With just one game remaining in February for the Milwaukee Bucks, this seems like a good time to reflect on what transpired this month.
Here are my thoughts on some issues that surrounded the team and the impact they will have in March, April and beyond.
1. Trading Gary Neal was bound to happen
The verbal exchange with teammate Larry Sanders after a loss to the Phoenix Suns on Jan. 4 seemed to mark the beginning of the end of Neal’s time in Milwaukee. Perhaps better known for telling Sanders to “try earning his money” than anything he did on the court this season, Neal was essentially banished from the playing rotation following the incident.
This turn of events was somewhat surprising, especially because Neal spent his first three seasons with the San Antonio Spurs, playing for coach Gregg Popovich and alongside Tim Duncan – one of the NBA’s model citizens.
The 29-year-old shooting guard who was signed to a two-year, $6.5 million contract in July lasted barely half a season with the Bucks. He was actually averaging a career-best 10 points per game at the time of the trade, but Neal was shooting a career-low 39 percent from the field and appeared in only 30 of a possible 53 games.
Due to injuries up and down the roster and the need to showcase him for a trade, the Bucks had very little choice but to give Neal some extended minutes. On Feb. 10 and 12, Neal scored 17 and 18 points respectively on a combined 14-for-23 field goals – showing glimpses of what could have been.
However, it was too little too late, mainly because Neal’s usefulness to the Bucks expired when their hopes of making a playoff run went out the window after their 3-13 start.
Neal was dealt to the Charlotte Bobcats and will once again have a chance to make an impact for a playoff-bound team, although he has not yet made his debut.
Whatever it takes to keep Neal happy apparently wasn’t worth the hassle for the Bucks.
2. The pressure to win has disappeared
If the wheels didn’t completely fall off in January, they at least buckled a little bit under the pressure of winning just one game in 15 tries. It was during this time that management officially waved the white flag and decided that it was time for winning to take a backseat to player development and draft positioning.
This change in direction did not sit well with some of the team’s veteran additions – Neal, O.J. Mayo, and Milwaukee-area native Caron Butler. For a while, they even lobbied coach Larry Drew for increased roles, consistent minutes and a playing system that favored winning over letting the likes of John Henson and Giannis Antetokounmpo learn on the fly.
Mayo only recently returned to the lineup after missing 10 games due to an illness and subsequent conditioning issues and Butler has been quiet since voicing his frustrations over the direction of the team. Neal has obviously moved on.
Furthermore, any pressure that the veterans put on coach Drew to win games has disappeared and the atmosphere has settled into a feeling of comfort and believing that better days are ahead.
When winning becomes important again, it will be a major culture shock to everyone on the team, including the coach.
3. Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good
Even Bucks general manager John Hammond has admitted that winning isn’t a priority this season, much to the delight of fans desperate for an honest and proper rebuild.
Tanking is a sensitive issue and one that continues to raise debate about the format of the draft, but that is not a concern for the Bucks right now.
Their main priority now is to get to the front of the line for a draft class that may be the best since 2003, when LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade were all selected in the top five.
The Bucks have only won 11 games this season and have yet to string together consecutive victories.
Occasions like the 130-110 clubbing of the Philadelphia 76ers on Monday are fun to watch and certainly do wonders for team morale, but they also make for nervous moments. The worst thing for the Bucks right now would be to start winning games and make a late-season push out of the basement and into mediocrity.
The Bucks have some competition eyeing their league-worst 11-45 record, so this is not the right time to wake up and finish the season strong.
4. Roster questions will linger into the offseason
The main issue here will be what to do with Larry Sanders. If the Bucks had any intention of moving him before the deadline, the plan was likely derailed by the fact that their 6’11” center has been injured for most of the season.
Sanders signed a four-year, $44 million extension on the strength of his breakout performance in 2012-13, but it’s fair to say that he has not delivered this season.
The 25-year-old showed glimpses of what he could do in early February before returning to the sidelines again (indefinitely) after suffering a fractured orbital bone against the Houston Rockets on Feb. 8.
For a player who was deemed to be a big part of the future, the Bucks have a tough decision to make. It will make life a lot easier if the Bucks find out they can rely on a willing, healthy and productive Sanders to be a core piece of the rebuild.
5. There are reasons for optimism
An obvious upside to all of this, aside from the foregone conclusion of securing a top three pick, is that there have been some positive signs in the area of player development.
The losses will continue to pile up and there will likely be some more bumps in the road, but as the season moves into the home stretch, we may finally be seeing something that is starting to resemble a team and not just a collection of individuals.