Monday, June 23, 2014

It's Gettin' Late Early

NOTE: I was nearly finished writing an essay on why the Bucks should draft Joel Embiid when Bucks co-owner Marc Lasry said that Embiid is no longer an option.  Lasry is known in some circles as being close friends with a prominent New York bookie and for playing private high-stakes poker games, so maybe he was just bluffing.  Still, it was enough for me to change today's post to something else.  If you still want to read my pro-Embiid argument, scroll down to the bottom.

Marc Lasry's publicity tour of Milwaukee today was a number of things.  It was a chance for the Bucks' co-owner to enhance the team's relationship with online fans.  It showed that even as a busy New Yorker, Lasry is putting forth an effort to make the Bucks a more significant part of Milwaukee again.  And if you read between the lines, it was another message that Milwaukee will never again have a successful NBA team unless someone gives two hundred million dollars or so in tax money to the Bucks.

The following is an approximate timeline of the Bucks' future, as gleaned from the subtext of Lasry's comments:

June 26, 2014: Draft a high-profile college player.

June 26 to September 15, 2014: Trade away veteran Bucks players.  Avoid signing high-priced veteran players from other teams.

Late October, 2014: Debut the high-profile college player before a sellout crowd at the BMO Harris Bradley Center.



November, 2014: Make it known, via the press, that the Bucks are hoping to be given about $220 million in tax money for a replacement for the BMO Harris Bradley Center.

Winter, 2015: Announce a prospective location for a replacement for the BMO Harris Bradley Center, along with a financing plan that includes a $220 million contribution of tax money for the Bucks' new home.

Spring, 2015: Remind Milwaukee voters and elected officials that the one year anniversary of new ownership has been in place for one year, and that an agreement to give the Bucks about $220 million in tax money for a replacement for the BMO Harris Bradley Center must happen soon, otherwise the NBA's future in Milwaukee will be in jeopardy.

At this point the timelines start to diverge.  Either Lasry and Wed Edens, the Bucks' other co-owner, will have been given assurances that about $220 million in tax money will be given to the Bucks to replace the BMO Harris Bradley Center, or not.

If the Bucks get their $220 million in tax money, then things might get better.  Lasry and Edens are not going to operate the team at a yearly deficit the way Herb Kohl did.  They may, however, be more savvy about hiring basketball people with the vision to run a winning basketball operation.  (Sadly, the ratio of people who think they possess said vision to the people who actually possess said vision is about twenty million-to-ten.)  At the very least, the Bucks will be locked into a twenty-or-so year lease in Milwaukee.

If the Bucks do not get their $220 million in tax money, then the veiled threats that Lasry floated during Monday's media blitz will become unveiled.  The idea of building a winner through "...draft picks, then bring in free agents," will morph into a reality of avoiding free agents in order to keep costs down.  The idea of changing the Bucks' uniforms or color scheme will be seen as unnecessary expenditures for a franchise whose future is in another city.  The goal of losing in 2015 and improving in 2016 will become a goal minimizing losses in 2016 before the franchise gets bought back by the NBA in 2017.

The second timeline may seem aggressively negative and cynical, but to this point the new Bucks' owners have nothing to contradict it.  Instead of saying that each win matters, they've gone out of their way to value future seasons more than 2015.  Instead of saying that the arena will be built one way or another, they've repeatedly said that nine figures in tax money is necessary.  Instead of saying that they'll fight the NBA tooth and nail if the league tries to move the team, they've used the league as a bogeyman.  Instead of saying that the current roster has some darned good players who experienced a hard luck season in 2014, they've reportedly made every player available for trade (except the Greek Freak, who, ironically, is the one player who should be made available) for lower salaried youngsters.  These are not just bad signs.  They are worrying.  They are a PR-friendly version of Clay Bennett's moves when he took over the Sonics.

If you are a Bucks fan, the time to sound the alarm is now.  One step, of course, is rallying support for a realistic way to get $220 million in tax money directed towards a new arena.  Another step is to confront the new owners about these worrying signs.  They are businessmen with newly public personas.  They don't want fans to abandon the team and they don't want to be perceived as bad guys. They will change course to some degree if they feel that the public is starting to become skeptical of them.

The draft is only a few days away, so these worries about the Bucks future can be set aside for a little while longer.  At some point, however, it will get late.  Franchise moves can happen pretty fast in the NBA and for the moment, at least, the Bucks are the low hanging fruit.

***

The last event of the 2014 NBA season, the Draft, is happening on June 26, and if reports are to be believed, Joel Embiid is off the Bucks' board.  Embiid is seven feet tall, and the Bucks were playing 6'8" guys at center last season.  Embiid is a solid shot blocker, and the Bucks struggled to defend the paint in 2014.  Embiid is twenty years old, and the Bucks are planning for the future.  Still, reportedly they have little interest.

Joel Embiid may be a bust.  He could get injured like Odom or fail to progress like Thabeet or be a knucklehead like Olowokandi.  Jabari Parker may become Carmelo and Wiggins may become McGrady and Exum may become whatever Shawn Livingston would have been had he not gotten hurt.  These things are not only possible, but better than even bets in the eyes of many NBA watchers.

Rumors have surfaced in the past that Embiid does not want to play in Milwaukee.  Embiid's agent believes that his earning potential would be limited by playing for what is now the NBA's least attractive franchise.  The Bucks have Larry "The Colonel" Sanders, who is on the NBA's worst contract and who plays  the same position in the same way that Embiid does.  The Bucks have a lowly regarded head coach, a GM who has clung to power like a Soviet bureaucrat and no veteran leaders who might help Embiid as he navigates the world of the NBA for the first time.

There are many reasons to pass on Joel Embiid with the number two pick in the draft, but none of them override this: Joel Embiid plays the most important position in the NBA and he will likely succeed at doing it.

The great thing about drafting a young, athletic big man is that it gives a team options.  If he decides that he doesn't want to play in Milwaukee, then he can be traded for a king's ransom.  If he misses time due to injury, he'll be missing a 2015 season that is likely to be one of the most pathetic Bucks seasons since Jerry "Ice" Reynolds last donned the purple and green.  If he plays and struggles, he can be packaged to another rebuilding team.  He offers more value than any single player the Bucks could select with the second pick in the draft.

Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker may both be All-Stars one day, but they don't project as superstars.  This is not Blake Griffin or LeBron James or Anthony Davis.  This is James Harden or Kyrie Irving.  You want those guys on your roster.  You draft them if there are no better alternatives.  But you don't pass up a chance at an All-Star big man so that you can draft an All-Star wing.

The last time the Bucks picked this high was 2005.  Chris Paul was the most talented prospect.  Andrew Bogut was who the Bucks chose.  Conventional wisdom is that the Bucks erred by choosing size over talent.  But did they?  Bogut led the team to their best success of the current era, and if not for a fluke injury could have turned the franchise's fortunes around.  Paul left the team he was drafted by after six decent-but-not-great seasons, and has an uneven playoff record with a talented Clippers team since then.  Even in what appears to some to be an open-and-shut case for Paul, Bogut provided plenty of value even with some bad injury luck.

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