What we do know: the Andrew Bogut Era is over in Milwaukee.
What we don't know: whose era comes next?
While initial reports suggest that the Bucks fully intend on pairing Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings in the same backcourt, the Bucks' decision to trade away their one-time franchise center and defensive anchor raises more questions than answers. How much did Bogut's reported trade request and clashes with Scott Skiles accelerate the Bucks' resolve to make a deal? Does anyone expect a Jennings/Ellis combination to last more than a year? And what does the acquisition of Ellis say about the Bucks' appetite for keeping Jennings long term? My guess: a lot, no, and unclear.
Ellis and Ekpe Udoh could be in Bucks' uniforms as early as tomorrow night against the Cavs, but for now we're left to pick apart a complicated deal that has huge implications for the Bucks' present and future.
Some observations in no particular order:
1. Bogut will win you more games than Ellis, but unfortunately things weren't so simple for the Bucks.
In many ways, it's disappointing that the Bucks ever felt the need to deal Bogut in the first place: elite defensive big men are exceptionally rare, and despite his offensive struggles and injury woes over the past two years, Bogut still has all the tools to be an all-star-caliber big man over the next five years. For all of Ellis' explosive scoring, few would argue that a healthy and happy Monta is more valuable than a healthy and happy Bogut, and on a fundamental level that's what Bucks fans will find most frustrating about the trade.
Unfortunately, after seven stop-start years and just two playoff appearances, both Bogut and the Bucks seemed to run out of patience. The Bucks have made no secret of their preference for moving players who don't want to be in Milwaukee, so it stands to reason that Bogut's reported trade request likely hastened his departure. You can also bet that the opportunity to get value for Bogut while jettisoning Stephen Jackson proved appealing to a Bucks front office focused on returning to the playoffs this year. Speaking of which...
2. The Bucks are a more talented team for the next six weeks, though what that gets them is unclear.
As Steve noted earlier today, Bogut's injury and slow start to the season meant the Bucks weren't exactly dealing from a position of strength, so we can assume that swapping two injured and unhappy players for two useful players in Ellis and Udoh was a key part of the decision-making process. Meanwhile, the fact that Bogut may not play again this season probably wasn't an issue for the Warriors, who despite having a higher winning percentage than the Bucks seem more focused on keeping their lottery pick (which goes to Utah if it's outside the top seven).
Then again, adding Ellis and Udoh doesn't fundamentally alter the Bucks' short-term ceiling either. Milwaukee is unlikely to do better than the seventh seed this season (4.5 games behind Boston), and holding off the floundering Knicks for the eighth spot might be the most realistic upside scenario. Yet even that is unlikely to deliver much more than a swift first round exit at the hands of the Bulls--and all the Chicago fans who would inevitably invade the Bradley Center.
Is that progress? Reasonable people will disagree, and for the Bucks' front office it's almost a no-win situation. John Hammond and company are under significant pressure to win games now and get casual fans interested again, yet many hardcore fans have been understandably clamoring for the team to hit the reset button: add picks, deal away some of the team's depth (Ersan Ilyasova, Beno Udrih, etc), and focus on remaking the core even if it means losing games this season. In that sense dealing Bogut for an established but flawed talent like Ellis might be the worst sort of compromise, especially considering that he's not an obvious complement to what the Bucks already have. But he's also undeniably talented, while Udoh has earned raves for his abilities as a defensive glue-guy up front. Especially factoring in Bogut's status as damaged goods, the Bucks can hardly be accused of coming away empty-handed.
3. The long-term direction of the franchise is as unclear as ever, but at least the Bucks seem to realize that the old plan wasn't working.
With Bogut and Jennings, the Bucks at least had a logical (if flawed) narrative about their building blocks: pairing a dynamic young point guard with a versatile, elite defensive center at least passes the smell test for how to go about constructing a roster. Unfortunately, the combination never quite clicked the way Bucks fans had hoped and most would agree that the current core was never going to lead the Bucks to legitimate contention. Bogut couldn't stay healthy and has yet to recapture the All-NBA Third Team form he showed before his elbow injury in 2010, while Jennings remains maddeningly inconsistent despite some indications of progress this season.
What most of us can agree on is that something had to change. And in that sense dealing Bogut could be viewed as the first step in unwinding a deep but upside-challenged roster built around the imperfect pairing of Bogut and Jennings. But like a troubled company selling off its best assets to meet its cash needs, the Bucks may end up regretting the decision to move their most valuable (*when healthy) player.
But even if we disagree on whether the Bucks made the right first move, we also know this is only the first big step in remaking the Bucks, not the last. The Bucks are now less balanced positionally but more flexible financially (see next point), and for an organization in need of change that's typically an acceptable tradeoff. And if you're a hypothetical NBA owner trying to sell your hypothetical NBA team (who could that be?), flexibility tends to be a major selling point.
So how exactly do the Bucks go from where they are now to something resembling a contender? They're too deep and well coached to be bad and earn high draft picks, but they're also not talented enough--especially up front without Bogut--to become a contender by simply making moves around the periphery of the roster. In that sense the Bucks are as locked into NBA purgatory as ever, with their improved cap flexibility the only obvious escape hatch. And let's not kid ourselves about the value of cap space: it can help facilitate trades and is generally a good thing, but cap flexibility is also what led to the Bucks getting stuck with Michael Redd and Bobby Simmons in 2005 and Drew Gooden and John Salmons in 2010.
In short, everyone wants cap space, but most teams don't seem to use it very effectively, especially teams like the Bucks who will never be able to use it to sign a superstar free agent. Think of it as a complicated means to a very uncertain end.
4. Jennings' future was unclear, and it's likely to stay that way until at least the summer.
The Bucks' next big decision would be what to do with Jennings, who seemed somewhat shaken at hearing his name in trade rumors earlier this week. The fate of Ersan Ilyasova is also important, but so long as the Bucks are gunning for the eighth seed my assumption is that they won't find an Ilyasova deal that they like.
I'd be more than a little surprised if Jennings and Ellis were both on the roster at next year's trade deadline, but early indications are that the Bucks will try to make it work for the remainder of this season. I'm not sold that it will, but I'd be shocked if it wasn't at least interesting--and given the Bucks' recent emphasis on pushing the tempo, it has the chance to be pretty fun to watch, too. Happy thoughts!
Jennings will be eligible for an extension this summer, but adding Ellis into the mix would seem to make a long-term deal even less likely than before. Granted, I didn't think an extension this summer was that likely to begin with, especially given Jennings' up-and-down form this season and the general uncertainty surrounding the team. Jennings' "big market" comments last month are part of it, but it'd also be a mistake to assume the Bucks will bend over backwards to give Jennings a huge extension. If he's not traded or extended, Jennings would be a RFA in 2013, so the Bucks would still be able to match any offers he might get from other teams. In other words, neither side needs to be in a rush.
5. Bogut wasn't overpaid, but the Bucks have more cap flexibility now.
The Bucks weren't in dire financial straits to begin with, but dumping Jackson does give the Bucks significantly more flexibility financially starting this summer--cap space that could be used to retain Ersan Ilyasova, add a free agent or help facilitate a bigger trade.
Ellis earns a flat $11 million per season through 13/14, though he has an early termination option that could make him an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2013. That's slightly less than the $13 million and $14 million Bogut was owed over the next two years, but the real savings come from effectively swapping Jackson (owed over $10 million next year) for Udoh's rookie deal and the expiring contract of the injured Kwame Brown. Interestingly, both teams also generated modest trade exceptions (the Buck $2.5 million) thanks to a quirk in the new CBA rules regarding trades.
The Bucks could open up further cap space next summer by amnestying Drew Gooden or Beno Udrih, who has a player option for next year and alluded to possibly opting out of the $7 million he's owed in order to get more playing time elsewhere. It would likely take Udrih two years to make up the money he'd be leaving on the table, so I'm kind of skeptical of that happening but at least it's possible. Moreover, the Bucks' backcourt is even more crowded with Ellis on board, making some kind of follow-on move involving either Udrih or Shaun Livingston more likely.