The Bucks during the 2009-10 season saw a great deal of success, and enter 2010-11 with sudden expectation. It’s hard to picture them at this juncture just 3 years ago, when they seemed to be a team with complete lack of direction. Following the 2008 season Milwaukee dismissed General Manager Larry Harris and replaced him with John Hammond, an executive with the Detroit Pistons. During his 5 years in Milwaukee, Harris had become known as the type of manager to give out maximum contracts like candy. Mediocre performance suddenly became overly-rewarded, and the Bucks became stuck in a financial disaster. Hammond came in after some good success with the Pistons, but the task appeared too daunting for anyone arriving in Milwaukee. Yet Hammond, the reigning NBA Executive of the Year, has worked near miracles in rebuilding a franchise with much hope for the future.
There were two different routes Hammond could have taken towards construction of a respectable Milwaukee Bucks team: the very long-term, “gut everything immediately, cut all losses, and rebuild brick-by-brick, year-by-year model”, or the acrobatic route, the very dangerous route of trading up, and up, and up, until you have the parts that fit the system you desire. Many people have heard the story of the man who started with a common piece of junk, and constantly traded for something of better value, finally working his way up to a brand new sports car. That system of bartering for pieces a little bit better than yours is what brought Hammond his success. And he did it without completely shutting down the Bucks’ current motto of “Work Hard, Play Hard.” Hammond knew that the fan base was losing interest, and had to take the route he did in order to maintain a desirable product on the court. In the league’s smallest market, he couldn’t afford to take that first route, the one populated by the Golden State Warriors, or MLB’s Pittsburgh Pirates, or the NFL’s Buffalo Bills. Hammond had to strike gold immediately. That gold happened to be named Scott Skiles.
Hammond’s very first decision as Bucks GM was to hire new head coach Skiles, a former player with the vision, aggressive attitude, and defensive mindset required to succeed in the NBA. Skiles had a reputation as a highly-demanding head coach, and he immediately installed a system that was the exact opposite of Harris’ model: if you cannot or will not play defense, there is no place for you on this team. Hammond now had to shed the dead weight, and began bartering some lagging pieces for better pieces. In his first year alone, Hammond dumped off the remainders of two massively-bloated contracts: Mo Williams (6 yr, $52 million) and Bobby Simmons (5 yr, $47 million), along with botched first-round draft pick Yi Jianlian. The goal on the court was to bring in players who would buy into coach Skiles’ system and perform at a high level on defense. While the transactions made in the first year weren’t groundbreaking, they allowed the Bucks to clear up a big chunk of financial burden while improving +8 games from the previous year.
The same model continued the following season, with a revolving door of players brought in to improve the team’s performance while at the same time freeing up some much needed salary cap for the future. In year two of the Hammond/Skiles system, the team saw a +12 improvement in the wins category and a return to the NBA playoffs. The Bucks ended the 2009-10 season one horrifying wrist injury away from the second round in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Former #1 overall pick Andrew Bogut transformed into a top-5 center in the league, becoming a strong force on both offense and defense before suffering the wrist injury at the end of the year. The emergence of rookie point guard Brandon Jennings and the shift to a bigger, more athletic basketball team is what has lead to the hype entering this season.
Losing to the Atlanta Hawks in the playoffs, especially with the absence of Bogut, lead to criticism of the Bucks’ ability to match up athletically with most of the elite teams in the league. Along with trimming the wasted contracts of Dan Gadzuric (6 yr, $36 million) and Charlie Bell (5 yr, $18.5 million) before this season, Hammond brought in a series of players who were either known for defensive ability or had high potential to perform on that side of the court. Corey Maggette, John Salmons and Chris Douglas-Roberts are all players in the upper height-range for their position. While not known for their defensive expertise, it’s known that coach Skiles ties defensive effort directly into playing time, not matter the size of your contract. The 2010-11 Milwaukee Bucks are close to being the deepest team in the entire league at all 5 positions and guys who don’t perform will be replaced with someone who will. That’s the system in place for a team that just two years ago dwelled at the bottom of the league, with no hope in sight. Many experts and fans see this current team contending heavily for the division title, which would be their first in 10 years.
Under any other route taken, the current state of the Milwaukee Bucks wouldn’t be nearly successful. A simpler path would still have optimism for the future, but wouldn’t have the same “success now” results that Hammond has obtained with his high-risk, higher-reward vision for this franchise. The Bucks are here, here to stay. It’s time to “Work Hard, Play Hard.”