the promotion that he seeks, but they are seasick about the names included on the reported list of candidates for his replacement. Fizdale might be the most palatable of the quintet, and while Williams would also bring an interesting dynamic, you’d be hard pressed to come up with a broad base of support for Van Gundy, McHale, or Pitino.

Naturally, once the news took Bucks Twitter by storm, a number of figures used the story as an opportunity to drag the Bucks online. This is, of course, the nature of fandom: once news breaks that you don’t like, social media enables you to voice your displeasure. After all, the reported list doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.

Things shifted into a higher gear once Alex Lasry, Senior Vice President of the Milwaukee Bucks and son of co-owner Marc Lasry, responded directly to fans on Twitter:

Anytime a representative of a pro sports team gets involved in an ongoing conversation with fans on social media, they either know what they want to get across or they fly off the handle. Lasry’s posts on Twitter on Tuesday were somewhere in-between, but it wasn’t just the coaching conversation that provoked his responses.

We rewind the clock to earlier on Tuesday, where Gery Woelful appeared on 105.7FM and reported that the Bucks were extremely close to trading Jabari Parker at the trade deadline (which was on February 8...), and that Parker was a near-lock to pull anchor and depart Milwaukee this summer, when he becomes a restricted free agent.

Naturally, Alex Lasry did not let this report pass without retort:

It’s often said that “where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” but that presupposes that there isn’t a smoke machine that can manufacture the symptoms of a controversy without the actual root cause. Parker has always been a mysterious figure for fans to decipher, and it’s entirely possible that he may want to be an alpha on his own team instead of coexisting with the Bucks’ current (and future) alpha in Giannis. However, Woelfel’s description as a Bucks “insider” runs counter to his reputation with many fans, as his writing and reporting comes across as very obviously influenced by his personal preferences and biases. That may be ironic, coming from the editor of a fan-driven website, but Gery’s occupation as a journalist comes with standards that his detractors believe his work does not stand up to. Regardless of the integrity of his work, though, the growing beef between Woelfel and Lasry spilled over onto Twitter:

There’s all sorts of pettiness on both sides here, but the mud-slinging attracted the attention of fans who, thanks to the Bucks’ lack of any on-court defense, were eager for a distraction. It came to general manager Jon Horst, who was traveling internationally, to call in to 105.7FM himself to try and set the record straight.

In his appearance on “THE BIG SHOW,” Horst dismissed much of the reporting from both Stein and Woelfel, stating that the rumor about Jabari Parker’s departure was “completely false,” and expressed concern about the inclusion of Parker’s family. Horst also provided a vote of confidence in coach Joe Prunty, clarifying that his title did not include the “interim” tag. Of course, denying reports like these is what you would expect from an NBA team, but for an NBA general manager to call out the reporter by name, live on the air, is notable.

Why does any of this matter? What’s the point of paying attention to the spats between team representatives and members of the media, particularly when the disputes are focused on topics that can’t (or won’t) be touched for weeks, if not months?

In my opinion, our favorite alumni Eric Nehm and Frank Madden covered the main gist pretty well on Wednesday’s episode of Locked on Bucks, particularly as it relates to the team’s pending search for a head coach. Fans need to consistently keep in mind the sources of rumors, and avoid equating “rumor” with “fact.”

In the case of Marc Stein’s now-infamous list, there is equal reason to believe that the list came from the Milwaukee Bucks’ front office, as there is to believe that the list was, in part, provided by the agent(s) of one of the involved coaches, who could be working to drum up interest in their client. Likewise, and perhaps more importantly, for Gery Woelfel’s claim that Jabari Parker has one foot out the door, fans need to consider that the story told to Woelfel could have been Parker’s agent, in an attempt to gain leverage, or another party entirely unrelated to the Bucks.

But even with tempering our responses to news like this, and subjecting each new item with renewed scrutiny, why does this new series of sideshow acts get Bucks fans riled up? The answer is, as it always has been, based on the results. The Bucks continue to fall short of expectations this season, made all the worse by the presence of a top-5 MVP candidate in Giannis. The team’s play has been lackadaisical at times, and lacks the urgency that one might expect from a team that wants to take itself seriously in the playoffs.

And the worst part? None of it is changing this season. To again paraphrase our good friend Eric Nehm, Jason Kidd’s firing only removed Jason Kidd from the Bucks’ equation. The supporting staff remains, as do the schemes. The Bucks’ defense, as offensive as it has been, cannot be remodeled, but must be rebuilt after a complete teardown. The offense is indefensibly unimaginative, even with the talent that is on the roster. Those things won’t change until the offseason, even if they couldn’t be changed quickly enough.

That sense of being “in limbo” is why these things get blown out of their assumed proportions. The Bucks were supposed to be good, currently aren’t good, and these stories are hard to reconcile with the team’s stated desire to become good. If anything, many fans feel like these stories aren’t being blown up enough! Parker departing Milwaukee for nothing would be a sub-optimal outcome. Hiring Kevin McHale because he’s a big name that would make a big splash is hard to give high marks to, given the number of possible alternatives. So even if it is too early to talk about this stuff...what else are fans going to focus on?

Only one thing is certain: smooth sailing is the last thing to expect for the rest of the Milwaukee Bucks’ season.