The NBA's biggest surprise this season? The Milwaukee Bucks.
MILWAUKEE -- Marc Lasry needs a T-shirt. Or a sweater. Or a hat. Or anything with a Bucks logo. Last month, before a game against the Pistons, the Milwaukee co-owner wandered around the BMO Harris Bradley Center. Recognizing him, fans asked: "Where’s your gear?" Eventually, a staffer was dispatched to the locker room and returned with a sweatshirt that Lasry yanked on over his dark designer suit.
It’s all a learning process for Lasry, the billionaire hedge fund manager turned Nets minority owner (about three percent) turned Bucks controlling owner. Lasry and his partner, Wesley Edens, purchased the moribund franchise for $550 million last May, on the heels of Milwaukee's league-worst season. Lasry admits the record price was steep but one that seemed like (relative) peanuts when the Clippers sold for a whopping $2 billion in August.
“In our minds,” Lasry said, “it justified what we paid.”
Lasry knew buying the Bucks meant embracing a rebuilding process, on multiple levels. On the court, the Bucks needed work. It’s why Lasry was the driving force behind poaching Jason Kidd from Brooklyn last summer. Lasry firmly believes that Kidd, a longtime friend, has the tools to be a great coach. And while he admits the process was bungled -- general manager John Hammond and then-coach Larry Drew were in the dark about the hire until the news broke publicly -- he makes no apologies about pursuing the man he deemed the best fit for the job.
“You have to change the culture,” Lasry said. “You need to have the best-in-class basketball operations. You have to establish a winning tradition, and that takes time to build. We brought Jason in because we wanted someone who was a winner, who demanded excellence, who wouldn’t tolerate anything less. The last thing we wanted was to end up with the status quo.”
The Kidd hire has produced results. The Bucks have nearly as many wins this season (11) as they did in an injury-ravaged 2013-14 season (15). Kidd has empowered last season’s rookie surprise, Giannis Antetokounmpo, with more ball-handling responsibilities, begun the development of high-ceiling rookie Jabari Parker and installed a system that has turned the NBA’s No. 29 defense into the 10th-ranked unit in points allowed per possession. It’s early, but with the demise of the Knicks, Hornets and Pacers, Milwaukee is in prime position to compete for a playoff spot.
“If we were to do [the coaching change] again, we would do it differently,” Lasry said. “But we still would have hired Jason.”
A common question about the Bucks is, pardon the pun, where the buck stops. Hammond is the GM, but it is widely perceived around the league that Kidd, because of his relationship with Lasry, has the final say on personnel. Not so, says Lasry. For the Bucks, Lasry envisions a partnership between Kidd and Hammond in which both agree on a move or it isn’t made.
“I don’t want John to say we need to do something and Jason to say the opposite, and then there is a fight,” Lasry said. “If John wants to do something, Jason should be on board. If Jason wants to do something, John should be on board. That’s how we do it in our business, that’s how we want to do it here.”
I’m not a big believer that one person should make the decision. It should be collaborative. Wes and I, the way we do our partnership is if we don’t agree, we can’t do it. If Wes can’t convince me he’s right or if I can’t convince Wes, we make a decision by not doing anything. It’s the same way here. When people know that, they know you need to work together as a team."
Still, Milwaukee can't approach every decision this way. If there is a difference of opinion on, say, a draft pick? “We [Lasry and Edens] probably would break it,” Lasry said.
For Lasry, the other challenge is engaging the community. The Bucks have been among the cheapest tickets in the NBA in recent years, in part because of a poor play (the team has not won a playoff series since 2001), in part because of the Bradley Center, one of the NBA's worst arenas. The team has targeted local businesses, pleading with them to get more involved. Asked what he wants from them specifically, Lasry said: “Buy tickets.”
“I send out emails constantly,” Lasry said. “I say, ‘We have a game today, buy 100 tickets.’ A lot of times I hear back, ‘It’s great, but it’s not a big game.’ I know it’s not a big game, it would mean a lot if they could. There are tons of people who want to come. I need [businesses] to start getting involved in the community.
“I hear back, ‘As soon as the team gets going, we’ll get involved.’ So I say to them, ‘Who here has kids? Do you tell your son that you are not going to watch the game until they get good? No, you go.’ Our players want to see people here. If they feel like they have the support, they play harder. The more support you have, the more you feel part of the community. We have an obligation to support the team, to invest in the future. We are going to try to do our best and we would like everyone else to participate.”
As for the arena, Lasry acknowledges its shortcomings. The Bucks' home locker room is outclassed by that of many major college programs, and their practice facility is an annexed building of a Catholic archdiocese. Lasry and Edens have pledged $100 million to build a new arena, as has former owner Herb Kohl. They are still searching for ways to fund the rest, while the location has been narrowed down to three sites. Lasry says they hope to settle on one in the next month or so, after which things should begin to move quickly.
“It is a process, and it’s challenging,” Lasry said. “We are trying to get the best site where we can do the best for the city. For as many people who want you to do something somewhere, there are as many people who don’t want you to do something somewhere.”
Wesley Edens settles into a chair in the corner of a private room tucked under the stands of the Bradley Center. He’s hosting 50 or so local business owners, an event that has drawn NBA commissioner Adam Silver to Milwaukee. Edens, though, is the most popular guy in the room. A recent interview was interrupted every few minutes by attendees walking by to pat him on the shoulder, some to offer praise for the new regime, others to simply say, “Go Bucks.”
Lasry was a minority owner in Brooklyn, but it was Edens who was the point man for buying the Bucks. Growing up in Helena, Mont., Edens dreamed of bigger things. The son of a psychologist father and school teacher mother, Edens gravitated toward baseball and skiing. He was a competitive skier in his region until, he says, “the region got bigger. I loved it, but let’s just say I was in no danger of being a World Cup skier.”
Edens went to Oregon State, majored in finance and graduated in 1984 with no idea what he wanted to do. He knew he didn’t want to be a computer programmer, something he studied extensively in college, and that he liked finance because “it seemed pretty easy.” He wrote dozens of letters to potential employers. One -- Homestead Savings and Loan, based in San Francisco -- wrote back. Just like that, Edens was off to the Bay Area.
Edens began networking with Wall Street investors. “Back then, Wall Street was booming,” Edens said. Soon, he moved to New York, where he eventually landed high-profile jobs at Lehman Brothers and Blackrock Financial Management Inc. In 1998, Edens founded Fortress Investment Group, a $62 billion asset management company that he runs today.
It was his work with Fortress that connected Edens to Allen and Co., the group that Kohl hired to sell the team. Edens was familiar with people at the company from having attended several Allen and Co.-sponsored retreats.
Last January, he got a call: The Bucks are for sale. Would you be interested?
Edens was. A longtime season-ticket holder with the Knicks, Edens dreamed of owning a professional franchise. He toyed with joining a group that attempted to buy an NFL team years ago, but the NBA was his real passion. And when he dug into the finances of owning an NBA team, he discovered getting into the league was a smart investment, too.
“I had no idea how well structured the NBA was until I got into it,” Edens said. “From the salary cap to the luxury tax, to the TV contracts, everything. You could really see the upside. And, of course, it’s basketball.”
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Edens' first call was to Lasry, a longtime friend. Lasry was interested but, Edens says, he was the one aggressively pushing the deal. “I gave Marc a hard time about stepping up,” Edens said. “We had one chance to buy a team that was close to New York, that was a great franchise in a great city.”
To Edens and Lasry, one thing was made clear: If you want the team, you have to keep it in Milwaukee. Kohl, the former U.S. senator who had owned the team since 1985, had no interest in selling to a group that would move the franchise. "If he wanted to sell it to somebody who would have moved the team," Edens said, "I think he could have gotten more for it. He was very clear from the first minute of the first meeting that it was important [for the Bucks to stay put].”
But what if Edens didn’t share that sentiment? Would the Pacific Northwest transplant be tempted to move the team to Seattle, a city ready to build a new arena with a strong fan base eager to embrace a team again? Edens says no. “I don’t want to be the guy who moves a franchise,” Edens said. “People still hate [former Baltimore Colts owner] Robert Irsay. I don’t want to be that guy.”
Edens wants to be well liked in Milwaukee. He wants to be liked by his players, too. Last summer, Edens invited the team to his vacation home in Martha’s Vineyard. He hosted a dinner and the next day rented out a restaurant to discuss the basics of finance.
“Too many guys go bankrupt,” Edens said. “When I was 22, I made a lot of bad decisions. But my early mistakes weren’t fatal ones. When you come into the league at 19, you can’t afford to make bad decisions early. I told them I was rooting for them to get rich because that means the league is going in the right direction. My goal is for them to stay rich.”
In recent years, the NBA has made an effort to create competitive balance. The league has given more advantages to teams that draft well -- most notably by allowing them to re-sign their Bird free agents for one more year and at higher annual raises than rival suitors can -- while increasing revenue sharing and tax penalties for big-market teams. Lasry and Edens understand the challenges of building a winner in Milwaukee but refuse to use them as a crutch.
“I think free agents just want to win,” Lasry said. “If we put together a winner, we will get the guys we want.”
Added Edens: “We’re going to win a championship. Anyone who wants to make excuses that we are not in a big market should just leave now. We don’t want you in the organization.”
Of course, there are obvious pitfalls. Ownership could cede too much control to Kidd, who had zero input on personnel decisions in Brooklyn last season and, according to sources, didn’t seem at all interested in any. Hammond has taken some heat in recent years, but he is widely respected and has a strong track record in the draft (hello, Giannis), where Milwaukee will need to continue to land quality players. Lasrys wants consensus with big decisions, but ultimately Hammond’s voice should carry the most weight. Kidd’s job should be to coach a team freckled with promising players.
Sitting courtside for that recent victory over Detroit, Lasry and Edens watched proof of that potential. Parker, a Chicago native, has declared his interest in spending his entire career in Milwaukee. Antetokounmpo has moved members of his family to the Milwaukee area and has expressed no desire to play anywhere else. It’s been a long, torturous process, but from the court to the owners' box, the Bucks finally appear headed in the right direction.
Scout's Take: Brady Heslip
An Eastern Conference scout on Reno’s Brady Heslip, the NBDL’s leading scorer (33.3 points), who is shooting 54.7 percent from three-point range on 15.1 attempts per game.
"I don’t think he is an NBA guy. He’s the best shooter in the D-League, by far. But he’s a product of Reno's gimmicky, amateurish system. It’s run-and-gun and shoot the first open three. He has the leeway to take ridiculous shots that no NBA team would ever let him take. There is no defense being played. The stats are all inflated. Reno is affiliated with the Kings, and for some reason they hired a Division III assistant coach [David Arseneault Jr.] and wanted him to play this system thinking it would draw fans, instead of using a system that will develop players. They are using the D-League for God knows what reason.
"Heslip is feisty, he’s tough, he plays hard and he’s gritty. But he is 6-2, he can’t play point guard and he’s not athletic enough to do it on defense every night. He can dribble up the floor and initiate the offense, but it’s not going to be pretty. A Norris Cole picks him up full court, an Avery Bradley, and he is not getting it up past half court.
"I don’t see him as a call-up. A guy like Jimmer Fredette can get his own shot off the bounce a little better. Jimmer also plays the pick-and-roll a little bit. The real comparison is Troy Daniels, from last year. He played at Rio Grande, which also played that kind of fast pace. His numbers were inflated. The difference is Troy is a legit 6-4, 6-5. This guy is just too small."
Next page: Knicks in a tailspin, Q&A with Ty Lawson, more
Knicks in an ugly tailspin
The Knicks are not 4-20 -- one game behind Philadelphia in the loss column, by the way -- because of locker room infighting, though it certainly doesn’t help. Carmelo Anthony has denied reports of a rift with Tim Hardaway Jr., but the on-court chemistry among everyone is bad and the body language has been dreadful, according to scouts who have seen New York play regularly.
The Knicks are not 4-20 -- one game ahead of the Sixers in the win column, by the way -- because of the triangle offense either. Yes, the Knicks are brutally inefficient (No. 21 in points per possession) and have what can be described as a casual relationship with the offense (translation: They don’t always run it). They also have core players (such as J.R. Smith and Shane Larkin) who aren’t built to play in it.
The Knicks are 4-20 -- the third-worst record in the NBA, by the way -- because they don’t defend. New York is No. 27 in defensive efficiency. They foul a lot (23.8 times per game, third most), they don’t defend the three (fifth worst) and they are tied with Brooklyn for the fourth-worst rebounding differential (-2.8). The Knicks forked over their best interior defender (Tyson Chandler) to extract Jose Calderon from Dallas, and they are seeing the results of having zero back line defense.
Locker room drama makes for good headlines, and watching New York bungle the triangle makes for good copy. But the Knicks could have the most fluid offense run by the most harmonious roster in the league. Until they step up and defend, though, they aren’t beating anybody.
Five Questions with … Ty Lawson
The Nuggets' point guard is averaging a career-high 10.3 assists to go with 15.9 points.
SI.com: The playmaking -- a natural progression or a more conscious effort on your part to be more of a passer?
TL: "Both, really. I’m being more aggressive. We have great shooting. When I’m out there, teams have to take notice of guys like Arron [Afflalo] stretching the floor. And I want to get people involved early first quarter. I want to try to get seven or eight assists early, then in the second or third quarter get myself going. Last year I thought I was getting myself going too early for us to win games. I also notice that CP [Chris Paul] does that a lot. He will get Blake [Griffin] and DeAndre Jordan going early. It works."
SI.com: That step-back jumper is a go-to move. Where did you learn it?
TL: "When I was young, I watched Allen Iverson do it to escape defenders. I started practicing it when I was 11. It's a tough shot. You have to have a knack for getting space. Kemba Walker does it a lot. He has a crossover and a nice step-back. I'm not going to lie, Kemba does it real nice. The times he used it in college [at UConn], man, they were great."
SI.com: How long did it take you to adjust to the altitude in Denver?
TL: "My first pre-draft workout in Denver, I almost died. Ten minutes in, I felt like I did a whole workout. You get winded. But when I would go somewhere else, when I came back for workouts back in D.C., I felt like I could run forever. I played in 20 straight pickup games. It only took about 2-3 weeks for me to adjust when I started playing here. [Under George Karl] our practices were up-tempo. You had to get a shot off in 10 seconds. That helped us get used to it during games. It’s a big advantage, though. With opponents, you can see shots coming up short in the fourth quarter. We played Miami [on Wednesday, a 102-82 victory], and they were coming off a back-to-back and you could tell [Dwyane] Wade and others were feeling the atmosphere."
SI.com: You guys have been so up and down this year. What’s been going on?
TL: "It’s been an emotional roller coaster. We started out losing six of the first seven, and we’re thinking we might be in the lottery, then we win seven of eight. We were playing well, and then we have a four-game skid. It’s about defense. When we lock in on D, it all flows over. When we force jump shots, we are a totally different team. I put it on me to come out with energy. We can’t allow too many points in the paint or threes, and we have to keep teams off the free throw line."
SI.com: Is the team and Brian Shaw on the same page?
TL: "I think so. At the end of the day, Brian just wants to win. We are all trying to figure out a winning formula. We all want to bring a championship to Denver. We want to run, but we have to have a little bit of both. In the playoffs, we have to slow it down. We have to execute in the half court. I like both styles. And we are versatile with our players. I like half-court basketball. You can hit them with action, decide where you want to go. I never played like this before."
Quote of the Week I
"You m-----f------ are soft like Charmin in this m-----f-----. God damn, is this the type of s--- that's going on in these practices? Now I see why we've lost 20 f---ing games. We're soft like Charmin. We're soft like s---." – Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, during a scrimmage at the end of the Lakers practice on Thursday -- a scrimmage that was opened to the media.
Reminder: We are less than two months into the season.
• MORE NBA: Think Kobe shoots too much? The numbers agree
Quote of the Week II
"I'm supposed to practice and get better, Mitch. I'm supposed to practice and get better. These m-----f------ ain't doing s--- for me." -- More Bryant, this time to GM Mitch Kupchak as he is leaving the practice floor.
Reminder: We are less than two months into the season.
Tweet of the Week
Here, here. The preseason is far too long and reducing the back-to-back’s and four-in-five-nights stretches would significantly improve the quality of play.
Teams continue to look at Denver as an appealing trade partner. The Cavs have been trying to acquire center Timofey Mozgov, and league sources said the Thunder have inquired about swingman Wilson Chandler. … So the Nets are open to trading Deron Williams, Joe Johnson or Brook Lopez? Good luck. … Brooklyn, unable to find a viable trading partner for Andrei Kirilenko, moved the 33-year-old forward, along with guard Jorge Gutierrez, to the Philadelphia dumping grounds for forward Brandon Davies and (surprise) a second-round pick. The Nets plan to keep Davies for a while to see how he fits, per sources. ... Dallas’ offense may be prolific, but Rick Carlisle needs to do something to shore up that defense, particularly beyond the three-point line. The Mavericks are the only team allowing opponents to shoot better than 40 percent from deep. … Kevin McHale takes a lot of criticism, but the Rockets are 8-3 in the last 11 games Dwight Howard has missed with a knee injury. In that conference, missing that player, it’s impressive.