The NBA's February 18 trade deadline is now less than two weeks away, which means it's high time for the Milwaukee Bucks and everyone else to begin testing the trade waters for potential deals leading up to the deadline. That also means it's high time for us to breathlessly analyze any shred of a rumor that hits the interwebs, however silly it might be.
Of course, we do that because it's fun. If you can't cheer for an actual contender, the next best thing is figuring out what you'd want your team to do to get closer to contention, be it via trade, the draft or free agency (hint: it's no coincidence that every NBA site sees their traffic spike in February, June and July). So with that in mind let's take a refresher course in the mechanics of the deadline and what that means for the Bucks' deal-making.
The Art of the Rumor
Let's start with some basic rules about how to navigate the muddy waters of rumors and innuendo. If you're really serious about following every rumor that pops up, then you're probably already on Twitter and checking HoopsHype's rumor page multiple times a day (it's a sickness, isn't it?). But be mindful that not all rumors are created equal, and the vast majority of rumors are just that. As someone who gets asked about rumors every day on Twitter, I really want to make this clear.
Thankfully, there's a short list of guys who generally won't tweet or write about something unless it's very real: Adrian Wojnarowski, David Aldridge, Marc Stein, Marc Spears, Zach Lowe, Ken Berger, Sam Amick and Shams Charania come to mind as guys who a) have a history of providing "insider" scoops that actually happen and b) are not so desperate for attention that they parrot every stray hypothetical that comes their way. There are of course others that I'm forgetting (remind me in the comments!), but those guys are the big guns who probably break 90% or more of the real deals that happen.
As for everything else? Well, take it with varying sized grains of salt, and be mindful of where information is coming from and how quickly it can be skewed. If you've never heard of a source and it doesn't have a real person or website behind it, odds are it's fake. If it's a random reporter who actually has a headshot, it might have some truth, but this is also the time of year where plenty of people might hear something and then run with it when it's either stale or never close to happening. Teams talk about plenty of hypotheticals both internally and with other teams, and the vast majority of them never go anywhere.
The echo-chamber effect also tends to skew things: anytime anything semi-legit sounding is reported, a flood of follow-up stories are written parroting the original report and often skewing it in one way or another. Oftentimes that leads to dot-connecting exercises and conclusion-jumping: "Hey, so-and-so said player A is on the block, so given this other team needs a player like that, they could totally give up x, y and z." Next thing you know, someone's asking me on Twitter whether player A is really being traded for x, y and z. It's probably the most annoying thing about covering a team, but it is what it is.
For instance, Gery Woelfel's report on Thursday that the Bucks were open to moving Greg Monroe and Michael Carter-Williams makes sense: Zach Lowe had tweeted earlier in the week that the Bucks would "sniff around" Monroe deals, and we've been making the case for why they should consider cashing in their prize free agent signing for over a month. Of course, any time Woelfel or anyone else with a newspaper byline says anything remotely intriguing, the usual avalanche of echo chamber stories begins, all implying varying degrees of urgency to the Bucks' intentions.
The original Woelfel story is perhaps predictably also coated in Brandon Knight counterfactuals and nose-crinkling references to the Bucks' "horrendous chemistry" and lack of "desire and intensity," though the only part that really matters is the quote at the end from an unnamed league official (ie not someone from the Bucks). Ironically, this was not the part that anyone quoted in the stories on NBA.com or Pro Basketball Talk.
"From what I'm hearing is they (the Bucks) are willing to trade anybody not named Parker, Antetokounmpo or Middleton,'' an NBA executive said. "I even heard they'd listen (to offers) for Parker and Middleton, but it would have to be some crazy offer.
"They want to do something; they know they have to do something. That group they have isn't working.''
While this is ultimately just hearsay from unnamed sources, it also makes sense on multiple levels. No one on the Bucks is good enough to really be untouchable, and front office people from opposing teams have every incentive to make other teams appear eager to deal. On one hand, it's self-serving for officials from opposing teams to stir the pot on other teams' players, but there's also nothing terribly controversial in the observations Woelfel quoted. As young as they might be, the Bucks as currently constructed don't seem to fit together particularly well, and with their latest losing streak the chances of them piecing together a playoff run are almost nil.
That's especially relevant in the case of Monroe and MCW, albeit for somewhat different reasons. Though his size and athleticism have made MCW dynamic two-way threat at times, in aggregate he's still in the lower tier of starting point guards in the NBA and a questionable fit on a team with a strong aversion to perimeter shooting. Still, being on a rookie contract through next season means he's very cheap even relative to his on-again, off-again contributions, and if the Bucks are going to ever figure things out defensively you'd think a guy with his tools could be part of the solution.
Perhaps most importantly, there's no reason to think other teams are going to burn up the Bucks' phones trying to get him at this point, so finding a suitor who can actually give you something back would seem rather challenging. Thus, I'd conclude that of course Michael Carter-Williams is available, but that doesn't mean the Bucks will find a good reason to actually move him. Personally, I'd have no problem with the Bucks hanging onto him, if for no other reason than a competent replacement (who would likely come up with an expensive price tag) would have to be found as well, and that would likely require a package involving something else of value. It's also worth noting that the Bucks did play quite well with him on the court last season (+6 points/100), so there's precedent for him working in Milwaukee.
I'd consider Monroe a much more interesting trade candidate, though loyal readers already know that all too well. While the Bucks' defensive struggles have regularly been linked with Monroe's arrival, the truth is that Monroe has also been exceptionally productive in his time in Milwaukee. He leads the team in PER (23.0) and RPM (+3.13) while ranking second in net +/-, all of which suggests that the Bucks' struggles to win games can hardly be pinned just on their highest paid player.
Still, the big question is one of fit, which highlights the tension in parsing individual productivity and team success. While Monroe has basically been the exact guy the Bucks signed up for last summer, the team's defense has fallen apart (for any number of reasons), and having a less savvy help defender in Monroe doesn't seem to be helping. Which puts me in the ironic position of thinking Monroe has both played very well and that the Bucks should see if they can trade him now rather than later.
In other words, it'd be a mistake to say it's "just" a Monroe problem; if it was just him, the Bucks wouldn't be notably worse with him on the bench. And it's not like Monroe has been in any sort of slump: he's putting up the best advanced numbers of his career, including a PER that we haven't seen in Milwaukee since Ray Allen was in purple and green. Moreover, with Monroe all but certain to opt out in 2017 and no real hopes of a playoff trip this spring, the Bucks have to question whether there's value in keeping up appearances for the rest of the season. Of course you don't want to move your franchise's biggest free agent signing six months later. But can you really build an above average defense while pairing Monroe with Jabari Parker? Even if you can, do you want to pay Monroe $30 million per season when he opts out a year from this summer? As much as Monroe has been a rock-solid option on offense, the small sample of minutes John Henson has played with the other starters (+30 points/100 possessions in 61 minutes) hints that a lower usage shot-blocker could prove a more ideal fit, especially with Antetokounmpo and Parker likely to take on broader offensive roles in the coming years.
None of this is to say the Bucks should simply give Monroe away, or that they don't need to be cognizant of the way a potential deal would be perceived. He's a good player, and the organization understandably won't want to dump their prize free agent just for the hell of it. Marooning him on a team where he'd be unhappy would also look bad for an organization trying to improve its perception among players; the Bucks' paltry returns for Jared Dudley and Zaza Pachulia were clearly in part a reflection of their intent to find them soft landing spots. So any deal would likely also have to suit Monroe, which complicates things but might not be that difficult. Most of the teams who could in theory be interested in Monroe (Lowe mentioned Portland, Charlotte, and Boston a few weeks ago; maybe his hometown of New Orleans could also make some sense) are closer to the playoffs or otherwise could be of interest to Monroe as well. So no, I don't think trading Monroe somehow dooms the Bucks to forever be despised by agents and players, and if the Bucks can get a good haul -- some combination of a service two-way big, a quality point guard, and/or a first round pick -- it also shouldn't get them much flack from casual fans either. Signing Monroe was like found money in July, and their leverage to convert him into a better-fitting set of players and future assets isn't going to get higher if they wait. Still, it's no tragedy if they play out the season with the current core, especially if the market for Monroe is soft. There's always a chance they figure something out that changes the equation, though at the moment it feels like a bit of square peg/round hole situation.
The Rest of the Roster
Who else could be in play come the deadline? Let's start with their cap summary and go from there.
- Giannis Antetokounmpo. Giannis might not project as a top-five superstar, but given his age, upside and contractual control there's no point in the Bucks moving him unless something insane is offered. Given Anthony Davis and Steph Curry won't be on the table, he's as close as the Bucks have to an untouchable player.
- Khris Middleton. His long stretch of consistency has gone in the tank over the past 10 days, but he fits well with anyone and is locked up on a long-term, attractive deal. A worthy third banana.
- Jabari Parker. While his performance on both ends continues to lag behind expectations, it'd be nice to see what Jabari can do next year after a summer of working on his game (not just his knee rehab) and possibly being surrounded by better complements (read: not Monroe). So while I think it's fair to question whether the initial hype over Jabari's offensive maturity was overblown -- look at what he did in Vegas and his first two months prior to the knee injury -- we're still a very long way from knowing how good he can be. I'm a bit nervous about him, but it's awfully tough to see the Bucks being impatient with him.
- John Henson. Henson clearly hasn't progressed enough to fall into the real "core" category, though he would also seem unlikely to be moved due to his combination of role (he's a productive big who doesn't mind coming off the bench) and contract (because of the way they count against the cap in trade, it's difficult to move players the year before a big extension kicks in). All of which highlights the paradoxical nature of Henson's career to date: I've been watching him basically do the same stuff for the past four years, and yet I still have no idea if his $44 million extension is a reasonable deal for the Bucks.
- Rashad Vaughn. The good news: the 19-year-old has a gorgeous stroke (35% on threes), seems to have good feet on defense and has found his way into semi-regular rotation minutes with Mayo and Bayless struggling with injuries. The bad news: Vaughn has provided no value other than the occasional three pointer (he shoots 27% on twos!) and ranks among the league's worst rookies by virtually any advanced metric (-6.22 RPM, 4.5 PER). Even adjusting for his age, those numbers make you wonder if he has much upside beyond a quality bench shooter (which is still worth something), though I can't imagine the Bucks parting with him unless he's part of a much bigger deal.
- Jerryd Bayless. I bemoaned the Bucks' inability to give Bayless away this summer, but he's filled his role about as well as anyone could have hoped so far this season, providing a steady veteran hand and perimeter shooting off the bench. Plenty of teams could use that, though don't expect him to fetch much and there's value in the Bucks keeping at least some adult supervision (and shooting) around even if this season is a bit of a lost cause.
- Miles Plumlee. Plumlee has shown flashes of real usefulness in Henson's absence, so he should have suitors, especially given he's paid next to nothing and could be had for good value this summer as a restricted free agent. But whether the Bucks move him probably depends a bit on what happens with Monroe, and his trade value figures to be fairly marginal either way. Note that his $7.6 million cap hold this summer might be a turn off for anyone with aims of making a big free agent push in July.
- Tyler Ennis. I really liked that the Bucks got the former #17 pick as part of the MCW-Brandon Knight deal, though one year later it's not clear if or how the 21-year-old former Syracuse star will be able to distinguish himself in the NBA. He's not particularly, big, athletic or skilled as a shooter or playmaker, though he's also still very young and missed the entire summer due to shoulder surgery. He could be the token prospect in a multi-player deal, but otherwise it seems like the Bucks might as well hang onto him and see if he can figure things out after a healthy offseason.
- O.J. Mayo. Injuries have contributed to Mayo's worst season as a pro, making him a tricky guy to evaluate. Jason Kidd suggested Mayo could be back as soon as Tuesday, but will his jump shot (29% on threes) come along with it? As much as I have often appreciated O.J.'s "crazy uncle" role, he's not essential to the team's long-term future and will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. There may well be some teams out there willing to take on Mayo and his expiring $8 million salary, though he's not exactly cheap and would likely be of most interest to a big-market team looking to cut their 2016 tax bill (by sending a bigger 15/16 salary back) or open up cap space this summer (by shipping multi-year deals back).
- Greivis Vasquez. Similar to Mayo, a free agent-to-be like Vasquez would only be of interest to a team that might want a short-term placeholder and is trying to shed long-term salary. Having a timeline for his return would certainly help, though teams trying to clear max cap space may not care quite as much. Not exactly what the Bucks were hoping for when they overpaid for him on draft night, but so it goes.
- Damien Inglis. The Bucks are generally loathe to send their young players to other teams' D-League affiliates, but they've now done it twice with Inglis, putting him in the company of the similarly abandoned Darington Hobson, Doron Lamb and Joe Alexander. You hate to write off a multi-faceted 20-year-old with an NBA body, but he looks like he'll need a change of fortunes (and heart) if it's going to happen in Milwaukee. I had hopes of Inglis being a surprise rotation guy this year, but his inability to sniff minutes over JOB speaks volumes about what he is and isn't doing in practice. The non-guaranteed $1 million he's owed next season a paltry sum, but it's anyone's guess if he's around that long.
- Johnny O'Bryant. I now think he's an NBA player (progress!), but he's certainly not the type of guy another team will go out of their way to acquire. If he stays, fine. If he's moved as part of a bigger deal, also fine. Either way, I'll look forward to being amused by one of the better (and darker) Bucks parody Twitter accounts.
- Chris Copeland. Copeland's been the Bucks' forgotten man, which isn't much of an endorsement given the team's injuries and lack of depth in general. It's difficult to see him being moved unless it's as part of some salary-matching, and if the Bucks had to waive someone he'd be the most logical candidate.
Odds and Ends
- If you're looking to play with trades, check out ESPN's trade machine.
- Looking ahead to the summer, the Bucks as currently constructed would project to have around $24 million in cap space, provided they renounce all their veteran cap holds (Mayo, Bayless, Plumlee, Vasquez) and keep Inglis and JOB's non-guaranteed deals. That would also leave them around $15 million under the cap floor.
- While he's under contract for $3 million in 16/17, Giannis is eligible for an extension this summer that could pay him as much as $25 million in 17/18. Overall, the Bucks could offer him as much as five years and (WAIT FOR IT)...$146 million. This is what happens when the cap is expected to spike to $108 million (from $70 million this season). If the Bucks and Giannis don't a sign an extension this summer, he could become a restricted free agent in 2017, with the Bucks able to match any other team's offers. While the Bucks can offer him five years and raises equal to 7.5% of his first year salary, the most another team could offer him is four years and $108 million (with 4.5% raises)
- The Bucks have trade exceptions equal to $5.2 million (from the Zaza deal) and $4.3 million (from the Dudley deal) that expire in July. They can't be combined, but could be used individually to absorb salary equal to those amounts.