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Drawing Near: The Milwaukee Bucks Must Choose Their Path Now

In the next few weeks, hard decisions loom and the team’s future could be decided.

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks-Media Day Milwaukee Journal Sentinel-USA T

Ahh, late June. The regular season has been over for what feels like an eternity, the high from the playoffs is worn off, anticipation for the offseason increases at a fever pitch, and of course we just found out the results of the NBA’s regular season awards. Hope springs eternal, and for all 29 non-Finals-winning franchises, this is where they take their next steps to get to where the Toronto Raptors are right now.

The Milwaukee Bucks are much closer than most of the league, but that just means that the final steps are that much more difficult. It doesn’t help that four of the team’s six most talented players (Brook Lopez, Malcolm Brogdon, Nikola Mirotic, and Khris Middleton) are pending free agents, plus steady veteran George Hill is almost certain to join them before July 1 (thanks to his guarantee date and cap figure that Jon Horst desperately needs to avoid). Eric Bledsoe is going to be here for a while, and everyone is waiting to see who will join him in supporting Giannis Antetokounmpo next the all-important supermax extension looms next summer.

We’ve gone through the particulars of Milwaukee’s offseason. We’ve explored what the Bucks might decide to do, and what they might decide to not do. The options seem limited, and it feels like the team may have no choice but to make the obvious decisions...which could end up costing more in the long run than just luxury tax payments.

June 30 is the official start of the NBA offseason, and here are where things stand for the relevant Bucks contributors.

Khris Middleton

We know, we know. Khris Middleton is “not worth” a max (or near-max) level contract. It’s too much money for a guy who’s “not a true Number Two player.” Regardless of how undervalued his previous contract was (the player option he declined was only $13 million!), his next contract will simply not be a good value, even if he does take a little bit less at the beginning. But we can all at least agree that the rumors surrounding Middleton’s next step have been quietly consistent: Milwaukee is expected to retain their steady two-way wing, and they’re willing to pay top dollar for him.

And they should.

Khris Middleton is a talented NBA wing who can do the following basketball things well: shoot from deep, shoot from midrange, make plays for teammates, play versatile defense. That costs money on the free agent market. He’s not a superstar wing on the same level as Kawhi Leonard, but is around the same level as Jimmy Butler, who is more readily considered a max/near-max player. Middleton makes the Bucks better when he plays, and his absence would increase the workload for Eric Bledsoe (who’s best as a tertiary option), as well as the Bucks’ backcourt rotation of Sterling Brown, Pat Connaughton, and Donte DiVincenzo.

Furthermore, because of the constraints of the salary cap and the CBA, Middleton’s free agency puts the Bucks in a tough spot. Their maximum offer is 5 years/$190M, whereas other teams can offer “only” as much as 4 years/$141 million. However, as an unrestricted free agent, the Bucks don’t have matching rights to any Middleton offers; they need him to proactively sign with them, or lose him for nothing. And they can (realistically) only sign Khris by exercising his full Bird rights (allowing a team to sign a player despite being over the salary cap) because they don’t have cap room, and renouncing Middleton’s $19.5M cap hold would create insufficient cap space and waive his Bird rights.

No matter what, the Bucks are in their window for contention now, and there’s no guarantee that they’ll ever have a chance to stay this good in the future. Middleton might become overpaid next season, fine. Either he becomes overpaid, or the team is remarkably worse. There is no middle ground unless the Bucks completely clean house and chase an unlikely free agent. Such is the cost of contending in the NBA; Khris “Max Money” Middleton just might be the price of doing business.

Nikola Mirotic

Another cost of contending: you might lose a piece you paid a pretty price for not too long ago. Such is the likely case of Nikola Mirotic, who the Bucks famously flipped Thon Maker and a bunch of 2nd round picks into. Mirotic, much like JJ Redick back during the Dark Ages of Milwaukee basketball, was very much a midseason rental that the team was never guaranteed to re-sign. Though his lackluster playoff performance is a contributing factor, Mirotic’s biggest flaws are an inability to protect the rim (a la Brook Lopez) on defense, and a spotty shooting record of late (36.5% from deep during the season, only 28.9% in the postseason). Mirotic’s market, though, is as tepid as his playoff shooting; the Mavericks and the Jazz have been reported to have some level of interest, but not as much as Threekola’s agent might want.

Acquiring Mirotic was a calculated gamble for Milwaukee, and it just didn’t work out. Retaining Mirotic would be a reckless gamble, given the fact that his cap hold ($18.75M) is significant, his contributions were limited and are erratic, and his positional overlap happens to be with the team’s (and league’s) most valuable player. He’s a talented player that the Bucks will probably choose to let go, in order to maintain the rest of their core.

George Hill

Hill had been the apple of Bucks fans’ eye for some time now, and although age and an injury history are cause for some pause, there is no denying Hill’s value during the Bucks’ playoff run. He was consistently the “adult in the room,” coming through with timely plays when Milwaukee was off-kilter.

So why is the assumption that he’ll be gone, rather than stuck around? That pesky thing called the salary cap; Hill’s salary will be $18M next season...unless he is waived before July 1, giving him only $1M in guaranteed money from the Bucks instead. Nobody wants Hill to leave — not even George Hill himself — but his impact on the team’s other plans (re-signing Middleton, Lopez, and Brogdon) is too big to ignore.

All that said, anything is possible; the Bucks could waive Hill (to reduce their salary obligation), wait for him to clear waivers, and re-sign him using either cap space or an exception. The 2017 NBA CBA is a hugely complicated document, but a deep dive into Larry Coon’s always excellent doesn’t provide any rules against a team re-signing a player waived with non-guaranteed salary. There is a rule against re-signing a player who is bought out, but a buyout is not the situation with Hill, meaning we could see him return to Milwaukee at a reduced rate.

Jon Leuer

I know, I know, you’re thinking that this ought to read as Leuer’s contract, and not Leuer himself. I get it. I would be thinking the same thing, except... is there a potential for Jon Leuer to have a role on this Bucks team? Before we get into it, let’s take a gander at how he stacks up to his most obvious comparison, Ersan Ilyasova:

...hmm, that’s closer than I thought. Leuer (6’10”, 230 lbs.) is roughly the same size as Ersan, plays the same position, and was once upon a time a second round pick of the Bucks’. In terms of overall production, the two players actually have some similarities, but in terms of impact on the game, the comparison starts to wear thin. Ersan is a much more willing (and capable) shooter from outside (significantly higher 3PAr and 3PT%), is an excellent positional defender (draws 1.40 charges per-36 minutes!), and despite his (ahem) wealth of experience, Ersan feels like a more reliably available player due to Leuer’s injury history.

So why would Jon Horst speak of Leuer in terms of having a role on the team, when he would fit into Ersan’s role, but is simply a worse player (nickname alert: “Worse-an”)? We’ve all been assuming that Leuer’s contract will be stretched (to create additional cap room), but what if that’s not the case? What if stretching Ersan’s deal (which is worth less money for the same timeframe) is the route Horst decides to take, accepting a talent downgrade for additional cap flexibility?

Leuer is still probably going to be stretched. But we can at least see a set of circumstances where the team may decide he should stick around to contribute off the bench.

Malcolm Brogdon

While the Bucks retain the most control over Brogdon’s future, his restricted free agency is also one of the more complicated situations the Milwaukee front office needs to deal with. The Bucks can re-sign him directly, of course, but if another team comes up with an offer sheet that Brogdon signs, it quickly becomes a binary formula: either match the offer or lose Brogdon for nothing. The numbers around Brogdon started at a reasonable place ($14-16M/year), and as it stands things have escalated to the $20M/year range (thanks to a somewhat-credible Chicago Bulls rumor), and could inch even higher as the rumor mill churns along.

Much like with Middleton, the Bucks should take re-signing Brogdon seriously.

Brogdon’s 50/40/90 campaign is more than just a statistical footnote; it’s a demonstration of elite efficiency from a tertiary option in the starting unit. Brogdon’s effectiveness makes him an additional stressor on defenses; they’re already loading up against Giannis, and trying to block Bledsoe from driving lanes, and closing out on Lopez at 28 feet, and keeping a close watch on Middleton at all points on the floor...and even if the defense takes away all that, Malcolm Brogdon is still able to drive in for a nifty reverse finish or can an open three pointer.

Brook Lopez

For how important he was to the Bucks’ fortunes this season, Lopez has been suspiciously absent from most free agency rumors. His old team in Los Angeles has some interest in bringing him back (and they really never should have let him leave, come on, a stretch 5 with LeBron James, that’s basic!), but otherwise there has been very little Splash Mountain chatter.

Lopez will still garner attention, as he should, but the market for centers is only so robust in the modern NBA. Still, having come off of a bi-annual exception contract, Lopez is likely to be interested in securing one last large payday. He has expressed that he enjoys playing with the Bucks in Milwaukee, and that could be worth some sort of discount, but when you consider that Lopez is literally the player that makes the Bucks relevant outside of Wisconsin, you might start bracing for an eight-figure offer...after some of the other moves are worked out.

With only non-Bird rights, the Bucks cannot sign Lopez to a contract anywhere near his value unless they clear up some cap space. With the recent Tony Snell transaction, the assumed Hill waiver, and the presumptive renunciation of Mirotic’s cap hold, the Bucks could create up to $13.3M in cap space, much of which would be assumed to be earmarked for Lopez. How much of that is anybody’s guess, as is whether that’s all the cap space Jon Horst can conjure up.

It’s been suspiciously quiet on the Bucks’ free agents lately, so be sure to check back in if new rumors break. We’ll also go through the timeline of free agency to see specifically what the Bucks’ cap sheet might look like at various points in the process over the next few weeks. And as always, let us know what you think in the comments!

UPDATE: There has been a lot of talk in the comments about what the Bucks can or cannot do, and while we go through a lot of those possibilities in a post scheduled to go up tomorrow morning, here’s a graphic that outlines the Bucks’ 2019-20 cap situation as we currently understand it:

Barring a trade or using the Stretch Provision, the salaries in orange and yellow are the ones that the Bucks could remove from their cap sheet by renouncing their cap holds or opting to cut players with non-guaranteed salary. To open max cap room (~$33M in space), the Bucks would have to waive Hill and renounce all three of Lopez, Middleton, and Mirotic. Just food for thought, and be sure to come back tomorrow!