The Milwaukee Bucks’ future is nearly as big a question mark as their present. If not for the keen decision-making of long-time general manager John Hammond over recent years, the Bucks’ standing in league circles might be much more concrete. Of course, it also wouldn’t be nearly as promising.
Rewarding him for a crucial role in helping the team rise from its basketball nadir of 2013-14, Milwaukee afforded Hammond a one-year contract extension that will keep him with the club through 2016-17 – the same year coach Jason Kidd’s deal expires.
It was just yesterday that Hammond’s job seemed in great jeopardy as a result of the Bucks’ change on the sidelines. Kidd staged a coup of sorts with the Brooklyn Nets in June 2014, attempting to leverage a coaching offer from Milwaukee into assuming the role of Brooklyn general manager Billy King. But the Nets didn’t bite, leading to widespread speculation that Kidd’s potential position with the Forward State’s team would render Hammond irrelevant. That the former All-Star point guard has been a close friend of Milwaukee co-owner Marc Lasry for years only made those whispers louder, and they were even faintly heard again earlier this summer, too.
Kidd, however, was never granted the total basketball autonomy with the Bucks that he sought in New York, and he and Hammond peacefully coexisted as Milwaukee emerged as one of the league’s most pleasant surprises of the 2014-15 season. After news of his extension became public, Hammond insisted there was no difference in job responsibilities once Kidd came aboard and that the two share a mutually beneficial relationship.
“I believe there’s a great amount of respect Jason and I have for each other,” he told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. “There was no change whatsoever. I continued to do my job the same as I always have. It was a matter of two people getting to know each other on a professional level.”
Based on Milwaukee’s shocking acquisition of Michael Carter-Williams in exchange for lead guard Brandon Knight, it certainly seems like Hammond and Kidd are on the same page. By most every metric available, Knight is a superior player to Carter-Williams. But the long-limbed Syracuse product fits the mold of what Kidd wants from his floor general: A creative passer who can be a linchpin in his hectic defensive scheme.
The jury is still very much out on Carter-Williams. He’s a questionable decision-maker with the ball in hands, has yet to carve a niche without it, and remains a non-shooter from the perimeter. The 23-year-old isn’t quite the defender his natural gifts and steal numbers suggest, either. Carter-Williams has ample room to grow, though, and Kidd is the perfect man to help him do it – conclusions Hammond surely realized before mortgaging his team’s immediate success by coming away from a trade with an inferior player.
But synergy between the coach and general manager wouldn’t matter unless ownership approved of their plans. And fortunately for Kidd and Hammond, Lasry and Wes Edens don’t just want to field a successful team, but one that has the chance to win on the league’s biggest stage every June.
“We’re still a long ways from where we want to be,” Hammond assured the Journal-Sentinel. “We’ve been an on-again, off-again playoff team. Especially with our new ownership, the goal is to build an elite team.”
The Bucks’ busy summer will go a long way toward ensuring that’s a possibility.
Hammond’s first move was shoring up the point guard spot with a draft night trade for Greivis Vasquez. While surrendering a first-round pick is always a tough pill to swallow, Milwaukee’s poor depth behind Carter-Williams – and even his play alone – proved damning in the team’s hard-fought first-round loss to the Chicago Bulls. Vasquez is a proven playoff performer, and the 2017 pick the Bucks will send to the Toronto Raptors is lottery-protected through 2019 – years Hammond surely expects his squad to be competing for Eastern Conference crowns.
If the Vasquez deal is hit-or-miss, Milwaukee’s other high-profile offseason moves fall firmly in the former category. Inking breakout wing Khris Middleton to a five-year, $70 million contract was a no-brainer for the Bucks, his stark lack of national name recognition be damned. The 23-year-old is one of basketball’s best defenders, and showed the developing floor game that suggests he can be a reliable, if unspectacular, ancillary scorer for years to come.
Keeping Middleton in Milwaukee the Brew City will help sustain the team’s success. The signing of Greg Monroe, though, is what could really accelerate it.
The Bucks’ post-deadline demise last season was all about offense; they scored a paltry 97.5 points per 100 possessions after the All-Star break, nearly five points fewer than their first half mark. The addition of a low post behemoth like Monroe should stem those struggles, making life far easier on talented but raw offensive players like Carter-Williams, Jabari Parker, and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Defense is where the questions lie with the former Detroit Pistons big man in Milwaukee. Will he be able to grasp at least a semblance of the nuance and understanding that made Zaza Pachulia – a similarly ground-bound paint protector – such an effective back-line intimidator for the Bucks?
Like with all unknowns surrounding Milwaukee, there’s no clear way to be sure. But what’s absolutely certain is that the Bucks are on track for legitimate contention sooner instead of later, a far cry from where they were less than a year ago – and Hammond’s role in that ascent has been instrumental.