How John Hammond has made the Bucks better

Bill Simmons did a running diary of the Hawks/Bucks and Thunder/Spurs games last night. Here’s what he had to say about Bucks GM John Hammond…

9:30: Johnson posts up Salmons for two, followed by Carlos Delfino (21 points) draining a 3. Bucks GM John Hammond made three great moves in the past year: The Salmons trade; gambling on Brandon Jennings at No. 10; and signing Delfino for nothing last summer. (Not only does Delfino fill up the stat sheet, play both swing spots and give you solid D, but he has a giant tattoo of a lizard on his left shoulder that looks cool in HD. There’s a lot to like.) Meanwhile, Joe Dumars ran the Pistons into the ground in the 18 months after Hammond bolted Detroit for Milwaukee. Were the two events related? Hmmmmmm.

Hammond also signed Ersan Ilyasova, who first played for the Bucks during a rough 2006-07 season when he was just 19. After a couple of years in Spain, Hammond brought him back and he has played well, averaging 10-6, 44% FG%, 35% 3PT, and playing hard-nosed defense. The signing made Richard Jefferson expendable, so Hammond traded him to the Spurs and ended up with Amir Johnson (from Detroit), whom he shipped to Toronto for Delfino, who is averaging 11-5-3 and is shooting 37% from long range, while playing tough defense on opposing wings.

I criticized the Jefferson trade at the time because I didn’t think that the Bucks got enough for him, but it turns out that with Ilyasova and Delfino, they did. Plus they’ll have significant cap space in the summer of 2011 with Jefferson and Michael Redd off the books. At that point, they’ll have six players under contract — Andrew Bogut, Brandon Jennings, Ilyasova, Delfino, Luc Mbah a Moute and Charlie Bell — and $25 million or more to spend. That’s a nice little nucleus, especially if they can keep Salmons at a reasonable price.

I also thought Hammond should have retained Ramon Sessions, but with Ridnour playing pretty well, he was expendable.

Hammond got off to a rough start in his first draft where he took Joe Alexander at #8, passing on Brook Lopez, Anthony Randolph, D.J. Augustin, Jerryd Bayless and Marreese Speights in the process. Passing on Lopez is somewhat understandable if you’re drafting for need (with Bogut already on the roster), but the team’s future would be even brighter if they had a forward like Randolph or Speights on the roster.

Regardless, Hammond bounced back with the Jennings pick and has made a number of savvy moves to get the Bucks to where they are now. Is Milwaukee a threat to make a Finals appearance? No, but the Bradley Center is hosting some good basketball now and to fans in Milwaukee, that’s all that matters. Hammond seems to understand how to manage a small-market team and has put the franchise in a good position for years to come. That’s all you can ask for out of your general manager.

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Conley on the move?

The Racine Journal-Times is reporting that the Bucks and Grizzlies have verbally agreed on a deal that would send Mike Conley, Jr. to Milwaukee in exchange for Ramon Sessions and Joe Alexander.

I’ve been told both teams have virtually agreed on the conditions of the trade and only Bucks owner Herb Kohl had to give his stamp of approval. Bucks general manager John Hammond, reached in North Carolina where he was on a scouting trip, said it was his policy not to comment on any trade speculation.

As a Bucks fan, I don’t really want to see this trade go down. I’m not clear on why Sessions isn’t getting any run despite being the 15th most productive point guard in the league. He must be in Scott Skiles’ doghouse. That’s the only explanation. And it’s a shame because the kid has shown tremendous potential. At 22 years of age, he has a bright future ahead of him.

Neither Joe Alexander nor Mike Conley has shown a whole lot in their brief careers. Conley continues to struggle with his jumper (41%), and if the Bucks were to trade for him, it would be for his potential, not his production. I don’t understand why a team would trade for a semi-expensive, 21 year-old, unproductive point guard when they’d have to give up a cheaper, more productive 22 year-old point guard. Sessions is a better shooter and has a much better assist-to-turnover ratio (3.43 vs. 2.47). I’ve always liked Conley as a prospect, but simply stated, when comparing the two, Sessions is simply more of a proven player.

Like I said, it looks like Sessions may be in Skiles’ doghouse. While I do like the sense of discipline and defense that Skiles has brought to the Bucks, I’ll be disappointed if Milwaukee trades away a productive young player because the head coach can’t find a way to get through to him.

Four emerging NBA storylines

It’s early in the NBA season, but these four things have jumped out at me during the first week of action.

1. The Lakers are dominating, but Lamar Odom isn’t thriving off the bench.
The Los Angeles Lakers are 4-0 and have won those four games by an average of 20.8 points. Granted, they’ve already played the Clippers twice, but the Nuggets gave them a test in Denver. The Lakers are doing it with defense, holding opponents to just 39.3% shooting and 85.0 points per game. (The Lakers are second in the league in both categories.) The team is off to a quick start despite so-so play from Andrew Bynum (8.3 points and 9.3 rebounds) and Lamar Odom (10.0 points and 6.5 rebounds), who isn’t exactly tearing it up off the bench. His numbers are boosted by a pretty nice 15-point, nine-rebound effort against the Clippers last night. Those are kind of numbers that Odom should be posting on a regular basis. The Lakers are getting nice play from Trevor Ariza, who has produced 9.8 points and 4.3 rebounds in just 20.5 minutes of play. If he continues his deft shooting from long range (71%), it won’t be long before he cracks the starting lineup. One of the underlying strategies heading into the season was to cut back on Kobe’s minutes, and thus far the plan has worked. He averaged 38.9 last season and is only playing 33.3 this season. His minutes are likely to rise as the Lakers play in more close games, but right now Phil Jackson has to be feeling pretty good about how his team has started.

2. The Bucks are finally playing some defense.
Last season, Milwaukee was last in the league in defensive field goal percentage (48.0%), but through five games, they’re holding opponents to 44.2% shooting, which is #14 in the league. New head coach Scott Skiles demands a lot from his players on that end of the court and so far the Bucks are responding with increased effort. The addition of Richard Jefferson certainly helps defensively, but he’s also getting it done on the other end of the court. RJ is averaging 18.8 points, 5.8 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game, even though he’s only shooting 41% from the field. Without Michael Redd in the lineup, Jefferson had a great 32-point, nine-assist effort in a 112-104 overtime win against the Wizards Wednesday night. The Bucks are also getting great play from a couple of unexpected sources. Second-year point guard Ramon Sessions turned a few heads last year when he averaged 12.9 points and 12.4 assists (including a franchise record 24 dimes against the Bulls) over the last eight games of the season. The Mo Williams trade that brought Luke Ridnour to team looked more like a salary dump than a personnel move, but maybe the Bucks decided they had their point guard of the future in Sessions, who is averaging 17.3 points and 8.3 assists on the year. Second round pick Luc Mbah a Moute has outplayed first round pick Joe Alexander thus far. Skiles likes Mbah a Moute’s great defense and toughness, which he learned playing in Ben Howland’s system at UCLA for three years. He’s playing 25.2 minutes and is averaging 8.6 points and 5.0 rebounds per game. The Bucks are 3-2, but have a rough eight-game stretch ahead of them that features the Celtics (twice), Suns, Cavs, Spurs, Nuggets and Jazz. If they can come through that gauntlet close to .500, we’ll know that the Bucks’ improvement is for real.

3. The Spurs were thisclose to starting 0-4.
If not for last night’s 55-point, 10-assist, seven-rebound effort by Tony Parker that helped the Spurs survive a double-overtime scare against the Timberwolves, San Antonio would be looking at an 0-4 start. They lost to the Suns at home by five and to the Blazers by one in Portland, but it was the 98-81 loss to the Mavs at home that was really surprising. The Spurs’ problem is two-fold. Collectively, they’re getting older and they miss Manu Ginobili. Parker (33.3 points, 7.3 assists) and Tim Duncan (27.0 points, 11.8 rebounds) are doing all they can to keep the Spurs in games, but they aren’t getting much help from their supporting cast, specifically Michael Finley (33% FG%) and Kurt Thomas (14% FG%). The Spurs are getting good play from fifth-year guard Roger Mason, who is averaging 15.8 points per game on 60.5% shooting. He’s been extremely hot from downtown, knocking down 64% of this three-point shots. Right now, it’s a three-man show and that’s it; no other Spur is averaging more than 7.5 points per game. The schedule gets a little easier over the next two weeks, with winnable games against the Heat, Knicks, Bucks, Kings and Clippers. San Antonio should be back above .500 before too long.

In my 2008 NBA Preview, I had the Hawks ranked #20 to start the season. After a 3-0 start, they should definitely be in the top half, maybe even in the top ten. I thought the loss of Josh Childress and the steady decline of Mike Bibby would outweigh whatever improvements this young team could make, but they have proven me wrong. The Hawks’ three wins are impressive. They beat Orlando by 14 points on the road, beat Philly at home by seven and then beat the Hornets in New Orleans by eight. Joe Johnson has led the team in scoring in all three games, and is averaging 28.0 points, 5.7 rebounds and 3.7 assists on the year. Even more impressive, the Hawks have won despite poor shooting from Josh Smith (42%), Mike Bibby (34%) and Marvin Williams (39%). If Johnson is able to keep up this level of play, the Hawks shouldn’t have a problem making the playoffs for the second consecutive year. Long-term, I like the direction this franchise is headed, but they still need to find their point guard of the future. Mike Bibby is on the decline and Acie Law hasn’t done much in his young career to indicate that he’s the guy they should lean on. The Hawks will have plenty of cap space over the next couple of seasons, so they should be planning to find a point guard that can complement Johnson and forward/center Al Horford.

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