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Caponomics: Bucks officially sign Miles Plumlee as cap flexibility narrows

The Milwaukee Bucks officially signed Miles Plumlee on Tuesday, inking the 27-year-old restricted free agent to the four-year, $50-52 million deal that was first reported (and somewhat bemoaned) a couple weeks back.

But while Plumlee’s return isn’t really news in a general sense, it’s worth noting that the decision to officially sign Plumlee — along with Thon Maker and Malcolm Brogdon over the weekend — does further impact the Bucks’ flexibility moving forward, and the Bucks’ broader spending over the summer similarly narrows their range of options over the long term.

2016 flexibility narrows

So long as Plumlee, Maker and Brogdon remained unsigned, the Bucks had roughly $5 million in cap space in addition to the $2.9 million “room” exception granted to all teams that use cap space instead of keeping their mid-level and bi-annual exceptions. But now that the trio’s new official deals are replacing their more modest cap holds, the Bucks will swing from $5 million under to around $4 million over the $94 million salary cap.

Considering a) the lack of remaining free agent talent available and b) the fact that the Bucks already have 13 players under contract, it probably wasn’t likely that Milwaukee would need both $5 million in cap space and the $2.9 million room exception to fill out the roster; they still have the latter at their disposal and can also sign players to minimum level deals (Steve Novak, come on down!) for up to two years. That should be enough to add 1-2 more end of the bench types, though the mere fact that the Bucks waited as long as they did to sign all three players suggests they saw value in maintaining additional flexibility for...well, something. File it under the “stuff that only hardcore cap geeks care about,” but the Bucks’ options are officially now narrower than they were last week.

What hasn’t changed is Greg Monroe’s availability, and ultimately that will remain a much more important x-factor than whatever modest cap room the Bucks might have had by delaying their new signings further (note: that wouldn’t have been too popular with their respective agents either). None of the teams that could still be Monroe suitors have significant cap room at this point (New Orleans, Charlotte, Boston, San Antonio, New York?), so pretty much any deal would likely require salaries to be comparable (ie within 150%). At this point I have a hard time predicting what (if anything) might happen next with Monroe, though the Locked on Hornets guys did ask me to be a guest over the weekend to discuss how he might fit in Charlotte. While there haven’t been any real rumors around it, I think he could actually be a nice fit there — after all, Steve Clifford figured out how to hide Al Jefferson defensively the past couple years — but I’m not sure a deal involving Jeremy Lamb, Spencer Hawes and a future pick would be super compelling to the Bucks. I’d probably do it just because I’m a Lamb apologist and am sick of talking about Monroe deals, but your mileage may vary. I also won’t pretend to know how intent Monroe and his agent David Falk might be on finding him a new home ahead of this coming season, but we know from last summer that the Bucks will try to accommodate players who want to be elsewhere.

2017 and Beyond: The die is cast?

If there was a recurring (and decidedly positive) theme to the Bucks’ summer, it’s that Milwaukee’s braintrust seemed focused on adding pieces that first and foremost complement Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jabari Parker and Khris Middleton moving forward. It’s not to imply anything in the NBA is permanent; history suggests franchise cornerstones tend to be far more fungible than we might like to admit. But the Bucks’ summer additions all had a distinctly complementary feel, and there’s something to be said for trying to actually build around guys rather than in spite of them. Matthew Dellavedova is a 3-and-D point who can be trusted to stay out his more talented teammates’ way. Mirza Teletovic is the floor-spacing four who gives everyone else breathing room. And Plumlee will be reprising his role as the rim-running lob finisher who worked nicely with the starters after last year’s all-star break. It’s not to say any of them would be starting for the average NBA team, but Delly and Plums have a chance simply by virtue of their fit with the guys that matter.

Hopefully it works out (read: the new Big Three become sufficiently enormous) because in the grand scheme of things the Bucks likely won’t have the flexibility to add any more big pieces moving forward. Much of that is just a byproduct of Giannis and Jabari coming off their rookie deals in the summers of 2017 and 2018, though on the margins it’s also easy to question whether shorter-slash-smaller deals for the likes of Plumlee and (to a lesser extent) Dellavedova would have been wiser.

Let’s consider what the Bucks are up against: if the league’s current $102 million cap projection holds for next summer, the Bucks could have up to $17 million in cap space — but only if Monroe and MCW are gone (and not replaced by long-term salary) and Giannis delays his max extension until next summer (without a new deal, his cap hold will be a rather manageable $7.5 million). It seems unlikely that all of those things will hold, and maxing Giannis alone will put them close to the cap regardless of what happens with Moose and MCW. I’d still like to see Giannis locked down for five years sooner rather than later, but it certainly won’t aid the Bucks’ cap flexibility.

Then again, would the Bucks really want to use that space even if they had it? With Antetokounmpo’s inevitable max in the range of $24 million and Jabari Parker likely to get a similar deal the following season, the Bucks’ finances are about the get very tight, and that’s even when you assume Monroe and MCW aren’t around beyond this season. As we wrote before free agency, adding another max-ish free agent on a long-term deal was always going to be difficult given Antetokounmpo and Parker project to get massive raises in 2017 and 2018, and Khris Middleton is all but assured to opt out of his $13 million player option in 2019 as well. The cap and tax levels could always rise more than expected over the coming seasons, but at the moment it looks like the Bucks will have to be creative to stay under the tax in 18-19 and 19-20. Here’s what the Bucks’ cap situation could look like over the next few years:

All of this should serve as a reminder that the downside of drafting and developing big-time talent is that one day you actually have to pay them as such. When that happens, it’s essential for any team — and especially one that wants to avoid the tax -- to stock their pipeline with new contributors on cheap contracts. Hopefully Thon Maker, Malcolm Brogdon, Rashad Vaughn and future first round picks can be those guys moving forward, because — despite what you might have seen from the league this summer — neither the Bucks nor any other team can pay their entire 10-man rotation $10+ million each. Speaking of which, maintaining long-term flexibility would have been easier if Plumlee hadn’t gotten a deal as long and rich as he did, and likewise Dellavedova won’t be easily movable if he suffers a drop-off from what we’ve seen in Cleveland. We may be wringing our hands about those deals at some point, but the good news is that neither guy really has to get better to fill his role in Milwaukee.

Either way, the Bucks’ summer spending shouldn’t distract from the fact that Milwaukee’s long-term thesis remains the same as ever. Antetokounmpo, Parker and Middleton have to become really good, all the veterans have to be willing to go through a brick wall to make them better, and someone from the current crop of kiddies (Maker?) has to become a very good and very underpaid rotation piece over the next couple seasons. None of that will come easy, and altering the Bucks’ course has become more difficult with every expensive veteran they lock up. But it still feels like this roster could eventually be something special — and that’s more than we’ve been able to say for a very long time.