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Bucks Retool With Stephen Jackson, But Are They Any Better?

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The Milwaukee Bucks traded for Stephen Jackson in an attempt to cut salary and simultaneously make another playoff push. But does the move improve the team where it most needs improvement?

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You can say this for Milwaukee Bucks GM John Hammond: he works in broad strokes. Never content to tinker around the edges, Hammond has executed three major "retoolings" since taking over the Bucks in 2008.

Shortly after he took over, he hired defensive stickler Scott Skiles and sent Mo Williams -- the best perimeter player on those Bucks teams but an awful defender -- to the Cavaliers in a three-team deal for Luke Ridnour in a salary-busting deal. (A year later, he'd draft Williams' true replacement: Brandon Jennings.)

In a quest to buoy the offense of a strong young team led by Jennings and Andrew Bogut, Hammond traded a draft pick for John Salmons at the 2010 deadline; months later, he re-signed Salmons (who had been a great scorer down the stretch for Milwaukee) and traded some spare parts for Corey Maggette, an efficient if otherwise limited scorer on an onerous contract. In keeping Salmons and acquiring Maggette, Hammond showed a sense that Bogut's defense (and contributions on that end from Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Ersan Ilyasova and Carlos Delfino) would be good enough to keep the Bucks in contention; they needed offense to get over the top.

So much for that. Last Thursday, the Bucks agreed to send Salmons to the Kings for Beno Udrih, and traded down nine spots in the first round to facilitate a trade to replace Maggette with Stephen Jackson and Shaun Livingston. Udrih's definitely an offensive-minded fellow, if only because he's allergic to defense. Hives are a bad look on the Slovenian beaches, so there's no sense in risking it for a "steal" or a "stop." Jackson, on the other hand, fancies himself a wondrous playmaker. He's average, highly inefficient and just prolific enough to be completely dangerous. He's a fantastic defender when engaged (which is more often than you'd think). On defense, Jackson is to Maggette what Everest is to the pile of rocks my 1-year-old daughter made in the backyard yesterday. That isn't meant to overstate Jackson's impact, more to discount Maggette's impact on that end.

Lest you think there's exaggeration here: among the 12 players who registered at least 800 minutes for the '10-11 Bucks, Maggette had the dead-worst defensive plus-minus. Milwaukee had one of the best defenses in the NBA, and was almost four points per 100 possessions worse on defense with Maggs on the floor. This is not particularly new: his lack of defensive ability or effort was a constant source of contention between Maggette and Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy, and the forward made an already awful Warriors defense that much worse in '09-10. He's a drain (which makes him an interesting fit in Charlotte, no doubt.)

Salmons just fell off the table in '10-11 after solid '08-09 and '09-10 season. The Kings had traded Salmons to the Bulls during a 17-win season in '08-09; the wing was exactly what Chicago needed down the stretch. He wasn't as good in '09-10, but more concerning was his player option for '10-11: the Bulls sought to make a run at LeBron James or Dwyane Wade, and needed to be sure space was cleared, so Chicago shipped him up to the Bucks for a pick that became James Johnson, who has since moved on to the Raptors.

But he was just great as the Bucks raced to the '10 playoffs, and he was rewarded with a contract many considered ghastly: five years, $39 million. It was more like four years and $33 million because of a partial guarantee that I can't imagine will survive time, and that makes it now -- one year in -- a $25 million, three-year contract, and that was apparently not a problem to move for a very solid back-up point guard in Udrih, one who makes a bit above the average salary and, again, plays no defense (hives, you know) but makes lots of plays and shots.

And then there's Stephen Jackson.

This is where this latest retooling worries me. It saves Milwaukee some cash over the long haul, but the payroll for '11-12 is about the same as it would have been; the Bucks can probably flip Livingston (due $3.5 million) to come out ahead in current year cap space. Regardless, Milwaukee will struggle to draw another major piece in free agency, and they need another piece, or else this is going to turn into a Jackson-Jennings shot-jacking competition.

There is no offensive anchor here, no calming influence or reliable maestro. Jackson pretends to be one frequently, but you've seen Jack's decision-making. You've seen the types of shots he believes to be good shots. They are generally not good shots. His fearlessness on offense can work ... when he's a piece of a greater puzzle, a peg in a greater plan that relies on the table-setting talents of a better playmaker. In San Antonio, Jackson's reliability from the corners worked. In Golden State, when he was the secondary playmaker to a locked-in Baron Davis, it worked. In Charlotte? No, absolutely not. The Bobcats' offense has been just awful with Jack in town. Milwaukee's offense isn't a whole lot different.

This is where you wish Jennings were five years older and, like Chris Paul or Deron Williams, a clear-cut leader of his team. An injury derailed much of Jennings' '10-11 season; Bogut's slow recovery from his broken arm sunk the team as a whole. Had Jennings had another knockout season last year, he might be in the place the Bucks need him to be: Alpha on offense, clear-cut future of the team. I fear that without those accepted denotations, Jackson will take too large a burden, and be too great an anchor on a team that simply must get more efficient on offense to compete.

Barring a major upset, the Bucks won't land a post scorer like David West or another high-powered wing like Caron Butler. A target more on the level of Carl Landry (a Wisconsin native) seems more likely; that'd actually be a solid fit, but isn't a total game-changer. Without such a game-changer, it appears the Bucks will face the same questions they have every season since Hammond and Skiles have taken over: the defense is there, but what about the offense?

By adding Stephen Jackson to the mix, I fear we have our answer, and I fear it won't be pretty.