Has anyone ever received more attention for daring to be mediocre than the Milwaukee Bucks? By now most everyone is familiar with the NBA's favorite case study, but here's the CliffsNotes for those who missed Kevin Arnovitz's in-depth piece this summer: The Bucks see little upside in losing for losing sake and would rather follow a path of modest success with intriguing upside than play the tanking game.
The merits of this strategy have been batted around ad nauseum, but reacting to the whims of the basketball Twitterati -- Tanking is bad! Why aren't they tanking! -- is like watching a cat playing with a beach ball.
General manager John Hammond had his orders, and while we can also debate whether overpaying (slightly) O.J. Mayo or Zaza Pachulia was prudent, the plan was executed well enough. Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis are out, while the likes of Mayo, Luke Ridnour and Carlos Delfino are in. The Bucks should be decent enough to compete for one of the final playoff spots in the East, which was apparently the goal.
It is, however, worth exploring that aforementioned upside further, because in Larry Sanders, Ersan Ilyasova, John Henson, Brandon Knight and Giannis Antetokounmpo, Hammond has acquired an interesting core of players who may one day exceed expectations and put them on a similar plane with a team like the Indiana Pacers. That's a longshot, but are the odds really all that worse than the all-out tank?
The key is Sanders, a wonderfully talented rim protector who became the darling of the Internet despite playing fewer than 2,000 minutes and possessing a raw offensive game that rarely extends beyond the painted area. Sanders' impact is most acutely felt on the defensive end, where teams scored almost six points per 100 possessions less when he was on the court, per Basketball Reference.
The Bucks were able to lock him up for a team-friendly $44 million extension over the next four years, making him the new centerpiece, following in the likes of Andrew Bogut, Jennings and Ellis.
Ilyasova offers an intriguing frontcourt complement, and he's still only 26 years old. After a shaky start, he averaged 17 points and nine rebounds following the All-Star break. If nothing else, his relatively affordable deal could make for an interesting trade chip. Of course, so was Tobias Harris, and he brought back a few months of J.J. Redick.
Henson is more of a projection at this point, but he's flashed enough offensive skill to suggest that he'll be able to settle into a niche as a versatile forward if he can hold up defensively. There's a chance he could get squeezed out of a meaningful role in the frontcourt rotation, which is the downside of mixing veterans with youth.
Then there's Knight, who was acquired in a trade for Brandon Jennings. It seems clear after two seasons that he's not really a point guard, but perhaps he can develop into a productive third guard, a la Jason Terry. He'll get that chance in Milwaukee behind Ridnour and Mayo. Knight's development this season offers an intriguing sidebar question: Is it wise to force-feed minutes to young players, or is it a better development play to let them grow into a niche role early in their career?
As for Antetokounmpo, who knows? He's exactly the kind of player a team like the Bucks should be taking chances on in the draft, so long as they're consigned to the middle of the first round. If we take the Pacer analogy to its logical conclusion, perhaps he can be the Paul George to Sanders' version of Roy Hibbert.
There's also something to be said for bringing young players along in an environment that expects some modicum of success. So many teams have tried the tear it down and get lucky approach and only succeeded in wasted seasons and creating an environment that former Celtics coach Doc Rivers once derisively referred to as "Romper Room." Players like Delfino, Gary Neal and Caron Butler may not be All-Stars, but they are proud vets, and establishing a professional culture isn't the worst thing when it comes to on the job training.
At the very least, the Bucks are trying to compete, which is kind of the whole point of professional sports.