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Bucks keep sights set on 2011

Sometime this July, a free-agent free-for-all will ensue. Executives from the Knicks, Heat, Nets, Bulls and Clippers will burn up the phone lines trying to persuade the likes of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to defect to their cities. They will charter private jets, pay for lavish meals and do more selling than Willy Loman.

As all this plays out, the Bucks (28-28) will be watching. Not because general manager John Hammond doesn't daydream about James or Wade in a Bucks uniform. Or because coach Scott Skiles doesn't get a little giddy thinking about Bosh teaming with Andrew Bogut on his front line. No, it's because it's not their time. Not yet, anyway.

When Hammond took control of the franchise after the 2007-08 season, the Bucks were a 26-56 team saddled with mediocre players who were locked into ungodly contracts handed out by his predecessor, Larry Harris. The team's spot in the standings suddenly took a backseat to restoring financial flexibility.

"It's the hand we were dealt," Hammond said.

For a while, Hammond worked to serve two masters and marry winning with rebuilding. He shipped former lottery pick Yi Jianlian and Bobby Simmons to New Jersey for Richard Jefferson with the idea that a two-time NBA Finalist with borderline All-Star credentials would shock some life into the roster. When he didn't -- the Bucks saw a six-game improvement in 2008-09 -- Hammond quickly cut ties with Jefferson, trading him to San Antonio for the shorter contracts of Kurt Thomas and Bruce Bowen.

Since then, each of the Bucks' personnel decisions has been geared toward 2011, when the contracts of Michael Redd ($18.3 million next season) and Dan Gadzuric ($7.2 million) come off the books, committing the Bucks to just $18.7 million in payroll. The strategy has necessitated some difficult decisions, such as allowing young talent like Charlie Villanueva and RamonSessions to leave as free agents.

"Unless you are talking about someone really special," Skiles said, "we don't want to interrupt our future flexibility."

With a chilly climate and a downtown more like a county fair when compared to South Beach, lower Manhattan or Hollywood, Milwaukee won't be a desired destination for free agents. Luring a prized player in the summer of '11 is possible -- Carmelo Anthony, Tony Parker and Al Horford could all be on the market -- but a more realistic scenario is trading for a high-profile player in the middle of a multiyear deal.

"That could easily be what is available to us," Hammond said. "Our first two trading deadlines, we haven't had that ability. Next year we could do that. We could trade into that [cap space]."

One All-Star ought to do it because several key pieces are already in place. The Bucks have a budding star in point guard Brandon Jennings and a stud center in Bogut. They have a highly skilled forward in Ersan Ilyasova and a strong wing defender in Luc Mbah a Moute. And they have three picks -- one first- and two second-rounders -- in each of the next three drafts.

Even with the team focused on 2011, the Bucks, unlike other rebuilding teams, have stayed competitive. Through Wednesday, they had won four straight games and occupied the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference. Skiles believes playoff experience -- any playoff experience -- is critical for the growth of the players he has. And with assets like Redd, Gadzuric and newly acquired guard John Salmons ($5.8 million option next season), the Bucks can cherry-pick a well-paid player from the roster of a team looking to slash payroll next season.

And the Bucks will pay. Hammond disputes the notion that any of his recent transactions have been a result of an edict from ownership to cut payroll. He calls all his moves "basketball decisions" and says that despite bleeding red ink and being forced to cover most of the team's losses out of his own pocket, owner Herb Kohl -- one of the wealthiest members of Congress with an estimated personal worth of $215 million in 2008 -- has assured him he will make the necessary financial commitment to turning around the team.

"We have an owner who is committed to winning," Hammond said. "He has proven that. That showed in the salary structure [more than $170 million committed to Redd, Gadzuric and Simmons] we inherited. He was willing to pay whatever it took to put a winning product on the floor. We came in and evaluated things and decided that from where we are at as far as a salary structure, we are not getting back what we should be in regard to win and losses."

Such talk of the future is generally fodder for executives and talk radio, but even the players are getting into it. Ask around the Milwaukee locker room and there is genuine optimism about what the team could look like in two seasons.

"We have some great pieces," Bogut said. "A lot of the guys who are on three- or four-year deals are young guys. Once we get to 2011, we can solidify our starting five and compete with the top teams in our conference."