It was, quite frankly, a rather discouraging scene. You saw a whole lot of concrete and precious few feet to pound it.
This was Monday night, a half-hour before the season’s final Milwaukee Bucks home game. Sidewalks surrounding the Bradley Center were practically empty. Lonely scalpers pestered the few fans strolling by, but it was a half-hearted effort. They knew the odds. In a business of supply and demand, they were on the wrong side of the ledger.
Hard to believe it was the same place as a year ago, when the arena hosted Milwaukee’s biggest block party. Back then, plazas around the place burst with the bustle of a fan base that was fired up for the playoffs. Scalpers did a brisk business. Fear the Deer chants filled the air. It was an era of rebirth for the Milwaukee Bucks.
Inside the arena, the excitement reached yet another level. At times, the place was so loud with cheers and screams that you couldn’t hear your own. Longtime observers – stalwarts who stuck with the team through its doldrums – spoke of their joy at having the city behind the club once again.
“The buzz that we had throughout the city,” reminisced guard John Salmons, whose midseason trade helped create that buzz, “it’s just disappointing that we couldn’t get back to that.”
|Milwaukee Bucks John Salmons (left) and Michael Redd.|
Indeed, even on Fan Appreciation Night, when the Bucks gave away enough swag to make Monty Hall jealous, the place was only half full. It was a striking contrast.
But such is the price of a 34-47 record, especially when those numbers were supposed to be reversed.
“For me, it just feels like a failure,” Salmons said. “A failure as a team, and we couldn’t get it together. It’s disappointing.”
And now, in hindsight, maybe the only surprising thing about the disappointing season is that we’re surprised by it at all.
Not that the high expectations weren’t warranted, because they were. Not that the Bucks couldn’t meet them, because they came close the previous season. But looking back on this season, there’s a clear reason why those expectations went wanting.
Quite simply, Milwaukee’s highest-paid players couldn’t provide a big enough return on the investment.
I thought about this while looking at the Business Journal’s March 25th list of Wisconsin’s highest-paid athletes. Four of the state’s top seven salaries belonged to Bucks players, including Michael Redd’s chart-topping $18.3 million. Andrew Bogut ($11 million) and Corey Maggette ($9.6 mil) were fourth and fifth, respectively, while Salmons ranked seventh at $8 million.
Taken together, the four Bucks accounted for 68 percent of the team’s $69 million payroll. But they didn’t come close to accounting for 68 percent of the team’s production.
Were there valid reasons for this? Absolutely. Torn ligaments, bum ankles and knees, and elbows that won’t straighten tend to affect your ability to play. And those factors were beyond anyone’s control.
Still, the consequences of those factors are undeniable. When a team’s highest-paid players cannot perform as such – for whatever reason – how can a team perform up to its highest expectations?
This season, the Bucks couldn’t. And they’re well aware of it.
“I know it’s been a tough season,” Bogut tweeted Monday, a day before he was to undergo another elbow surgery in Florida. “I feel the pain (mentally and physically) of a losing season. I’d hope we all do.
“We have a long way to go to get better,” he continued. “I thank all of the fans who supported [us] through it. Cheers.”
Bogut remains Milwaukee’s best player, the team’s best hope for future success, and he could be quite effective this season. But he hasn’t been the same player since that arm injury. Bucks fans will hope more surgery and more rehab can change that.
Nobody seemed to take the season more personally than Salmons, who often cut a dejected post-loss figure in front of his locker. Whether it was his early-season knee injury, pressure to live up to his new contract, some combination of the two or some other factor entirely, he was not the same impact player as last season. It made him a target for criticism, not only from fans, but from himself.
“I feel like a lot of it was the fact that I wasn’t playing as well as I could,” he admitted Monday. “A lot of games I just felt like if I was playing better, that we would’ve gave ourselves a better chance to win. When I got here, I got a lot of the credit, so when things are not going as well, I guess I’ll take the blame.”
As for Redd and Maggette, it was neither a happy beginning for one nor a happy ending for the other.
Maggette, the highly touted offseason acquisition, became an afterthought in coach Scott Skiles’ pecking order. Whispers of locker room chemistry issues dogged him. He was brought in to help the team to the next level, but did not.
And Redd’s 11-year Milwaukee career, much of it spent as the face of the franchise, all but certainly concluded as a role player off the bench. He spoke glowingly of his Milwaukee tenure Monday night and will always have a place in team lore. But his best years are memories, and his last two seasons will be remembered for two devastating knee injuries and a $36 million paycheck that produced 248 points.
No, it was not a season of storybook finishes for the Bucks, so they’ll have to change the story. Judging by the empty sidewalks, it will have to be a good one. Because if this season was about unmet expectations, the next season must be about resurrecting them.
Failed seasons come with a cost.