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Riding an Unknown Horst

A year in, what do Bucks fans really know about Jon Horst?

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NBA: Milwaukee Bucks-Press Conference Milwaukee Journal Sentinel-USA TODAY Sports

Draft night came and the Bucks got their man.

As was typical, reaction seemed to break down along old fault lines, the pessimistic true fans and the optimistic old believers.

The true fans know this is the same old Bucks, reaching in the middle of the first when DiVincenzo’s stock is highest. Flying high on a strong combine after dropping the cherry on Villanova’s championship sundae, a guy like DiVincenzo can’t help but disappoint. He couldn’t even make it off the bench in college. How many millions is a good college run worth?

The old believers see that DiVincenzo could be a stud. Folks in the know love Big Ragu. Move over Luka, you’re not the only guard with the pedigree of a champion. He will know his role innately, hit outside shots without hesitation, get on his man like a tailor with bills to pay and never step on Giannis’ toes. All aboard the contention train.

If it feels rigid and intolerable, with all the hallmarks of ideological debate, it should. All belief in the future triumphs or failures of the Bucks has to be based on faith now, because we do not know what we can or even should be. The Bucks are our team and Giannis is their prophet, but beyond that little else is known. With the departure of Sean Sweeney and front office turnover, the team seems to have shed the last connective tissue to the bad old days of Boss Hammond and King Kidd.

One figure from that era remains, though, and he’s calling all the shots. The issue for fans is that Jon Horst remains an enigma going into one of the biggest summers in Bucks history.

Who is Jon Horst?

Though he has been with the organization since 2008, Jon Horst seemed to materialize from the ether last June in order to fill the vacant general manager position. With no prior resume, we can only judge him by his record in Milwaukee.

The first week on the job Horst jumped into the NBA draft. Though little can be drawn from a major decision made with no prep time, analysis at the time tended to favor the idea that drafting DJ Wilson pegged Horst as a ‘Hammond Guy’, though it’s just as likely that Wilson was snagged in a swirl of momentum from the prior regime.

Lanky Smoove has proven to be a classic boom/bust stringbean in the Hammond mold. I like to think of executive strategy as coming from different orchards of insight. The continued success of franchises means their up-and-comers get poached constantly, and so successful basketball philosophies grow and spread.

The most prominent front office orchard stems from the two decades of success the Spurs had with the Duncan-Pop connection, but the new era has left room for competing growth. Golden State is certain to gain influence, as is the hard data-driven Morey school. Hammond’s orchard is a mix of the old and new school, influenced by Hammond’s time putting together a contender with Joe Dumars in Detroit. Jon Horst spent a decade in the shade of John Hammond, though he’s young enough that his own philosophy might morph as he grows on his own.

Horst’s biggest transaction as a GM was the Eric Bledsoe trade. Though Bledsoe’s fit in the old system was questionable at best, the trade garnered value from a disappearing asset. The fact that we will lose a first eventually does bother me, as green GMs tend to mortgage the future for the now, but it was still a strong move in immediate hindsight. It will be interesting to see how Bledsoe fits in to the new system, if he survives the summer.

The removal of Jason Kidd was stunning for many reasons. Horst managed something many Bucks fans thought impossible, certainly in that moment, and suddenly the murky vision of the front office was crystal clear. This is Jon Horst’s team and he isn’t going to tolerate the same old excuses.

In Joe Prunty and Mike Budenholzer, Horst has favored the stewardship of veteran coaches from the Popovich school. He seems drawn to a steady, mature coach to balance out his weaknesses as a newbie, though it remains unclear how much say Budenholzer will have in future decisions. Horst suggests that Bud will be involved in important moves, but with a committee of owners to okay any given move the team will be at a disadvantage if the process is not streamlined wherever possible.

A consequence of failure to streamline properly can be leaks. While the news that the Bucks failed to eke out maximum value from their picks is disappointing, we should not blame the Bucks for ESPN’s inability to run a tight ship. Woj’s wild ride through the Thesaurus stopped being awesome when it disrupted the economy. What’s another word for gag order?

What can we know about our GM?

Jon Horst does run a pretty tight ship, and that’s part of the reason for all the mystery. Moves happen without too many ripples, and the Bucks switching over to private workouts prior to this year’s draft only occludes their process further. In the era where any extra knowledge is seen as the ultimate advantage, this is encouraging, if frustrating from a fan perspective. Proprietary is a word we will be hearing a lot in press conferences to come.

Horst is a sentimentalist. We know that because he signed Brandon Jennings to a multiyear contract. There was a sparkle in his eye when he announced the signing that suggested the move was not entirely driven by common sense. To fans this can be an asset. It functions as marketing to the nostalgic and sometimes yields a surprise home run. You only have so many contracts to go around though, and the moment these moves hit real money they stop being cute. Brandon Jennings will be paid two million dollars next year by the Milwaukee Bucks.

From what I can tell, Horst is an average GM with room to grow. He has more experience than his record suggests, and if we had infinite time I have every confidence he has the potential to become a great GM. Speaking of him like a prospect, his floor is low but his ceiling is high. The issue is that he does not have time to learn the job as his moves this summer will define the most important era in Bucks history.

Jabari Parker has a convoluted history as a Buck for one so young. It is so hard to know what he could be in Budenholzer’s system. Will Horst give in to sentimentality by signing Jabari to an absurd multiyear deal? Will he manage another decisive blockbuster this July? Or will the Bucks give in to complacency and watch another asset walk out the door for nothing?

We could be more than contenders. We could become the team that unseats Golden State. We could be That Team. Those guys won’t have to buy a drink in their lives. We could also become The Team That Lost Giannis. The full spectrum of failure and success and the foundation has to be set this year. That’s a lot to put on the shoulders of a guy that is still learning the job.