The Bucks have the guy many feel is the next great superstar, the type of player everyone in this transaction season is dreaming and scheming to get their hands on. But for the Bucks to reach their potential and maximize the impact of Antetokounmpo's prodigious talent, they have to navigate a sticky ownership situation that manifested itself over the past few weeks.
Milwaukee has three controlling partners: New York hedge fund managers Wes Edens, Marc Lasry and Jamie Dinan. Over the past three years, they've worked to secure a new arena and a downtown practice facility and give the franchise a makeover that has its future looking bright. The Bucks made the playoffs and had quite the moment just Monday when Antetokounmpo was awarded Most Improved Player and Malcolm Brogdon was named Rookie of the Year, marks of an ascendant team.
They've also run into some issues during a messy front-office transition, the kind of issues that could become a significant problem as the team goes forward into a vital window with Antetokounmpo.
Over the course of several weeks this spring, the Bucks lost established general manager John Hammond, the man who led their run of outstanding draft picks in recent years. Then they refused to implement what appeared to be their own plan to replace Hammond with Justin Zanik, who was seen as one of the league's fastest-rising executives, which they followed by promoting Jon Horst to general manager.
A relative unknown, Horst had toiled for nine years in the Bucks' front office, with the title of director of basketball operations, after three years on the Detroit Pistons' staff. Now he was vaulting into the role of Milwaukee's top basketball executive, becoming the youngest personnel chief in the league at age 34.
Horst might end up being a wonderful choice; those who have worked with him over the past dozen years in Detroit and Milwaukee speak highly of him. But the league reaction was bewilderment at such a move at this vital moment in the franchise's history. There were quite a few "Jon who?" comments in rival front offices when his hiring was announced.
Even Horst was surprised by the move. According to sources, the job was already earmarked for him when he was summoned to see the owners two weeks ago in New York, even though he didn't know he was a candidate. The team began planning a news conference before Horst had even signed his deal.
Horst's hiring was a brokered solution after some disagreement among the ownership, sources say. When Horst had his introductory news conference last week in Milwaukee, Edens was the only partner present. That was not an accident. Lasry and Dinan had legitimate scheduling conflicts but could have made time for the event had they really wanted to be there, sources say.
That moment could end up being symbolic as the Bucks move forward. Is this a bump in the road or the beginning of a real problem? Plenty of people in the NBA are watching to see.
Bucks ownership declined to comment for this article.
When Edens, Lasry and Dinan pooled their money to purchase the team in 2014, they agreed to vote on major matters, sources say. Although a 2-1 majority could rule, the group wanted all decisions to be unanimous, and the men worked together to make sure that was the case. This was the framework the owners explained to candidates for front-office positions recently, sources say.
This concept has been tried before in ownership suites and has proved problematic, which is why the NBA has discouraged it. The Secaucus Seven's stewardship of the New Jersey Nets in the 1990s and the Atlanta Spirit debacle that landed the Hawks owners in court in 2005 are examples of too-many-cooks dysfunction. However, with the cost of franchises ballooning, it can be hard to find owners with pocket as deep as those of the Clippers' Steve Ballmer, and coalitions are sometimes needed, as was the case when Herb Kohl wanted to sell the Bucks to a new owner who wouldn't move the team from Milwaukee.
In May 2016, the Bucks hired Zanik away from the Jazz to serve as Hammond's assistant general manager. Zanik took the job with the understanding that he would succeed Hammond. Though his contract never explicitly guaranteed that, sources say, Zanik's year-by-year salary reflected an expected bump up in the decision-making hierarchy.
This arrangement required cooperation from Hammond to some degree. He had only one season left on his contract, but after rebuilding the team with the selection of Antetokounmpo and 2016 draft picks Thon Maker and Brogdon, he preferred to stay longer, sources say. Still, he saw the writing on the wall, especially after the Bucks granted permission for him to interview for team president with the Orlando Magic in May. Hammond didn't get that job, but longtime friend Jeff Weltman did, and soon Hammond was joining him as Magic GM on a five-year contract Milwaukee wasn't willing to match.
Hammond's departure cleared the decks for Zanik. Some in Milwaukee's ownership group were relieved at the clarity. Zanik's ascension would represent a fresh start and fresh ideas, as well.
Zanik had built a solid relationship with coach Jason Kidd, and that perhaps boded well for a stable coaching situation. Some team higher-ups spent much of last season wondering whether Kidd was the right man for that job long term, sources have said, even as he was nearing the first year of a three-year extension that begins next season.
One big problem: Somewhere along the way, one of the team's three ownership partners soured on Zanik. As Adrian Wojnarowski reported at The Vertical, Zanik had the support of two of those partners. The holdout was Edens, sources say, and he wanted to open the job to a full search.
So with Edens as the driving force and front-office veteran and team consultant Rod Thorn as point man, in late May they opened up a wide search just as Orlando, Sacramento, Atlanta and other teams with front offices in flux gobbled up many of the most coveted next-generation GM candidates.
The Bucks cast a wide net. They had interviews with nearly a dozen assistant and former GMs, as well as a few outside-the-box candidates including Spurs assistant coach Becky Hammon, according to sources. They had interest in David Griffin, Cleveland's GM until last week, but Cavs owner Dan Gilbert denied Griffin permission to interview anywhere until June 20 -- by which point all the vacant GM posts, including Milwaukee's, had been filled.
Eventually they settled on three finalists: Wes Wilcox, the deposed Hawks GM; Arturas Karnisovas, the Nuggets' well-regarded executive; and Zanik. After a prolonged process that tested the patience of almost everyone involved, the Bucks narrowed the choice to Karnisovas and Zanik. Denver pre-empted the Bucks by promoting its GM, Tim Connelly, to president of basketball operations, freeing the GM title for Karnisovas. (The president of basketball operations title is becoming so commonplace that execs now refer to it as POBO for short.)
Despite going through the entire process, Edens still didn't think Zanik was the right man for the job, sources say. Still, majority rule within Milwaukee's ownership group would have dictated Zanik get the job by a 2-1 vote. Despite whatever prior arrangement was made, owner majority didn't rule the day.
Edens is the team's designated governor. Every franchise has one such owner. Under league rules, that person has unilateral authority on all basketball-related decisions if he or she chooses to wield it, according to sources familiar with the matter.
The other owners and their attorneys double-checked the team's ownership agreement to make sure they understood Edens' power as governor correctly, sources say. Whether Edens ever played his trump card is unclear. Once the other owners understood the power structure, he might not have needed to. Above all, the owners truly prefer to operate in unanimity.
With the search bogged down and complicated, NBA commissioner Adam Silver advised the Bucks, according to sources, to consider former Cavs and Hawks GM Danny Ferry, who is currently a consultant for the Pelicans. The Bucks reached out to Ferry, and he was open to discussing the job, but a formal interview was never scheduled, sources said.
Instead, the Bucks owners looked for a solution closer to home that could bring them together. Enter Horst, a grinder and salary-cap guru. They all liked and respected Horst, and he became the next man up. Horst agreed to a very modest contract by current GM standards -- three years starting at $500,000, sources said.
Meanwhile, Zanik has left the organization. The Bucks are now searching for a veteran league executive to support Horst or possibly even for a president above him. Most likely, for anything to happen, the three owners will have to agree.
Then there's this wrinkle: Lasry takes over the governor role in two years from Edens under the conditions of an unusual ownership agreement that calls for Edens and Lasry to swap the governorship between them over five-year terms.
Antetokounmpo is scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency in 2021. The clock is ticking.