The popular assumption amongst many Milwaukee Bucks fans has been that general manager Jon Horst will work his magic to keep the core contributors from the 2018-19 team together. After all, when you go 60-22 and make the Eastern Conference Finals with a 24-year old super-duper-star approaching a potential super-max extension like Giannis Antetokounmpo is, “dance with the one who brought you” is an attractive option.
It will probably still result in George Hill getting waived on July 1st, possibly (probably?) won’t include Nikola Mirotic, and might cost Ersan Ilyasova or Tony Snell alongside the 30th pick in the NBA Draft...but that’s the price of doing business.
The Bucks’ counterparts in the East all have significant questions surrounding them, none more profound than #HeStay vs. #HeGone with Kawhi Leonard and the NBA Champion (sigh...) Toronto Raptors. Continuity might be costly, but also more convenient and conducive of another run at the NBA Finals.
...But what if it isn’t? What if the Bucks are in a position where bringing everybody back simply isn’t the best option? We have all assumed that they’ll bring back the key guys...but what if they just don’t?
First, we’ve mentioned a handful of exceptions (under the 2017 CBA) that are relevant for the current conversation. Let’s just detail what Milwaukee can – and cannot – use.
- Bird Rights / Early Bird Rights / Non-Bird Rights – These are exceptions that allow teams to re-sign players to any contract (with some stipulations, depending on tenure) despite being over the cap. This is determined on a player-by-player basis, and we can summarize as follows: Brogdon, Middleton, and Mirotic all have full Bird Rights, and Lopez has Non-Bird Rights. Pau Gasol’s status simply doesn’t matter.
- Mid-Level Exception (taxpayer and non-taxpayer) – This is an exception reserved for teams that are over the salary cap, and which one they have access to is determined by whether they are over the “tax apron” or not. This exception is available to the Bucks, though which version is currently unknown, and would allow them to sign contract(s) while over the cap. Milwaukee can only use one or the other (or the third version, see below) of the MLE; they cannot be combined.
- Room Mid-Level Exception – This is another version of the MLE (see above), but is only accessible for teams that are below the salary cap. The Bucks are unlikely to be eligible for this exception, but it is not impossible. As with the other two, more “conventional” versions of the MLE, the Room MLE is exclusive: if you use it, you don’t get to use either of the others, and the Room MLE also precludes you from using the BAE, which is fine since...
- Bi-Annual Exception – After using it on Brook Lopez last year, the Bucks do not have access to this exception until next offseason.
- Rookie & Minimum Salary Exceptions – This is available to all teams that are operating over the cap; essentially, they allow teams to sign their own first-round draft picks and fill out their roster with minimum-level deals.
Next, let’s go over some of the basic assumptions once again; with the start of the 2019-20 league year just around the corner, it’s crucial to have a firm grasp on the universal facts of the environment the Bucks find themselves in.
- There’s an impossibly small likelihood that George Hill doesn’t get waived before July 1st. The final year of his contract includes a paltry $1M guarantee if he is waived before that date, meaning the Bucks can slice $17M off of their books before things even start. Starting the offseason at $124.5M (instead of $144.5M) is a huge difference when the salary cap level is estimated to fall somewhere around $109 million. Sure, the team might decide that keeping him at a full $18M for next season is better than running the risk of him not accepting a veteran’s minimum offer to return, but such a decision would put them deep into the luxury tax, and make getting under the cap impossible this summer.
- The Bucks have no current path to re-sign Brook Lopez to a deal larger than the mid-level exception (MLE) unless they create cap space. His one-year deal from last summer was signed using the biannual exception (BAE), meaning they don’t have a realistic method to re-sign him to a larger amount while over the salary cap. If they do create even a single dollar’s worth of cap space, though, they could end up using the room exception (room MLE), which is estimated to be around $5M, and using the room MLE would mean they no longer would have access to the “regular” MLE, meaning they would have to be certain the money was right for the players involved.
- Even if Snell or Ersan move on, the Bucks still cannot create significant cap space without renouncing the cap holds on either Khris Middleton or Nikola Mirotic. Renouncing these holds also forfeits the ability to sign either of them using Bird Rights, allowing them to ink a contract while over the salary cap limit. Even if they did renounce Middleton or Mirotic after moving Snell or Ersan, they would still only end up with around $15M in space. Remember, if Milwaukee creates space below the cap, they could lose access to the MLE (which is more significant than the room MLE).
Lastly, let’s take another look at the Bucks’ salary situation (as we currently understand it as of June 30th, assuming the only move is that Hill gets waived); orange figures are cap holds, yellow are non-guaranteed contracts, and gray is dead money:
So let’s turn everything on its head. Instead of figuring out ways to keep everyone together, let’s explore this simple question: what would happen if we just didn’t bring back...
Milwaukee Bucks All-Star forward Khris Middleton is declining his $13M player option and will become an unrestricted free agent, his agent, Mike Lindeman of Excel Sports, tells ESPN. Middleton and Bucks are planning to work together toward a new long-term deal, sources said.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) June 19, 2019
Hoo, boy. Let’s get this out of the way: Khris Middleton is getting a max-level deal, if not the max, from somebody. Most recognize that the Bucks both need his steady contributions and will be hampered by a contract that starts at $32M in 2019-20, and barring other significant moves, Middleton’s departure does not mean that they can spend that money on someone else. It’s a tough situation, since Khris’ “value” and “worth” are not necessarily the same (he could out-earn Giannis by $7 million next season!), but when the Lakers, Clippers, Nets, and Knicks all have max slots available (in some fashion), we don’t get to decide how much Khris “should” get. He’s gonna get paid.
But what if the Bucks aren’t the ones to pay him? What if a max deal is simply too much for Jon Horst’s comfort, since the amount of money paid to him and Giannis in the coming years would severely restrict the team’s salary cap flexibility? How would things look then?
Off the court, not terribly different. Khris’ cap hold is only $19.5M, so renouncing it would only provide the Bucks about $4M in cap space (given their other obligations). If Snell/Ersan are cut loose, then that cap space number grows to between $11-15M, giving Milwaukee a bit of breathing room for guys like Brook Lopez or a second-tier free agent wing. On the court, the Bucks now have a gaping hole on the wing on both sides of the ball. $15 million might find you a decent defender or a decent playmaker or a decent shooter, or some combination thereof, but not all three rolled up into one guy. Even Malcolm Brogdon would struggle to fill the same roles that Khris fills on such a consistent basis. Speaking of which...
Restricted free agency is a pain no matter how you slice it. Not only are you negotiating with the player, but so is everyone else with passing interest and cap space to spare, and they have more leeway to submit an offer just to be difficult (which is putting it nicely), and before you know it the term “poison pill” is being bandied about and you have to decide whether or not to match a contract you’d really rather not match if you can stand it.
Brogdon’s free agency presents additional problems because of his elite efficiency (50/40/90!), his minuscule cap hold (only $3M!), and his second round status (no limits on what he can be offered!). If the suddenly-spiraling Celtics want to offer Brogdon $20 million, they can do that without too big of a problem. If the Knicks strike out and want to offer The President $24 million, that’s no sweat. It’s the Bucks who have to tangle with the luxury tax if they match, or risk replacing Brogdon if they decline.
If they do decline, the worst case scenario for the shooting guard spot is in play. The Bucks cannot replace his on-court production, and his cap hold gives them no additional space to work with to find a replacement. Pat Connaughton? Sterling Brown? Tony Snell, if he’s still here? Donte DiVincenzo? I hope one of them is ready to take it up a notch, because the Bucks are going to need them to help balance out the starting lineup, and whoever’s left will need to be a main contributor on the second unit.
...It’s actually fairly likely that the Bucks move on from Mirotic, independent of any other moves they might make. His theoretical fit simply didn’t translate enough into reality, and whatever payday he’s seeking would likely force Milwaukee much further into the luxury tax than they’re willing to go (if they’re willing to go into it at all). He’s still a talented player who could contribute here, but between the positional overlap (no power forward is going to get minutes on Giannis’ team) and the salary numbers, it just doesn’t look likely to work out here. To be blunt, it doesn’t feel like the Bucks will miss him, or his $18.75M cap hold, because his streaky shooting isn’t buoyed enough by contributions elsewhere, unlike front court mate Brook Lopez (more on him later).
So what if Mirotic walks? The Bucks would recoup his cap hold on the salary sheet, but that has the downside of putting the Bucks below the salary cap by about $3.2M, meaning they would not have access to the higher MLEs (non-taxpayer (around $9M) or taxpayer (around $6M)), and would be forced to use either the room MLE (only about $5M) or gulp cap space to work with.
If Mirotic’s departure is aligned with either Snell’s or Ilyasova’s, then the amount of cap space produced is more considerable (between $10-13M), and could allow the Bucks to bring back Brook Lopez on a larger-than-MLE contract and reserve the MLE for another contributor. On the court, no Threekola would mean more D.J. Wilson, which some Bucks fans have clamored for and would continue Wilson’s ascendance from “unplayable” to “playable.”
Lopez has the largest shoes to fill if he leaves, in every sense of the phrase. He’s the biggest Buck, and Splash Mountain provides the most spacing of any of Giannis’ teammates. It’s also somewhat difficult to keep Brook around; the Bucks can only pay him up to his cap hold (around $4 million), some version of the MLE (probably the taxpayer version, around $6 million), or with cap space (which as has been mentioned, would require significant moves to create).
If he doesn’t stick around, the Bucks could find themselves forcing a shift in their scheme on defense away from the zone drop, since there aren’t many other centers available in the Bucks’ price range that would be able to execute it as well. And forget about the floor spacing; you might find a big who can shoot, but you won’t find one who will shoot from as far or as frequently as Lopez, and still be playable on the other end of the floor. And as with Brogdon, Lopez’s leaving would result in precisely zero cap space (unless buoyed by other moves) for a replacement, further narrowing an already razor thin margin for error.
In putting this piece together, it feels very much like a rehashing of already-established ideas. Good teams are good, and the players who make them good have value that makes them desirable but expensive. Replacing any of Lopez, Middleton, and Brogdon (and Mirotic, but to a lesser extent) is no easy feat precisely because they’re all coming due at the same time under the salary cap, and the Bucks are no guarantee to go into the tax to keep every last one of them.
But what if we didn’t keep any of them? What if Horst takes a page from the Rob Pelinka playbook (please no...) and pursues top-end talent over everything? What if throwing max money and Khash Money, the Bucks decided they “wanted a true max player” to pair with Giannis Antetokounmpo? What would that look like, if we wanted to get silly and chase someone like oh, I don’t know, reigning NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, who is an unrestricted free agent? Or a former NBA MVP (who’s now injured) like Kevin Durant, or an iron man elite 3&D contributor (who’s also now injured) like Klay Thompson or Jimmy Butler, or a dynamic scoring guard like Kyrie Irving or Kemba Walker? For starters, would the Bucks have enough cap space for any of them?
Yes, yes they would. Renouncing Mirotic and Brook and Middleton and letting Brogdon walk would open up around $35 million in space under the cap. And who knows, Milwaukee could even decide to still use the MLE on Lopez and use Bird Rights to match Brogdon. This would eventually put them close to the luxury tax, since they would still need to use minimum-level deals to fill out the roster, but maybe the talent upgrade from Khris Middleton is worth it? It most likely isn’t, in my own opinion, but this is an argument some Bucks fans are going to make either way.
This is also the most reckless approach to an on-the-fly rebuild; turning over 60% of the starting lineup that took you to Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals while also gutting the team’s depth in order to add a single high-level contributor is desperate, at best. Kawhi may or may not leave Toronto, and it’s difficult to imagine that he’d leave the team he won the Finals with for the team he beat to get there. Not only that, each of the other players atop the list of elite free agents have their flaws (or are simply not available in the case of Thompson or Durant), so if the Bucks were to strike out on Kawhi (which they would)...what’s the real benefit? What is to be gained, versus what could all be lost?
But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe there is a path that doesn’t include Khris or Mirotic or Lopez or Brogdon, or some combination of the four. Tell us what that path is in the comments, and hurry! July 1 is just around the corner.