I bet you’re feeling pretty good right now, aren’t you?
The sun is shining, Giannis Antetokounmpo is a Buck, He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named no longer coaches your favorite basketball team, and the NBA season is right around the corner.
Maybe you’re feeling so good that, like my Brew Hoop compatriot Sylvan Zarwell, you may think something like 55+ wins is a goal well within reach. Hell, you may be right and the stars may align and this will be the team that can push the franchise over a mark not reached since 2001.
Or, maybe you’re wrong. Maybe you shouldn’t have forgotten rule #1: Never. Trust. The. Bucks.
With a B.
One doesn’t earn that B without building up a little hubris about his capabilities, his foresight, his leadership, and his way of making the world bend to his will. It’s one thing to have one guy with a God-complex in charge of things – what happens when you have three? Or four? Or however many with an iconic NFL QB in the mix?
The triumvirate behind the controls in Milwaukee – colloquially known as “LED” – should be given credit for a number of accomplishments. They brought the branding out of the 90’s and into the now, they’ve modernized the backroom operations of the franchise, and they secured a new building and a sustainable future for the Bucks in Milwaukee (though their methods are open for debate).
Since 2015, they’ve nailed damn near every off-the-court aspect of running a team. But on the basketball side? I’ll give you four words: Jason Kidd, Jon Horst.
Mike Budenholzer’s arrival may signal a shift in ownership’s involvement in day-to-day decisions impacting the on-court product, but seeing is believing, and it is far too early to think the billionaires with a B are done giving “input” as to where the Bucks will go.
So, are we sure Jon Horst is the guy who will put together a master-plan to place the Bucks in contention for marked sustained winning?
Brought in under a cloud of chaos, Horst has been an enigma wrapped in a puzzle hidden on a treasure map. The main issue with Milwaukee’s GM: Responsibility.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Team general manager isn’t empowered to be the sole arbiter on personnel decisions; confusion abounds as to who, or what, is really steering the franchise’s decisions.
Like his mentor John Hammond, Jon Horst seems like a nice enough guy, but you just can’t get a read on what his overriding strategy is beyond “winning mentality” or, even more clarifying, “Bucks DNA.” That muddled decision-making process might serve Horst well if things go south and a blame game erupts, and it may prove to be the handicap that dooms this team’s future before they even reach it.
There couldn’t be a better year for the GM to prove himself: The all-world talent is locked up, a number of your main contributors are going to need new deals in the near-future, and the whole league is going to stumble upon a glut of cap space in 2019. Will the front office make smart and timely decisions to keep things moving in an upward direction? Only time may tell.
Coach Bud: Is he really this team’s savior? Or will he end up being a false prophet?
Don’t get me wrong, the guy clearly has the chops for coaching a team far beyond its expectations. Just look at that crazy run the Atlanta Hawks had in 2014-2015 which ended with four all-stars and a broken heart in the Eastern Conference Finals. He’s been at the head of a number of good-to-great teams, but who knows whether he’ll be able to do enough to satisfy that deepest of thirsts: Competing for championships.
A disciple of the “space and shooting” approach on offense with a defense eerily like the sieve put in place under the previous regime, Budenholzer will step into a roster ripe for modern TLC. Can he design a system that will maximize the potential of those on the team? Probably. Will he be able to fight the temptation to spend some work hours dreaming of countless trade scenarios to “discuss” with Jon Horst? That’s where things get tricky.
If Adam and Eve could not stop themselves from indulging in the forbidden fruit, what is to stop a mere mortal who goes by the nickname “Bud” from a relapse into his cravings? Perhaps his short stint in control at his last stop will be enough to move his mind from grand designs outside his purview, but I could see where it’d be tough taking orders from a guy who makes 1/1,000th the amount of money you do.
But, hey, I’m sure the decision to hand Ersan Ilyasova $14 million wasn’t shaped at all by his being a “Bud guy.” Nope! No way!
Your 2018-2019 Milwaukee Bucks – Giannis Antetokounmpo and some other dudes.
Okay, fine, things aren’t nearly that bleak. Khris Middleton, love him or hate him, is a top-50 player in the league and is underpaid relative to his value by a significant degree. Eric Bledsoe is a surly mound of athleticism that can give Giannis a break on offense while giving you a decent shot at tripping up an opponent’s lead guard defensively.
Malcolm Brogdon is… sort of young? And he won Rookie of the Year! Sterling Brown could make a leap if things work out right. Then there’s a couple of veteran free-agent mercenaries and not much else to get really excited about (pending Budenholzer’s “Hawks University” magic translating to Milwaukee).
Beyond the talent on the roster, one can’t help but be concerned looking at the staggering (or lack thereof) of contracts. Giannis is a lock for the next three seasons, but three big contributors hit the market next year, John Henson and Matthew Dellavedova will be making nearly $40 million combined for two more seasons, and the only guys who could still be on the team come 2020-2021 would be Tony Snell, Ersan Ilyasova, qualifying-offer Thon Maker, Donte DiVincenzo, and *big gulp* D.J. Wilson. That’s a puzzling canvas I’m not sure even da Vinci himself could make due with.
All of that is to say: The team as constructed now is okay (could even be great if things worked out), but there is no clear-cut path forward to vying for post-season success while Giannis is locked up.
Maybe I shouldn’t be such a worry-wort. I’ve seen so much discussion about all the reasons we should be excited for the season to come, and more often than not I find myself nodding along. Are the Bucks going to win the Finals this year? Barring natural catastrophes, no. Even without a trophy to look forward to, the team finally seems to be in the right place at the right time and with the right player.
After all, not even the Milwaukee Bucks could screw up a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity like Giannis Antetokounmpo, right? Right?!?!