The Quest, Part III
Building upon the foundation
Nearly a decade has passed since the Milwaukee Bucks made their last back-to-back National Basketball Association playoff appearances.
They have established a foundation to do it again.
The Bucks didn’t reach all of the objectives they set for themselves during the 2012-13 season, but they did accomplish one of their main missions by making the playoffs for the first time since 2010.
Though the defending NBA champion Miami Heat made Milwaukee’s playoff stint a short one by sweeping the teams’ first-round series with four consecutive wins, the Bucks believe they can build upon their postseason experience next season and beyond.
“For the organization, I think it’s something we definitely want to build on,” forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute said. “We want to have a playoff team moving forward. Hopefully that’s the way everyone will look at it going into the offseason.
“I think for any team, the chance to go to the playoffs is good. Everything – the talent, the intensity – is higher. It’s fun. It’s great to be out there and feel that intensity. Once you’ve been there, you want more.”
Mbah a Moute, who played seven playoff games during his rookie season of 2009-10, seized the opportunity to return to the postseason in 2013 and hopes to become a fixture there.
“I can remember making the playoffs for the first time and how that felt,” he said. “I wanted to get back. You want to be in there every year once you’ve tasted it. I think every player has to embrace the opportunity and want to continue doing it.”
Center Larry Sanders, who made his playoff debut in 2013, valued that experience. But he believes the Bucks have some unfinished business.
“You have to start somewhere,” Sanders said. “You have to establish something somewhere. We made a run, but we didn’t get into the position we wanted to.
“It’s all about getting better. We’ve seen the potential of this team and what we can build on in the years to come.”
Rookie forward/center John Henson saw a brief glimpse of playoff action last month. He can hardly wait for the opportunity to help the Bucks build upon the cornerstone they laid, even though he realizes that the makeup of the roster will likely change next season.
“There are going to be at least a few guys still here – core guys, younger guys,” Henson said. “So we can use making the playoffs this season as a great experience to have and just keep building on what we have here.
“We don’t want to go down; we always want to get better.”
Mbah a Moute, Sanders and Henson loom large in Bucks General Manager John Hammond’s vision for the team moving forward.
“If you look at our roster, this thing surely is not broken right now,” Hammond said. “If you look at some of the young pieces we have, especially up front, we’ve got, I think, a real nice, intriguing young piece in Larry Sanders. We’ve got a nice young piece in John Henson. We’ve got Ersan Ilyasova, who has turned into an excellent stretch ‘4’ in this league. We still have a young piece in Luc Mbah a Moute, who can guard the best of the best when he’s healthy. And we still have a young piece in Brandon Jennings, who’s a restricted free agent. We have all of our (draft) picks.”
Guard Monta Ellis, who led the Bucks in scoring this season with an average of 19.2 points per game and fronted the team’s playoff-clinching drive, has until June 20 to decide whether or not to use his player option for next season or become an unrestricted free agent.
Guard J.J. Redick, who averaged 12.2 ppg after being obtained by Milwaukee from the Orlando Magic in a Feb. 21 trade, will be an unrestricted free agent.
Guard Brandon Jennings, the Bucks’ second-leading scorer at 17.5 ppg and their assist leader at 6.5 apg, will be a restricted free agent.
Forward Mike Dunleavy Jr., who averaged 10.5 ppg as one of Milwaukee’s top reserves, has completed the tenure of the two-year contract he signed with the team in December of 2011.
And Hammond must hire a successor to Jim Boylan, who will not return next season after coaching the team to a 22-28 record over the final 50 games of the 2012-13 regular season and an 0-4 playoff mark. Boylan, the Bucks’ top assistant coach for the previous four seasons, took over for Scott Skiles when Skiles and the organization made a mutual parting of the ways Jan. 8.
Hammond thanked Boylan for his commitment after stepping into a tough spot.
“This is a results-driven business,” Hammond said. “We did have an ending that we were all concerned with. Jim had a difficult time at different points of the season. Some of it had to do with our roster. The number of free agents we had … that can be difficult.
“I personally think in the realm in which Jim had to do this job, I think he did it to the best of his ability. I wasn’t disappointed in the job that he did, but I thought this was a decision we had to make.”
Hammond isn’t pigeonholing his coaching search.
“I don’t really know that we’re going to limit ourselves,” he said. “I don’t think we’re going to start saying we have to have someone who has head-coaching experience. In this day and age, you need a coach who can show the players that he cares about them and can coach the heck out of them. What we want to do is get it right.
“We want to hire the best coach and the best person for the job. We’re going to find the right guy who can make it fit and we’ll help make it fit for him. I think it’s healthier to have a coach who can have a say in the roster. If we’re able to do that, great, but if by chance that doesn’t happen, we’ll go forward and make the decisions we have to make.”
Hammond knows there will be important decisions made by management and players alike this summer.
“J.J. is unrestricted,” he said. “Monta has a player option. He has to make a decision by June 20 to declare that option or not. Brandon is a restricted free agent.
“We may not want to be in that position necessarily, but I like the fact that we still have our salary structure at such a standpoint where we can kind of control our destiny to a certain extent. That’s important for us.”
Hammond likes the franchise’s flexibility.
“When people talk about our roster and then talk about free agency, there’s a second part of that,” he said. “Along with that free agency comes the potential for significant cap room. If you talk about the pieces we have, talk about our picks, the potential for maybe $20-plus million in cap room or whatever will be available to us, I think it’s intriguing, and I think people will take a look at our roster and they’re going to see an opportunity.”
No matter who coaches the Bucks next season or what players occupy their roster, Hammond knows the franchise needs to continue what it started by returning to the playoffs in 2013.
“We’ve got to find a way to win,” he said. “There are some things we can do during the offseason, hopefully. We can add some pieces to our roster that our fans will be able to relate to, who people will look at and say, ‘I believe in that guy and I think he can help us win games.’ Hiring the right coach, I think we can do that, too. I think those things can happen for us.
“But at the end of the day, it’s like the state of Missouri – people are going to say, ‘Show me. Show me now.’ I think we have to find a way to win games. It’s like the old Al Davis – ‘Just win, baby.’ That’s what we’ve got to do.”
Consistency is the key.
“We want to be a team that’s going to be competitive each and every year … be a playoff-competitive team,” Hammond said. “When you look at our season, I’m not going to use words like ‘disappointing.’ We made the playoffs. We were heading in the right direction. We just had major slippage at the very end.
“I don’t look at it as a season where we didn’t accomplish our goals. We accomplished an important goal. We got in. When you get in, you have a chance. We just have to be more consistent.”