The alarm bells started ringing for many Milwaukee Bucks fans Friday when general manager John Hammond said the team intended to match any offer for restricted free agent point guard Brandon Jennings.
Maybe Hammond was just putting up a smokescreen. Maybe he’s trying to force interested teams into making the Bucks a sweet sign-and-trade offer. But it’s hard to put much faith in this franchise to make a sensible basketball decision.
Jennings is a decent player. When he’s on, he’s capable of big offensive nights. But there are a lot of warts to his game. He’s small, plays little to no defense and isn’t very efficient from the floor. Around the rim, he’s no Tony Parker. And he hardly seems like a guy who wants to be the face of the Bucks franchise — and even if he wanted to, he shouldn’t be.
Jennings is a pretty good player, but not one the Bucks should be tying themselves to long term. They’ve pretty much seen what the ceiling is with the team in his hands. Make the playoffs, get swept in the first round. Throwing a big-money contract Jennings’ way isn’t going to move the franchise forward. But it would be a pretty classic Bucks move. After all, “Mediocrity at all costs” seems to be the Bucks’ mission statement.
And here’s what the Bucks leadership doesn’t seem to grasp: What frustrates fans most about this franchise isn’t its win total. It’s the perceived lack of a long-term plan. For the better part of a decade, Milwaukee has drifted through the NBA landscape rudderless and aimless. The Bucks are a car stuck in the mud. But instead of looking for a logical way out of the rut, they just keep spinning their wheels and making things worse.
Weird trades — cough, Gary Payton, cough. Bad contracts — cough, Bobby Simmons, cough. Milwaukee seemingly will do anything to stay within striking distance of .500. That, of course, just guarantees it will never eclipse it in any significant way.
Last season, the Bucks gave up a valuable asset in young forward Tobias Harris in the name of solidifying the eighth and final spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs. This isn’t baseball. Simply making the playoffs isn’t an accomplishment. More teams make the postseason than miss it in the NBA. And anything that happened in a 38-44 season hardly qualifies as an achievement. The reward for that, of course, was being swept by the eventual NBA champion Miami Heat.
Fans understand the concept of smart and calculated rebuilding seasons. And with a loaded draft class awaiting lottery teams next year, it would be easy for savvy fans to see the big picture. Spend the money they must to reach the salary floor. But spend it wisely. One-year commitments. Play the youngsters. Focus on developing promising young bigs like Larry Sanders, John Henson and Ersan Ilyasova. Find some minutes for 18-year-old first-round pick Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Frankly, the idea that being swept in the first round of the playoffs each year maintains interest is insulting to the fan base’s intelligence. There is no reward in the NBA for mediocrity. It’s the worst place to be. It guarantees you stay in perpetual limbo, never good enough to contend, never bad enough to earn the high draft pick that could yield a franchise player.
For some teams, that might be OK. Find a few solid contributors, get a taste of the playoffs, then when the time comes, clear salary cap space and sign a superstar. But that’s not going to happen in Milwaukee. It’s not a destination for marquee free agents. The only way the Bucks will ever build a winner is through the draft. And that will never happen if they’re perpetually drafting in the teens.
And make no mistake, contending in the NBA requires a star. And don’t play the Indiana Pacers card because Paul George is head and shoulders better than anyone the Bucks have had in years.
The most successful Bucks team in recent memory, the 2000-01 team, was led by the big three of Glenn Robinson, Ray Allen and Sam Cassell. Robinson was the No. 1 pick in 1994. Ray Allen was acquired for Stephon Marbury, the No. 4 pick in 1996. And Cassell’s arrival was the result of a series of trades that began when the Bucks shipped out Vin Baker, who was the No. 8 pick in 1993.
That’s the model for a market like Milwaukee. Get in the lottery, draft well, get out, make a run. If it doesn’t work, blow it up and begin again. Of course, some luck is involved too. The Bucks got the No. 1 pick in 2005 but ended up with Andrew Bogut, a nice player, but not a franchise-changer.
That’s why Hammond and the Bucks deserve some kudos for rolling the dice on Antetokounmpo, the Greek forward with the huge wingspan and even bigger hands, with the No. 15 pick in Thursday night’s draft. It was a bit of a startling pick. But it made some sense.
There’s a decent chance the pick could blow up in their faces. He’s raw, he’s unproven, he’s played against questionable competition. He very well could be a bust. But there’s also the chance that, given his frame, age and skill set, he could become something special. And special rarely is available at No. 15.
There were a lot of safe options available. Guys that could contribute, maybe fill a role. But Milwaukee doesn’t need any more role players. It has a roster full of them. It needs to find that marquee player or pair of near-marquee players that can take it to the next level. Brandon Jennings isn’t that guy. And bringing him back doesn’t bring the Bucks any closer to finding him. It just moves them farther away.