clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Jon Horst: Milwaukee’s Unsung Basketball Hero

Did the Bucks actually (gulp) know what they were doing when they hired Horst two summers ago?

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

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

Eighteen months ago, the Milwaukee Bucks were at an organizational crossroads. Following the surprise departure of John Hammond, the Bucks were faced with the task of replacing their general manager on a tight deadline, and whoever got the job would have an even bigger mandate: build a contender around Giannis Antetokounmpo.

At the time, the Bucks were in a very different place. Jabari Parker prowled the baseline. Jason Kidd manned the sideline. If you listen closely, you can still hear the echoes of Greg Monroe yelling out, “And one!” Seriously, look at where things stood at the closing of the 2016-17 season:

The Bucks were only one year out from having signed Mirza Teletovic, Matthew Dellavedova, and Miles Plumlee to a combined $119,500,000 in salary. Sure, they also landed Giannis on a below-market extension that same summer, but it only takes one bad contract to hamstring a team’s cap sheet (much less three).

But the situation was not bleak! Hammond had departed, but there was a built-in succession plan: Justin Zanik, the heir apparent, was the odds-on favorite for the role. Of course, the Bucks ownership group of Marc Lasry, Wes Edens, and Jamie Dinan wanted to do their due diligence and give external candidates a shot. So the consultants consulted, the search firms searched, and the list was whittled down to two, and the other candidate (Denver’s Arturas Karnisovas) was snapped up by his home team, meaning Zanik was clear of any competition.

Enter Jon Horst. Or rather, Wes Edens (presumably). With only days before the 2017 NBA Draft and massive questions looming on the horizon, the team promoted a relative unknown and Bucks fans were...displeased.

Time to hire a search and rescue firm. –dregt.

Is there a scenario where Zanik doesn’t want the job? I can’t imagine why this would be the case, but is there some way he doesn’t want to/can’t do the job? This is so weird, I’m willing to consider the unlikely. –Ham Slamwich

I remember when I commented that weeks had passed with no potential replacements to Hammond, people told me ‘no this is how real organizations work, if you knew the candidates they weren’t doing their due diligence, etc. Well, that was wrong, the Bucks clearly don’t know what to order off of a menu of 1. –Fotiou C.K.

Well hopefully this isn’t Jason Kidd’s unofficial rise to decision making. At this point all we can do is hope for the best. –CrazyLarry

I think we are at the point where the Bucks wish they retained John Hammond –MarcusCharles

Again, it wasn’t just that the Bucks went with an unproven option, it was that they did so with two huge, career-defining, franchise-altering decisions that needed to be made: the futures of Jason Kidd and Jabari Parker, with the long-term presence of Giannis Antetokounmpo in the backs of everyone’s minds. And then they drafted D.J. Wilson, whose rookie season was the only thing less funny than the joke made about him by his own new head coach, and gave Tony Snell $46 million while using the stretch provision on Spencer Hawes in order to bing aboard DeAndre Liggins. Things were a bit dicey.

But then, some big things started to happen. Eric Bledsoe, who had been on the trade block for some time and tanked his own value, was acquired for Moose and a pair of picks. This was a big move because it gave the Bucks some speed at the guard position, moved a player who wasn’t adding value, while still protecting future flexibility, and all at the point in time where Bledsoe’s value was at its lowest. Alongside all of this, the Bucks were leading the way with managing two-way contracts and assignments to the G-League affiliate Wisconsin Herd, which provided a pipeline of prospects available for some limited contributions.

Then the first big decision came at possibly the most opportune time: after giving Kidd the axe, the Bucks won 9 of their next 11 games directly after the firing, after losing 4 of their previous 5 preceding the firing. The schedule in late January/early February was forgiving for a middling Eastern Conference team, and whether you believe it or not, it was widely acknowledged that Jon Horst was empowered to pull the trigger. Maybe it was coincidence, but maybe it was opportunism! Knowing that the team was set up for short-term success would make firing Kidd more palatable for any advocates left on the team, and that streak of success made it easy to rinse the taste out of our figurative mouths.

To date, Jason Kidd has not caught on with any NBA franchise in any capacity.

The rest of the season was a mild success, culminating in a seven-game first round playoff loss, and fans were generally excited about the much-cleaner hiring of Mike Budenholzer and the drafting of Donte DiVincenzo...but the other big question still loomed over everything. Did Jabari Parker, a face of the franchise and recent high draft pick, whose career was beset by bad luck injuries and worse defense, have a chance at sticking around? Was his talent worth betting on?

According to Horst, not one bit. After navigating the weeks of Parker’s restricted free agency by signing Ersan Ilyasova to a contract that screamed “backup power forward!”, the Bucks not only let Jabari walk, but they made it easier for him to sign a $40 million deal with the Chicago return for nothing at all. As Adam noted at the time,

Freeing Parker up was a good faith move by Jon Horst and company after their clear intentions to let Parker walk whether he signed an offer sheet or not. There were a number of sentiments expressed by both Parker’s agent Mark Bartelstein and the Bucks organization themselves to help illustrate this breakup is relatively amicable.

To date, Jabari Parker has struggled to maintain a place in the rotation for one of the very worst teams in the league, and his advanced metrics rank him in the bottom third of the NBA in most major categories.

Horst’s detractors argued that he should – could? – have gotten something for Parker, even a second round pick, in order to extract value from the move. And while that might be the case, it can also be argued that there was no market to leverage. Furthermore, if you consider opportunity cost and what the Bucks might have been unable to do as a result of a Parker trade returning a player, considering the team’s current success and current roster, what would you have wanted Horst to not be able to do?

At this point, let’s entertain the “Bike Mudenholzer Theory,” which contends that Horst is not the main decision-maker in the Bucks’ front office, but instead it’s Coach Bud, who happens to report to Horst in the Milwaukee organizational structure, and was hired by Horst back in May 2018. Under that theory, Bud deserves the credit for influencing the Bucks GM and getting “his guys,” players who he’s comfortable with and can execute his schemes.

For the moment, let’s say the theory is wrong. In less than a year, Horst and Budenholzer have successfully established a professional working relationship where one builds the roster, and the other coaches it. Even if Budenholzer had zero input on roster decisions, Horst appears to understand what Bud needs so well that he’s built a roster where twelve players can legitimately contribute, and the only current exceptions are DiVincenzo (a rookie), Wood (a G-League All Star who may not be a great fit as a role player), and Smith (a benchwarmer with a heart of gold).

But let’s assume for a moment that the theory is true. That means that Horst, the league’s youngest general manager, knows how to read a room. It means that he sees that, whether it’s a spoken or unspoken rule in the front office, Bud is the real decision-maker. He is over himself to the point that he’s willing to simply take Bud’s wishes as his commands and simply deliver up whatever player archetype (or individual, in the case of Ersan or George Hill) he desires. It, uh, seems to be working, based on the Bucks’ historic-levels of Net Rating and SRS, and Horst still has to run all the other components of the basketball operation.

But that fails to explain Horst’s smart moves that preceded Bud. Budenholzer was still toiling in a rebuild with the Atlanta Hawks when Horst landed Bledsoe for cheap, and when Jason Kidd was unceremoniously sent packing. No, with Jon Horst, the Bucks managed to land a general manager who can take lemons (see the 2016-17 roster above) and make some damn fine lemonade, all without breaking the bank. The Bucks have another crossroads facing them this summer, with the contract situations of Lopez, Bledsoe, Khris Middleton, and Malcolm Brogdon, all needing a resolution. But at this point, has Jon Horst given us enough reasons to believe in him so that we can stop doubting him?

After the press conference for the Jon Horst hire, Wes Edens was razzed for his shot at Philadelphia, making the claim that he prefers results over process. On its face, this line of thinking doesn’t inspire the most confidence in how the organization functions. But whether it was intentional or otherwise, the Bucks have ended up with a top-flight franchise, a generational superstar player, and a roster that can support a run at the NBA Finals while remaining somewhat flexible for the future. With results this good, maybe there was something to the process after all.