Way back in 2014, the Milwaukee Bucks won 15 games and were the laughingstock of the league. They had loaded up on mid-range free agents the summer before as part of a shortsighted bid to be competitive while then-owner Herb Kohl attempted to sell the franchise.
The plan backfired spectacularly on the court, but out of the rubble came new owners and a renewed commitment to youth. Khris Middleton, Brandon Knight, Giannis Antetokounmpo and John Henson led the team in minutes. They also landed the second pick in the draft for their troubles, which became Jabari Parker. Suddenly there was a young core. Into that core came Jason Kidd in one of the more bizarre moves of the 2014 offseason.
Kidd turned out to be exactly the right coach for these Bucks and by the end of last season he had helped them become a dynamic defensive team that was long on length and versatility. Milwaukee was second in the league in points allowed per 100 possessions and made an unlikely run to the playoffs where they pushed the Bulls to six games. Offensively ... well, they were a really good defensive team.
Into that breach steps Greg Monroe, a skilled big man who was miscast in various positional misadventures in Detroit. Monroe's strengths lie around the basket and in post-ups, but with Andre Drummond aboard, the Pistons tried to extend his range. The experiment did not go well and it didn't get any easier when Josh Smith signed on to a crowded frontcourt. Given a choice to continue his career as a Piston under Stan Van Gundy, Monroe decided to play out his fifth year on a qualifying offer and enter the free agent market this summer without restriction.
It's not that Monroe was bad in Detroit, he just seemed stuck. He averaged his usual 16 points and added a career high 10 rebounds a game, but his future clearly lay elsewhere. Monroe wasn't as highly sought out as LaMarcus Aldridge, but he had options including the Lakers, Knicks and Blazers. He chose the Bucks, his agent David Falk said, because they were closest to playoff contention. The implication there, of course, is that the others are not.
A lot has been made about how the Lakers and Knicks have misfired in free agency. The Lakers messed up their initial meeting with Aldridge and requested a follow-up, a curious bit of face-saving that may be too little, too late. The Knicks didn't even get a meeting with Aldridge, reportedly because of their preference to play him at center, which was a non-starter that everyone knew going into the process.
The Blazers are a different case. However perilously they're hanging on to the Aldridge chase, general manager Neil Olshey has been gobbling up young big men on affordable deals. Along with a freshly renewed Damian Lillard, their road back to respectability is much clearer than the others, but will take some time to flesh out.
Lost in all of that is the fact that a prominent free agent chose Milwaukee, long the butt of jokes as an NBA Siberia; a place where veterans go when they run out of options and young careers wither and die. Milwaukee could have been a stand-in for any other small market who wouldn't even bother to set-up meetings and had to resort to drastic overpays for limited role players, but the world is changing.
It is very easy in the cool lights of the day-after press conference to say that it was never about the money. It is always, on some level, about the money. Monroe got the max for three years with a player option on the third season, which keeps his options wide open for the huge influx of television cash that will flood the league.
In days past it was also about other things, like the market or the weather or whatever else was important to a player in a given situation. So far in free agency we've seen a different dynamic emerge: winning and culture may not always trump the money, but they've certainly fared better than marketing opportunities.
Kevin Love went back to Cleveland to finish his business, choosing Ohio over Los Angeles and other destinations. Monta Ellis reportedly turned down several million dollars more from the Kings to join a Pacers team with playoff aspirations and a solid foundation. Danny Green took what looks like a hometown discount to stay with the Spurs and Paul Millsap negotiated a shorter deal to stay with the Hawks.
Monroe chose the Bucks and on paper this looks like a very good fit. His strengths -- scoring and rebounding -- happen to be their weaknesses and his liabilities as a defender will be mitigated by all those long, switching teammates surrounding him. Note that Monroe isn't a disinterested defender as much as he's just limited in that area. The guy gives a solid effort and is particularly strong on the defensive glass. He's not going to be cast as a savior in Milwaukee, as much as a strong piece of an intriguing puzzle.
The Bucks have come a long way since those dark days of 2014. They have new owners and possibly a new building on the way. They also have a dynamic core, a smart coach, a sharp front office and now a prized free agent on board. Other teams may have done better this summer, but few have raised their profile like the Bucks. They're the poster children for the modern NBA: run your team right, draft well, develop players and you too can make a big free agent score in July.