When your favorite team trades away two players who may not belong in the NBA to acquire a local hero and two-time NBA All-Star, it shouldn't be hard to get excited about the deal. Then again, when everyone recognizes that Caron Butler doesn't belong on a rebuilding team like the Phoenix Suns, it's fair to raise an eyebrow or two when a rebuilding team like the Milwaukee Bucks targets him in a preseason transaction.
Here we are with our half glass of Tuff Juice, trying to decide if the Bucks should be allowed to stretch the definition of rebuilding to accommodate a roster packed with enough veteran role players -- Caron Butler, Carlos Delfino, Gary Neal, Zaza Pachulia, and Luke Ridnour -- to likely keep the entire 2013 draft class in street clothes on most nights.
Without Butler, the Bucks were short on wing talent and headed for the lottery. With Butler, they're better stocked at small forward (especially if Carlos Delfino isn't ready for the start of the season) but it's still a good bet they'll be counting ping pong balls in April. Depth has been added, while the organizational vision has been slightly obscured.
The benefits are clear to me. Butler takes pressure off Delfino to rush back from injury and relegates Antetokounmpo to an apprentice role for his rookie season. He also adds another credible offensive weapon to a team lacking an offensive identity, but Butler can't really create his own shot anymore -- 82.6 percent of his made shots were assisted last year, including 96.1 percent of his threes -- so he's more of a peripheral spot-up option than a primary piece of the offense.
Even so, the move continues an encouraging trend of the front office focusing on adding three-point shooters to the roster. It's a wise approach that deserves praise. The Bucks are going to take a ton of threes this year, and as KL Chouinard of Bucksketball notes, that should help with floor spacing. Butler also has strong local roots and a vague locker room value that most people are resigned to call 'veteran leadership' (there's more on this below), so those are additional positives.
However, when viewed holistically, the team's plan doesn't quite make sense. It's as if they're still content to forge another check from an account that everyone knows lacks the sufficient funds. If the five veterans added this summer play well enough to help Milwaukee imitate a good team and sneak into the playoffs, is this group any more likely to actually to win a series -- or even a single postseason game -- than the cypher of a squad from last season? What's the sense in
writing forging a check you can't cash?
The big questions for me touch on the potential hidden costs of the deal. If Butler plays well, it's all gravy for the Bucks. But the same would have been true with guys who burned John Hammond in similar situations -- the Stephen Jacksons, Corey Maggettes, Samuel Dalemberts and, to a lesser extent, the Beno Udrihs of the world. If Milwaukee's new 33-year-old small forward plays at the level of Delfino and Khris Middleton, he's not going to sit back and settle for an even split with playing time. Everyone likes to talk about a veteran presence as pure positive value, but that's not how things always work out.
Not in a contract year. Not when the veteran is the most accomplished scorer on the roster. If Butler assumes a lead role but doesn't do much to help the team win, it's going to be very difficult to phase him out and focus on development with younger prospects. It could turn out to be a tightrope routine for the Bucks, and they will get no sympathy from me if they struggle to keep Butler and Delfino happy while finding minutes for Middleton and Antetokounmpo.
If I were Butler, I'd look at the current roster and see myself as a primary scorer with this group. Keep in mind that his usage rate with the close-to-contention Clippers was essentially the same as Ersan Ilyasova's usage rate with the Bucks over the past two seasons -- and those are some of the lowest rates of Caron's career. Butler isn't the same player that he used to be, but if the S-Jax/Maggette/Dalembert/Udrih situations taught us anything, it's that even unrealistic expectations can create real issues. Salary aside, that might be a reason why Butler didn't make sense for the Suns.
Maybe he will play well and everything will turn out fine, but that gets to another issue: Why did the Bucks take on another backstop against top lottery odds? The additions of Pachulia, Neal, Ridnour and Butler can all be justified in isolation as moves to improve positional depth, but if the team is truly focused on building a championship contender, it doesn't make sense to take opportunities away from young players (again, feel free to refer to the Suns' side of this transaction).
The crux of this so-called rebuilding movement is that if the youth of the team isn't good enough to compete for an eighth seed, isn't that a clear signal that the franchise needs to maximize its lottery odds in a potentially-loaded 2014 NBA Draft?
Without a few of the vets, the plan would make more sense to me. It'd be sink-or-swim. If the young guys are good enough to make a playoff push, that's a sign there are valuable pieces on the roster. If they aren't as successful, the team would drop in the standings and add someone who could move the needle. In the current scenario, the vets bouy a squad that won't gain anything by holding their position in a dead man's float.
Finally, it's a bit disappointing to see the last $7.5 million of cap space disappear in this transaction. John Hammond has consistently extolled the virtues of financial flexibility, so to know the limber salary structure from the summer has turned into a bottom-15 roster wishing for a breakout player from mid-round picks and castoffs is a bit underwhelming. I would have preferred that the Bucks saved that space to make a run at a more important trade near the deadline. As Zach Lowe noted, expiring contracts like Butler aren't worth as much as they used to be. Is this really an opportunity the Bucks couldn't afford to pass up? Is it the best they thought they could do with that flexiblity?
In the end, the pursuit of credibility in the form of passable depth managed to trump the reinforcement of a clear organizational vision. It's enough to send a wave of ennui rippling through my half glass of Tuff Juice. What about you?