By Frank Hughes
July 15, 2010

While the rest of the basketball world was fixated on the destinations of the Big Three free agents, Bucks general manager John Hammond quietly went to work.

Hammond orchestrated an overhaul of last season's surprise team, signing free agent Drew Gooden to a long-term contract, trading for Golden State's CoreyMaggette, re-signing John Salmons to an extended deal and putting the Bucks in a position to be a playoff team for the foreseeable future.

"Our basic plan was, if possible, not to take a step backward because we had the unexpected success this [past] year," Hammond said. "The opportunity to get in the playoffs, the opportunity for [point guard] Brandon Jennings to participate in the playoffs for the first time was invaluable. So we said to ourselves: If we can get back, let's do it."

Where exactly the moves place the Bucks among the hierarchy remains to be seen. They finished sixth in the Eastern Conference last season, a game behind the Heat, who obviously improved with the additions of James and Chris Bosh around Dwyane Wade. Cleveland, which finished first, got worse, and Chicago, which finished eighth, improved in signing free agents Carlos Boozer and KyleKorver. That means the Bucks may have stayed in lockstep with the rest of the conference, right on the cusp of earning home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs -- far better than they anticipated before Jennings' emergence as a star in his rookie season.

Of course, none of this matters if Milwaukee does not get back a healthy Andrew Bogut, who was producing 15.9 points, 10.2 rebounds and 2.5 blocks before that nasty fall against the Suns in April, which resulted in elbow, wrist and hand injuries that ended his season.

Team doctors have told Hammond that they expect the center, who is in Australia rehabbing his elbow and waiting for his finger to heal, to be 100 percent by the start of the season. What Hammond hopes is that Bogut comes back to find he doesn't have to do as much on the interior with the help of 6-foot-10, 250-pound Gooden, who signed a five-year, $32 million deal with Milwaukee.

The thing that stands out about Gooden is that he'll be playing for his ninth team in nine years, which is typically a red flag for a player lacking skills, having a difficult personality or some combination of the two that makes him a poor chemistry guy. Otherwise, it seems, he would have found a home in Memphis, Orlando, Cleveland, Chicago, Sacramento, San Antonio, Dallas or Los Angeles with the Clippers.

"We tried to do our due diligence and talked to the teams he played for," Hammond said. "We never heard any issues with Drew. For the most part, Drew is a player who gets moved because of particular reasons. If you are in that category, if you are a good player in a good contract, your value may be high on that basis. He is close to a double-double player and he had a favorable contract so he got moved a lot.

"He is in the prime of his career, for the most part. He is a starter who has done a lot in his career. Once free agency irons itself out, if you look at the contract we signed him to, I think it will be a fair contract for both parties."

Hammond also gambled on trading for Maggette, sending Dan Gadzuric and Charlie Bell to Golden State for one of the stronger one-on-one players in the NBA. With the Warriors, "strong one-on-one player" was a euphemism for black hole; if the ball ever left the hands of Monta Ellis in Golden State, it was rarely going to get past Maggette, who averaged 19.8 points and 5.3 rebounds last year while shooting 51.6 percent from the field. But the stat that most impressed Hammond was Maggette's 7.9 free-throw attempts per game.

"If you look at numbers, we were at the bottom or near the bottom in free-throws attempts per game. We could not get to the free-throw line," Hammond said. "We defend well, we rebound very well, but we shot the three well and began to rely on that too much. The one thing Corey does do for us, he does help us get to the free-throw line.

"We are fortunate to have Scott Skiles as a coach, and he will be the first one to tell you we need to have someone to create shots for themselves and at the same time get to the free-throw line. The black hole theory? Some guys like Corey do hold the ball a little long and force the action, but it is necessary to get to the line sometimes. That is something we will live with."

Essentially, Hammond has identified players who are viewed as weak links on their current teams and has found a niche for them on the Bucks. That's what he did when he acquired Salmons from the Bulls in a February trade-deadline deal, allowing Chicago to clear cap space for this summer's free agency. While Chicago barely made the playoffs as the eighth seed, the Bucks leapfrogged to sixth, with Salmons averaging 19.9 points in his 30 games with Milwaukee, helping the Bucks to 22 wins, including two six-game winning streaks. It was for that reason the Bucks re-signed Salmons to a five-year, $40 million deal, locking him in place next to Jennings.

While Hammond looks to fill the void of backup point guard left by the departure of Luke Ridnour, who agreed to a four-year, $16 million deal with Minnesota, his primary focus will be Jennings' improvement.

"For us to go from good to even better than good, or to take the next step, it is going to come down to Andrew Bogut and Brandon Jennings," Hammond said. "As those guys continue to improve, we will have the opportunity to improve and become more a playoff-type team. I don't mean to rest the responsibilities on their shoulders, but at the end of the day, that is where it is for our team and our organization.

"Brandon does need to be more efficient. You hope now, as we become a better team, he needs to improve, which may mean his numbers need to come down. But if you tell him fewer shots, fewer points, but that converts to more wins and being more efficient, I think he would take that any day."

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