Struggling small market teams don’t need to tank. They need to be smart, they need to have a plan, and they need to stick to that plan.
The sudden rise of the Indiana Pacers and Houston Rockets should give Bucks fans a glimpse of hope that a team stuck in mediocrity can make it out of NBA Hell without completely bottoming out. The “Morey Model” (i.e., savvy, analytically-driven asset accumulation) could easily replace the “Oklahoma City Model” (i.e., tanking!) as the new hip trend for small market teams that are desperate for a shot at relevancy. In reality, both models are probably anomalies — successful in large part due to luck and not directly replicable. But it’s time for the Bucks to at least try something new and be transparent with their vision along the way.
Milwaukee seemed to be treading along these lines prior to last season. Combining impressive Summer League performances by Tobias Harris and John Henson with Larry Sanders’ sudden breakout early in the season, Milwaukee looked destined to build around that budding core. The small forward, power forward and center pieces were seemingly in place, surrounded by a “win now” cast of Ersan Ilyasova, Monta Ellis, Mike Dunleavy, Luc Mbah a Moute and the like. Brandon Jennings, as always, was the wild card. The approach rendered itself as the classic “win now while kind of rebuilding” mindset of the franchise, but none of the season’s potential outcomes seemed overly harmful:
- The Bucks could go to the playoffs on the backs of their young talent. (Perfect!)
- The Bucks could miss the playoffs on the backs of their young talent. (Plenty acceptable and still a valuable experience for talent evaluation)
- The Bucks could go to the playoffs on the backs of their “win now” players. (That’s fine — the young core can get their shot the following season, and the Bucks will have the opportunity to rebuild with half their team coming off the books)
- The Bucks could miss the playoffs on the backs of their “win now” players. (Not ideal, but the team can move on and rid itself of the “win now” players)
It appeared like a legitimate plan, even if questionable, and it looked like Milwaukee could make the playoffs without further sacrificing the future.
But the front office oddly panicked and aborted that plan — if it actually existed — when they saw an opportunity to both seal a playoff spot and move up the standings to avoid Miami all in one swing. Milwaukee shipped out Harris, rookie Doron Lamb and Beno Udrih for J.J. Redick, Gustavo Ayon and Ish Smith. There were also rumblings about Josh Smith joining Redick in Milwaukee, but a deal with Atlanta reportedly fell through at the last minute.
The trade turned out to be a disaster, and it was probably a disaster from the start. It’s always more rational to analyze the process of a basketball decision than the result. The process was flawed — the Bucks were willing to give up a young player with untapped potential for a 29-year-old fringe starter, who appeared to give Milwaukee a better chance of securing a low playoff seed and moving up to a slightly less low playoff seed.
The results were equally bad. Harris played well in Orlando, while Redick floundered in a reduced, inconsistent role with the Bucks. Milwaukee remained the eighth seed and, as it turned out, never had a realistic shot of moving up or down in the standings. To make matters worse, a miffed Redick quickly bolted Milwaukee for a better opportunity this summer.
The Harris trade is just the most recent and striking exemplar of failed asset management — something the Bucks have to avoid with an inherently small margin for error. There are no shortage of further examples, but I want to focus on one frustrating aspect of Hammond’s tenure with the Bucks: inherited asset management. It doesn’t tell the whole story, but it’s a good starting point — particularly when you see how Morey masterfully transformed his modest inherited assets into two superstars, James Harden and Dwight Howard.
After an impressive run with the Detroit Pistons, including a seven-year stint as vice president of basketball operations, John Hammond agreed to terms as general manager of the Milwaukee Bucks. He signed a five-year, $8 million contract on April 11, 2008. As is customary, Hammond praised the franchise he departed, thanked Bucks owner Herb Kohl for the new opportunity and expressed his excitement for the future. With a quick glance at Milwaukee’s roster, one could have reasonably deducted that this honeymoon wasn’t going to last very long. In short, the roster was an utter mess.
While the new general manager was settling in during his inaugural summer, Brew Hoop‘s Frank Madden eloquently summed up the reality Hammond faced upon signing on the dotted line:
Rather than giving a pep talk full of promises, Hammond instead seemed all too aware of the challenges ahead of him. An undisciplined, defensively-indifferent team that amassed a staggering 114 losses over the previous two seasons. No cap room likely for at least two years, with the possibility of luxury tax issues in 09/10 (emphasis added). And an increasingly disillusioned fan base that was losing both patience and interest.
Below is the salary structure Hammond inherited in 2008, via HoopsHype:
The inflated contracts of Michael Redd, Dan Gadzuric, Bobby Simmons and Mo Williams were daunting impediments for Hammond’s short- and long-term goals — whatever they actually were. For reference, the NBA would set the 2008-09 salary cap at roughly $58.7 million and the luxury tax level at $71.2 million. When Hammond took over in the summer of 2008, the Bucks had $62.4 million committed to 10 players. Furthermore, the Bucks already had an estimated $46.8 million (a conservative estimate, given the impending contract status of Bogut) tied up in salaries for the 2009-10 season, in which NBA would set the salary cap at $57.7 million and the luxury tax level at $69.9 million.
Clearly, Hammond had plenty of decisions to make his first summer on the job in order to wane himself out of an ineffective roster with an unsustainable cap situation. When asked whether he would blow up the team he inherited or just tinker with the roster, Hammond was ambivalent. “Maybe something in between,” Hammond told Gery Woelfel of the Racine Journal Times. “Maybe more than a tweak, but you sure as heck wouldn’t want to blow up a team with some of the assets that are here (emphasis added).”
The moves Hammond made that summer echoed his indeterminate answer. As hinted at, he neither blew up the team nor simply tinkered with it. While Milwaukee’s cornerstones — Redd and Bogut — stayed intact, eight new faces appeared for training camp in 2008.
Hammond completed two significant trades in the summer of 2008, with somewhat contradictory approaches. On June 16, 2008, he acquired Richard Jefferson from the New Jersey Nets. Jefferson, at age 28, was coming off one of his more productive seasons, despite signs of declining athleticism. He led the Nets in scoring at 22.6 points per game on 46.6 percent shooting (57.1 TS%) and posted a 17.4 PER.
The Nets, however, were in the middle of dismantling its once promising — yet underachieving and aging — core of Jefferson, Jason Kidd and Vince Carter. After trading Kidd to the Dallas Mavericks midseason, the Nets dangled their leading scorer around the league as trade bait in the summer. Milwaukee bit.
Hammond agreed to send out Simmons, who was never the same after suffering a severe ankle injury that forced him to miss the entire 2006-07 season, and Yi, the disgruntled sixth overall pick in the previous year’s draft.
Salary-wise, the trade had little short-term impact — adding less than $1 million to Milwaukee’s 2008-09 payroll. However, when Simmons’ inflated deal was set to expire in 2010, Jefferson was still going to be owed $15 million during the 2010-11 season. (Hammond avoided this conundrum when he pawned off Jefferson to San Antonio for expiring contracts after his first season in Milwaukee.)
Less than a month after the Jefferson trade, Hammond announced that the Bucks had agreed to a five-year, $60 million extension with Andrew Bogut, who would have been a restricted free agent following the next season. In August, Hammond completed his second trade of the offseason. His mission was to astutely break up Milwaukee’s highly compensated Williams-Redd backcourt tandem. It was also a necessary salary dump, with the additional long-term money tied up in Jefferson and Bogut. Hammond shipped Williams to Cleveland and Desmond Mason to Oklahoma City in a three-team trade, acquiring Luke Ridnour and a couple expiring contracts, Damon Jones and Adrian Griffin. Hammond finalized his first offseason by signing a few low-cost veterans in free agency.
So far, so good. Now fast-forward a handful of years, and the trickle-down effect of his inherited assets has been anything but prosperous. The chart below demonstrates the existing value of each player when Hammond took over the team in 2008:
[table id=36 /]
Five years later, not a single player Hammond inherited remains (unless we count Ilyasova, whose rights Milwaukee owned) – which is perfectly fine, because there were no superstars.
However, that doesn’t excuse squandering nearly every inherited asset, and this what Hammond has left to show for his work:
*click to enlarge*
Green = active asset
Red = expired asset
Yellow = expired asset, but returned to team at least one season afterward
Note: The chart doesn’t represent every trade in full — only the parts directly connected to an inherited asset. (E.g., The Bucks didn’t trade Shaun Livingston straight up for Dalembert; they also traded Jon Brockman and Jon Leuer, while swapping first-round picks with Houston.)
That is not productive asset management. At risk of oversimplification, Hammond basically turned all of his inherited assets into Ekpe Udoh
, Gustavo Ayon (update), Ish Smith and two protected second-round picks.
Oh, and cap space — a lot of cap space.
Hammond, who received a three-year extension this past January, spins most of his moves as progress toward roster flexibility and a responsible salary structure. If he sells low and burns a few assets along the way, it’s not supposed to really matter — perhaps these are sacrifices needed for the later, greater good. The end, as they say, justifies the means.
There was this from the Las Vegas Sun in 2009:
Hammond’s major task over the past year has been creating roster flexibility for the Bucks. That, he insists, was what trading Richard Jefferson to San Antonio was about.
To consistently win with the proper salary structure, Hammond said, is the key. Do that and you put yourself in a position to go from good to great when a dynamic acquisition becomes available.
“Then you can acquire the piece that will make the difference,” he said. “It might make us a (luxury) tax team … but I know this, we have an owner (Sen. Herb Kohl) who will do that.”
And this from Omaha.com in 2011:
“Our goal here, just like when working with Joe in the process of rebuilding the Pistons, is to put a good team on the floor with a good salary structure,” Hammond said. “If you have that, then you can be a good team consistently. And then, when that difference-maker piece comes along, and you have a good salary structure that allows you to get that piece, that’s when you can go from good to great.”
And this from The Boston Globe in 2012:
Another asset we have, I think we have a favorable salary structure. We’re not in a position where we’re pushed to the cusp of the tax.
The goal today is not to make trades. The goal today is to try to find a way to keep some of these young pieces together and build with this young nucleus but continue to keep a fair salary structure that will give us flexibility to change and improve this team.
And this from the Bill Michaels Show in 2013:
I think we’re in a fairly good position. We have a lot of young players. We have a good salary structure right now moving forward.
Finally, following Milwaukee’s exit from the 2013 playoffs, there was this from Fox Sports Wisconsin:
I like the fact that we still have our salary structure in such a standpoint where we can control our own destiny to a certain extent. That’s important to us.
In theory, abundant cap space, roster flexibility and a responsible salary structure are all essential assets for building a relevant team. But they have to evolve into legitimate talent to actually make a difference.
Thus far, the Bucks have used their salary structure, cap space and flexibility this summer to trade for Luke Ridnour and sign O.J. Mayo, Carlos Delfino and Zaza Pachulia. The franchise’s needle is not moving — either direction.
On April 20, 2009, the Bucks Twitter handle posted a quote from Hammond, who would soon be named NBA Executive of the Year:
“When you have a good team, but no flexibility you can’t go from good to great.” – GM John Hammond on improving salary cap flexibility.
— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) April 20, 2009
Indeed, he achieved that flexibility.
Now where is the greatness?