TrueHoop: Carlos Delfino

The Bucks' hobbled march to a bright future

December, 16, 2013
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
Larry Sanders border=
David Liam Kyle/NBAE/Getty ImagesAbsent Larry Sanders and several others to injury, the Bucks are winning the race to the bottom.
Not more than 90 minutes before the Milwaukee Bucks’ opener on Oct. 30 in New York, Luke Ridnour and the team’s trainers decided he couldn't play. Despite receiving an epidural cortisone shot 10 days prior, the herniated disc in Ridnour’s back had flared up again.

Playing without him was an inconvenience, but not debilitating. Brandon Knight had earned the starting gig at the 1 for Milwaukee, and the third-year point guard was raring to go. But 1 minute and 45 seconds into his Bucks debut, Knight strained his hamstring pushing the ball upcourt in transition. He promptly checked out of the game, and so began the career of Nate Wolters -- South Dakota State Jackrabbit and No. 38 overall pick in the 2013 draft -- under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden on opening night.

The injuries to the point guard corps were merely the newest installments in the Bucks’ medical drama. Milwaukee signed Carlos Delfino this past offseason under the assumption that the bone fractured in his right foot during the playoffs would be healed for the start of the season. But in September Delfino suffered a setback in his recovery that moved his estimated return date back to around just before the new year. He'd need extensive bone repair therapy.

While Delfino was rehabbing, big man Ekpe Udoh had his knee scoped Oct. 10. He missed the start of the season and didn’t return to the court until Nov. 6.

The Bucks received the worst news of all only three games into the season, when Sanders was lost after tearing a ligament in his right thumb at a Milwaukee club the night of Nov. 3. The pin that protects the ligament reconstruction was removed a week ago, and he's just been cleared for light basketball activity. The hope is that Sanders will return soon after Christmas.

Hours before Sanders found trouble, Ersan Ilyasova aggravated the nasty right ankle sprain he suffered during the preseason. Four days later, Ilyasova had joined Sanders, Knight, Ridnour and Delfino on the shelf (Udoh was just about to make his return). He’d miss six games for the Bucks, then return to play sporadically for the remainder of November. The results have been dispiriting: Statistically, Ilyasova is putting up the least impressive numbers of his six-year NBA career.

The hits kept coming for the Bucks: A week after the Sanders dust-up and Ilyasova, Delfino announced via his website Nov. 9 that he’d need another round of surgery, a procedure he underwent Saturday in Argentina. The team says Delfino will be out at least another eight weeks, but it's possible he won't suit up for Milwaukee this season.

Feel-good story Caron Butler didn't feel so good. On Nov. 15, he flew to Los Angeles to consult a specialist about his tweaked shoulder and missed consecutive blowout losses to Indiana and Oklahoma City. Two weeks later, Butler was sidelined again, this time with a swollen left knee. He isn’t expected back in uniform for another week. Meanwhile, Gary Neal has missed a couple of games because of a foot injury and left Saturday's game against Dallas because of plantar fasciitis in his left foot.

There's more: Center Zaza Pachulia will be in a walking boot on his right foot for the foreseeable future after suffering a stress fracture a week ago. That leaves the Bucks with a frontcourt rotation of John Henson, Udoh, a hobbled Ilyasova and first-year import Miroslav Raduljica.

What does all this mean? Is it an unmitigated disaster or the perfect unintentional way to secure a top-five pick in a prolific draft?

That’s a matter of interpretation.

If you’re owner Herb Kohl, the 5-19 start is a travesty. The Milwaukee Bucks brand might not register nationally, but the team’s annual pledge to put a competitive product on the floor for the community has been compromised.

One of the hallmarks of Milwaukee Bucks basketball has been the promise that if you buy a ticket on a cold winter night, there’s a better than even chance you’ll see a win for the good guys. The Bucks haven’t had a losing home record at the dilapidated Bradley Center since the 2007-08 season, but they’ve treated the local folks to only two wins in 12 games there this season.
[+] EnlargeJohn Henson
Allen Einstein/Getty ImagesJohn Henson has unintentionally benefited from Milwaukee's woes.

The litany of injuries is undeniable, as is the fact that the summer’s projected starting lineup of Knight, O.J. Mayo, Butler, Ilyasova and Sanders hasn’t played a second together. The team doesn’t have a single five-man unit that’s been on the floor for 100 minutes this season. You can boast about the potential of rookie Giannis Antetokounmpo and marvel at the length Larry Drew will be able to assemble on the floor once Sanders returns to play alongside Henson and Antetokounmpo.

Yet businessmen tend to be fixated on results -- and 5-19 is 5-19. City governments and those listening to proposals about the construction of new facilities in a depressed urban economy don’t read draft reports or go to NBA salary sites for a rosy picture of the franchise’s cost structure.

A project like the Milwaukee Bucks can’t afford bad morale when it’s up against all kinds of adverse conditions. Last summer, assistant general manager David Morway spoke about how losing, even with the disclaimer that losses can be teaching moments and part of the life cycle of a young team, can become habit, which is dangerous. It’s not just players. Organizations who aren't winning and/or don’t have a definable mission like the one Sam Hinkie has in Philly, can be infected off the court, too. There are a couple of examples on opposite sides of the East River.

But if you’re a pragmatist or, possibly, a cynic, the organization might have lucked into something. Kohl’s mandate to win as many games as possible is born out of noble intentions and menschkeit, but it costs you several draft slots each season and, often, a reasonable chance at a transcendent talent.

The Bucks have some promise on the roster. Sanders has the opportunity to grow into one of the five most valuable defensive players in the NBA. We need to see more of Antetokounmpo to make a legitimate estimate of his potential, but from the ground floor it looks like a vaulted ceiling. With the front-court depth depleted, the Bucks are asking a lot of Henson and he’s delivering consistently. He doesn't currently have the stretch to be a logical counterpart to Sanders up front, but the learning curve is on a steep upward ascent.

No one in good conscience can say injuries are anything but bad -- they cause victims pain in the present and anxiety about the future. But unintended consequences can have benefits. Speaking of Henson, his smart, confident voice is growing louder in a locker room that needs some young guys who express a belief in what might be possible in Milwaukee. The Oklahoma City model is referenced a lot, but one thing that’s commonly left off its list of characteristics is how the young Thunder core took ownership of the enterprise, even when they were losing a ton of basketball games.

There were questions coming into the season about how much action Antetokounmpo would see. The injuries to Delfino and periodic absence of Butler have wedged the door open a little bit more. People around the league have been surprised by what Khris Middleton has demonstrated in big minutes as a starting small forward.

But the Bucks need another big talent before this thing becomes real, and if current trends continue, they’re in prime position to add one through the June draft. There’s a good deal of irony at work, namely that a team that promised to make every attempt to be competitive is the Eastern Conference’s least. Sometimes serendipity is better than brilliance.

What's up with the Milwaukee Bucks?

September, 6, 2013
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
Bradley Center
Mike McGinnis/NBAE/Getty
The Milwaukee Bucks don't believe in tanking, which makes them misguided -- or wonderful.

There was a time when the Milwaukee Bucks lorded over the NBA’s Central Division as perennial contenders. In the mid-1980s, Don Nelson still had a modicum of structure in his nightly war plan (Nellie’s Bucks consistently ranked in the bottom half of the league in pace), and the Bucks ran off seven straight divisional titles between 1979 and 1986.

Sidney Moncrief was a rock in the backcourt. Out on the wing, Paul Pressey established himself as a prototype for what would become the modern-day defensive stopper. Marques Johnson joined him out there as one of the more reliable, high-percentage wings in the league. When the Bucks swapped Johnson for Terry Cummings, they adapted seamlessly, and Cummings would become a top-10 player during the latter half of the Bucks’ golden period. Alton Lister anchored a defense that was routinely in the top three.

Soon after that stretch, expressions like “small market” entered the league’s lexicon, and the NBA’s better players became empowered to be more selective about where they’d build a career. Gradually, places with cold weather and less cosmopolitan sensibilities had a harder time attracting talent. To play in these markets, stars have to accept a lower Q rating, and that represents lost dollars in today’s sports economy. All of this produces a compounding effect: the belief among players that building a winner in that city is near impossible.

The Bucks organization has always retained its reputation as one of the league’s classier outfits, but it couldn’t fight this tectonic shift. The franchise simply didn’t have enough mitigating factors to overcome it. Like their city, whose spirit has been sapped by new insurmountable economic realities, the Bucks began to fight an uphill battle.

Since Milwaukee struggles to recruit the kind of players who can single-handedly deliver home-court advantage in the playoffs, that leaves the Bucks with two general directions to follow. They can tread water as a league average team with the hope that, with a break or two, they can add 10-12 wins to their .500 record, join the adult table and continue to build from there. The Indiana Pacers, the former employer of Bucks assistant general manager David Morway, have deployed this strategy in recent years. The Bucks' alternative is to deliberately place themselves in a position to acquire a collection of high draft picks who could morph into an elite core -- the Oklahoma City Model, now a proper noun in the NBA.

"Guys are going to say, 'I want to be a part of this because they're winning,' or you need to be a team, like Cleveland, that gets two No. 1 picks or three or four top-five picks, and a guy says, 'I see what they have,' ” Bucks general manager John Hammond said.

The treading-water strategy needs a public relations professional. The basketball intelligentsia mocks teams that seem content to chase the No. 8 seed, especially in the East (No. 8 seeds in the West are usually pretty good and generally have legitimate aspirations to finish higher). The maxim, “If you’re not contending, you’re rebuilding,” is regarded as smart thinking. Some league executives publicly adopted another neologism -- “the treadmill of mediocrity" -- to describe what many of them see as a fatal condition. A popular notion exists that nothing short of running the table with a series of mid-first-round picks as the Pacers did, a team is a long shot to contend with this blueprint, even though there's little evidence that losing ultimately leads to winning.

The more clever teams looking to improve seek to capitalize on the glitch in the league’s incentive structure. Blow it up, pick high, nail those picks (and every front-office guy believes he was born to evaluate prospects), and you’ll play in late May. Don’t you know that the market inefficiencies that come with the existence of the NBA draft were meant to be exploited? We don’t make value judgments about the ethics of tanking, because aesthetics are irrelevant. These are the rules as they’ve been designed by the league, and the job of an executive is to succeed within those confines.

Under the leadership of owner Senator Herb Kohl and Hammond (a contributor to the assembly of the Pistons’ teams of the early- to mid-'00s), the Bucks have squarely situated themselves in the survivalist camp. Their goal each offseason is to shoot for as many wins as possible. The catalog of transactions in pursuit of this goal isn’t without blemishes -- and management will own up to the Harris-Redick deal -- but that’s been the consistent tactic in Milwaukee.

The Bucks’ brass articulates its rationale behind this strategy. Part of that argument is based on principle, while the other half is the stated belief that tanking doesn’t necessarily yield better results than doing it their way.

“We're trying to say with Larry Sanders -- one of the top defenders in the league -- with Ersan [Ilyasova], with veterans like Zaza [Pachulia], Luke [Ridnour], Carlos [Delfino], with young players like O.J. [Mayo], Brandon [Knight], John [Henson], Gary [Neal], Ekpe [Udoh], and Giannis [Antetokounmpo], I know we may not win a world championship today, but I do think we can be competitive and continue to build with draft picks and cap space” Hammond said.

Critics (present company included) raised eyebrows at extending Mayo a contract of $8 million per season over three years, but the Bucks answer that they acquired one of the best talents among the free agents they could realistically target. If they overpaid by 10-15 percent, that’s just one of those variables that Milwaukee can’t control. Besides, it’s not as if giving a $6 million player $8 million is going to decimate their fairly roomy cap situation.

“We're not unique,” Hammond said. “Cleveland has to do the same thing. Indiana has to do the same thing. Sacramento has to do the same thing. It's also true in major league baseball. Sometimes you have to overpay for talent.”

Morway was one of the architects of Indiana’s build-on-the-go strategy. Now in Milwaukee, Morway has considered the Pacers’ success and has come to feel deeply that, even with the league’s weird incentive structure, tanking isn’t necessarily a better strategy.

“There isn’t one way to build a franchise,” Morway said. “You can build a team [by pursuing high draft picks], but there’s a lot that goes on between the concept and the execution.”

For every Oklahoma City, there’s a Charlotte and Sacramento. There’s cause for optimism in Minnesota, Cleveland and Washington, but those teams are still trying to make good on multiple high picks, and none of them have seen the postseason during their current era. The Bucks can cite their own history -- the center they chose at No. 15 in the draft (Sanders, in 2010) will likely contribute more when it’s all over than the center they drafted No. 1 (Andrew Bogut, in 2005). There was undoubtedly some bad luck involved but, for the Bucks, that’s the whole point -- there’s no certainty hitting the lottery jackpot will actually pay out in real life.

Then there’s the case against tanking that can’t be quantified on the floor but which most small-market teams feel a need to abide by. Like Pacers owner Herb Simon, Kohl is one of his city's last great patricians. The son of Jewish immigrants, Kohl built his fortune in Milwaukee, where he was born, raised and has resided in his entire life except for a couple of years earning his MBA at Harvard. With that accumulated wealth and a dutiful sense of noblesse oblige, Kohl has been one of Milwaukee’s leading philanthropists for decades. And as a member of the United States Senate for 24 years, he literally represented Wisconsinites for a generation.

A sports owner like Kohl (and similarly Simon) who lives in an older city that has struggled to join the growth economies of the sun belt or tech corridors often sees his franchise as a public trust. The team has an accountability to the city. And part of that is delivering a competitive product, to let those making the trip to an aging arena know that there’s a better than 50 percent chance they’ll see a win for the home team. Unlike so many of the newer owners who live out of town and have only a passing relationship with the cities of their teams, Kohl sees Milwaukeeans as neighbors. When you invite your neighbors over to your place, you owe them your hospitality.

“Why should I come to the games if you’re telling me you’re not trying to win?” Morway asks rhetorically.

For Kohl, playing to win every night is a common courtesy to fans, the majority of whom have elected him to the Senate on four occasions, the last time with two-thirds of the overall vote. Public trusts have to perform -- especially if they’re asking for popular support. The Pacers are, again, an appropriate case study. In Forbes’ team valuations published in January, they ranked 24th, while the Bucks were dead last. The Pacers asked from the public and received $33.5 million to address their shortfall in operating income at their home arena. Coupled with a negative public image, the fallout from the Palace brawl, the Pacers felt they couldn’t afford to tank. That’s a privilege reserved for organizations in healthy markets and/or those who have accumulated equity and good will.

The Bucks will soon need to make a hard sell to the residents of Milwaukee that they can’t survive without a new home. They play in arguably the worst facility in the league. Unlike some of the concrete palaces in Sacramento or Salt Lake City, there’s no intimate charm or deafening noise in the Bradley Center. It’s just tired. While a team can’t control the climate, economy or general mood of its city, it can offer a nice work space. The Bucks can’t do that until they build a new facility in Milwaukee, and that’s an easier sell when there’s electricity in town, the Bucks are on the verge of a series upset and Bango the Buck’s antics make him a cult hero.

The Bucks maintain that putting together a run like that without cohesiveness and that there are psychic costs when a team accepts losing as part of the program.

“To build a winning culture ... you can’t turn it on and off,” Morway says. “Players see that.”

Oklahoma City managed it, but by pulling off a rare trick. It built a unique relationship with Kevin Durant, who understood that for a few years, the organization would define success on its own terms. Building that kind of trust requires the rare player in a near-perfect situation. For most young players -- even some who project as future All-Stars -- losing can quickly become a bad habit, and that’s not a risk most teams can assume.

At one point or another, most executives at least float the idea to their owner of starting from scratch. But for reasons ranging from civic responsibility to anecdotal evidence, Kohl and Bucks management decided some time ago that they couldn’t seriously entertain a tanking strategy. Instead, they’ll strive for respectability year in and year out. Since dynamic scorers tend to look past Milwaukee in free agency, the Bucks will focus first on building a top defense, then look to add durable perimeter scorers who can nudge their offense above the league average mark.

Some of the criticism targeting the Bucks is aimed squarely at questionable deals like trading Tobias Harris for two bumpy months with J.J. Redick and a 3-year, $15.6 million contract for reserve big man Zaza Pachulia. But the overriding sentiment is that the Bucks are foolish to do anything to compromise their future in service of winning more games in the present. Truth be told -- they might be. Unless Antetokounmpo, Henson and Knight explode, and Mayo makes a quantum leap (he’s still only 25), it’s difficult to see the path to the conference finals, and history tell us that’s even more likely if they continue to pick in the mid-first round.

Teams like Bucks who direct their management to assemble this year’s model with the highest-performing engine they can design are regarded as quixotic at best and, more times than not, myopic. Chasing the eighth seed is the ultimate act of madness because respectability is worth far less in the current structure than 60-65 losses. Does this kind of arrangement, one where NBA teams who put the best product on the floor might compromise their future, make the league stronger?

Tuesday Bullets

August, 7, 2012
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
  • NBA stars are severely underpaid vis-a-vis their market value to their sport. They're not the only ones. From Paul Doyle, a track and field agent, via Sports Illustrated and Forbes: "'Bolt is the highest-paid athlete in the history of track and field, but he’s also probably the most underpaid athlete in the history of track and field.' ... His appearance at the Penn Relays in 2010 resulted in the highest single day attendance (54,310) in the event’s 118-year history."
  • Younger (and newer) Clippers fans need to appreciate that if some of the longstanding fans of Clipper Nation seem cautious headed into 2012-13, they have their reasons. From John Raffo of Clips Nation: "I'm old enough (and grey enough) to have seen this before. Twice before. While, admittedly the long winter of the nineties is not nearly as interminable as the distance between 2005-6 and now, but I believe I've learned my lesson. Unless the Clippers are very very careful, unless they commit to inspired coaching and visionary management."
  • As Rob Mahoney writes at The Two Man Game, teambuilding is rarely a linear process. And at Red94, Rahat Huq wonders if most "young cores" are destined to fail.
  • Philadunkia's Tom Sunnergren chats with new Sixer Nick Young. If anyone in Philly has a place to lease, Swaggy P is looking.
  • Former Atlanta Hawks standout Dan Roundfield tragically died while swimming in Aruba. Roundfield was a pro's pro -- a dogged defensive player and a three-time All-Star while with the Hawks. Danny Solomon, a Hawks ballboy during the 1980s and my classmate at the Hebrew Academy of Atlanta, told the AJC's Michael Cunningham that Roundfield was “the nicest dude in the world," but that, "[b]ack then, all the centers were very, very strong. That’s back when it was ‘real’ basketball and if you tried to go to the hole against a guy like Roundfield, you would go straight down to the floor. He was known for being really rough. He was a stud down low."
  • Chris Bernucca of Sheridan Hoops runs down the remainders in the free agent market. The list isn't void of useful players: Carlos Delfino, Anthony Tolliver, Mickael Pietrus and Jannero Pargo might not be world-beaters, but worse players have been signed to guaranteed deals this offseason.
  • When economist Tyler Cowen hosts a talk, he often has the audience write out questions in advance. Cowen says that, at one recent event, "I was asked about Jeremy Lin, and whether he or LeBron James did more to maximize global wealth. I suggested that Lin did more to maximize utility, as his fame in Asia did not much detract from the fame of any other NBA player, but that LeBron did more to maximize wealth, in part through endorsement income."
  • Get ready for the "Obama Classic" with Michael Jordan, Carmelo Anthony and Patrick Ewing.
  • A man from central Illinois is picking up and moving his family to Haiti to build a basketball court and to teach.
  • Attention Phoenix press corps, especially those in the locker room: Kendall Marshall values his personal space.