John Hammond’s Savior: The NBA Draft
Milwaukee Bucks fans can reasonably debate whether general manager John Hammond should still be around on June 26 to head his seventh draft in Milwaukee, but it’s fairly clear why he will be.
It’s becoming increasingly apparent that the new Bucks owners, Marc Lasry and Wes Edens, will give Hammond at least a one-season trial period. Grantland’s Zach Lowe wrote last Tuesday that there is a “growing consensus” around the league that Lasry and Edens are going to allow Hammond the chance to prove the team’s young nucleus, which will include the second-overall pick in next month’s draft, is viable. Edens essentially confirmed this at the lottery to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel — according to Charles Gardner, the owners “will rely on GM John Hammond and staff in draft preparation.”
One doesn’t have to dig too far to build a portfolio against Hammond. Although the Bucks reside in a conference that annually rewards an even record (or worse) with a playoff spot, the team has just two playoff appearances in Hammond’s six seasons. The first was the aberrational “Fear the Deer” run as the sixth seed in 2010. The other was a futile, tumultuous eighth-seed appearance in 2013 on the backs of players with expiring contracts and an interim coach, ending in an embarrassing four-game sweep by the Miami Heat. The first playoff appearance was followed by a 35-win season; the latter led to a franchise-worst 15 wins this past season. In all, the Bucks have had just one winning season under Hammond.
Despite a persistent “win-now” mandate from former owner Herb Kohl, Hammond has accumulated a 199-277 record (.418). He squashed his inherited assets. He has neither developed nor acquired an All-Star. He has justified most of his moves as steps toward achieving flexibility and a responsible salary structure, but he has had a propensity to distribute any savings to middling talent during free agency. He has given O.J. Mayo, Zaza Pachulia, Drew Gooden and John Salmons a combined total of over $100 million in guaranteed money.
Hammond’s track record with trades is arguably more egregious. While there have been a couple of gems — initially acquiring Salmons and shipping out Brandon Jennings, who was a restricted free agent, for Brandon Knight and Khris Middleton — they have been marred by a series of short-sighted moves. Hammond traded Tobias Harris for 32 cold shooting nights from J.J. Redick in 2013. To match salaries, Jon Leuer was included in a trade in 2012 that secured a season of Samuel Dalembert‘s general disinterest and dropped the Bucks two draft slots. Hammond traded down nine slots in 2011 in part to shed the contracts of Salmons and Corey Maggette and in part to acquire an aging, malcontent Stephen Jackson. The quest for the playoffs has led to a revolving door of high-volume, low-inspiration scorers from Richard Jefferson, to Salmons, to Maggette, to Jackson, to Monta Ellis, to Mayo.
And despite all of these misgivings, Hammond will almost certainly make the Bucks’ selection come June 26 — because, lucky for him, that is what he does best.
Under Kohl’s competitive mandate, Hammond could always find salvage in the draft. It was the one time of the year when Hammond was allowed to ignore need and embrace youth and potential. In past interviews, he referred to this phenomenon as “serving two masters” — trying to assemble a win-now cast through trades and free agency while remaining cognizant of the future through the draft. That conflicting approach, however, manifested into acts like drafting a 19-year-old Harris only to turn around 20 months later and trade him for a 29-year-old shooting guard on an expiring contract.
Setting aside his non-draft flaws, Hammond has shown a knack for nabbing overlooked talent each June. Following a string of mediocre seasons — and since blatant tanking and genuine rebuilding were never options under Kohl — Hammond has been left to navigate the middle of the first round, where transcendent talent is scarce. General managers are notoriously risk-averse, so it have been hard to blame Hammond for going with “safe” prospects that could have promptly filled a need and developed into solid rotational pieces.
However, Hammond has consistently targeted high-upside, boom-or-bust prospects. It’s not hard to see this trend with Hammond’s six first-round selections: Joe Alexander, Jennings, Larry Sanders, Harris, John Henson and Giannis Antetokounmpo. And while Alexander busted in remarkable fashion, the other five selections have all arguably exceeded expectations, particularly considering Milwaukee’s draft position.
Jennings, Sanders, Harris, Henson and Antetokounmpo were all drafted between the 10th and 19th slots — plenty removed from the projected top tiers of talent. Yet, as will be seen in coming charts, each stacks up well against past selections and his draft peers. Even in the crapshoot that is the second round — and despite wasting three second-round picks in 2010 — Hammond has come away with legitimate role players, including Luc Mbah a Moute, Jodie Meeks, Jon Leuer and Nate Wolters.
There have been 15 All-Stars drafted since Hammond took over in 2008. Just three of them, however, were drafted after Hammond’s draft slot: Jrue Holiday, Brook Lopez and Roy Hibbert. In 2009, the 76ers drafted Holiday 17th, seven selections after the Bucks drafted Jennings. Lopez and Hibbert were selected 10th and 17th in the 2008 draft, in which the Bucks used the eighth pick on Alexander. All three are impact players, but they aren’t superstars — Lopez has been plagued with injuries, while Holiday and Hibbert have battled consistency issues.
Tellingly, no player picked after Hammond’s selections has been named to an All-NBA team.
Thus, it hasn’t been a matter of whom Hammond drafts, but where he drafts. He hasn’t drafted a star, but he hasn’t yet been in a position to draft one. Aside from the Alexander selection, Hammond has successfully maneuvered within a historically challenging draft range. And that may be why the new owners feel compelled to give him another shot with what will be the highest selection of his tenure.
With that, we’ll be analyzing Hammond’s draft picks over the next couple of days. Most are in a rush on draft night to hand out grades, but it’s hard to know whether a draft was a success until a season or two has played out and corresponding moves have been made. So we’ll finally be handing out draft grades to John Hammond this week. Stay tuned.