Earlier today we laid out the salary cap basics that will govern what the Bucks can and can't do when free agency officially kicks off at midnight on Sunday. Unfortunately, the cap doesn't do anything to keep teams from spending money poorly, which speaks to the double-edged sword of having $20+ million of cap space to play with in free agency. That's the position the Bucks find themselves this week, as they set about filling out a roster that currently features just nine players including first round pick Giannis Antetokounmpo and second rounder Nate Wolters.
Eye-balling the roster as it currently stands--without Brandon Jennings or any of the Bucks' unrestricted free agents--the Bucks will probably need to add two point guards, three swingmen and perhaps one more big man. That would take them to 15 total roster spots, though it wouldn't surprise anyone to see Ekpe Udoh or Luc Mbah a Moute traded at some point during the summer either. Whatever the case, the bottom line is that the Bucks have huge needs in the back court and we're seeing that reflected in the players they've been linked to thus far.
So without further ado, let's take a run through the Bucks' roster and the players they're expected to pursue starting tonight at midnight.
Roster: Ish Smith and 38th overall pick Nate Wolters (when he signs).
The big x-factor here is of course Brandon Jennings, whom the Bucks have claimed they intend to retain despite an awkward finish to the season. I don't doubt that Jennings would prefer to be elsewhere next season, but at this point it appears his list of suitors will likely be sparse. Dallas (Shane Larkin), Atlanta (Dennis Schroder in addition to RFA Jeff Teague), Utah (Trey Burke) and New Orleans (Jrue Holiday) all upgraded their point guard talent considerably on Thursday, and there aren't any other teams with both obvious needs and cap space to throw around.
Free Agent Targets: Jennings, though the Bucks may have to look for a plan B if things deteriorate for one reason or another with their mercurial former first round pick. Which is fine with me. While Jennings has the potential to be a top 7-10 type point guard, I don't see him ever being an all-star given his fundamental lack of size, low shooting efficiency and lack of "true" point guard skills. And that doesn't even count his defensive problems, which have bordered on catastrophic the past two seasons: Milwaukee was a staggering 13 pts/100 possessions better with Jennings on the bench last year and 9.5 the prior season. There can be noise in on/off data, but it's mind-boggling that a guy looking for $10 million per season could have such a massively negative effect on his team two years running. A new coaching staff might be able to help Jennings turn things around, but it's difficult to justify an eight figure annual salary unless you assume considerable improvements on both ends.
How the negotiations play out is anyone's guess, but it seems like both sides are looking to reconcile their prior disinterest. With virtually every team in need of a point guard acquiring one on draft night, Jennings may have gotten the clue over the weekend that his options may be rather limited. On Sunday he sent Chris Broussard a "hey Milwaukee, we're still good!" email which along with John Hammond's suggestion that they'll match any offer sheet for Jennings would seem to breathe new life into a loveless marriage [insert audible sigh here].
"I definitely want to do more for the city and the franchise," Jennings responded. "I want to make the playoffs and get out of the first round and become an All-Star for the Bucks. We haven't had one since Michael Redd so I want to be the first.
"That has to be encouraging for Bucks general manager John Hammond, but of course it comes down to money. Milwaukee has already offered Jennings, a restricted free agent, a $4.3 million qualifying offer.
If signed, that would keep Jennings in Milwaukee for at least one more year, but he would become an unrestricted free agent next summer. To keep Jennings long term, it will likely take an offer in the $10-12 million range annually.
Jennings, a Los Angeles native, has spoken in the past about potentially moving on to a big-market franchise. But he says he would not mind being a big fish in Milwaukee's small pond.
"It depends on if they want me to be 'The Man' of the team and if we can get a deal done," he said. "Hopefully, they want me to be 'The Man.' "
The scary part is that any team expecting Jennings to be The Man shouldn't expect much more than The 8th Seed to follow, but with the Bucks...well, you know how this goes. They need to spend $20 million somehow this offseason in order to get to the salary minimum, so they may view Jennings as an asset worth keeping simply because no other "name" players will be easy to attract. The joys of cheering for a small market team, eh?
It's interesting to note that there's been virtually no talk of the Bucks re-signing Monta Ellis despite their reported attempts to throw massive extension money at him. That suggests both sides are moving on after Ellis' earlier disinterest in the nearly $12 million per year over three years that the Bucks offered him as an extension. For what it's worth, I'm skeptical any team matches the annual figures the Bucks reportedly offered him, but just because no team should offer him that kind of money doesn't mean no team will. And yes, I consider Ellis more valuable at point guard than shooting guard. Over at Yahoo, Marc Spears writes that Ellis and the Bucks have mutually agreed to part ways, though it's possible the Bucks might still get something for their trouble as part of a S&T:
The Hawks and Mavericks are expected to have interest in Ellis, who can still rank as one of the league's better scorers. A trio of contenders – the Lakers, Clippers and San Antonio Spurs – also could make a run at Ellis, but would need to work a sign-and-trade.
If things do go south with Jennings, any number of guys could be targeted as potential placeholders. Hawks' RFA Jeff Teague will be an interesting guy to keep an eye on as well. He's the best comparable for Jennings among current RFAs, though if Atlanta has hesitations about keeping him, the Bucks might be interested given Larry Drew and Nick Van Exel's familiarity with him. There was talk around the draft of the Bucks being interested in shipping Ekpe Udoh to Minnesota for former Buck Luke Ridnour, while Devin Harris told Gery Woelfel he would be interested in signing with his hometown club even before his former Hawks coach Larry Drew was hired in Milwaukee. I'd be content with a two or three year deal for Harris, who has lost a couple steps since his all-star campaign in New Jersey but can capable play and defend both guard spots and should be available for less than the mid-level.
Otherwise, soon-to-be-30-year-old Jarrett Jack may be too expensive for the Warriors to retain, while Randy Foye (a target of the Bucks' last year), D.J. Augustin, Darren Collison, Eric Maynor and Will Bynum are cheaper options that could end up as much better values.
Roster: None, really.
Wolters may be able to play off guard at times, but the Bucks will need to add at least two guys capable of playing extended minutes at the 2 beyond a rookie combo guard.
Free Agent Targets:
Let's start with the rumormill:
The Knicks believe odds are they will retain J.R. Smith, but it hardly is a guarantee considering the bevy of under-the-cap clubs and a weak free-agent class. The Bucks, Pistons and Suns are contemplating throwing money Smith’s way. [Marc Berman/NY Post]
This group scares me...a lot. I would be fine with Smith or Mayo for $6-7 million or Martin at around $8 million, but this is free agency, so it's probably safe to assume everyone will be overpaid by at least 30-50%. That's especially true given the Bucks are at a disadvantage trying to persuade any bigger name guy to come to Milwaukee--especially Smith, who would no doubt strongly prefer to stay in New York, which can only pay him a starting salary of $5.4 million due to their cap situation. No talk of the Bucks being interested in Andre Iguodala (or vice versa), who will likely command eight figures and brings the best all-around game of any of these guys.
Whatever happens, I'm hoping the Bucks learn their lesson from last season and bring in guys who can fulfill the adjective portion of the position's description: shooting. J.J. Redick would normally fit the bill, but it doesn't sound like he's interested in prolonging his stay in Milwaukee and wouldn't be a good value for much more than the mid-level. Mayo, Smith and Martin can all shoot as well, but none of them are franchise building blocks despite their price tags. Honestly I'd have no problem skimping on a big name and going with the shooting guard by committee option--add Harris as a combo guard and throw in a couple cheap shooters (Marco Belinelli, Anthony Morrow, whatever) and I could live with that. I'd mention Carlos Delfino as well, but his departure last summer seemed acrimonious enough that my guess is there won't be much interest from either side this time around.
Roster: Luc Mbah a Moute, Giannis Antetokounmpo.
It's not as dire a situation as in the backcourt, but...well, it's pretty close. While free agent Mike Dunleavy has been the Bucks' best small forward each of the past two seasons, Mbah a Moute started in the second half of the season and brings an all (defense) or nothing (offense) feel to the 3. It's not an impossible approach when paired with a stretch four like Ersan Ilyasova, but no one is laboring under the illusion of Mbah a Moute as the Bucks' long-term solution at the three. He's a really nice piece when you're a contender who needs to account for battling LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony or Kevin Durant in the playoffs, but for a team like the Bucks he probably makes more sense as a trade asset. That's of course where Giannis Antetokounmpo comes in, though the Bucks shouldn't expect much of anything from the 18-year-old Greek wunderkind this coming season.
Free Agent Targets: Josh Smith and Paul Millsap are two intriguing big money options, though both are less obvious fits given they make more sense as power forwards and the Bucks already have plenty of options at the 4. The Bucks' interest in Smith became obvious at the trade deadline, though it's not clear if Larry Drew's arrival makes Smith more or less likely to be a target. He reportedly expects to have 5-6 suitors this week, though Detroit is the only one that's been called out so far. Personally, I doubt Smith would ever live up to the big money it would take to bring him to Milwaukee; his talent is undeniable, but persistent questions about his attitude and shot selection likely won't be answered by a change in scenery alone.
Among more reasonable money options, Knicks three-point specialist Chris Copeland is the only guy who's been mentioned thus far, though Dunleavy would be an obvious target to return if he isn't set on finding a contender to latch onto. As President of the Mike Dunleavy Fan Club, I'm all for shelling out mid-level money for another year or two of MDJ. Thinking about shooters, I'd also be very content with moves for Kyle Korver, Matt Barnes or Dorell Wright.
No shortage of bodies here, especially when you consider that Larry Sanders, Ekpe Udoh, and Luc Mbah a Moute are also more than capable of playing the position. Ilyasova bounced back from a slow start to finish strong for the second straight season and will once again enter the season as the presumed starter, but Henson is the guy that most fans are already looking to as the eventual long-term solution next to Larry Sanders. Considering Henson somehow managed to be a lower efficiency scorer than Jennings last year (yikes!) and was often overwhelmed physically down low, we probably need to pump the brakes a bit on declaring him a franchise cornerstone, but his skill around the basket and obvious abilities as a rebounder and shot-blocker are worthy of excitement. Ayon is non-guaranteed until July 25, but at $1.5 million he's a bargain even if the Bucks can't find a way to consistently get him on the court. As for Gooden, he could be an amnesty casualty if the Bucks go for a big splash in free agency.
Free Agent Targets:
Carl Landry, whom the Bucks have tried to acquire in past, told me he is"definitely interested'' in signing with Bucks.— Gery Woelfel (@GeryWoelfel) June 30, 2013
While the Bucks have no shortage of big men, they do have a severe shortage of big men who can score in the post. As in, none of them can (I'm not counting Henson just yet). That's why Landry would have some appeal, though it's hard to justify paying Landry his market value (MLE or more) unless the Bucks moved at least a couple of the guys currently on the depth chart.
Roster: Larry Sanders, Ekpe Udoh.
Sanders is the big story here, as he evolved from "guy who couldn't cut it in summer league" to MIP/DPOY candidate by year end. While Larry likely won't be more than a garbage man on the offensive end, his ability to change games defensively make him a prized asset going forward and may well earn him an eight-figure extension this summer or next. Note that his shot-blocking tailed off toward the end of the season as opponents became more aware of him around the hoop, but at 24 years old his best days should still be ahead of him.
Udoh hasn't shown much progression since entering the NBA, which maybe should have been expected given he was an older player entering the league. But he's still a savvy, plus defender who helps his team without making much of an impact offensively or on the boards. He's been mentioned in numerous trade rumors starting at the last trade deadline, so if the Bucks do make a big move you can guess he might be part of it.
Free Agent Targets: No one's been mentioned specifically, but I'd guess the Bucks add one veteran big body as insurance, or two if Udoh is swapped for a wing. Expect to be underwhelmed, though (see last year's experience with Joel Przybilla).
So what's your plan for the summer? Let us know in the comments how you'd like to fill out your Bucks roster--for simplicity, assume you've got $25 million to play with.