MILWAUKEE — All you needed to know about the 2013-14 Milwaukee Bucks occurred prior to Saturday's latest franchise-building follies. It happened in the belly of the Bradley Center, a place where air balls are aplenty and losses—like this 88-67 one to the Miami Heat—are actually wins.
It happened when Bucks coach Larry Drew didn't know something.
First, don't interpret any of this as a shot at the beleaguered coach, who has already had to endure unspeakably horrific circumstances since taking this thankless—but tankful—Milwaukee job last offseason. It's enough that he's learned to spell Giannis Antetokounmpo, while force-feeding the gifted, but green, Greek teenager so many minutes. But keeping track of all of his players' injuries is a bit too much to expect at this stage.
Drew told the media that Antetokounmpo—like O.J. Mayo and Larry Sanders and Carlos Delfino and Ersan Ilyasova and Nate Wolters—was out, because he couldn't put any pressure on his ankle. Though he did add that the rookie would dress, and not because "I have one perimeter coming off the bench tonight, a guy on a 10-day contract," a guy named D.J. Stephens who had never played in an NBA game.
Rather, because, as Drew said with a smile, "Looks good to have another body on the bench. Looks good. You don't look as short-handed."
Within minutes, the Bucks officially corrected Drew, explaining that there had been some confusion or miscommunication, and that Antetokounmpo would indeed play. And that the kid did, though he missed all five shots in 22 minutes, missing the rim entirely twice, as the Bucks shot 34.2 percent overall and never challenged a team that was resting four regulars. They did so in an arena that was filled with Heat fans in the bottom and largely empty at the top, though free tickets had been dispersed at the day's sneaker convention. They did so while only hearing cheering from the suites when Wisconsin was scoring in the Elite Eight.
And yet, somehow this was a good night for the franchise, even if you'd never hear anyone associated with it admit as much.
That's because, as the Bucks were bumbling about for the better good, the Philadelphia 76ers stumbled into trouble for the first time in two months, snapping their 26-game losing streak with a rout of the putrid Detroit Pistons. That meant that, against all odds, the Bucks had created some breathing (er, choking) room—a two-game lead—in the backpedal toward the league's worst record, and the largest bounty of ping-pong balls in the pursuit of Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker or Joel Embiid.
As amusing as this may be to observers, you couldn't help feeling for Drew, who had come here with a 128-102 career record, and with the owner and front office publicly and stubbornly stating a preference to be competitive. Since the season started, three veterans (Luke Ridnour, Gary Neal, Caron Butler) have gone, and 26 different lineups have started, with only one of those lineups starting for more than nine games.
For comparison's sake, LeBron James spoke Saturday of the challenges inherent in the large number of Heat starting lineups this season. They've had just 19.
Only two of the Bucks' 26 lineups are above .500.
Both are 1-0.
Prior to the game, Drew spoke of the difficulties.
"Just day to day, just not knowing who you have or what you have," he said. "We've been dealing with the injuries, shuffling people around and playing people out of position. That's been the most difficult part of it. This is something, in all of my years being associated with the NBA, whether as a player or as a coach, I've never been in a situation where I've had to deal with this much."
He's not just dealing with the injuries either. He's dealing with the indignity of many Bucks fans rooting for failure, which is actually quite comprehensible—and even advisable—but isn't all that pleasant for the players and coaches. Drew insisted that, while he hears it ("people are looking at the future, as far as the draft is concerned") and deems it "normal," he has tried not to heed it.
"I go out and I coach each game to try to win," Drew said. "I don't look at where we are, or what our season is about right now. Our job is to get these young men ready to play every single night and play hard...We're going to try to step out on the floor and be competitive the whole time we're out there. Wherever we end up, that's where we end up. But we do not, under any circumstance, go out there and fold the tent."
Philadelphia appeared to abandon the camping site before the season even commenced.
Has he watched them?
"I can't speak for Philly," Drew said. "I don't know what their whole thought process is."
Udonis Haslem can't know exactly what either team—the Bucks or 76ers—is thinking, but he does know how it feels to be part of a team that went nowhere for the promise of a long-term somewhere. He started 48 games for the 2007-08 Heat, before becoming the fourth player on that squad to undergo season-ending surgery. Miami finished with 15 wins, earning the most ping-pong balls.
"It's disappointing, it's frustrating, it's depressing," Haslem said. "Somehow, someway, you got to try to find something out of it that you can learn from, and something that can motivate you to never feel like that again."
Did he think it would get better?
"It couldn't be no worse," Haslem said. "It had to get better. Obviously, since I've been part of this organization, we'd done a great job of bringing in the pieces to be competitive. So I had faith that they would do the same in the upcoming years."
Has the Bucks organization done anything in the past decade-plus to earn that faith?
That answers itself.
And what if they don't get the No. 1 pick?
The Heat didn't. They got No. 2, missing on Derrick Rose and taking Michael Beasley.
Does the promise of a draft pick give a current player comfort?
"That doesn't make you feel good," Haslem said. "And that doesn't guarantee anything. A draft pick doesn't guarantee anything. It just guarantees that you're gonna get a player. You never know what these players are gonna turn out to be. It just guarantees you that you're gonna get somebody. Who, or what they're going to be capable of still remains to be seen. Unless you trade that pick for a proven guy who can come in right away and help the team. You just never know nowadays. A draft pick is sometimes two, three years away. If they even pan out."
Let's hold the bar lower.
Can they walk and chew up minutes at the same time?
You get the feeling that's all Larry Drew needs to know.