Peering past the eclipse-level blinding amount of coverage about the Kyrie Irving to Boston blockbuster feels difficult at the moment. The trade shifts this year’s Eastern Conference race from a death march towards a bland playoff inevitability to an impending clash with enough potential pissing contests to fill a trough. Still, there’s plenty to glean about future of the Milwaukee Bucks and their place within the Eastern Conference from this transaction, namely that there’s still little reason to rush things.
We’ve discussed our myriad reactions to the Kyrie move in regards to Milwaukee, but the best point of reference for what this means still lies in what Ben Thompson laid out several months ago: planning for the future. Boston wasn’t traversing a tightrope with their rebuild, in fact their rebuilding road looked more like an 8-lane highway. Their present success wasn’t coming at the sacrifice of any future assets by virtue of their Billy King’s ransom from Brooklyn. Now though, most of the the crown jewels in Ainge’s Scrooge McDuck vault have been emptied out besides the possible picks he acquired from the Sixers for trading back. They will posit and proclaim that both Kyrie and Hayward’s youth means that when Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum fully blossom they’ll have a core four with two veterans to lead the way. If I’m Milwaukee, I feel more comfortable with that than them having two more bites at the apple in a reportedly loaded draft.
All of this is yet another reminder that while franchise success should annually be the goal, aiming for those wins in this near future seems like a foolish endeavor for the Bucks. I’m not advocating for tanking, that route is nigh impossible with a star like Giannis on the roster, but the path to Eastern Conference dominance three years from now feel far less terrifying than it did yesterday. If this summer taught us anything it’s that teams can quickly shift gears, so three years is an outrageous amount of time to prognosticate anything reliably, but outside of Philadelphia, Boston seemed like the team most poised to pluck the young pieces needed for a dominant future. Now, the blue chippers they cashed in feel like an unfinished project in need of significant molding and a talented scorer who seems potentially redundant with the scoring stylings of Kyrie Irving.
Milwaukee meanwhile has a superstar locked under contract for the next four years. That’s four more years they have to lock in talent around said superstar, discovering who maximizes his unique playing style and who fits in best to provide the path towards championship contention for which they’re vying. That’s four more years where he can hone his skills, hopefully achieve the type of success that satisfies him to an extent and bask in the type of breakthroughs commensurate with his drive and talent level.
Inevitably there will be new challengers. The new members of the Eastern Conference detritus club will recover with high draft picks over the next few years. At the moment though, the path to contention in the Eastern Conference’s future has never felt more penetrable. Meanwhile, the Western Conference’s stacked crew of All-In squads feels like the diametric opposite. Both of these new situations create unique opportunities for smart front offices to pounce, opportunities Horst and Co. should be surveying smartly. Teams in the East like Indiana and Chicago, franchises with a long history of avoiding complete rebuilds, will probably grow impatient and look to offload assets in lopsided moves to placate fanbases in unnecessary ways. Teams in the West will recognize their doomed fate after banging their head against the 8th-seed ceiling one too many times and look to potentially slough off All-Stars to snag assets. These are the prime times when Milwaukee must adroitly use their remaining resources to set themselves up for the future years when the championship cluster looks just overcast as opposed to pitch black.
This past year has seen a resurgence of the All-Star player trade, with Jimmy Butler, Demarcus Cousins, Chris Paul and now Kyrie Irving switching teams. Others like KD, Gordon Hayward and Al Horford moved through free agency. It feels as if the tectonic plates have settled to a point now, and Milwaukee has a unique opportunity to straddle the line between good and hopefully great, with an elevation to the latter perhaps not occurring for a few years. Players will want to play with Giannis, and the front office needs to find better ways to position itself for the future when the likes of Henson, Delly and Teletovic get off the books. Perhaps that entails trading assets like Middleton, Parker and picks for a developmental player at this point. Giannis being just 22 yet seemingly sliding into undisputed leadership role provides a distinct opportunity to re-position this team for the future. Almost anyone from 19-24 still can fit within his age group, and finding guys willing to grow and peak when championship contenders seem less like a bygone conclusion would be a prudent choice.
At this point, there are few teams with assets looking to contend immediately. But a tumultuous year long tumble towards the dregs of the standings can perturb less patient owners. Even the iffier assets Milwaukee owns may turn from fools gold to real gold if the right teams start getting fidgety about the course of their season. With Giannis in tow, it’s difficult to imagine first round picks being supremely valuable to Milwaukee either. Yes, they still offer cheap contracts and more importantly, control over that contract, but Giannis will make it difficult for this team to dip any lower than 14 most likely. Kyrie moving may strengthen Boston in the short term, but it also weakened their long-term projections, at least in my book. Milwaukee should recognize the openings that lie there and ensure they’re optimizing each opportunity to peak when the old guard is weaker. The future is always fluid, but Milwaukee shouldn’t let them scare them off from steering into those distant waters.