So Milwaukee made the playoffs last year, and looked to be an up-and-coming team. Obviously, record-wise, you’ve regressed a little bit this year. How do you assess your team?Well, we like our team. We liked it last year, we liked the way we finished, and we felt that we strengthened it over the summer. What you can never plan on is – and I hate to use this as an excuse – but what you can never plan on is injuries. And the fact of the matter is that we’re far, far, far and away leading the league in starter games missed due to injuries. And that’s so important in this league. And I don’t use that as an excuse to say why are we were we are right now, I use that in the context of this conversation to say that it’s our job to think within that injury situation to assess our team.
Anytime that you have to judge anything, and I would imagine it’s in our business and every other business, you want some sort of constant baseline where you can study trends. In our business, our product is the team that we put on the floor, and when the product changes every day it’s difficult to assess trends with any consistency. So its been a difficult year from that end.
The other element is we’ve had, to date, the second most difficult schedule, and that kind of turns for us in the second half of the season. So the hope is that as we get our players back, and our schedules becomes more favourable that we can stay in the hunt and maybe even make up some ground. We had high hopes for this team coming into the season, and we still have high hopes going forward.
What’s your relationship like with the marketing department? Obviously, they’re praying for another playoff appearance to help solidify the season ticket base.
Well, we all work for the same team and we want to do everything we can to support those guys, and they work so hard. I mean to do what they do is so admirable. The way that those guys work and support us and work through down times and frankly they’re having to do things that – at least we can sort of look in the mirror and say we kind of screwed that one up – they don’t have full control over. They have to put their hands on the wheel every day and try to crank, and it doesn’t work without all of us communicating. So I’d say yes, there’s a strong level of communication and we all support one another and we totally recognise that their jobs are absolutely as important as our jobs. It’s a team and 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 in a way that’s especially true in Milwaukee where you’re not guaranteed a full house every night like you are, maybe in New York. There’s been some talk about increased revenue sharing. Do you think that’s something that needs to happen for all teams to be competitive?
That kind of skirts on stuff that I’m not really allowed to talk about, so I should probably keep my mouth shut on that.
Ok, well then how important is the draft to a team like the Bucks? The big time FAs might not want to come to a smaller market, and you probably don’t have the resources to sign them anyway. Is there anyway to be competitive without striking lottery gold?
I think the league does what it can do to level the playing field, so you know, the thing is, within our rules and the system that’s in place, that the playing field is set up so that hopefully teams in a smaller market – and you’ve seen teams like the San Antonio Spurs and the Oklahoma City Thunder – have achieved some success–
But they also “achieved” Tim Duncan and Kevin Durant–
And don’t forget David Robinson.
Right, exactly, they’ve gotten those players purely through the luck of the draft.
The fact of the matter is you have to also weigh in the human element, and by definition some of the biggest stars are going to want to go to the bigger markets – they want to match their stature with the stature of the market. Within that, we have to have our strategy and define who we are. There’s no question certain teams in this league have a distinct advantage, but there have been models where teams have succe
eded without that major star name. You’re right, the odds are, in a small market situation, the way you’re going to acquire that player is through the draft.And we make it our mission to run a quality organisation so that once players are living in Milwaukee, and once they get to see the excellent the quality of life they can have in Milwaukee, that they’re going to like it. We’re going to surround the players with high character people on the floor, in support roles in front office roles, in the coaching staff, and everything. And make it a place they want to stay. So we were able to keep Andrew Bogut, and obviously, Brandon Jennings is an important part of our future. So we look at it like the burden is on ourselves to maintain a high level of quality to retain our strong players.
Listen, you said it, it’s happened before, and then you an look at a situation like the Detroit Pistons, who had several all-stars on their team when [current Bucks GM] John Hammond was there. But what came first the wining or the all-stars? We’ve got to keep driving away and look to ourselves to just keep acquiring the best talent that we can. And you know you’re right there’s no question for the Bucks to acquire a star player through free agency, given the nature of our market and everything else, that’s probably not going to happen. Our best shot is through the draft or maybe even through trades. But that’s OK, we understand that, and as long as we recognise that, and recognise how we have to be successful, that at least it gives us a path to follow.
I was going to mention the Pistons getting Chauncey Billups before he was a star and Rip Hamilton through a trade, and Ben Wallace was a leftover piece in the Grant Hill trade. It’s pretty rare. Granted, you have a young team, but is there any realistic way to move up from the 6-10, middle of the pack range, where you’re unlikely to get a top pick in the draft, to an elite team? Is there another way to it?
Yeah there definitely is, I mean you just said it. When the pistons signed Chauncey Billups the league was shocked that he got a mid-level contract. He turned out well, and now he’s making three times that. So, yes, the means for us to improve ourselves are a) from within, because we already have a couple of guys who we feel could be all star candidates as they grow up and continue to improve, and b) trades. Acquiring John Salmons last year helped our team to a significant improvement for the second half of the season. You alluded to it: where we are probably at a disadvantage is the odds of us finding a major market star through free agency is probably not going to happen for us. But there are other ways, trades, internally, through the draft, and all those things, and like I said, the most important thing is for us to recognise how it could happen and then follow that path and not get sidetracked by the shiny ring.
Talk a little bit about the decision to trade Yi a few weeks after you first got there. I spoke with [VP of Business Operations] John Steinmiller and the fascinating thing he mentioned how that draft pick opened a lot of doors to China. Was there any talk at all about what losing him would do to a huge market that was opened his rookie year?
Sure, we tried to weigh everything that would factor in to a trade involving Yi, and obviously that’s going to come up. But for us to override a basketball decision with just a decision that involves other elements probably isn’t fair to our fans. In our assessment, if we felt it was the best possible deal for us to do on the field, but we couldn’t do it because of markets we were opening up in China, well, how do we look our fans in the eyes and say “well this isn’t really the best team that we could have put on the floor, but man, we got a lot of guys in China watching our games.”
But form a business perspective, a cultivated market in China could yield dividends down the road, to the point where you essentially have the revenue of a much larger market team. That’s helped the Mariners, for example, with Ichiro, in baseball. So had Yi been key to that market, that could have helped your long-term on-court product.
We factor everything in, but the overriding factor is that we felt we put ourselves in a position to win more games. Honestly, if it had been negligible, if we weren’t sure, or kind of didn’t have strong inclination one way or another [it might have been different]. There are more factors you have to consider with a player like Yi, but at the end of the day, his marketability – no matter his origin – is related to his performance on the court. Ultimately, it does come down to a basketball trade, even if you look at it from a marketing standpoint, you know what I mean? We could have been wrong, and who knows, that’s not for us to judge. But the point is, we made a determination from a basketball perspective and everything else gets sort of tied into that.
OK, so we’ve established the importance of the draft. Talk a little bit about that process… in your tenure you’ve drafted near the same spot and picked a bust, in Joe Alexander, and a big hit in Brandon Jennings.
Man, the draft is just a series of push-pulls. That’s all it is. It’s weighing upside against downside, it’s weighing age against experience, it’s weighing your ability to get the team to take him and develop him over three or four years, as opposed to saying, “We need a guy who can step in and help right now.”
Within all of those different sliding scales, we have got to figure out who the guy who most closely aligns all those different indicators. And then you have to take into account that you’re just one team in this huge process. There’s an old expression that if the draft was held one day before, or one day after, it would be a completely different draft. Because guys are consistently reassessing information, and one guy might win an argument one day and the next guy might win an argument the next day, so the draft is constantly changing its always in flux, so for you to try to freeze it, its like it only happens because you’re up. I don’t think there’s any one who can reduce it to more than a hopefully a logical art.
In the case of a bust, at what point do you say, we have to move on?
Well, if you kind of look at statistics or analytics you need a big sample size to allow yourself to get to where the numbers can actually give you guidance on that kind of stuff. So I guess what I’m saying is, yeah, it is case by case, because every player is different and every team is at a different stage when we have to make these decisions, so you know for us – you’re alluding to the Joe Alexander situation I imagine – who knows, if we had been a year further along or a year earlier [in our team’s development] the decision would have been different. We felt that at the time and where we were financially, how we were kind of hamstrung in our ability to do deals and everything else that factored in that the right move for us was to put Joe into the deal to acquire John Salmons.
You talk a lot about analytics, and that’s something that NBA fans are beginning to follow ever more closely. But one thing that consistently comes up is that for every statistic, there seems to be a lurking variable that needs to be considered that hampers the value of an advanced statistic. It’s not yet like baseball, where many stats have become accepted measures. Do you take analytics with a grain of salt?
Exactly. The major difference in baseball and football is that after every player there’s a stoppage, and at each stoppage you can categorize… and, you know, I’m still learning that stuff. I bother a lot of the guys, probably annoy them, to try and understand it more. We have a specialist on staff, and we tell him, you can’t just answer our questions. You have to show us what to look for because, honestly, we don’t know, we just keep an open mind, and make sure to consider everything – certainly analytics is a big part of that.
Photo: Flickr/Steve Paluch
Did that help you in any way with selecting Brandon Jennings? I mean, that was a pretty incredible pick on your part.It’s funny, as unique as Brandon’s story is, and what he brought to the draft, the story of the Bucks drafting him is not that unique. We were a team in need of the type of player that he was, and all the kind of tests that he kept passing backed up the situation, to where it was like, well, why shouldn’t we draft him? We went through that. Is he going to get better? Yes. Is he a competitor? Yes. Does he have potential greatness in him? Yes. So we were excited about it. I think where we got a little lucky – and I would call it no more than that – is one of the question we asked ourselves is what would this kid have done in the Pac-10? [Jennings was slated to go to Arizona before SAT problems.] We were watching a lot of video of him, and to us the answer was, he would have excelled considerably in college to where he would have probably been a top 5 pick. Just by virtue of the fact where he was put in a situation where he was playing with grown men in a foreign country in a completely different basketball environment – the way they play over there is so different – probably benefited us in allowing him to drop to us. I don’t think it’s a real sexy story. I think the sexiest part of the story is on Brandon’s side and the kind of work he did.
This interview was edited for clarity and length.
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