Let's start with something we should all agree on: The success of the Milwaukee Bucks' 2014/15 season was never supposed to be measured in wins and losses.
And yet here we are, nearly four months into Jason Kidd's tenure as head coach, with the 30-23 Bucks among the darlings of the new NBA season. Riding youthful exuberance and a rejuvenated group of veterans, Milwaukee has needed just 53 games to double last season's win total, catapulting the Bucks out of the league's primordial ooze and into the thick of the muddled Eastern Conference playoff picture. But are the Bucks finally on a trajectory to contend a few years from now, or is this another false start down the road to 40-something wins and a cloud of dust? It's a complicated question fraught with uncertainty, though it shouldn't prevent us from speculating how the Bucks can best approach the remainder of the season.
The good news is that the Bucks' success has largely gone hand in hand with development of the franchise's young talent -- well, up until December 15 at least. Alas, that was the night Jabari Parker went down with a torn ACL, putting on hold the blossoming partnership between Parker and Giannis Antetokounmpo. But even with Jabari, Damien Inglis and Kendall Marshall sidelined for the season, the Bucks remain a fundamentally young team, with Giannis, Khris Middleton, John Henson and Brandon Knight entrenching themselves as starters during the team's recent hot streak.
Of course, the real beauty of the team is that everyone seems to be contributing. The youngsters have earned their opportunities, while Jared Dudley, Zaza Pachulia, O.J. Mayo and Ersan Ilyasova (when healthy) have all provided valuable rotation minutes while improving their trade values from their individual nadirs of a year ago. But that success also raises obvious questions about their respective roles going forward. Should the Bucks continue to roll with the formula that's worked so well over the first half of the season? Should they be considering changes with the team's long-term future in mind? Heck, with all the momentum they've built to date, would they actually consider trading any current players or future assets for players that can help more now?
We thought it'd be a fun topic to tackle as a staff ahead of the Thursday trade deadline, but before we offer up our specific plans, let's start with some general background on the Bucks' roster needs, the assets they have at their disposal, and their cap flexibility going forward.
As currently constructed, the Bucks project to be only modestly below the cap next summer, before the new TV deal brings a ton of cap space in 2016.
In terms of salary flexibility, there's not much to complain about long term, though it's worth noting that at present the Bucks don't figure to have much cap space next summer. At the moment, the Bucks could still open up about $6 million in 14/15 cap space for dealing over the next week, but they're also $5 million above the salary floor, a unique situation thanks in large part to the final year of Drew Gooden's amnestied deal counting against the latter but not the former.
The team's only notable expiring contracts belong to restricted free agents Brandon Knight and Khris Middleton, and Knight's cap hold as a restricted free agent is triple his current salary -- nearly $9 million. As a result,the Bucks actually project to see their cap space shrink once July 1st hits next summer. See the table below, which doesn't account for the additional cap hold of the Bucks' 2015 first round pick (which if they stayed at #17 would be $1.44 million).
With Ilyasova, Mayo and Pachulia all locked up on guaranteed deals through the 15/16 season, trading any of them for an expiring deal would have a non-trivial effect on the Bucks' 2015 cap space, though that kind of move seems less likely given the injury-riddled Bucks' ongoing dependence on all of them. Ilyasova would seemingly be the easiest to part with, but don't expect any homeruns out of dealing Ersan. And given their relatively full roster and the difficulty of acquiring impact players via free agency, the Bucks seem unlikely to make any splashy free agent signings next summer regardless, though additional flexibility could be used for plenty of other things (like absorbing a bad salary to coax a draft pick from another team).
Even if the cap doesn't explode until 2016, Brandon Knight and Khris Middleton are going to get paid this summer.
Things change dramatically for everyone in the summer of 2016, when the NBA's new TV deal is expected to see the cap surge as much as 50% from current levels. Players this week rejected a proposal to "smooth" the cap increase, which means that the cap, max salaries, and other cap-determined exceptions figure to skyrocket from one year to the next. As we guessed last fall, that means the cap could hit $90 million in the summer of 2016, with the Bucks and most other teams likely to head into July with massive amounts of cap space. But free agents this summer won't exactly be left out in the cold; Bird free agents re-signing with their own teams will look for deals baking in the NBA's new economics, or at worst sign shorter deals that allow them to jump back into free agency within a year or two.
That's particularly important for Knight and Middleton, who stand to reel in huge paydays this summer in spite of their restricted free agent status. I'd be surprised if agent Arn Tellem doesn't start the summer with max demands for Knight (an average of $16 million a year or so?), who at this point seems unlikely to willingly take anything less than Kemba Walker-type money (four years, $48 million). I know, that's a ton of money, especially considering that it's unclear which if any other teams might be willing to give him an offer sheet of that magnitude. But team leverage hasn't always translated into bargain basement prices for restricted free agents -- especially when considering feelings, PR and a lack of viable replacements -- with a one-year qualifying offer the nuclear option for both player and team.
An eight-figure average deal could also be in the cards for Middleton, who has quietly developed into a linchpin of the Bucks' long, trapping defense while proving that his lights-out shooting of a year ago was no fluke. It shouldn't be shocking if some team out there was willing to throw $10 million per year at Middleton, though it's tough to say if anyone will test the Bucks' resolve to match an offer sheet. Naturally, there's always risk in signing non-superstars to big paydays, with Knight in particular remaining a somewhat polarizing figure as the Bucks' leading scorer and offensive talisman. But the upside is that a $90 million cap will make those kinds of deal much more affordable than previously. Even if Knight and Middleton were pulling in a combined $25 million annually, a $90 million cap means you'd still have room to max out Giannis (in 2016) and Jabari (in 2017) plus sign a few other guys. The hardest part might be next year, when the cap is likely to still be around $67 million and the luxury tax just over $80 million.
It's unlikely that any of the Bucks' current vets would command a premium via trade, and they could all prove useful going forward.
While the idea of trading a complementary vet for a future first rounder or promising youngster sounds great, actually pulling it off can be much more difficult. So the Bucks' options at the deadline aren't as extreme as they could be. From what we've seen thus far, it's unlikely that any single veteran trade is going to make the Bucks dramatically better or worse on the court, though you wouldn't blame the Bucks for being wary of upsetting the good thing they currently have going. That's especially true considering none of the Bucks' vets would seem likely to fetch a high-potential young player or anything more than a very late first round pick.
Then again, there's always a "but," and it's also true that any asset is a good asset. As we saw with the deal that brought Dudley and a future first to Milwaukee this summer, there's always a chance that a desperate team will make an offer you can't refuse. So before you venture into the trade machine rabbit hole, think about other teams' needs, their goals for the short- and long-term, and the assets they have at their disposal. We've already seen an unusual number of deals in December and January, so many teams have already addressed positions of need -- Dallas got a point guard (Rajon Rondo), Cleveland picked up a center (Timofey Mozgov), and Phoenix nabbed a pick-and-roll big (Brandan Wright).
The Bucks may still need to address their point guard depth.
Jorge Gutierrez's arrival three weeks ago gave the Bucks some additional backcourt depth following the loss of Kendall Marshall, but it's not clear if they'll be able to keep Gutierrez after the all-star break. Larry Sanders' suspension is over, which means that the Bucks have to clear a roster spot even if Sanders isn't returning to the court immediately. With Gutierrez's second ten-day contract expiring this week, he's the obvious fall-guy if the Bucks don't make any other moves. But it's unlikely that the Bucks want to go into the final few months of the season with Knight and Jerryd Bayless as the team's only point guards, so some kind of move would seem likely.
Players aren't the only assets the Bucks have at their disposal.
On the surface, moving first round picks runs counter to the Bucks' long-term view of the world, but it's not to say that their picks are untouchable -- especially given where they're likely to fall. The Bucks' 2015 first rounder is currently projected to land at #17 in the first round, so it's not inconceivable that it could be moved for a young player (hence all those Nik Stauskas rumors?) or packaged with other assets for a bigger talent. I don't expect any of that, but stranger things have happened. Likewise, the Bucks also own the Clippers' lotto-protected 2017 first rounder in addition to their own 2017 first, giving them more ammunition to make deals going forward.
So what happens next? We'll know within 96 hours.