"I didn't build my business trying to be mediocre, and I don't think anyone should."
With those words just a month after assuming control, new Milwaukee Bucks co-owner Marc Lasry sent a message to long-suffering Bucks fans that was both clear and meaningful: Longtime owner Herb Kohl’s aversion to a bottom-up rebuild was now officially dead, and “competitive” was no longer an acceptable level of long-term ambition.
Granted, neither a well-crafted marketing message nor the warm, fuzzy feeling of a new-owner honeymoon will guarantee the Bucks a future any better than the three decades of near-uninterrupted mediocrity under Kohl. In fact, for all of Lasry and fellow co-owner Wes Edens’ long-term ambitions, even they admit that the short term might be ugly at times. So while the Bucks might now be talking about contending for a title rather than just a playoff spot, getting there will undoubtedly require years of patience -- not to mention shrewd decision-making, good luck and another half-billion dollars or so to build a new arena.
With the focus in Milwaukee at long last firmly on the future, the first major step toward a brighter one begins Thursday night. Currently slated to pick second in the much-hyped 2014 NBA draft, the Bucks will almost assuredly add one of the draft’s top three (uninjured) prospects -- Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins, or maybe Dante Exum -- and in the process one of them will inherit the title of Milwaukee’s Next Great Hope.
Before Joel Embiid’s bum foot took a wrecking ball to most mock drafts, the Bucks’ motivations at No. 2 had been an understandably popular subject of speculation: No team near the top had been presumed to love every prospect as much as the Bucks, with armchair general managers reading often contradictory motivations behind each prospect’s appeal. The Bucks need an impact guy now! No, they need the guy with the most upside! Wait, they need someone who can play with Giannis!
But let’s at least agree not to overcomplicate the premise: The Bucks need a star, and the great news is that whether it’s Wiggins or Parker, Milwaukee will have a chance on Thursday to add one of the brightest draft prospects of the past decade. So even if Lasry himself admits that the Cavs’ decision will likely make Milwaukee’s somewhat anticlimactic, taking Cleveland’s leftovers shouldn’t do anything to diminish the enthusiasm of long-suffering Bucks fans. Although previous No. 1 overall picks Glenn Robinson and Andrew Bogut fell short of the greatness many had hoped for, there’s still an energizing (and unfamiliar) sense of hope that this draft can deliver the star the franchise so desperately needs.
Yet as important as it might be, the draft is just the first of many decisions that will shape the future of pro basketball in Milwaukee. On the job for less than a month, Edens and Lasry have already moved to draw a bright line between themselves and Kohl, whose complicated legacy in Milwaukee includes saving the team from relocation in 1985 and making an unprecedented $100 million parting gift toward a new arena last month. But while the bookends to Kohl’s tenure as owner will leave Wisconsinites forever indebted to him, the team’s first round-or-bust roster-building under his stewardship has also left most fans unapologetically thrilled about his decision to move on.
And as for actually improving on the team’s forgettable recent history? Well, one trip past the first round in 25 years doesn’t exactly set a high bar, but there’s reason to believe that the new guys are more than just talk. Though they readily admit to being basketball fans rather than player personnel experts, Edens and Lasry have spent the past two decades helping turn around companies of all shapes and sizes, in the process amassing a combined net worth measured in the billions. They are ambitious, self-made dealmakers from the big city, which painted against the sleepy backdrop of their new Midwestern home makes them quite possibly the best thing that could have happened to basketball in Milwaukee.
Case in point: A week after the league approved their then-record $550 million purchase of the team, the billionaires from New York City found themselves at a bar in Milwaukee, drinking beers with a few hundred Bucks fans. The new guys mingled with fans, accepted unsolicited advice on personnel matters and reveled in the nowhere-to-go-but-up optimism that comes with a fresh start and a young roster poised to add a No. 2 overall pick. And so the metaphor of Bucks ownership became clear: If the 79-year-old Kohl played the part of the generous but largely out of touch grandfather, Lasry and Edens were now casting themselves as the cool uncles -- you know, the ones who show up to the family reunion with a red Corvette and a six-pack.
Of course, the energizing effect of a good PR campaign will need to be matched by big ideas and seamless execution on and off the court. What the duo got for their half-a-billion dollars was a rebuilding project they admit will likely require three to five years before the rah-rah talk of contention might ever become reality -- and with the more critical challenge of building a new arena needing an answer even sooner.
On the court, Milwaukee's motley crew of youngsters and middling vets crashed and burned from day one of the 2013-14 season, making the mediocrity of previous seasons seem almost Spursian in contrast. Not even a 26-game losing streak in Philadelphia could spare coach Larry Drew from presiding over a league- and franchise-worst 15-67 record and the lowest attendance marks in the league, as a new roster faced a glut of early-season injuries before falling into a black hole of youthful indiscretion and veteran indifference. The No. 2 pick, improved play from the team’s youngsters and non-disastrous seasons from Larry Sanders and Ersan Ilyasova (if they’re still around) should drive a notable improvement in the standings, but wins next season are on some level incidental to the long-term project anyway.
Of much greater significance over the next year: wins off the court. A September 2013 visit from then-deputy commissioner Adam Silver reiterated the league’s requirement that a new-arena plan be in place by the expiration of the team’s lease with the aging BMO Harris Bradley Center in 2017, a threat given teeth by a buy-back provision in the team’s sale agreement with Lasry and Edens. Should the new owners fail to have the situation sorted by 2017, the league will have the ability to buy the team back for what now appears to be the relative bargain price of $575 million, a scenario that neither the new owners, city nor league would like to see realized.
For now the path to a solution remains long, even with a combined $200 million in private funding already committed by Kohl, Lasry and Edens. A new building will cost at least twice that amount, and the region’s tepid interest in public financing thus far has many fearing a standoff reflective of the state and region’s broader political polarization. While Milwaukee County officials have insisted that wealthier suburbs share in the costs of a new downtown development, three neighboring counties have already moved to preemptively scuttle the sort of regional tax that controversially funded the Milwaukee Brewers’ Miller Park. More private money will undoubtedly be needed, and defining an actual plan for the project -- where it will be located, what it will look like and how much it will cost -- is now job one for Lasry, Edens and local stakeholders.
The stated hope is for the parameters of a deal to be finalized a year from now, providing at least two years for construction of the project ahead of the 2017-18 season. Missing any of those deadlines won’t necessarily prove fatal, but the NBA’s leash will stretch only so far.
Either way, it’s a tight squeeze and one that will require a solution well before Wiggins, Parker, Exum and Embiid ever reach their full potential. But in the meantime, Bucks fans can breathe easier knowing a better future likely awaits -- and it begins in earnest on Thursday.