CBSSports.com's Eye On Basketball is taking a team-by-team look at the 2014 NBA offseason. We continue with the suddenly Jason-Kidd lead Milwaukee Bucks. Check out the rest of the offseason reports here.
How they finished 2014: There's a thought that being bad at playing basketball is the worst thing you can be in the NBA. This is the crux of any over-reactive conversation about tanking. "You can't reward failure."
Why not? Why can't you reward failure? Why is failure any more or less worthy of a benefit than victory? Isn't victory its own reward?
Anyway, even if you want to go down the road of "failure is bad," you still can't define failure in the NBA as having a losing record. No, friends, here's the deal. The worst thing you can be is a team that tried to be good and paid money to be good... and was bad.
And that, most definitely, was the story of the 2013-2014 Bucks.
Oddly enough, the Bucks were praised before the season started for their efforts towards mediocrity. Sure, the Bucks weren't going to win the title, but they spent money on players like O.J. Mayo, Zaza Pachulia, and signed defensive phenom Larry Sanders to a four-year, $44 million contract. They paid to not be bad.
Yeah, funny story. Sanders was involved in an early season bar fight that wound up not only getting him suspended but forcing thumb surgery that kept him out some of the year and then a face injury, yes, a face injury, ended his season early. Mayo gained weight, clashed with coach Larry Drew, and generally was horrific. Ersan Ilyasova... OK, he wasn't bad.
But the rest of the team was collectively terrible. The Bucks were never 76ers-oh-my-my-eyes-are-bleeding awful nor were they no-seriously-I-would-feel-bad-but-this-is-hilarious bad like the Lakers. They were just miserable, and lost and lost and lost. You can look at Larry Drew's coaching job, you can look at the lack of a blue-chipper or team leadership, you can look at Sanders' injury and locker room issues or the stagnant development of players like John Henson or Brandon Knight, the inexperience defensively, or, oddly, the injury to Zaza Pachulia which put them in an early season hole.
But really, it comes down to this. If you don't have a rock-solid core to your team, i.e. a superstar to keep you afloat, you can have seasons like this when nothing goes right. Carmelo Anthony's flaming desire for isolations may drive you crazy but as long as he's on your team, you're winning 30 games. More? Most often. But certainly 30 games. The Bucks didn't have that and figured out pretty quick that their best plan for the future was to get that guy.
Oh, hey did I mention that owner Senator Herb Kohl having retired from the Senate and facing the cold economic reality of owning a team in Milwaukee and the uphill battle of creating a new arena using funds from a public that's less excited about professional basketball as it is about that final stale hot dog bun at the local football tailgate?
Yeah, that was a factor, too.
(Note: This is my obligatory note that the bright side of the Bucks' season was Giannis Antetokounmpo who despite being raw, is crazy long, athletic, and has one of the most delightful personalities you'll find in the league. Watching the money, fame, and pressure slowly poison him over the next six year should be a real treat.)
(Note 2: Hopefully not, I'm just dead inside.)
Offseason needs: Well a new owner that was willing to put the money and effort forth to get a new arena so that Adam Silver didn't basically shove the team out the door and into a car to be kidnapped and driven to Seattle would be a good start.
From there, they needed the superstar. And after the massive failure they encountered, they wound up actually beating out the Sixers, the "trying as hard as possible to lose every single game to the point they traded their second-best player for Danny Granger who they immediately waived" 76ers for the to spot.
And then of course, as the lottery always does, despite the constant yammering about rewarding failure, the failed we not rewarded, well not the biggest failures, just the desperately mediocre Cavaliers as they landed the top spot. But the Bucks got the second spot, setting them up to get the guy they wanted anyway.
From there, really, they needed an idea. Some teams need a plan, a way to execute what they want to be, or they need an engine, something to make that plan go. But the Bucks were before that. They needed a total change of everything that defined them and that started with a new vision.
And boy, oh boy, would they get it.
The draft: JABARI PARKER.
The Bucks got their guy, as the player they wanted landed to them at No. 2 and they didn't make this thing more difficult than it had to be. Parker knew well in advance of the draft the Bucks wanted him, and were going to take him. It puts him 80 minutes from his home of Chicago, and gives him ownership of a team. Parker's the man, from Day One. It's the right situation for him.
Whether he can effectively function as an oversized three or an undersized four, and whether he can ever be a capable defender are big questions, but the kid is big, talented, and a leader. He's what Milwaukee needs.
They also grabbed Damien Inglis in the second round, and Johnny O'Bryant, the big burly power forward at No. 36.
Free agency and trades: OK, enough foreshadowing. The biggest thing that happened with the Bucks, outside of Jabari, was the Kidd Coup. In a span of three days, word surfaced that Jason Kidd had tried to take over the Nets' basketball operations, failed, and wound up bolting to Milwaukee.
Yeah. Turns out one of the new owners had been Kidd's financial advisor so there was already a relationship. And with new ownership wanting to do what new ownership does: clean house and put in its own people to assure loyalty and control, it became a pretty nice fit. Especially since the Bucks had just fired Larry Drew.
Oh, wait. Wait, no.
THEY HADN'T FIRED LARRY DREW YET.
So this was a really big deal. Coaches typically take the bad end of the PR sticks in this league. They shun most media attention, they have short job tenures and absolutely no security. They do this in exchange for great salaries and monstrous power and staff and because most of them are hyper-competitive to the point of it being pathological. But the one thing they don't take kindly to? Taking another guy's job while he's still got it. It's why guys like Jeff Van Gundy who is always on wishlists won't discuss jobs until the guy in place is fired.
So Kidd taking Larry Drew's job while he still had it looked bad on him, and worse on the Bucks for not handling this with more tact. Anyway, eventually Drew was fired, Kidd was hired, and John Hammond sticks around, which I'm sure isn't awkward at all.
As for free agency and trades? Nothing major, since this team has long-term flexibility it doesn't want to tie up and is happy rebuilding for another season to give Parker a running mate. They did add Jerryd Bayless to their ranks, which could mean the end of Brandon Knight as a point guard. They added Kendall Marshall off of waivers and he'll likely be in the mix along with Nate Wolters, Bayless, and Knight for a spot in the top four in the backcourt. Marshall started last season, but that was for the Lakers, as opposed to an actual NBA team.
They lost Jeff Adrien in free agency, which is actually more of a hit than you'd think.
Overall grade and accomplishments -- B: This is entirely based on the Parker pick. They got their guy. That gets you a B. Parker isn't a home run, but he looked great in summer league and gives them something to build around. They have an idea. They have to cash in on that idea, but the have the idea.
Why not an A? Because I'm not sure if Kidd is better than Drew. That doesn't mean I know he's worse. I honestly don't know. He could be the same. Bear in mind how bad, bad, bad the Nets were in Kidd's first two months. If you want to credit him for their turnaround, you can. But they had a veteran-stacked roster that had too much talent to fail. And it's hard to look at the playoffs and point to anything Kidd did as particularly good or bad.
So that, combined with general inaction, keeps them from a stellar mark. But it was a good summer, which is better than a bad summer, and with future flexibility and the likelihood of some trades his year, the Bucks look set to really rebuild. They may be bad in the future, but at least this time it'll probably be on purpose.