Are the Milwaukee Bucks the New Post-Harden Oklahoma City Thunder?
Just days before the seven-year anniversary of the deal that brought James Harden to the Houston Rockets, a response to a question posed by an academic to the Milwaukee Bucks' marquee player ought to be giving that team's ownership considerable pause.
At first glance, the connection between The Beard ending up in Texas and Giannis Antetokounmpo speaking to Harvard academics might not be so obvious, but let me explain. In a recent interview with Harvard Business School professor Anita Elberse, Giannis said, "I want the Bucks to build a winning culture (via the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel's Rick Romell)".
But that's not the part that should be setting off alarm bells within the organization, particularly in an era of player empowerment where the truly elite players in the NBA can force their way on and off teams with ease. It's the words which followed that ought to give every rival General Manager in the league goosebumps -- and their current one a cold sweat.
"So far, we have been doing great, and, if this lasts, there's no other place I want to be. But if we're underperforming in the NBA next year, deciding whether to sign becomes a lot more difficult," reportedly added Antetokounmpo, drawing a bright red line between Milwaukee's current situation and the history staring them down from the ashes of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Antetokounmpo would later deny having said this, but it's generally pretty atypical for academics to falsify easily-disprovable and sensational quotes, particularly established researchers like Elberse at prestigious universities like Harvard.
And it doesn't change the underlying issue, no matter what he did or did not say.
Then, as now (or at least, this summer), two small-market teams misread the tea leaves and may have sunk their chances not only at a championship, but quite possibly several by not going all-in when they had a chance to lock up key talent needed for such a run.
To be fair, rings are not the goal of every franchise, and for some smaller-market teams, perhaps shouldn't be. But without diving full-bore into such debates, there will always be a sizable majority of their fans (and, presumably, players) who really don't care about the woe-is-me cash crunch that comes with running a lower-revenue outfit that actually does stumble into prospects who might actually be able to bring a chip to one of the league's smaller markets.
What is, after all, the point of parity as a goal and all the infrastructure designed to encourage it if roughly a third of the team is simply unable to afford the benefits it provides?
The study which brought Dr. Elberse and Antetokounmpo together in the first place studies exactly this phenomenon -- or rather, how smaller-market teams can beat the odds in retaining marquee talent in a league which still is slanted towards having its best teams in big markets.
The 2012-13 Thunder are a textbook example of what not to do -- namely dealing away promising young talent (in their case, James Harden) -- when trying to be a competitive small-market NBA franchise. With their ownership unwilling to become a taxpaying team, the front office made a decision to move Harden to the Rockets at the start of the 2012-13 season despite a trip to the NBA Finals the season before, driven in no small part by The Beard's contributions.
And, of course, two other players who would win, along with Harden, the league's Most Valued Player award.
Fast forward to the present, and despite leading the league in regular-season wins (over even that of the long-dominant Golden State Warriors), Milwaukee's ownership decided to let former Rookie of the Year point guard Malcolm Brogdon walk for future draft picks in a move similarly disappointing as was the haul the Thunder got for Harden seven years prior (Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, and picks).
While the draft compensation for both teams was not exactly terrible given the players involved, draft picks cannot help a rotation improve in a critical season for retaining a player, and when said player won't even need to force their way off of a roster, their value diminishes even further.
The Thunder had a few seasons to pull things together, and while they did strike gold with Steven Adams, it wasn't enough to convince Kevin Durant to stay when his contract was up, nor did it make a lifer out of Russell Westbrook, now reunited with Harden in Houston.
The Bucks have only this season and the next to convince Giannis his best odds towards a title are on their roster, and the moves they have made in the last six months have not exactly been the kind of buy-in you'd expect from a team in Milwaukee's position. They extended a point guard who has found little postseason success in Eric Bledsoe, resigned aging floor general George Hill, wing Khris Middleton and center Brook Lopez, signed his brother Robin and the corpses if Wesley Matthews and Kyle Korver.
Even worse, the front office effectively gave away Tony Snell for nothing while also letting Nikola Mirotic walk, effectively giving up the bulk of outside shooting that made Antetokounmpo so hard to guard in the lane with no guarantee aging vets Korver and Matthews will be capable of consistently doing the job.
The franchise's response to hearing of Antetokounmpo's concerns?
Deny they were in earnest, evidently. "I wasn’t in the room when (Antetokounmpo) said it,” team co-owner Jamie Dinan said, “so I don’t know if they goaded him a little bit to kind of get some conflict."
Academics almost never "create" conflict in the sense Dinan refers to here; research involving human subjects has an incredibly rigorous review process which explicitly forbids the sort of meddling that could endanger someone's -- anyone's -- livelihood in a quest for sexy data.
But team governors have a long (and, being honest, sad) history of getting in their own way when it comes to making investments at crucial moments in key players, and this scenario is starting to look awfully familiar.
Could the Greek Freak's future be one of so many others, jumping shift after the so-called goal of parity is foiled yet again by structural constraints on small market teams (or, arguably, cash-poor ownership groups incapable of making the sort of investment the league needs to make parity actually attainable)?
Or will the front office instead aggressively pursue upgrades for Milwaukee with those and perhaps other assets to acquire the talent needed to retain Antetokounmpo long-term? With league play for the 2019-20 season finally underway, we're going to begin to get the first clues on just what the Bucks' current ceiling is.
As well as just how much of an early-decade Thunder team development strategy Milwaukee's ownership would like to try to emulate.