Posts Tagged ‘John Hammond’

Five teams already looking ahead

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com

The start of the playoffs is just over the horizon and there will be plenty of unexpected bounces before the 2014 NBA champ is crowned in June.

But you can’t blame a handful of teams from already taking an early peek at what will surely be better times ahead next season:

 


VIDEO: Joakim Noah joins Arena Link after a recent Bulls win

Chicago Bulls – There’ s still plenty of havoc to be made by Joakim Noah and his “no tanking here” gang. Sitting in the No. 4 spot in the East, the Bulls are already shuffling their hooves at what could be another rip-snorting first-round series against the Nets and possibly a chance to put a few bruises on the Pacers or two-time champions from Miami down the line. But while it’s unrealistic to think Chicago can go all the way this season, the title hopes are back in view next October. Starting, of course, with a healthy return by Derrick Rose, the Bulls get their former MVP and most talented player back onto the court to supplement a lineup that has Noah, Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler.

While the dealing away of Luol Deng didn’t sink the Bulls in the standings, it brought a first round draft choice that the Cavs had picked up from Sacramento. They saved $20 million on Deng’s contract next year, can amnesty the vastly overpaid Carlos Boozer and be at the front of the line to make a recruiting pitch to head of the class free agent Carmelo Anthony. The lure of Phil Jackson‘s zen magic will probably make it tougher to get him out of N.Y., but if he really wants to make a run at a title instead of just being hero-worshipped, Melo would jump at the chance to join the Bulls where a recuperated Rose gives them the 1-2 punch that is almost necessary these days to be elite. As much fun as they’re having now, the real excitement could return next season.

 


VIDEO: Thaddeus Young, Jarvis Varnado discuss the progress and potential of Nerlens Noel

Philadelphia 76ers — It can’t get worse than losing a record-tying 26 games in a row, can it? It will still be only Year Two in general manager Sam Hinkie‘s long-term building project for the future. But at least next season the Sixers will be able to put a team out on the floor that has more than just Michael Carter-Williams, Thad Young and Tony Wroten as real NBA talent that could be part of something positive down the road. Hinkie has cleared out the payroll, but it’s far too early for the Sixers to even give a thought to luring free agents to Philly. They’ll have two lottery picks — their own and the Pelicans’ spot from the Jrue Holiday trade — and go digging for bargains with another pair of picks in the second round.

Of course, there’s the big bonus of finally getting big man Nerlens Noel into the lineup, after he sat out all of this season with a torn ACL. Noel has been champing at the bit to play now, but the team will hold him back till summer league and then turn him loose. Hinkie is positively giddy about what a bulked-up, more physically fit Noel will be able to do. The Sixers are not even dreaming of playoffs, just putting the building blocks in place.

 


VIDEO: Andrew Nicholson talks about staying positive in Orlando

Orlando Magic — Two years ago, Rob Hennigan dealt away Dwight Howard and the instant reaction from many corners was that the rookie GM had been fleeced. Of course, the way things turned out in L.A., Philly and Denver, it seems that Hennigan was the one doing the fleecing, picking up Nic Vucevic, Maurice Harkless and Arron Afflalo, who are now main parts of a young roster on the rise. Mix in last year’s top draft pick Victor Oladipo with Tobias Harris, Kyle O’Quinn and Andrew Nicholson and while the Magic are again near the bottom of the standings with the third-fewest wins in the league, there has been a method to Hennigan. The jury is still out on making Oladipo a point guard, but he’s clearly a talent.

Hennigan is following in the footsteps of his mentor Sam Presti in OKC, constructing a roster that is flexible in terms of both talent and salary. The Magic are not beholden at this point to a single individual and are willing to be in the trade market for any upgrade that makes sense at any position. Then toss in the potential of adding an Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker to the lineup and the Magic are suddenly a team back in the spotlight with a new franchise star and a future that could lead back to chasing the playoffs maybe even as soon as next year in the Eastern Conference.

 


VIDEO: Giannis Antetokounmpo is adjusting to life in the NBA and U.S.

Milwaukee Bucks – As bad and depressing as things got for the Sixers during their 26-game losing streak, the fact is they were never able to drop below the Bucks in the standings. This is the worst team in the league, but it doesn’t have to be this way in 2014-15. For one thing, it’s about timing in the draft. The Bucks have been fortunate enough to win the lottery twice in the past, getting Glenn Robinson with the No. 1 pick in 1994 and Andrew Bogut in 2005. “Big Dog” had had his moments and Bogut is playing nicely these days for the Warriors, but neither was ever the kind of game-changer than can take a franchise to the top.

Now with the deepest lottery in a while, it seems that Milwaukee is in a can’t-miss position. GM John Hammond is said to be setting his sights on center Joel Embiid, who could anchor the middle of a lineup with exciting rookie Giannis Antetokounmpo and Larry Sanders, who hopefully can get his head back into the game and save a career that could go off the rails. Hammond unloaded the contracts of Luke Ridnour and Gary Neal at the trade deadline and would probably like to jettison O.J. Mayo. Brandon Knight has been up and down, but shows that he can score. Rookie Nate Wolters has probably exceeded expectations and creates optimism for the future.

It’s Antetokounmpo who creates the most excitement with his raw talent and potential. Whether they go with Embild with their first pick or Wiggins, Parker, Julius Randle or Dante Exum, this time the Bucks could get the game changer they need at a time when owner Herb Kohl is trying to sell the franchise. This could be a lineup worth buying and watching next season.

 


VIDEO: Dwight Howard explains why he likes it in Houston

Houston Rockets — Yes, yes, yes. The Rockets are already a top four seed in the rugged Western Conference and have flexed their speed and muscles and shooting prowess against some of the best teams in the league this season. The pairing of Dwight Howard with James Harden has given Houston the 1-2 All-Star punch that was expected. Yet even with some folks tabbing the Rockets as a dark horse threat when the playoffs begin, the truth is their best days are still ahead. Wheeler and dealer GM Daryl Morey knows that his job is not yet done and that’s why he’s played the payroll and salary cap like a Stradivarius and will again have the Rockets in position to make a run at at the biggest names on the free agent market this summer. If he deals Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik ($15 million each next season), the Rockets could offer close to the max.

Howard and Harden are still getting to know each other and this team might need to experience the pain of a playoff loss to get recommitted and take things to the next level. The Rockets could also use another scorer/defender on the wing to go toe-to-toe nightly with the elite contenders. LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony? Let us saddle you up as part of the posse, pardner. Of course, it’s unlikely that James is going anywhere. But Anthony would have to have give long and serious thought to Houston if he decides that the magic of Jackson isn’t going to turn the Knicks around in the next year or two. Put Melo in a lineup with Howard and Harden and the 145 points the Rockets rung up the other night against the Lakers could become a nightly occurrence. If not Anthony, Bosh could return home to Texas. The Rockets made a free agent pitch for him several years ago and his adaptable skills could fit in nicely on the front line.

The Rockets will be different next season. They always are. And with Howard and Harden as anchors, now different means better. The start of next season can’t come soon enough in Houston.

Pool of talent exists beyond 1-and-dones


VIDEO: Damian Lillard has enjoyed the Blazers’ quiet rise to contention this season

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – On the one-and-done issue, second-year All-Star point guard Damian Lillard has no issue with commissioner Adam Silver‘s desire to raise the minimum age to enter the league from 19 to 20.

After all, the Portland Trail Blazers’ No. 6 overall pick in 2012 turned 22 a few weeks after the Draft. He played four seasons at little-known Weber State in Ogden, Utah. Lillard’s rookie teammate, guard C.J. McCollum, turned 22 a few months after the Blazers made him the No. 10 pick in the 2013 Draft. McCollum played four years at tiny Lehigh in Bethlehem, Pa.

“I definitely don’t think guys should be able to leave [for the NBA] after high school,” Lillard said during the All-Star break. “Back in the day there were guys like LeBron James coming out, Kevin Garnett. I don’t think you have that anymore, guys that can come in and do what they do. As far as college, it’s different situations. My freshman year in college, I wasn’t ready to be an NBA player. What was best for me was to play four years of college. Some guys, Anthony Davis, 6-foot-10, great defender, it was perfect for him, it was time for him to be an NBA player.”

Every few years there will be a special talent such as Davis, who was the top pick in 2012. He seemed ready to enter the big leagues at age 18 or 19. But would it have benefited Davis’ Kentucky teammate, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, to spend another season with the Wildcats rather than go No. 2 overall (at 19 years old) to the Charlotte Bobcats in 2012?

“A lot of it is mental and having that college experience helps because I was in that situation so many different times when my team depended on me to make a play, to make a shot, bring us back, stuff like that,” said Lillard, who has hit four game-winners this season. “Just having that experience over and over and over those four years helped prepare me for whenever that came up in the NBA.”

Of course that’s the overriding argument for raising the age limit. The NBA wants players entering the league to be more physically and emotionally prepared for life on and off the court. Coaches at major programs crave more continuity for their programs.

But is the one-and-done issue really a problem?

Of the 18 first- and second-year players at last month’s Rising Stars Challenge game during All-Star weekend, 16 of them attended college (two were international players). Twelve played beyond one season. Six played two seasons and three each played three years and four years.

Only four were one-and-done: Davis, Wizards shooting guard Bradley Beal, Pistons center Andre Drummond and Thunder center Steven Adams.

One-and-done hasn’t exactly opened the floodgates to players declaring for the Draft after one college season. Still, the blue-blood collegiate programs, with such small windows to compete for a championship with top recruits, are on the hunt for high school players physically prepared to play as freshmen. It leaves a large pool of talented players to fall through the cracks and land at smaller, so-called “mid-major” programs.

Once there, they tend to stay for multiple years, allowing for maturation and development in bridging the gap from 18 years old to 21 or 22.

“We have a better understanding of everything because we’ve been through a lot,” said McCollum, whose rookie season was stunted by a broken foot late in training camp. “Going to small schools, not being recruited, you go through a lot, having to earn everything, having to work really hard, and you have to take advantage of moments because at a small school you don’t play a lot of big teams so you have to capitalize on a small window of opportunities.”

Since Blazers general manager Neil Olshey used consecutive top 10 draft picks on two four-year, mid-major players, it wasn’t surprising to find him in the stands at the University of Texas at Arlington on a bitterly cold early February night. He was there getting a first-hand look at a junior point guard in the Sun Belt Conference.

Elfrid Payton,” Lillard said, totally aware of the 6-foot-3 Louisiana-Lafayette prospect, a potential late first-round, early second-round draft pick.

Olshey wasn’t alone as Bucks general manager John Hammond also made the trip. In addition, 20 other NBA teams dispatched scouts to the game as front offices canvas smaller programs more than ever.

“I think there’s always been talent [at smaller schools], I just think guys like Steph Curry, Paul George, myself, Rodney Stuckey, I think that as guys are successful in the NBA, they’re [front offices] starting to pay closer attention to mid-majors,” Lillard said. “I don’t think it’s new. I think there’s probably been a lot of guys that just got overlooked, that didn’t get the opportunity. The good thing is the guys that I just named are opening up doors for guys like Elfrid Payton.”

Curry played three seasons at Davidson. George spent two years at Fresno State and Stuckey played two years at Eastern Washington. Lillard could have also named Kawhi Leonard (two years at San Diego State), Kenneth Faried (four years at Morehead State) and Gordon Hayward (two years at Bulter).

The few sure-fire one-and-done players at the marquee schools get the lion’s share of attention. But players are everywhere, players you’ve never heard of, but maybe should have and perhaps will.

Like Damian Lillard.


VIDEO: After a long wait, Portland’s C.J. McCollum got to make his NBA debut

Ilyasova Stays Put In League Of Change

Milwaukee's Ersan Ilyasova (Joe Murphy/NBAE)

Milwaukee’s Ersan Ilyasova (Joe Murphy/NBAE)

MILWAUKEE – Some players are the socks. Ersan Ilyasova is the feet. But the end result is the same: Change, constantly.

If you’re Nate Robinson, Mike James, Chucky Brown, Joe Smith and dozens of others who leave forwarding addresses as often as most of us leave gratuities, you know the drill: Signed here, traded there, employed, waived, paid, packaged and dumped time and again back into the hamper.

If you’re Ilyasova, you don’t go anywhere, yet everything around you changes. Argyle, tube, crew, silk, solid, patterned, support – the Milwaukee Bucks’ 6-foot-10 forward from Eskisehir, Turkey, has gone through a veritable sock drawer in his NBA career.

Consider: Of the 60 players taken in the 2005 NBA Draft, Ilyasova (No. 36 in the second round) is the only one still with his original team. All the big names that night – former Buck Andrew Bogut, Deron Williams, Chris Paul, Raymond Felton and so on – have moved at least once, as have the sleepers (David Lee, Monta Ellis, Marcin Gortat). Indiana’s Danny Granger was the last of the “originals,” besides Ilyasova, until he got dealt to Philadelphia on Thursday at the league’s trade deadline. Many have dropped off the NBA map entirely.

And because there is no one from the 2004 Draft still with the team that selected him and, from 2006, only Portland’s Joel Freeland remains with the team – he’s an asterisk case who came over from Great Britain prior to last season – Ilyasova’s specialness spans three drafts and 179 others whose names got read by David Stern or former second-round maestro Russ Granik.

Had Ilyasova, 18 when he was picked, played for the Bucks immediately (he spent 2005-06 in the D League with Tulsa), he would have been a teammate of Ervin Johnson and Toni Kukoc, who were 20 and 19 years older than him that season. He stayed overseas for a year, dipped his toe into the NBA in 2006-07 at 19, then went back to play in Spain for two years.

By the time Ilyasova returned for 2009-10, only four players remained from his first NBA roster (Charlie Bell, Dan Gadzuric, Michael Redd and Bogut). After Bogut was traded to Golden State during the 2011-12 season, all four of them were gone, too.

Now it’s two years later, the Bucks are on their fifth head coach since Ilyasova was drafted – he missed the Larry Krystkowiak era entirely – and he’s one of just four players left from last year’s roster. He has been supplanted as the team’s resident Euro phenom by 19-year-old “Greek freak” Giannis Antetokounmpo, the youngest player in the NBA.

He has had 67 Milwaukee teammates, by the team’s count, from the start of 2006-07 till now.

The irony in all this is that Ilyasova, that rare individual who has been spared the endless uncertainty of role players and journeymen everywhere, actually might be better off had he been forced to relocate a time or two.

Staying with the Bucks has been easy on the wardrobe and his friends’ contacts lists. He met his wife Julia in Milwaukee. And his early Bird rights with the Bucks made him eligible for the five-year, $40 million contract he signed in July 2012.

But he has sniffed the air of a winning season just once, in 2009-10, and is a cumulative 72 games under .500 while general manager Larry Harris first and John Hammond second have re-painted, laid new carpeting and moved the furniture around him.

Worse, Ilyasova has regressed as a player. Mostly starting yet struggling – first from an ankle injury in camp, then in coach Larry Drew’s new system – he is putting up the shakiest numbers of his career: 10.5 points and 6.0 rebounds a game, 38.5 percent shooting, 29.6 percent on 3-pointers. Per 36 minutes, he’s about where he was as a nervous teenager. Better paid but more frustrated.

Ilyasova, who watched as NBA vets Luke Ridnour and Gary Neal were freed at the deadline from the NBA’s losingest team (via their trade to Charlotte), talked recently with Gery Woelfel of the Racine Journal Times about his Groundhog Day permanence in Milwaukee:

Ilyasova downplayed talk about him wanting out of Milwaukee and declined to comment on whether he or his agent, Andy Miller, had requested a trade.

Ilyasova made it clear, though, the Bucks’ revolving door policy with players has irritated him.

“The thing I’m upset about is each year, each season, we go through the same thing,” Ilyasova said. “Last year, we make the playoffs and now we start all over again. That’s really frustrating.

“Hopefully, we’ll find right pieces for the team. Hopefully, we’ll turn it around.”

Then the deadline passed, Ramon Sessions and Jeff Adrien came aboard as possible (though minor) pieces and Ilyasova stayed put. Ilyasova reportedly is a favorite of owner Herb Kohl, who remains enticed by Ilyasova’s potential.

Ilyasova is a complementary player who constantly has had to adapt to another new crew and new vision. The things he does best – 13.0 points a game, 5.6 rebounds, 45.5 percent 3FG the year before he got his contract – have slipped.

Still, he is the last man standing in the same spot from that June night nine years ago. Too often, though, you’d have a hard time proving it by his impact. He and the Bucks are due for a change.

Bucks’ Antetokounmpo Keeps Eating Everything He’s Force-Fed


VIDEO: Giannis goes high to block Durant

As bad as it’s been, lugging around the albatross of the NBA’s most miserable W-L record, the Milwaukee Bucks can take solace in knowing that the 2013-14 schedule is nearly half over and they’ve only been caught using the word “tanking” in a few sentences, each time in close proximity to “not” or “no.”

Regardless of what might or might not be unfolding before our eyes, coach Larry Drew and general manager John Hammond have stirred enough new faces through the new system and into plucky moral victories to obfuscate the onerous. Staking out the higher ground of continued mid-level competitiveness, while tunneling toward the draft lottery, might earn somebody Exec of the Year consideration.

And so might this: Hammond and the Bucks, drafting from the first non-lottery spot (No. 15) last June, landed a player who has had a bigger impact than the No. 1 pick overall. A player, 19-year-old Giannis Antetokounmpo, who – if that draft were redone tomorrow – probably would be chosen before most of the 14 guys in front of him, certainly in the top five and definitely ahead of the pole-sitter, Cleveland’s Anthony Bennett.

Giannis Antetokounmpo (Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE)

Giannis Antetokounmpo (Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE)

Antetokounmpo has been the Bucks’ great Greek hope, the biggest reason (besides elbow room) to drop by the BMO Harris Bradley Center. On the right nights, Antetokounmpo’s coltish potential and unbridled enthusiasm turn the town into a Kentucky horse farm; sunshine, bluegrass and thoroughbred greatness in the making.

He has arms that reach till next Tuesday, hands like jai-alai cestas. The Bucks produced a Giannis growth chart for a giveaway and it was obsolete almost immediately; the kid reportedly has grown 1 1/2 inches since he was drafted, his warm-up pants starting to look like Capris.

Antetokounmpo’s stats are solid – 6.9 points, 4.8 rebounds, 45.6 percent shooting, 23.1 minutes – given his age, his experience, the players around him and the malaise, too. Which makes you nervous that someone so tender, so fragile, might get knocked off course through a lousy season for his team.

Is Antetokounmpo being force-fed too much too soon? Might all the losing and lack of foundation hurt him? Is there anyway to sequester him from Larry Sanders, Milwaukee’s spirited but stormy center who has been setting the don’t-do-this examples lately?

Antetokounmpo seems to be answering the questions affirmatively with his performances and a resilient personality.

As expected, he’s had some roller-coaster stats lines – double-doubles at Brooklyn and Oklahoma City the past couple of weeks, sandwiched around a 50-minute, three-game stretch against Phoenix, Golden State and Chicago in which he shot 1-for-10 with two points, eight rebounds and eight turnovers. He has broken plays on the Bucks, his halfcourt game way behind the havoc he can wreak in transition.

But Antetokounmpo has played 30 minutes or more in 11 games; Bennett, Otto Porter, Cody Zeller and Alex Len – four of the 2013 Class’ top five – have combined for zero such nights. The NBA’s youngest player has started 13 times, the Bucks have been about 10 points better when he’s on the floor and he has averaged more minutes in the fourth quarter (7.5) than in any of the first three.

“I think he’s earned it,” Drew said the other day. “When he’s on the floor, the thing that really intrigues me about him is, he does not have to score necessarily to impact the game. He’s rebounding, he can block shots, he gets in the open court, he makes plays. He’s energy – that’s something we need more than anything. I think besides Larry, he may be the most energetic guy on our team.”

Said the rookie: “I’m very happy that my coaches and my teammates are not forcing me to come in slowly, that I can come in and play. I’m very happy that the team trusts me to throw me in there. I love what I’m doing. Of course it’s my dream, and I’m just having fun. I try to learn from each game as much as possible.”

Drew and his staff are trying to fold Antetokounmpo more into the offense, drilling him in his “attack areas.”

“Right now, I can see he’s a lot more comfortable just spotting up at the [3-point line],” the coach said. “I don’t want him to fall into that type game, because he’s just too long and too athletic. … Anything on the perimeter, he’s a bounce away from the basket. Once he develops his mid-range game where he has consistency in his shot, it’s going to open up the other parts of the game.”

Antetokounmpo, the most tireless chaser in the game who doesn’t play for the Miami Heat, hasn’t wilted from all the losing or picked up bad habits from any unhappy souls in Milwaukee’s locker room. Good thing for Bucks fans: He’s still two years from accompanying anyone to nightclubs.

One area in which Antetokounmpo has been tested has been the traditional hazing that goes on by established opponents. He didn’t play well against the Suns earlier this month but handled the banging he got from P.J. Tucker. Against big names such as Carmelo Anthony and Vince Carter, Antetokounmpo has shrugged off physical and mental challenges.

“I enjoyed seeing that. If Giannis is going to take that next step, he’s going to have to learn how to balance,” Drew said. “He’s got to find ways how to play against them. I think he’s figured it out against the finesse guys. … but physical [small forwards], the strong ‘threes,’ he’s going to have to figure that out.”

Guard Gary Neal added: “I’ve seen guys bump him and he’ll bump ‘em back. The one I remember, him and Carmelo were going at it a little bit. And with Carmelo being an All-Star and challenging him, he didn’t back away from that. That’s big. … If you thought about it, there probably are some guys who folded it up and went home. We just don’t know ‘em because they’re not around anymore.”

Asked about intimidation by certain stars’ reputations, Antetokounmpo said: “Aw, no. Most of the players in this league, I don’t even know them.”

That’s not entirely true. Antetokounmpo recently lauded Kevin Durant, a player to whom he’s been compared in build, as his “idol” for his drive and focus more than his skills. By the time their meeting Saturday was over, with the kid logging 13 points and 11 rebounds, Durant was returning compliments.

“He’s just sneaky athletic; he’s quick,” the Oklahoma City star said. “He plays extremely hard. I can definitely roll with a player like that.”

Milwaukee can, too, if it is careful. The road to the draft lottery and a brighter future is bumpy, narrow and long, with nasty ditches on either side. But given Antetokounmpo’s reach and stride, he looks to be about a bounce away.

Swift, Swat Start To Bucks’ ‘G-Bo’ Project

 

The initial plan had been to write a little on Twitter about Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Milwaukee Bucks’ roll o’ the dice, first-round draft pick. But by the time you get done with his name, his identifying information and the pronunciation guide (YAHN-iss Ah-deh-toh-KOON-bo), well, there goes your 140 characters.

So HTB it is!

To hear the Bucks’ bosses talk about their upcoming season and the need to stay competitive in a smallish market with many fans of limited means – and to maintain visibility and popularity for a new-arena pitch underway – the development of Antetokounmpo in 2013-14 figured to be a low priority. Yet the long-armed kid played 57 minutes in Milwaukee’s first two preseason games, getting force-fed on the NBA game while managing to force open a few skeptics’ or sleepers’ eyes.

The 6-foot-9 youngster scored 14 points in the opener against Cleveland, shooting 3-of 7 from the floor, 7-of-10 from the line and hitting one of his three 3-pointers. He had four rebounds, two assists, two steals and three blocks, with five turnovers and five fouls in 29:12. He was the best of the Bucks with a plus-13 plus/minus.

Against Minnesota in Sioux Falls Thursday, the fellow some have taken to calling “G-Bo” – headline writers are rooting for that to take hold – played another 28 minutes. He scored four points on 1-of-6 shooting with a couple free throws, and had seven boards, one steal, four blocks, seven turnovers and five fouls.

His minutes were due in part to Ersan Ilyasova‘s sprained right ankle. His play is expectedly raw. But the 7-foot-3 wingspan that helped generate those seven blocked shots in two games is something that can’t be coached. And Antetokounmpo already has shown glimmers of what convinced Bucks general manager John Hammond to grab him at No. 15 in the June draft.

Enough, perhaps to recalibrate some of the team’s hopes and dreams for his rookie season.

“To me, success for Giannis is, I want people to see it,” Hammond had said when camps opened. “When you see him make a play, when you see a kid 19 years old on the floor doing what he’s doing, you say, ‘I get it. I see who he can be.’ “

Hammond and Bucks VP of player personnel Dave Babcock watched Antetokounmpo work at Tim Grgurich‘s Las Vegas summer camp in August, with the GM ‘fessing up to moments when he got “giddy” over this play or that by the kid. Visions of the new guy alongside Larry Sanders and John Henson started swatting shots in Hammond’s head.

“I don’t think you’re going to see it, possibly, every night,” he said. “But just show it once in a while. To me, that’s what I’m looking for.”

Much has been written and said about Hammond’s marching orders from owner Herb Kohl. The NBA intelligentsia scoffs at the idea of a franchise getting itself “stuck in the middle,” settling for low playoff berths that generally translate into quick eliminations followed by mediocre draft position.

That’s the Milwaukee way, though, which makes Antetokounmpo a luxury of sorts. He is every inch a project player like Kwame Brown, Darko Milicic, Jonas Valanciunas and many others, but without the risk of the high picks spent on those guys. A mandate to compete, but with the permission to take a flyer on a potentially homegrown breakout talent, has the Bucks and coach Larry Drew on a dual track.

“We keep talking about him this upcoming season and what we expect of him,” Hammond said. “I would like to see him get exposed but not over-exposed. Give him an opportunity to be on the floor when it’s possible, but not have him out there too much where he would lose his confidence and those around him would lose confidence.

“At 18 years old, 19 in December, the kinds of things he’s doing on the floor are unusual to say the least. So it’s a growth curve but that curve could be extremely high.”

Higher, perhaps, even than the spelling and pronunciation curves.

Thanks But No ‘Tanks,’ Says Bucks Owner

Larry Drew (lefts) looks to turn motley crew into a surprise team in the East.

Larry Drew (lefts) looks to turn motley crew into a surprise team in the East.

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.

Butler Returns Home To Milwaukee, Late But No Leaded Bat Needed

 

RACINE, Wis. – When Caron Butler would be late coming home, when that tiny red flag meant that he likely was in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people, Mattie Claybrook sometimes would hop in the car and take matters into her own hands.

“I had a leaded bat,” Claybrook, mother of the 11-year NBA veteran, said Thursday. “I took it a few times, just to scare the kids. I used to go where I thought he would be with the other boys. They would say, ‘Your momma’s comin’, your momma’s comin’. So he would hide or duck, but I would find him. I’d make him come back home and run the other boys away from wherever they might be. I was trying to keep him straight and narrow.”

That big stick would rank Claybrook somewhere between Isiah Thomas‘ mother greeting gang recruiters at her front door with a shotgun and Derrick Rose‘s three older brothers shooing away bad guys as young “Pooh” ran between their home, their grandmother’s and the Murray Park playground.

But those are Chicago tales – Thomas’ on the city’s West Side, Rose’s to the south in the tough Englewood neighborhood. Butler’s street challenges played out 70 miles to the north, a city of about 79,000 people along Lake Michigan, about 20 miles south of Milwaukee.

Trouble doesn’t sweat demographics, though, and it found Butler at Hamilton Park, a gathering site of idle time and ill intentions where Butler claims to have made his first drug sale at age 11. His newspaper route, getting him up and out long before he was supposed to be in school, provided perfect cover for the bad path onto which Butler had strayed. Back in 2008, during the third and most successful of Butler’s six NBA stops so far, Michael Lee of the Washington Post wrote about that path:

Butler received newspapers at 3:30 each morning, delivered them and then hit the corner of 18th and Howe to sell crack before the sun rose.

“You can take a kid to school all day; he’s in school for eight hours, he [doesn't] see the immediate impact,” Butler said. “You can stay out [on the corner] for four, five hours and make $1,500.”

By his estimation, Butler appeared in juvenile court 15 times by age 15. He served stints at two correctional institutions and had friends who were gunned down in the street. He narrowly avoided doing serious time himself when police found crack cocaine in the garage of the house where he and his family were living.

But basketball was speaking to Butler too, at the Bray and Bryant community centers in Racine, at Washington Park High and eventually at the Maine Central Institute in Pittsfield, Maine. He had been steered there by Jameel Ghuari of the Bray Center, Butler’s AAU coach and, over time, his mentor. That’s where Butler finished school and attracted the attention of Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun.

The rest, as they say, is history. Butler starred for two seasons with the Huskies and was picked 10th in the 2002 Draft by Miami, his first NBA stop. He spent a year with the Lakers after being dealt in the Heat’s trade for Shaquille O’Neal, made the East All-Star team twice in four-plus seasons with the Wizards, then joined Dallas in February 2010.

He was part of the Mavericks squad that beat Miami for the 2011 NBA title but he was a spectator, too, after rupturing his right patellar tendon in January of that season. The Clippers signed Butler out of rehab to a three-year, $24 million free-agent contract, and he averaged 11.1 points in 26.6 minutes the past two seasons.

And now, he’s home, acquired by Milwaukee last week for guard Ish Smith and center Viacheslav Kravtsov from Butler’s temporary stop in Phoenix (he was part of the Eric Bledsoe-Jared Dudley-J.J. Redick transaction in July). On Thursday, that meant a combination news conference-welcome event-pep rally for Butler in the fieldhouse at Park High. Students filled the bleachers at one end of the big gym, while family and extended family beamed from seats on the floor.

It wasn’t just safe for Butler to be back in Racine Thursday. It was proper.

“I’m not going to let you guys down,” Butler, 33, told them all. The event barely had begun and already his voice was growing thick, his eyes turning red. He ticked off thanks to a long list of folks and called the Bucks “a contending team.”

“I’m a little emotional,” Butler said. “I always am – y’all see me crying at press conferences all the time. But this is a different emotion now because this is a dream come true. This is something … I never thought it would happen.”

Two years ago, Milwaukee and Chicago both were possible destinations for Butler until the Clippers’ fat offer settled that. This time, a call from Butler to his mother brought it home.

“I started screaming and shouting and jumping all around the house like a little kid,” Claybrook said. “I said, ‘Thank you, God, in the name of Jesus’ about 20 times. I was so overwhelmed, so blessed.”

For the Bucks, adding Butler was the latest and nearly final move in a summer full of them. Fourteen of the 18 players who suited up for them in 2012-13 are gone. The roster has 11 new faces, including Butler, O.J. Mayo, Brandon Knight, Carlos Delfino, Zaza Pachulia and others, to be knitted into a team by a new head coach, Larry Drew.

For all the turnover, there still was a hole at small forward, which meant either overloading Delfino’s minutes or playing someone from the big-heavy front line out of position. Now Butler might start, with general manager John Hammond persuaded that the veteran’s recent spate of injuries (the knee in 2011, a broken hand in 2012, back and elbow issues last season) won’t scuttle that plan.

“I don’t think he’s made many concessions [to age or injury],” Hammond said. “I think he wants to do more – we don’t have Chris Paul or Blake Griffin like the Clippers do. … I talked to [Dallas coach] Rick Carlisle about Caron and he said, ‘I’ve never seen a guy work as hard as Caron did to come back from that [knee] injury.’ “

Hammond did those sort of background checks years ago on Butler, too, prior to the 2002 draft when the word “criminal” still was floating around. After 11 NBA seasons, that has been replaced entirely by praise for Butler’s character, personality and charity in the cities where he has played and, of course, in Racine.

“I always wanted to prove people wrong,” Butler said. “Everybody put this stigma on you like ‘You’re not going to make it’ or ‘You can’t do it because…’ “

“Always,” in his case, being from about age 16, anyway.

“I just always wanted to prove doubters wrong. and be a good example for the kids that watch me. My children, children in my family,” the father of four said. “Because the examples that I had, the role models, were different people, people who were running the streets doing different things.

“It’s real rewarding to see people say, ‘I look up to you. Because you did that, I feel I can do this.’ That’s special to me and means a lot.”

There was a fieldhouse full of people telling Butler that Thursday. He had joked that the Bucks, the high school and the neighbors couldn’t hold the news conference “at 18th and Mead,” on the corner of Hamilton Park. But in a way, they did.

Neal, Bucks Agree To Two-Year Deal





HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – It took a little while, but Gary Neal has finally found a comfortable landing spot. The former San Antonio Spurs’ sharpshooter agreed to a two-year deal with the Milwaukee Bucks worth a reported $3.25 million per season, according to the Journal Sentinel.

With their point guard situation still in flux, they extended a qualifying offer to Brandon Jennings making him a restricted free agent this summer, Neal gives bucks coach Larry Drew another seasoned offensive weapon to work with at shooting guard. The Bucks added O.J. Mayo earlier this summer. They also presented restricted free agent point guard Jeff Teague with a four-year, $32 million offer sheet that the Hawks matched.

Neal’s most recent and perhaps best career highlights came last month in The Finals, during the epic seven-game series between the Spurs and Miami Heat. He scored a playoff career-high 24 points in a Game 3 blowout of the Heat, nailing six 3-pointers in that contest as he and Danny Green combined for 51 of the Spurs’ 113 points.

Neal, 28, averaged 9.7 points and shot 40 percent from beyond the 3-point line in three seasons with the Spurs.

The Bucks, who lost J.J. Redick (to the Los Angeles Clippers) and Mike Dunleavy (to the Chicago Bulls) in free agency, were in need of a someone who could provide an offensive spark off of the bench. Neal is the sort of fearless, big-game performer Bucks general manager John Hammond was looking for.

There is still business for the Bucks to tend to, of course. They have to figure out what to do, if anything, with Jennings. As it stands, he’s set to return to his starting point guard spot for the 2013-14 season. He would then become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2014.


Sprained Ankle Sidelines Bucks’ Sanders



LAS VEGAS – Just as he was getting comfortable during USA Basketball’s mini-camp for the Men’s Senior National Team, Milwaukee Bucks center Larry Sanders was sent to the sidelines with a sprained left ankle.

Sanders spent the bulk of the Tuesday’s workout on the trainers’ table with his ankle elevated and Bucks general manager John Hammond and head coach Larry Drew hovering the entire time.

“He just sprained it and it blew up on him a little bit,” Drew said. “It’s s tough pill for him to swallow because you know how bad he wants to be out there. All of these guys do. But it’s just a freak thing that happened.”

With further evaluation needed, Sanders’ will miss the mini-camp and Thursday night’s intrasquad scrimmage at UNLV’s Thomas & Mack Center.

Sanders, who finished second to Oklahoma City’s Serge Ibaka in blocks last season, injured himself doing what he does best. He went up to contest a shot under the basket and came down on the foot of Houston Rockets swingman Chandler Parsons and crumpled to the floor holding his ankle.

Sanders had a towel wrapped around his head for much of the day, the frustration no doubt eating him as the action continued without him. In such a competitive environment, an injury can cost a player the time on he needs on the floor to impress not only the USA Basketball brass, but also the general manager and coach who made the trek here to observe him as well.

“There are a lot of eyes on us in this environment,” said fellow big man Derrick Favors of Utah. “It’s tough to see anyone go down in this situation. Larry was all over the place out there before it happened, too. I saw him over there with that towel over his head and I just told him to keep his head up.”

Options Dwindling For Bucks, Jennings

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If someone could shove a stick into the machinery of free agency right now – and the Milwaukee Bucks could bring back point guard Brandon Jennings on the one-year qualifying offer price of $4.3 million – both the team and the player would be well-served.

Of course, the gears will keep turning, teams will assess and re-assess, someone will panic, someone else will blink and Milwaukee general manager John Hammond probably will be faced with matching a multi-year deal for Jennings. Hammond’s preferred choice at point guard, Jeff Teague, was snatched back Saturday by the Atlanta Hawks, who chose to match the restricted 25-year-old’s four-year, $32 million offer sheet from Milwaukee.

As eager as Teague was to continue playing for former Hawks coach Larry Drew in his new gig with the Deer, Atlanta wasn’t willing to lose an asset such as Teague for nothing in return. As the proprietor here at HTB, Sekou Smith, notes, the Hawks’ backcourt is too thin and Teague is too consistent a performer to have picked off, especially by a middle-of-the-pack rival in the Eastern Conference.

That leaves the Bucks and Jennings staring at each other, perhaps to make nice now that their options are dwindling, perhaps to glare a little and scramble like mad to avoid what might be less than a warm-and-fuzzy reconciliation.

It didn’t sound as if Hammond and Jennings would be running slow-motion through a sun-drenched meadow to embrace, in the immediate aftermath of Atlanta’s Teague decision, as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Charles F. Gardner reported it:

Bucks general manager John Hammond got the news after his flight landed in Las Vegas, where Milwaukee plays its first NBA Summer League game on Saturday night.

“Now we have to move forward with the job before us,” Hammond said. “We have some work to do.”

The best thing for both sides, it says here, would be to re-up with each other for a year on that $4.3 million qualifying offer. That would allow Jennings to become unrestricted in 2014, freed from the Bucks forever if he truly wants a bigger market or bigger money (and can find someone to offer either or both). It would benefit Milwaukee, too, because they would have a highly motivated point guard, presumably eager to address some of the significant flaws in his game. Like his shot selection. Like his shaky work facilitating teammates. Like his poor percentages finishing at the rim. And like his deteriorating defensive play.

Obviously it would be risky for Jennings to forsake guaranteed money over multiple years if someone offers it. Then again, he has taken the road less traveled before, heading to Europe for a season rather than spending one year at a college campus in the U.S. prior to the 2009 Draft.

His development on the court has stalled because his maturity off it has been playing catch-up. Yet it’s unlikely Hammond and Drew want to go through the season with only newly-added Luke Ridnour, O.J. Mayo as a combo option and raw backups Ish Smith and rookie Nate Wolters at the point.

Jennings, almost as a tease but also in response to a talk last season with interim head coach Jim Boylan, produced a striking month’s work just after the All-Star break. Over 13 games, he averaged 15.5 points and 9.9 assists while shooting 44.8 percent from 3-point range (while reigning in his attempts a bit). Six of his 13 double-double games and seven of his 13 double-digit assists performances came during those 13 games, and the Bucks went 7-6.

It seemed like a salary drive, only it didn’t last. Over Milwaukee’s final 15 regular-season games, Jennings averaged 14.4 points, 5.1 assists and shot 35.9 on 3-pointers, jacking them up at a higher rate again. The Bucks closed 5-10.

Milwaukee, if it’s going to bring him back at all, needs the good Jennings, the motivated Jennings, for most or all of its 82 games, not just 13. Jennings needs to demonstrate his market value, because the gap between what he think he’s worth and what he’s being offered at the moment scarcely could be greater.

Going all in for one year would be best for both sides. Even if it’s unlikely to happen.