MILWAUKEE -- Bucks general manager John Hammond says he began to worry as soon as he boarded a plane bound for Milwaukee after a Game 7 loss to the Atlanta Hawks in the first round of the playoffs.
Hammond, a self-described "Nervous Nellie" who won the NBA's Executive of the Year award this season, is not sure how the Bucks will be able to replicate the success of a surprising 46-36 campaign and a wild series that featured two chances for Milwaukee to eliminate the Hawks.
"Here's what we can't do: just follow the formula that you did this past season and we can do it again," Hammond said Thursday. "There isn't a formula like that. It just clicked and it happened and it fell together and we became a team."
There certainly were a lot of pieces last season and suddenly, there's a lot of hope around the franchise after its first playoff appearance in four years.
Rookie Brandon Jennings started all 89 games and logged 2,920 minutes, Andrew Bogut led the team until his gruesome season ending arm injury two weeks before the playoffs and 17 other guys pitched in for the Bucks at one time or another.
"If Andrew wouldn't have gone down, who knows what could've happened with our team?" Hammond said. "Do we have kind of a nice little core here and a nice base we can move forward with? Yeah, we think that we do."
Bogut is expected to come back full strength in time for training camp and Jennings will get some much needed rest this offseason.
While Hammond acknowledged the Bucks are several players away from a championship run, they're just one season away from having the financial flexibility he's craved since he took over.
Milwaukee is still bogged down by a bloated budget that Hammond inherited, with nearly $30 million already tied up next season in contracts.
The biggest deal is the $18.3 million player option owed to Michael Redd, who was lost for the season after tearing ligaments in the same left knee for the second straight season. It's brought up questions of whether Redd should ever return to Milwaukee and there's no timetable for his recovery.
"We're not looking at him from an organizational standpoint saying, 'Where is he?' We knew where he was at, we know why he's there and we support the fact that he was there," Hammond said. "We understand his position, we understand that it's going to be a difficult summer for him."
Milwaukee has two other unfavorable deals. Backup center Dan Gadzuric will make $7.2 million to finish a six-year contract. Charlie Bell, who was healthy but didn't dress for Game 7, will make just under $8 million for the next two seasons.
"That's almost half of our salary we're committed to for next year at this time, maybe more than half," Hammond said. "That is an issue for us, but hey, every team has something to deal with."
Milwaukee got terrific play out of John Salmons down the stretch, and Hammond said they want to keep the shooting guard, who can opt out of his contract. The Bucks also have to deal with the other free agents, including core players Luke Ridnour, Jerry Stackhouse and Kurt Thomas.
In the meantime, Hammond expects to keep hunting for bargains and filling holes where he can like last year. He'll also have the 15th pick in the draft and two second-round selections to use or trade as well.
"We've got to be careful in what we do and how we address the needs," the GM said. "We don't have that core group to say that we're just one piece away. We're multiple pieces away."
And Hammond won't stop fretting over it, either.
"We don't want to take a step back," he said. "We're going to be a team that's at least going to be respected as the season begins and the bar is going to be raised, so to speak. We'll see how our guys handle it."