Without going into too much detail on a month-long hiring search for his team’s vacant general manager position that he admitted may have appeared "a little bit sloppy," and a final decision that was perhaps surprising to many people, Bucks co-owner Wes Edens – representing an ownership group he said was "very united about this" – introduced Jon Horst on Monday with full confidence and a belief that the organization’s talented, experienced staff will help ease the transition for Milwaukee’s new front office leader.
In fact, Edens said, adapting the franchise’s forward-looking mantra, he knew a year ago that Horst, 34, was going to be an NBA general manager someday. Turns out, it just happened a little sooner than expected – in Milwaukee, following a hurried and unideal process after former GM John Hammond left in May to take the same job in Orlando, and despite the presumed successor already being in-house.
"In the end, the choice, for a lot of folks, was a surprise to pick Jon," Edens said, acknowledging the unfamiliarity of Horst, who joined the Bucks as director of basketball operations in 2008, to many outside the organization. "I’d always said John is a GM of the future, and when we considered it all, we said the future is kind of now."
Edens, a private equity investor and hedge fund manager, has made a fortune taking high-risk chances and capitalizing on undervalued assets. Clearly, he saw Horst, who has been closely involved behind the scenes with Milwaukee’s personnel evaluation, salary cap management and contract negotiations, as worthy of investment.
"He’s ready for the job; he’s a very, very talented, very smart guy," Edens said Monday at the Bucks' Schlitz Park offices. "He’s a young guy in this league, but in our financial world, a lot of responsibility comes to a lot of people that are young, so we don’t hold that against him. We were very excited to get together with him, make the decision to offer him the GM and we’re very fortunate that he accepted."
With the franchise’s legion of staff looking on, assembled media listening, players like Thon Maker and Jabari Parker in attendance, the Bucks’ DJ O spinning tracks and his wife Mia sitting proudly in the front row next to team president Peter Feigin, an unassuming-but-excited Horst thanked just about everyone for being there, thanked ownership for the opportunity and called himself a "basketball expert" who was eager to get back to work after a whirlwind weekend.
"Getting the job, you can imagine, right?" Horst said. "Just unbelievable – the emotions, adrenaline, I was running on that for a few days here."
He said there was much to be energized about with the Bucks – the new Downtown arena, the soon-to-open training facility next door, the recently announced D-League team called the Wisconsin Herd and the talented core of players that led the team to the playoffs last season and "is going to lead us to a championship here in Milwaukee."
And the front office, of which he is suddenly and somewhat unpredictably now in charge?
"We’re planning to build and run an operation that’s built on trust, transparency and collective creativity," Horst said. "I truly believe if we follow those core beliefs we’re going to have a high level of success."
Despite Horst’s 13 years of experience as an NBA personnel man, including the last nine with the Bucks, he won the GM job as an almost-out-of-nowhere dark horse – perhaps not even a candidate when the hiring search began nearly four weeks ago. He wasn’t one of the six league executives the Bucks interviewed June 5-6 in New York, nor was he among the finalists brought in to Milwaukee last week. It was widely reported that the final choice was between assistant general manager Justin Zanik –who’d been hired last year as the heir apparent to Hammond – and Nuggets assistant GM Arturas Karnisovas.
After Karnisovas was promoted to general manager in Denver last week, it seemed the position was Zanik’s, but rumors then emerged from league insiders that there was disagreement over him among Bucks ownership. Edens on Monday called Zanik a "very high-quality professional" and a "very talented guy," but said he won’t remain with the team and didn't elaborate on the particulars.
Last Friday, the Bucks officially announced Horst as their new general manager, shocking many fans and media. Horst said he didn’t formally interview for the role as much as have a "long, extended conversation" with Edens and co-owner Marc Lasry.
Both Horst and Edens emphasized the organizational familiarity as a benefit of hiring from within, especially considering the 2017 NBA draft is next Thursday and the Bucks have two selections.
"One of the, I think, many benefits of me being in this position now is I’ve been working on the Milwaukee Bucks’ draft process for this draft for over a year. I’m an internal candidate," said Horst, adding that he’d learned much from Hammond, whom he called a mentor. "Our team has spent tremendous hours preparing for the draft, preparing for free agency. We’re going to get 17 right, we’re going to get 48 right. We’re doing all our due diligence; we’re in a great spot for the draft."
Edens expounded upon the point, reiterating the benefit of Horst as a known quantity.
"Continuity is a big part of success. The nature of the league is you get a big turnover in personnel every year," he said. "That was something that we really focused on. I’m very happy with how it turned out. It was a process that we went through; it may seem like a surprising outcome – I’ve been asked that question by other people. At the end of it all, it was never really a surprise for us."
The Bucks interviewed Horst last year for the assistant GM job that Zanik ultimately got, and "he did really, really well that whole process – I would say surprisingly well," Edens said. After the recent GM search, Edens said, "it was very much a consensual decision on the part of ownership" and "at the end the choice was a very clear one, and we feel really good about it."
When asked about reports of contention among the owners over Zanik – he was believed to have the support of Lasry, another minority owner and head coach Jason Kidd – Edens didn’t directly answer the question, but he talked about difference of opinion being healthy for the club.
"I think it’s a strength of the organization that we feel confident enough that we can ask people what their opinions are," Edens said. "And we don’t always have to agree, that’s a part of it. Sometimes you agree, sometimes you disagree and you move on. At the end of the day, the ownership was very united about this."
The words "process" and "results" were uttered dozens of times during a 15-minute Q&A session between Edens and Horst and reporters. At one point, Edens made a joke about the Philadelphia 76ers’ oft-mentioned motto, "trust the process," which got a lot of laughs and social media buzz; but his response also reflected a broader recognition of the poor optics surrounding the Bucks’ GM search.
"You know, the guys in Philly like to talk about the process an awful lot; me, I’d rather talk about the results," Edens said. "I feel really good about the results here. The process may look like it was a little bit sloppy, but at the end of the day the result is what matters, and we got the right guy for the job. There’s not a lot of handwringing about what we could have done differently.
"It’s a very, very short period of time – a company of this size, hiring someone for this role, it might take you many months to go through a process and vet people, talk to them, whatnot. At the end of the day, we’ve got the draft on Thursday and we need a GM."
The seeming haphazardness of the Bucks’ job search puzzled some people, given how savvy they have been with most of their impressive hires the past few years. Edens mentioned that leadership – including Feigin and COO Mike McCarthy on the business side, Kidd on the basketball court, Troy Flanagan with sports science and performance, Craig Robinson in player development and others – as a resource for Horst, as he begins draft preparations, approaches free agency, builds a staff and oversees the front office.
"When we run a search, the first thing we do is write on a piece of paper all the qualities of the person that we want to hire, and the first thing that you notice when you list those qualities for a GM in the NBA right now is you need a pretty big piece of paper," Edens said. "It’s a complicated job and it’s only gotten more complicated as the sport has gotten bigger; there are a lot of pieces to the puzzle, and really you’re not going to find any one person who fits all those qualifications. That’d be Superman and there’s no Superman here, including Jon, but you try and find the person who’s the best fit for the organization in total.
"Because we have so many high-quality people here, it allows us to have the freedom to look at somebody who’s maybe a little bit younger and a little less experienced – although he has plenty of experience, 13 years in the league is not anything to sniff about."
At the end of the day – one of Edens’ favorite expressions – the Bucks feel good enough about this process to expect good results. Like the new arena that’s rapidly going up Downtown, like the lightning-fast ascension of their rising star Giannis Antetokounmpo, the future of their young general manager is, as the co-owner said, "kind of now."
"We’re a results-driven organization that needs to be all about process and culture," Edens said. "Those are the things we want – and, by the way, the process and culture has a lot to do with your results, so that’s not where it starts, that’s where it finishes. It is about winning championships, and we feel like we made a real step in the right decision here with Jon."
Born in Milwaukee but a product of Shorewood High School (go ‘Hounds!) and Northwestern University (go ‘Cats!), Jimmy never knew the schoolboy bliss of cheering for a winning football, basketball or baseball team. So he ditched being a fan in order to cover sports professionally - occasionally objectively, always passionately. He's lived in Chicago, New York and Dallas, but now resides again in his beloved Brew City and is an ardent attacker of the notorious Milwaukee Inferiority Complex.
After interning at print publications like Birds and Blooms (official motto: "America's #1 backyard birding and gardening magazine!"), Sports Illustrated (unofficial motto: "Subscribe and save up to 90% off the cover price!") and The Dallas Morning News (a newspaper!), Jimmy worked for web outlets like CBSSports.com, where he was a Packers beat reporter, and FOX Sports Wisconsin, where he managed digital content. He's a proponent and frequent user of em dashes, parenthetical asides, descriptive appositives and, really, anything that makes his sentences longer and more needlessly complex.
Jimmy appreciates references to late '90s Brewers and Bucks players and is the curator of the unofficial John Jaha Hall of Fame. He also enjoys running, biking and soccer, but isn't too annoying about them. He writes about sports - both mainstream and unconventional - and non-sports, including history, music, food, art and even golf (just kidding!), and welcomes reader suggestions for off-the-beaten-path story ideas.