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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Sunday, Sept. 21, 2014

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In Sports Commentary

The young members of the Milwaukee Bucks have improved under coach Larry Drew. (PHOTO: David Bernacchi )

Drew deserves chance to turn Bucks around


In just a short time, about nine months actually, we've seen it all on Larry Drew's face. Happiness. Anger. Exasperation. Disappointment. Confusion.

I haven't seen resignation, though.

It's an important distinction as Drew captains the worst team in the NBA to port here in a little over six weeks.

This wasn't supposed to happen, mind you.

"Some people use these words, like 'tanking' so to speak, we're by no means in that mode whatsoever," Milwaukee Bucks General Manager John Hammond said when the team introduced Brandon Knight and Khris Middleton this summer.

"We're trying to remain competitive. We want to be a competitive team and I think we can be a competitive team but also we really want to start focusing on the youth of this team and start talking about things like a championship caliber team and building around the young players that we have on this team. Can they develop into a core like that? I think they can."

Drew, fresh off three consecutive playoff seasons in Atlanta where his Hawks won 44, 40 and 44 games, was brought here to do just that – take a revamped 38-44 team and flip that record while earning a playoff berth.

He had a track record of developing talent too, first as an assistant in Atlanta and then as a head coach.

Point guard Jeff Teague improved in base stats (points, assists, shooting percentage) and in metrics (player efficiency, offensive rating, win shares). So did Josh Smith. Al Horford and Joe Johnson turned into All-Stars under Drew's watch.

It seems like some in Milwaukee have forgotten that. Which is weird, because so many rave about the improvement that Brandon Knight and Nate Wolters have shown.

Knight's efficiency is through the roof (11.7 and 12.0 his first two years in Detroit, 16.5 this year). His win shares are up, too – despite the fact the team isn't winning. His points and assists are up, too. Drew has adjusted to the fact that Knight isn't a traditional point guard, allowing him to play off the ball in certain sets.

Wolters didn't look like an NBA player in training camp. I saw those practices. He looked slow, timid and destined for the D-League. Now? I would go into 2014-15 with him as my backup point guard. That's a credit to many, Wolters first and foremost, but don't think Drew and his staff haven't had anything to do with it.

John Henson's minutes have doubled, but his efficiency is better, his shooting percentage is improved, as has his rebounding and scoring.

Rookie Giannis Antetokounmpo is coming along a little more slowly, as the team figures out where he can and can't play, and what he can and can't do. But of course, we see what he could be.

And Drew is the man who should be charged with getting him there – as well as the potential No. 1 pick.

He gets it. He knows that people are calling for his head. But he's not out there looking for "endorsements" or validation of the remaining two years on his deal.

"I'm not even concerned about that," Drew said as the team came out of the all-star break. "I think right now I'm just trying to keep things in perspective as far as who we are, where we are. I don't concern myself with things I can't control. I try to keep my eyes on the task and the task is just coaching this team and as long as I'm in this line of work there are going to always be rumblings when things aren't going well. I've spent over 30 years on this level and in this league and I don't concern myself with those type things."

And he shouldn't. He's a proven coach, and a proven winner. And, more importantly, he knows how to rebuild a franchise.

Shortly after retiring as a player, he joined the Los Angeles Lakers coaching staff, and that team dipped (by its standards) with back-to-back losing seasons in 1993 and 1994. After that, its average finish was 24 games under .500. That's L.A. you say. Guys named Kobe and Shaq helped that along.

OK, I'll give you that.

So let's look at Washington. His first year, under head coach Leonard Hamilton, the Wizards won 19 games. They won 37 games each of the next two years before the staff was jettisoned.

Then, after a one-year stopover in New Jersey, he was on to Atlanta under head coach Mike Woodson. That first Hawks team went 13-69 in 2004-05. By the time Drew took over for Woodson in 2010, the Hawks had improved with 26, 30, 37, 47 and 53 wins. Woodson gets credit, as do the player personnel departments for drafting well. But Drew gets some credit. And he saw how it was done.

So why can't he do it here?

I think he can, and I don't think Bucks owner Sen. Herb Kohl and Hammond should forget why they hired him in the first place, despite the oddity that this season has become.

Now, Drew isn't without fault here. He has to constantly address intangible issues such as energy and effort. The Bucks have looked awful at times coming out of halftime, and too often you hear about designed plays being "defended well," leading to undesirable shots and outcomes (though you could say the talent isn't there to execute some of those plays).

But this isn't last year's Bucks team, or the one from the year before. Some might point to the fact that there was discord with veterans in the locker room that was aired publicly, but not a single player (that I'm aware) of has spoken ill of Drew.

To me, I see a coach who has kept his promise by meeting and speaking with players. I see a guy who has adjusted his thinking and schemes and put players in positions to succeed. I see young players who the organization – at this point – deem valuable to the future, improve.

Let's be clear, here. There is no plan for a four-year rebuild. Next year's team and next year's coach will be charged with making the playoffs next year while continuing to develop Knight, Antetokounmpo, Henson, Larry Sanders and whoever the top draft pick is.

Drew is that guy.


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