ST. FRANCIS, Wis. — From the moment Larry Drew walked in for his first interview with the Milwaukee Bucks, he knew exactly what was going to be the first thing asked of whoever was chosen as the team’s new coach.
The franchise was in need of a serious change of culture.
“I was fully aware of that,” Drew said. “That’s one of the things I’m totally committed to doing. Now that this team has been fully assembled and understanding what it was last year, our objective is to get this thing pointed in the right direction. It all starts with changing the culture.”
Choosing Drew as the 13th head coach in franchise history was just the first step, however. The roster needed to be shaken up, and that’s exactly what general manager John Hammond did at a historic rate. Milwaukee returns just four players from last year, the biggest roster turnover in franchise history.
Gone is the guard duo of Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis, replaced by free-agent acquisition O.J. Mayo and 21-year-old Brandon Knight. In all, the Bucks have 11 new faces with an entirely new coaching staff.
The general consensus around the NBA is that the Bucks are in the midst of a rebuilding process, but owner Herb Kohl feels his team is capable of competing for a playoff spot this year. With the 2014 draft class considered to be extremely strong, a few NBA teams are obviously not focused on winning this season.
The Bucks are not one of them.
“We’ll see what happens,” Kohl said. “But we’re not playing for the lottery.
“That’s why you play 82 games. Nobody knows what will happen. But we are genuinely optimistic about our chances to be a good team this year. Our fans deserve that. The team is a product of and we want to deliver a good product. So we have to have hopes and we do.”
After the team chemistry disaster of last season, Hammond and Kohl went into the offseason looking for a certain kind of player. Me-first players weren’t considered, as the Bucks wanted guys who were committed to the complete change in culture.
The 11 new faces feature promising young players, but also include veterans who are considered high-character guys.
“The ‘Milwaukee Way’ is what we want to represent,” Hammond said. “We are going to try to represent the city with players that are going to play extremely hard, they are going to play extremely unselfish and every night when they walk out of the Bradley Center, they are going to represent all of us in a way you would want.”
Drew will rely heavily on veterans like Caron Butler, O.J. Mayo, Gary Neal, Luke Ridnour and Zaza Pachulia to help him set the tone. All of them understand the challenge that lies ahead and have committed themselves to being a part of the change.
Mayo, Pachulia and Neal all have multiyear contracts, but even they might not be around when the fruits of this year’s labor are paid off.
“The attitudes are really good,” Drew said. “All of the veteran guys that we have brought in, you can see that these guys are committed to helping us change the culture. That’s very encouraging. My conversations with these guys prior to signing them were very encouraging. That was one of the reasons why we brought them in. Not only could they help this club, but the direction the organization was looking to go, these guys want to be a part of that.
“They are great team guys, guys who look to play the right way. They are committed to the team. Their approach is, ‘You know what, we’re just going to take it a day at a time, a month at a time, a year at a time and see where it goes. Right now, we’re going to do anything we can to help this organization get on the right track.’ As a coach, you just have to appreciate guys having an attitude like that.”
Larry Sanders was around and saw the impact a crumbling locker room had on the Bucks. Milwaukee had almost no chemistry last season and it showed on the court. The Bucks were able to back into the playoffs as the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, but they were swept by Miami.
Less than a month since training camp began, Sanders already sees the impact the veterans have had and how much better the chemistry is.
“They’ve been through it so many times,” Sanders said. “They know how to be successful and have been on successful teams, so they are bringing all that knowledge to here. I’m just trying to absorb as much as I can.
“Those good teams, everyone sees the finished product of winning the game. Nobody seems them in practice, the vets pulling everybody up or what all goes into getting that win. There’s a lot that goes into it. All players have to be on the same page.”
When sizing up potential landing spots as a free agent, Pachulia was naturally drawn toward the Bucks. Not only had he played in Milwaukee previously, but he was familiar with Drew coming from Atlanta. What he had to be sold on was the commitment to changing the culture from the organization.
“I don’t know what was going on here before,” Pachulia said. “Honestly, I don’t want to think about it because this is a totally new group. New energy came for this organization and for this city. I believe in it, that’s why I’m here.
“I know it won’t be easy. Are we going to go to the playoffs and become champions? No, it’s going to take serious work. But what I see, guys are committed, guys are really working hard to get on the same page. You can bring anybody in you want to and if you have a new system, new defensive plays, new schemes, it’s difficult.”
Knight agreed with Pachulia, but he’s confident it will only be a matter of time before the Bucks will pick up Drew’s system and thrive.
“With the group of guys we have, it’s not going to be a problem,” Knight said. “It’s just going to take time, as far as being in those situations and experiencing them.
“The brotherhood here is unbelievable compared to where I came from. I feel like all of these guys are my brothers. The coaching staff and everybody with the Bucks are truly a family.”
It’s easy for everything to be alright right now, since Milwaukee has yet to play a regular-season game. The challenge Drew will face is having the team keep this current attitude when the Bucks are struggling. Milwaukee is going to lose games, possibly a good amount in year one of the change in culture, but how will it respond?
That’s where the veterans could really come into play.
“We just have to stay the course,” Drew said. “That’s one thing I remind these guys. It’s not always going to be rosy. The most important thing is that we stay the course.
“This is a newly assembled team and you don’t know what you have. One thing I can assure people is this team will be very committed, this team will play hard, and this team will play the right way. I’m from the old school and don’t know any other way to do it.
“We will be in it together. There are going to be some good times and bad times. It’s easy when it’s going good, everybody is on a high. Our character is going to be tested when we hit a bump in the road. I think these guys will embrace that challenge.”