The Milwaukee Bucks have a notion.
The Bucks believe that they’re a top-four team in the Eastern Conference. They believe they are better than their current sixth place position in the East. And they believe they have at least some of the apparatus of a championship organization in place.
That belief did not extend to Jason Kidd.
Kidd’s never-dull three-plus seasons as the Bucks’ coach ended a week ago when the team fired him, but the questions about him and the franchise haven’t.
They come as Milwaukee is months away from opening its new downtown arena, paid for both by past and present ownership -- $100 million from former owner Herb Kohl, $150 million from current owners Marc Lasry and Wes Edens -- and $250 million from Wisconsin residents over 20 years, which will grow to $400 million in taxpayer subsidies with interest. They come as the team tries to go beyond its encouraging showing in the first round last year, when it took the Toronto Raptors to six games.
They come as the team’s franchise player and superstar, Giannis Antetokounmpo, starting his four-year, $100 million extension this season which runs through 2021, continues to weigh the direction of the franchise -- and where it will go without Kidd, with whom he was close. (Reportedly, it was Antetokounmpo who informed Kidd he was fired, before management did.)
I think in a long-term view, ‘championship or bust’ is our mantra. We fully intend to be a team that competes for championships for a long period of time, and hopefully wins championships. We want to do that."
But the Bucks’ inexplicably awful defense, pedestrian offense despite Antetokounmpo’s nightly highlight-reel level attacks and lack of overall identity, they believed, not only threatened this season’s possibilities, but those of future years.
“The difference is, at some franchise’s evolution, in my opinion, ‘championship or bust’ is a mantra,” Milwaukee’s first-year General Manager, Jon Horst, said by phone Sunday afternoon, before the Bucks won their third straight game under interim coach Joe Prunty, who’ll have the team the rest of the season.
“I think in a long-term view, ‘championship or bust’ is our mantra,” Horst said. “We fully intend to be a team that competes for championships for a long period of time, and hopefully wins championships. We want to do that. There’s a lot of steps for a franchise that hasn’t been in consecutive playoffs in 14 years, or hasn’t won a first-round series in, I think, 17 seasons. [Editor’s note: Horst is correct, Milwaukee's last playoff series win came in 2001, when it reached the East finals]
“Between that stage and a championship is a lot of really critical and important steps. You have a short window, and you want to maximize every part of that window. This is a chance for us to maximize this part of that window, building off of what we did last year. We want to do better than we did last year.”
Milwaukee never reached the heights defensively under Kidd that it had his first season there, 2014-15, when the Bucks were second in the league in defensive rating (99.3), tied for first in steals (9.6), led the NBA in opponent turnovers (17.4 per game) and eighth in points allowed (97.4). Milwaukee wasn’t pretty in the halfcourt, but if the Bucks turned you over -- which they did, a lot -- they were off to the races. Assistant coach Sean Sweeney was demanding at the defensive end and got results. Point guard Brandon Knight led the team in scoring and assists and got serious All-Star consideration.
Yet Kidd pushed to move Knight, and the Bucks did so at the trade deadline in 2015, sending him to the Phoenix Suns in a three-way deal with the Philadelphia 76ers that brought Michael Carter-Williams, a guard with the size Kidd liked at the position. But MCW’s problems shooting the ball consistently didn’t dissipate and he made 19 threes in the 79 games over two seasons he played for Kidd.
And the Bucks cratered defensively as well, dropping to 22nd in defensive rating and 17th in points allowed in 2015-16, numbers that rose slightly to 19th and ninth last season, with Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon providing steady play at the point.
Milwaukee had hoped getting Eric Bledsoe from Phoenix for Greg Monroe in November would further bolster its chops at the point of attack, but while there was initial improvement early -- Milwaukee was fifth in defensive rating in Bledsoe’s first 11 games -- the Bucks have slid back, down to 18th in defensive rating, 14th in points allowed and 23rd in opponent 3-point percentage since the deal. Their zeal to trap every high pick and roll within an inch of its life made them easier to attack in the long run.
The inference, though no one says it openly, is that Kidd didn’t listen enough -- to management, to ownership, maybe to some on his staff. (The Bucks kept Prunty, Sweeney and Greg Foster from Kidd’s staff, while firing Eric Hughes and Frank Johnson, and ending their relationship with Tim Grgurich, the legendary coach beloved by players around the league for his quiet work with them to improve, with no fanfare.)
It nonetheless leaves Prunty with a challenge.
“The biggest thing would be consistency,” Horst said. “I think we’ve shown, on the offensive an defensive side, that we can compete at a high level and compete with the top four teams in our conference (though the Bucks are just 2-8 overall against Boston, Toronto, Cleveland and Miami so far this year), and maybe the top eight to 10 teams in our league. We just have to do that consistently. That’s really the biggest thing. And beyond that, in our organization, we have experts.
We love our roster. We love our young core. We believe in this group. We’re constantly, in my seat, looking at how we can improve and get better. It’s not like, make a coaching change and we’ve done our job.”
“We have experts on the performance side, we have experts on the coaching staff, we have experts in the front office and management, experts on the business side. And we all want to be accountable. We want to be self-reflective. We want to try to continue to be better every day. We love our roster. We love our young core. We believe in this group. We’re constantly, in my seat, looking at how we can improve and get better. It’s not like, make a coaching change and we’ve done our job.”
The Bucks also face the further challenge of having a three-headed ownership group, which includes Jamie Dinan -- like Lasry and Edens, a hedge fund billionaire from New York. The three men, who bought the team from Kohl in 2014 for $550 million, make all the franchise’s big decisions together. But, like the precogs in Minority Report, they occasionally disagree.
ESPN reported last summer that Lasry and Dinan signed off on making Justin Zanik, the Bucks’ assistant GM, longtime league exec and former agent, the team’s new front office face, replacing John Hammond, who’d taken a lateral move to the GM spot in Orlando. Hammond had drafted Antetokounmpo midway through the first round in 2015 -- when, while many around the league had scouted “The Greek Freak” and thought he had unusual potential, fewer were willing to pull the trigger on the then-19-year-old.
But Edens, per ESPN, wasn’t ready to give the job to Zanik. Even after the Bucks opened the search up, settling on former Hawks GM Wes Wilcox, Denver assistant GM Arturas Karnisovas and Zanik as finalists, Edens still didn’t sign off on Zanik. Eventually, the three agreed to give the GM job to Horst, who’d been the Bucks’ director of basketball operations for nine years. But only Edens was at Horst’s introductory press conference.
Edens is the Bucks’ Governor -- the team’s official representative to the league -- and thus, per league rules, has final say on the team’s decisions, the same way that Jeanie Buss does with the Los Angeles Lakers. But as a condition of buying the team with Lasry, Edens will cede that title to Lasry in two years. It’s unusual, to say the league.
“They’re not overly hands-on. It’s just that there’s three of them,” says a league exec who’s dealt with the Bucks. “What other organization in the NBA has something like that? I think that’s what it comes down to more than anything.”
A league source with knowledge of the team’s thinking, though, insists there was no disagreement among the three owners, though, about firing Kidd. “Everyone was in full agreement,” the source said.
That would represent a significant change in the relationship between Lasry and Kidd. Kidd and his then-agent, the powerful Excel head Jeff Schwartz, were both good friends with Lasry. They had been guests at the wedding of Lasry’s daughter just before Kidd retired. (When Kidd decided to become a coach, first with the Nets, he hired another Excel rep, the former National Basketball Players’ Association counsel Hal Biagas. Biagas is now the head of the players’ union for the League of Legends’ Championship Series esports franchises.)
It was Lasry who pushed to hire Kidd in Milwaukee in 2014, even though the Bucks hadn’t yet fired their incumbent coach, Larry Drew. The way Kidd came to and left Milwaukee, then, had a kind of unfortunate symmetry the Bucks would be well-advised not to repeat.
Yet the Bucks believe in the significant investments they’ve made both on the basketball and operations sides the last few years.
Lasry, Edens and Dimon succeeded in making the franchise more of a statewide entity than it had been previously, raising more than $100 million from minority investors all over Wisconsin. They bolstered the team’s sports medicine staff, made Suki Hobson one of the few women head strength and conditioning coaches of an NBA team, and made the deal for the new arena, set to open on time for the 2018-19 season as the centerpiece of a revitalized downtown corridor.
And they got a big-time free agent to sign in Milwaukee, when Monroe turned down the New York Knicks in 2015 for a three-year, $51 million deal with the Bucks.
Yet they’ve been stuck in place, pretty much, for the last three years. They were 41-41 in ’14-’15; they were 42-40 last season. But Horst does not believe they have to punt the rest of this season, and can make a go of it with the remaining people and staff.
“I trust people, and trust people with the opportunity that they now have,” Horst said. “With this transition, we’ve given individuals on our staff an opportunity to have more of a voice, have more input, prove that they can be even better at their jobs than they were before. It’s trusting the people that we have here in place that they care about the company, they care about our goals, and their one focus and their one agenda is to get better each and every day and help us toward our goals.”
Antetokounmpo was close with Kidd, who gave him playmaking freedom very early, but was diplomatic about the move afterward. “I reached out to him,” he told reporters last week. “He was a big part of my success in the league, and that’s one of my characteristics -- I’m loyal to people that I work with.”
Antetokounmpo’s relationship with the team, per sources, remains solid. But obviously, the Bucks can’t whiff on the next coach, whether it’s Prunty or any of a group of very capable former coaches currently between jobs who would certainly be interested in further grooming Antetokounmpo’s already blossoming game.
“It’s really simple -- all Giannis cares about is having the best chance to win,” Horst said. “He wants to know and understand that this is not a sign that we’re going to throw away the season, because he believes that his teammates have the potential to do something special this season. We believe that, and we believe in them. Giannis just wants to know we have a chance to win now, and going forward. And if he feels that this is the case, he’s fine. And I had many conversations with him about that -- not even specific to the Jason Kidd thing. Just in general. And I talk with lots of guys.”
Yet the sense among at least some outside the Bucks’ organization is that, to paraphrase someone talking about something else entirely, they’re a little too high on their own supply. They have the hardest piece to get, of course -- a young, legit, ticket-selling, charismatic superstar in Antetokounmpo with international appeal. But while they have good players like Khris Middleton and Malcolm Brogdon, they don’t have a championship roster yet.
Horst says the team’s self-scout is ongoing and never ending, and that they don’t have pie in the sky, unreachable ambition.
“How do you evaluate that, to make sure you’re not being unrealistic?,” he said. “You constantly re-think, re-evaluate, be willing to look at things differently. For us, I think we think we can compete in the top four. We should be competing closer to a team that’s in the top four rather than in the 9 to 13 spot … we should be trending toward a team that’s a home playoff team. If you’re a home playoff team, you have a chance to win a series, and if you win a series, you have a chance to win the next series.
“To me, that’s not in a short-term view. It’s really in a long-term view: where do we have to get if we want to compete for championships? At the end of the year, if we fell a little short, if we finish five, if we finish six, whatever that is, then we evaluate and we figure out where we weren’t good enough, and it’s my job to figure out how to get it better and improve that.”
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