The SaveOurBucks.com movement is pleased with the recent pronouncement by General Manager John Hammond, that the team is going to build around some of the young players they currently have on the team, along with future draft picks. We believe that a market like Milwaukee must use this approach to build a consistent winner. We want to add some cautionary guidance, however, before assuming that this new chapter of “Green and Growing,” will be as successful as the original.
A primer on the origin of this phrase may be helpful for some readers. Green and Growing was the name given to a public relations campaign implemented by the Bucks in the late 1970’s. It came with its own catchy theme song that was played frequently during regular game broadcasts. The idea behind the theme, was that fans should embrace the young core of players the team had recently obtained, and follow their progress as they developed into contenders.
The Green and Growing campaign began at the start of the 1977 season, when the team consisted of a number of high draft picks including Kent Benson (#1 overall pick), Marques Johnson (#3 overall pick), Ernie Grunfeld (#11 overall pick), Dave Meyers (#2 overall pick via the Jabbar trade), Quinn Buckner (#7 overall pick) and later Sidney Moncrief (#5 overall pick).
Under the leadership of Don Nelson, these players developed marvelously, and the Bucks quickly established themselves as one of the up and coming teams in the NBA. In the rookie season of Marques Johnson and Kent Benson, the team finished with a 44-38 record, and won a first round playoff series against the Phoenix Suns. By the 1979-1980 season, the Bucks were well on their way to significant success, as they battled the reigning NBA champion Seattle SuperSonics, to seven games in the Western Conference semi-finals. In the 1979-1987 period that followed, the team notched seven straight 50-win seasons, and won seven straight division titles.
Use Caution In Promising A Bountiful Harvest
The reason Green and Growing is still fondly recalled 35-years later, is because those young players went on to wonderful success. While we are very excited about the promise some of the current Bucks players are showing on the court, there have been times in the past where both the front office and the fan base (we plead guilty) got ahead of ourselves with a crop of young players. We’ve all broken out the Green and Growing song, only to later find out successful growth didn’t occur as anticipated. We want analyze the lessons learned from earlier rebuilding efforts that were not successful, and find it most helpful to focus on the 1992-1998 period.
1992-1998: The Right Plan But Poor Execution
Mike Dunleavy, Sr. was hired as head coach in May of 1992, with a mandate to return the team to 1980’s glory. There was no general manager hired to run the front office, but Senator Kohl gave Dunleavy the authority to handle most player personnel matters. Dunleavy immediately proceeded to break up the roster from the previous year, and remade the club with youth. Centerpieces of this youth movement included Todd Day (#8 overall pick), Lee Mayberry (#23 overall pick), Anthony Avent (#15 overall pick), Blue Edwards (obtained in trade via Utah), Alaa Abdelnaby (#25 overall pick), and Jon Barry (#21 overall pick) among others. The team started out a strong 10-3, before fizzling out and finishing 28-54. Still, the youth gave everyone some optimism for the future.
That off-season, the team selected Vin Baker with the #8 overall pick in the 1993 draft, to supplement the young players from the year prior. This new young core wasn’t quite ready for prime time yet. The Bucks finished with the franchise’s worst regular season record (20-62). Bucks fans were not upset about the poor finish, however, as there was an unstated goal by Dunleavy, to position the team well for the top-heavy 1994 NBA draft which included Glenn Robinson, Grant Hill and Jason Kidd.
From 1994 to 1998, the team continued to add young players to the squad, including Robinson (#1 overall pick), Shawn Respert (#8 overall pick), Ray Allen (#5 overall pick) and Robert Traylor (#6 overall pick), but no real success was obtained until George Karl arrived to remake the team in August of 1998. It then took Karl another two years of coaching and roster work, before significant achievement occurred with the 52-win team of 2000-2001.
What lessons can we learn from the 1992-98 period?
The composition of the front office and the coaching staff are critical ingredients to team success. During that 1992-98 period the front office made some errors that stunted the development of those teams. We believe the Bucks need to look back and study this period, to avoid those mistakes with any new plan they are developing.
The Right Coach is Critical
We applaud Senator Kohl for luring Mike Dunleavy away from the Los Angeles Lakers in 1992. At that time, Dunleavy was a hot commodity on the coaching circuit. Senator Kohl offered Dunleavy an unprecedented eight-year contract to return to MIlwaukee. This was a gutsy and bold move, which illustrates the type of financial commitment the Senator has frequently made on behalf of the team. After a few years however, it was clear, that the Dunleavy hire was not working. For a variety of reasons, Dunleavy was not getting through to the players, especially Robinson, and in 1996 he stepped aside for Chris Ford.
While Ford wasn’t a bad guy, he was not a top tier NBA head coach, nor the mentor that Robinson and new rookie Ray Allen needed. It took Senator Kohl making the bold move of hiring George Karl in August of 1998, before things started to improve on the basketball court and for Robinson to begin to develop a better all-around game. The head coach isn’t a magic bullet, nor a substitute for raw talent on the court, yet as the 1992-1998 period demonstrated, the wrong coach can hold things back.
The Bucks hired Larry Drew on the premise that he could keep the team competitive in the Eastern Conference and challenge for a playoff berth this season. This was based on Drew’s work with the Atlanta Hawks the prior three years. If the Bucks are going to truly rebuild, at season’s end, they will need to assess if Drew is the right person for a rebuilding job, which is a different task than what they hired him for. As we saw with George Karl, having the right coach is critical for a young team.
Cut down on the chefs in the kitchen
During the 1992-1998 period, there again was no clear cut “Ron Wolf,” in charge of all basketball operations. During this period, there were stretches when there was no general manager in place (1992 and 1997), times where the coach was the de-facto general manager (Dunleavy and later Karl), and times where the team functioned with an interim general manager (Bob Weinhauer, during the critical 1997 draft and free agency period). Overlaying all of this was input from Senator Kohl and his inner-circle of advisors on player personnel matters.
There were some critical mistakes made in this era. The Shawn Respert selection in the 1995 draft was a failure on a number of levels. The Bucks sent to Portland an additional first round pick, to allow the Bucks to move up from their #11 slot in the draft, to Portland’s #8 slot in the draft. According to sources at the time, the goal was to select point guard Damon Stoudamire, however, the trade with Portland was made before the draft began, and was not contingent on Stoudamire being available at pick #8. As the draft unfolded that night, the Toronto Raptors surprisingly selected Stoudamire with their pick, the 7th overall, just ahead of the Bucks. That move deprived the Bucks of Stoudamire, the player they moved up in the draft to acquire. The consolation prize was Shawn Respert, a fine person, but an undersized shooting guard, who for a variety of reasons, including health issues, never established himself in the NBA.
We were not at the negotiating table that day, but a move that expended two first round picks, should have been made with the contingency that Stoudamire would still be available when Portland selected, but apparently there was confusion in the front office that day, and no such contingency was negotiated. The Bucks blew two first round picks on a player that wasn’t their first choice. The organization later tried to sell Respert as their target all along, because he apparently beat Coach and General manager Mike Dunleavy, in a game of “horse” played between the two during a pre-draft workout.
The 1998 draft was also costly.The Bucks made a draft night trade with Dallas to move up from the 9th pick to the 6th pick in order to select the late Robert “Tractor” Traylor. The price to move up those three spots was an additional first round pick the Bucks owned (#21 overall), in addition to giving Dallas the 9th pick, which the Mavericks used to select Dirk Nowitzki. At the time, Nowitzki was not on the Bucks radar, nor someone that many NBA teams were considering drafting.
Contrary to conventional folklore, Nowitkzi for a variety of reasons was never going to be a Buck. Had the Bucks trade not materialized, the Mavericks were going to select Nowitzki with the 6th overall pick, according to current Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who confirmed that accounting of events a number of years ago.
While Nowitzki was never an option, the Bucks could have simply stood pat with the 9th overall pick, and selected Paul Pierce, the small forward from Kansas, who inexplicably was sliding out of the top three that night. Pierce was later selected by Boston with the 10th overall pick and has gone on to a Hall of Fame career.
After the 1998 draft, inquiries were made as to why the Bucks did not select Pierce with either the sixth pick or the ninth pick, after he fell out of the top three. Insiders advanced two reasons for the Traylor acquisition. The first being that Paul Pierce was considered a small forward, and the team did not want to offend Glenn Robinson, who already manned that position. Traylor played power forward and would not be a threat to Robinson. Had the Bucks followed the golden rule of always drafting the “best player available,” without regard to position, they may have selected Pierce.
The second reason advanced for the Traylor pick, was that it was done at the urging of the late Rick Majerus, who was a confidante of Senator Kohl. This again highlights the problem of too many voices having a say in Bucks personnel moves. As we’ve discussed earlier, the Bucks front office is a chaotic place, with many chefs in the kitchen, and poor trade and drafting results like these have been too commonplace in the past. This is why we emphatically note for readers of this website, that a revamped front office is needed for a chance at long-term success, in addition to top-five draft picks.
Acknowledge the existence of The Sam Smith Rule
Veteran NBA writer Sam Smith is fond of citing this truism:
“Even the worst NBA team is going to score approximately 85 points per night, get 30 rebounds and hand out 20 assists.”
What this means is that even on a bad team, there are going to be players who accumulate statistics, regardless of the player’s true talent level. The organization needs to determine which young players are going to impact wins in the future, and which young players might simply be stuffing the stat sheet due to heavy playing time. Playing time that would not be available to them on a stronger team.
In the aforementioned era the Bucks had many young players who could average 15 points per game, or average 6-7 assists per game. Some could notch 36-point games, or grab 15 rebounds in a contest. At the end of the day though, Todd Day, Eric Murdock, Blue Edwards and Anthony Avent never really went anywhere in their NBA careers, nor were they able to help the Bucks win. These players were thought to be “core” members of the initial 1992 rebuilding, because they could demonstrate some level of significant statistical output, but as the Sam Smith Rule notes; someone had to score, pass and rebound during those games and seasons.
While Giannis Antetokounmpo looks every bit the part of becoming a “move the needle” player, he may or may not turn into an All-Star. More importantly, we are not able to predict whether John Henson, Khris Middleton, Brandon Knight or Nate Wolters will be players that lead the Bucks to success in the future, nor can we predict whether Larry Sanders will return to the form he showed last year.
The primary point we want to make, is that fans and the organization should not assume anything as it relates to players on the current roster, even though some of them may post some impressive statistical showings from time to time this year. The organization should be in an aggressive posture to acquire more draft picks, in case this current batch of youngsters doesn’t work out. Further, the Bucks need to make every draft pick and trade with the idea of obtaining the best player available, regardless of position. As a hypothetical future example of this, we would hate to see the Bucks pass on selecting Joel Embiid in the 2014 draft, under the belief that the center position is already capably filled by Larry Sanders, John Henson and Miroslav Raduljica.
This type of “fill the position” thinking, is what caused Portland Trailblazers management to pass on Michael Jordan, and instead select center Sam Bowie in the 1984 draft. With Clyde Drexler and Jim Paxson already on the roster, the Blazers claimed they had no need for another shooting guard, the same way the Bucks felt they had no need for Paul Pierce, since they already had Glenn Robinson and Ray Allen at the wing positions.
Cautiously Optimistic, Yet Concerns Remain
We are extremely encouraged by John Hammond’s statement about rebuilding, however we encourage Senator Kohl to go back and review the prior eras where rebuilding efforts failed, and learn the lessons from those periods. We’ve outlined some common themes above, which resulted in unsuccessful rebuilding efforts in the 1992-1998 period. The problem with those prior failed attempts was not the concept of rebuilding, but the execution.
We look forward to the upcoming trade deadline on Thursday, February 20th and the coming off-season, and hope that the Bucks are able to make successful moves to bring a winning team back to Milwaukee. We as fans have the patience, we just ask for great execution on the part of the front office.