ST. FRANCIS, Wis. — Just over four years ago, general manager John Hammond and coach Scott Skiles arrived in Milwaukee, tasked with reinvigorating a franchise that had gone through three head coaches in a five-year span.
Success came quickly. In their second season, Hammond was named the NBA’s Executive of the Year and Skiles led the team to 46 wins and a playoff berth.
Excitement for the Bucks hadn’t been so high in Milwaukee since Ray Allen, Sam Cassell and Glenn Robinson led the team to the 2001 Eastern Conference finals. “Fear the Deer” was the rallying cry, and the future looked bright in April 2010.
Fast forward to present day and things have changed a bit. Skiles and Hammond, tied together since the beginning, are entering the final year of their contracts. There’s a strong feeling that it’s do or die for the duo — make the playoffs or it could be the end of both of their tenures with the team.
The fate of those two lies in the hands of guards Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis, another pair with an uncertain future. After the season, Jennings will become a restricted free agent and Ellis can opt out of his contract.
As the Bucks enter 2012-13, if pressure is on many of the key ingredients in a franchise that needs a winner, the hard-driving Skiles doesn’t notice.
“I really can’t see it having any effect,” Skiles said. “We’ve got multiple players in the last year of their deals. I played in the last year of my deal before as a player. I wouldn’t be very genuine if I expected guys to perform on the floor in the last year of their deals and think somehow it’s something that’s going to affect me.”
Skiles has zero concern that his players will approach anything differently because he’s a “lame-duck” coach.
“I think it’s a pretty significant slap in the face of the players when people assume players are going to lay down because a coach is in their last year (of his contract),” Skiles said. “You have a pretty low opinion of NBA players or sports teams if you think that. My opinion is much higher than that.”
His players support him, but they also know what’s at stake if they don’t perform well.
“I think it’s kind of something that’s out there in the NBA, talking about lame-duck coaches, but it doesn’t really strike me with this group or him as a person or as a coach,” said veteran small forward Mike Dunleavy, who is also in the final year of his contract. “We’re going to play hard. Guys have a ton of respect for him. There’s other situations where guys have a lack of respect for the coach, and that’s certainly not the case here.”
When asked about playing for Skiles, Ellis said, “I love to play for Scott Skiles. Love it.”
On the executive side, Hammond has done a tremendous job shedding the Bucks of the onerous contracts he inherited. But since he won Executive of the Year, the team is a combined 66-82 in two seasons. He admitted that the bar hasn’t been as high as it is this season since immediately after the playoff berth. Despite that, Hammond isn’t changing how he approaches the job.
“If it changes your approach to the job, shame on you and you shouldn’t be doing this,” Hammond said.
The players understand they share in the responsibility to bring Milwaukee back to the postseason. Five of them are entering the final year of their contracts or have the ability to opt out of their current deals.
“This organization has always had pressure to win,” forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute said. “It’s an organization that’s been wanting to win and trying everything it can to win. There’s always kind of been that pressure of winning, but I think over the last few years, we all know, it hasn’t been a winning atmosphere here. We didn’t make the playoffs, and we want to change that.”
How will that happen? In 2009-10, their last playoff season, the Bucks allowed the seventh-fewest points per game in the NBA but were 23rd in points per game. By last season, the script had flipped. Milwaukee was the fifth-best offensive team but 22nd defensively.
Skiles, who always has preached defense first, wants to find a happy medium.
“We want to be up in the top 10, maybe even the top five, defensive teams,” he said. “If you’re a perennial 55-game winning team, you have home-court every year, you’re knocking on the door, and you come in and say our goal is to win the title – I think that’s realistic. We want to be in a position where we can be one of those teams who say that going into the season. In order to do that, we have to statistically get better, and there’s no reason we can’t. We can get better defensively.”
During the offseason, Hammond improved the frontcourt’s ability to defend the lane, but now the pressure is on Jennings and Ellis to prove that two offensive-minded small guards won’t hold back the Bucks defensively.
“It’s pressure, but it’s good pressure,” Jennings said. “I think it’s going to bring out the best in all of us, the fact that everybody is on their last deal. Our mindset is not about, ‘Let’s try to get to the playoffs.’ It’s, ‘We need to do it and we need to do it now.’
“We just have to believe it. It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. All that matters is what the 15 guys and the coaches and the franchise, just basically how we feel.”
2012-13 is a critical year. If expectations aren’t met, a shakeup is likely.
All parties involved know what’s at stake. They are ready to prove this year’s team is different and that the franchise is heading to head in the right direction.
But there are still doubters in Milwaukee and throughout the league.