Photo: Flickr/Nicholas Noyes
Life is full of choices. Some small like what to have for lunch and others far more consequential. I mean, when is the last time a turkey sandwich ruined your day? Probably never, I’m guessing. Typically, you would be just as happy with the ham or roast beef as you would with the turkey. It’s nothing on par with signing a lease, changing careers, buying a car or anything else that takes serious consideration. And you also typically have multiple choices to make with big decisions, which is not always easy.
Same goes for NBA teams and the route they choose to take after evaluating their team following a season. If you think you’re missing the few essential pieces to making a championship run or feel you still have another shot at it, you acquire players past their rookie contracts that can help you immediately. On the other hand, if you feel your glory days are behind you and it’s time to look towards the future, you identify your franchise cornerstones, add picks, expend the long-term veteran contracts you need to and add additional vets on short-term deals to maintain your salary cap flexibility.
The cold hard truth: even if you select either of those routes, there is still no guarantee that you will be successful. You need luck. You need the proper personnel in place. You also need to put the right combinations of players together. And when you do all that you need to get favorable matchups in the playoffs and hope the ligaments in your star player’s knee holds up.
In short, building a good basketball team is hard. It would be so much easier if you could just throw a bunch of money at an assortment of talented players and just skip right ahead to the parade planning, but that’s just not how it works.
Since it’s such a difficult decision, it’s hard to fault a team like the Bucks for the decisions they’ve made this offseason. They won 38 games this past season, good enough for a four game “Thanks for Coming!” sweep at the hands of the Miami Heat in the first round. Sure, they still made the playoffs but they were facing a crossroads with prominent rotation players like Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis expiring with several young players on the roster as well. When you consider general manager John Hammonds’ Bucks teams have won 34-46-35-31-38 games in his tenure that should have been an indicator that it may be time to focus on player development rather than winning and first round exits.
Aside from the draft, the Bucks appeared to be headed into July looking to finally blow it all up after years as a fringe playoff team. Not only did they select two projects in addition to having John Henson, Ersan Ilyasova, Ekpe Udoh and Larry Sanders on the roster, but they moved JJ Redick in a three-team trade for two 2nd round picks and a trade exception. Shortly after that they dealt for the expiring contract of Luke Ridnour to boost their point guard depth and we thought we had the Bucks all figured out.
Following the Bucks’ trade of Luc Mbah a Moute for a second round pick, it really seemed that the Bucks were collecting assets in the form of draft picks (a form of currency in today’s NBA that is ever-growing in it’s value because of the new CBA) and promising young players. Despite a brief flirtation with Jeff Teague, Milwaukee seemed to be focusing on player development and maintaining cap flexibility for the future.
Then things got interesting. They brought in OJ Mayo in free agency. A few days later they brought in veterans Carlos Delfino and Zaza Pachulia. Finally, they added San Antonio free agent Gary Neal and the team that once looked like they were rebuilding looked as if they were looking to make another exhilarating run to the 8th seed. At least these players they signed were all veteran guards whose minutes wouldn’t stifle a developing player’s growth because the Bucks don’t have any. The same can’t be said for Pachulia who will be sharing frontcourt minutes in the frontcourt with Henson, Udoh, Ilyasova and Sanders.
Still, this wasn’t the end of the world and a very manageable situation. These moves seemed to make it unlikely that they would bring Jennings back, which is fine because his fit next to Mayo doesn’t seem like a great one on paper. With Pachulia, they have a solid rotation, and even though he may cut into some of the young players’ minutes, having a veteran could help the Bucks through their young frontcourt’s growing pains. Besides, waiving Gustavo Ayon a few days prior made this less of a cluster-you-know-what than it was before.
Alright, so the Bucks had added a few veterans in addition to their blossoming former lottery picks while gaining a few extra picks along the way. They weren’t totally bottoming out despite the strong draft coming next June but they will still likely receive a good pick nonetheless, and the veterans they added are on short-term contracts that will allow that to maintain cap flexibility. They just had to get the Brandon Jennings situation resolved and they’re all set.
Well, unless you sign and trade him to the Pistons for Brandon Knight (another combo guard and recent lottery pick) and 2013 rookies Khris Middleton and Viachevslav Kravstov. Don’t get me wrong — Knight is a great get in exchange for Jennings — but now they have all of these prospects surrounding these established players for a team that would be lucky to win 40 games next season.
You can’t rebuild and win at the same time when you’re a team like the Bucks. This isn’t like the Spurs where they retool on the fly by plugging in different role players next to their stars and win 50 games every year because they already have stars. It’s not just the fact that this is the way it’s always done: it’s done that way because it doesn’t work any other way. And winning 40 games this season does the Bucks very few favors in the near future since, despite their cap space, aren’t a prime free agent destination. Teams like the Bucks need that cap space to use on their own draft picks once their rookie contracts expire.
Now they have the 15th overall pick in last June’s draft, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Middleton on the roster for next season. They will have to figure out how to disperse the minutes at power forward and center between Pachulia-Henson-Sanders-Ilyasova-Udoh-Kravstov.
As for the guards, they have Ridnour and Neal at point guard, but where does that leave Knight? If he can’t hit shots well enough as a shooting guard do they move Ridnour over into the role he played in Minnesota and have Knight take point guard minutes? Will he or should he start? If he starts, do you try to get Mayo to come off of the bench and play Knight as the off-guard?
I know that positions aren’t the most important thing, but the roles of a shooting guard and point guard require different skill sets to help the team, and these are the questions the Bucks will now have to ask after adding several developing players. In fact, having Neal, Ridnour, Delfino and Mayo all on the roster wasn’t a big deal until they brought Knight on board. Furthermore, their unique veteran-backcourt/young-frontcourt dynamic worked before the Jennings trade.
This offseason, John Hammond has proven just how hard it is to make the decision to rebuild or continue trying to win in the present. Yet, when you begin a rebuild, you can’t stop halfway through once you realize just how bad you are going to be and abruptly change course. You have to be patient, which is something that is hard to find in today’s NBA culture because teams want results sooner rather than later. At the end of the day you have to ask yourself if another year of 35 wins as a middling team is better for your job security than a 25 win season and a chance at eventual long-term success.