The Milwaukee Bucks will close out the worst season in franchise history on Wednesday when they host the Atlanta Hawks.
General manager John Hammond, at the insistence of owner Herb Kohl, did not try to tank/rebuild in 2013-14. While many around the league looked at what Hammond assembled last offseason and didn’t see much, Kohl went into the season with a degree of optimism.
“We’ll see what happens, but we’re not playing for the lottery,” Kohl told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel in October.
As it turns out, the Bucks couldn’t have positioned themselves any better for the lottery if they actually had tried.
Hammond anointed center Larry Sanders as the franchise player moving forward, trading restricted free agent Brandon Jennings to the Detroit Pistons for Brandon Knight and Khris Middleton—two players who played major roles for Milwaukee this season—and center Viacheslav Kravtsov in July.
Kravtsov didn’t make it to training camp with the Bucks. Instead, he was shipped along with Ishmael Smith to the Phoenix Suns for former All-Star Caron Butler in late August, a move that didn’t work out so well for the Bucks.
Sanders went on to have a miserable year, breaking his thumb in an alleged fight at a Milwaukee night club in December and has been out since mid-February after sustaining a fracture of his right orbital bone.
The Bucks have played this game for awhile, spinning in place, adding, subtracting, all under the guise of trying to keep the team competitive enough to sneak into the playoffs.
But this isn’t how the NBA works. There are two models that teams stuck in the dreaded dead zone—too good to land a high pick in the lottery, too bad to actually compete for anything beyond a first-round ouster—can look to.
THE INDIANA MODEL
What Milwaukee has tried to do is to mimic how the Indiana Pacers rose to the top of the Eastern Conference this season. Indiana bobbed along as a middle-of-the-road club with the hope that with a good break or two, they could take that big step forward into the 50-win club and build from there.
George has grown from a freaky body with athletic upside to one of the premier small forwards in the NBA, even with a shooting slump that’s dogged him through the second half of the season.
West, meanwhile, emerged as the emotional leader of a young team while boosting his production back to near the levels he achieved as he earned All-Star nods as a New Orleans Hornet.
The Pacers’ emergence as a contender made them more attractive to free agents, maybe not superstars but rather the role players needed to deepen the bench, and they continued to add talent by trading for George Hill in 2012 and Luis Scola last summer.
But there’s one other approach that worked like a charm, so much so that there have been many admirers mimicking the plan, particularly in advance of the much-ballyhooed 2014 draft class.
THE OKLAHOMA CITY MODEL
This name is misleading, to a degree, because the rebuild of the Oklahoma City Thunder actually began in the franchise’s final season as the Seattle SuperSonics.
After finishing 31-51 and out of the playoffs in 2006-07, new general manager Sam Presti came to town with a detonator. The Sonics stripped themselves of both of their All-Star players, giving Rashard Lewis away to the Orlando Magic in a sign-and-trade that netted them a second-round pick and swapping Ray Allen to the Boston Celtics for the No. 5 pick in the 2007 draft.
But Seattle dropped to next-to-worst in the league in 2007-08, going 20-62. The lottery balls weren’t so kind in 2008, as they dropped to No. 4 overall, but drafted Russell Westbrook out of UCLA and then added Serge Ibaka with the 24th pick.
The relocated club went 23-59, fourth-worst in the league, in their inaugural campaign in Oklahoma, improved to third in the draft and took James Harden with that pick in 2009.
With the improving Durant and Westbrook at their core, the Thunder improved to 50 wins and made the playoffs in 2009-10, reached the conference finals in 2011 and advanced to the Finals in 2012.
WHICH WAY DO THE BUCKS GO?
The Bucks would appear to be poised to go the Oklahoma City direction, as they will have a 1-in-4 shot at the first pick in the draft lottery next month.
But in trying to make an ill-fated playoff run in 2013-14, Milwaukee has some contracts to contend with. The projected salary cap for 2014-15 is $62.1 million, with a luxury tax threshold projected to be roughly $75.7 million.
According to HoopsHype, the Bucks already have nearly $43 million on the books for 2014-15:
- O.J. Mayo ($8 million), Ersan Ilyasova ($7.9 million), Zaza Pachulia ($5.2 million), Ekpe Udoh ($5,962,375 qualifying offer), Carlos Delfino ($3.25 million), Larry Sanders ($11 million), Brandon Knight ($3,749,601), John Henson ($1,987,320), Giannis Antetokounmpo ($1,873,200).
The team also has a team option on Khris Middleton for $915,243 in 2014-15.
But that’s not all. Mayo’s $8 million per annum cap hit extends into 2015-16. Ilyasova is on the books through 2015-16 as well, with an $8.4 million club option for 2016-17. Sanders’ $11 million a year runs through 2017-18.
There are some nice pieces in place, but not necessarily pieces that should be featured as prominently as they have this season.
Brandon Knight has always struck me as a player who might just be most effective as the dangerous combo guard who is the No. 3 guy in the backcourt rotation, sort of a Jarrett Jack/Jeremy Lin type of player. But if Brandon Knight is your No. 1 option, there’s a real good chance you’re going to lose 66 or 67 games.
Nate Wolters could have a future, but again, he’s more equipped to be a solid No. 2 point guard, not a guy you lean on for 31 starts and 30-35 minutes a night. Middleton would be a good rotational piece for a contender, but not necessarily a starting 3 for a contender. But that transition could begin as Antetokounmpo matures into his frame and adds some bulk; the Greek Freak could be a devastating oversized small forward with the size of a 4 and the quicks of a 3 when he figures the NBA out.
The most intriguing big on the roster isn’t Sanders; rather, it’s John Henson, who has played effectively when given minutes. Henson is averaging 15 points, 9.7 rebounds, 2.3 blocks and 2.2 assists per 36 minutes on 53.7 percent shooting. Sanders’ may be a more dynamic rim protector (2.8 blocks per game in 2012-13), but Henson can be an adequate guy to protect the middle while providing much more of a polished offensive game.
With the ownership of the team in flux—the team is desperately seeking new investors and is working with a New York firm in that search—nothing is certain heading into the offseason.
General manager John Hammond was given a contract extension in January 2013 and the extended deal runs through the 2015-16 season. Coach Larry Drew is finishing his first year as head coach and has two years left on his contract.
Drew has a not so impressive piece of trivia on his side. This year’s Bucks squad is just the third in league history that never won back-to-back games in a season. The others were the 1986-87 Los Angeles Clippers and the 2004-05 Hawks. Drew was a point guard on that Clippers team. He was an assistant coach for that Hawks team. And now he’s head coach of the third team to accomplish the dubious feat.
There are no guarantees in the NBA. The teams that have tried to blow everything up and start over are not certain to follow in the footsteps of the Thunder.
But the Bucks have been in the NBA’s version of the Bermuda Triangle for a decade now, trying to assemble competitive squads and managing three playoff appearance while breaking the .500 mark one time.
It might be time to seriously consider a paradigm shift.