Treading Water

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While the world eagerly awaits the conclusion of the Dwightmare that began 10,000 years ago in Orlando, other teams have been wheeling and dealing in order to position themselves to best compete for the title next season. Yesterday featured a trade that, to the casual observer, was not too interesting. But to a careful observer, the three teamer between the Clippers, Suns and Bucks said a lot about the direction that the three franchises are moving and the general philosophy that is driving them.

For the Clippers, this deal was kind of a no brainer. In Eric Bledsoe, the team had a talented, and probably over qualified backup. With Chris Paul dominating every second he is on the court, there was little opportunity to develop the obviously talented Bledsoe. The Clippers also were able to ship out Caron Butler, the former all-star who is making a smidge too much money for the role that he was filling in Clipperland. In Jared Dudley, the Clips get back a guy who will play tough D, can shoot a bit, and is flexible in playing the 2 or the 3, even if he’s a bit undersized for that small forward roll. But the big pickup for the Clippers was JJ Redick, who I’ll delve into more later.

For Phoenix, this was a nice trade. The Suns were one of the worst teams in the league last year, featuring literally no interesting young players and no real direction. With a new front office in place, the Suns have added a center (Alex Len) and now a point guard who many think could be a dynamic force given enough playing time. Phoenix has potentially filled out the two hardest positions to find talent via the draft and yesterdays trade. Whether or not Len and Bledsoe pan out is another question that time will answer for us.

For Milwaukee, this deal signifies that everyone should probably get fired this morning. Redick was a free agent before the sign and trade that sent him from Milwaukee to LA, and most people believed that he was not going to return to the Bucks on a long term contract. Knowing this, the Bucks can claim they were victorious in this deal, picking up two second round picks for a player who was going to leave. Better to get something rather than nothing, right?

But this trade spells disaster for the future of basketball in the cheese state. At last February’s trade deadline, Milwaukee made an aggressive move to bring in Redick, despite the fact that he was on an expiring contract. The move was a way for the team to solidify a spot in the playoffs, something GM John Hammond thought was a must in order to protect his future employment in Milwaukee.

Well the trade paid off, as the Bucks were able to secure the right to get absolutely obliterated by Miami in the first round. The four game sweep, in which the Heat barely broke a sweat, was by no means a learning experience for young Bucks like Brandon Jennings or LARRY SANDERS! Instead, it was a nice reminder that sneaking in as the 8th seed in the playoffs is not the valuable experience many believe.

In acquiring Redick in February, the Bucks were forced to part with talented rookie Tobias Harris who was unable to get much run with the Bucks but exploded as soon as he put on the Magic jersey. Perhaps it was just a gross misevaluation of talent on the part of Milwaukee, who were in the midst of a coaching change around the time of the trade. But I think the Bucks knew they had a talented player in Harris who they thought just wasn’t ready to get serious minutes yet, and they thought swapping him out for a couple months of Redick was worth it to lock up that playoff birth.

Separate from yesterday’s trade and the February deal, the Bucks have reportedly been trying to resign guard Monte Ellis and RFA Brandon Jennings. All of these moves spell out one thing: MEDIOCRITY. In the NBA, there is nothing worse than mediocrity. It is an inescapable curse that requires innovative thinking from the GM and owner to break. In the NBA, you either want to be contending for titles, playing exciting basketball into late May and early June, or you want to be fucking horrible, so horrible that you have a good chance of winning the lottery and have no long term big money contracts holding you back from making any moves in the future. If you’re awesome, you’re awesome. Don’t need to delve into why that’s a good thing. If you’re fucking horrible, there exists tons of room to grow into a super power. A few great draft picks coupled with some shrewd moves in free agency can allow a team to go from the basement to the top of the standings in a pretty short amount of time.

But for those teams in the middle, there is no hope. In a league where more than 50% of the teams make the post season every year, a playoff berth is not the grand consolation prize that it is in a sport like baseball. Rather, for those teams who seem to always finish between 6-8 in their respective conference, making the playoffs is almost a punishment. It is nothing more than a team being forced to play 4-7 more games, bring in a couple extra gates, but at a high cost of having no shot of securing a top draft pick.

The sign of a great organization is when the owner, GM and coach are all on the same page. A coach who trusts his GM will give run to young projects that the front office believes in. A coach who is on the same page as the owner will take more liberties with strategy and player groupings, knowing that a few losses won’t put his job in jeopardy while he tries to figure out the best way to coach the team. But perhaps the most important relationship is the one between the GM and the owner. An owner who believes in the vision and goals of the general manager gives whoever holds that position the freedom to try new things to avoid that dangerous middle ground. For example, in Boston, Danny Ainge has recognized that the Celtics’ window for title contention has closed. While Pierce and Garnett definitely have some tread left on the tires, this years first round exit was all Ainge needed to see to decide to completely blow things up. The Celtics are going to be fucking horrible next year, with Rondo coming off an ACL tear, and Gerald Wallace getting paid to play basketball. But Ainge has a strong relationship with ownership, and he knows that this decision will pay off in the long run, and he will still be with the team when that payoff finally happens.

But in Milwaukee, there seems to be a disconnect. Hammond’s moves seem to signal a man desperately trying to keep his job. By overpaying for assets that have little to no value, he is jeopardizing the Bucks future to solidify his own. In Milwaukee, treading water has been established as the status quo, with first round slaughterings being accepted as team success.

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