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Crossroads 2017: Bucks Staying The Course

This summer was a crossroads for the franchise, and the franchise chose continuity. What now?

Toronto Raptors v Milwaukee Bucks - Game Six Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

“To actively do nothing is a decision.” –Barack Obama

The summer of 2017 was a critical one for the Milwaukee Bucks, although it wouldn’t feel that way to a casual observer. They didn’t exactly do nothing...but there wasn’t much that they did do. Lost in the noise of superstars switching teams, All Stars demanding trades, and franchises breaking the rules to get ahead, the Bucks offseason accomplishments can be summarized thusly:

  • Retained Tony Snell and Jason Terry
  • Drafted D.J. Wilson and Sterling Brown
  • Let Michael Beasley walk and waived Spencer Hawes

That’s it. That’s literally the list of significant moves of the summer. There were more rumors and stories and hearsay, but none of them affect the Bucks’ opening day roster. For all the upheaval in the league (particularly in the Eastern Conference), the Bucks avoided rocking the boat nearly entirely. The band from last year’s 42-40 campaign is very much getting back together. What does this mean for the team’s long-term outlook?

The Bucks believe in Giannis Antetokounmpo, as they should.

Whether it’s his otherworldly physical profile, his innate feel for the game, or his world-class work ethic, the only thing more overwhelming than Giannis’ future in Milwaukee is the sheer unlikelihood of his story. A succinct version comes from this 2014 Grantland article:

He grew up destitute on the fringes of Greek society, with a loving family of Nigerian immigrants. This time last year he was playing for a second-division Greek league club in a small neighborhood in Athens. Now he’s a rookie for the Milwaukee Bucks shredding the Internet, one breathtaking weakside block at a time.

In his piece, Amos Barshad asks, “Is Giannis the man who will save professional basketball in Milwaukee?” The answer, years later, appears to be an emphatic “yes.” He certainly hasn’t done it alone, but few people will remember that once they nickname the WESC “the house that Giannis built.”

Giannis in Milwaukee means that “win-now” moves are made to result in more than a low-seeded playoff exit. It means that lottery picks are no longer a primary franchise building block. It means that everything the team does from this point on matters...or at least, it could, which is way more than what we had before. And while it’s a major cause for optimism, this paradigm shift is also the rationale behind claiming that the Bucks’ clock is ticking with Giannis. Then again, this is Giannis. By definition, he defies expectations, so why not defy this one? At least we have four years to look forward to.

The Bucks believe in Khris Middleton, which might cost them.

Were it not for the radiant aura people see when they look at Giannis, more would recognize just how good Khris Middleton is at basketball. An elite shooter and exemplary defender, Middleton boasts both pillars of the “3 & D” archetype while also developing as an NBA playmaker. He’s the type of player custom-made for the modern NBA, with the size of a 4 but the skills of a 2, and his pre-spike salary (signed for five years/$70m in 2015) is a particularly sweet cherry on top.

But like all good things, that team-friendly contract is destined to end. With Year Five of his deal being a $13m player option, Middleton’s time in Milwaukee could be in jeopardy sooner than you may want to believe, and not just because other teams might give up a significant return for him. The catalyst for a hypothetical departure? The Bucks’ cap sheet.

Quite simply, Middleton will be worth far more than his 2019-20 salary would pay him, and his agent will undoubtedly convince him that declining the option is the best move. Will the Bucks pony up to bring him back once the rest of the league is able to make him nine-figure offers? The question is not (yet) whether or not Middleton deserves such a salary (he does). It’s whether or not the Bucks are in a position to be able to pay him.

Giannis will be making $25m for the next four seasons, and it’s safe to assume that this figure is a floor for him. Middleton will be the team’s next-biggest contract, but Jabari Parker’s looming extension (more on him later) casts a shadow over the team’s three-year roster building plan. Hypothetically, let’s say the Bucks resign Jabari to a big deal, similar to Giannis’ contract. When it comes time to deal with Middleton’s free agency, the team will also have to deal with Malcolm Brogdon’s restricted free agency, and those two could be jockeying for position, while Thon Maker’s restricted free agency awaits the summer after...and a new Giannis contract the summer after that.

The problem isn’t whether or not all of these players are worth paying, but whether or not they add up to a championship-caliber effort at the same time on the court while taking up most of the Bucks’ cap space off of it. Middleton will be moving into the twilight of his prime once his new deal is signed, whereas all of the other franchise building blocks will be smack in the middle of theirs. Khris Middleton is a player worth keeping, but at any price?

The Bucks believe in Malcolm Brogdon and Thon Maker, which is risky.

The Bucks’ 2015 draftees were selected for seemingly contradictory reasons. The Thon pick was made as a home-run swing, prioritizing upside over immediate impact. On the other hand, the Malcolm pick was made with significantly lower expectations (as are most second round picks compared to their first round counterparts), accepting a lower ceiling for steady contributions from the jump.

Both players share some attributes, most notably length (the 7’1” Maker has a 7’3” wingspan, and the 6’5” Brogdon has a 6’10 1/2” wingspan), but above all else are high-character individuals with high motors, impressive work ethics, and a versatile approach to the game. On paper, they were probably the best types of players that the Bucks could have picked up.

On the court, both Thon and Malcolm were significantly better than expected. Maker rode the bench for the first half of the season, but started delivering impressive performances once his playing time increased. And oh yeah, Brogdon (picked 36th overall) won Rookie of the Year, no big deal. In terms of inaugural seasons, it’s hard to have demanded more from either player.

Entering their sophomore years, the bar is higher for both Thon and Malcolm, and it’s hard to tell which one will walk a more difficult path. Maker needs to show that his debut season wasn’t just a fluke, proving that his mix of shot-blocking, perimeter guarding, and three-point shooting is sustainable, while also growing physically and adding the strength needed to play center. Brogdon needs to maintain his all-around game, which is no small task, while further developing his understanding of the NBA point guard role.

Internal development is very much the Bucks’ modus operandi, and there’s no reason to expect differently here. Not everyone makes Giannis-sized leaps forward from year to year, though, and it’s not impossible for either Thon or Malcolm (or both) to struggle in Year Two. In fact, it’s more likely that one (or both) of these players experiences some significant growing pains...which wouldn’t be so bad if the Bucks weren’t heavily reliant on them going forward. Middleton is not a superstar, and Jabari’s chance to become one may have been taken away. The Bucks need one of Thon or Brogdon to ascend to stardom, and it’s not a sure bet that they will.

The Bucks believe in Jabari Parker, which is...something.

I don’t know, man. I just don’t know. So much has been said about Jabari already, and everything that the team has said indicates that they’re 100% invested in his career in Milwaukee. Parker could end up becoming the second star we all imagined, or he could end up leaving Milwaukee with nothing but “what ifs” surrounding him...or he could re-sign with the Bucks, take up a huge chunk of the team’s cap, and never improve beyond what we’ve already seen from him. The best case scenario with Jabari is as unlikely as the worst case scenario is unthinkable. Time will tell, and we will be watching.

The Bucks believe in their supporting cast, which is encouraging.

While imperfect, the Bucks have built a roster capable of winning more games than they lose. With thirteen out of the fifteen possible players returning this season, the only new faces are rookies who should not expect to have a big impact early on. It’s surprising, almost nice, to see a modern team maintain such a large group of players for more than a season.

(Sorry, Spencer...)

As each player returns for training camp, the continuity and cohesion they’re coming back to should benefit the Bucks in the short term. Everyone is coming back to roughly the same role they filled last year, and everybody fits in next to Giannis in their own way. If only everyone fit so well together under the salary cap...

The Bucks believe in their coach and their system, which is questionable.

Many Bucks fans, despite feeling good about the future, harbor significant concerns with the franchise’s decision-makers. These concerns are not baseless; the ownership group caused a major kerfuffle with the drawn-out and dramatic replacement process of former GM John Hammond.

Time will tell whether or not new GM Jon Horst makes all that trouble worthwhile, or if any of the rumored power struggles at the top of the Bucks’ organization chart will trickle down into actual basketball operations. More immediate is the scrutiny put upon Jason Kidd and his coaching staff, especially the defensive strategy that has been under fire since Kidd’s second season. At the core of that issue is that Milwaukee gives up too many valuable shots (corner threes, particularly) while not forcing enough turnovers to make up for it. As Adam put it back in June:

Milwaukee’s been willing to concede these geographical advantages in favor of pushing teams late into the shot clock. As Chris Herring at 538 pointed out, that can oftentimes lead to worse shooting percentages. The goal, as many know, is to extend possessions in the hopes of teams either making a mistake against Milwaukee’s length or being forced into an off-kilter, low-percentage shot late in the clock. To this point, it hasn’t exactly worked that way.

The Bucks’ defense is the embodiment of high-risk/high-reward, and it may be that sticking to that approach is the right call. With rangy defenders (Giannis, Middleton, Thon, Brogdon, Matthew Dellavedova, and even John Henson or rookies D.J. Wilson and Sterling Brown fit that description) flying all across the floor, few teams are equipped to navigate that type of chaos. The downside is that when a non-defender is in the mix (Jabari, Greg Monroe, sometimes Henson and Mirza Teletovic), the entire chain can be broken because of the one weak link.

This dichotomy can be traced directly to Kidd, who as a player took advantage of chaos on the floor...while reportedly miring his teams in it off the floor. Kidd has been, and always will be, willing to experiment, and those experiments have propelled him to his highs and driven him into his lows as a coach. But now, starting his fifth year, the opportunity to step into the upper floors of the Eastern Conference power structure is too important to jeopardize in favor of tinkering.

The pressure is on: Jason Kidd and his staff need to show that their system will work, or they may end up looking for work if Milwaukee decides that they need a different system to get the most out of Giannis and company. The problem here is that, should the worst come to pass, it may be too late to make a big enough difference.

Next summer is going to get much more attention than this one did, both in Milwaukee and across the league. Between any significant trades made in the next 9 months, the expiration of Moose’s contract ($17.9 off the books), and the inevitable outcome of the Jabari Parker saga (extension now? extension later? qualifying offer? will he still be here?!), there will be more excuse for the national media to zoom in on the Bucks. But we know that what they did this summer (or rather, what they didn’t do) is crucial to understanding where the team is headed next year, and beyond.