A significant part of my life is based around spending money on the internet to get people to try and do specific things. If it wasn’t bad enough that I’m always playing the role of devil’s advocate on this internet blog, I’m also the guy who’s mining your data to try and put in front of you a t-shirt that you don’t really need, but won’t be able to pass up. Could I be any worse?
This is the part of my life that does not involve the Milwaukee Bucks. I work in the e-commerce department of an ad agency. It’s a job I enjoy and it’s a job that involves very trackable successes and failures. If I’m able to get more people to purchase more things and produce more revenue than I did last year, I’ve been successful. If I’m not able to do that, or if I do that and am doing it without producing a sustainable return on investment, I’ve failed.
As I was watching the Kansas City Royals sweep the Los Angeles Angels out of the MLB Playoffs last night, I thought about my job and the stresses of trying to hit certain numbers. I work very hard and make lots of minor tweaks at ridiculous hours to try and make sure I’m not spending more than is being produced. It can be stressful and it’s something I’m often thinking about outside of typical work hours. How nice it must be, I thought, to be the general manager of the Los Angeles Angels.
He’s spent money like a drunken 22-year-old at a food court open only between 3 and 5 AM. There’s no discipline and possibly no threat of consequences. Player after player came up who couldn’t possibly producing a positive ROI last night. Albert Pujols was paid $23 million this season. and Josh Hamilton fetched $17.4 million. This C.J. Wilson fella couldn’t even get out of the first inning made over $16 million this season. Each of these players isn’t a total sunk cost, but the top of the Angels payroll definitely failed to live up to its end of the bargain.
A team can live with that in baseball though. There’s no salary cap, so the penalty for a top quarter of the payroll failing to produce at its expected levels, especially when a team can find an MVP like Mike Trout for under a million. And when a team has as much money as the Angels, they can roll with the losses on salary and recoup them through television revenue.
The Milwaukee Bucks are not the Los Angeles Angels. When it comes to necessity of making the correct decisions with how money is spent, the Bucks are a lot more like me than they are like the Angels. Overpaying the wrong few guys can lead to a rough few seasons, given the percentage of salary cap highest paid players often take up. If a team keeps giving large contracts to players who turn out to be unreliable, it’s easy for that team to struggle to maintain relevancy, even if it can find production among those earning less on its roster.
Such has been the most recent chapter in the history of the Milwaukee Bucks.
Above is a chart that visualizes the salaries and minutes played among Milwaukee Bucks players since the 2011-12 season. There’s a few things worth pointing out right away:
1. Andrew Bogut was traded in 2011-12 after playing only 364 minutes due to injury. The late-season execution of that deal also meant that Monta Ellis, another highly paid player, got fewer minutes in a Bucks uniform.
2. The following season J.J. Redick arrived in February, which limited his minutes as well.
You guys get trades and understand some of the factors impacting the salary to minutes ratios on this chart. But, trades or no trades, it’s difficult to say the Bucks have been getting much value out of their highest paid players over the past three seasons. Here’s another chart to further illustrate the point:
The likes of Monta Ellis, Stephen Jackson, Beno Udrih, O.J. Mayo and sometimes Ersan Ilyasova have been disappointing as some of Milwaukee’s highest paid players. Life without high draft picks is tough. The lack of those picks combined with a mandate for playoff appearances has littered Milwaukee’s recent history with contracts that make little sense in retrospect.
Milwaukee’s failed time and again to find consistent, star-like production from the top of its roster. It’s only the general solid depth that kept the Bucks as competitive as they were prior to last season.
John Hammond has done a great job of finding productive players near the bottom of Milwaukee’s salary spreadsheet. He’s hit on a lot of rookies on smaller, later first round pick contracts. He’s picked well in the second round. He invested in a smart, reasonably priced contract in a veteran with a skill in Mike Dunleavy Jr. He’s been quick to move overpaid players like Stephen Jackson. He’s generally left the Bucks in a flexible position from a salary cap situation, but he’s never been able to find someone worthy of lots of money. That’s been Milwaukee’s biggest limitation during Hammond’s tenure as a general manager who was trying to make the playoffs at all costs.
Finally, he’s getting his shot to do things the way he seems to want after a terrible 2013-14 season and finally, Milwaukee could be on the right track.
The Bucks didn’t make a big free agent splash this past season as the team continued course on a rebuilding project that’s slated to take at least another season or two. Larry Sanders has $11 million dollars in annual salary heading his way for the next four years starting this season and he’s a big wildcard. Two seasons ago he was one of Milwaukee’s best players. Last season? We know about last season. But after him, other high paid players like Mayo and Zaza Pachulia have only two seasons left. Mediocre veterans on pricey deals could be a thing of the past by 2016. And by that point, Milwaukee will have a good idea of how the rebuild is working out. At that point, Milwaukee will be able to make some important decisions on the guys they expect to be leading the team on the court and in the books.
Will Jabari Parker be worth a high priced extension? Will Giannis Antetokounmpo have ascended near the top of the NBA’s pack of wings? Those two are Milwaukee’s great, reasonably paid hopes right now. Success depends on them becoming stars and then continuing to produce like stars once a large percentage of the Bucks’ salary cap is dedicated to them. The joy of building from within is that the Bucks are likely to feel a lot more confident about that before they make the commitment.