The summer of 2016 figures to be a pivotal one for the Milwaukee Bucks.
To be clear, that isn't meant in the "blow it up and start over!" kind of way, nor in an "if they don't get a superstar free agent all is lost!" kind of way. With the young troika of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jabari Parker and Khris Middleton already on the books, the Bucks have in many ways already done the hardest -- and often most random -- part of franchise building already. But there also shouldn't be any illusion that the autopilot button is sufficient from here on out. The task of developing and building around talented young players isn't easy, and for all the talk of ownership having a five year plan, there's also a clear mandate for significant improvement now. And for all the potential that is yet to be realized with this roster, they were still a 33-win team and face an uphill battle to return to the postseason next year.
With all that in mind, Eric Nehm and I recorded a podcast two weeks ago (below) which lays out some possible scenarios for how the Bucks' summer may unfold. We tried to keep it fairly conservative and realistic, with the goal of producing a blueprint for how the Bucks could take steps to build a more capable supporting cast around Giannis, Jabari and Khris without pulling off a swing-for-the-fences trade or max free agent signing. As you might guess, much of the focus is on the open questions surrounding point guard, center and depth on the wing, with special attention on potential trade targets (Patrick Beverley, Darren Collison, Robin Lopez, etc.), whether Jared Dudley could return to Milwaukee as a free agent, how draft night could affect free agency, and the futures of Michael Carter-Williams and Greg Monroe.
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Cap space. As we noted in the pod, we wanted to do this early in part to inspire discussion and brainstorming of potential moves -- odds are our readers have some interesting ideas we've completely missed. So give us your ideas in the comments below (or copy them over from the excellent Fanpost discussion that started last week). Bear in mind that with the current roster the Bucks will have around $27 million in cap space if they cut Bayless, Plums and the rest of their free agents loose, and they'd have around $15 million in space if they retain both guys' cap holds and keep JOB and Damien Inglis. The cap could come in higher or they could drop salary in a move involving someone like Monroe or John Henson (who's owed over $12 million this season), but those are the figures you get with current projections provided by the league. Here's the cap sheet for the Bucks as of July 1:
Now here's a longer view of how the Bucks' flexibility will be curtailed as potential max deals for Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker kick in (green are just my projections for future salaries). Note that Middleton can opt out of his $70 million deal in 2019, at which point you'd expect him to roughly double the $13 million player option he has for that season.
There are plenty of simplifying assumptions that went into the table above, and much can change over the next few years to ease the financial burden in the out years: a new, more player-friendly CBA in 2017 could balloon the cap further, significant roster turnover can change the names significantly, and the NBA's non-TV deal revenues can always grow faster than expected (the NBA's own projections have generally been conservative).
But the ballooning payroll the Bucks project to have by the time 2018 and 2019 roll around suggests that signing a max veteran free agent this summer could become a dicey proposition if it's more than a two- or maybe three-year deal. In short, the Bucks have talked about spending up to the cap this summer, but they better be prepared to eventually threaten the luxury tax if they want to keep the current core together in 2019 and beyond. That's one major reason why I kept the "blueprint" discussed above fairly conservative; yes, it'd be cool to sign a max-level free agent, but it may not be financially rational or feasible.
Free Agent Frenzy? I posted part I of our summer cap/free agency/trade primer over the weekend, and in doing the homework for those pieces I've started to think the figures I threw out for potential Bayless and Plumlee deals might be too conservative. With the cap likely to balloon from $70 million now to $92 million in July and then up to around $107 million in 2017, look for plenty of solid rotation guys/marginal starters to crack $10 million and more per year, and that could certainly include Bayless and Plumlee (whose RFA status makes him a bit trickier to peg). Here's a table showing how the relative value of salaries has changed compared to the cap level since 2011:
The cap going up is the key factor here, but a fairly weak free agent class (ie not much quality to spend it on) and the requirement that teams hit 90% of the cap (around $82.8 million) in payroll each year only make the issue more acute. With 24 teams having $20+ million in potential cap space, some teams will undoubtedly find themselves in a situation where they fork out huge money (especially for one- or two-year deals) simply because they otherwise can't spend up to the cap minimum anyway.
For more info on team cap space, check out Basketball Insiders' team pages.