“When you come to a fork in the road, take it,” said Herb Kohl, quoting the great Yogi Berra when announcing the sale of the Bucks to Marc Lasry and Wesley Edens in April.
Less than three months later, Lasry and Edens now stand at their first fork in the road as new owners: the NBA Draft, where the new owners and GM John Hammond will soon be on the clock with the second overall pick.
The Bucks’ next path is still unknown, but here’s what we do know: It’s going to be some time before the Bucks are good. This is not a bad thing.
"We'll be building our team thru draft picks, then bring in FAs, and hopefully, in 3-5 years, we'll be contending for a championship," tweeted Marc Lasry, during his Monday “takeover” of Bucks social media.
Hammond reiterated Lasry’s “3-to-5 year” rebuild comments on Tuesday, preaching patience and planning for the long term -- a sizable shift from Sen. Kohl’s more win-now mentality as Bucks owner.
“The senator, what he did for this organization and for this city, people will never forget and [will] thank him forever for that,” said Hammond. “But there is a little difference here. The difference is, right now, it’s more of a long-term look with the new ownership. ...We do have a chance to build through the draft and this is a great step in doing that.”
This is music to the ears of Bucks fans who have grown tired of chasing middling success. Three to five years doesn’t seem so long when you consider the team hasn’t won a playoff series in 13 years. And after ending the 2013-14 season with the worst record in franchise history, there’s no better time for a fresh start.
But building through the draft is not a one-year process, and it will require the no-longer feared Deer to be among the NBA’s worst teams in the 2014-15 season, and maybe even in the 2015-16 season, too.
Despite the Bucks having promising young talent in John Henson, Brandon Knight and Giannis Antetokounmpo (who has grown from 6-foot-9 to 6-foot-11 since last year’s draft), the current roster leaves much to be desired.
The Bucks are on the hook to pay a number of lower-impact veterans a substantial sum over the next two years. The underwhelming trio of Ersan Ilyasova, O.J. Mayo and Zaza Pachulia are due a combined $21.1 million per year through the ‘15-’16 season. Larry Sanders is still only 25 years old and has significant potential, but is coming off a nightmare season that featured multiple injuries, a marijuana suspension and an embarrassing nightclub brawl. His four-year, $44 million extension kicks in this year.
Other bottom feeders in the historically bad Eastern Conference are currently better positioned than the Bucks. The Philadelphia 76ers, Orlando Magic and Boston Celtics each have two first-round picks in this year’s draft. Cleveland has drafted in the top 5 four times in the last three drafts, and holds the first overall pick once again this year.
The second overall pick will be a franchise cornerstone, but not a magic bullet leading to a quick turnaround. Rather, the player drafted will mark the first step in a multiyear rebuilding process.
So who will that pick be? We still don’t know. But here are five potential paths ahead for the Bucks on draft night, ranked in order of likelihood:
1. Draft Jabari Parker (SF/PF - Duke)
The Duke forward has been the one most closely linked to the Bucks as draft night approaches. Parker, a Chicago native, is saying Milwaukee is his most likely destination, and it appears the only thing standing between him and a Bucks uniform is the possibility of Cleveland drafting him first overall.
2. Draft Andrew Wiggins (SG/SF - Kansas)
If the Cavs take Parker, the Kansas swingman is the most likely choice for the Bucks. He’s been atop draft boards all season long, and it would be a surprise to see him fall out of the top two.
3. Draft Dante Exum (PG/SG - Australian Institute of Sport)
The 18-year-old Aussie is the wildcard in this year’s draft. It would be a big swing-for-the-fences move were the Bucks to take Exum, who is still very much an unknown commodity, but a year after drafting Giannis Antetokounmpo, big swings can’t be ruled out, especially given all the talk about the long-term.
4. Trade the pick
“It would take something very special [to get us to move the No. 2 pick],” Hammond said. “We’re open to listening and discussing ideas. Right now, we’re at 2 and we like being at 2.”
A trade is highly unlikely, but not completely out of the question. The 76ers, Magic and Utah Jazz have all reportedly offered trades to Cleveland to move up to No. 1, and it’s not out of the question to think John Hammond is considering those same offers.
What would be more likely in terms of a trade, however, would be a move to land another pick in the first round. The Bucks have three second-round picks (31, 36 and 48 overall) and a number of players that may not factor into the team’s long-term plans.
5. Draft Joel Embiid (C - Kansas)
Drafting the once-presumptive top pick seems far-fetched, because after his foot surgery, Marc Lasry said Monday “I think it’s hard to take Embiid.” Still, Hammond didn’t rule out the possibility.
“It would behoove a team to take him and store him away, but I’m sure there is some concern with [his] health,” he said. “I don’t expect Joel to drop too far in this draft. He’s still someone we need to have on our board to a certain extent. He’s a great talent. You talk about these sort of things, like three-to-five years from now, who’s going to be the best player from this draft? Time will tell and he still has to be in that discussion. ...It’s tempting for anyone in this draft [to take Embiid], including us.”
With a new draft pick, new ownership, and a new mentality, the summer of 2014 is an exciting time to be a Bucks fan. But there’s a long road ahead before the real excitement begins.