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Opportunity in Milwaukee: Shooters Wanted!

Without many tools available, the Bucks have a glaring weakness that could be easily patched.

Charlotte Hornets v Milwaukee Bucks Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

With the NBA Draft in the foreground, basketball aficionados everywhere won’t get much of a break before the next big event: NBA Free Agency. The league year is set to begin on July 1st and with rumors buzzing like bumblebees, we wanted to take a quick look at what the Milwaukee Bucks’ approach could – should? – be after Thursday’s draft.

As of today, the Bucks have $103.57M of salary committed to 10 players, with a possible additional $1.93M to a non-guaranteed 11th (Tyler Zeller). Milwaukee is expected to add at least one player through the draft (picking 17th overall), and it would not be surprising for a deal to bring back either another selection in the second round, or another existing NBA player. The Bucks also have three players who will probably see their time in Wisconsin come to an end (Shabazz Muhammad, Jason Terry, and Brandon Jennings), and one (Jabari Parker) who is a giant ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ in multiple ways.

However, no matter what the outcome of the five current Bucks whose future is uncertain, the Bucks have limited tools to make major additions to their roster. With the 2018-19 salary cap expected to remain around $101M (and the luxury tax threshold kicking in at $123M), the franchise (as currently constructed) is simply unable to make any major offers. Teams can go over the cap to retain their players, but options are limited for any free agents Milwaukee may want to add.

As a non-taxpayer, the Bucks have only three ways to add players in free agency: the mid-level exception (MLE), bi-annual exception (BAE), and minimum contracts. The MLE for Milwaukee could worth a maximum of $38M/4 years, but the team is not obligated to use all of their MLE, and could split the annual value ($8.8M in 2018-19) between multiple players. The BAE, on the other hand, would be reserved for a single player, and is only available once every two years (hence the name); the 2018-19 BAE is worth a maximum of $7.08M over two years. Minimum contracts, which are the simplest and easiest deals available, can be offered when a team is over the cap, and the value (between $831K and $2.37M this summer) is tied to the number of accrued NBA seasons for the player.

Minimum deals are usually short and cheap, as are BAE contracts (almost by definition), so the challenge for NBA general managers becomes finding a diamond in the rough, e.g. productive players not signed to more lucrative deals. The MLE, however, offers a completely different level of risk; the higher value means that better players are willing to sign it, but misusing the MLE can hamstring your salary situation with multiple years of mid-level money tied to a sub-par contributor. Long story short, if you’re gonna use it, you need to bet on as close to a sure thing as possible.

In reviewing the Bucks’ disappointing 2017-18 performance, the hiring of Mike Budenholzer should quell a number of fans’ ongoing concerns. The team is going to be better, and with Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton leading the way, the team’s immediate next step isn’t predicated on roster overhaul. However, good and bad chefs alike need quality ingredients to cook a tasty meal, and with a number of roster spots available the Bucks ought to take a hard look at filling them through free agency.

The question then becomes: what do the Bucks need to add? In a word, shooting. Milwaukee ranked in the bottom-5 in total field goals attempted, three-pointers made, and total three-point rate (3PAr), frustrating fans who (rightfully) feared that the offense was lagging behind the rest of the league. Budenholzer has already demonstrated an understanding of the importance of outside shooting, so the problem philosophical now becomes about execution.

The Bucks have shooters, but a) have never truly featured them, and b) could always use more. Among returning players, Tony Snell is the closest thing to a shooting specialist on the team, with Theoretical Thon Maker as a close second (as usual, Real-Life Thon struggles to live up to his hypothetical namesake). Eric Bledsoe is slightly-better-than-expected, but is not nearly accurate enough to be considered a shooter. Likewise, Malcolm Brogdon and Matthew Dellavedova can shoot, but their play styles, positional responsibilities, and long loading times deflate their overall attempts. Sterling Brown could become a shooter, and Jabari has demonstrated his ability to shoot (but his restricted free agency is a whole other story). Giannis has too many crucial responsibilities to worry about his shooting. And finally, Khris Middleton perennially irks fans with his too-low attempt rate (despite his elite-level production in the midrange).

So while Coach Bud is still the primary catalyst of any change the Bucks will undergo, the number of open roster spots and availability of affordable free agents means that Milwaukee ought to consider making a deal or three with anyone who can help from beyond the arc.

To that end, here’s the process I went through. First, I took the number of active NBA players from 2017-18 (540) and started applying some criteria to eliminate large batches of those who wouldn’t fit. The obvious steps were to remove both players who can’t shoot (3PT% of 0.250 or lower) and players who won’t shoot (3PAr of 0.240 or lower). After that, I wanted to remove outliers at either end of the bell curve: obvious stars or core rotation players (those who played in more than 70% of available minutes and 70% of possible games) were out, as were fringe players and non-NBA talents (anyone who played in less than 20% of available minutes or 20% of possible games). Next was determining the free agency status of the remaining group (namely those who were under contract for 2018-19), leaving just players who are currently unrestricted or restricted free agents, or have player/team/early termination options pending for this summer. Finally, I cut out anyone who was at an unrealistic salary (made $7.0M or more in 2017-18) or wasn’t feasible for other reasons (sorry Nick Young fans!), and was left with seventeen names that make up our list of known options. Here you go!

Pending Player Options

  • Wesley Johnson (SF, Los Angeles Clippers – 2018-19 PO of $5.88M)
  • Dewayne Dedmon (C, Atlanta Hawks – 2018-19 PO of $6.90M)
  • Mike Muscala (C, Atlanta Hawks – 2018-19 PO of $5.00M)

Each of these players becoming available would depend on them declining their player option. For Dedmon (28), he might choose that route to cash in on his breakout shooting season (35.5% on 141 attempts), but he only took one three-pointer before 2017, so his outside shot is far from a sure thing. Nevertheless, he might expect a contract exceeding the Bucks’ max MLE offer. However, if reuniting with Budenholzer is worth a few million, Dedmon could join Thon in a (potentially) viable stretch-5 duo in Milwaukee.

Johnson (31) has been an above-average NBA-level 3&D wing over his eight years in the league. With per-36 averages of 1.3 steals and 1.1 blocks, he’s known to disrupt opposing offenses, and would be a nice fit in Milwaukee given his low usage rates (12.5% and 13.0% the past two years) and catch-and-shoot profile (92.9% of his career threes were assisted). However, it’s unclear if Johnson would opt out for even the maximum MLE, much less whether the Bucks should offer him such a deal that would last through his age-35 season.

Of these three, Muscala (27) might be the most likely to both opt out of his contract and accept an MLE-ish offer from general manager Jon Horst. At 6’11” and 240 lbs, Muscala is a low risk/low reward big man, but his decent 3PAr (0.535) and 3PT% (0.371) are the highlights of his otherwise-uninspiring statistical profile. When directly comparing career numbers with Tyler Zeller, Muscala is a much better shooter and a slightly worse rebounder. How much more is that worth than Zeller’s current (heretofore unguaranteed) minimum salary for next season?

UFA Forwards

Milwaukee’s need for forward depth was highlighted by the untimely absence of Mirza Teletovic, and depending on how the Jabari Parker saga is resolved, the Bucks might be even more in the forward market. Tolliver (32) is the most attractive option as a shooter (3PAr of 0.773, 3PT% of 0.436), but is both the oldest and most expensive. Acy (27) and Babbitt (28) are equally prolific from behind the arc, with 3PArs of 0.800 and 0.726, respectively; that’s about all they have to currently offer. Huestis (26) takes a lot of threes (3PAr of 0.632) but doesn’t make nearly enough (3PT% of 0.287).

Cunningham (30) is an intriguing BAE candidate, given his previous salary and lengthy history of outside shooting combined with adequate defense. Mbah a Moute (31) has developed into a credible threat since leaving Milwaukee, but might demand a higher figure after finding success in both Los Angeles and Houston. Hezonja (22) is a lottery ticket; probably worth nothing but maybe worth something, and might be worth a flier on a minimum deal. Scott (29) bounced back after a forgettable 2016-17 season, and although he’s not equipped to play center, he could bring some much-needed toughness to the front court.

UFA Guards

  • Joe Harris (SG, Brooklyn Nets – 2017-18 salary of $1.52M)
  • Gerald Green (SG, Houston Rockets – 2017-18 salary of $1.38M)
  • Ian Clark (SG, New Orleans Pelicans – 2017-18 salary of $1.58M)
  • Will Barton (SG, Denver Nuggets – 2017-18 salary of $3.53M)
  • Wayne Ellington (SG, Miami Heat – 2017-18 salary of $6.27M)

The front-end of the Bucks’ guard rotation is unlikely to be changed through any means beyond a significant trade. However, with the expected departure of three end-of-the-bench guards (Terry, Jennings, and Muhammad), it’s likely that the team looks to free agency to fill any gaps before next season.

Most fans will recall that Green (32) was a member of the Bucks’ preseason roster, and that he was released in favor of (gulp) DeAndre Liggins. Terrible defense and all, Green joined in on the Rockets’ bomb-fest to the Western Conference Finals, but likely played his way out of BAE money. Harris (26) is a University of Virginia alum (s/o Malcolm Brogdon), and with a 3PAr of 0.576 and a 3PT% of 0.419, is worth a spot on an NBA bench. Clark (26) showed some promise with Golden State before moving on to New Orleans, and could be worth a flier on a minimum-level deal. Barton (27) took on a larger role in Denver and could be a sizable contributor, but might not take enough threes (3PAr of 0.411) to make his full shot profile worth his next deal.

Ellington (30) is probably the best shooter on the free agent market. He has a ton of NBA experience (592 games played) and was in the top-10 of three-pointers made last season (2.95/game). His sky-high 3PAr (0.827) would be a welcome addition to a team that needs to put up more shots from deep, and his preference for shots above the break (75.8% of his total career attempts) provide an intriguing layer to his team’s spacing. However, he seems to be a Miami loyalist, and the idea of paying the full MLE (or even a large chunk of it) to a player on the wrong side of 30 is reason for pause.

The (Too?) Long Shot

Most of us have probably forgotten about Uncle Juice. Mayo (30) signed a 3 year/$24M deal with the Bucks way back in 2013, thoroughly disappointed, and received one of the NBA’s harsher penalties for substance abuse in 2016: barred from playing in the league for two years. But despite his extended absence, he recently established surface level contact with the team:

Mayo, eligible to apply for reinstatement on July 1st, has been focused on resurrecting his career for nearly as long as since it went all the way off track. Not only that, but he seems to have a strong interest in making his return as a Buck:

“I want to go back to what I left [in Milwaukee] ... I had great relationships with Giannis [Antetokounmpo] and Khris Middleton. I was comfortable there. I felt like I let them down, cheated them for two years. They paid me $8 million to be, in my eyes, a subpar player. They invested millions of dollars for me to be on top of my s---, and when you’re not on top of your s---, it shows. I’ll be 30 next summer. If they just give me the chance, I can make it up. I owe them.”

Mayo returning to Milwaukee to conquer his demons and right past wrongs would be a great story...but the story would be short-lived if he can’t play. In 19 games with San German, his numbers have been merely pedestrian: 13.5 points, 3.6 assists, 3.5 rebounds, and shooting splits of 0.394/0.360/0.839. There’s precious little context to go with those numbers, but let’s just say that a return of Uncle Juice might mirror that of Brandon Jennings: fun in theory, but ultimately unsatisfying on a competitive level.

These are most definitely not all of the available players this July, and we want to see who we missed. Which players did we not mention that deserve consideration? Do any of the Bucks’ current free agents deserve to come back? Which of these options makes the most sense for the Bucks to you? Let us know in the comments, and we’ll see if any of our popular possibilities become Bucks by next season!