Column: RICK SOLEM
It’s nearly Christmas, and the gift so far this NBA season for Milwaukee Bucks fans is a 5-17 record.
People are unhappy. People are sick of the team.
The Bucks may be nearly unwatchable now, but what nobody seems to understand that this is perfect! They are horrible in a year where they need to be horrible! (Exclamation points)
Bucks fans should all be cheering with each loss and saddened when they win, especially against the lowly Boston Celtics (two of their five wins), who they are fighting for the No. 1 seed … in the draft lottery.
You all know the NBA rookie class next season will be stacked and what Bucks fans need to do is embrace this horrible season. Take pride in the 20-point losses and snicker at the one-point losses, knowing just how important and strategic it was that they fought to the very end and still managed to lose.
BEST OF BOTH WORLDS
What the Bucks did in the offseason was genius– even if they had no intentions of this outcome.
The Bucks got the best of both worlds - they played out the offseason with the intention of, again, “making the playoffs,” and now they’re setting the standard for losing.
And I put “making the playoffs” in quotes, because that’s what the Bucks brass would call it. The rest of us that understand the NBA call it, “The Bucks being a seventh or eighth seed and making a first-round exit.”
What Milwaukee is doing this season is an impressive feat of horrible, considering only three teams are above .500 in the Eastern Conference, after Brooklyn’s win over the L.A. Clippers on Wednesday to push them to 12-11. Yikes.
“MAKING THE PLAYOFFS”
This offseason the Bucks signed a solid long-term free agent – and a few others - got a couple second-round draft picks and are headed for a front row seat in the draft lottery.
Other teams want that seat, too, but, while Milwaukee was signing guys like O.J. Mayo, other teams unloaded talent for nothing in hopes to lose and get a top pick.
Utah (5-19), Milwaukee’s top opponent for inferiority, let all-stars Al Jefferson and Paul Milsap walk for nothing.
All through the offseason I was infuriated with what Milwaukee was doing – minus the Mayo signing - and, to an extent, I still am upset with some of the moves.
They signed Zaza Pachulia to three years, $15.6 million. He doesn’t help the team lose. He’s 29 years old. And he won’t help by the time the Bucks are winning (I am thinking when he’s 32-33, not 45 when most think the Bucks may be winning again). All he does is eat cap space.
They also locked up Gary Neal for two years, $6.5 million. It’s not an awful signing, but it’s money against the cap next year.
Milwaukee may just be an intriguing place for a free agent to sign if they draft Kansas freshman Andrew Wiggins. But they’ll need all the money they can get. Neal, however, will be tradeable.
Lastly, the Bucks signed Carlos Delfino for $9.75 million. Why? He’s 31. Three years? I’m still mad about it and that’s not even taking into account he’s done for this season with a foot injury.
That’s actually good news, because he would have helped the team win now. We don’t want that, remember?
And since the Bucks are losing, I’m ecstatic about their other moves. They acquired Luke Ridnour via trade, giving up virtually nothing. Ridnour is 32 and a free agent next season, so he’ll likely be dealt.
They did the same with Caron Butler, 33, also a free agent next year.
Those two provide Milwaukee with some veteran leadership, showing the young players like Giannis Antetokounmpo, John Henson, Nate Wolters and Khris Middleton the ropes … all while still losing. Remember: Losing equals good. Stop crying about the Bucks losing.
But I wasn’t excited about it because he’s a 26 year old is frequenting nightclubs during the season (though Milwaukee didn’t have a game until Nov. 6).
I didn’t like it because he’s a one-dimensional player who sacrifices other parts of his game for that one dimension – blocking shots. He can’t shoot. He is terrible with his back to the basket. And he sacrifices defense to sell out on blocked shots, often leading to fouls, which leads to his foul mouth, which leads to technical fouls, which leads to being ejected … which leads to drinking … which leads to nightclub brawls.
I said the same thing in less words Oct. 30: "He’s not a go-to player offensively at all and may actually be a bust altogether."
He’s a hot head who thinks he’s better than he is, and the Bucks affirmed that mindset with $44 million.
It’s no surprise he was busted and injured in a nightclub brawl.
It is surprising he has yet to throw Gatorade bottles onto the court when he’s called for a technical.
(Sanders is the guy who appears to be walking on ice and throwing bottles of boos into the crowd - reaffirming he's a terrible passer)
HERE WE ARE
The problem I have with the rest of the Bucks’ season: I’m not convinced they’re trying to lose.
They’re injured, not terrible. Seemingly all their veteran players are on the shelf or have been for stretches this season.
When they come back, will they play or will Milwaukee continue to roll out guys like Middleton – giving him valued experience and letting the team evaluate whether or not he can contribute.
The East is terrible. It won't take much to make a run.
Of course, no team is directly trying to lose. It’s not like players are missing shots on purpose. That would be ridiculous.
But Milwaukee is an outlier in futility alongside teams like Philadelphia, Utah and Phoenix.
Utah plays 33-year-old Richard Jefferson major minutes. Not because he’s good, but because they don’t have anyone on the roster at small forward that’s part of their long-term future – like the Bucks’ Middleton, who scored 29 the other night - that would be of value to that player, yet help the team still lose.
Jefferson plays 28 minutes a game and shoots 41 percent. He played 10 minutes a game last year for Golden State, who needed a small forward.
Utah also limits the minutes of soon-to-be all-star Derrick Favors, 22. Play him too much and they may have a better record than Milwaukee.
Phoenix’s roster is loaded with young players. The Suns have two in their 30s. One, Emeka Okafor, was acquired via trade despite a herniated-disk in his neck and is a free agent after this season. The Suns traded Marcin Gortat – a solid center - to get Okafor and a first-round pick from Washington.
Meanwhile, the Bucks have just been hit with a rash of injuries, starting with Delfino.
Then Mr. $44 million hurt his thumb while throwing some liquor bottles around to “protect himself” from society.
Ridnour and Brandon Knight didn’t play to start the season, which proved to anyone watching that young Saint Cloud Tech High School (Minn.) and South Dakota State graduate, Nate Wolters, can succeed in the league – making Ridnour expendable.
Butler has missed a few weeks with a knee injury and Pachulia is out four more weeks with a stress fracture in his foot.
If the Bucks get healthy, and play these veterans a majority of the minutes, they may actually win some games. NOoooooooo!
WHAT TO DO IN DRAFT
And with that, it’s hard to say whether Milwaukee keeps pace with the Utahs and Phoenixes.
Right now, they have the second-worst record, which would give them a 19.9 percent chance for the No. 1 pick. The worst record has a 25-percent chance. (see chart)
NBA Draft Lottery
But if they do keep pace, the obvious choice is to go with Wiggins in the draft.
Wiggins – a 6-foot-8, 200-pound athlete who can dribble and shoot – is the complete package and could play small forward next to Mayo. Wiggins is averaging 15.3 points (51-percent shooting), 5.5 rebounds for Kansas (6-2).
ESPN’s Chad Ford seems to think Milwaukee should take PF Julius Randle, who is averaging 17.9 points (54 percent) and 12 rebounds for Kentucky (8-2).
He makes the compelling argument that Milwaukee needs low-post scoring and highlighted the fact that Antetokounmpo is going to be good.
But I’d still take Wiggins and, if Antetokounmpo is what NBA fans hope he can become – Kevin Durant lite – then Milwaukee just trades Mayo, which wouldn’t be hard, since he’s only 26.
But this is all forward thinking. The Bucks still have to keep losing, and that will get harder and harder as more teams see their records plummeting and start making trades to unload veteran talent for future picks and the hopes of winning the lottery.
In the end, the rich (the West along with the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers) may just get richer, while everyone else sells out and then loses out.
Of course, there are no guarantees any of these draft picks pan out.
The Bucks, after all, aren’t the smartest when it comes to the draft.
They’ve drafted some good ones in the last 10 years (I think): John Henson (14th), Tobias Harris (19th, but let him go before they knew he was good), Larry Sanders (15th, is he good?), Brandon Jennings (10th, I guess he’s good?), Andrew Bogut (first).
And some horrible ones: Brandon Jennings (see what I did there?), Joe Alexander (eighth), Yi Jianlian (sixth), T.J. Ford (eighth), Marcus Haislip (13th).
And, just because it still makes me cry, they did trade the rights to Dirk Nowitzki and Pat Garrity for Robert “Tractor” Traylor in 1998. Sigh.
But Wiggins and Randle are can’t miss. Now, if only the Bucks can keep losing and if only the fans can embrace it.