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What Ersan Ilyasova's Likely Return Says About The Bucks

Ilyasova and Ryan Anderson are expected to sign nearly identical contracts.
Ilyasova and Ryan Anderson are expected to sign nearly identical contracts.

We've had no shortage of time to consider the implications of the Bucks potentially re-signing Ersan Ilyasova, and as of this morning it appears likely that a new four year deal with a fifth year team option will be finalized this coming week, with a total value of up to $45 million. We don't know all the details yet, but we do know enough to start making sense of what will most likely be the Bucks' biggest move of the offseason.

1) It all comes down to whether last season's performance was real or a fluke, right?

At 25 years old Ilyasova is firmly in his prime, but the issue is that he's being paid for what amounts to his best three or four months of basketball. The good news is that it's not just any three or four months, but the last three or four months, which makes it more likely to be, you know, real.

He's also not the type to take his foot off the gas just because he has a big contract, but that doesn't mean he can replicate the incredible efficiency he showed last season. Earlier today Steve highlighted how the improvements in Ersan's shot selection suggest some of his improvement is sustainable, but what about his lights-out shooting from distance? How many guys go from 29% three point shooting to 45% and sustain it?

Unfortunately the answer is not many--heck, there are only a handful of 45% three point shooters to begin with, much less guys who improved to that extent. In reality, Ersan was probably never as bad as he was from distance in 10/11 and not as good as he was last year. He has always shown a good stroke from the perimeter and was terrific on long twos in 10/11 (48%) even while he struggled from three. It stands to reason he'll settle in somewhere in between, preferably much close to where he was in 11/12. The same can be said of his rebounding, which was likely boosted last season by Andrew Bogut's departure (and his own penchant for tipping his own misses).

Thankfully, Ilyasova doesn't have to shoot 45% from three to justify his contract. If he can stay around the 40% mark while continuing to work for easy buckets around the hoop and rebounding at a high level the Bucks will feel OK about the deal. But that's not automatic and he also has to stay on the court--he's never averaged more than 28 mpg over the course of a full season and even during his terrific stretch after the all-star break (16.1 ppg, 9.0 rpg, .552/.508/.796 shooting) he averaged just shy of 31 mpg. Can he play big minutes and maintain his productivity while keeping up his tireless effort level?

2) This deal is not worth the $45 million in guaranteed dollars it was originally reported as, but did the Bucks bid against themselves?

A couple days ago the Bucks' offer was reported to be close to $40 million. Then this morning Ilyasova's agent said they would accepting a deal worth $45 million. Thankfully, Gery Woefel reports that the fifth year is a team option, which swings the value of the deal a fair bit back in the Bucks' direction. Agents have every incentive to float the biggest numbers possible, and Andrew Bogut was a good example: his agent leaked his extension in 2008 as being worth $72.5 million, but eventually we found out it was worth $60 million with $12.5 million in unlikely incentives related to being a host of things he never was, including an all-star starter and Finals MVP. Big difference.

Assuming the Ersan deal happens, we'll similarly hope that the $45 million figure includes both the team option as well as some incentives that will be difficult to attain. And remember that a five year deal with a team option is better than a four year deal with no options, since it conveys more flexibility to the Bucks in case Ersan is still playing at a high level four years from now (I won't bet on it, but he won't be over the hill at least). In short: sometimes a $45 million deal isn't really a $45 million deal. The Bucks also included a fifth year buyout in John Salmons' inflated deal two summers ago, though much to Bucks' fans frustration they were not able to do the same with Drew Gooden's MLE deal that summer. Don't expect any NG'ed dollars given Ilyasova's deal has a team option, but there might (hopefully) be some incentives in there

Whatever Ilyasova's deal works out to, the follow up question is whether the Bucks really had to pay as much as they did. No other NBA team could offer more than four years, and his supposed "big" European offer was four years as well. Beyond that, we haven't heard anything about the terms that other teams might have been offering. Brooklyn seemed the most interested yet they couldn't offer him anything without a sign-and-trade. Meanwhile Ilyasova was rumored to have some interest from the Raptors, Cavs and Sixers, but there have been no reports of legit offers from any of those teams. The fact that Ryan Anderson is getting essentially the same deal in a sign-and-trade with the Hornets offers further evidence that the Bucks are paying "market" for a player of Ilyasova's caliber, but don't confuse "market" with a bargain.

3) The biggest issue with this deal is the length, not the annual salary. But the Bucks appear ready to accept the long-term regression risk because they really couldn't afford to lose Ilyasova in the short term. In short, this is a win-now move.

Whether you like this deal or not, one thing should not be debatable: the Bucks' playoff hopes would have taken a major blow if Ilyasova departed, and that was always going to be a major motivator for a Bucks franchise that has made no secret of its attempts to return to the postseason. As currently constructed, the Bucks have precisely one big man under contract with any semblance of offensive skill and that's, gulp, Drew Gooden, who is neither an efficient scorer nor someone who has earned his keep on the defensive end. Keeping Ilyasova won't do anything to unclog the Bucks' logjam at power forward, but only a handful of guys league-wide provide his combination of shooting and rebounding, and it's easy to forget that last season Ersan was Milwaukee's most productive player by virtually every advanced metric. Nobody wants to admit that a complementary guy like Ilyasova might be the Bucks' best player, but the statistics certainly make the case.

Even so, is a player of Ilyasova's caliber--whatever that is--worth a four-year commitment? You can find plenty of precedents for similar guys getting long-term deals, but let's not confuse precedent with good decision-making. The free agent market inevitably seems to churn out deals that are $2 million more expensive annually and one or two years longer than a rational person might prefer, and you can make that argument with this deal as well. As unique as he is, Ilyasova is not a star. If he didn't re-sign with the Bucks, would fans look back on his departure two, three or five years from now and wonder what might have been? I feel pretty confident that the answer is no. But if Ilyasova left and the Bucks again failed to make the playoffs, you can bet the organization would look back on his departure as a critical part of the equation. Whether you find that logic compelling really gets at the "mediocrity treadmill" argument that Steve has put forth numerous times. Do you re-up good-but-not-great guys just because you're clawing to stay respectable and hopefully build something bigger, or do you put your foot down and only commit long-term dollars to stars and guys you view as bargains, short-term results be damned? Ilyasova is probably the perfect litmus test for where you stand on that more fundamental debate.

4) Adding Ilyasova makes moving one of the Bucks' other bigs that much more attractive--preferably for the ever-elusive big guard. But it doesn't have a big impact on their ability to sign another free agent or two this summer, nor does it make an amnesty move any more sensible.

The whole "Bucks have too many power forwards!" thing has already been beaten to death, and it's a little overstated since Ilyasova, Gooden and maybe Henson are the only "true" power forwards on the roster. Sanders, Udoh and Mbah a Moute can play (and might even be better off at) other positions, which mitigates the redundancy issue somewhat. But do the Bucks want to be paying Ilyasova and Gooden a combined $16 million or so for the next three seasons?

The obvious answer is no, which would make dealing Gooden a nice follow-up move to retaining Ilyasova. Amnestying Gooden has been suggested by many fans, but the reality is that it would have a negligible impact on the Bucks' immediate cap/luxury tax situation as long as Ilyasova is back. The bottom line is that they have the mid-level and bi-annual exceptions with which to work. They can always amnesty Gooden next summer if needed, but that's never seemed like something the Bucks were too keen on, both for financial and basketball reasons For all his difficulties defending the paint after Andrew Bogut went down, Gooden was productive last year and the Bucks are the ones that gave him a big contract in the first place. Don't expect them to jump at the chance to eat his salary just to open up a roster spot, though it would be more attractive next year when they figure to have more cap space.

So what could Gooden fetch in a deal? Don't expect the Bucks to get an expiring deal or someone who will outperform his contract, but there are at least options that could re-balance the depth chart. Tayshaun Prince (the RealGM gang has been pushing that one hard) and Josh Childress have virtually identical contracts to Gooden (three years, $18-20 million left) and won't be confused with good deals anytime soon, but at least they provide size on the wing. However, if the Bucks acquire someone else's deadweight salary they won't be able to amnesty that player later--only guys who were on the roster before the lockout qualify. Beno Udrih might have been more likely to be dealt if Kirk Hinrich was signed, but he's reportedly heading back to the Bulls.

Still, the Bucks' reported interest in Randy Foye suggests that Hinrich wasn't the only combo guard they're looking at, and Woelfel's most recent column notes that the Bucks "seem set at the small forward spot with Mike Dunleavy and Tobias Harris," hence their apparent disinterest in re-signing Carlos Delfino. I still view a big guard as the team's most obvious position of need, but pursuing Foye and Hinrich would suggest the organization feels otherwise. I can live with that if it means Tobias Harris getting a chance at major minutes at SF, and another combo guard also provides cover in the event that Udrih ($7m expiring) or Ellis ($11m, ability to opt out next summer) is dealt before next February's trade deadline.

6) Extending Brandon Jennings figures to be the Bucks' primary goal in 2013, but there are plenty of other potential changes on the way.

If we assume Ilyasova will count an even $9 million against the cap, then the Bucks figure to have around $47 million committed to 10 players for 13/14, including Ellis' $11 million opt-out figure and Jennings' $4.3 million qualifying offer. Without those two guys the Bucks would have just $32 million on the books. Dunleavy, Dalembert and Udrih will all be coming off the books and needing to be either replaced or re-signed, but the big question will be what to do with Jennings and Ellis. Jennings will be a restricted free agent and in line to make at least as much as Ilyasova--my guess is he'll get at least $10 million, but we'll have to keep a close eye on the other class of 2009 point guards as well (namely Ty Lawson, Jrue Holiday, Steph Curry). Jennings will have to keep getting better to be worth that much, but given his role in the franchise I'd be very surprised if the Bucks didn't make retaining him their top priority.

Ellis is much less clear, though my presumption is that he will indeed opt out of his final year and look for a new long-term deal with either the Bucks or elsewhere. The Bucks will have a major decision to make about whether they can and want to keep Ellis, with the early part of this season likely to play a key role in determining if the Jennings/Ellis pairing is one that the Bucks can feel good about. Most people assume they're too small and defenseless to work, but it seems like the Bucks want to give it a chance to work early in the season.

If Ellis does opt out and Jennings is extended for around $10 million, then you have $42 million committed with the need to replace Ellis, Dunleavy, Dalembert and Udrih. That's at least doable if not simple, and probably why the Bucks felt OK about giving Ilyasova big dollars this summer. Make no mistake, $9 million per season is a serious chunk of change, but it's won't be mistaken for a cap killer so long as Ilyasova keeps up his end of the bargain.