The NBA trade deadline is now over, but the head-spinning probably isn't.
The NBA's zaniest day of the year delivered on its promise Thursday, with 37 players and $225 million in salary changing zip codes. The Bucks did their part to add to the madness, pulling off one of the day's biggest deals just before the clock struck 2 pm central time. And so Michael Carter-Williams, Miles Plumlee and Tyler Ennis are now Milwaukee Bucks, Brandon Knight is (surprise!) a Phoenix Sun, and Kenyon Martin and Kendall Marshall are teamless (for now). So what are the headlines we should be taking away from all that madness? Let's break it down into four major points.
1) The Bucks kept their promise heading into the deadline, focusing on the long-term even if it meant disrupting some of their short-term mojo.
Let's be honest: The Milwaukee Bucks had a really nice thing going.
At 30-23 heading into the all-star break, Jason Kidd had already earned himself an A+ for his first season in Milwaukee: His injury-riddled roster was basically playing at 100% of its capabilities, the playoffs were a lock, and it didn't seem like anyone was going to bump them any lower than the sixth seed in the East. The easy move would have been doing nothing at all. Maybe one day we'll look back and say it would have been the smart thing, too.
But Kidd and the rest of the Bucks brass aren't trying to be just really nice. They want to be great, and they clearly had their doubts about making a huge investment in Knight this summer, particularly with the lingering sense that he might not be the guy to help Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jabari Parker and Khris Middleton reach their full potential. It's not to say Knight would have been a bad fit -- his perimeter shot and ability to play off the ball were major pluses -- but Kidd clearly saw shades of his own play-making potential in Carter-Williams, who also fits the Bucks' trapping, swarming defensive style to a T.
2) Knight was probably the best point guard for the Bucks right now. But Kidd has a good chance to develop MCW into the better fit long-term.
The challenge now for the Bucks is developing MCW into the guy the Sixers saw in his first week of the 13/14 season, preferably without sacrificing much on the court in the here and now. Thankfully, the Bucks have a 7.5 game cushion on the Heat and Hornets for the 6th seed, so there's margin for error in the standings, and we shouldn't overlook the possibility of Miles Plumlee and Tyler Ennis providing valuable depth immediately as well (more on that below). But the desire to get better in the long-term without blowing up the good vibrations of the past few months also made a deadline deal a tough needle to thread. Taking Goran Dragic instead of MCW would have been too short-sighted; taking the Lakers' top-five protected pick might have proved the best long-term move, but would have left Kidd with a huge hole now, and it's unclear if that pick will even be conveyed until 2016. So for the Bucks MCW was the "just right" option -- the type of unique talent who could be a core piece long-term while still making a difference immediately.
Of course, if you viewed Knight as a linchpin of the Bucks' future then you might well be a bit spooked by this deal. But even Knight was a major negative player in +/- terms until the past six weeks, and the Bucks have been winning with their depth all season. Kidd's team has also shown they're anything but a one-man gang, which will hopefully make Knight's departure more manageable, and MCW projects to be an immediate upgrade on the defensive end. The move should also allow us to get a better sense of Khris Middleton's ceiling as a scorer, while giving Giannis Antetokounmpo the increased touches that every Bucks fan would love to see.
As for MCW, a more talented supporting cast and less pressure to score will hopefully mean immediate improvement over his recent struggles in Philly. If he simply gets back to where he was early in his rookie year everyone will be thrilled. But not even Kidd's pixie dust will immediately make him a good perimeter shooter, and no list of the league's top point guards would include him in the top fifteen at this point. Replacing Knight's sharpshooting with MCW's bricklaying also increases the pressure on Jabari and/or Giannis to develop some semblance of touch from three point range, as it's difficult to imagine the Bucks building a good offense with just one capable three point shooter. Needless to say there is work to done here, with no guarantees it works out perfectly (or at all).
So ultimately MCW is now Kidd's prized pupil, and his education will be much more than just a two-month crash course. The good news is that the Bucks' coaching staff has already shown real results with Antetokounmpo, Middleton, and even Knight, so there's reason to expect that they'll get the most out of MCW as well as Ennis. The physical and intangible traits for MCW are all there; the jump shot and experience is decidedly not. Offseason shoulder surgery and the Sixers' ongoing re-re-rebuild may have stacked the deck against him this season, but the excuses end now. He has a chance to make Giannis and Jabari better in ways that Knight probably couldn't, which in the grand scheme of the universe might be the most important effect of the Bucks' deadline day. Like Knight back in the summer of 2013, MCW arrives in Milwaukee having stalled out with the team that drafted him, yet still young enough to grow and make major strides before he hits restricted free agency in two years. And in many ways that will be the inflection point for judging this deal. The Bucks hit the reset button on both Jennings and Knight before they had to pay them major money; MCW now has two years to show he's worthy of the Bucks' long-term trust.
3) Plumlee has proven he can play, while the 20-year-old Ennis will provide much-needed depth in the backcourt. Oh, and they're paid next to nothing.
Just a few weeks ago we were bemoaning the Bucks' lack of depth up front and in the backcourt, which makes Ennis and Plumlee more than just throw-ins to this deal for the Bucks. While Plumlee has seen his minutes and efficiency decrease this season, he's only a year removed from being a useful starter for a 48-win Suns team. He rebounds, blocks shots, and dunks everything around the basket, which means he's a nice change of pace to Zaza Pachulia and John Henson. He's also owed just over $1 million this year and next, which means the Bucks have additional flexibility to handle injuries up front or make a move to upgrade the roster.
As for Ennis, he's just a year removed from a terrific freshman season at Syracuse, and at 20 years old it's anyone's guess how good he might become. Though he doesn't have top-shelf athleticism, he's a savvy scorer and passer who put up over 18 points and 5 assists for the Suns' D-League affiliate in Bakersfield, and given MCW's injury he'll have a chance to earn rotation minutes immediately. In short, Ennis is exactly the kind of guy you'd like to take a chance on as a third point guard -- sorry, Jorge Gutierrez -- and he now has three ultra-affordable years left on his rookie deal to prove he can be more.
4) In terms of cap flexibility, this week has been a massive home run for the Bucks.
I've intentionally avoided getting into the financial ramifications of yesterday's moves up until now, but in the big picture the cap story is a huge piece of why the Bucks can feel good about the gambles they made over the all-star break. Just a week ago, Milwaukee projected to have only the mid-level exception to work with this summer, while also needing to shell out massive raises to retain Knight and Middleton on top of Larry Sanders' deadweight contract.
Fast forward to today and the Bucks are now in a vastly different world. Sanders' ugly deal appears on the verge of being downgraded into a minor (albeit long-lived) irritant, Knight no longer needs to be paid, MCW is owed less than $6 million over the next two years combined, Plumlee is dirt cheap for another season before he hits restricted free agency, and Ennis is also on a highly attractive rookie deal for the next three seasons. Even factoring in a cap hold for their first round pick, the Bucks project to have over $15 million in cap space this coming summer, giving them plenty of ammunition to play with in July while being able to comfortably accommodated a potential eight-figure salary for Middleton and a new deal for Jared Dudley (assuming he opts out).
The picture becomes even brighter in 2016. Even if Middleton and Dudley are re-signed to new deals this summer, the Bucks as currently constructed would have well north of $30 million in cap space when the league's new TV deal pours jet fuel on the salary cap in 2016. Plenty of other teams will be in the same boat, but by then it's possible that Kidd and company could attract a higher-profile free agent. Hey, dare to dream, right? They'll also be in a position to offer Giannis a massive extension to his rookie contract; if things go as well as we hope they might, we could be talking about a $100 million deal for a guy who will still be just 21 years old at the time.