Earlier this month, the Wisconsin Herd began their inaugural season as the Milwaukee Bucks’ G League affiliate team. The Bucks chose Oshkosh’s host-city bid over other finalists Sheboygan and Racine last year, and in March construction began on the privately funded Menominee Nation Arena, where Wisconsin will play its home games.
In July, as part of a front office restructuring, the Bucks named Dave Dean as their vice president of basketball operations and also the general manager of the expansion Herd. Dean, who’s been in Milwaukee’s personnel department for 15 years, spent the next few months assembling a coaching staff, building the roster and – along with Steve Brandes, the team president – preparing for the Herd's first season.
Wisconsin started out 3-1, but due to equipment delays, the Menominee Nation Arena is not yet ready, so the team will play its first three home games at the BMO Harris Bradley Center in Milwaukee. On Friday, the Herd’s 7 p.m. Wisconsin opener against the Windy City Bulls will be free and open to the public (its next two home games will be closed to fans, due to the cost of operating the building). The Herd expects to play its first home game in Oshkosh on Dec. 1 against the Iowa Wolves.
We spoke with Dean in advance of Friday’s game at the Bradley Center about a range of topics, including starting a team from scratch, the thrill and challenge of the unknown, the growth of the G League, which Herd players to watch in Milwaukee and what he thinks of the Bucks and GM Jon Horst.
OnMilwaukee: I remember last year, when the idea was floated that the Bucks were going to have their own G League affiliate and they were looking at different sites in the state, hearing a lot of fans talking about how big Oshkosh and the Fox Valley area was into basketball. How has the Herd been received up there?
Dave Dean: It's been amazing. The fan support, you know, in Milwaukee and around Oshkosh and the communities around Oshkosh, has been really neat. It's been cool to see people wearing our gear, and then people come up to me at a Bucks game or in the Oshkosh area; it's neat that people are really getting behind that team, and hopefully we can make them proud, you know, play the right way every night.
Our business side and our sales staff has done a tremendous job getting out and reaching out to people, and the support we've seen, even just from a season ticket standpoint, has been pretty incredible. And then even something like this, with our Wisconsin opener at the Bradley Center on Friday, the number of people coming down from that area for that game, we're hearing is going to be a pretty big number.
So that's exciting. It shows people that there's an appetite for it, for sure, that they're willing to drive an hour and a half to come support us in our first game is pretty neat.
What's this inaugural season been like in Oshkosh – both the transition for you personally and just getting this team going?
Yeah, it's been really neat. The first thing I say is that it's been a lot of fun, for this reason, for me in particular. I've been with the Bucks for a pretty long time, you know, and I've been very fortunate to learn from a lot of great people and continue to develop in my role within the organization. And when Jon Horst was named general manager and promoted me to vice president of basketball operations for the Bucks and general manager of the Herd, it was really neat.
We’d had some cool conversations about it. He just said, like, "Hey, just kind of take this and run with it." And it was a completely blank canvas. I talk to guys around the G League that have run teams, and the interesting part was not a lot of them started a franchise from scratch. So that's been kind of neat, you know, it really was a blank canvas.
Now, Steve Brandes is huge in that; he's been there and done this in the D League for a long, long time. The things that he was able to just take care of that I didn't even need to worry about was huge. So Steve was a major, major asset for me to just allow me to focus on the basketball side of things. He does our business ops, he's our team president. In the G League, everyone does everything essentially.
What he allowed me to do was, he really focused on maybe even stuff that a general manager might do for the G League team, but in this initial year he just handled a lot of that. Not to bore you with details but, like, what does that look like? How are we busing teams in when they get in the market? What does our hotel look like? What is our player living situation look like? He just handled all that, which was huge for me.
It allowed me to really focus on the expansion draft – making sure we got that right, the regular draft, getting our affiliate players right, helping with getting two-way guys. He allowed me to focus on the basketball portion and putting a staff together, from our coaches to our manager of minor league operations to our basketball ops coordinator up there. Just etting that right this time through, which was huge to build that foundation now, and every year going forward will hopefully be a little bit easier. So that's kind of a brief snapshot of how the last few months have gone, and Steve's been a huge part of that.
What challenges have you run into, what have been the pleasant surprises and what has been exciting about running this brand new thing these first few months?
I would say the biggest challenge is just the unknown of day-to-day stuff, especially in this first year, thinking that you may have everything kind of in place and then something might come up. But especially getting into the arena, you know, it's, like, hey, is this room ready yet? OK, let's get our strength and conditioning equipment in there.
There's all these day-to-day operational things that present challenges in their own way, but nothing that you can't overcome. Something I've been pleasantly surprised, and it's not really a surprise, is Jordan Brady, our head coach, is a really good coach. He's a rookie head coach, but I think he's going to be a very, very good head coach, and it's not just because we started off 3-1, which also was a very good surprise for us.
You never know what you have until it's actually out there on the floor, so to start off 3-1 on a difficult four-game road trip was great. But to watch Coach since our first practice of training camp and to watch how he's operated with these guys, he's got a very, very bright future, and that's really exciting to me.
And just the unknown is pretty exciting; like, to see where this team is now, to see where we might be in two months. For better or worse, it's kind of an exciting thing. It's our job to steer it in the right direction as best we can, knowing that some of the roster moves and transactions that'll happen will either be because of us or maybe not because of us, because players may have a choice to go somewhere else at some point, and if that happens we just have to adjust on the fly and hope we make the best decision possible for the organization.
So that fear of the unknown is also the thrill of the unknown.
Yeah, absolutely, it keeps you awake and energized but in a good way. You're not losing sleep over it but, I mean, you get energized to come into work every single day in that kind of environment.
From left: Herd president Steve Brandes, GM Dave Dean and head coach Jordan Brady.
From a basketball ops standpoint for a minor-league team, it seems like there are constant player transactions in the G League. Is that an accurate assessment and how have you adjusted to that? What is it like on a day-to-day basis, when you're not only managing the guys who are on your roster, in your rotation, but also looking around for the next guy you could add and which guys might be getting called up by the Bucks? What's it like to wear all those hats and manage all that stuff at once?
Yeah, that's a great question and it's funny you say that. I have this thing open on my computer, literally as we speak, it's called PCMS; it's like an operating system that the NBA and the G League uses. And the reason I have it open is I was looking at the most recent transactions that are up, even this morning in the G League. So I see players sign, I see who was waived, and then you can kind of make decisions from there, so I monitor that all the time. I have it on my phone, I have an app on my phone that I'm constantly monitoring.
And your question is a really good one. The players, if they end up deciding to go somewhere else, I can't worry about that too much. Like if we have a player on our roster that has an opportunity to get called up and play for an NBA club or sign a two-way contract or something like that, that's awesome, that's so great. That's exactly what this is about. If a player wants to buy out and go play in Europe, hey, if it's a better situation for them, we'll support that.
The things we can control are exactly what we just talked about a second ago; we can monitor that waiver wire every single day and see who is in the league and who is available, while also being critical and aware of what we have on our roster.
And to me one of the most interesting parts is – that I’m kind of getting used to – you are always looking for a better player at pretty much every spot. But you also realize, and there's a balancing act, there are guys on your roster that absolutely deserve to be on your roster. So you kind of need to figure out at what point is it worth maybe adding a guy that we don't know as well but might have more talent, knowing that you might have to waive a guy you genuinely like and want to have on your roster.
It's a tightrope act a little bit, just figuring out what the right decision is, but sometimes that decision is made because you see a guy and you just know his talent and his upside is. You may not have lived with him the last month, but you know this guy has an opportunity to matriculate up to the NBA level, maybe even the Bucks’ level, and is worth taking a look at. And then you have to waive a guy that you genuinely don't want to waive but you have to look at the big picture.
With the D League becoming the G League and all the Gatorade branding and marketing that's gone into that, it seems like the league has gotten more exposure. It's in more markets and the relationships are closer between the parents and affiliates. Does that change the way players view the league in terms of its appeal? Does the dream of playing in the NBA seem more attainable?
I believe so. This is just our first year of us doing it, so I can't compare it to how it was in the past, but I think so. You get a major sponsor like what Gatorade has done, and now the G League has all their games broadcast on Facebook Live and you're starting to see people really viewing those games, and I believe there's some games on ESPN 2 coming up this year. So, yes.
I think that because of those things, those are all good reasons for players to keep their talent here and play in the G League. I know for a fact, talking to many agents over the last couple months, that there are guys who are turning down pretty lucrative deals in Europe to play in the G League because of what you just said, because of the opportunity. They feel like they're a step away or a call away from playing in the NBA, and that's exciting.
With the creation of these Exhibit 10 contracts now in the NBA, you can give a guy up to a $50,000 bonus to sign a contract, and then you waive them from your NBA roster and put them in the G League and they make their G League salary. All of a sudden these salaries are getting competitive, where a guy is willing to turn down $100,000 to $150,000 in Europe to stay here with a chance. And the two-ways, again, another excellent example of that; essentially there's 60 new NBA contracts this year because of those two-ways.
So these guys, not only do they have the opportunity to play in the G League and make real money doing it, they know that they are literally a phone call away. Like, Gary Payton, you're in Oshkosh, we need you back, boom, it's a phone call. They hop on the freeway, they get down here, they're playing in the game tonight. It's as quick as that.
So to have those two-ways and those Exhibit 10 contract opportunities for these guys is really huge. And even the guys that are on G League contracts strictly, they know that the opportunities within the league, because of the way the league is going and because it's being broadcast more and being talked about more worldwide, not only are there opportunities for them to potentially catch on with an NBA club, but they also have an opportunity to make real money in Europe if things go the right way in the G League. It's expanding. Commissioner (Adam) Silver always says it's a global game, and it really is, and the G League is a great example of that.
What are those non-two-way contract G-League salaries?
So there are two contracts: there's an A Level contract that is $26,000 and a B Level contract is $19,500.
So what those Exhibit 10s do for you – you can have four Exhibit 10 guys – is you can give them up to $50,000, so they get the 50 and then they get the G League salary on top of that. But the majority of players in the G League are playing on just those A or B Level contracts.
How does being just an hour and a half away from the parent club affect the Herd, logistically and organizationally?
I think our location with Oshkosh is actually perfect and I say that for two reasons. One, because logistically if you need to activate a two-way guy for your NBA roster, it's just a simple phone call or text. Our process is I get with Coach (Jason) Kidd and Jon Horst, I get with our player, I get with their agent, I get with coach Brady, and then (the player) gets on the road and comes to Milwaukee. And it's an hour and 15 minutes.
The other thing that's nice about it is not just being right in Milwaukee. If you do want to have a player go and be a part of your G League team, if they're in your same city sometimes there's a tendency to just yo-yo them back and forth. Like, literally, practice with the NBA club, play in the G League game that night, go back with the G League team, NBA practice, and they just go back and forth. There is no sense of really integrating themselves with that G League team, which I think is important.
So even though it's just an hour and 15 minutes away, if we have GP (Gary Payton III) or Joel (Bolomboy) go there, we'll say to them, "Hey, you're going to be there for four days." And these guys have been unbelievable with it; they look at it as a tremendous opportunity. So they go there for four days, and they're there.
I think if (the Herd) was literally in Milwaukee, it would be very difficult to have that sense of team the way that these guys do, and they are as much a part of the Herd as they are the Bucks. But because of the location, because it's close enough, but just far enough away, you can kind of have that.
You guys recently signed former Badgers player Vitto Brown; that's a name that obviously resonates in Wisconsin. Who are some other guys that fans should know this season, and especially who are the ones to watch on Friday at the Bradley Center?
Vitto is great. I love him as a person, he's a heck of a basketball player and he's improved every year since I remember watching him four years ago at Wisconsin. Vitto came into training camp, and to me he's just such a testament to what the G League is about. He came into training camp and was literally our last cut. When I sat down with him, I said, "Vitto, just be ready; I'm telling you, be ready."
So when we had an opportunity to add Vitto this past week, we got on the phone with him, I said, "Vitto, you ready?" He said, "I'm ready." We flew him out to Reno, and he helped us win the game that night, he absolutely came in and helped us win the game that night. So, really excited to have him back in the fold and we'll see how the next few games go with Vitto.
Xavier Munford, what can I say? X has been tremendous. You know, we traded our two first-round draft picks this offseason for him, hoping he might be able to do something for us, and he's done exactly that, if not more. He was named the G League player of the week this past week, was named to the USA Basketball FIBA World Cup team yesterday. I’m extremely excited for him to have an opportunity to represent our country and excited for our organization to have somebody like that with us. It's just great.
I think (Payton) will be playing with us Friday night; I hope he is, that's the plan as of right now. It's a very fluid system, though. If we need GP, we need him with Milwaukee. But we plan on having GP there, which will be great. JeQuan Lewis is a tough guard from VCU that we're really excited to have. We'll have Cliff Alexander back on Saturday night. And we've got a lot of really good role players that are tough – they're dogs, they fight, they scratch.
The thing I've been most impressed with with the team is our first game ever, we're at Rio Grande, we're down 23 points in the blink of an eye, and I'm like, man, tough start. But they scratched and they clawed, and they never quit – not at one point did they quit in that game. And that set the tempo; these guys do not quit. They're fighting for their lives, a lot of these guys, their basketball lives. And when you get guys that are hungry like that, it can be a pretty special thing.
We'll also get James Young back. He played at Kentucky, he was a first-round pick of the Celtics a few years ago. We hope to have James back; he had a little rib injury the last few days, but we hope to have him back Friday, as well. He's an extremely talented player. He's an NBA player all day and he's just trying to get back on track a little bit; he's helped us a lot too in the few games he's played. But we’re really excited to play in front of our fans on Friday.
From left: Herd GM Dave Dean, head coach Jordan Brady and Bucks GM Jon Horst.
What's it like having these two different roles in two different places with two different teams, even if they are affiliated? Bucks VP of basketball operations in Milwaukee, and Herd GM in Oshkosh? Is that strange?
That's one thing that's kind of interesting is I don't live in Oshkosh. I live in Milwaukee. I'm sitting in my office in Milwaukee right now. I shoot up there for practices and I come back down. For training camp the first few weeks, I was up there, like, every single day. I stayed over a couple of nights at a hotel up there to get a good feel for the team, and obviously we needed to make cuts. So I absolutely needed to know what was going on.
But a huge part of my responsibility for the Bucks organization is my job as VP of basketball operations for Jon Horst. I'm here a lot and then I get up there as I see fit, just kind of see how it goes. But coach Brady and I talk five or six times a day if we're not together, which is like having a girlfriend. My wife is often like, "Is that your girlfriend calling?" And I say yes.
But, like, today we practiced and I'm not going to be at that practice because I have other things going on here, and it's really not a big deal.
Coach has such good control of things up there, and I've got a couple of people working for me there that are at the practices that report to me. So it works out really good. I won't let too many days go by, though, where I'm not physically with the team, that's for sure. I think that is so important.
I've talked to other teams around the league that haven't done that as much, and they said it's one thing that they think they don't do right. So I would be shocked if at any point I'm not with that team every two or three days. I was on the entire road trip out west; I'll go on all our road games for the next few months. I just feel it's really, really important to be there with those guys so they know that I'm in the trenches with them every step of the way. I'm on the five-hour bus ride from Santa Cruz to Reno. That's important, I think.
While I don't live in Oshkosh, I've really enjoyed the time that I've been there. I'm not there physically all the time, but I'm there in spirit, that's for sure.
So you know that I-41 stretch pretty well.
I swear to god, when they come out with these self-driving cars, I will have to get one and then I can just put it on autopilot and go.
With the play of Giannis Antetokounmpo, the acquisition of Eric Bledsoe, it seems like there's a lot of excitement and national attention to go with the talent for the Bucks. You've been with the team for a long time, through a lot of the franchises' ebbs and flows. What's the feeling in there now and what's it like to watch those guys out on the court these days?
I truly mean this when I say this: I'm very blessed to work here every single day. I thank god every day for this opportunity that I have. Working for Jon Horst now is just unbelievable. I've gotten to know Jon the last nine years; we sat 10 feet away from each other and we talked about our team, ad nauseum, all day, every day. If we ever had an opportunity to help run a franchise, what would that look like?
It would look really long, that's what it would look like.
Yeah (laughs), long and multi-positional. We talked about it so much. And to see Jon, with everything we talked about, to see him starting to execute those things is just really, really, really neat. And he's done such a good job of building his staff around him to support him in the way that he sees fit. He has just done a tremendous job.
It's a really fun working environment. It's just an incredible place to be every day. And his relationship with Coach Kidd – they talk every day, many times a day about our roster, about our team and the way things are going. And I think you can see in the moves that Jon has made, in conjunction with Coach, that there's a very purposeful approach to how he's trying to build things here.
Just like you said, long, right? So we talk about multi-positional players, athletes, length, high basketball IQ that fit Bucks DNA. Jon does not leave one stone unturned in trying to make this roster the best in the league. And I really feel like it is heading that way.
According to the Wisconsin Herd, free general admission tickets are available online at WisconsinHerd.com for the team's first game in the state of Wisconsin. Tickets are limited and are available on a first-come, first-serve basis. Fans that download tickets for Friday’s Herd game will be entered to win two lower-level tickets to a Milwaukee Bucks game in December. In addition, $5 parking will be available in the 5th Street Parking Structure beginning at 4 p.m. Two gates will be open at the BMO Harris Bradley Center for the Herd game: the Miller Lite Gate (6th & State Streets) and the Northwestern Mutual Gate (4th & State Streets). Doors open at 6 p.m.
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.