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Eeny Meeny Miny Moe: Which Bucks Stay and Which Ones Go?

The Bucks have serious constraints around adjusting their roster this summer. What happens if they do it anyway?

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NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Milwaukee Bucks Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

The Milwaukee Bucks are at yet another franchise-defining crossroads this summer. Yes, they’ve got Giannis Antetokounmpo, the superstar. Yes, they’ve got Mike Budenholzer, the man with a plan, and Jon Horst, the man behind that man. Some of the hardest things teams struggle to nail down have been home-run hits for Milwaukee, but the roster crunch Bucks fans won’t stop talking about looms evermore.

Khris Middleton. Malcolm Brogdon. Brook Lopez. Nikola Mirotic. Four of the Bucks’ best six players are all approaching some form of free agency, and the team will be hard-pressed to keep them all. It originally was five of six, before Eric Bledsoe agreed to a 4 year/$70M contract extension. There’s a clear path to keeping the band together, despite the serious constraints on the Milwaukee cap sheet. If you haven’t already, read this offseason primer that details the important dates and details that many fans gloss over, but front office aficionados will understand and appreciate.

Long story short, if Jon Horst, Mike Budenholzer, and the Bucks’ ownership group all decide to bring the whole gang back (minus George Hill, that $17 million needs to be freed up, sorry bud), there’s one clear approach that gets us there:

Stay below the tax apron, use the MLE on Lopez, use Bird Rights for the remainder of the Bucks’ free agents, and fill out the remaining spots with minimum-level deals.

At the same time, there are plenty of reasons why this approach might not work. Brook Lopez might want more money than Milwaukee can offer. Another team might swoop in on Malcolm Brogdon’s restricted free agency. Nikola Mirotic might want to chase a bigger payday while he still can! IS KHRIS MIDDLETON A MAX PLAYER?!

We have the time, so we may as well use it. What are the implications of any of the Bucks’ big five four (out of respect for Giannis, I refuse to capitalize the phrase in this context) walking in free agency? Let’s dive in!

(all stats are as of March 5.)

Malcolm Brogdon

Notable Stats (per-36): 19.9 points, 5.8 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 0.511 / 0.438 / 0.932 shooting splits
Summer of 2019 status: restricted free agent, full Bird rights, $3.02M cap hold

To keep him: Milwaukee has the most control over Brogdon’s future as they do over any free agent. Not only do they have the ability to go over the cap to re-sign him (Bird rights), he has a tiny cap hold and as a restricted free agent, Milwaukee retains the right of first refusal and can match any contract offer he receives. On top of that, the 48-hour clock for matching an offer sheet doesn’t start until after the July Moratorium is lifted, giving the Bucks nearly a week to sort out all of their other free agents before any action on Brogdon is required. Of course, they’ll be negotiating with him beforehand, and determining what amount will get a deal done is crucial to whether Brogdon will stay or go.

If he leaves: On the cap side of things, the Bucks would see little benefit to Brogdon’s departure. His $3M of placeholder salary does nothing to create wiggle room for the front office, and there is no compensation for a team that loses a restricted free agent. A sign-and-trade is possible, and would at least bring back something in return for the Bucks, but S&Ts have multiple restrictions that make them less common in the NBA landscape.

On the court, though, Brogdon’s absence would be noticeable. While not a premier scorer, distributor, or defender, his “jack of all trades” game fills in a lot of the gaps with his teammates. He’s big enough to guard some power forwards, strong enough to handle most wings, and quick enough to handle most shooting guards. In the Bucks’ system, he’s certainly not a lost cause on point guards either, but much like Giannis, Brogdon struggles to get over screens.

But the aspect of Brogdon’s game that matters the most – and therefore is the hardest to replace – is his world-class efficiency. Only 9 players in league history have finished above the 50/40/90 threshold, and Malcolm Brogdon could be the tenth name on that list (and the third-youngest). Even if he goes into a shooting slump and his percentages drop considerably, there are not many players who even meet those benchmarks, which speaks to how rare Brogdon’s shot-making ability helps the team, particularly since he doesn’t need a ton of possessions (his Usage Rate has never topped 21%) to be effective. And we haven’t even begun to cover just how clutch he is, and how most players would not be so cool under pressure.

To sum up, the things that make Brogdon unique are not likely able to be replicated by anyone currently on the Bucks’ roster, nor would you find a suitable substitute in free agency.

Nikola Mirotic

Notable Stats (per-36, full season): 20.7 points, 10.1 rebounds, 0.444 / 0.368 / 0.853 shooting splits
Summer of 2019 status: unrestricted free agent, full Bird rights, $18.75M cap hold

To keep him: Threekola is new to Milwaukee, but thanks to the fact that Bird rights come with a player when he’s traded, the Bucks have the ability to keep him...if they choose to afford it. Early returns suggest that Niko is quite happy in his role, thank you very much, where he’s expected to come off the bench and bomb threes from Mirza Teletovic range, but offer significantly more on the defensive end. It doesn’t hurt that the Bucks managed to bring in an old friend (pun intended) in Pau Gasol, even if Pau is only around for the playoff run.

Also, Niko speaks Spanish. Neat! But multilingual or otherwise, it’s easy to see how the Bucks might prioritize maintaining Mirotic’s presence in Milwaukee if they’re unable to come to an agreement with Brook Lopez (more on him in a bit).

If he leaves: It’s tough determining what the market looks like for Mirotic in July, but it’s not so hard to imagine how Milwaukee might struggle to keep him around. Despite having the now-second-largest cap hold ($18.75M) on the Bucks’ books, Milwaukee cannot get under the salary cap by renouncing Mirotic alone, so the main consideration is how much he’ll need to come back versus how much wiggle room the Bucks have with their other constraints.

As seen above, Mirotic provides more than just wiggle room for the Bucks’ offense. His shooting, in frequency, accuracy, and extremity, is a panacea for a team that was already performing at a high level. There have only been 47 seasons where a player 6’10” or taller has combined for a three-point take rate above 50% and a three-point make rate above 35%, both of which are lower than Mirotic’s career averages (0.554 and 0.359, respectively), which are still steps down from where he is this season. And the other non-Bucks names (hi, Brook!) on that list for this season (Kelly Olynyk, Davis Bertrans, Jonas Jerebko) don’t offer as much in the rest of their games as Mirotic does. Nikola Mirotic might be a cap casualty, regardless of what happens with Brook Lopez, and the Bucks would simply not be able to replace his shooting this summer.

Khris Middleton

Notable Stats (per-36): 20.6 points, 6.9 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 0.427 / 0.379 / 0.841 shooting splits
Summer of 2019 status: unrestricted free agent (player option), full Bird rights, $19.5M cap hold

To keep him: It’s fair to say that one of the main benefits of Eric Bledsoe’s early extension is a simplification the offseason negotiations for Jon Horst. There are a number of reasons to like the extension, but making it easier to re-sign Middleton would be a boon, because it’s going to be a challenge. Just like everyone else, Middleton’s cap hold ($19.5M) is less than it would take to create any space below the salary cap, and much like Brogdon, Khris’ cap hold figure is far below his likely 2019-20 salary. Further complicating matters is the overall NBA landscape: there are a number of teams with sufficient cap space and motivation to offer Middleton max-level money (Indiana is the most widely-reported suitor), meaning the Bucks will have to legitimately compete with other offers in order to keep Khris around.

If he leaves: Oh, you’d like that, wouldn’t you? You, who scoffs at the $30+ million price tag attached to a player whose game wouldn’t make the final round in a beauty contest, decries his (admittedly unfortunate) affection for tickets on the Tough Shot Express, and laments his cold streaks as if it meant living in a world without summer.

In case it wasn’t obvious, that was all said with tongue firmly in-cheek. There are many fans who are uncomfortable with the paycheck coming Middleton’s way, and the chorus of questions about whether or not he’s “worth” a max-level contract can be heard from Water Street all the way to Racine. There’s no going around it: Khris Middleton’s next contract is going to be an overpay to the same degree that his current contract is an underpay.

On the flip side, consider this. There are few players in the league that can match Khris’ collection of size and skills, and no heir-apparent on the Bucks’ roster. Tony Snell, Sterling Brown, Pat Connaughton, and Donte DiVincenzo can all do some of what Middleton does, but none of them can do all of it. You might be asking yourself, “what are those things that Khris does? BESIDES GO ON COLD STREAKS HA SICK BURN,” and while that is indeed a sick burn, Khris is the glue that keeps the system running, even to his own detriment.

Here are some facts.

  • Khris Middleton is a plus-shooter, making 37.9% from deep while attempting 42.5% of his shots as threes.
  • Khris Middleton is a plus-playmaker, with an Assist % of 19.4 and a Turnover % of 12.5. That differential (+6.9%) ranks sixth among qualifying NBA wings this season, behind LeBron James, Caris LeVert, Jimmy Butler, Paul George, and Kawhi Leonard.
  • Khris Middleton, contrary to popular belief, fits his role; with a Usage % of 24.2, ranking outside the top-50 players in the league.

Going further, the only other player since 2008 to match Khris’ current benchmarks for three-point shooting and playmaking: Paul George. And while Middleton is not on PG’s level as a defender (few players are), Mike Budenholzer has remarked that he is more than pleased with Khris’ defense. So when it comes to what the Bucks should or shouldn’t do, it feels like there is not much room for nuance. The two camps that Bucks fans can fall into are either “Khris’ role in Milwaukee is more important than the financial consequences,” or “The financial consequences are more important than Khris’ role in Milwaukee.” Neither position is invalid, but at some point players need to get paid, and the balance between on-court contributions and franchise flexibility has to tip one way or another.

Middleton’s departure would lower the overall level of talent on the roster and remove a major two-way contributor from the Bucks’ equation, but without the benefit of creating space to add a replacement. The only benefit of the Bucks declining to pay Khris is the amount of room they have to work underneath the luxury tax line, which seems like an unsatisfying consolation prize for losing a player of Middleton’s caliber.

Brook Lopez

Notable Stats (per-36): 15.6 points, 5.6 rebounds, 2.9 blocks, 0.449 / 0.366 / 0.833 shooting splits
Summer of 2019 status: unrestricted free agent, Non-Bird rights, $4.06M cap hold

To keep him: For as important as Lopez has been to the Bucks’ success, the conditions for retaining him are specific to the point of limitation. Since he’s only been with the Bucks for a single season, the team does not have a particularly useful exception (Non-Bird rights) available to keep him without requiring cap space. The only realistic option available to Milwaukee is the Mid-Level exception (MLE), and even then our earlier estimates about how much that could be were overblown. The 2017 CBA puts some strong limits on what teams can do after they get to a certain point above the tax, as Larry Coon outlines in his CBA FAQ:

[W]hen a team is below the Apron and [...] uses its Mid-Level exception to sign a player to a contract larger than allowed by the Taxpayer Mid-Level exception, the team becomes hard-capped at the Apron for the remainder of that season. This eliminates any potential loophole where a team could first use one of these exceptions and subsequently add salary to go above the Apron, since the reverse -- adding salary first and then using the exception -- would be illegal.

To elaborate, the MLE has two variants (taxpayer and non-taxpayer), but the differentiation kicks in when a team is above the tax apron, not the luxury tax line itself. Essentially, the CBA gives teams with high payrolls a smaller tool to add to their roster, in an effort to level the playing field for teams with smaller salary figures. For reference, here are the original estimates of each major salary level.

What this means for Brook Lopez is this: unless he’s willing to accept a 2019-20 salary that starts no higher than $5.71M, the Bucks will be hard-pressed to retain him without making any additional moves that shed salary (such as trading Tony Snell to a team with cap space, or using the Stretch Provision on Ersan Ilyasova’s remaining guaranteed year). That $5.71M figure comes from the 2018-19 taxpayer Mid-Level exception, increased by the same amount that the salary cap is slated to increase between this year and next (from $101.86M to an estimated $109.0M, or 7 percent). Maybe Jon Horst can find a trade somewhere, or Lopez is willing to take the aforementioned deal, allowing Milwaukee to use the taxpayer MLE and avoid being hard-capped if they exceed the tax apron this summer.

If he leaves: If the Bucks can’t agree to favorable terms with Lopez, then next season’s starting center is going to have some huge shoes to fill.

Lopez does three things exceptionally well for a modern center: stretch the floor on offense, deter shots at the rim on defense, and eat up space when a potential rebound is in the air. You can find a center that does one of those relatively well, and sometimes even two, but much like with Khris Middleton, it’s rare to get this combined level of competence in one package. If you’re trying to rank the priority of these three areas, an argument can be made for each but the most convincing seems to favor outside shooting, since it’s a more unique characteristic among most 7+ foot players.

Ironically enough, the Bucks traded away two rotation-level centers earlier this season (John Henson and Thon Maker) who had experienced some level of success in Bud’s zone drop defensive scheme and let-it-fly mantra on offense. How do you go about finding yet another big man who can give you enough of what you need in all three areas, much less at elite levels?

There are no easy answers to the questions facing the Bucks this offseason. Either the front office can keep together the squad that has achieved a historic net-rating and, at 48-16, holds the best record in the league by a significant margin, or they can allow part of the current group to go another way and risk flat-out getting worse next year...when Giannis will be considering signing the super-max extension the following summer. Is there any part of the latter path that doesn’t risk the Bucks’ long-term future with their generational superstar? Let us know in the comments, and at least we can all agree that the ride we’re on for the remainder of this season is worth the hassle waiting for us in July.