ST. FRANCIS, Wis. – Milwaukee Bucks owner Herb Kohl hesitated, not entirely comfortable with the terminology. It was the kind of talk that might get frowned upon at NBA headquarters in Manhattan, after all. But it also was talk that’s been rampant since before the June draft, as various teams appeared to position themselves for something other than championship runs in 2013-14.
Finally, Kohl just went with it.
“To use the word ‘tank’ …,” the former U.S. Senator said, pausing again as he addressed reporters at his team’s Media Day Monday afternoon. “I’ve owned the team for 20-some years and never once did I go into a year saying, ‘Let’s not try and be a good team.’ I’ve always felt that way. So this year’s no different.”
This is Milwaukee, where Kohl is sensitive to his fan base and his fan base would be sensitive to any hint that his team consciously might not have quality basketball as its top priority. The Bucks made the playoffs last spring — admittedly, as the East’s No. 8 seed with a 38-44 record and first-round fodder for Miami — and there still were many nights when upper bowl at the BMO Harris Bradley Center was nearly empty. Milwaukee ranked 25th in average home attendance (15,935).
By refusing to “tank,” the Bucks generally have found themselves stuck somewhere in between being really good or really bad. They have drafted higher than No. 8 just twice in the past 17 years — Andrew Bogut (No. 1 overall, 2005) and Yi Jianlian (No. 6, 2007). During that same period, they have finished first in the Central Division once and advanced out of the first round once in eight playoff appearances.
What people wonder and talk about in Boston, Philadelphia and perhaps a few other markets this season regarding those teams’, er, managed levels of competitiveness, the Bucks want no part of. That’s not to say that their dramatically overhauled roster — with only four players back from last season — will win enough to avoid the appearance of at least semi-tanking. But it isn’t in the mission statement.
“There are some teams that buy into one kind of philosophy, and I’m not commenting on what other teams do,” Kohl said. “But I don’t believe in not competing. And doing everything you can to be as competitive as you can, and then looking for the breaks along the way that will give you a chance maybe to elevate to a high standard.”
Glancing over at the Bucks’ newly hired assistant general manager who will work with GM John Hammond this season, Kohl continued: “I know David Morway is standing there, he came from Indiana, Indiana’s a really good team this year. Indiana never tanked. Is that right, David?”
Morway, the new guy, wisely and quickly nodded in the affirmative.
“They’ve done it adding pieces here and there,” the owner said, “getting some breaks and so on. All of a sudden, here they are contending for the Eastern Conference championship. And they did it without using that word. And so we want to do it that way.”
Well, not exactly. There may not be a Paul George or Roy Hibbert in the Bucks bunch at the moment; Milwaukee doesn’t have an obvious All-Star selection on its roster.
What it has is some familiar relocated names (O.J. Mayo, Caron Butler, Gary Neal), some familiar faces (returning Bucks Carlos Delfino, Zaza Pachulia, Luke Ridnour) and a few young players still seeking footholds (Brandon Knight, Khris Middleton). The four holdovers all crowd into power forward/center spots– Larry Sanders, John Henson, Ersan Ilyasova, Ekpe Udoh.
Kohl, Hammond and new coach coach Larry Drew stressed character and chemistry repeatedly Monday, not-so-subtle references to some of the divisive personal agendas in Milwaukee’s locker room last season (Brandon Jennings, Monte Ellis and Samuel Dalembert, among others). Starting Tuesday, Drew’s job in his shift from Atlanta is to assemble the parts into something entertaining and plucky enough to satisfy Milwaukeeans and the Senator.
“It’s really tough when you bring in this amount of new players,” Drew said. “We’re going to force-feed ‘em. We have no choice. We don’t have a lot of time to get everything in, particularly before we play our first exhibition game.
“Obviously it’s going to come down to seeing how well these guys mesh together, gel together, play together. We’ll be looking at different combinations. We’ll be throwing guys in different positions. I have to see what I have.”
The one piece that does seem straight from a full rebuild is 18-year-old Greek forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Bucks’ first-round pick in June. He is a gangly 6-foot-9, all wingspan, smile and potential who might be hitting his stride about the time this roster has turned over another time or two.
For Hammond, constrained by the market pressures as Kohl practices them, the opportunity to go with a project — for a franchise that isn’t an elite free-agent destination – was a rare thrill. The GM spoke about feeling “giddy” at times while watching Antetokounmpo work at Tim Grgurich‘s summer camp and hoping that fans at least see glimmers of the kid’s talent in occasional games this season.
But that learning curve won’t crowd ahead of the W-L standings, a goal of another playoff berth or, frankly, Kohl’s dream of a new arena to replace the Bradley Center. The building opened in 1988 and apparently lacks many of the features and amenities that boost the financial statements of teams in more modern facilities.
An apathetic fan base or a lot of games with empty upper bowls is no way to leverage the public subsidies that will be needed on top of Kohl’s “significant contribution.”
“Naturally you want to be as good as you can be – that helps – in moving towards an arena,” Kohl said Monday. “But I would not want to put that burden on our basketball operations.
“We’re gonna get a facility. I’m confident we’re going to get a facility because it’s an important thing, not only for basketball but for our community. And in order to keep the Bucks, we have to have a facility. And in order to get a facility, we have to keep the Bucks. So it’s like a two-fer: We’re either going to get both in the years ahead or we’re going to have neither.”
Did someone say leverage? As in, say, Seattle?
Put that way, being stuck in the middle competitively is a lot more appealing in Milwaukee than being on the outside looking in.