NEW YORK — In a rapidly stratifying NBA, the haves and the have-nots have radically different agendas.
The talent-rich are chasing titles. Their mission needs no explanation.
The talent-poor are scheming to acquire talent, even if it means sacrificing games to the draft lottery gods. Call it “rebuilding” or “tanking,” but their mission is clear as well.
Then there are the Milwaukee Bucks, with a quixotic agenda all their own: A fierce, principled pursuit of mediocrity.
Unable to contend, but refusing to tank, the Bucks reloaded this summer with middling role players, in a stubborn quest to make the playoffs. The mission is honorable, if self-defeating on its face.
The Bucks are doomed to a first-round exit, if they make the playoffs at all. They would be shut out of the lottery, losing a shot at the best draft class in years. Worse, they could just miss the playoffs and earn only a tiny chance at the No. 1 pick.
Some explanation is required.
“In our organization, there is this competitive need to be as good as we can every year,” Bucks owner Herb Kohl told Bleacher Report. “It’s an instinct. Even though one might argue that mathematically you’re better off going the other way.”
The other way. The former senator, retired from politics but ever the genteel statesman, cannot even bring himself to say the word “tanking.”
“I’m not pointing fingers,” he said.
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We can debate whether these teams are tanking or rebuilding, but the net result will be the same: lots of losses, lots of ping-pong balls in the 2014 lottery, and a chance to grab Andrew Wiggins or Julius Randle or Jabari Parker or Dante Exum.
Kohl has seen the extreme measures taken by his peers in anticipation of the draft. He has watched rivals ship out starters and All-Stars and replace them with low-wattage space fillers. He understands the strategy. He just can’t stomach it himself. Nor is he convinced that it’s a wise route.
“We recognize that the way the system is constructed…sometimes it’s better theoretically to be very bad, because it gives you a better shot at a high draft pick,” Kohl said, taking a long pause before adding, “But you know, it doesn’t always work out that way.”
“They got Derrick Rose with good fortune,” Kohl said. “It wasn’t like good planning. And without him, they're not a championship-caliber team.”
Indeed, the team with the worst record almost never wins the No. 1 pick. But general managers still chase the better odds and the hope of ping-pong ball redemption.
The Bucks have chosen a different path. Over the last 12 seasons, they have never won fewer than 26 games and never won more than 46. Their winning percentage in that time: .446. Never great, never awful. Just profoundly average.
As a consequence, the Bucks rarely get to draft elite talent. Aside from 2005—when they leapfrogged five teams, won the top pick and took Andrew Bogut—the Bucks have selected between sixth and 15th over the last dozen drafts.
It is often said that the worst place to be in the NBA is the middle. The Bucks have taken up permanent residence there, strolling along on what some executives call the “treadmill of mediocrity.” Milwaukee’s offseason moves virtually guaranteed another year on it.
The Bucks let Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings—their high-scoring, low-efficiency guards—walk away, rather than overpay them, which was prudent and defensible. That pair led Milwaukee to 38 wins and a first-round loss to Miami last spring.
Neither one was leading Milwaukee to a title anytime soon.
But rather than go all-in on the lottery, the Bucks loaded up on good-not-great players, acquiring O.J. Mayo, Zaza Pachulia, Brandon Knight, Carlos Delfino, Luke Ridnour and the aptly named Khris Middleton.
“I feel real strong about trying to put out a decent product—a good product—for our fans,” Kohl said, a dark green Bucks cap pulled tight on his forehead. “So I’m always saying to our basketball people, `We need to be as good as we can be.’ This year’s no different.”
Left unsaid is that the Bucks are desperately seeking a new arena to replace the outdated Bradley Center, and are thus in no position to alienate the fanbase. As a small-market team on a budget, they also need to keep the turnstiles moving.
“We’re hoping that we can be a playoff team,” said general manager John Hammond.
Other than Larry Sanders, a defensive dynamo with a bad temper, the Bucks have no foundational players and no clear future stars. Their best hope is Giannis Antetokounmpo, an 18-year-old rookie who needs much development.
Milwaukee should have $11.5 million in cap room next summer, but even a max slot would not assure them of a top free agent in the 2014 class.
“Will the LeBrons ever come to small markets like Milwaukee?” Kohl said. “So you’re saying it’s tough, you’re sort of inferring that. I hear you. I hear you.”
So if the Bucks won’t tank and can’t lure an elite free agent, how will they ever acquire a franchise-changing talent? There is a plan, however hazy. Team officials hint at the possibility of combining their assets—draft picks, reasonably priced players and salary-cap room—to acquire an impact player.
“How do we get to where we want to be?” said Hammond. “Our model today is try to draft wisely, manage the cap wisely and then catch a break along the way.”
The Indiana Pacers essentially executed that model over the last seven seasons, building a title contender without ever drafting higher than 10th. David Morway, the former Pacers GM, is now working with Hammond, and that’s not a coincidence. Kohl joked that he “stole” Morway for that reason. (Morway actually left Indiana a year before Milwaukee hired him.)
Or maybe the Bucks will get lucky simply by being worse than intended. Some experts see them as no better than 11th in the East. They may yet find their way into this vaunted lottery.
“I think they're making a good non-tanking push for the No. 1 pick,” said one veteran NBA scout.
A third of the league is gunning for a title. At least a half-dozen are gunning for the ping-pong balls. Kohl may yet deviate from his path, but for now he remains firmly, contentedly in the middle, walking the treadmill, principles intact.
“I’m not speaking for what other teams do,” Kohl said. “We just every year do the very best we can, to put together the best team we can. That’s our M.O. That’s what we do.”
Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report.