In a league featuring many of the greatest athletes in the world, there is no shame in losing to superior teams. The key to success in the NBA often is to beat the teams you are supposed to beat and be able to raise your level of play to surprise better ones frequently enough that a playoff run becomes possible.
So in assessing the current state of the Bucks, the problem is not so much that they have now dropped three straight and 12 of their last 16 games, as many of the defeats have been at the hands of accomplished playoff teams. Rather, the issue is that this team, as presently constituted, appears to have no viable way to make serious noise in the second half of the season.
What was a sinking feeling at earlier points in the schedule is now a harsh reality after this frustrating three-game road trip: These Bucks are neither good enough nor sufficiently cohesive to compete with the upper echelon of the NBA.
As I chatted with some former colleagues before Tuesday’s game, I sensed a subdued mood; a feeling that something, anything had to be done to spark the team before the trade deadline. That seems abundantly clear now that Ersan Ilyasova’s tip-in that saved victory against the Wizards turned out to be the caffeine high before the crash.
If management conducted a focus group to help find the answer, several suggestions would emerge. Trade Jackson. Fire Skiles. Play Tobias Harris and Jon Leuer more to see what you have. Tear the whole thing down and start over. But realistically speaking, there is no quick fix.
It is true that the rookies should play more, and Skiles inserted Harris in place of Shaun Livingston Saturday. Harris brings energy and athleticism but is raw. Leuer has been generally effective but is sometimes lost defensively. The two will only get better by playing, but in a city that is already counting the days to Opening Day, the Bucks would have to carefully balance a youth movement with the perception they were tanking the rest of the season.
GM John Hammond would surely love to move the disgruntled Jackson, but who would want him, and whose bad paper would the Bucks have to take on in return? Jackson is owed $10.5 million next season. I’d recommend issuing walking papers and eating the money, but owner Herb Kohl despised doing that with Anthony Mason. Thus, the Bucks will likely use their amnesty clause on Jackson in the offseason if “Trader John” can’t find a partner.
Kohl isn’t dismissing Hammond, a smart man just two seasons removed from the Executive of the Year award. The GM has made mistakes but is worth keeping. The day may be nearing, however, where Hammond will have to decide the future of the coach he hired.
Frustration has been evident on Skiles’ face lately. His comments following Wednesday’s come-from-ahead loss to Boston are those of a man perplexed about why his team can’t sustain solid basketball throughout most games. Things only got worse in Atlanta and Orlando.
Though Skiles was right to raise the matter of leadership, that starts with the coach. I know it vexes him that the same team that played so well against the Lakers and Heat earlier this season has since stubbed its toes against the Pistons and Hornets. He has certainly tried enough different combinations in the search for consistency. It’s unfair to blame the coach for everything (especially injuries), but it also is fair to wonder if the players are tuning him out. It happened in Phoenixand Chicago, and Milwaukee has regressed since the feel-good spring of two years ago. Skiles is 129-154 (.456) with the Bucks- not a record that gives him much equity if the losing continues.
Hammond isn’t the type to make a coaching change midseason, and he probably will have to settle for minor roster tweaks. But something needs to change soon, or else you will hear the sound of pins dropping in the Bradley Center by April.