At long last, July 1st has arrived, and along with it the NBA's annual free agent feeding frenzy.
This year is of course different. While the league's salary cap is projected to rise only modestly this summer -- from $63 million to a projected $67.1 million for the 15/16 season -- much larger leaps are expected over the coming two summers due to the influx of cash from the league's new national television deal. The upshot is a a potential $89 million cap for 16/17 and $108 million cap for 17/18. Translation: take your old conception of what players "should" be paid and chuck them out the window.
Those tectonic shifts mean free agents will be looking to get paid for what the cap will be, not just what it is now. Players who might be "worth" $10 million in current cap terms will suddenly be max guys -- relevant for the likes of Brandon Knight and Khris Middleton -- while "real" max players who have already pocketed huge sums of money will have significant incentives to take shorter deals now and dip back into free agency when the expanded cap comes over the coming two summers. So prepare yourself for some crooked numbers, including in Milwaukee. Despite already carrying a full roster worth of players, the Bucks will enter the summer with $16 million in cap space, a figure that includes a $2.75 million cap hold for Middleton's qualifying offer. Thus, they can spend their full cap space on a single free agent's starting salary and then still have room to sign Middleton for any amount up to his max (starting salary of around $15.8 million) thereafter. So what should we be looking out for thematically?
1. The hyperspeed button.
The Bucks' interest in upgrading their center position won't come as news to anyone vaguely paying attention. Not that the Bucks are in terrible shape at the pivot; Zaza Pachulia is coming off a quietly excellent season as the team's frontline glue-guy, John Henson was productive (if not frustrating) as a rim-rolling shot-blocker off the bench, and Miles Plumlee is overqualified as an end-of-the-bencher. They could easily stand pat, hope Henson finally beats out Zaza for the starting job, and then look to figure out a long-term solution next summer when the 31-year-old Pachulia comes off the books. I'd love to find a way to keep him around in some capacity, but no one is confusing him for the center of the future.
However, the confluence of cap space, a Jason Kidd-fueled leap in credibility, and an ample supply of free agent big men make this summer a unique opportunity for the franchise to try to hit the hyperspeed button, and all indications are that the franchise is ready to go for it. That was likely part of the thesis behind dealing Brandon Knight for the cost-controlled Michael Carter-Williams back in February; without the obligation of signing Knight to a near-max deal, the Bucks have the ability to spend $16 million or more on a free agent in addition to whatever they end up paying Khris Middleton (more on that in a moment) while staying under the tax. With out the MCW trade, the Bucks would have faced a much tighter squeeze retaining both Knight and Middleton, filling out the roster and having room for a splashy free agent while staying under the projected $81 million tax level. Without him, they have about $33 million to spend on Middleton and a big-name free agent before they might run into tax concerns.
Now, you could obviously stop here and ask why the Bucks would want to spend so much in the first place, especially given Milwaukee's ugly track record on that front. In case you had forgotten (or blocked it from memory), this summer marks the 10-year anniversary of the franchise committing $173 million to Michael Redd, Bobby Simmons and Dan Gadzuric. So...well, there's that. Moreover, the Bucks would project to have a ton of cap space next year, too, so given their core is at the front end of their development curve, why not wait?
It's not an unreasonable question, and for those reasons it wouldn't be a tragedy if the Bucks struck out this summer (the benefit of not being the Knicks, eh?). But winning 41 games fundamentally shifted the Bucks plans; you can't be a team of 20- and 23-year-olds forever, and becoming a decent team so quickly dropped them out of contention for top-end talent in the draft a year earlier than most expected. And so the Bucks' primary sources of improvement are now the development of their existing base of young talent (read: Giannis and Jabari) as well as possible additions via free agency. Zach Lowe offers an excellent summary of why teams like the Bucks are looking to spend now:
Damn near everyone will have that sort of space a year from now, and some teams will have enough for two max contracts — plus a third mid-sized deal. Cap room today is worth more than cap room tomorrow, especially for non-destination teams who can't compete with the glamour boys on the open market
A bunch of those teams — Utah, Orlando, Milwaukee, Detroit, Phoenix, and others — have cap room this summer, and they should be hell-bent on using it. I don't really even care who they sign, provided it's not an obviously below-average player on the downswing. Pick a young or mid-career free agent and fucking splurge. Almost any deal with a solid player at $15 million or below this summer will look fine once the cap cracks $100 million.
2. Go big or go home?
All that brings us to the present, where the Bucks have been linked at least tangentially with virtually every human over 6'10" tall. Over the weekend they were suggested as fringe players for DeAndre Jordan, Greg Monroe and (gulp) Enes Kanter, all of which comes on top of their previously-reported interest in the Kidd-connected duo of Tyson Chandler and Brook Lopez. The tricky part is that the Bucks aren't likely to be favorites for any of them; Jordan is a seeming lock to land in Dallas or back with the Clippers, Monroe has long been linked with a move to the Knicks, Brooklyn is reportedly the front-runner to retain Lopez, and Chandler would likely prefer to return to Dallas or possibly land in L.A. depending on Jordan's decision. And yes, I'm ignoring Kanter because I don't think the Bucks are that desperate.
Thus, there's a non-trivial chance the Bucks land one of those guys, but it's also possible that they have to go to plan D, E and F quite quickly. With Dallas more interested in Jordan, Chandler would seemingly be the big name most likely to accept a deal in Milwaukee, particularly given that the Bucks can afford to dramatically overpay him for the next two or three years while Giannis Antetokoumpo and Jabari Parker are still on their rookie deals.
some league execs think Tyson Chandler will land in Milwaukee. Mavs not out of picture for Tyson though if they don't get DeAndre— Chris Broussard (@Chris_Broussard) June 30, 2015
I'll stop short of calling the Bucks favorites, and as a result we may see someone like Robin Lopez gain more traction over the next week as well. Of course, don't assume the other Lopez would be a bargain either. He's in his prime (27) and does most everything reasonably well -- offensively he hits midrange jump shots, makes his free throws, sets screens, and crashes the glass, while defensively he's mobile, a respectable rim-defender and does all the little things to make opponents' lives difficult. The one damning number on him is (rather strangely) his defensive rebound rate, though he also led the league in defensive box-outs and the Blazers were better on the boards with him on the court. All told, Lopez might not sell as many tickets as his brother or some of his bigger-named peers, but at (perhaps?) $12 million per year he might be a better value than any of them.
Other guys could of course also be in the mix if the Bucks continue to strike out -- check out our podcast on that very topic from a few weeks ago.
Prediction: I'll peg the odds of the Bucks landing either Chandler or Lopez at a super-arbitrary 67.3%. Personally, I'd be fine with either, especially if a Chandler deal is for three season or fewer. If those efforts fail I'd love to see them go for a value play on a younger guy like Kosta Koufos or Kyle O'Quinn, though I worry that they'll inevitably continue to chase bigger names instead. Also, is now a good time to note that in an ideal world Larry Sanders would still be an NBA player and we wouldn't even be talking about this?
2. Khris Middleton is about to get paid.
As expected, the Bucks made Middleton a one-year, $2.75 million qualifying offer on Monday in order to keep him a restricted free agent, but if all goes to plan he's in line for a massive raise from the $915,243 he earned last season. Early suggestions are Middleton's new deal will easily eclipse eight figures annually, and considering his age it probably wouldn't be a bad thing to lock him up for as long as possible (a maximum of five years). In other words, don't be surprised if he lines up a deal comparable to his buddy Brandon Knight's reported five-year, $70 million deal with the Suns, and if it does keep in mind that in two years $14 million will be the current cap equivalent of $8 million.
Considering the rising cap (spoiler alert: we'll use this caveat on every guy signing a mult-year deal), that sort of money would seem to represent good value for the Bucks, who can ill afford to lose their best shooter and perimeter defender. Also keep in mind that the Bucks have to spend their money somehow; with the cap minimum projected at over $60 million, they'd have to write an eight-figure check to the league if they can't find a way to spend at least $12 million between now and next spring. Given the alternatives, retaining a 23-year-old known quantity who perfectly complements your other core young guys makes all the sense in the world.
Prediction: Middleton re-signs in Milwaukee for something like Knight money.
3. If a free agent signing is inevitable, then you can bet a trade involving either a guard, a center or both could come soon thereafter.
With draft night bringing veteran guard Greivis Vasquez and rookie shooter Rashad Vaughn into the fold, the Bucks roster is already getting quite crowded, especially the backcourt. Entering free agency, Milwaukee has 14 guaranteed contracts in addition to Middleton, which would mean that adding a free agent and re-signing Middleton would necessitate subtracting at least one player currently on the roster.
Also, there's this:
I can't really explain why the Bucks would be linked with the likes of Cavaliers restricted free agent Iman Shumpert, but it's the opening day of free agency and things can get weird. Maybe it's just a random value play in case every big man worth a damn turns them down, or maybe this is just an agent trying to cobble together leverage for a restricted free agent in need of some.
Even ignoring the Shumpert noise, the obvious money would be on a guard being dealt at some point this summer, preferably Jerryd Bayless and his $3 million expiring salary. While the 18-year-old Vaughn is presumably still a year away from the regular rotation, Vasquez will presumably steal backcourt minutes from both Bayless and O.J. Mayo, whose expiring $8 million deal could also now be movable after a solid bounce-back season a year ago. Tyler Ennis is another name to watch if the Bucks try to package up some of their spare assets for a more established player, though I'd personally like to see him get a shot to prove himself a bit more.
Signing a new big man would also leave the Bucks overloaded in the middle, making a follow-on move there also rather logical. Considering that none of them have seen regular power forward minutes under Kidd, I don't foresee Pachulia, Henson and Plumlee all splitting the backup five minutes, which could mean any of them might be dealt.
Prediction: I'd guess two current roster players -- one big and one little -- are dealt before camp. Bayless and Plumlee would be the most logical, though Mayo, Ennis, Pachulia and Henson could all be candidates if the price is right. I'm not sure what the Bucks would want in return, though it seems like the one type of player they don't have currently is a bruising power forward-type.