The Milwaukee Bucks are in a unique spot this summer. They are likely to improve within the Eastern Conference with Tony Snell being their only “acquisition” in free agency so far, but they’re also tight against the luxury tax and don’t possess the flexibility at the moment to capitalize on this new conference landscape. It feels both encouraging and frustrating at the same time.
With such little flexibility in front of them, the Bucks have been active in trying to shed salaries in order to free up some space to acquire talent, according to several reports. This is logical, but it’s difficult to accomplish, and it doesn’t guarantee that a star or potential star talent will be available or even willing to join their team. Unfortunately, the Bucks are in need of said additional talent, so...what can they do about it?
Well, here’s what I’ve arrived at: The Bucks should trade Khris Middleton this summer.
Why Khris? For starters, he’s probably the strongest asset on the team right now that isn’t named Giannis. Khris can do just about anything you ask of him on the court in the modern NBA (hit threes efficiently, defend with productivity and versatility, provide some additional playmaking, etc), and he’s under control for multiple seasons on a team-friendly contract. There isn’t a team out there that wouldn’t benefit from having a guy like Middleton on their roster, obviously including the Bucks. So, why wouldn’t they want to keep Middleton? It depends on how you view the Bucks long-term.
Middleton has a player option in his contract for the 2019-2020 season. If all goes well, Khris is going to want to get paid. Good for him; he should get his money. However, the price of keeping Middleton will be interesting as it relates to the next payday for Giannis Antetokounmpo (due two seasons after Middleton’s PO), among other decisions on the roster. Giannis is an undisputed star and will be paid like one, but will Middleton reach that status on the court where a congruent contract is justified? Put another way: can Khris Middleton become a star? For a team in a market like the Bucks, can they afford to pay two or three players like stars when chances are only one of them will produce like one? I think it’s fair to have doubts about that and wonder if it’s a question the front office might have to address as soon as this summer.
But why now? Well, this summer has been weird. We all witnessed the Golden State Warriors dominating route to their title, but that hasn’t stopped teams from trying to position themselves to be ready if an opportunity opens up. In the wing market, Paul George and Gordon Hayward have moved elsewhere, and now teams are looking into Otto Porter and Rudy Gay as pieces that can push them into relevancy or contention. We could spend all day arguing where Middleton ranks among that group, but the point is he likely would present teams with a relatively discounted cap hit compared to those guys with little to no drop-off in production. Should a team be looking to fill the holes left by free agent departures, solidify their lineup as they prepare themselves to capitalize on an opening, or back away from the tax penalty by swapping a large contract for a smaller one, Middleton can be an attractive and productive option for them. He’s versatile, remember?
Of course, a deal for (at least) Middleton would not come without a return that met a particular standard. I’d imagine the Bucks would target young players with star upside or a player close to reaching that potential that’s already gotten paid, guys like Gary Harris, Rodney Hood/Dante Exum, C.J. McCollum, or Bradley Beal, to name just a few. For the Bucks, this type of deal gives them a shot at landing another star talent to play with Giannis while also showing him they’re willing to try anything to get the Bucks to the top (including a continued effort to shed salary around this hypothetical deal). For the teams of the players I mentioned, Middleton could provide them with a more known quantity as they try to compete and/or a long-term quality option that can save them some critical money down the line. Any of these types of deals are also a lot easier said than done, as it requires a lot of fortunate timing and plain ol’ guts from both parties. That’s if they even like the trade package to begin with.
For the Bucks though, this could be the right time to take that risk. Maybe the trio of Giannis/Khris/Jabari ends up hitting like they thought it would before injuries. But it’s just as possible (and as much as I don’t enjoy saying it, quite likely) that Giannis might need a stronger running mate or two going forward, and now is the right time to use the assets you have to find that player while still hamstrung by the team’s cap limitations. I think that asset is Khris Middleton and, though it’s a risk, I think it’s one worth taking.