All quiet on the
Western free agency front.
Granted that might not be the most exciting news to deliver during the usual July free agent feeding frenzy, but it's probably also good news. Because in case your memory is a little hazy, here's a refresher on what free agency has gotten the Bucks over the past decade.
Yes, $346 million in contract value for eight guys who...well, ah, didn't exactly pan out. The lesson: cap space and free agency are double-edged swords, so be damn careful where you swing them.
The good news is that the Bucks may finally be getting it--even if they had to learn it the hard way. With 15 bodies already on the roster and $12 million in projected cap space, the Bucks are actually well positioned to make a "splashy" move for a name brand free agent, but early indications are that it might be a quiet summer in Milwaukee with regard to new signings. Two days into free agency, we've yet to see the Bucks linked to anyone, suggesting that Milwaukee's approach will be more modest despite the means afforded them by their cap space. That seemed to be the case before Jason Kidd's whirlwind courtship began last weekend, and it hopefully won't change now that the Bucks have officially installed the future hall of fame point guard as their new coach.
As a starting point, here's the latest snapshot of where the Bucks stand cap-wise, assuming the cap holds associated with their own free agents (Jeff Adrien, Ramon Sessions and Ekpe Udoh) are renounced--note that Parker's cap number will rise by about $800,000 when he signs for the maximum 120% of his rookie scale (presumably sometime in the next week).
So how should the Bucks be approaching the rest of the summer? Here are some topics to consider:
1) No big free agent spending. PLEASE.
Teams typically spend their cap money as if it's burning a hole in their pocket, but it just doesn't make much sense for a rebuilding Bucks team to add yet another pricey non-star--and let's be honest, that's generally the type of guys you're talking about in free agency.
Not that overpaying free agents is a Bucks-specific problem either. First round picks' salaries are suppressed by the rookie scale while superstar salaries are artificially kept low by the existence of max deals, leaving surplus money to be redistributed to all the veteran free agents who are left over. As a result, the "market price" in July is typically higher than we might think is reasonable, but for teams looking to fill a hole or add a final piece to the puzzle that's not necessarily an irrational way to spend precious cap resources.
But other than the pipe dream of a sign-and-trade for restricted free agent Eric Bledsoe, I can't really think of anyone I'd be excited to see the Bucks pursue. Among the younger players on the market, Gordon Hayward will presumably cost too much [note: as I was writing this, word leaked that the Cavs were prepping a max offer sheet for him], Greg Monroe will be both overpaid and doesn't make positional sense, and Lance Stephenson is a lunatic who has an equal chance of being an all-star or the guy who destroys a team single-handedly. So yeah, I'm good.
And while things might be different a year or two from now, for the moment there's good sense in the Bucks avoiding yet another above-MLE veteran free agent. Job one right now is developing youngsters rather than assembling the most talented team possible, and it's not like the team is completely bereft of veteran presences (Zaza!). So instead I'd suggest saving that precious cap space in order to take advantage of other opportunities that might come along--like nabbing a draft pick or solid youngster in order to help another team clear cap space.
Those opportunities might not be predictable, but they have a much higher likelihood of delivering the kind of long-term assets (picks, random young players) that the team could actually use. And if you end up with unused cap space at the end of the summer? No big deal. Because they're still paying the last year of Drew Gooden's amnestied deal, the Bucks are already right around the salary floor even with all that cap space sitting around. Oh, and not wasting money on players you don't need means more money for other stuff, too. How about some more money for the arena kitty?
To be clear, one or two deals for less than the mid-level exceptional wouldn't be worth agonizing over, but anything more...eh, let's just not bother. As for the Bucks' own free agents, Jeff Adrien might have been useful if not for that previously mentioned logjam in the frontcourt, while Ekpe Udoh looks like a goner after the Bucks declined to make him his $4.2 million qualifying offer. Meanwhile, Ramon Sessions played well last spring and would fill an obvious hole in the Bucks' backcourt rotation, but he's also a bit too ball-dominant for my tastes. As we saw last year, trigger-happy veterans like Sessions, Gary Neal and Caron Butler can make for frustrating complements to a young roster, especially with Parker, Knight, Giannis and Middleton needing more shots as they develop.
So let's just plan to roll with the kids and see it where it lands us, OK?
2) About that logjam up front...
Remember when we talked about the old "draft for talent, trade for need" philosophy on draft day? Well, now it's time for the latter. Among the 12 guys under contract and three unsigned 2014 picks, the Bucks essentially have three guards (Brandon Knight, Nate Wolters and O.J. Mayo), three centers (Larry Sanders, Zaza Pachulia and Miroslav Raduljica) and nine forwards. Hint: that's a lot of dudes competing for 96 minutes per game at the two forward slots, with minimal depth in the backcourt. After the draft John Hammond didn't rule out going into camp with the current roster, but let's be real: it would be pretty weird if the Bucks didn't do anything the rest of the summer.
Despite getting name-checked multiple times by Jason Kidd on Wednesday, Ersan Ilyasova would certainly seem to be among the odd men out up front, especially with Jabari Parker looking like the Bucks' likely starting power forward. Don't get me wrong, I'd like to think that Jabari will be able to play small forward as well, but at 254 pounds that just doesn't seem like Jabari's calling for now--especially with Giannis and Khris Middleton around as well. So while it's true that Ilyasova is seemingly always the guy on his way out, this is also the first time that he's competing against someone of Parker's status.
Unfortunately the Bucks aren't dealing from a position of strength. Last season's injuries and poor shooting have no doubt cooled interest in the 27-year-old Turk, and the fact that he wasn't dealt on draft night suggests the market for him likely isn't strong right now. So either the Bucks cut bait--something like an expiring plus a second rounder--or they hang onto him and hope he plays well enough next fall to up his value by the deadline. Although that raises another question: with Parker and (presumably) John Henson around, would Ilyasova even play enough to substantially increase his trade value?
The other obvious guy who could find himself on the outs is Chris Wright, the 26-year-old D-League call-up who showed some interesting flashes late in the season but is rather buried behind Parker, Giannis, and Middleton on the depth chart. Add in 31st overall pick Damien Inglis and a presumably healthy (?) Carlos Delfino, and you just don't see much of an opportunity for Wright, who looks like an NBA player but just can't seem to find a team that actually needs him. And one more thing: Wright doesn't have a guaranteed contract either, which would likely make him the first guy on the chopping block if the Bucks had to open up a roster spot to make a free agent signing or lopsided trade.
Other names will also no doubt be mentioned as potential trade bait, including Henson, Larry Sanders, and O.J. Mayo. But Sanders might be the most important ingredient in the Bucks' hopes of rediscovering the defensive intensity that departed with Scott Skiles, while Mayo likely won't be easy to move after a forgettable first season in Milwaukee. So maybe there's a deal out there that makes sense for the Bucks, but don't judge their summer by their ability to move either of them.
3) Asset accumulation
Ultimately this is the most important thing for the Bucks right now, and it colors how we should think about trades and free agent signings. Given their current cap flexibility, there's really no reason to aggressively shed salary if it means giving something up to do it. Sure, getting rid of Mayo's remaining $16 million would be nice, but you better not give up anything of value for the right to do so. Ditto Zaza Pachulia and Sanders, both of whom can also contribute as well.
Instead, it might be better to add salary in the hopes of bringing assets along with it, something the Bucks can easily do thanks to their cap space. Example: if the Rockets need to dump Jeremy Lin's large-but-expiring contract in order to clear cap space for Carmelo Anthony, I'm really hoping the Bucks give Daryl Morey a call to see what types of picks and/or young players Houston might offer up to make it happen.
So the moral of the story is this: while splashes can be fun, they also tend to leave you wet and in need of a new pair of pants. We've already had enough of those in Milwaukee to last a lifetime, so a quieter, more opportunistic approach to the summer of 2014 will do just fine. Rounding out the guard rotation by adding another ball-handler would be nice, and if the Bucks want to add a veteran locker room guy that's also cool by me. Whether it's by trade or a modest signing, the Bucks have plenty of options to sort through their current roster imbalance, and they also have two things many other teams don't have: time and money.
Let's hope they use both wisely.