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Bucks put on their thinking caps

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Michael Hunt
July 10, 2009
— You might have heard about the NBA’s salary cap taking a dive this season and next for basically the same reasons that might have slashed your household budget.

So the New York Knicks might not be able to splurge as they thought on the celebrated 2010 free-agent class. Waaaaah. And, horrors, LeBron James could take a slight cut in the first year of his next contract. Somehow, he might have to scrape by on $16.59 million. Boo-hoo.


It wasn’t as if these people weren’t warned.


So, you ask, how do these economic realities trickle down to the local franchise?


Given their track record for a better part of the decade, it would be impractical to view the Milwaukee Bucks as innovators on any level. But at least the way the league’s leaner finances are headed, the Bucks are ahead of the curve.


Trading Richard Jefferson and allowing Charlie Villanueva to walk might cause the Bucks short-term pain but digging out from an untenable financial situation that returned 34 victories for $71 million had to take priority over whatever happens on the floor this year.


If last season’s low production for the high price didn’t cinch it, David Stern’s new financial order certain did. Soon enough, the Bucks will be far enough beneath however low the salary cap will dip to do things they couldn’t have imagined before.


“Do I see a light? Yeah,” general manager John Hammond said Thursday. “The little light is the numbers we are out from under. What kind of growing pains we’ll have (next season), we don’t know. Next season at this time, we’ll have even more opportunities. In 2011-’12, we’ll be a team with significant room. Two years from now, the sun will be shining.”


In 2010-’11, when Michael Redd will exercise his $18.3 million option and Dan Gadzuric will be in the final season of his unmovable contract, the Bucks could be up to $7 million below the shrinking cap. And as of now, the only veterans under contract for 2011-’12 are Andrew Bogut and Charlie Bell.


That’s great, you say, all that forthcoming cap room, but it raises two questions:


Even if the Bucks have millions freed, would a high-profile free agent want to play in Milwaukee?


And will long-suffering fans abide another lost year next season against the hope of a better future?


Taking the example of Hammond’s previous team, the Detroit Pistons did not suddenly re-emerge as an elite franchise by signing expensive free agents. Using the assets of young players with inexpensive contracts and draft picks, the Pistons traded for talent into their cap room. Whether that works for the Bucks, their plan is to acquire as many of those movable assets as possible for when financial freedom arrives.


As for next year, they might not be as bad as you think.


They have the two most important NBA pieces, the center in Bogut and the point guard in Brandon Jennings, who needs to start from Day 1 even if the depressed free-agent market causes Ramon Sessions to bounce back for $1 million. Redd can still score. And if they could get Josh Childress to play small forward, the lineup would still have a hole, but it wouldn’t be hopeless.


The real hope, though, comes when you have flexible pieces and are far enough beneath the cap to breathe, no matter how low it might go.


“You can become a good team consistently when you put your financial house in order,” Hammond said. “If we do that, we’ll have an opportunity to grow from good to great.”



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