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Wednesday, July 2, 2014

A Bright Future for the Bucks?

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Almost everything went wrong for the 2013-’14 Milwaukee Bucks. Injuries forced coach Larry Drew to juggle lineups constantly. Center Larry Sanders, given a hefty new contract and projected as a team leader, wrecked a thumb in a bar fight, drew an NBA suspension for marijuana use and wound up playing only 23 games. Several veterans acquired in the off-season didn’t justify the deals. It all added up to 15-67, the worst record in team history.

But the disaster led to the No. 2 pick in the league draft, and the Bucks’ choice of Duke’s Jabari Parker has scored with fans. He’ll join a promising core of young players including John Henson and Giannis Antetokuonmpo, the team’s previous two first-round picks. And the franchise has new energy after being sold by Herb Kohl to New York businessmen Marc Lasry and Wesley Edens.

The duo say they’re committed to Milwaukee, but ultimately that depends on replacing the BMO Harris Bradley Center, deemed inadequate by NBA standards. Kohl and his successors have pledged $200 million toward construction of a new arena but say public funding also is needed.

Can the Bucks, with just two winning seasons since 2001, become a team worth watching? And is it worth spending public money to keep them here? The Fairly Detached Observers resurface to join the discussion...

 

Frank: You watched a lot of Parker’s one-year Duke “career.” Was he the right choice?

Artie: You betcha! He’s the real deal—probably a consistent 20-point scorer, consistent all-star, and a genuine team player.

F: There’s a tendency to declare every top pick a gem, since nothing has happened yet to disprove it. Remember Joe Alexander, the first-rounder in 2008?

A: That’s really no comparison to Parker. He has NBA size at 6-foot-8 and 235 pounds. He’s got the shot, handles the ball well, and can play either forward spot—last season he led the ACC in rebounding.

F: The Bucks’ choice was sure to be Parker or one of the Kansas pair, Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins. That narrowed when Embiid broke a foot, and the talk was that Parker could contribute immediately on offense, Wiggins more on defense.

A: But Wiggins needs to develop an NBA body; he’s listed at 6-8 and 197 pounds. Besides, his shooting needs work and his ball skills are pedestrian. The Bucks got the right guy; this team needs scoring.

F: The stats say they need help big-time at both ends of the floor. Last season they ranked 28th out of 30 teams in points per game (95.5), 25th in opponents’ scoring (103.7) and 29th in scoring differential (minus-8.2). They ranked 26th in field-goal percentage (.438)—though 19th in three-pointers (.353)—25th in opponents’ shooting (.468) and dead-last in defending treys (.382).

A: But in terms of defense, Sanders had a really strange, nonexistent season but he still has plenty of up-side and he’s a true center.

F: So if he gets his head screwed on right, the defense will improve?

A: He’s a key to this whole process. And with Henson, Antetokuonmpo, Brandon Knight, Nate Wolters and Khris Middleton, that’s a nice foundation of young players.

F: Hey, you can pronounce that name now: “Ahn-teh-toe-KUHN-po.”

A: It didn’t come easy.

F: But let’s keep calling him “G.A.” It saves space.

A: Another thing: The Bucks made some in-season moves that paid off. They got Ramon Sessions as a backup point guard and Jeff Adrien at power forward, and they played really well.

F: Unlike some notables they brought in last summer: O.J. Mayo, Gary Neal, Caron Butler...

A: Mayo went up to, like, 350 pounds and hardly played in the second half. Plus he made the most money, $8 million. That guy’s got to go!

F: They might lose Sessions and/or Adrien, who are unrestricted free agents.

A: But overall I’m optimistic, especially over Parker. To quote from Ben Golliver on SI.com: “The Bucks are desperate for points, hope and positive personality to rally around, and Parker promises to bring all three.”

F: We can’t say the sky’s the limit yet, but to evoke the recent weather we can say the fog is brightening. But there’s the other question: By the time the Bucks get really, really good, might they be playing in another city?

A: Their Bradley Center lease ends on Sept. 30, 2017. If there’s no new arena in the works soon, the NBA and the new owners will look elsewhere for sure.

F: We say the ownership, old and new, the NBA and the corporate big shots pushing for a new arena are plenty rich enough to foot the bill themselves. With all the city’s crucial needs for funding—schools, roads, public health—there should be no public money going into an arena.

 

MORE ON ARENA ISSUES

F: A few weeks ago I discovered, to my amazement, that we actually agree with Charlie Sykes about something! It was in the midst of all this L.A. Clippers controversy, and I heard Sykes say on the air something like: A team just sold for $2 billion, and this is an industry that needs public assistance?

A: Wow, I would have thought Charlie would just keep sticking up for the rich folks. Maybe he’d feel different if the Koch brothers got involved with the Bucks.

F: But for now he and we are united, uncomfortable though it may be for all three of us.

A: I’m feeling a little strange for sure.

F: The first point we’ve always made on the arena issue is that the Bradley Center, at not-quite 26 years old, is not decrepit or outmoded—except by NBA standards.

A: Which ain’t the standards of average folks.

F: We’ve said it many times before: What does Joe or Joanne Fan want in an arena? Reasonably affordable prices, a decent view of the court, quick service for refreshments and quick access to bathrooms. Oh yeah, and a reasonably entertaining product.

A: Well, the product wasn’t much to look at last season, but the BC has all those other things.

F: Besides that, does the BC have suites? Yes. Does it have a fancy-dancy club for the courtside crowd? Yes, under the stands in the southwest corner of the building. Does it have a nice club for group seating and socializing? Yes, at the north end of the lower bowl.

A: So what do the arena backers want?

F: Well, I’ll tell you what they never say: “We want to create more affordable seating closer to the court for the typical fan with a family.” Hell no! What they always talk about is more “club seating” with waiter service, more and better suites, more restaurants in the building...

A: So they can charge more for all of it.

F: Before the soccer World Cup, one of the network news shows did a piece on the enormous disparity between the poverty of many Brazilians and the government spending on new stadiums. A slum-dweller, who of course loves soccer but has no chance of actually seeing a game, was asked what this told him. He replied, “This is not for you.” I’d say the same sentence applies for average Bucks fans when we’re talking about the reasons for building a new arena.

A: It’s the fat cats and corporate big shots who’ll enjoy the expensive do-dads. Joe and Joanne and the kids will still be upstairs—but at higher ticket prices, of course.

F: One of the new co-owners, Marc Lasry, was in town recently and said he envisioned a new arena of 16,000 to 18,000 seats, with more of them in the lower bowl than at the Bradley Center. It’s true that the privately-financed BC is top-heavy, built primarily with hockey in mind, and some of the basketball sight lines in the lower bowl aren’t too good. But what do you suppose those more-numerous seats downstairs will cost?

A: Even if they held the line at first, they’d be way expensive. Four years ago, when we sat deep in the corner of the lower bowl for a Bucks game, those tickets had a face value of 70 bucks or so, ain’a?

F: You bet. The same thing happened with the new Yankee Stadium. It has fewer upper-deck seats than the old one had, which just makes it tougher to find affordable prices.

A: Well, I’m happy to watch the games on TV.

F: What’s more affordable, and gives a better view of the game? Sitting on the couch in front of the wide-screen high-def or sitting upstairs in an arena—any arena? Yeah, there’s something to be said for the energy of a live crowd, and if the Bucks get good of course attendance will perk up. But that would happen anywhere even at the supposedly decrepit Bradley Center.

A: Lasry projected the arena cost at $350 million to $400 million, but that will undoubtedly rise because costs always do. Kohl and the new guys have promised to kick in $200 million.

F: But why not more? In selling the team for $550 million, the ex-senator made a profit of over $500 million on his original investment. So why not pledge $300 million of that? He cares deeply about the Bucks and keeping them here, and really, how much money does he need for a very comfortable life? And why not $200 million from the new partners, including the additional investors who are expected to be announced soon? And what about a loan from the NBA, which is rolling in dough and claims to want to keep the team here?

A: Isn’t one argument that the arena won’t be just for the Bucks, just hosting 41 dates a year? There’ll presumably be Marquette games, Admirals hockey, concerts, conventions, tractor pulls, whatever...

F: Absolutely true, but my response to that is still, who’s going to be making the big dough? The new owners talk about wanting a “partnership” with the city and state. But who’ll take the profits from a new arena? Yeah, there’ll be some tax revenue, but who’ll cash in when the team gets sold next?

A: As it undoubtedly will someday.

F: Say there’s a new arena, built with some public money, and down the road these guys decide to cash in. The team’s value already has increased, thanks to the ridiculous price for the Clippers. So what’ll it be with a new arena, $750 million or more? Who’s gonna walk away with the profits?

A: Another argument is that a new arena will be a job-creator.

F: What kind of jobs? Low-paying, part-time, seasonal? Many of the claims about the economic impact of sports franchises are based on a false premise—that there’d be no alternatives for spending and jobs if the team was gone. It’s not like people have only two choices: Spend money on sports events or tuck it under their mattresses!

A: On the other hand, if people are spending more and more on sports tickets and fancy restaurants in an arena, they’re probably cutting back on other recreational spending. Not too many people are made of money!

F: If I owned Major Goolsby’s or Buck Bradley’s, I wouldn’t be too keen on having potential customers doing their pre-game drinking and eating inside the arena.

A: Another pro-arena argument is that public money, in the form of a tiny but long-lasting sales tax, went into and still is going into paying for Miller Park.

F: I know I’m guilty of hypocrisy because I was all for whatever it took to keep the Brewers. But I would argue that there’s a quantitative difference between the impact of baseball and basketball—twice the number of dates and usually far more people at any given Brewers game. Also, more out-of-town fans who’ll stay for several days to see a whole series.

A: There was also a huge difference between the existing baseball facility in the 1990s and the Bradley Center today.

F: County Stadium was more than 40 years old, cramped and completely outmoded, and I just don’t see that with the BC—at least for the average fan.

A: There’s no doubt that it needs more spending on maintenance and repairs as it gets older.

F: Sure, but the figures you see quoted—$40 million, $50 million—are spread over several years. Repairs are needed? So make ’em.

A: Another selling point is that a new arena would be the centerpiece of a vibrant new area of shops and hotels and restaurants, like in Indianapolis or Cleveland.

F: My question about that would be, how much money do you think the community has available to spend at up-scale eateries and sports bars and trendy stores?

A: I sure don’t have much to contribute there.

F: I think there’s enough determination, or maybe desperation, in the business community that this new arena will get done. All we’re saying is that it should be done without public money! Let the big shots who’ll enjoy the amenities and make the profits foot the bill.

 

MORE ON THE TEAM

A: Andrew Sharp on Grantland.com had this to say after the draft:

“In six months the Bucks have gone from one of the most depressing teams... and the best candidate to relocate, to a team that has as bright a future as anybody in the East. They still need a point guard, but that can be handled down the line. Finding Parker and Antetokounmpo was a much bigger deal.”

And about Parker specifically:

“This is so much better than Cleveland for Parker. With the Cavs he would’ve been surrounded by bad defense, exacerbating his own issues on that end, and then stuck playing the 3 on offense. With the Bucks, he’s got guys like Larry Sanders, John Henson and Giannis Antetokounmpo, all of whom will help cover him on defense.

“On offense, he’ll be able to play plenty of stretch 4, exploiting mismatches. His offense will help compensate for all the things Antetokounmpo, Sanders, and Henson don’t do.

“It’s just a perfect pick.”

F: Now, about that point-guard comment. Isn’t that why they got Brandon Knight when they swapped Brandon Jennings for him? Now I’m seeing stuff about how Knight is really more of a shooting guard.

A: That’s not really different from what was being said last year. Yeah, Knight isn’t a “pure” point guard like, say, a Chris Paul. But these days it’s like most teams have two starting guards and they both can play either role, distributing or shooting.

F: But they have to work together, as Jennings and Monta Ellis did not.

A: The roster is forward-heavy, so I think there’ll be some moves as the season approaches. But I sure hope they don’t throw Knight into any deal because he could be really, really good.

F: And a deal can turn out really, really bad. It’s been a pattern for the Bucks in recent years, bringing in the WRONG veterans, either because of declining skills or bad chemistry. Guys like Corey Maggette, Stephen Jackson and John Salmons...

A: Except for the initial stretch in 2010 where he earned himself a fat contract. Then he tanked.

F: Right now at guard they have Knight, Sessions, Wolters...

A: Mayo is still there, although I hope not for long. And Carlos Delfino—assuming he’s really past the foot trouble that kept him out all of last season—is one of those “2 or 3” guys who can play small forward too.

F: And the roster on NBA.com even lists G.A. as a shooting guard, at 6-foot-9…

A: Who now, apparently, has grown to 6-foot-11. These days lots of guys can and do play different spots depending on the matchups and game situations.

F: Which makes it all the more important for a guy like Parker to be able to handle the ball well...

A: Which he certainly can.

F: Speaking of “moves,” the Journal Sentinel reported Sunday that the new owners might bring in Jason Kidd as their top basketball executive or coach, or perhaps both. Kidd, after his rookie season as an NBA coach, reportedly wanted what the paper called “total control” of the Nets’ basketball operations but was turned down by the Brooklyn ownership.

A: Kinda nervy for a guy whose entire coaching resume reads 44-38, sixth place in the East and 1-1 in playoff series. But whoever winds up running the show, the guys on the court make me darn optimistic.

 

Frank Clines covered sports for The Milwaukee Journal and the Journal Sentinel. Art Kumbalek is always working on his shot.