When the reserves for this year’s All-Star game were announced this past Tuesday, it was of no surprise that the Milwaukee Bucks did not have a representative. With a 17-28 record that puts them in the Central Division’s cellar, the Bucks are in need of a major overhaul. Gone is the cinderella story that was last year. A team that defied all expectations by taking a six-seed in the East before bowing out to the Pistons in the first round of the playoffs. This year the talk centers around injuries derailing the season and the “funk” the Bucks are in. Who are we kidding? Last year the team overachieved greatly, creating a false pretense that the Bucks were a few steps away from returning to the Eastern Conference’s elite. I love reading my hometown newspapers and seeing that Keith Van Horn’s return to health is the key factor in turning this season around. Right, just like increasing Snoop Dog’s role in Starsky and Hutch would have made that movie worth watching. In the Eastern Conference there are five teams that, barring a major collapse, have guaranteed themselves playoff spots: Miami, Cleveland, Detroit, Washington, and the Atlantic Division champ (currently Boston). That leaves three realistic spots for the Bucks to occupy. The problem is the Bucks are 4 1/2 games behind Indiana for the eighth and final spot and there are three more teams between them and Indy. So not only do the Bucks face a steep uphill climb just make the playoffs, but they will have to face either a Shaq led Heat team or the defending NBA champion Pistons in the first round. Each of those teams will pick apart Milwaukee in no more than five games. Their first round pick would then be outside of the lottery and the next year they’d continue to struggle to be a mid-level Eastern Conference team. (Or an awful one if Michael Redd bolts) So where do they go from here? I’m glad you asked. Here’s my plan to get the Bucks back on track.
Step 1: Trade Michael Redd before it’s too late.
Most scouts agree that Redd and Desmond Mason are Milwaukee’s two best players. The only problem is that both are natural two guards. With that said, name one NBA champion in the past ten years that’s had its two best players play the same position. Can’t think of any? That’s because there hasn’t been. So keeping both of them around doesn’t do the Bucks any good. Redd is set to become a free agent this off-season With the possibility of him leaving without compensation staring them right in face, the Bucks would be wise to move him before the February 24th trading deadline. The Clippers, Nuggets, and Cavs are the teams interested in going after Redd as soon as he hits the free agent market. The Clippers will have the most cap room and the prospect of playing with low past presence Elton Brand. The Nuggets also have the cap room, great surrounding talent (Andre Miller, Carmelo Anthony, Kenyon Martin), and George Karl. Redd loved playing for Karl and gives him a lot of credit for helping him mature from a 2nd round pick to an All-Star. The third team in the running is Cleveland. Redd not only played his college ball at Ohio State, but is originally from Columbus. Playing with LeBron James and for a team that is a serious contender in the East wouldn’t seem to hurt matters either. With each loss, the probability of losing Redd becomes greater reality for Milwaukee. That is why they need to make a move now in order to avoid losing Redd’s services for nothing. The Cavs and Clips have made no formal trade offers for his services but looking at their rosters they have no assets that really make sense for the Bucks to take. The Nuggets seem to be the best trading partner. In the beginning of the year, the Redd for Nene Hilario rumors were swirling about. The talks have cooled since but, the interest is still there. The Nuggets are in desperate need of an outside shooter and with Karl now in fold Denver may have a foothold in securing a contract with Redd past this season. If the contract issue can be resolved, acquiring Redd would be a no-brainer for Denver.
The Trade: The Bucks send Redd, forward-center Zendon Hamilton and center Daniel Santiago’s corpse to Denver in exchange for center Nene and forward Nikoloz Tskitishvili.
The Upside – Denver: The Nuggets would get their badly needed outside threat as well as low post players in Hamilton and Santiago. Both player's minutes has dwindled next to nothing in Milwaukee, could help address a razor thin front line created by Nene’s departure.
The Downside – Denver: Losing Nene and Tskiaflskdjfldkj severely cripples Denver’s front line options. If injury prone center Marcus Camby goes down again, Denver could be in big trouble. Redd could still possibly bolt to the Cavaliers if the Nuggets fail to make a serious run at the playoffs.
The Upside – Milwaukee: The Bucks would receive two promising big men, both under the age of 22. Nene averaged ten points and six rebounds over his first two years in the league and at 6-11, 260 he has the ideal size for an Eastern Conference center.
The Downside – Milwaukee: Losing Redd hurts, but isn’t as bad as you might think. He is the Buck’s most marketable player, their best scorer, and one of the top five shooters in the league, but last year he ranked last on the Bucks in his +/- rating. (+/- rating compares how the team fared with the player on the court as opposed to off it) Desmond Mason actually had a better +/- last year and should do a more than adequate job in taking over Redd’s starting spot. Both of the big men that they acquire are young and talented but neither has completely proven that they are star material in this league. As the saying goes, potential gets a lot of coaches fired, but it is a move the Bucks have to make. The only other problem is that it creates a logjam in the frontcourt, but that is resolved by……
Step 2: Trade Joe Smith
Smith is a solid veteran player and good locker room presence but at this point he takes away minutes from several prospects that the Bucks would like to look at. He’s also 29 and his contract pays him about 7 million per through the 2007 season. He is a consistent performer whose best fit would be as a role player on a contender. That said; one team has shown serious interest obtaining Smith. The Nets have started to make a serious push towards the playoffs and have made several moves to show that they want to be a contender in the East now. Rumor has it that they have given some thought to using their five million dollar trade exception to obtain a big man to beef up their front line. Smith is one of the players they are interested in.
The Deal: Joe Smith to New Jersey for Zoran Planinic and cap space.
The Skinny: The Bucks were interested in Planinic before the 2003 draft and wouldn’t mind getting their hands on the young Euro who can play all three backcourt sports. The deal also clears thirteen million remaining on Smith’s contract off the Bucks’ books. The Nets would receive a badly needed, established power forward to play alongside rookie center Nenad Krstic. After these two moves Milwaukee’s depth chart would look like this.
Point Guard (3): Mo Williams, Mike James
Shooting Guard (2): Desmond Mason, Erick Stickland
Small Forward (2): Keith Van Horn, Toni Kukoc, Zoran Planinic
Power Forward (3): Marcus Fizer, Nikoloz Tskitishvili
Center (3): Nene Hilario, Dan Gadzuric, Zaza Pachulia
Step 3: Let the kids play.
This plan is rather simple after these two moves; let the young guys get their minutes. Up front you have five guys competing for four spots on next year’s team. Let Fizer, Pachulia, Gadzuric, Nene, and Skita battle it out for the two big man spots. All but Nene are free agents after this season, so use the second half of this year to see who’s worth bringing back. Planinic can also start being groomed to inherit the small forward spot from Van Horn, whose contract expires after the ’06 season. The trades will also allow the Buck’s to see how Mason responds to the role of the go-to-guy in the absence of Michael Redd. The second half of the season should allow the Bucks to identify their core players and devise a plan on locking them up.
Step 4: Prepare for life without T.J. Ford.
It has almost been a year since TJ Ford lay crumpled on the floor after a hard foul by Minnesota's Mark Madsen. In this past year, Ford has not been cleared to even resume running, much less basketball related activities. To think that Ford will rebound to be a piece of the Bucks future is an absurd thought. Milwaukee must face the fact that Ford will never play again, and even if he does, it won’t be at the level of a franchise player. Therefore, their plans for next year and beyond must not include the injured point guard.
Step 5: Fire Terry Porter.
You can blame the downfall on injuries, lack of chemistry, or even the loss of TJ Ford, but the in the end it all comes back to the coach. After a communication breakdown under George Karl, the Bucks needed a coach that could connect with the players. Porter was everything Karl wasn’t, which last year was exactly what the Bucks needed. They responded well and were the surprise team of the NBA last year. This year, poor shot selection, porous defense, and inconsistent effort (12 or their 28 losses have been by 10 points or more) have been haunting them all year long. If you look at the coaches of some of the better teams in the league this year they all have one trait in common: discipline. Greg Popovich (San Antonio), Jeff Van Gundy (Houston), Mike Fratello (Memphis), Larry Brown (Detroit), Scott Skiles (Chicago) and Paul Silas (Cleveland) all instill discipline and a commitment to the defensive end in their teams. Is it any coincidence that their combined record this year is 174-112? The team needs to abandon its current free-wheeling, up-tempo, offense first style of play that Porter has brought on for a hard-nosed, disciplined, defense first system that has proven to produce playoff success. At the end of the year, Porter needs to be replaced by a coach (Eric Musselman perhaps) who brings a blue collar game to a blue collar town.
Heading into the off-season the Bucks only bring back thirty-four million in guaranteed salaries leaving them roughly eleven million to play with in the free agent market. After re-signing a few of their own free agents, Milwaukee should have enough cash to lure a mid-level player into the fold. Their draft pick should be in the mid-lottery and they will have the luxury of drafting the best player available due to the fact that they have no pressing needs at any position. With the upcoming draft class looking pretty much devoid of impact players, the Bucks are fortunate enough to not have to press their pick into service right away. They also have a serious bargaining chip in Van Horn’s expiring contract which could be moved for the right mixture of prospects, established veterans, and draft picks. After everything is said and done the Bucks roster will have more promise and financial flexibility leaving them to be poised to make a run back to the East’s elite.
Retraction: One of my sources (ESPN.com's Chad Ford) has issued a retraction on his own that affected my article. Toni Kukoc can NOT be traded due to the Bucks using their Bird rights to re-sign him. Therefore I have re-worked that portion of the article to make sure it is correct.