ST. FRANCIS, Wis. — As John Hammond travels the country performing his duties as general manager of the Milwaukee Bucks, he’s noticed how aware basketball fans are of his young team.
"People will stop me and say, ‘I love your team. Someone is going to have to deal with you in the future. You guys are coming,’" Hammond said. "It is really, really encouraging to hear that. You hear it enough and you start believing it."
While the Bucks made a surprising 26-game improvement to finish 41-41 last season, the next step in the rebuilding process might even be more critical.
It is one thing to get a team to the .500 level, but it is an entirely more difficult challenge, even in the Eastern Conference, to make the nine-game leap to become a 50-win team.
"Very difficult," Hammond said of the next step. "Sometimes it is not easy. Look, what this team did this year — don’t discount it for one second. What Jason Kidd and these players did to have a 26-game turnaround, it is absolutely amazing to do that.
"But with that being said, the thinking is that it is not as hard to go from bad to good. The next step is to go from good to great. That’s where the real work comes in. You need some breaks along the way. You need some guys to continue to develop. You need the culture to stay right. But they key is, for us, we just don’t want to get there short term. We want to get there and stay there."
By winning 41 games and taking the Chicago Bulls to six games in the first round of the playoffs, Milwaukee is likely ahead of schedule on its rebuild.
Do the Bucks attempt to accelerate the process through trades and free agency, or do they sit back and let young players continue to develop? The answer will be revealed this summer, but early signs indicate it could be a mixture of both.
"I think we as an organization, from the very, very top with the owners on down, we want to become a championship caliber team," Hammond said. "The question is the process we go through and how quickly do we want to try to get there.
"We want to get there sooner rather than later, but everybody still has the big picture in mind. We don’t want to circumvent the process. We want to go through it organically. We want to build this correctly. Some teams have done that. You might be able to expedite the process. But if you do that, sometimes you can’t stay there as long. I think if we build it naturally and organically — the goal is to get there and be a 50-win team and a homecourt playoff team and then compete for a championship. Then be able to do that year in and year out for years to come."
Hammond has left the door open for trades and free agency this offseason, but Milwaukee’s first priority will be identifying its selection at No. 17 in June’s draft.
With their two draft picks and the expected return of Jabari Parker and Damien Inglis from injury, the Bucks will likely have four young pieces to add to the group that gained playoff experience against the Bulls.
"That’s a good thing," Hammond said. "The only downside is that it is more young players. We are so young right now. But that’s who we are. We want to continue to keep improving with those young players."
Once free agency starts July 1, the Bucks will make restricted free agent Khris Middleton their top priority. Barring the unexpected, Milwaukee is likely to match if Middleton signs an offer sheet with another team.
The only player on the roster the Bucks don’t control is Jared Dudley, who has a $4.25 million player option for 2015-16.
"Absolutely," Hammond said when asked if he wants Dudley back. "You can’t forget about what else happened on our roster and that was the chemistry. I look at the chemistry and what a guy like Jared Dudley did for it. He was just a great leader in that locker room. Zaza Pachulia is an amazing guy. A guy like O.J. Mayo did as a veteran presence. I also talk about Jerryd Bayless in that grouping.
"Those four guys in particular did a great job for us on the floor, but just as importantly what they did off the floor and in our locker room. They were great."
The Bucks are expected to have over $15 million in cap space this offseason, which means they could attempt to lure a top free agent if they choose to do so.
Playing for a young, up and coming team mixed with the allure of being coached by Jason Kidd could make Milwaukee a place where players are interested in coming to, something that certainly couldn’t be said as recently as a year ago.
"There’s a feeling around the NBA of change in Milwaukee," Hammond said. "Once again, I think that change started when Wes (Edens) and Marc (Lasry) and Jamie (Dinan) purchased the team. I think it started when Jason became the coach and what he did this season. I think there’s a buzz around the Milwaukee Bucks. I think there are people who are interested in coming here and playing.
"They look at our roster and see our young players that are going to play up tempo, defend and play hard. We’ll see. It is going to have to be a situation that’s right for us and right for them."