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Bucks’ Successful NBA Trade Deadline Focused on Flexibility and Finances

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Milwaukee’s front office made small but savvy moves at the deadline

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Brooklyn Nets Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

When the Milwaukee Bucks entered this season, most people argued their most bloated asset was the glut of centers clinging to the backend of their roster. Conversely, their most deficient asset was flexibility, having tied themselves down to a number of questionable long-term contracts that could keep the team near the luxury tax once Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker’s presumed long-term extensions kicked in. The latter of those now remains an open question, but the fact remains this team was on its way to locking into a roster with a firmly entrenched ceiling.

Milwaukee’s low-key but highly successful trade deadline sought to rectify both of those problems at once. Flipping Miles Plumlee’s ill-advised four-year extension for an expiring contract in Hibbert and potential opt-out candidate in Spencer Hawes with a cap hit around half as much as Plums was a relative coup given the plight some teams will find themselves in trying to create space these upcoming summers.

Flipping Roy Hibbert to Denver was an obvious choice for a team already burgeoning with unwanted centers, and Milwaukee will save some cash in the transaction, and get a trade exception they could use in the future. Not to mention they open up their fifteenth roster spot, an area Milwaukee’s utilized in the pass by bringing in ten-day players like Jorge Guttierez, Chris Johnson or Jared Cunningham. None of those players panned out, but siphoning through potential talent in search of a useful potato in the rough is a more useful than confining Hibbert’s massive frame to those padded chairs.

If they wanted, they could even bring back Steve Novak to fill that veteran leadership spot. Giannis clearly wants to take this team to the playoffs this year, and sliding an experienced player onto the team rather than a rolodex of try-hards eager to prove their worth may seem more useful to this organization.

That spot is flexiblity in the short term, but the more important factor for this organization remains the longer scale flexibility afforded by their shrewd transactions. Plumlee was a black kettle of burnt cash hanging around Hammond’s neck. Even if his play returned to last year’s level, he wasn’t worth that contract. When it was announced the salary cap would be leveling out, remaining around the projected $102-103 million level for the next two years, Milwaukee’s front office must’ve popped the Pabst.

As Zach Lowe mentioned in his trade deadline primer, the league could tap into alternative revenue sources to juice that figure up, but in the meantime, that number is significantly less than the already revised $108 million projections for 2018-19. Teams that spent like mad while they had the cap space last summer may come to lament the egregious signings they made as the bargain bin deals of the last CBA start to expire. Milwaukee is still mired under a few, but none of Dellavedova, Teletovic or Henson are nearly as costly as the Plumlee deal. The allure of locking into players while that money was sitting there is strong. Who gets a $200 gift card for Christmas and says, “I’ll wait and see if the prices go down after Christmas.”

Milwaukee buckled, surrounding their core pieces with complementary talent. By doing that though, they sacrificed the chance to horde cap space that became far more valuable with the depreciated salary cap announcement. Most of those moves still seem defensible in retrospect, but Giannis’ ascendance to superstardom started to make those long-term contracts feel a bit more like shackles. Milwaukee can preach some patience with contention still seemingly years away, but punting on interim flexibility in favor of mediocre appetizers isn’t a prudent strategy either. Particularly so when those players value seems highest when they surround the unique roster makeup of the Bucks.

Because of those long-term deals and the idealized fit Milwaukee went for in free agency, the majority of the Bucks’ players they could potentially deal just didn’t have enough appeal to land any sort of significant asset from other teams. So in the interim, they did the next best thing: remove themselves from a self-imposed bind. Even if they don’t create enough space to land some marquee talent in free agency, the reconciliation that they were looking to offload contracts was a significant nod of acknowledgement toward their summer missteps. Lowe’s article also mentioned Milwaukee was hoping to step into a seller’s market. Between that intel and the preference to create cap relief, the Bucks’ front office found success during a trade deadline full of bluster but devoid of bombast outside of the Boogie Cousins’ acquisition.

These are the fringe moves essential to striking when an opportunity presents itself. Slowly they’re emerging from the glass box they contorted themselves into last summer, opting instead to trade for the asset they had in shortest supply: roster flexibility. Don’t confuse these moves as meaning the Bucks can now go out and sign Chris Paul this summer, but at least now they won’t be as afraid that signing Tony Snell will cripple them.