|Monday, August 5
More changes need to be made in Milwaukee
By Chad Ford
Editor's note: ESPN Insider's Chad Ford breaks down what last season's NBA lottery teams need to do to get to the playoffs. ESPN.com's "Fixer-Upper" series continues with the Milwaukee Bucks.
Three big players and one big coach. One game from the Finals. One year removed from the Eastern Conference finals. One season filled with injuries and strife. One trade.
Everything has changed.
"There's no question that Glenn has been a very important part of our success these past four seasons," said Karl, "but the consensus was that we had to shake things up to avoid being complacent. This is a deal that gives us another versatile player (Toni Kukoc), a veteran who can come in here and lead by example, play hard and help us play like an elite team."
After a thrilling trip to the East finals in 2000, Karl expected even bigger things from his "Big Three" of Robinson, Ray Allen, and Sam Cassell last season. However, injuries, questionable work habits and the addition of Anthony Mason sent the Bucks on a roller-coaster ride of a season that ended in a shocking late-season swoon that sent the Bucks cascading from an elite team to a lottery bust.
The Bucks vowed change and the trade that sent Robinson to the Hawks for Kukoc, Leon Smith and a 2003 first-round draft pick was just the first step in the process. The team had also been looking to move the cantankerous Cassell, who pouted most of last season over a contract extension that the CBA wouldn't even allow. In return, Karl is looking for defense (Toni Kukoc?!), commitment (Leon Smith?!) and, after last year's debacle, players who are simply willing to practice.
The question, of course, was whether moving the talented Big Dog really made them better? The Bucks traded Robinson for a veteran on the down slope of his career who may, if this is even possible, be a worse defender than Robinson. They'll promote young gun Tim Thomas to the starting small forward position, but by doing so, they gave up 9.6 points, 2.1 rebounds and 1.1 assists per game. How exactly does that trade put the Bucks back on the road to the playoffs?
It gives Cassell more shots, but that isn't really what they want to happen. It will give Thomas a few more shots as well, but with last season's 42-percent shooting percentage, you don't want him taking too many shots, either. And please don't tell us it's time to start feeding Anthony Mason and Joel Przybilla in the post.
Exactly how long will it take the Bucks to get back to the East finals? ESPN.com poured over depth charts, trade rumors, salary-cap information and even sought the advice of a few NBA general managers to give you the five things the Bucks must do to get into back to the playoffs this season.
The Bucks were shopping just about everyone this summer and shouldn't stop with moving Robinson. While Robinson's laziness drove Karl nuts, the always moody Cassell is also in Karl's doghouse. Cassell (who makes just $4.5 million this year) comes at the right price. He recently inked an extension, so whoever gets him can have him locked up for a while. Karl still pines for Gary Payton and, given the latest developments with Payton and the Sonics, a trade isn't out of the question. However, the Sonics aren't that interested in adding Cassell. What the Bucks must do is move Cassell to a team hungry for a veteran point guard and get back an attractive player that they can bundle in a trade for Payton. Several teams are in hot pursuit of Cassell, but the best fit may be Boston. The Celtics recently traded away their point guard, Kenny Anderson, for Vin Baker. Cassell would be a good fit and the Celtics could probably get away with sending Eric Williams and one of their No. 1 picks to the Bucks for him. Before you panic Bucks fans, read step 2.
Like we said, the Bucks don't have a lot of players that interest the Sonics, but the Bulls do. The two teams have talked for a while about working out a sign-and-trade for Rashard Lewis. If the Bulls can't get that done (and it doesn't look good), they could facilitate a three-way trade that could land Payton in Milwaukee. The Bucks could package Kukoc (who the Bulls were fervently trying to re-acquire all summer), Williams (again the Bulls are looking for a veteran swingman who can play defense) and a No. 1 pick. In turn, the Bulls could send Eddie Robinson (whom they have been trying to dump all summer), Marcus Fizer and Jamal Crawford to the Sonics. Payton's agent recently demanded a trade if the Sonics continue to refuse to give Payton a big contract extension. This move would infuse the Sonics with even more young talent and relieve the pressure for them to overpay for Lewis. Payton has a trade kicker, but he'd likely waive it if he got the extension he's seeking. The trade is complicated, but it isn't unheard of. We had two four-team trades last summer and, given the stringent demands of the collective bargaining agreement, sometimes it's the only way.
Michael Redd single-handedly kept the Bucks going at times last season when the team was without the services of Allen or Robinson. Redd -- along with players like first-round picks Przybilla, Marcus Haislip and second-round picks Ronald Murray and Dan Gadzuric -- give the Bucks a talented, athletic bench that will eventually be in a position to replace the team's current starters. Redd has deep range, can create off the dribble and showed the Bucks that he won't really miss a beat if Allen comes up lame again. How many backups can say that? It may take cost the Bucks $3 or $4 million a year to keep him, but he's worth it.
All of this maneuvering, including the trade of Robinson, should give them a little bit of luxury-tax breathing room this summer. While the Bucks have said that they don't plan on using any of their mid-level exception to sign a free agent, they'll probably need to pick up a couple of key veterans that can hold the team together down the stretch. Their first order of business would be to bring in a decent small forward should Thomas stink. The Celtics had great luck with Rodney Rogers last year and he's a Bucks-type of player. He can shoot the ball, play multiple positions and, given the market, will come cheap. With the remainder of their money, the Bucks will need a backup point guard to spell Payton in stretches. Over the long run, Murray may be the answer, but right now a veteran like Erick Strickland would come in, play his role and help lead the Bucks deep into the playoffs.
Those moves would give the Bucks this opening-day roster:
All of these moves should give the Bucks the high-scoring offense we're used to, while significantly upgrading the Bucks on the defensive end. That should put a smile on Karl's face. But how long will it last? It's usually just a matter of time before Karl starts getting down on his team. He has the tendency to air his laundry with his players in the press. That turned Robinson off and, toward the end of last season, even started to get on the affable Allen's nerves. Karl has to figure out a way to keep his team disciplined without alienating them. He wants players to play his way, and having Payton as an ally will go a long way toward getting him his way. He has the talent to do big things again in Milwaukee. It will just take a little restraint.
Chad Ford writes the daily NBA Insider column for ESPN Insider. To get a free 30-day trial, click here.