For the last couple of years, coach George Karl has tried to make his Milwaukee Bucks into a tougher, nastier bunch. Last month he got an injection of just what he wanted when the team acquired Gary Payton, the pit bull of a point guard whom Karl had once coached in Seattle. The move would provide, Karl predicted, "the defense we've been missing."� Sure enough, there was Payton last Friday night in New Orleans, still looking a little peculiar in a Milwaukee uniform but playing his Glove-style D. He staked out passing lanes, bodied up the Hornets' Baron Davis and swiped at any other opponent who came near him. Called for a reach-in foul, he only clamped down harder, sneering and shouting to his teammates, "A-iigght, let's f——-' go!" It was inspirational. It was intimidating. It was totally ineffective.
Against a somnambulant Bucks front-court, the Hornets got dunk after dunk and scored 70 first-half points en route to a 113-98 victory. The 34-year-old Payton resembled the little guy at the bar who starts a fight only to find that his larger, meatier buddies have slipped out the back door. As New Orleans forward Jamal Mashburn put it, "Gary's an excellent defensive player, but he can't go down and block shots in the paint. It has to be a team effort."
And that's the rub for Milwaukee as it tries to hold on to the Eastern Conference's last playoff spot (chart). Since getting Payton from the SuperSonics—along with 6'5" Desmond Mason in exchange for guards Ray Allen, Kevin Ollie and Ronald Murray and a draft pick—the Bucks have been not so much a team as a collection of talent. Milwaukee's two best players are point guards ( Payton and Sam Cassell), and its next-best ones tend to prefer the perimeter (swing-men Mason and Michael Redd, forwards Tim Thomas and Toni Kukoc). At week's end the undersized Bucks had given up more points per game since the Payton trade (102.8) than they had before it (98.3), forcing them to ratchet up their offense even more. That style is exactly what Karl had detested so much in the team's pre-Payton incarnation, which he called "soft" and derided for its shoot-first, defend-rarely mentality.
For Karl, missing the playoffs this season would be, as he puts it, "very, very disappointing—if not devastating." He's not exaggerating. Imagine all the worst moments of your professional career happening in a 13-month span. Add an element of international disgrace, put it all in the morning newspaper, and you'd begin to approximate what the 51-year-old Karl has gone through. He has overseen the worst nosedive in NBA regular-season history (in a 26-game stretch last winter, Milwaukee went from Central Division leader to lottery team), made inflammatory remarks about the ease with which black former players seem to get NBA coaching jobs (which were published in Esquire), failed to guide the U.S. team to a medal at a major competition (the unprecedented flop at last summer's world championships, in which the U.S. lost to Argentina, Yugoslavia and Spain) and drastically revamped a Bucks team only a year removed from the conference finals by rubber-stamping the departure of two of its three best players (first Glenn Robinson, traded to the Atlanta Hawks for Kukoc and a draft choice, and then Allen).
Now Karl, whose $7 million salary is the highest among coaches in pro sports, has less than a month to transform the new-look Bucks into not only a playoff team but also a squad that Payton, who will be a free agent this summer, might want to play for next year. So far it's safe to say that GP hasn't been pricing Brewers season tickets. His remark in late February that he would stay if Milwaukee won the championship sounded not unlike hinging a dinner invitation to a friend on the condition that you win the lottery tomorrow. Still, that comment was promising compared with his first reaction to the deal: Payton told a Seattle reporter, "It's not a death sentence. It's only two months." He later added that his family, accustomed to living on the West Coast, was his priority. Asked last Saturday if he was any more positive about staying in Milwaukee, Payton shook his head. "I'm still the same," he said. "I'm just trying to get us in the playoffs right now. When the season ends, I'll think about that some more."
It doesn't help the Bucks' chances in the Payton Auction that owner Herb Kohl is trying to sell the team and is unlikely to take on a big salary, especially one that will force him to pay the luxury tax. Still, Karl is optimistic. "I think Gary's going to make a basketball and a financial decision, and I think we're in the race for both of them," he says. "Hell, if San Antonio or some other team that can win a championship comes and blows us out of the water, I understand. But we have a lottery pick [this June], and we have some good young players. I think he likes Desmond." Karl pauses. "I honestly think he realizes there's a good opportunity here."
If Payton leaves, and most observers believe he will—"I don't see why he'd stay," says one Western Conference scout—Milwaukee must stomach the fact that it essentially traded Allen, a 27-year-old All-Star and 2004 Olympian, for Mason, a nice player but not one to rebuild a franchise around. This, of course, is all the more reason for Karl to make the playoffs this year, while the billboard outside the Bradley Center that reads NOW APPEARING: 9-TIME ALL-STAR GARY PAYTON still applies.
Karl thinks there's a real chance the Bucks will catch fire in April and wind up with the No. 7 seed, passing the Orlando Magic, who at week's end had a 2�-game cushion on them. "I'm hopeful about the playoffs," says Karl. "I think with a little luck of the draw and a matchup with the right team—I'm not going to tell you which one, but there are a couple I feel pretty good about—we've got a shot in a seven-game series. It's wide open in the East."
If this sounds like an awfully cheery view for a team that through Sunday had gone 7-10 since the Payton trade and had been lit up by Allan Houston (50 points), Tracy McGrady (48), Stephon Marbury (41), Antawn Jamison (40) and Malik Rose (a career-high 34), well, there are some encouraging signs. At their best these Bucks are reminiscent of Karl's Golden State Warriors of the 1980s: fast, aggressive and capable of scoring points in bunches. Cassell and Payton have fed off each other so far—Cassell's numbers have jumped in almost every category since the trade—and both are dangerous post-up options. Even Milwaukee's D, which after all was the focus of the trade, is showing signs of life. In a 104-85 win in New Jersey last week, the Bucks' zone schemes helped force the Nets into 27 turnovers. And last Saturday, only a night after the first-half meltdown at New Orleans, Milwaukee held those same Hornets to 40.5% shooting in a 93-85 home win. "Obviously they have the capability, and they have the pride," said New Orleans coach Paul Silas. "It just takes time to add in the new pieces."
The primary new piece, Payton, not only thinks there is enough time—"We're starting to get it as a team, and we're capable of going all the way," he says—but also sees the stretch run as a chance to rehabilitate Karl's image. "Coaches have bad years, just like players," says Payton. "He brought me in to try to get this team to the playoffs. Hopefully I can do that and get it all off his back."