More bang for your Bucks

After years of playing for a postseason berth, the sky's the limit for the Bucks under new ownership. Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images

After a decade of false starts and half-baked ambition, the Milwaukee Bucks suddenly have new priorities. A season after crashing and burning to a franchise-worst 15-67 record and five months after the arrival of new owners Wes Edens and Marc Lasry, the Bucks opened camp with the league’s youngest team, a new coaching staff led by Jason Kidd, and all the optimism and glass-half-full-ness that come with it.

So far, so good.

Gone is longtime owner Herb Kohl’s well-intentioned but ultimately failed mandate to remain “competitive,” replaced by a renewed emphasis on the now-familiar tenets of NBA rebuilding: young players, cap flexibility, asset acquisition -- and the patience to hopefully see it translate into contention before the decade is over.

On the court, the Bucks are by design a work in progress, though at a surprising 6-5 entering Wednesday’s Kidd Reunion in Brooklyn, progress is certainly being made. Neither Jabari Parker nor Giannis Antetokounmpo can legally drink, but the two preternaturally talented 19-year-olds have effectively been tasked with saving the Brew City’s basketball franchise … eventually. Less than a month into their first season together, the teenagers are already Milwaukee's starting forward combination and wasting little time giving Bucks fans a steady diet of youthful exuberance and highlight-reel dunks, albeit with their fair share of teenage indiscretion mixed in as well.

Not that they’re in it alone. Despite an ongoing inability to finish around the hoop, Larry Sanders has returned to his disruptive best on the defensive end, spearheading a long, chaos-inducing Bucks defense that ranks fifth in the league. And for better or worse, fourth-year guard Brandon Knight remains the fulcrum of the Bucks’ inconsistent offense, increasing his efficiency while keeping the leading scorer mantle warm until Parker and Antetokounmpo are ready for it. How quickly the Bucks’ stable of young talent can evolve into a winning core remains unclear, but early returns suggest it may happen sooner rather than later.

Until then, steep learning curves figure to be on public display anytime the Bucks take the court, par for the course when you consider this is an NBA team with only one player over the age of 30 and more teenagers (three) than the local college team at Marquette. The early results haven’t always been pretty; while Kidd’s defensive focus paid immediate dividends on that end, the team’s offense remains among the league’s worst. Still, for the first time in years the Bucks are, well, interesting.

For now, Kidd’s job will be absorbing the pressure that comes with the team’s new ambitions, all while helping his young charges navigate the turbulence that comes from growing up on the job. For better or worse, it’s a task for which he’s unusually well suited.

Kidd the player knows all about the challenges of making the leap from lottery pick to surefire Hall of Famer, while Kidd the coach has spent the past year going through his own crash course in big-city pressure and media scrutiny. A miserable start to his coaching career in Brooklyn nearly cost him his job last December, and his controversial move to the Bucks in July served as the first PR misstep of Edens and Lasry’s tenure in Milwaukee. What should have been a coup for the franchise -- Jason Kidd leaving Brooklyn for Milwaukee! -- instead made for an introductory news conference that was at the time part interrogation, part mea culpa, and all sorts of awkward. The lesson for the new owners was apparent: Go for the big splash and you might get wet. But the message to Bucks fans and the rest of the league was equally clear: With its big-city billionaires now aboard, Milwaukee was no longer content to play the role of sleepy Midwestern hinterland.

But while Kidd will be allowed plenty of time to drag the young Bucks out of the NBA’s primordial ooze, Lasry and Edens know that they don’t have the same luxury of patience off the court.

Newly minted Bucks team president Peter Feigin describes his approach for turning around the Bucks’ flagging brand in blunt terms: "We're trying to boil the ocean." Look no further than Milwaukee’s league-worst attendance and TV ratings last season, highlighting the obvious challenge of marketing an uninspiring product in an old building to one of the league’s smallest markets.

The result has been a renewed urgency to win back fans, and a willingness to throw the kitchen sink at an image problem decades in the making. Since May, the team’s business operations staff has grown by roughly 50 percent, including 40 new hires in the team’s sales department. With “Own the Future” as its new rallying cry, the team’s swelling business staff has moved into a new corporate headquarters from which to hawk new ticket deals far and wide, including free 2015-16 tickets for all fans who attend every game of the coming season. Overall, the team has redoubled its efforts with both individual and corporate season-ticket holders, with Feigin noting the team’s focus on skewing toward a younger demographic than in the past.

"We really need to grab the [demographic] of the 25- to 35-year-olds to be successful,” he said. “We want their kids to be born Bucks fans. We might have been soft in that area in the past."

Also new are a dozen local investors and a largely overhauled executive suite. Among the new VPs: Lasry’s own 27-year-old son, Alex, whose résumé features stints at the White House and Goldman Sachs. It’s not the “same old Bucks” on the court, nor is it behind the scenes. The changes haven’t gone unnoticed, including by a certain former NBA commissioner.

"What people underestimate is what new and infused ownership can bring,” David Stern noted ahead of the Bucks’ season opener in Charlotte.

"They've had an increase in their full-season equivalents. It won't be as good as it's going to be next year, and next year won't be as good as the year after. But I use Sacramento as an example.

"They went from a 30 percent increase to another 30 percent increase and when they move into their new building, Katy bar the door, it's going to be great. I think Milwaukeeans and Wisconsinites are going to have a great ride with respect to this ownership."

To that end, the team is working to expand its base of support both near and far. The month of September saw a “Bucks Bar Network” introduced in the Milwaukee area, while players, mascots and cheerleaders were dispatched on a statewide bus tour to hold kids camps and remind the rest of the state that, yes, there is actually a pro basketball team in Wisconsin. All of which underscores that it’s not just about getting fans’ money, but also their attention. An opening-night sellout -- the team’s first since 2007 -- suggests that the team’s new narrative has started to gain traction.

But for all the positive energy emanating from Milwaukee these days, the team’s most fundamental challenge will also be the most costly and difficult to pull off: building a replacement for the aging BMO Harris Bradley Center. Only three members of the current Bucks roster were even alive when the Bradley Center opened its doors in 1987, and no one associated with the Bucks or the NBA views it as a feasible solution beyond the current lease that expires in 2017.

Such is life for a small-market team dependent on the league’s revenue-sharing riches to make ends meet. As fans in Sacramento and Seattle can attest, it’s not enough to have a building that isn’t falling apart. You either play the new arena subsidy game and maximize your contribution to the league’s expanding revenue pie, or dare the league to ship your team to a city that will. The NBA’s implied threat finally gained teeth in May, when a league buy-back provision became a requirement of the new ownership group’s sale agreement with Kohl. Failure to have a new arena ready by the fall of 2017 would contractually allow the NBA to buy back the team -- and presumably move it elsewhere -- for the now-bargain price of $575 million.

Not that anyone in Milwaukee is in a panic just yet. Though history reminds us that owners can change their minds, an opening ante of $200 million toward a new arena from Edens, Lasry and Kohl suggested the new guys were dead serious about making a new arena happen in Milwaukee, and local belief in a solution has only increased of late despite the specter of a public funding debate in early 2015. The Bucks expect to finalize a downtown site by the end of the year, and if they get it right, the arena could serve as a hub for broader development encompassing retail, commercial and residential spaces. All of which makes the getting it right part so crucial for all parties.

"I think it comes down to having a vision," Edens commented during a recent Q&A with local business leaders. "It is not hard to imagine what could be here. But it is important where it is. We've looked at a bunch of things. We could pick an easy site, but it would be the wrong answer."

In the meantime, the Bucks continue to press forward. Off the court the challenges are more urgent; there are fans to win over, tickets to be sold and an arena to be built. On the court more patience will be needed. There are lessons to be learned, talents to be developed and, yes, games to be won. Some now, many more later.

Hurry up? Wait? In Milwaukee, the answer is decidedly both.

Frank Madden is the editor of Brew Hoop. Follow him, @brewhoop.