What LeBron James' return to Cleveland means for the Milwaukee Bucks, Eric Bledsoe, and the rest of the NBA's summer

Mike Ehrmann

The Central Division just got a whole lot tougher, but does that matter in the big picture of the Milwaukee Bucks? And will we finally see the Bucks make a move now that the cork has been popped on the free agency bubbly?

LeBron James is returning home, and all of a sudden the Central Division is feeling a lot more crowded.

But while Decision 2.0 will instantly make the Cavaliers favorites to win the Central Division, Eastern Conference and likely the NBA title, its impact on the Bucks' isn't what you might think. After all, divisional importance in the modern NBA game is generally overrated; LeBron may make one or two more appearances in Milwaukee over the next few years because of his switch from Miami to Cleveland, but it's not as though NBA schedules are heavily biased towards divisional matchups. Moreover, while LeBron's arrival will make a division title tougher to come by for the rest of the Central, no one was expecting the Bucks to contend for divisional supremacy anytime soon anyway. So it might make for good copy--the Central is loaded!--but overall it doesn't change too much from a competitive standpoint.

The bigger impact could be in the short term: James' decision instantly set off a chain reaction of follow-on signings, including Chris Bosh reportedly staying in Miami despite Houston clearing max cap space to sign him earlier in the day. As expected, Daryl Morey dumped Jeremy Lin's expiring deal along with a future first rounder to clear room for Bosh, though it was a bit of a surprise to see Lin headed to the Lakers after repeated rumors about an agreement with Philly. Milwaukee fans had of course also been watching the Lin front with interest, as the Bucks had reportedly also inquired about his availability last week.  Still, the Lakers nabbing "just" the Rockets' 2015 first isn't exactly a king's ransom give the $15 million in cash Lin is owed next year. While it would have been great to snag a late first round pick, a year of Lin for $15 million is a steep price.

Among other potential Bucks' targets--a list that is basically one other guy at this point--Eric Bledsoe continues to attract surprisingly little attention. The Bucks are still the only team that has been even casually mentioned as potentially testing the Suns' resolve to match any offer sheets for the 24-year-old restricted free agent, though be careful not to read too much into that. The idea of Bledsoe in a Bucks uniform probably rests somewhere between long shot and cosmic impossibility, though the Suns' drafting of Tyler Ennis and sign-and-trade heist of Kings' point guard Isaiah Thomas (four years and $28 million) raised some questions about Phoenix's long-term commitment to Bledsoe and/or Goran Dragic. The word from Phoenix is that the Suns still have every intention of matching deals for Bledsoe, but you can at least see their stockpiling of point guards as insurance in case they wanted to move Dragic (whose value will never be higher) or had reservations about paying Bledsoe $15+ million annually.

Phoenix has reason to take their time with Bledsoe given his modest cap hold and their ability to match any offer sheet, so their patience makes sense no matter how much they might like him. But in a world that just saw fellow restricted free agents Chandler Parsons and Gordon Hayward each sign deals eclipsing $15 million annually, you'd think there would be some team that would take a similar plunge on Bledsoe, right? Perhaps it's just a numbers game for now, but it's worth keeping an eye on over the next week or two. With cap space around the league being eaten up by other deals, a player like Bledsoe could be the victim of the rest of the league expecting Phoenix will indeed match any offer sheets. After all, if you're a team with cap space and multiple options, do you really want to tie your cap space up for 72 hours on a guy you don't expect to get?

For the Bucks it would likely be less of a concern--provided they could actually convince Bledsoe to have interest in the Jason Kidd Project in Milwaukee. The Bucks would probably need Bledsoe to start doubting Phoenix's loyalties before he'd consider other options, though the biggest problem might be the Bucks' inability to offer the sort of $14+ million starting salary that Bledsoe and agent Rich Paul are no doubt after. Following the signing of Jabari Parker to the max 120% of his rookie scale, the Bucks currently have "only" around $11.2 million in space, a number that could grow to just over $12 million if/when they cut Chris Wright loose. Dumping one of their other smaller salaries--Miroslav Raduljica to a team with space or Carlos Delfino with some second round picks attached--could bring them closer to being able to make a max offer, but that's all fairly hypothetical. You don't give up assets to sign Bledsoe unless you think you can get him, and the Suns might not seriously entertain sign-and-trade possibilities unless the threat of offering Bledsoe a max deal are real.

So it could end up being a bit of a catch-22 for the time being, with the Bucks left as a last resort in the event talks between Bledsoe and the Suns stall. Milwaukee putting a $12 million starting salary on the table isn't ever likely to spook the Suns, but it could be one of those "we've got nothing better to do" type things: Bledsoe gets Phoenix to pay him (via match), while the Bucks can claim they at least tried to make a big splash. A sign-and-trade offer could also draw some interest at that point, though it's difficult to tell how much Phoenix would want or how much the Bucks would even be willing to offer for the right to max out a player who still has only one half of one season as a full-time starter under his belt.

As always: stay tuned.

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