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Don’t Hold Your Breath: Milwaukee’s Chances in the Anthony Davis Sweepstakes

After dropping the #ThonBomb, Woj dropped the #BrowBomb, and fans everywhere are in a Trade Machine frenzy.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Milwaukee Bucks Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s make this abundantly clear from the jump: when looking at the situation objectively, the Milwaukee Bucks do not stand a realistic chance to acquire Anthony Davis before the February 7 trade deadline.

The New Orleans Pelicans are in the biggest pickle that an NBA franchise can be in. To summarize, Anthony Davis is eligible for the fabled “super-max” extension starting after next season, but has already made it known that he is not interested in signing that contract with New Orleans, the only team that can offer it. The Pelicans, as a result, have two choices: they can either keep him for the rest of this season and next in the hopes that he changes his mind...or they can trade him for something, anything, in return that will soften the blow of losing a generational superstar. It is the worst case scenario for any team with a young superstar, and the next young superstar to have to make the same choice is Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Because they are bad with Davis, the only rational choice that New Orleans has is to make a trade, so the question is not “if,” but “when,” “to whom,” and “for what.” And as you’d expect, there are no shortage of suitors.

The Los Angeles Lakers are in, and they might be the odds-on favorite. The Boston Celtics are in, but they have to wait until the summer because of the type of contract Kyrie Irving is signed to. The New York Knicks, inexplicably, are in, as are the Philadelphia 76ers. And because Davis is a superstar, there’s no shortage of Finals contenders who, despite lacking assets, would also make a run at Davis, like the Toronto Raptors or the Denver Nuggets or the Milwaukee Bucks.

Wait, the Bucks? Per The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor,

New Orleans has options right now. The Lakers, Knicks, Bucks, and Raptors are expected to make trade offers for Davis ahead of the deadline, according to multiple front-office sources. To some degree, every team will at least consider making an offer.

There have been some rumblings, but as of yet there is no reputable report corroborating O’Connor’s claim. But as you’d expect, this mention has already been aggregated and took Bucks Twitter by storm.

Okay, but what do some other members of NBA Twitter think of this?

It won’t be, but it should be settled: the Milwaukee Bucks do not have the assets to land Anthony Davis. It would take an unforeseen absurdity, on the magnitude of a “Dell Demps just really hates Danny Ainge” or “Gayle Benson experiments with peyote” or “LeBron James sneezes while filling out the trade forms for Magic Johnson,” for Milwaukee to be Davis’ landing spot.

As an aside, it is absolutely commendable that Bucks general manager Jon Horst is willing to take a swing at an impossible pitch. His job is to provide coach Mike Budenholzer with the best possible collection of players, and by lobbing himself into the Anthony Davis conversation, he’s giving the team a fraction of a percentage chance at landing a top-5 player. Good on you, Jon.

But let’s have the whole conversation, because why not? In order to get Anthony Davis, the Pelicans will likely require some combination of the following three things: capable veteran players without lengthy contracts, interesting young prospects, and draft capital. Let’s remind ourselves of what the Bucks have to work with in these regards:

source: RealGM

Thanks to the Eric Bledsoe trade and the George Hill trade, Milwaukee’s first round picks all the way through 2024 have obligations to Phoenix and Cleveland, respectively. Because of the infamous Stepien Rule, teams cannot trade away first round picks in consecutive years. Jon Horst’s protections managed to thread the needle around this rule; the Bucks are likely to keep their pick in 2019, send their 2020 to Phoenix, keep their pick again in 2021, send their 2022 to Cleveland, and by 2023 they’d have control over their own picks indefinitely. However, this is merely the most likely scenario, and the protections on the Bucks’ picks last through 2024, meaning it’s possible that Milwaukee couldn’t include any first round picks for New Orleans until 2026! That is a tough sell for a team that’s very much on the rocks. Second round picks? An even tougher sell; the best second round pick the Bucks have is the Wizards’ 2020 and 2021 picks.

source: basketball-reference

Let’s work our way down the line, skipping completely over Giannis. George Hill’s greatest value might be his $1M guarantee on the 2019-20 year of his contract, making him a quasi-expiring deal. He and Jason Smith (also expiring) can only be combined with other players in any transaction on February 6, the day before the deadline. It’s safe to say that, unless the Pelicans were trying to completely clear their books, they will not have interest in Hill and Smith.

Eric Bledsoe and Khris Middleton are the Bucks’ second- and third-best players. Bledsoe (a UFA this summer) and Middleton (who is expected to decline his player option and also become a UFA this summer) are quality starters who Milwaukee relies upon heavily. The Pelicans have no reason to trade Davis for players who may or may not walk in a few months, whether they want to re-sign them or not. Additionally, New Orleans will likely retain Jrue Holiday (unhappy as he may be) in their presumed quest to stay relevant now, making Bledsoe a weird fit.

Tony Snell and Ersan Ilyasova are veteran role players with contracts longer than New Orleans will likely be interested in paying out. Brook Lopez is also a free agent this offseason, and the Pelicans seem content with Jahlil Okafor and Julius Randle in their front court. Malcolm Brogdon is super cheap right now...but is not young, and is a restricted free agent that will need to get paid this summer. Thon Maker, who would like to play more basketball, please, is technically a prospect, but the chance of him reaching a non-role player ceiling is infinitesimally small.

D.J. Wilson has been good for roughly two months. Donte DiVincenzo was interesting for a few weeks before he started to hit a wall. Pat Connaughton and Sterling Brown are okay, but do not have All Star bids in their future. Christian Wood might be a G-League MVP candidate, but is not a centerpiece of a trade for an NBA MVP candidate.

So knowing that the Bucks don’t have available draft assets, what collection of players is going to actually resonate with New Orleans? Even if you offered any number of non-Giannis players the Pelicans desired, what combination actually works, both in terms of talent and salary? The most “convincing” offer would be Middleton, Brogdon, Thon, Donte, and Wood, which conveniently ignores the fact that regular season rosters are limited to 15 players, and this would put New Orleans at 19 (and Milwaukee at 11). What, you want to just toss in Tim Frazier, Ian Clark, and Frank Jackson to make the roster spots work? Then you have to add Brook Lopez, meaning you’re trading 60% of your starting lineup for 1.5 seasons of The Brow, while also cutting your stable of rotation players in half.

There just isn’t any realistic path for the Bucks to make a legitimate offer that will be seriously considered. Milwaukee simply doesn’t have the same collection of young headline talent boasted by the Lakers (Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma), Celtics (Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown), Sixers (Ben Simmons, technically Markelle Fultz), or any other dark-horse team waiting to make an offer. They also don’t have draft picks to use, and by the way, the Bucks are currently the best team in the NBA as currently constructed! The roster construction conversation this summer won’t be a walk in the park, but it’s a far sight better than it would be if Davis comes and goes, and suddenly Giannis is the one releasing a statement that he requested a trade.

The Milwaukee Bucks’ best chance at winning a championship coincides with the tenure of Giannis Antetokounmpo. He is already on the level of Davis, and while combining their powers is tempting (positional fit be damned!), it is simply not realistic. Right now, the best course for the team is to continue as they are: build around Giannis on offense, build around Giannis on defense, keep winning.

Of course Jon Horst should make the call. Of course the offer can be made with little consequence. Shoot your shot, watch it miss, move on. You might get another shot soon enough.