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NBA Lockout Over: What It Means For The Milwaukee Bucks

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It will likely take at least another week or two before the final details of the NBA's new labor agreement are memorialized, but given the amount of information already being leaked, now seems like as good a time as any to start meditating on what it means for the Milwaukee Bucks.

From a timing standpoint, the league is targeting a December 9 start to both training camp and free agency, with the previously scheduled Christmas Day tripleheader planned as the official kickoff to the 11/12 season. That also assumes a majority of the league's owners and players formally vote to ratify the new CBA, though at this point it's difficult to imagine either side getting cold feet. The Bucks' first post-Christmas games had been scheduled for December 27 vs. Oklahoma City, December 28 in Atlanta and December 30 vs. Washington, so we'll see if those fixtures hold or not. At the very least it's nice to know NBA basketball will be played before the year is over, with the weeks ahead promising to be a mad scramble for teams sorting through the new CBA rules and filling out their rosters on the fly. 

Buckle up.

Revenue Sharing. Perhaps predictably, the league continues to speak in only vague terms about how its new, supposedly more robust revenue sharing system will work. Stay tuned--we all know this is a huge issue for the Bucks, and odds are it will have the broadest impact of anything that comes out of the new collective bargaining agreement.

Schedule. 

UPDATEHoward Beck of the NYT is now reporting that the league plans to maintain a conference-heavy schedule with just 18 non-conference games and 48 conference games. For everyone wincing at the Bucks' month of January, this should be welcome news.

It's not yet clear how the Bucks' calendar will be modified to reflect the new compressed 66 game schedule, though rumors on Saturday suggested the league would implement a schedule weighted towards divisional opponents while preserving home and away games against every other team. The math works conveniently for a 66 game season: four games against each of four divisional opponents (16 total) plus two games each against the other 25 teams (for 50 total). It's a bit unusual since the divisions typically don't matter aside from winners being guaranteed top seeds in the playoffs, but the important part for the league is guaranteeing that every city sees Kobe, LeBron, Durant et al at least once. In case you're scoring at home, the Bucks' original schedule features 27 home games and 29 road games between Christmas and the end of the season, so an additional six home games and four road games would need to be crammed in--either between existing dates or at the end of April. And of course the opponent mix would need to be adapted to make sure things are properly balanced.

The league's goal of a Christmas start was likely driven by the hope of avoiding a repeat of the 1999 season, when the compressed 50-game schedule had to be heavily biased towards conference opponents (44 in-conference and just six non-conference games) for playoff and travel purposes. That sort of arrangement would have spared the Bucks from a brutal January West Coast road trip that features 12 of 14 away from the Bradley Center, but now it's more likely that much of that trip will be maintained (gulp). On the bright side, an emphasis on divisional play might not be a bad thing for the Bucks given the relative weakness of the Central. Aside from the heavily favored Bulls (who cruised to a 15-1 divisional record last year), Cleveland continues to rebuild, Detroit remains a major question mark and the Pacers had the worst record of any team that finished second in its division a year ago. Of course the Bucks are also part of that--they were the worst third placed team in 10/11.    

Salary Cap. The league will reportedly keep the 11/12 cap flat at the 10/11 figure of around $58 million, though it's worth noting that actual salaries paid out will be pro-rated to reflect that almost 20% of games will be lost. So keep in mind that all the salary figures I'll be quoting are about 20% higher than what will actually be paid out. The Bucks are modestly under the cap as things stand now, with 11 players under contract for a total of $51.55 million. However, their actual cap space will be further reduced by cap holds for first round pick Tobias Harris ($1.218 million) and restricted free agent Luc Richard Mbah a Moute ($1.091 million, see below). Based on what we know now, that would put the Bucks under the cap by only $4.1 million before applying the mid-level and bi-annual exceptions, which technically counts against the cap unless teams renounce them. However, the new CBA also provides a two year, $2.5 million mini-MLE for teams who renounce the MLE/BAE and use cap space instead.   

Given they already have a fairly full roster, the Bucks' free agent strategy will depend a fair bit on the futures of Ersan Ilyasova and Keyon Dooling, both of whom remain under contract but could be on their way out. The Bucks would certainly prefer to trade the disgruntled Ilyasova rather than simply let him out of the final year of his $2.5 million deal, but it's not clear how much of a market for him exists given his deal is expiring and he's already stated a preference for staying in Turkey.

Meanwhile, the Bucks probably wouldn't have minded letting Dooling out of his deal to sign in Europe, but his rumored move to Turkey never materialized. He could certainly be useful to teams in need of backcourt depth, but he won't be fetching much in the way of value--snagging a disposable, space-eating big man to provide depth behind Andrew Bogut might be as good as the Bucks can hope for. Speaking of trades, the new CBA does allow more trade flexibility, as teams under the luxury tax can take back 140% + $100k of the salary amount they're sending out, up from 125% + $100k.

Luxury Tax. All indications are that the luxury tax will remain close to the same $70 million figure as a year ago, but with Michael Redd coming off the books it won't be a concern for the Bucks in the near term. To many small markets' disappointment, the more punitive luxury tax system won't be implemented immediately either. Teams will continue to pay a dollar-for-dollar penalty this year and next year, with the new progressive system beginning in 2013. That will see a tax of $1.50 charged for spending up to $5 million over the tax, with more punitive payments kicking in at $5 million increments. Example: for increments between $15 and $20 million, $3.25 will be charged for every dollar. In case you're curious, the Lakers currently sit around $20 million over the tax threshold for this coming season.

Contract lengths and raises. As previously agreed, the maximum length of contracts are now five years for Bird free agents and four years for all others (from six and five), including most rookie extensions. Raises have also been lowered, to 7.5% for Bird free agents and 4.5% for all others. Shorter deals are generally better from an incentive standpoint, though the league was also mindful of preventing teams from locking up star players for extended periods. 

Rookie scale. Previously, rookies typically signed for the maximum 120% of their scale amounts, so there was a small amount of system gaming that could occur by timing the signing of rookies before their actual contracts replaced their slightly smaller cap holds. The rookie scale amounts are reportedly not changing, so for Tobias Harris you can expect his actual salary to end up at around $1.46 million. Meanwhile, second rounders such as Jon Leuer don't count against the cap at all until they've signed. One additional wrinkle meant to reward star players is the availability of a higher max salary (equal to 30% rather than 25% of total team cap number) based on starting the all-star game, winning MVP and/or making All-NBA teams while on a rookie deal. Sadly I don't see that impacting the Bucks any time soon.  

Harris will clearly be signed and presumably Leuer will fall into the same boat, though it's not inconceivable that the Bucks could let Leuer play out the season in Germany while retaining his NBA rights. If he does sign, the Bucks would owe him at least the rookie minimum of $490k in 11/12--those numbers apparently aren't changing in the new deal either. Note that teams can sign players to minimum deals even when they're over the cap and have used up the MLE, though the Bucks previously used cap room/exceptions to sign Mbah a Moute and Jodie Meeks to three year deals for slightly more than the min as rookies.

Mid-Level Exception. We've discussed the importance of a more restrictive MLE in the past, and in that sense the handshake agreement currently on the table is somewhat disappointing. Owners had sought a shorter (max three years) and lower MLE ($5 million per year) that would be unavailable to luxury tax teams, but perhaps predictably ended up having to compromise significantly to get a deal done. The new deal will reportedly allow MLE deals up to four years in length, and teams may use the full $5 million figure unless it would put them more than $4 million over the tax level of around $70 million. Teams above that amount would only be able to offer $3 million per season for three years. All told, that's good news for the Miami Heat, but less than ideal news for smaller spenders like the Bucks. 

Bi-Annual Exception. The BAE will allow non-tax-paying teams to sign players every other year to a two-year contract starting at $1.9 million. Note that the Bucks used the BAE on Dooling last summer, so they will have to wait until 2012 to use it again.

Restricted Free Agency. There had been consistent talk of increasing qualifying offers to improve teams' willingness to make competitive offers to their RFAs, but it appears the new rules won't kick in until 2012/13 at the earliest. That's important for Mbah a Moute, who might have seen his bargain basement QO triple to over $3 million if the new rules came into effect immediately. Instead the Bucks will once again have leeway to low-ball Mbah a Moute while knowing that he's unlikely to take the QO and become a free agent next summer. However, one thing working in players' favor is that the matching period has been shortened from seven days to three, which will at least make it less risky for teams wary of having their free agent dollars tied up waiting for another team to decide whether or not to match an offer sheet.

Amnesty clause. Initial reports all suggest the new CBA will include an amnesty provision similar to what had been discussed over the past few months, allowing teams the opportunity to waive one player whose deal would no longer count against the cap or luxury tax. However, teams would still owe the player the full amount of the original contract. Teams could use the provision at any point during the next CBA, with the catch that only deals signed before this summer would be eligible.

We already covered in detail why the Bucks are unlikely to use a new amnesty clause in the short term, though the good news is that they could always change their mind down the road and use it later. Many fans will no doubt argue for using the amnesty on Drew Gooden given the length and size of his deal, but to me--and note that the Bucks might not share this viewpoint--much of it comes down to how much of the original deal Milwaukee would still need to pay out. Gery Woelfel alluded previously to the possibility of teams being able to bid on amnesty'ed players and then the waiving teams only paying the difference between the new and old salaries, but the early word is that only teams with cap space would be part of a bidding system, significantly limiting the universe of potential bidders.  

Whatever the mechanical details, I have a very hard time believing the Bucks would immediately cut bait on Gooden just a year after handing him a five year deal--and the same goes for Beno Udrih or Stephen Jackson for that matter. It's true that John Hammond hasn't been shy about admitting mistakes in the past, but keep in mind that there's also no reason the Bucks have to make a move immediately. Having Gooden, Udrih and Jackson on the roster wouldn't stop the Bucks from pursuing free agent options that might require cutting one of their higher-priced players--in that sense, the amnesty provision is essentially a free option (OK, not literally free, but...). If something better actually comes along then great, but I don't see teams using it unless they have an obvious reason--because it opens up cap space, lowers tax liability, gets rid of a cancer, or enables some other type move. So unless the Bucks plan to be much more ambitious in free agency than originally thought, the obvious path would be to hang on to the amnesty provision in the short term, providing some time to get a better sense of how a healthy Gooden and others fit in the roster.