The Philadelphia 76ers didn’t win a basketball game between Jan. 30 and March 28 and yet the Milwaukee Bucks finished with the worst record in the NBA. In fact, in the long history of the National Basketball Association, only 15 teams won a fewer percentage of their contests than the 15-67, 2013-14 Bucks.
So, at the moment, nobody is too fearful of the deer.
But with a strong offseason, that could change.
The Sixers are an instructive example here. Philadelphia, too, brazenly some would say, tore down its roster in the last 13 months to rebuild a stronger one. Likewise, the primary thing the Bucks need to do this summer is take things apart, accept that the team needs another high lottery pick—maybe two—to put around Jabari Parker and Giannis Antetokounmpo for the franchise to have any hope of really competing. In other words, Milwaukee won’t raise a banner until it razes its roster.
"We have a piece that we're sure is going to take us to another level," coach Larry Drew told Genaro C. Armas of the Sheboygan Press. "Any time you go through a rebuilding process, it's important you get the right pieces."
The first step is finding new homes for veterans OJ Mayo and Ersan Ilyasova. According to HoopsHype, Mayo will cost the Bucks $16 million over the next two seasons, while Ilyasova is on the books for 7.9 million in each of 2014-15 and 2015-16, with an $8.4 million team option in 2016-17.
The logic behind moving the veterans is that neither player is young enough to help Milwaukee when the Bucks are liable to start winning basketball games again, but each player is good enough to win a few games now. This is exactly the opposite of the sort of player Milwaukee needs to stock its roster with.
While neither figures to be in high demand, both have a track record of recent success, and both can shoot the basketball. Ilyasova in particular might intrigue rival general managers. In a game that’s increasingly about three-point shooting, there will always be a home for 6’9” marksmen. In 2011-12 and 2012-13, the forward shot 45.5 and 44.4 percent from behind the arc.
It’s possible Milwaukee will consider moving Larry Sanders given his salary—the center’s four-year, $44 million contract kicks in this season—but that probably isn’t the smart play here. Sanders is just 25 and has established himself as an elite rim protector and generally efficient player. According to Basketball-Reference, he posted .149 win shares per 48 minutes in 2012-13. This is almost 50 percent greater than the league average.
Furthermore, given that he played in just 23 games in 2013-14, Sanders value is at an all-time low at the moment. If Milwaukee has any designs on moving him, it would be wise to let him recoup it first.
Another offseason move Milwaukee’s new ownership is surely eyeing is replacing head coach Larry Drew. Drew is a decent man and a decent coach, but he doesn’t make a ton of sense for a Bucks’ team at this stage in its development. As Bleacher Report’s DJ Foster has argued, the most sensible thing for Milwaukee to do would be to fire Drew and take a gamble on a young coach who might turn out to be great. The Bucks know what they have in Drew—mostly a mediocrity—so, to quote Foster, the franchise is probably “better off making a gamble and hoping they land the next Brad Stevens.”
But before any of these moves can be considered, Milwaukee’s new ownership needs to solve the GM position. While it’s difficult to say how much of the Bucks’ recent troubles stem from general manager John Hammond—there’s an argument to be made that he made the best of a bad situation; that being former-owner Herb Kohl’s “win now” mandate—they could probably upgrade here. GM is arguably the most important position in an organization, and Hammond has done little to distinguish himself since taking over from Larry Harris in April of 2008, beyond bizarrely winning Executive of the Year in 2010.
Hammond has proven to be a capable drafter—he found both Antetokounmpo and Sanders with the No. 15 overall pick—but has done little else. At risk of sounding reductive, the Bucks intended to be a playoff team last season and won 15 games. That’s a pretty stinging indictment.