The Milwaukee Bucks pulled out all the stops on Halloween night 12 days ago for their home opener, and it worked. The team won in front of a sellout crowd and the night was entertaining from start to finish.
But it was the thing that wasn’t done that day which may prove to be the most interesting basketball decision of the season: the team brain trust chose not to extend 23-year-old point guard Brandon Knight.
Now, this is the second time in two years the team let their point guard head into a "prove it" type season. They didn’t extend a 23-year-old Brandon Jennings prior to the 2012-13 season, something the former face of the franchise was upset about. Jennings played 80 games that year but saw his production dip across the board, from his scoring to his shooting, and honestly the attitude surrounding that team as it backslid into the playoffs was terrible.
If Jennings wanted "franchise" money he definitely didn’t play or act like a franchise leader, even though I was one who went on record that the Bucks should’ve extended him.
Now, I didn’t know we’d be sitting here with new ownership, a new coach, and a new philosophy. I don’t know if general manager John Hammond did either. But he made the right call in not only not extending Jennings, but flipping him in a sign-and-trade to Detroit for Knight at the end of July, 2013. (Jennings has been terrible in Detroit, by the way.)
And it was in that press conference that, for the first time, I heard Hammond talk about championship expectations.
Less than nine months later, Wes Edens and Marc Lasry were introduced as the new owners-to-be of the franchise.
Since mid-April, so much has changed around the organization. Jason Kidd is the head coach. Jabari Parker is on the team. Giannis Antetokounmpo is developing into something other than a GIF. A new arena is around the corner.
And then there’s Knight.
He started slowly last year with hamstring issues, but once he got healthy (I’m going to pick Nov. 27, when he played 30 minutes for the first time after coming back) Knight played in 67 games, averaged 18.9 points and 5 assists per game against 2.6 turnovers, along with 3.1 rebounds, while shooting 42.6 percent from the field.
He then opened 2014-15 with a 22-point, 13-assist effort in the Bucks season-opening loss.
But then the Oct. 31 deadline came and went. Other players from his draft class were extended, even similar players. But not Knight.
Now, the Bucks can still retain him after the year. They can extend him on their own, or match an offer sheet from another team. But there’s inherent risk there – another franchise may value him much more highly than the Bucks and make the money unworkable. Or, like Jennings, Hammond could facilitate a sign-and-trade.
With such options, the Bucks did the right thing.
This new ownership group wants to win a championship. They want 18,000 fans every night in a new arena. And a quiet summer in terms of player acquisition in signing Jerryd Bayless (2 years, $6 million), claiming Kendall Marshal ($915,243) and trading for Jared Dudley (2 years, $8.5 million) and a future first round pick proved that this ownership wants to see exactly what they have before they commit any long term money, to anyone.
There is no rush.
There’s the off court stuff, such as the salary cap likely being pushed to around $80 million or more at the start of the 2016-17 season thanks to a new league television deal. There also could be a strike and/or lockout looming as the players seek to recoup money they lost in the last collective bargaining agreement.
But on the court, Knight seems like he’s better able to handle not being extended than this team’s previous point guard. Would he have liked four years of $48 million guaranteed dollars on Halloween night? Sure. But I think he’ll produce regardless, and he has so far.
It’s not wrong for the organization to see if he can stay healthy for an entire season. It’s not wrong to see if he can cut down on his turnovers and make better decisions. I think he knows that, too.
But I do think the Bucks know what they have in terms of a leader in the locker room and on the court. I think Kidd truly likes him. And, dating back to Nov. 27, 2013, Knight has averaged nearly 19 points and around 6 assists per game over his last 74 games.
The sample size is growing – and at some point, it’s no longer a sample – it is what it is.
"It’s all good stuff," Kidd said of Knight’s play prior to the team’s game against Chicago last week. "Leading the team on both ends, getting into the ball defensively, offensively looking for his teammates, setting the table, setting the pace. You look at a race, a pace car, he’s kind of that guy who gets us going. We’re asking him to do a lot of things, find his teammates, look for his shot and he’s responded in a positive way."
It’s very early in the season of course, and much is left to be seen, but when the first big basketball decision came time to be made, the Bucks made the right one.
Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.
A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.
To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.
Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining OnMilwaukee.com.
In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.
Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.