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Photo by Eyton Z/Flickr As a new Milwaukee Bucks season, and a new Bucks era, tips off, Milwaukee Magazine’s Dan Shafer and Howie Magner fired up their email accounts and fired away with their questions and answers. Yeah, maybe they got a bit carried away. Dan Shafer: One year ago, if you would’ve told me […]

Photo by Eyton Z/Flickr

As a new Milwaukee Bucks season, and a new Bucks era, tips off, Milwaukee Magazine’s Dan Shafer and Howie Magner fired up their email accounts and fired away with their questions and answers. Yeah, maybe they got a bit carried away.

Dan Shafer: One year ago, if you would’ve told me the Bucks would enter the 2014-15 season with the No. 2 overall pick in a loaded draft, and new billionaire owners committed to keeping the team in Milwaukee, I would have been doing backflips down Wisconsin Avenue.

Like many Bucks fans, I’ve pined for the day when the team would get a fresh start, bid farewell to the era of depressing runs at the 8-seed, and start building through the draft toward loftier long-term goals. Most years, in the month of September or October, after the Brewers make their annual exit from contention, I’ll sarcastically joke that Bucks season is almost here. This year, for once, I’m not being told to shut up.

2014 has, in many ways, been the franchise’s most exciting year in more than a decade, but very little of that excitement has happened during actual basketball games. And there’s reason to be excited for the action on the court this year, too. Not because the Bucks will actually be a good team, mind you – that’s still a ways away – but because of the Bucks’ two 19-year-old franchise cornerstones: Jabari Parker and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Howie, are you buying Giannis and Jabari as the foundation of a bright future? What will you be watching for when the season gets started in Charlotte Wednesday night?

 

Howie Magner: First of all, I’ve got a crisp $20 bill waiting should anyone produce video of your backflips down Wisconsin Avenue. And a second Jackson should you do those flips while wearing a sequined gymnast’s leotard.

But onto more promising athletic endeavors, such as the play of Parker and Antetokounmpo. (Yes, spell check, n before m). To answer your first question, I’m quite certain they are part of the foundation; I’m just not sure how big a part. Are they two of a potential Big 3? Are they 1.5 of that? Or will their ceilings mean that instead of a more traditional Big 3, the Bucks need a less orthodox Significantly Above Average 4? They’re so young, and both have so much room to develop that it’s hard to be more certain than that.

But there are two factors that have me leaning toward the “two of a Big 3” theory. First, so many other smart NBA people are convinced that both Parker and Antetokounmpo are the real deal. People with loud NBA megaphones like Bill Simmons believe the Bucks got the best players out of the last two drafts, and that’s some rather high praise. Second, both players seem to genuinely want to be in Milwaukee, which is rare enough for one potential star, much less two. That’s important, because the always-present danger for a market like Milwaukee is this: You spend so many years developing the foundation, and just when it’s poised to produce the sweetest fruit, it breaks apart when your stars chase the bright lights of Miami, New York or L.A. Now look, just because Giannis and Jabari say they want to be here now doesn’t mean they’ll be here eight years from now. But it’s a far better starting point than the alternative.

As for Friday, the things I’ll be looking for have little to do with Parker and Giannis, because we know how they fit into the current roster. I’m more interested in seeing how the reclamation of Larry Sanders begins, because I think he’s the biggest X factor on the roster, both now and into the future. Is he going to be the defensive anchor that earned him a big contract extension, and can he take his offensive game to another level? Or is he poised for a second consecutive year of disappointment and distraction, which would surely write his ticket out of town? I have no idea which direction his narrative will go, but I’m convinced it will be this season’s most intriguing one to follow.

Oh yeah, I also want to see some cool Halloween costumes and Frank Caliendo do a Jason Kidd impression.

Which reminds me, good sir… what are your initial impressions of Kidd?

 

Shafer: I wish I shared Quick Bucks writer Eric Nehm’s optimism about coach Kidd, but count me as a skeptic. The failed power play in Brooklyn and the manner in which he came to be the Bucks coach actually don’t bother me – that’s just business — but I remain unconvinced that he’s the right choice to guide this young team through a rebuilding process. He may very well be a good coach, but after one season calling the shots for a veteran-heavy roster, it’s hard to see why he’s someone worth moving mountains for. I was more than fine with the decision to move on from Larry Drew, but if the new ownership wanted to make a splashy coaching hire, a better choice would have been former Buck Sam Cassell, who’s spent a number of years as an assistant coach for the Washington Wizards mentoring John Wall. This summer, he made the jump to Doc Rivers’ coaching staff in Los Angeles, so it’s not unreasonable to think he would’ve left Washington for a head coaching job if the offer was there. To think, Showtime Sam bringing the legendary and unassailably awesome Sam Cassell Dance back to Milwaukee. Alas.

My biggest problem with Kidd, however, is that more than perhaps any coach in the NBA, he’s a liability off the court. His checkered past includes pleading guilty to assault charges in 2001, when he struck his now ex-wife, Joumana. After their 2007 divorce, Joumana Kidd filed a lawsuit accusing him of “years of physical abuse.” In 2012, Kidd crashed his car in a scary drunk driving incident in the Hamptons. After his DWI conviction, Kidd actually started his NBA coaching career with a two-game suspension. Frankly, it’s a bit troubling seeing him behind the wheel of a car in his new ad for the Bucks. I don’t think Jason Kidd is the guy for this franchise to build a culture around, but I’d love to be proved wrong.

Speaking of off-the-court liabilities, Larry Sanders. I agree with you that he’s a major X-factor for this team, and his career could really go either way at this point. But he was incredible on defense in 2012-2013, and skills like that don’t just disappear. Offensively, he’s limited, but if he comes to understand his limitations, he could morph into a Tyson Chandler-esque finisher at the rim. If there’s room for improvement in his game, it’s on the boards. Here’s a random prediction: Sanders will finish in the NBA’s top 10 in rebounding. This, of course, is all assuming he stays healthy, and perhaps more importantly, out of trouble.

At 25 years old, Sanders is among the elder statesmen on this Bucks team. Co-owner Marc Lasry recently said the Bucks have the best under-23 team in the NBA. We already talked about Giannis and Jabari, but are there any other young Bucks you think could have a breakout year? Is this young core really something the league should envy, or is Lasry blowing smoke?

Magner: It’s hard to imagine another team near the bottom of the NBA mountain being poised for a higher climb than the Milwaukee Bucks. So yes, to Lasry’s point, I’d much rather be in the Bucks’ shoes (or would that be hooves? Perhaps hoof-shaped shoes?) than any of the other outside-looking-in clubs. And the reasoning goes beyond the presence of Parker and Giannis, or for that matter, the potential of Larry Sanders.

It’s grounded in how deep the Bucks potential pool goes: Brandon Knight, Khris Middleton, Nate Wolters and Kendall Marshall all look like they could grow into being pieces on a winning team. Even the older guys on the roster who are unlikely to be part of the club’s long-term plans – say, Ersan Ilyasova and O.J. Mayo – should have enough value to be moved eventually for draft picks or younger players. And the Bucks, once avid collectors of bad contracts, seem to have weaned themselves off the habit. The most perilous deal seems to belong to Sanders, but Good Larry earns that money, and even Struggling Larry might be an attractive change-of-scenery target for some other club. If I owned this team, I’d have an optimistic crystal ball, too. I’d just be looking at it surrounded by a Caribbean beach instead of a Milwaukee cubicle.

Truth be told, you don’t even need to point that crystal ball too far into the future to find some optimism about the Bucks. No less an NBA guru than Zach Lowe of Grantland termed the Bucks “Friskier Than Expected” in his annual season preview of all 30 teams. And while that may not mean the Bucks will be good, it’s a far higher compliment than the tag he stuck on four other teams: “Just Plain Bad.” My favorite line from Lowe’s piece: “there’s a good chance the Brandon Jennings-Knight swap will eventually be known as the Khris Middleton trade.” Which I offer as my reply to your query about possible Bucks players poised for a breakout year.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the Bucks come close to doubling their previous win total. My guesstimate is 26 victories, which still would’ve been the sixth-worst record in the NBA last season, but sounds a heckuva lot better than 15 wins. In the end, however, this team won’t be judged by its wins, but by its overall progress toward the long-term rebuilding project.

At the Bucks/MMAC tipoff luncheon on Monday, I asked Jason Kidd what would be a fair way for fans to evaluate his team this season. “The fans have every right to boo when we’re bad and cheer when we’re good. That’s just a part of the business,” he said. “I think for us, are we getting better as a team? Because if we’re getting better each time we take the floor as a team, that means individually we’re getting better. If we look at it the other way around, sometimes it can get diluted. You say one person got better, but we’re the Milwaukee Bucks and not just a one-man band.”

And then Kidd dipped further into his bag of metaphors, which surprised me, because he hasn’t seemed like a metaphor kind of guy since he got here. (Maybe the tasty dessert tart put him in a mood for parables.) “So did we get better for the school year?” Kidd continued. “I look at it as a school year, being able to say we passed a couple classes. Did we have to redo a class? However you look at it, we look at it as a team. Are we getting better?”

So my question to you, professor Shafer: Which classes will the Bucks pass, which ones will send them to the principal’s office, and have I taken this metaphor too far?

 

Shafer: You probably have, but I suppose I’ll call class into session. As usual, this team will pass its Advanced International Studies class with flying colors. With Giannis (Greece), Zaza Pachulia (Georgia), Ersan Ilyasova (Turkey) and French rookie Damien Inglis (who will miss the first few weeks of the season with an injury), the Bucks are again among the league leaders in international players in this increasingly global game that is the NBA. And in January, the Bucks will make a trip across the pond to play the New York Knicks in London’s O2 arena for the team’s first-ever regular-season game played overseas. Study abroad trips are supposed to be good for a well-rounded student, right?

This team might be too young to excel in classes like ‘Defensive Rotations 101’ or ‘Introduction to Executing a Pick and Roll,’ but where it will really thrive is in ‘21st-Century Media Studies’ and ‘Mastering Internet Culture.’ Giannis is already an online phenomenon, they’ve added All-NBA-level Twitter personalities Kendall Marshall and Jared Dudley to the squad, and the Bucks will receive high marks from the frenzied NBA internet culture for the amount YouTube/Vine/GIF-able moments sure to come this season. The Bucks’ creative marketing department can leverage all of this to make the club relevant throughout the 82-game season, and the joyfully nutty Bucks fans on Twitter, like the writers at Brew Hoop and Bucksketball, can make even the most depressing losses an absolute blast.

Long-term, there is a lot to like about the Bucks, and for the first time in forever, it’s not pure homerism to say that. But for the 2014-15 season, this team will be bad. Starting two 19-year-olds does not a playoff contender make, and, outside of potentially Jabari Parker, I’m not sure there’s a player on the team who can both a) create his own shot, AND b) shoot a high percentage. And though the Philadelphia 76ers might be bad enough to lose to the Wisconsin Badgers, fellow Eastern Conference bottom-feeders Orlando and Boston both improved with multiple first-round draft picks, Detroit will be better under coach Stan Van Gundy, and we all know what happened in Cleveland. Miami could still contend for a playoff spot with Bosh, Wade and always-underrated coach Erik Spoelstra, and only Indiana seems poised for a massive drop in the standings after losing Lance Stevenson in free agency and Paul George to a gruesome injury suffered in the FIBA World Cup.

The year for Bucks fans to circle for future planning is 2016. Currently, the Bucks only have three players with guaranteed contracts after the ’15-’16 season – Giannis, Jabari and Larry Sanders. By then, the albatross contracts of Zaza Pachulia ($5.2 million per year), Ersan Ilyasova ($7.9 million per year) and O.J. Extra Mayo ($8 million per year) will no longer clog the Bucks cap sheet. With the NBA’s massive new TV deal set to kick in, the summer of 2016 is when the salary cap is poised to jump. GM John Hammond will have some important contractual decisions to make between now and then, notably with Brandon Knight (a restricted free agent after this year), Khris Middleton (ditto) and John Henson (restricted after 2016). Will Hammond continue his pattern of overpaying role players in the post-Kohl era, or will the new owners, operating under a “five-year plan,” as Marc Lasry said yesterday at the Jewish Federation Economic Forum, change the cap calculus for the small-market franchise?

But between now and 2016, there is, of course, the elephant in the room of the new arena, which still faces an uncertain path forward, and the debates surrounding the arena and public funding are sure to ratchet up after the Nov. 4 election. Winning in the short-term could help sell the region on funding for the arena, but it could also stymie the team’s lofty long-term plans, as snagging another future star with a top-five lottery pick in the 2015 draft could really make this team a force to be reckoned with. So here’s the big question for this season: Do the Bucks need to win games in order to sell the Milwaukee region on a public funding deal? 

Magner: Well, professor, you’ve jumped right to the final exam, but I think it’s more of a multipart question.

If the Bucks are to convince the public to help finance an arena deal, then yes, they’ll eventually have to win. But I don’t think those wins have to come this year. I just think the public needs to see evidence that more wins will come down the road. If Parker makes his expected splash, if Giannis continues to mature, if Khris Middleton takes the next step up, if Brandon Knight steps into a leadership role, if Larry Sanders shapes up or is shipped out, then instead of just hearing about “owning the future,” people in Milwaukee will be able to see outlines of that future. This has always been a town that’s cared as much about effort, work ethic and commitment as it has about winning. If the Bucks show signs of the first three items, then the public is much more likely to trust that the fourth item will come.

And since you opened the door to the public financing question, let me step through it a bit more, albeit in a more nuanced way. What really intrigues me is the unknown aspects of the public financing option. Namely, how much will the arena backers ask for, and what form of assistance will they want. It’s one thing to ask taxpayers to pay for your house, then tell them you’ll keep all the rent. It’s another to say you’re going to build a house that will really improve the neighborhood, so would you mind improving the streets to accommodate more traffic. I can certainly see a scenario in which most, if not all, of the actual arena construction is paid for by private monies, and the public’s main contribution comes in the form of tax breaks and improved infrastructure around the area (road modifications, utility relocation, general beautification efforts).

And I think that scenario became much more likely with the influx of new minority owners, one of which happens to be another hedge fund billionaire, Jamie Dinan. It’s getting to the point where I’m just about convinced the new arena will happen, because with all of the diverse ownership interests, spearheaded by smart guys like Edens and Lasry, it seems like it’s too big to fail. And if it gets to the 11th hour, and there’s a public financing dead end, and the arena needs another $100 million, I have to imagine Sen. Herb Kohl will write the check. He’s secured the Bucks’ future in Milwaukee so often. I just don’t think he’ll let his beloved franchise and his beloved city get divorced.

But hey, we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves now, aren’t we? Turns out there’s a Bucks game on TV tonight, and it matters in the standings. Turns out there’s another game on Friday, and you can drive Downtown to see it. And even though that game’s on Halloween, for the first time in a while, the Bucks’ prospects might seem a tad less scary.

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