I don't know about you, but Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. I’m not a huge fan of autumn, or football, or candied yams, or avoiding sensitive conversation topics with relatives, but one thing I do like about it is the opportunity to reflect and be thankful for the good things I have in life.
But Thanksgiving is next Thursday. Today, let’s talk about something I’m not thankful for, and that is the incessant hyperventilating about the Milwaukee Bucks’ unceremonious divorce with Malcolm Brogdon this summer.
In case you weren’t aware, Malcolm Brogdon was a Milwaukee Buck, and he was a pretty good one. He (rightfully) won Rookie of the Year in 2016 over Joel Embiid. He dunked on LeBron. He hit clutch shots, and he was a hugely important part of last year’s 60-win team. So why did the team let him move on to the Indiana Pacers in a sign-and-trade? Isn’t that a pretty big gamble? (Yes.)
So let’s talk about gambles for a second. I’m not a gambler by nature, but academically I can understand the concept: you weigh your options, and you make a choice based on how much risk you’re willing to assume in exchange for a shot at a worthwhile reward. For example, on my honeymoon I visited a casino. I brought $50 with me, went to play blackjack, and 45 minutes later I had $25. I decided that I had enough at that table and it was time to go; on my way out, I passed a roulette table and said to myself “I’m gonna put it all on black and see if I can walk out breaking even.” So I did, and your old pal Mitchell ended up going home with just as much money as he left with.
At that time, I was willing to put up with the risk of leaving with $0, for a chance at leaving with $50. (In actuality, I had accepted the risk of leaving with $0 the moment I stepped foot into the casino, but that’s a separate conversation.) It wasn’t the most responsible choice, but if you have a 48% chance of doubling your money, there’s worse gambles to make, right?
So let’s talk (once again...) about the choice that faced general manager Jon Horst and the Milwaukee Bucks last offseason. Already in the fold is Giannis Antetokounmpo, who just might be the best player in basketball today and (because he turns 25 in a few weeks and already has an MVP to his name) has a legitimate chance at becoming a part of the “greatest of all time” conversation. On this, everyone all can agree: the Bucks cannot screw this up.
Also in the fold (and central to the conversation) as of July 2019 is Eric Bledsoe, the Bucks’ All-Defensive First Team point guard. Recall that, since leaving a place he didn’t want to be, Bledsoe was the most dynamic point guard the Bucks had in years. He was adept at attacking (and finishing at) the rim, and more disruptive against opposing guards than most of his counterparts in the league. His shooting was...hey, nobody’s perfect, right? The fact is, Bledsoe made such a difference for the Bucks that the team decided to capitalize on their ability to extend him to a team-friendly deal in May...before his second consecutive post-season malaise. Again, nobody’s perfect, right?
So why does Bledsoe matter when we’re talking about Brogdon? Simply put, Brogdon wanted Bledsoe’s role. Brogdon wanted to play more point guard, to have the ball in his hands more and to control his usage and dictate the terms of the offense more. He’s okay sharing point guard duties, but on a team that already has Giannis and Khris Middleton (wings that have the ball a lot) and just locked up Eric Bledsoe long-term, the opportunity to move up the pecking order just wasn’t there. From The Undefeated:
What do you think about playing point guard in Indiana?
It’s perfect for me. Coach [Nate] McMillan has put the ball in my hands and has me guide the ship. I can’t be more thankful. I’m ready for the opportunity and excited.
And there’s nothing wrong with that! Malcolm Brogdon is only in his fourth year in the league, and playing professional sports means that you’re likely to find yourself moving on to a second career before you hit 35. This is his chance to leave his mark on basketball for himself, and he was willing to advocate for himself to try and do just that. He should be applauded for being clear about what he wanted, and the fact that the Bucks were able to recoup something (rather than nothing) should be as well.
The trade still stings when considering that the Bucks are undoubtedly less talented (at least in terms of their most-utilized players) than last season. Losing Brogdon made the team worse, talent-wise. You can’t simply swap out Malcolm Brogdon for Wes Matthews or Pat Connaughton or Donte DiVincenzo or George Hill or Kyle Korver or Sterling Brown, and you also can’t expect a committee approach to replicate what an individual provided.
Fortunately, that’s not what the Bucks are doing. Mike Budenholzer is not asking this year’s Bucks’ shooting guard to be a second-side attacker or a pick-and-roll initiator. Bledsoe and Hill are handling the majority of the point guard duties; everyone else is expected to space the floor and launch threes.
The Bucks lean on the long ball, perhaps even too much. But the important point is that their reliance on threes is by design; surround Giannis with shooters to open up the floor for him to get a head of steam and do, well, this:
Obviously Malcolm Brogdon didn’t hinder Giannis’ abilities to get to the basket last season. However, Malcolm also wants to do things that would get in the way; consider the team-wide 3PAr above, compared to Malcolm’s shot breakdown this season:
For reference, Brogdon’s 3PAr (0.291, a career low) would rank 13th on the Bucks, ahead of only Giannis (0.236) and Thanasis Antetokounmpo. His midrange attempts (which he’s good at: 48.7% accuracy!) have skyrocketed, going from an average of 0.062 over 3 years as a Buck to 0.218 as a Pacer; that’s a 350% increase! He’s taking different shots than he had in Milwaukee, including fewer attempts at the rim (0.341, compared to 0.493 last season). This can only partly be explained by his molasses-slow release on threes; Brogdon’s style of play is effective, but not the most natural fit with Budenholzer’s system or Giannis’ unique strengths. He wants to work with the ball and find his spots, and those spots are no-fly zones in Milwaukee.
So we know that Brogdon wanted a specific role, and to play a specific way, and that the Bucks both don’t play that way and had other talented players filling those spots. We also know that Brogdon wanted a lot of money (not more than he earned, but still a lot of money), and that Brogdon has missed a lot of games and still carries a medical red flag on his foot.
So let’s talk about risk/reward again. The reward is obvious: Brogdon is a hugely talented player who’s putting up big numbers on a decent Pacers team. Brogdon could make an All Star game this season! He’s a reliable contributor who doesn’t shy away from big moments, and even for as good of a player he is, he’s an even more impressive human. At the same time, the risks inherent to retaining him on the Bucks (unhappiness with opportunities available or the role he’s asked to play, fundamental compatibility issues between his playing style and the system, financial investment in a player who can – and has – missed significant time with injury) are just as real. It can be argued that there is as much downside as there is upside.
Jon Horst had a bet to make; he weighed his options and decided that the risk of Brogdon wasn’t worth the reward of Brogdon. That’s not an indictment against either party, and both have found success this season; Malcolm as an individual, and Milwaukee as a team.
Can we let it go now? Can we accept that Brogdon is gone, that there are legitimate reasons for him leaving, and that no matter what, trading assets (of which the Bucks have very few) for Bogdan Bogdanovic only 15 games into the regular season specifically to replace someone the Bucks are not trying to replace might be a bit of a contrived overreaction? Are we trying to solve a problem, or force a solution into place where a problem doesn’t exist?