After pushing the Chicago Bulls in a tougher-than-expected six-game, first-round series, the Bucks signed a big-name free agent to a massive contract, kept another prospect in the fold, and expect to welcome back Parker, at some point, from a torn left anterior cruciate ligament. But General Manager John Hammond would rather see his team experience some sustained success before it is anointed as one of Eastern Conference elites.
Borrowing a phrase from Coach Jason Kidd, whom Hammond calls “the game-changer” for working miracles in his first season with Bucks, Hammond believes that remaining respectable is the next step.
“We’re going to try to go from good to good,” Hammond said, quoting Kidd. “I think we were a surprise team this season. Nobody expected us to do what we did. Now, can we just be good again and gradually take that step. To go from good to great is often difficult. So we’re just trying to find some consistency, especially with our youth and build off that.”
The perception of the Bucks changed once Monroe decided earlier this month that it was a more attractive destination than New York or the Los Angeles Lakers. Milwaukee had long been the place free agents shunned or ignored entirely, a cold weather town with a team that couldn’t offer much more than mediocrity or an annual shot at the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference.
Owners Wesley Edens and Marc Lasry are striving for much more for their new toy. And, when Monroe committed to a three-year, $51 million contract, the Bucks suddenly became a trendy squad with so much appeal that voters and state assembly members in Wisconsin have now approved a new arena to keep the franchise from fleeing to places like Seattle or Las Vegas.
“Just such a great opportunity for us, we felt,” Hammond said of Monroe. “We need a player of that caliber. We need a player that we can throw the ball to in the post. But it’s just as important that we continue to try to build and build this the right way, that we can build with the right kind of people.”
With the 6-foot-10 Monroe, the Bucks have a low-post scorer who can provide easy buckets for a team with few accurate shooters and shot creators. Monroe was part of some mismatched teams in Detroit, which kept him trudging in lottery misery. Now he is with an intriguing core that includes Parker and Giannis Antetokounmpo, both 20, Khris Middleton and former rookie of the year Michael Carter-Williams, both 23, and John Henson, 24.
“I think he felt Milwaukee … with a very deep, young roster gave him the best opportunity to go deep into the playoffs immediately. That’s why he picked them,” Monroe’s agent, David Falk, said. “A great roster of young players, just missing one thing that hopefully he’ll provide.”
Falk added that Kidd’s “track record” also played an influence, given the future Hall of Fame point guard’s penchant as a player for having an immediate impact on franchises. Kidd led a 26-win New Jersey Nets team to the NBA Finals in one season and helped the Dallas Mavericks win their lone title. His arrival in Milwaukee was controversial, with the news being leaked while Larry Drew was still employed. But Kidd’s influence on a team of undervalued youngsters and journeymen veterans was tremendous.
And finding a way to repeat the magic won’t be easy after losing some of the essential parts of that run in Zaza Pachulia, Jared Dudley and Ersan Ilyasova.
“I can’t remember who said this, but he said, ‘Chemistry is one of those things, you don’t know how you got it and you don’t know how you lost it when it’s gone.’ We just had a good fit,” Hammond said. “Give guys like Zaza, O.J. Mayo, Jerryd Bayless, Dudley credit. Those guys were tremendous for us, supporting Jason and our coaching staff, holding our young guys accountable. A couple of those guys aren’t with us, so we’re going to miss those guys.”
The Bucks plan to maintain continuity with their young group, in anticipation of a leader emerging. Monroe is the old head at age 25 and Middleton was handed a five-year, $72 million contract based largely on what they hope he will become. The 6-11 Antetokounmpo, also known as “The Greek Freak,” is a versatile, position-less player whose upside provides much hope for Milwaukee. But so much of the allure surrounding the franchise involves Parker, a potential building block who had some encouraging moments before his season was cut short. Parker’s ability to recover from an injury that has stunted many careers is paramount and the Bucks don’t want to take any chances in rushing him back.
“I get asked two questions every single day. No. 1 is, how’s Jabari? And No. 2: How soon will Jabari be back to play?” Hammond said with a chuckle. “I answer the first one very easily and say he’s doing absolutely great. His rehab is going well. The second answer: We’re going to be very conservative with him. If we think he’s capable of playing 20, we’ll maybe play him 10 minutes. If we think he can play a back-to-back, we’ll wait on the back-to-back. Whatever it is, we’re going to be very cautious as he move forward because of the magnitude of who he can be and who we hope he can be for our organization going forward.”
Going from good to good might seem like a modest goal but the Bucks understand that challenges that will come with increased expectations. Hammond is also appreciative of how the team has come together only 15 months after completing a 15-win season.
“It’s been a remarkable process,” Hammond said. “Now the bar has been raised. People are going to be ready to play us next year. We think we’re better. A lot of teams in the East have improved. So, we’re pleased where we’re at. We’re young but I think the roster has a lot of potential. It’s all about someday being a championship caliber team. That’s the ultimate goal.”