For yet another season, Milwaukee general manager John Hammond is attempting to buck the trend, fight the system, and beat city hall, or in basketball terms, lead the Bucks to the playoffs with a roster full of draft picks, prospects from other clubs, and players acquired in trades.
Milwaukee is generally not on the list of many top free agents. It is not a destination location for a player in his prime looking to cash in on previous success and live a lavish lifestyle. The Bucks are a prime example of a smaller-market team, a place from which players look to depart for Miami, New York, or Los Angeles. They tend not to go there.
However, the biggest mistake any Eastern Conference contender can make this season is to ignore the Bucks as a formidable opponent. Through Hammond’s workmanlike ways, the Bucks have put together an intriguing roster with players acquired through trade (Monta Ellis, Samuel Dalembert, Ekpe Udoh), through the draft (Brandon Jennings, Tobias Harris), and in underpublicized signings (DrewGooden, Ersan Ilyasova).
For years the Bucks banked on former No. 1 overall pick Andrew Bogut, hoping the Australian would turn into the kind of superstar the Thunder got in Kevin Durant and the Bulls in Derrick Rose, but Bogut couldn’t stay healthy. He couldn’t stay on the court and he was finally dealt to the Warriors for Ellis and Udoh. Bogut is still not completely healthy.
Hammond is pushing forward with no-nonsense coach Scott Skiles and a retooled roster that is undeniably talented if not star-studded. This is the way the Bucks have to operate, because they are not likely to compete with large-market teams for superstars, no matter how much salary-cap space they have.
“We do feel we’re one of those teams that, if we do remain healthy and if our team fits together, we’ll be a competitive team and a team that vies for a playoff position,” said Hammond, a former Pistons executive. “I don’t think [chemistry] will be a problem for us.
“If you look at our roster, we have our team core back from last season. We are a young team. A lot of people say it’s difficult to win with young teams, but I say we still have enough veteran guys that can help us that we can be successful.”
An unheralded player who could be critical to the Bucks’ success is Harris, a 20-year-old swingman who left Tennessee following his freshman season when former coach Bruce Pearl was facing allegations of NCAA violations. A blood disorder cost Harris the first six games of the lockout season, and he played sparingly under Skiles, averaging 5.0 points in 42 games.
Harris appeared much more comfortable and confident in summer league play, and looks to make an impact this season. Milwaukee is still waiting for Harris and former lottery pick Larry Sanders to become more consistent. Harris started Milwaukee’s first three preseason games.
“Tobias didn’t have much of a chance to learn on the fly,” Hammond said. “I felt like when he first took the court at summer league, it was our first real opportunity to see him. He’s looked good in training camp.
“This is really his first full year in the league, but the future is bright for him, extremely bright.”
Milwaukee potentially could run opponents ragged with the backcourt of Jennings and Ellis. Jennings (19.1 points per game last season) will be playing for a contract, as the Bucks passed on offering him a long-term extension, while Ellis (20.4) has been on the cusp of All-Star level for three years but has to prove he is more than a high scorer on a downtrodden team.
Coming to Milwaukee allowed Ellis to return to his natural shooting guard position after the Warriors attempted to play him at point for years.
“If you asked Brandon and Monta today, they’d probably say, ‘We’re comfortable now,’ ” Hammond said. “When we traded for Monta, he’s a guy who scored through his career. But we realized he’s a good passer, a willing passer.
“People look at Brandon and think he’s a scoring point guard. And he’s that because he’s had to score for us since his rookie season. I keep saying this: The better players we put around Brandon, the more effective he’s going to be as a true point guard.
“You put those guys together with the abilities they have, I think they’re going to fit together very well.”
The Bucks drafted a player they view as a potential defense-changing center in North Carolina big man John Henson, who will be tutored by Dalembert and Joel Przybilla. Over the summer, Hammond plucked Dalembert from the Rockets, who were looking to clear salary-cap space to pursue Dwight Howard.
And the Bucks quietly brought back Ilyasova, a Turkish prospect who averaged 16.1 points and 9.1 rebounds after the All-Star break. Hammond was able to sign the 25-year-old to a four-year, $32 million deal, below market value for that production.
Hammond has to work twice as hard as his big-market brethren to field a competitive team. Money and location are always factors, but Hammond continues to build teams that can compete if healthy. The organization finally got tired of Bogut’s crippling injuries and decided it could no longer try to build the team around him.
“The way to go if you are a small-market team is to have a deep team like an Indiana or Utah,” small forward Mike Dunleavy said, “if you aren’t fortunate to have a superstar. We have a lot of depth, 1 through 15.”
So the Bucks are not starting over but retooling with limited resources, hoping that this combination of players gathered in creative ways can bring surprising success.
“There is a reality of [being small-market] and the reality is you work yourself through that process,” Hammond said. “I hope that we’re in a favorable position now and I think we have a team with a lot of good assets on it. Those assets could be expiring contracts. Those assets could be young players with value. Another asset we have, I think we have a favorable salary structure. We’re not in a position where we’re pushed to the cusp of the tax.
“The goal today is not to make trades. The goal today is to try to find a way to keep some of these young pieces together and build with this young nucleus but continue to keep a fair salary structure that will give us flexibility to change and improve this team.”
Lakers hope to be a mesh unit
Dwight Howardis close to making his debut with the Lakers. The big man has been practicing the past few weeks after missing the Olympics following surgery to repair a herniated disk.
Howard may make his debut Sunday night against the Kings, or perhaps not until the Oct. 30 regular-season opener against the Dirk Nowitzki-less Mavericks, but he is already relaying a message to his teammates about his potential defensive impact.
“The biggest thing is we don’t have to gamble,” said Howard. “That’s the one thing I told those guys — don’t gamble. We’re solid on defense, we work hard for 24 seconds on defense and then we’re out.
“That’s when you put everybody else in bad predicaments, when you do gamble. But when we’re solid, we have some great defenders on the wing. We have some great defenders on the post. So there’s no need to gamble. We all just have to trust our instincts and play the right way.”
The relationship between Howard and Metta World Peace could be critical to the Lakers’ chances of overtaking Oklahoma City and reaching the Finals. And in his own unique and mercurial way, World Peace said he is ready for a bounce-back season after physically struggling during the lockout year.
“You know the importance of every day and how you take care of your body,” he said. “You know the importance of summer time. Although I party a lot, I do focus and I do know what I have to do. Especially in July, I partied a lot, but at the same time I wanted to focus on my body.
“It was important that after the season I went into the summer, I wanted to set a strict strategic schedule on how I am going to come back this season and it’s paying off. I am moving well. I am able to go coast-to-coast a little bit.
“It’s a whole different approach to my job to see how long that I can do this thing. My body has changed a lot.”
World Peace has had trouble meshing with certain teammates over the years — including former Celtic Jermaine O’Neal, whom he feuded with while with the Pacers — but he said he respects Howard as a premium defender.
“Dwight is the leader on the defensive end and he says he wants us to talk more and not gamble as much,” World Peace said. “So I’m definitely trying to listen to Dwight. He’s a very smart defensive player.
“Everybody on this starting five has been the man on their team, which is amazing. The Rock Stars. It’s kind of fun, but at the same time guys are working really, really hard. Steve [Nash] is the oldest guy in the starting lineup but he’s moving well, like he’s 25 years old. You’ve got to give the starting five some credit.”
The question with the Lakers is the bench, which features Chris Duhon, Earl Clark, AntawnJamison, Chris Douglas-Roberts, and Jordan Hill. Can this group give the starters any type of relief? So far they have struggled during the preseason.
Rivers is wary of ‘payback’
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski is stepping down as the US national coach, and there are three candidates who have emerged to succeed him: Celtics coach Doc Rivers, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, and 76ers coach Doug Collins, who was a member of the 1972 team that lost in controversial fashion to the Soviet Union in Munich.
USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo told the Globe in May that Rivers was on his radar, but Rivers is publicly lobbying for Collins to get the position.
Rivers privately is intrigued by the possibility but is wary of the effect it would have on his relationships with the players.
“Honestly, I think that’s a hard job for an NBA coach,” said Rivers. “First of all, hopefully you’re playing in June, and college coaches are done in March. They have a lot more time to prepare.
“The biggest difference for a college coach is that the seven players that they don’t [start] can never get back at them. If I did become the coach, the seven guys I didn’t play, I would just have to prepare when we play them in the regular season — they are going to try to score 50 on me. You’ve just got to endure that.”
Larry Brown, the Olympic coach for the 2004 bronze medal team, said those players who felt slighted by lack of playing time took it out personally against his Pistons.
“The funniest part for him,” Rivers said, “is he named his starting lineup and the other seven guys said, ‘No problem, no big deal.’ And then when they played him in the regular season, they were pointing at him, ‘I’m going to kill [your team].’ That’s the tough part.”
While Rivers would seriously consider the job — which could bring with it a chance to coach his son Austin in 2016 (he will be 24 and just finishing his fourth NBA season) — he appears to be pulling for Collins to get it.
“Doug would be great,” Rivers said. “When you think about the history of that. My uncle was on that  team, Jim Brewer, and I visually saw the hurt first-hand. That still hurts them.
“Listen, I think whoever is the best guy that fits whatever team to help it win is the guy.”
Collins said he has been flattered by the push from other coaches but he feels Rivers or Popovich would be a good choice. Colangelo is expected to pare down his list in the coming months. The next major event involving NBA players is the 2014 World Championships in Madrid.
League adds to replay calls
League officials will use replays for three additional calls this season. Officials will review plays in which defensive players may have taken charges but were in the restricted area under the basket. If by review an official finds the player was in the restricted zone, he can change the call to a blocking foul.
They will also call for reviews of goaltending in the final two minutes of games, and all flagrant fouls will be reviewed to assess their classification. Flagrant fouls called during games can never be downgraded to personal fouls but can be downgraded from a Flagrant 2 to a Flagrant 1, for example.
Also, officials will emphasize the “Reggie Miller rule” for a shooter who kicks his legs out during jump-shot attempts to create contact and draw fouls. Officials plan to call offensive fouls on shooters who blatantly kick out their legs to initiate contact.
Officials will also be more aware of the “Respect the Game” rule, being more stringent on players who show an excessive amount of emotion arguing calls or attempt to delay the game while protesting. Finally, officials will lighten up on calling technical fouls for players who throw the ball against the stanchions.
A few years ago, the league sought to crack down on players who threw the ball against the stanchions in frustration. Now, officials said, they will only call technicals on players who disrupt the game or toss balls that distract fans.
There is already adverse reaction from the NBA’s announcement that teams have 90 seconds after the lineups are announced to step onto the court for the opening tip. The league wants to reduce pregame antics such as elongated handshakes and veritable “Soul Train” lines that currently occur before tipoff.
Blatche is shaping up
One of the league’s biggest surprises — and perhaps the No. 1 candidate for Comeback Player of the Year — could be Brooklyn’s Andray Blatche, who reported to camp in top shape after years of subpar conditioning with the Wizards. Blatche, 26, could become a key player off the bench for Brooklyn. He was jettisoned from Washington for a series of mishaps and says he changed his number to “0” because it was time to start over. It also could be because Joe Johnson wears the No. 7 Blatche wore with Washington, and the No. 32 Blatche wore as a rookie is retired for Julius Erving.
The Timberwolves will lose All-Star forward Kevin Love for two months with a broken hand, and it was revealed that Love broke the hand doing knuckle pushups with the team’s strength and conditioning coach. Love has been a workout fanatic the past two years, and his increased conditioning has been a primary reason for his on-court success. Playing the first two months without Love may cost Minnesota a chance at that eighth playoff slot.
According to the Bovada sportsbook, Rajon Rondo is a 30-1 pick to win the league’s MVP award, Paul Pierce is 60-1, and Kevin Garnett is 500-1. LeBron James is the favorite at 9-5, with Kevin Durant second at 15-4. Jared Sullinger is 30-1 to win Rookie of the Year, while favorite Anthony Davis is 19-10. Durant is even odds to win the scoring title, Love is 5-4 for the rebounding title, and Rondo is 5-2 for the assist title . . . Reggie Theus has been seeking either a front-line Division 1 coaching job or another NBA job but took the next-best option, becoming head coach of the NBDL Los Angeles D-Fenders. Theus had been an assistant coach with the Timberwolves after being fired in Sacramento. He was an effective coach with New Mexico State before taking the Kings job but has been passed over for several jobs . . . Former NBA players Trajan Langdon and Anthony Parker have accepted scouting positions with the Spurs and Magic, respectively. Langdon announced his retirement as a player after leading CSKA Moscow to its ninth straight Russian League title in 2011. Langdon played the last 10 years of his career in Europe after three uneven seasons with the Cavaliers.