From the players’ faces to the general atmosphere, Bucks Media Day was hardly recognizable from last year.
Gone were the questions of whether a team could win with two undersized, high-usage guards and whether a team could stay together given the lame-duck statuses of its players, coaching staff and general manager.
Instead, those were replaced by ones on the meaning of leadership, the meaning of team chemistry and the meaning of team basketball — all of the intangible things that doomed Milwaukee last season.
The things that left a coach reportedly “hating his team.” The things that erupted into a near-physical altercation during the playoffs. The things that general manager John Hammond spent an entire summer attempting to fix. The things that spurred the hiring of a player-friendly head coach, Larry Drew. The things that led to 11 new faces on the roster. The things that prompted the returns of Zaza Pachulia, Carlos Delfino and Luke Ridnour, as well as homecoming of Caron Butler.
But perhaps there was no greater indicator of this new atmosphere — one filled with optimism, hope, rejuvenation and refreshment — than when Bucks owner Herb Kohl, who attended the event last year but didn’t speak, willingly strode to the podium and fielded questions for 15 minutes.
His messages were familiar; they were likely all too familiar for Bucks fans who are hungry for a true rebuild.
But that’s not the point.
Despite the team’s embarrassing playoff sweep at the hands of the Miami Heat — a scenario that was only made possible by Milwaukee’s incessant desire to shoot for the eighth rather than rebuild — Kohl felt comfortable enough to stand in front of the media and repeat his philosophy on running an NBA franchise. That alone speaks volumes to the level of confidence he must have in the revamped roster and new coaching staff.
“We’re not a team we need to look at without enthusiasm, without expectation [and] without hope,” Kohl said. “We have a lot of athletic ability on this team. We have many, many good players. We have players with outstanding character – without exception.”
Last year, “playoffs” was the staple word at Media Day. Along with a handful of players, Hammond explicitly stated that the goal and expectation for the Bucks was to reach the postseason.
This year, surely with some lessons learned, the team’s goal doesn’t sound so concrete.
“We think we are ready to go out there and compete, which is what you want to do every year,” Kohl said. “We don’t want to stand here and talk silly and talk about [that we are] for sure going to win a championship. We want to be realistic and honest about who we are. We’re experienced. We have talent. We have good character. We want to be a good team. We expect to be a good team.”
And what should fans expect?
“We want them to come to the games hoping and expecting that they will see a team that will entertain, play hard, play 48 minutes, win games and send them home feeling good about the experience of coming to see a Bucks game,” Kohl said. “That’s our hope for this year, and I think we will achieve that.”
This doesn’t mean the franchise’s philosophy has changed. Perhaps it is more malleable — maybe the Bucks are willing to embrace a slight youth movement this season at the price of a win here and there — but that remains to be seen with minute distribution. Will second-year players John Henson and Khris Middleton find consistent playing time, or will veterans Caron Butler, Carlos Delfino and Ersan Ilyasova dominate the rotation? (Delfino, as pictured above, suffered a setback while rehabbing a fracture in his right foot and is in a walking boot; he will at least miss training camp.) Will rookies Nate Wolters and Giannis Antetokounmpo see the court, or will they be relegated to observing on the bench?
Regardless of those answers, one thing is certain: The Bucks will not purposefully lose games in aspirations of a higher draft pick.
“I’ve never been a person to use the word ‘tank’ – maybe there’s a different word,” Kohl said. “But 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 is no different.
“We want to be as good a team as we can be. There are some teams that buy into one kind of philosophy, but I’m not commenting on what other teams do. I don’t believe in not competing and doing everything you can to be as competitive as you can. And then [you are] looking for the breaks along the way that will give you a chance, maybe, to elevate to a high standard.”
Kohl then pointed — literally — to new assistant general manager David Morway, who was listening behind the gathered media.
“I know David Morway is standing there,” Kohl said. “He came here from Indiana. Indiana is a really good team this year. Indiana never tanked. Is that right, David?”
After Morway’s affirmation, Kohl added, “They’ve done it adding pieces here and there, and getting some breaks and so on. All of a sudden, here they are competing for the Eastern Conference championship.
“And they did it without using that word.”
That word, of course, is “tanking.”
Indeed, as general manager of the Pacers from 2008 to 2012, Morway played a big part in raising the franchise out of mediocrity without bottoming out. (Morway resigned amid a deteriorating relationship with team president Larry Bird, which was reportedly exacerbated by Morway’s inability to acquire current Bucks guard O.J. Mayo.) He struck gold in the middle parts of the draft, selecting Paul George at the 10th slot in 2010 and acquiring Roy Hibbert, the 17th pick, on draft night in 2008. He also added a vital piece — as both a player and leader — in former All-Star David West, who signed a two-year, $20 million deal in 2011.
It’s clear the Bucks will now try to emulate the “Indiana Model.” In reality, this model is scarcely different from the 2004 “Detroit Model” that made Hammond, who helped assemble the Pistons’ championship team, an attractive hire in 2008. Both models function on the premise of building around a talented, selfless core — and then adding other pieces that fit — instead of one superstar.
By bringing in highly regarded veterans like Butler, Delfino, Pachulia and Ridnour, the Bucks are trying to create a locker room atmosphere in which their younger players can thrive. Hammond said the young front court of Sanders, Henson and Antetokounmpo “could be a championship-caliber front line someday.” For the first time in recent memory, most of the players appear legitimately excited to play in Milwaukee. Only three players — Butler, Ridnour and Ekpe Udoh — will enter the season with contract uncertainties looming next summer.
Of course, everything will have to come together perfectly for the current iteration of the Bucks to make significant noise this year or even in the near future. It’s a long shot, but forging team chemistry is a good place to start. Kohl, Hammond and returning players took a few passive-aggressive shots at last year’s team (or in Larry Sanders’ case, not so passive), all of which centered on its self-serving nature. But now they are ready to move forward.
“We’re excited about having a coaching staff love the group of players,” Hammond said. “We love having Larry Drew here as coach. We love the staff that he has put together.”
The front office is hoping an infusion of high character players will offset the loss of pure talent this summer.
“When you have teams that have good chemistry and guys who are legitimately wanting to play together, work together and win – and not be thinking about personal accomplishments – that makes a difference,” Kohl said. “I think we all feel, almost without exception, that this is a team compose of those kind of people, and that’s going to make a big difference on the team.”
Yet, here’s the million-dollar question: Do wins lead to team chemistry, or does team chemistry lead to wins?
“Ultimately, you need good character to be a really good team,” Kohl said. “You always try to accomplish that, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. When it doesn’t work out quite the way you want it, then you have to be willing to make changes, and that’s what we did.”
We will soon find out.