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Cap Conundrum: How Eric Bledsoe Muddies Milwaukee’s Impending Cap Situation

Bledsoe brings plenty of talent, but also a potential cap space headache down the road.

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Milwaukee Bucks Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

There are three primary portions of the Eric Bledsoe trade to unpack for Milwaukee. Pick protection implications, the ripple effect on their cap space plus impending roster decisions and perhaps most importantly, how Bledsoe fits with this Milwaukee team. For now though, let’s focus on the former two and first examine what Bledsoe’s addition means for the Bucks’ strangled salary sheet.

Cap Implications

Eric Bledsoe brings plenty of firepower to Milwaukee’s offensive backcourt, but he also carries a hefty price tag not dissimilar to what Moose dangled around his neck for the past several years. He’ll be owed $14.5 million this year and $15 million the next. First and foremost, this is essentially wiping out whatever space beneath the salary cap would’ve been opened by Monroe’s exit next year. His lofty $17.8 million contract this year means Milwaukee will still have a smidge more space to work with next year with Bledsoe’s smaller salary, in addition to the $2.9 million the Bucks saved by declining Vaughn’s fourth year option.

While the question of actually picking up Vaughn’s option was a very viable one, that was a situation where the stretching of both Spencer Hawes and Larry Sanders contract comes back to haunt Milwaukee. Their combined paid out salaries next year are just beneath $3.9 million, a not insignificant amount for a team that better be sharpening their Gilette to shave beneath the luxury tax.

Bledsoe’s contract takes Milwaukee to likely $107.7 million next year, well over the projected $101 million cap. That figure won’t be finalized until the league pores over the final revenue numbers next June, but their latest memo expected it around that level. When Monroe’s contract was still on the books, they were expected to have around $8 million in cap space to work with once it expired, taking them down to nearly $93 million. That wouldn’t likely be enough to sign any sort of free agent with nearly the impact as Eric Bledsoe, given they wouldn’t have had the ability to go over the cap by signing an outside player since they wouldn’t have his bird rights. While player salaries have certainly lessened as the cap space tightened like a pickle jar lid, one only has to look at Tony Snell making $11 million a year to recalibrate their expectations for what the Bucks could get with that now-hypothetical cash. Milwaukee will still have their non-taxpayer mid-level exception to use($8.4 million under this year’s cap), but this wipes what little leverage they had to be buyers in free agency unless they offload contracts.

A trade really was their best avenue to acquire talent without cutting significant salary from their books, an unlikely proposition given they would probably have had to attach picks to players like Delly, Henson or Telly to toss them overboard. The more pressing question remains what they do with Jabari Parker.

That $107.7 million figure would place them $15.3 million beneath the projected luxury tax of $123 million. Given Jabari’s camp seemed to be posturing for a max contract before negotiations broke down this fall, I’m guessing that isn’t the sort of contract they’re targeting. $15 million/year seems reasonable for someone of Jabari’s potential but troubling injury history. However, it would brush Milwaukee right up against the cap and make it more difficult to fill out the bottom of their roster. No franchise wants to pay the tax, but particularly an unproven one like Milwaukee. It removes them from the friendly revenue sharing other teams glean by remaining below the tax, but also places even more restrictions on the team’s ability to acquire new players unless owners are willing to fork over serious cash for inflated luxury tax figures for contracts (i.e. Cavs owner Dan Gilbert). Perhaps Milwaukee will show enough this season to entice ownership into paying the tax at this early juncture, but that seems like a dicey proposition considering the gluttony of expiring contracts they’ll have after next season.

Even if they hypothetically pass on Jabari or sign him to a measly $4.3 million qualifying offer, they’ll still be counting their beans on a yearly basis going forward. Starting in 2019, Milwaukee will be staring down the barrel of three new contract situations, Malcolm Brogdon, Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe. Mirza Teletovic is the only other expiring contract that season, and while Milwaukee will have nearly $58 million to work with before smacking the projected tax threshold, the contracts those three will collectively seek very well could exceed that. Middleton would be turning down a $19.5 million dollar contract, so he’ll probably be aiming for long-term security to the tune of approximately $20 million a year. Bledsoe likely hopes for a similar payday after his contract consternation last time and this is Brogdon’s one chance at a big payday considering he will be turning 27 that season. Those are lofty price tags all calculated without factoring in any dollars for Jabari Parker.

What muddies the situation are the final years of John Henson and Matthew Dellavedova’s measuring over $19 million combined when those three contracts would go into effect. Henson’s declining salary contract proved to be a shrewd move by the previous regime, but that $19 million would’ve been enough money to theoretically fit those players comfortably. Without even factoring in the roster flotsam every team has, Milwaukee will be up against it that summer. If this team gels, look for the front office to get a bit more desperate trying to attach assets to Henson or Delly in hopes of clearing cap space for the summer. I’m not sure it’s the right move, but such is the issue with locking up players to gaudy long-term contracts when the cap space going was good.

Pick Protections

Moving onto the second half of this trade, let’s look at Jon Horst getting fancy with the pick protections. The initial report about Milwaukee’s trade with Phoenix simply stated a first-rounder and eventually a second-rounder heading to the decrepit desert team, but we finally got confirmation on what protections surround those potential selections:

This is a chips-in move. While it doesn’t necessarily sacrifice a sacred cow asset, any sort of tumble into the lower-tier of the lottery this year would be disastrous for Milwaukee. The Bucks have a stopgap should a catastrophic injury occur and they freefall into the early lottery with that 1-10 protection, but that would be a worst case scenario. They would have to sacrifice a decent asset on a cheap contract to Phoenix should they land in that 11-16 range, the type of player Milwaukee could still use with their crunching cap situation laid out above. However, it emboldens the expectations set squarely before the season when Milwaukee was posturing for a top-five seed and potentially 50 wins. With Bledsoe reportedly set to join the team in San Antonio, Milwaukee will need to reach at least where they plateaued last year, the 17th pick in the draft, to retain their selection this year.

The same is true next year, when Milwaukee needs victories once again to hold onto a late first-round selection. That would be yet another important selection with the trio of Brogdon, Bledsoe and (likely) Middleton set for free agency that same summer. Having a low-priced pedigreed player who could contribute while their core pieces make the big bucks will be pivotal to sustained success.

The most likely scenario is the pick conveying in 2020, when the Suns have the large swath of 8-30 for receiving the selection. Milwaukee’s bet on themselves is most evident here, as they’re presumably hoping the team’s progressed to the point this pick is putrid at best. With *hopefully* two more first-round picks notched in their quiver from the previous two years, they would be willing to sacrifice what they hope is a selection from 22-30 with Giannis leading the squad to some sort of contention. The unprotected pick in 2021 seems like an unlikely scenario, once again only born out of a worst-case scenario of Milwaukee tumbling deep, deep into lottery dredges in 2020.

As for the second-round pick they tossed along, they’ve also set protections on that:

The only realistic way, barring a meltdown, that Milw could retain both their first- and second-round selections next year would be if they happen to get the 17th pick in the draft, meaning they’d also have the 47th selection in the second round. Otherwise, the likely scenario is that Milwaukee conveys their second-round pick next year while retaining their first due to a relatively successful record.

All things considered, Milwaukee should be ecstatic they were able to add talent to this roster without sacrificing one of their core pieces. Even if the first-round pick conveys at a reasonable level down the road, this is a worthwhile gamble given the depressed state of the Eastern Conference, surprising early season success be damned. This is a team with an MVP candidate ready to lead a a squad that was running out of avenues to add worthwhile, potential star contributors. It’s certainly a short-term gamble, but one worth it even with the cap hangover to come in the years ahead.