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Doing More With Less: Jon Horst’s EOTY Case

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Milwaukee’s clearest case for honorifics resides in the front office

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks-Media Day Milwaukee Journal Sentinel-USA T

Award season is nearly upon us, and the Milwaukee Bucks are deep in the mix for numerous accolades thanks to the massive success they’ve found on the court.

Giannis Antetokounmpo is a frontrunner for his first MVP at age 24, not to mention a dark horse candidacy for Defensive Player of the Year. Alongside Giannis stands Mike Budenholzer amid the race for Coach of the Year after molding disparate pieces into a hyper-modern offense and traditional (though supremely effective) defense. Both men are deserving of copious praise after playing large parts in Milwaukee’s transformation from 44-win has-been to league-topping force.

The handing out of hardware shouldn’t stop there, though. As the victories have piled up Bucks GM Jon Horst has not sat idly by: he schemed, researched, and transacted in lockstep with the season’s evolving raison d’être and has realized the dream of a Bucks team without equal in the NBA.

For finding the guy who could mend Milwaukee’s players into a contender, for rising from obscurity, for proving time and again to have a firm understanding of the peculiarities of NBA caponomics, for doing as much in two year’s time to secure the Bucks future as could be humanely imagined, Jon Horst (yes, that Jon Horst) should be named the NBA’s 2018-2019 Executive of the Year.

The Moves

To begin, let’s look at the list of big transactions Horst has headed since May 2018:

- Signed head coach Mike Budenholzer to a four-year contract

- Drafted Donte DiVincenzo with the 17th pick in the NBA Draft

- Renounced FA rights on Jabari Parker

- Signed Ersan Ilyasova to a three-year, $21 million deal (third year non-guaranteed), Brook Lopez to a one-year, $3.3 million deal, Pat Connaughton to a two-year, $3.36 million deal (second year partially-guaranteed), and Christian Wood to a two-year, $3.2 million deal (second year non-guaranteed)

-Traded a 2020 conditional second-round pick & cash to the Washington Wizards for Jodie Meeks and fewer protections on Washington’s 2020 second-round pick

- Exercised team-options for the 2019-2020 season on Thon Maker and DJ Wilson

-Traded Matthew Dellavedova, John Henson, Milwaukee’s 2021 second-round pick, and Milwaukee’s protected 2022 first-round pick for George Hill, Jason Smith, and Washington’s 2020 and 2021 second-round picks

-Traded Thon Maker, Jason Smith, Denver’s conditional 2019 second-round pick, Milwaukee’s 2020 second-round pick, and Washington’s 2020 & 2021 second-round picks for Nikola Mirotic

- Signed free agent Pau Gasol

- Extended the contract of Eric Bledsoe to a four-year, $70 million deal (fourth year partially-guaranteed)

What’s the first thing that jumps out at you when reading that list of moves?

How about how much there is? That level of activity belies a front office constantly tuning its approach to capitalize on the ever-shifting landscape of the NBA marketplace. When coach Budenholzer was hired there were the inevitable declarations of “championship or bust” teams are obligated to make. However, it would’ve been reasonable if Horst entered the season aiming for signs of improvement while letting the year function as a proving ground for the players around Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Then the Bucks started winning (a lot) and the timeline was rapidly shortened. To Horst’s credit, he managed to adjust while feeding multiple masters at once: He assembled a contender, kept the team out of the luxury tax, and gave himself as much cap flexibility in the coming offseason as could be reasonably imagined all while operating under the aegis of the league’s strangest ownership structure.

A Gradual Buildup

A successful Executive of the Year campaign doesn’t happen overnight. Often they’re the result of a years-long process that has finally borne fruit. Jon Horst is no exception to this trend since his hiring in June 2017.

The seeds of this Bucks squad were sown in the course of the 2017-2018 season and have only bloomed over the past few months. D.J. Wilson, Sterling Brown, and Eric Bledsoe each had plenty of questions to be asked of when brought to Milwaukee and all suffered from varying levels of doubt in the course of their initial campaign with the Bucks. Wilson was widely lambasted from the second Summer League began, Brown showed promise but never had a definitive breakthrough, and Bledsoe’s infamous Celtics series cast a shroud of concern over his viability as the team’s sure-fire second or third star.

Yet Horst held the course with each and has been rewarded by significant contributions from all three this year. While the playoff rotation is TBD, there’s no doubt the first trio of players brought in by Horst will be called to step up in a deep playoff run.

His case strengthens even more when you move beyond the players and set sights on the coaching staff. While Jason Kidd’s days in Milwaukee seemed numbered, it was unclear when ownership would finally cave and mercifully end the experience. How much credit Horst is due remains unknown, but the firing may not have happened until after the season if the newly minted GM hadn’t done a bit of convincing of Kidd’s friends in the owner’s suite. It was the first clear sign that our obscure executive may be more than meets the eye.

In the matter of six months Horst gradually recast himself from unproven compromise candidate paired with a control-hungry coach to ascendant decision-maker. Horst quickly pivoted that newfound authority into leading the team’s most important coaching search in decades.

Get it right and take one giant leap forwards. Falter and watch Giannis depart in a few years.

Right Place, Right Time, Right Coach

The search for Milwaukee’s new coach could’ve gone in numerous directions with names like Steve Clifford, Monty Williams, David Fizdale, David Blatt, Ettore Messina, Becky Hammon, and more at least superficially linked to the opening. Potential for chaos was present as it always is with the LED triumvirate, yet Horst led a seemingly professional process that brought the whims of ownership into lockstep with his vision and keeping in mind which candidate may flourish amid Giannis Antetokounmpo’s emergence.

Looking back it seems almost preordained that Mike Budenholzer would end up being Horst’s selection. He had the Gregg Popovich pedigree, held a Coach of the Year award, brought a track record of player development, a zeal for winning that matched that of Milwaukee’s star, and, crucially, had similar ideas on the type of basketball that would help the Bucks succeed.

Still, Horst needed to get the hiring across the line - a job made easier by the presence of Antetokounmpo but by no means still a given - and successfully got his man two weeks after publicly opening up the search. And what a hire it has proven to be! Budenholzer has morphed the roster in the NBA’s deadliest weapon and will be in the running for his second COTY award. Hindsight would tell us that Bud was the obvious pick, but Horst gets credit for having the prescience to cut through a forest of potentialities and nailing the right coach at the right time.

No Cap Space? No Problem

Now comes the meat of Horst’s argument: Improving the margins of the roster under the constraints of a capped-out team. He was crafty, he was patient, and he wasn’t afraid to pull the trigger when an opportunity presented itself.

It began in the offseason with his free agent signings: Connaughton, Lopez, Ilyasova, and Wood. Brook Lopez is the clear standout from that group given the paltry sum he’s being paid relative to his undeniable importance in greasing Milwaukee’s wheels on both ends of the court. Ersan and Pat haven’t been game-breaking influences, but they each stand as reliable depth and give Budenholzer options with which to adjust his on-court approach (i.e. Ersan as a small-ball center or Pat as a plug-and-play wing).

While Wood never broke into a regular rotation spot the philosophy behind his signing was sound: Sign young lottery tickets to team-friendly deals, see if you hit pay dirt, and don’t be afraid to move on if a better option presents itself in changing circumstances. Wood’s recent success with the New Orleans Pelicans shouldn’t be construed as a failure on Horst’s part; instead, look at it as a matter of fit (or lack thereof) in Milwaukee without veering away from the original rationale.

Horst didn’t stand pat with his offseason signings, though. Instead of resting on early-season laurels and keeping the roster stable Milwaukee’s GM worked to find destinations for onerous contracts in exchange for useful win-now pieces. The first breakthrough? Two onerous contracts off the books in exchange for veteran George Hill and his non-guaranteed salary for the 2019-2020 season. While the team undoubtedly lost a bit of locker room luster with the departure of Dellavedova and “Mr. Buck” John Henson, it gained needed help in the guard rotation and simultaneously freed up a chunk of potential cap space for the coming offseason.

Oh, and Jason Smith. The Bucks got Jason Smith.

That exchange came at the cost of making a relatively bare draft asset cupboard a little emptier, but the arrival of George combined with a dominant start to the season signaled Milwaukee’s move from playoff hopeful to “we’re going all in”. The loss of draft capital is always to be lamented, but Horst may have reached the conclusion that a low-end pick is worth two players off the bench (as the saying goes). You can only get so far sacrificing the future at the altar of winning it all here and now, but a success-starved team on the cusp of something far greater inherently deals with a calculus different from those rebuilding and years away from really competing.

But Horst didn’t stand pat there; instead, he bided his time for a chance to snap up one more contributor for an additional dash of versatility to a flourishing team. Like a pressure cooker with no release valve, the New Orleans Pelicans answered the call when they detonated upon the seas of Anthony Davis’s ambitions. A rickety season quickly fell to pieces and a fire sale was on. Like an apex dumpster diver, Horst was there picking at the scrap heap for anything useful. The result?

Nikola Mirotic.

A forward with shooting range, quick release, decent defensive instincts, and a nose for rebounds, Mirotic came to Milwaukee as the realization of everything Mirza Teletovic (and Ersan Ilyasova to a lesser extent) was supposed to be. Milwaukee had to cut bait on third-year center Thon Maker to consummate the deal, but in doing so the Bucks gained a more consistent player and the flexibility to decide whether Nikola is worth re-signing or letting walk and gaining even more dollars to work with in the off-season.

Those mid-season trades were reinforced by the pick-up of Pau Gasol on a vet minimum deal after his buyout with the San Antonio Spurs. In Pau, Milwaukee nabbed playoff experience, a big body, and a player reconciled with providing more value off the court than he probably would on it.

Finally, there was the extension reached with near-All-Star guard Eric Bledsoe. The one Achilles’ heel obvious to all in Milwaukee’s plans was the uncertainty surrounding upcoming free agency for a number of players. Chief among them was Bledsoe, the 29 year-old guard who readily adjusted to fit the needs of Budenholzer’s system on both ends of the court. While his counting stats are marginally down, his importance to Milwaukee’s nightly performance cannot be denied — where he goes defensively, the team tends to mirror, and when’s he’s on offensively the Bucks go from prolific scorers to incontestable menaces. Horst capitalized on the year’s momentum to secure the continued services of Bledsoe through the rest of his probable physical prime while leaving the team an out in the form of a partial-guarantee on the fourth year of the extension deal (all at a lower cap hit than if Eric became a UFA). That’s one giant moving piece put in it’s place before the market even opened up.

To summarize, Jon Horst entered the regular season with little visible flexibility, burdensome contracts, and a number of players who didn’t seamlessly fit Bud’s system. Just seven months later he collected two critical rotation pieces, tested veteran presence, and a rotation with few glaring holes from one through fifteen all while continuing to keep the team out of the dreaded luxury tax and retaining a free hand to actively decide its fate after a testing in the fires of the post-season with free agency decisions to be made on Khris Middleton, Malcolm Brogdon, and Brook Lopez

When you’ve already got the big pieces in place it could be easy to lapse into comfortable lethargy while convincing yourself that the curve of team growth will forever run in your favor. Horst did away with that possibility early and built a regular-season roster capable of the success necessary to give the top-end talent as many playoff advantages possible.

Three’s a Crowd

One final aspect of Horst’s EOTY candidacy needs inspection: Executing all of the above while serving not one, not two, but three “majority” owners. The trifecta of Wes Edens, Marc Lasry, and Jamie Dinan (S/O to the lingering Mike Fascitelli too) has been mystifying from the start with the center of power forever in a state of flux. That ambiguous arrangement was what helped lead to the hiring of Jason Kidd, the battle over who would succeed John Hammond as GM, and probably more behind the scenes. Lesser men have fallen victim to the demands of billionaires who fancy themselves “experts” on basketball, much less three with potentially competing viewpoints.

Yet Horst has somehow weathered the storm. Plenty of front office personnel will tell you that the differentiating factor between top-tier teams and basement dwellers is ownership; a different reading of that truism might show that the dividing line actually lies between those teams with GMs capable of getting their monied bosses to buy into a coherent vision and those condemned to, well, doing their all for a perennial eighth seed and first-round playoff exit.

Horst’s GM cohorts can certainly empathize with difficult-to-manage owners, and the fact that Milwaukee has held steady with triple the number of voices in the room indicates a level of political acumen laid latent within Horst. Maybe his emergence from the fiery wreck of the Hammond administration should’ve been a signal to all that he was a survivor first and foremost, or maybe he’s simply risen to a loftier occasion. Either way, a probable minefield seems to have vanished into thin air thus cementing a pillar of championship-winning teams: Stability at the top.

You Can Lead Horst to Voters, But You Can’t Make Them Vote

So, we finally reach the penultimate question: Will he or won’t he?

The EOTY award is unique in that the voting population is comprised of exclusively the league’s GMs. Winners in recent years have included Daryl Morey of the Houston Rockets, Bob Myers of Golden State (twice), R.C. Buford down in San Antonio (also twice), and Masai Ujiri with the Denver Nuggets. Each were given their due recognition after constructing rosters that exceeded expectations by a wide margin and made critical additions to the team (i.e. Kevin Durant and Chris Paul).

Horst certainly fits the bill for the former with the Bucks in serious contention to reach 60 wins for the first time in, well, a very long time, and the latter could be fulfilled between the Budenholzer hire and the bevy of smaller moves that have almost always complimented Milwaukee’s vision for superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo. Yes, the likes of Giannis and Khris Middleton were already in place when Horst arose to his position, but almost the entirety of the rest of the roster is the product of Horst’s tenure. A competitor is rarely built overnight, but for one to be fashioned from a weak hand in the course of two years given Milwaukee’s environment is indeed incredible.

Still, the vagaries of GM voting may go in another direction. Could another executive with a splashier trade or two on their resume a la Ujiri or Elton Brand in Philadelphia get the nod? What about a team finally pulling itself out of a death-spiral like the Brooklyn Nets led by Sean Marks? Or perhaps the high-flying Denver Nuggets and Tim Connelly will have done enough to deserve recognition?

Regardless of how the final tally turns out, that Jon Horst — a complete unknown as of two calendar years ago, a man better associated with his tenure as a delivery truck driver more than his basketball intuition, a supposed pawn in billionaire power games — is in the running at all is an achievement worthy of our applause. The Bucks seem to be just steps away from a reign of dominance, and we can rest a little easier knowing the fate of the team is in evidently capable hands.