How many NBA players, given the choice of working almost anywhere, would spend their winters in Wisconsin -- with a team that hasn't won a playoff series in 13 years or appeared in prime time since Cronkite, and has sat on the market longer than a foreclosure?
That'll be the summertime decision facing J.J. Redick, Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings. The three-guard rotation has been making noise lately, connecting quickly together for the Bucks. They've each found a way to bond peacefully and elevate the Bucks into playoff territory in the East. They also share something else in common: They can walk in July as free agents. They can enhance the perception of Milwaukee as a nice place to make your name but no place to stay and waste your fame.
"It's a tricky situation for us," said John Hammond, the general manager. "It's something we're going to have to work our way through. We'll address it when the time comes and hopefully we'll have some good results."
For the A-list player with options, the Bucks don't exactly scream destination, do they? They're a small market Midwest team lacking a rich history, and feeling little momentum today except for the occasional gust off Lake Michigan. In more than one way the Bucks are stuck in the middle of nowhere. For a decade they've been too weak to contend for a title, too good to bottom out and grab a high draft pick for their misery. That's no-man's land, the dead zone in the NBA.
You want ho-hum? Here's ho-hum: 41, 42, 41, 30, 40, 28, 28, 34, 46, 35, 31. That's not the winning Powerball ticket. That's how many wins the Bucks have managed each season after 2001, when Ray Allen and Big Dog came a game short of the NBA Finals. The next year, they choked spectacularly and historically, dropping from first place to missing the playoffs in a six-week flameout, and the skid was on.
Since then: No titles, not even a division. No award winners, either, which is really amazing. That's right, 0-for-rookies of the year, MVPs, All-NBA-ers, most improved, executive, coach, defensive, sixth man, you name it. They haven't even won an in-house award. The last player to have his jersey retired was Junior Bridgeman, and he was done in 1987.
The forgotten franchise, that's what the Bucks are. Owner Herb Kohl, the beloved former senator, who might be the most giving person in the state, has never gotten any bling from the Bucks, never had the pleasure of lifting a trophy of any kind. No wonder the team's been for sale for years, with the condition the Bucks must stay in Milwaukee, which has undoubtedly chased away a potential buyer or two. Kohl left political office in January after 24 years on Capitol Hill and the feeling is that at age 78, he's now ready to make one last run with the Bucks.
The NBA's last labor deal was constructed mostly with teams like the Bucks in mind. They break even partly because of market and arena issues, but in the case of the Bucks, they just can't find a franchise player. The last one was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and he forced his way out of town 40 years ago. Allen came closest and they traded him in order to showcase Michael Redd, who soon needed multiple knee surgeries.
The best way to get a franchise player is through the draft, and when the Bucks were finally lucky enough to get the No. 1 pick, the best player was Andrew Bogut; nice, but not a game-changer. There are big hopes for Larry Sanders, the No. 15 pick in 2010, who leads the NBA in blocked shots but needs plenty of polish. And so they find themselves at another crossroad, trying to keep a few good players from fleeing in order to stay competitive on the court and flexible enough under the cap to possibly buy a big-name free agent in 2014.
Here's what they're up against with Redick, Ellis and Jennings:
Redick. The only true unrestricted free agent of the trio, he'll be in demand if his asking price is reasonable. His first four years were disappointing. He wasn't in shape, couldn't stay on the floor because he was a defensive liability and his meal ticket -- a jumper with range -- was streaky. The last two years Redick toned his body, shot 40 percent on threes, improved his dribble game and made a better effort on defense.
On a winning team he'd be an ideal sixth man, and on a developing team he might be a full-time starter, which would be a first for him. Anyone who needs a player who can stretch the floor and is still in his prime will have Redick, age 28, on radar. Shooters are always high on the shopping list because they give an extra dimension and they tend to last a long time.
But in Milwaukee, Redick would be in a market similar to Orlando, where there wasn't much pressure, and depending on what the Bucks do with the other two, they could make Redick a starter. Which is what he wants, besides money.
"We traded for him because we knew he could give us another option in the backcourt, and I would put our trio of guards with a lot of other trios in the NBA," said Hammond. "When you've got a good thing like that, why wouldn't you want to keep it?"
Ellis. He holds an option next season at $11 million and the feeling is mixed whether Ellis opts in or out. Does someone give him four years and $40 million? Then he goes, especially if he feels there's a better chance to win elsewhere.
Scouts run hot and cool about Ellis. He's never been an All-Star, is small (6-3) for a two-guard and doesn't see the floor well enough to be a top-10 point guard. Some scouts also believe his best seasons were left in Golden State, where he was a volume scorer who averaged 25.5 and 24.1 in back-to-back years. He lacks three-point range (30 percent or less the last two years) and his shooting percentage has dipped every year since 2007-08.
But Ellis is still aggressive and feisty and not afraid of the big moment, and will only be 28 next season. In the right situation he can average in the high teens and cause migraines for a defense. In that sense, Ellis would make an ideal complimentary scorer to, say, Dirk Nowitzki, or maybe even a perfect sixth man if he'd agree to that role.
"He's carried our team, in terms of continuing to compete at a very high level," Hammond said. "He makes us better."
The Bucks need scoring, so obviously they see value in Ellis, who quickly became a fan favorite. It's all about his asking price and if he enjoys bratwurst and a cold frosty one.
Jennings. He wants a bigger market but doesn't control his destiny because he's restricted, and it's likely the Bucks will match any offer if only to keep an asset. Jennings is a flashy playmaker who makes up for being pipecleaner-thin. He's thrilling even when he makes mistakes, which is often, especially when he decides to shoot. With Jennings you suffer through the three-for-12 nights and wonder why a career 39-percent shooter insists on trying to be a scorer. And then when he hits a big jumper late in games, you know why. He always thinks the next shot is going in, even after seven straight misses.
Coach Jim Boylan finally got through to Jennings and told him his greatest value is as a pass-first playmaker, and suddenly Jennings and the Bucks became more efficient. After getting 17 assists combined in his previous three games, Jennings had 19 against the Raptors and followed up with 17 against Utah. Boylan said: "I talked to him about a guy like Chris Paul. Night in and night out he's a major factor, but his stats are always a bit different. Sometimes he's scoring 12 points and getting 15 assists, sometimes 20 points."
Even with his lapses, Jennings would start on a number of teams. He's only 23 and should get wiser. The Mavericks could come hard after Jennings but again, because they're well under the cap without any hefty contracts on payroll, the Bucks can match anything for Jennings.
So it's up to Redick, Ellis and Jennings to make Milwaukee a destination, and also up to Kohl. He almost sold the Bucks to Michael Jordan five years ago. Maybe Kohl's biggest sell is convincing big-name free agents to consider the Bucks. Will any take Kohl's money? They haven't yet. Would you? We'll see in the next few summers.
"We have flexibility," Hammond said. "We're not going to have any tax implications. We feel comfortable where we're at. Senator Kohl will do what's necessary to win games."