Photo: AP Images
We spoke to several Bucks executives over the course of two days in February. Read the complete interview with Asst. GM Jeff Weltman here, and the complete interview with VP of Business Operations John Steinmiller here.Though the Bucks lack a true superstar, a run-and-gun offence, and a grand metropolis to call home, to anyone with even a passing interest in the inner workings of an NBA front office, Milwaukee is a fascinating team.
No other team in the league has been faced with as many complex decisions, both from a business and personnel perspective, since the current basketball operations team took over in 2008.
Unlike teams in the NBA’s largest markets, the Bucks are not guaranteed a steady source of revenue. They don’t have the local population to fill an arena by default, and aren’t awarded extremely lucrative TV deals or hosts of national sponsorship deals to fund their existence. If the Bucks don’t draw fans, their financial future is in serious jeopardy. (And the pending lockout only makes things worse.)
Therefore, the Bucks can’t afford to be bad enough to pick at the top of the draft. Rather than being in position to select a franchise-altering prospect, they must capitalise on a pick in the 8-15 range. And while Milwaukee wants to develop the young talent it selects, the team must remain competitive. Sinking too much time and money into a prospect that ultimately fails can have a lasting negative impact on the franchise.
All these factors weighed on GM John Hammond and his close assistant Jeff Weltman – hired in June 2008 from the Detroit Pistons – when deciding what to do with the first round pick they inherited from the previous regime, Yi Jianlian.
Yi hailed from China, and presented an opportunity rarely afforded a team from Milwaukee: to specifically appeal to a huge market starved for NBA basketball.
“[Yi] can definitely open up some doors and give us some opportunities with several Chinese brands,” John Steinmiller, VP of Business Operations, told us. “And we were definitely able to take advantage of that.”
But the 7-foot, sixth overall pick didn’t immediately produce for the Bucks. And after Yi’s rookie season Hammond and Weltman contemplated swapping him for a proven player, Richard Jefferson. On the one hand, an engaged Chinese audience could yield the steady stream of revenue the Bucks have always lacked (and would make Steinmiller’s job easier.) But Jefferson would probably improve the on-court product.
“There are more factors you have to consider with a player like Yi,” Weltman told us, in an exclusive
Photo: AP Images
interview. He said they definitely gave this trade more careful consideration than most, because of the business implications. “But at the end of the day, his marketability – no matter his origin – is related to his performance on the court.”Meaning if Yi didn’t blossom into the prospect the Bucks previous management team envisioned, his connection to China would be meaningless. Chinese basketball fans aren’t going to begin demanding Bucks telecasts and merchandise because their countryman is riding the bench. But foregoing that potential upside is a scary proposition. With the benefit of hindsight, we now know the Bucks made the right call. They made the trade, and three years later Yi averages just six points per game for the hapless Washington Wizards.
Hammond, Weltman, and the basketball operations team didn’t fare much better in their first draft, when they selected Joe Alexander eighth overall in 2008. But the next year, they struck gold by selecting Brandon Jennings with the tenth pick. Despite his murky past, the Bucks selected the young guard because “he had potential greatness.”
Merely by virtue of his on-court success, Jennings became the Bucks most marketable player. ESPN even featured the rising star in a Milwaukee Bucks commercial.
“It’s a team,” Weltman said of the relationship between the business operations and the basketball operations. “There’s no way we could really do it without them and at the end of the day we’re putting the product on the floor and they have to sell it so it’s a completely symbiotic relationship.”
And because the marketing department’s best selling point is the product on the floor – and not some intangible personality or nationality – the basketball operations team can focus almost entirely on putting together the best roster.
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