A casual NBA observer could be forgiven for believing that there are only three players in the league worth mentioning – LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
Sure, the Summer of 2010 free agent bonanza has also seen Joe Johnson and Rudy Gay re-sign with their previous teams and Amar’e Stoudemire head to the Big Apple, but it is the three game-changers who have kept the NBA universe buzzing with rumors and speculation about their whereabouts. While we now know that Wade and Bosh will find themselves in Miami next season, anticipation for James’ decision has reached a fever pitch with news that he will make his decision public during a one-hour special on ESPN on Thursday.
The point is, the three superstars are now coming to the end of a three-year journey which began in 2006 when they all signed three-year contracts with fourth-year player options, with the idea of concocting an unrestricted free agent bonanza in 2010. In the meantime, teams have fallen over themselves to clear cap space in hopes of landing one – or more – of the franchise players. Sure, it seems to have worked out for the Heat and whomever wins the LeBron Sweepstakes, but what of the teams whose hopeful efforts were all for not?
Now, not every NBA city has seen their personnel pursuits grind to a halt in wait of where the free agent dominoes would fall.
In Milwaukee, Bucks fans are enjoying a team who surprised observers last season and has rode their momentum straight through into the off-season. Sure, curious Wisconsinites are keeping an eye on the free agent circus, particularly as it pertains to division rivals Cleveland and Chicago. But their hometown team has already captured their attention with a busy summer focused on adding scoring and depth.
The Bucks entered the off-season fresh off a surprising campaign in which they not only earned their first play-off berth in four years, but nearly knocked off the No. 3-seeded Atlanta Hawks in a seven-game first round series.
They boasted Brandon Jennings, a blossoming rookie point guard who had surprised critics with his NBA readiness, Andrew Bogut, a talented big man and former No. 1 pick enjoying a breakthrough year prior to suffering a gruesome, season-ending injury and Scott Skiles, a demanding, defence-oriented head coach. That trio, along with solid supporting pieces in Ersan Ilyasova, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Carlos Delfino, Luke Ridnour and late season signee Jerry Stackhouse, made for a team short on headliners but long on capable role players and complementary pieces.
Following the season, Bucks second-year GM John Hammond was named NBA Executive of the Year for improving his club through the gutsy drafting of Jennings and taking advantage of Chicago’s salary dump attempts by jettisoning Hakim Warrick and Joe Alexander (both expiring contracts) in exchange for John Salmons and 2011 and 2012 second rounders. Hammond, a top executive on some strong Detroit teams, knew that his club would not be in the running for any marquee names, so he made his move to further solidify team personnel while his colleagues were holding up their cap space in hopes of landing a big fish.
On June 22, he grabbed scoring winger Corey Maggette away from the Golden State Warriors for Charlie Bell and Dan Gadzuric. The following day, Hammond added more offensive firepower in Chris Douglas-Roberts, who was acquired from New Jersey for a 2012 second-round pick. As soon as free agency opened on July 1, he reinforced the frontline behind Bogut by signing Drew Gooden to a five-year contract.
Will these moves, along with selecting VCU’s Larry Sanders with the No. 15 pick in the NBA Draft, work out for Milwaukee? It’s too soon to tell, especially given the red flags surrounding the character and motor questions about each of the three main acquisitions. None of the three have come from winning programs (and no, Gooden’s 19-game stint with the Spurs doesn’t count), Maggette and Douglas-Roberts have been viewed as locker room headaches with an indifference towards defence and it’s unclear how their arrival will impact the team’s balance.
But if anyone can nip character issues in the bud, it’s Skiles. Meanwhile, the Bucks are more talented today than the squad that took the Hawks to game seven and Jennings will have plenty of weapons at his disposal heading into next year. All this thanks to Hammond’s aggressive off-season approach of zigging while his contemporaries zag.
We don’t yet know who will win the LeBron Sweepstakes, nor do we know how Wade and Bosh will fare as teammates. But we do know that some teams will ultimately revel in their free agent riches while others will be left out in the cold. In the meantime, Milwaukee will be looked at as the team who quietly improved amidst the madness.
Fear the Deer, indeed.