MILWAUKEE – And is better than or, the commercial tells us. That’s what the Milwaukee Bucks had in mind when they signed former San Antonio Spurs guard Gary Neal to a two-year, $6.5 million contract back in July.
In Neal, Milwaukee was getting a 6-foot-4 combo guard with 3-point range capable of starting or bringing firepower and energy off the bench. It also was adding a seasoned veteran who, at age 29, had been a key rotation guy for the San Antonio Spurs with 41 games of playoff experience, including his 24-points-in-25-minutes night in Game 3 of the 2013 Finals against Miami.
A contributor on the court and off it, with skills and intangibles?
“They didn’t hire me as a coach,” Neal said Friday night, effectively slamming the brakes on and.
How ’bout neither?
Right now, that’s what the Bucks are getting from Neal, who logged the 10th DNP-CD of the half-season in their 81-72 loss to the Chicago Bulls at BMO Harris Bradley Center. Eight of them have come in Milwaukee’s past 11 games, and a miserable season for the Bucks overall has been even worse for Neal. He is averaging 10.4 points per game while shooting 39.4 percent in 20.5 minutes, missed two games in December with left plantar fasciitis and otherwise has done a whole lot of sitting.
“I don’t know what their plan is or what Coach [Larry] Drew is doing. So it’s hard to show your experience getting DNPs,” Neal said, in a calm steady voice when asked about his switch of teams prior to Friday’s game. “You can’t say anything when you don’t get in the game. I’m gonna tell somebody to do something, and I ain’t playing?”
A qualifier is in order here: Neal was sought out Friday because of the plummet he has taken in the standings and in status, from his role with a pedigreed organization that came within seconds in Game 6 of an NBA championship to a mere spectator on many nights with the league’s worst (7-28) team.
Generally, he has been a solid citizen about the experience … with the exception of last weekend in Phoenix, when some frustrations within the Bucks boiled over in plain sight of reporters. Neal and center Larry Sanders got into a loud, heated postgame argument in the visitors’ dressing room and needed to be separated. At one point, Neal took a verbal shot at Sanders, yelling, “I earn my money. Why don’t you try it?”
Trouble is, Neal might feel on many nights as if he’s not earning his keep either. Not in the manner he had hoped when he traded NBA penthouse for current outhouse.
“I thought I’d be able to get a consistent 20, 25 minutes a night. But for whatever reason, that hasn’t panned out,” Neal said. “It’s a business. I could have stayed in San Antonio on the qualifying offer, but then you miss out on $6 million. Sometimes all the cards fall in your favor, sometimes they don’t. Right now, it’s hard with the record being [7-28] and my role basically being non-existent. It’s a tough spot. You’ve just got to fight through it.”
Drew, in his first season with a team whose October roster had 11 new faces and only four holdovers, still talks of Neal as the guy the Bucks signed. Or believed they were signing, anyway.
“Any time any player comes from a successful program, I think they have something to offer,” Drew said Friday. “Certainly he’s been in that Spurs system, so he has a great deal to offer. Also from his basketball ability. He’s a shot maker. He’s a guy who can get in a rhythm, he’s a guy who can get on a roll. So whenever he comes into a basketball game, I’m looking for A, B, C and D.”
Uh, Drew might have just misspelled DNP-CD.
Milwaukee does have a crowded backcourt and an array of potential gunners, from Brandon Knight and Luke Ridnour to O.J. Mayo and Khris Middleton. One problem for Neal – for any of them at any given time – is that, other than injuries dictating the rotation, there is no real pecking order to the roster, too much evenness in skills and qualifications. So it’s about numbers and fit, with an overlap of strengths and weaknesses. That typically leads to odd men out, and right now Neal is that guy.
It hasn’t helped that, when he has gotten in games, his stints have been brief and at times he has tried to force results. Though his average minutes are down from his San Antonio days, the undrafted guard from Towson State is seeking his shot a little more – 16.3 FGAs per 36 minutes vs. 14.1 with the Spurs. His 3-point shooting (41.9 percent) has been better than on his 2-pointers (37.8).
“If you look at the stats, I’ve always been a scorer,” Neal said. “I mean, I’m not shooting the ball as good as I would like. But it’s always harder to get in a rhythm when you play those type of, y’know, six or seven spot minutes. The defense has a chance to focus in on you, the shots are harder.”
Again, Neal was talking about his well-compensated humbling because he was asked about it. He said several times he wasn’t trying to tell Drew or Bucks general manager John Hammond how to do their jobs. If that rumor out of the D-League Showcase in Reno proves true – that Neal is being shopped in advance of the February trade deadline, ESPN.com’s Marc Stein reported – the player knows he is just that, a player with a job to show up for every day.
“You don’t want to be a distraction. We have our share of distractions just by losing games,” Neal said. “When you look at [the limited opportunities] and you’re the only guy, coming from a situation where you’ve been on a winner the last three years and you were playing 30 minutes in The Finals, and the team is struggling and you haven’t been told a reason why you haven’t been given those extended minutes, y’know, it can be mind-boggling at times.
“But at the end of the day, you are a professional and you don’t want to be a distraction. So you just show up and hopefully the worm will turn and you’ll get minutes.”