The February trade that sent Brandon Knight from Milwaukee to Phoenix and replaced him with Michael Carter-Williams was an odd one. For two of the three teams involved, the narrative focused at least as much around why they were getting rid of a promising young player as it did on what they were getting in return.
While the trade ultimately came as a surprise to many, whispers that the Milwaukee Bucks weren't particularly excited about shelling out a hefty sum of cash for their young point guard this summer were already in the air. This was a hot topic for fans and dragged in many angles for debate: what was Knight's true position? Was he a good fit for the Bucks' roster? What was he worth in isolation, and what could the Bucks afford to pay him in the context of their future plans?
Milwaukee answered those questions by dumping them off on another team, content to wind back the contractual clock and evaluate a very different sort of player in Michael Carter-Williams. The Phoenix Suns would be responsible for doing the math on Knight, and now it seems they've come up with an answer, as Knight will reportedly sign a 5-year, $70 million contract with the Suns after free agency begins on Wednesday. The team will likely delay the signing to take advantage of Knight's $8.9M cap hold, about $5M lower than the average annual value of the deal.
Whatever numerical uncertainty there was coloring debates of Knight's future with the Bucks are now gone--or at least a bit less hazy. It's fair to wonder what sort of deal Knight might be gearing up to sign had circumstances been different. What if the Bucks hadn't traded him, and Knight had played another 29 games as lead dog on a playoff squad? What if he hadn't injured his ankle and was able to finish the season strong? Only about $4M annually separate Knight's reported contract from the max deal (five years, $91 million) that many Bucks fans feared, and it's entirely possible Knight might have commanded something close to the four-year max of $67 million with a solid performance in the playoffs.
We could think on those hypotheticals until our brains hurt, but that's all we were really doing before Knight left town. New information now in tow, do the key points of our evaluation change? Well...sort of.
Michael Carter-Williams' progression as a player remains the key measure of success for the post-trade Bucks. Let's be honest, if Michael Carter-Williams morphs into Jason Kidd 2.0, slashing his turnovers and ironing out his jumper, nobody is going to care much about Knight's new contract. As I said, we focused a lot on what the Bucks sent out in the trade, but Carter-Williams is still right in front of us with an opportunity to prove he was worth it. Conversely, if things go south and MCW stays an inefficient possession-eater, the Bucks will be second guessed regardless of Knight's future.
That's not to say Knight's development won't play a role as well. For all the questions of fit and potential, Knight was having himself a nice little season when the Bucks sent him packing. He was a borderline All-Star putting up career numbers at the age of 23. If that trajectory continues, say, with an All-Star berth in the Western Conference next year, it'll sting.
What the Bucks do with their cap space will factor into our evaluation, but the ability to do anything at all should count for something. This is where things draft back toward hypotheticals. NBA trades, signings, draft picks, and more are frequently discussed with regard to opportunity cost. That is, the ability or inability to do something at a later time because of what you do now. Room under the salary cap is probably the most tangible marker of opportunity cost, but it also includes things like draft positioning and available time on the court for a given player or players.
The cap space Milwaukee figures to have this summer is arguably the most concrete return they got in the Knight trade. They could have kept him through the end of the season and looked to trade him then, but if the Bucks were certain that Knight's cost would be too high to justify re-signing him, trading him at the deadline was a way to ensure they could get some sort of return--had they waited until the summer, Knight could have left unimpeded via an expensive offer sheet Milwaukee had no interest in matching. Essentially, it was a gamble that the rest of the league valued Knight more than they did (similar, I expect, to Philadelphia's thinking with MCW, though I doubt Sam Hinkie considered it much of a gamble).
What is that cap space good for? A lot, or nothing, and we'll find out soon enough. And here again we come to a matter of opinion. The Bucks aren't exactly at a spot where signing a pricey free-agent is an obvious next step. Milwaukee is still banking on internal improvement as the main driver for future success. As with nearly everything related to the Bucks: If Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker don't become really good players, the team likely isn't going anywhere.
But max-level cap space isn't only valuable for big-market teams looking to lure veteran stars. Young up-and-comers can be had in restricted free agency if the offer sheet is just a bit more than the home team is willing to pay. And that, I think, is the most attractive opportunity for Milwaukee, to potentially add another young-but-experienced prospect to the roster. Not to step in as the team's best player, but to develop alongside the pieces already here and augment a talented core.
Doing so is hard (see: Teague, Jeff), and it's not cheap. The common refrain is that small-market teams have to overpay to get good players in free agency, and the term "max contract" always carries with it a certain level of angst for all but the wealthiest organizations. But the fear of overblown contracts is hitting something of a relative minimum right now. A salary cap set to explode in 2016/2017 means contracts signed this year, even max-level ones, could look like bargains in a few years. And then there's this argument against the fear of overpaying, which I think SB Nation's Tom Ziller explained quite well in a discussion of John Wall's max-level contract negotiations:
Wall's not going to be the best max player, and in a lot of folks' minds there's a strict class of player who deserves the max. It's registered as a sort of elite class instead of a salary figure. LeBron is a max. Durant is a max. Wall isn't close to LeBron or Durant; therefore, Wall is not a max. That's a poor way to look at it, because the Wizards aren't being given the opportunity to choose between LeBron and Wall. They are being asked to choose between spending that money on Wall, and spending it on some unknown player or set of players.
This is why I'm not as frightened as I perhaps expected to be about the Bucks potentially acting as major players in the free agency market this year. The key remains to identify the right players and hunt for the best value, but that's a discussion for another time. Suffice to say, Milwaukee has an opportunity at the moment that exists only because the players it hopes to build around in the future are young and cheap, and half of that statement might not be true if Brandon Knight was still on the roster.
Knight's new contract doesn't close the book on his relationship with the Bucks. Along the with fate of the protected Lakers pick that went to Philly in the deal, Knight's future will be something we keep an eye on for years, as it should be. But we do have another bit of data to factor into our evaluation, and as with every form of analysis, more data means better answers.