For the first time this decade, the Bucks will enter training camp in October without Brandon Jennings as their starting point guard. Following a month-long standoff, the Bucks shipped their restricted free agent point guard to the Pistons on Tuesday afternoon in exchange for guard Brandon Knight, second-year swingman Khris Middleton and Russian big Slava Kravtsov. Many are celebrating Jennings' departure, while others are ruing what might have been.
Personally? I'm mostly just relieved to have a resolution to what could have become a drawn out game of brinksmanship, one that offered the Bucks few palatable options and ever-shrinking upside. Part of that was certainly the Bucks' own doing, as the The Scott Skiles Lame Duck Season and the Jim Boylan Experience (how about those for band names?) didn't put anyone in a great position to succeed over the past year. Jennings is hardly blameless of course--for starters, playing defense more than 10% of the time would have been nice--but the Bucks as an organization were complicit in pumping up his ego for four years and they didn't have to wait until this summer to move him. So they earn strong marks for crisis management, but let's not forget their role in creating the crisis in the first place.
Jake has already provided an initial look at what you might expect from Knight while Dan, Steve and I discussed the deal at length on Wednesday, so let's take a look at what might come next for a Bucks team that is edging ever closer to a camp-ready roster. Here's a snapshot of their cap situation going forward based on our best guesses for the Gary Neal (two years, $6.5 million) and Miroslav Raduljica (two years guaranteed, $3 million) deals:
And here's how their current cap space situation stacks up:
So what are the Bucks trying to accomplish? That's been a major punchline of the NBA's summer, as many observers have taken glee in questioning how long-term plays like selecting Giannis Antetokounmpo can be reconciled with compete-now moves like the Zaza Pachulia signing. I don't doubt that Herb Kohl still wants to make the playoffs, but at this point it seems like the "serving two masters" thing--John Hammond's phrase for wanting to stay young and build for the future while still being competitive now--has taken more of a turn for the "build for the future" part. The fact that Charles Gardner at the JS is using the term "rebuilding" to describe the Bucks' current trajectory says a bunch. He's not the type to rock the boat unless it's ready to be flipped, and Ted Davis suggested the same on WSSP this week.
I'm not sure that was the team's intention at the outset of the summer, but a number of moves/non-moves have pushed the Bucks in that direction. If Milwaukee snags Teague and adds Kevin Martin while drafting a more NBA-ready wing like Sergey Karasev, we'd likely look at their ambitions quite differently. And while I would have preferred Teague to Knight, I'd be more than happy to see the Bucks use the coming season to build around the defense of Larry Sanders, lean more on Ersan Ilyasova offensively, and give Knight and John Henson ample opportunity to show that they are (or aren't) ready to become good NBA players.
If good health, development from the youngsters, and inspiration from Larry Drew and company is enough to put them in the mix for a 6-8 playoff seed...well, at least we'll know that the Bucks have some potential long-term pieces that may be worth building around with their cap space next summer. And if things fall flat, the tonic of a lottery pick in the 2014 draft will make everyone feel better. I'd currently project them as outsiders to the postseason mix, but with so many changes over the past two months I'm not sure anything would shock me. They could easily replicate the surprising "scrappy young team with a new coach" thing that the 03/04 Bucks pulled off, but they're also a prolonged Sanders/Ilyasova injury away from a 30-win tumble into the lottery. I'm not sure any of this qualifies as a plan that we can trace back to the beginning of the summer, but as someone who prefers the Bucks focus on acquiring and developing younger, cheaper assets and avoiding big money gambles on sub-star veteran free agents, I can live with the outcome.
How the Bucks handle the rest of the summer and their approach to the trade deadline will of course be vital to understanding if the Bucks can actually embrace what's best for them. We should all hope that another J.J. Redick-style move won't be in the cards this coming deadline; after the John Salmons acquisition that jump-started the Fear the Deer run in 2010, trading an injured Bogut for Ellis in 2012 and swapping Tobias Harris for Redick in 2013 were the defining "win now" moves of the John Hammond Era. Unfortunately, they proved futile in multiple ways, and at this point you'd hope the Bucks would know better than to chase the 8th seed at all costs.
The Larry Drew Show. As we discussed in our podcast earlier this week, the Bucks' playoff hopes would seem to be riding on Larry Drew more than anyone else at this point. The pressure is on Drew and his staff to get the most from proven guys like Sanders, Ilyasova and Mayo while simultaneously molding youngsters like Knight and Henson into productive NBA players. On the downside, Drew's locker room doesn't have any certifiable offensive stars on which to lean; on the upside, he doesn't have any overinflated egos that often come with that either. It's now his locker room, one that's been purged of the ego landmines that Jim Boylan in particular struggled to manage last year. So while the Bucks' short-term upside will ultimately be limited by their lack top-end talent, they are deep and stylistically malleable at this point, though their lack of shot-creators and post options suggests an up-tempo style is a must no matter who is in the game.
Knight vs. Jennings. While there's no guarantee that Knight will ever match Jennings from a productivity standpoint--and both have shown serious flaws to date--today's move certainly does help the Bucks maintain significant cap flexibility both this year and going forward. While Jennings was hardly an old-timer at the ripe old age of 23, Knight and Middleton are both two years younger and will be on cheap deals for at least another two years. Considering the Bucks' hesitations about Jennings were closely tied to the eight-figure annual salary he was looking for, those two years of controlled cost are a big deal. So while the Bucks may not be able to expect better than average performance out of their point guards next year, they also figure to spend no more than $8 million combined on three or four guys.
The (not-so) dearly departed. I'd be surprised if Jennings didn't improve substantially on his disappointing 12/13 performance in Detroit, and at $8 million per year it's an understandable gamble for the Pistons even if his fit with Josh Smith and company may not be perfect. Jennings' inconsistency and prolonged lapses in defensive effort always seemed to be closely related to his emotional well-being, so it's quite possible that a fresh start playing with more talented players is just what he needs to start playing smarter and harder defensively. On the flip side, Jennings didn't seem likely to accept close to that kind of money from the Bucks, particularly after the ego blow that came with the Jeff Teague offer sheet. Yes, the NBA is a business, but remember that NBA players are not businessmen. Then again, let's also not act as though ego and hubris are absent from "business" either.
Believing in Brandon (Knight). Knight's point guard credentials have come under plenty of fire in his first two seasons, but John Hammond seems pretty clear about what he expects from the 21-year-old Kentucky product. Via Gardner:
"He still has tremendous growth ahead after two solid years in the NBA," Hammond said of the 21-year-old Knight. "He's a future building block to the organization because of the kind of player and person he is."
"Let's make it perfectly clear. He's a starting point guard in the NBA," Hammond said.
I wouldn't consider myself a Knight optimist per se, but I'm all for giving him every chance to prove himself capable of being the Bucks' long-term answer at the point. If he figures things out, everybody wins. And if he doesn't, then you take your lumps, get a better lottery pick because of it and move on. I'll cross my fingers for the former, but it won't be a massive black eye if it turns out the latter.
More moves coming. With 16 players on the roster following Thursday's Nate Wolters signing, a 2-for-1 deal involving Ekpe Udoh and another player for a swingman would make a whole bunch of sense. Adding Kravtsov and Raduljica in the past week means the Bucks once again have seven big men on the roster, which is at least one and arguably two more than you need. Udoh is the obvious piece to move if you're looking to upgrade another position: he's good enough to have some trade value, he only has one year left on his rookie deal and he's also clearly behind Sanders, Ilyasova, Henson and even Zaza Pachulia in terms of fitting into the Bucks' long-term plans. I like Ekpe, but he is what he is at this point and a long-term future in Milwaukee doesn't seem to be in the cards at this point. If Udoh isn't dealt, all signs would point to Kravtsov being shipped out to anyone with a $1.5 million trade exception lying around.
Cap flexibility remains. Because the combined salaries of Knight, Middleton and Kravtsov are less than Jennings' $7.9 million cap hold that was counting against the Bucks' books, Tuesday's deal increases the Bucks' immediate cap space to around $8 million before accounting for Wolters' deal (which based on precedent will likely be a three-year deal paying him more than the minimum in year one). Until we hear the specifics, I'm putting a $650k figure in for Wolters this year since that's what Doron Lamb got last year (about $150k north of the minimum). So figure slightly north of $7 million in cap space will be left. Just two small problems: 1) the Bucks don't have any open roster spots right now and 2) the list of available free agents is a barren wasteland of despair, meaning that a trade is really the only way to make use of that cap space effectively until next summer.
That's my best guess as to why you haven't seen the Bucks address their obvious need at small forward. With all the useful free agent small forwards off the market, all indications are that the Bucks had been looking to address the need for a starting-caliber SF via trade, but it takes two to tango and the universe of attractive (and reasonable) trade options is limited. So instead they've been rounding out the roster by signing guys like Gary Neal and Miroslav Raduljica, while presumably hoping for an opportunity to present itself via trade for the PG and SF positions.
That finally happened on Tuesday with the Jennings situation, though we'll have to wait and see if they can pull off something to address their SF question. Don't expect a star, but a decent player could certainly be had when you factor in Milwaukee's cap space. Otherwise, they could roll with Delfino/Middleton/Antetokounmpo at the three and simply take their lumps.
The future is Larry. One thing that hasn't changed: the Bucks also have plenty of room to ink Larry Sanders to a big extension that would kick in next summer--which they're reportedly (and smartly) looking to do. Sanders became the Bucks' best player last season, and all signs pointed to him assuming the "face of the franchise" title even before Jennings was shown the door, so making it official with a shiny new long-term deal is the logical next step. And even if Sanders does get an Ibaka-like $12 million (or more, gulp) extension, the Bucks should have $10 million-plus in cap space without a ton of roster spots to fill next summer.
One obvious theme of the Bucks' summer: shooting. While losing Dunleavy hurts and they're still severely lacking in high-efficiency scorers (Ersan is feeling quite lonely), the Bucks certainly have better floor-stretching options now than they did at the same time a year ago. Among the new additions, Knight, Mayo, Neal, Delfino and (to a lesser extent) Ridnour have all been average to above-average three-point shooters on decent volume throughout most of their careers. Wolters and Middleton could be solid off the bench in that regard as well, but we haven't seen it from them at the next level yet.