We’re almost there! On the eve of NBA free agency, the Milwaukee Bucks by now have all of their moves planned out for once the bell strikes 6:00pm on Sunday evening. But as they say, no plan survives contact with the enemy, and the feeding frenzy that annually kicks off July on the NBA calendar is going to be hectic. The Bucks are not said to be in the running for any outside free agents like Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Kyrie Irving, or Kemba Walker, but their own top target (whose name also starts with a K) is Khris Middleton, who will reportedly command a hefty salary to stick around. Ditto for Malcolm Brogdon (restricted free agent) and Brook Lopez (unrestricted), who round out the Milwaukee starting unit that Jon Horst likely wants to keep together.
But as we’ve seen, the path to running things back is anything but clear, and the franchise will not get through the summer unscathed. George Hill (only $1M guaranteed if waived before July 1) and Nikola Mirotic (questionable to be re-signed in Milwaukee) are likely going to be available to the wider league, and there’s still some question regarding whether Jon Leuer (or even Ersan Ilyasova) might be retained or have their salary stretched over the next 3 years, in the interest of clearing up space on the financial side. Even Sterling Brown and Pat Connaughton (non-guaranteed salary for 2019-20) could end up finding new basketball homes! The only players we know will be sticking around are Giannis Antetokounmpo, Eric Bledsoe, D.J. Wilson, and Donte DiVincenzo...and even Donte or D.J. are players that could be traded.
Everything is interconnected, and we’re here to try and simplify matters. Here is an outline of the Bucks’ likely path forward, and a few different paths that they might go.
July 30 – July 6: Setting the stage
While not guaranteed, there are three actions that Jon Horst is likely to take between the end of the 2018-19 league year and the beginning of 2019-20:
- Waive George Hill (reducing his salary obligation from $18M to $1M, must be done before July 1)
UPDATE: What’d I tell ya?
Milwaukee guard George Hill will be waived and become a free agent, league sources tell @TheAthleticNBA @Stadium. Hill had a terrific finish to the season and will be a sought-after combo guard on the market. Bucks are working to find space to re-sign Hill, too.— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) June 28, 2019
- Renounce Brook Lopez (removing his $4M cap hold)
- Renounce Nikola Mirotic (removing his $18.75M cap hold)
None of these moves are technically required, if the goal was only to retain each and every player regardless of cost. However, there are certain limits (besides the luxury tax) that make them likely outcomes to set the stage for the rest of the Bucks’ summer.
Most notably is Lopez’s cap hold, which is equal to the most Milwaukee could pay him with his non-Bird rights, is far below his expected value as an unrestricted free agent. Additionally, with the tax apron serving as a hard cap if certain exceptions are used (like the taxpayer MLE, for example), the Bucks’ best path to retaining Lopez is by creating cap space, thus leading to the departure of Mirotic and the waiver of Hill.
Between those two players, Hill is far more likely to return to the Bucks; he’s older, may prioritize championship contention over scoring a big payday, and was far more productive in the playoffs as Mirotic fell out of Mike Budenholzer’s rotation. Also between those two, the Bucks can lop $35M off of their salary obligations, which combined with renouncing Lopez’s hold creates $12.4M in cap space.
July 6: Let the games begin!
Once the moratorium ends, expect all hell to break loose. Woj and Shams are sure to have dropped their reports of all the league’s big names, and those reports could include both Khris Middleton and Malcolm Brogdon as early as June 30...even though July 6 is the date when the pen can actually meet paper.
over $13M around $12M in space, Jon Horst has some options at this point, and could have the bandwidth to pursue those options depending on timing. If Middleton and the Bucks agree to a new contract in principle, Milwaukee will wait to make the deal official to benefit from the differential between Khris’ current cap hold ($19.5M) and his new starting salary (expected to be around $30M). Likewise for Brogdon, except if The President signs a bill deal with another team, the Bucks’ clock to match-or-say-goodbye starts once the moratorium ends.
Cap space is the first resource that the Bucks can use, so depending on who the team targets (and at what amount) will dictate what happens next. Perhaps it’s simple enough to simply sign Brook Lopez to a deal using cap space, sign George Hill with whatever space is left, fill out the rest of the roster with minimum-level contracts, and close out the offseason by using Bird rights to re-sign Brogdon and Middleton. However, this is Jon Horst we’re talking about, so let’s talk about how the Bucks can realistically open up more cap space: the Stretch Provision!
As we discussed the other day, Ersan Ilyasova and Jon Leuer have some significant similarities. Ersan is the preferred player (and probably the superior one in 2019-20), but they both have a single season of significant guaranteed money remaining on their contracts (Ersan has a non-guaranteed year in 2021-22). This makes both of them candidates to be waived and stretched, dividing up their remaining guaranteed salary over the following three seasons (rather than keep them all the way on the books and letting them expire next summer).
Stretching contracts is almost never a good thing; it’s a “break glass in case of emergency” tool in the GM’s garage, but the Bucks have been willing to use it more than most. To date, the contracts of Larry Sanders and Spencer Hawes are still being paid out and still counting against the Bucks’ cap; Hawes will come off the books next summer, and Sanders in 2021-22. If either Leuer or Ersan is stretched (or both), they would join Sanders and count against the Bucks’ salary obligations for the next three seasons (including this one).
But maybe the long-term pain is worth the short-term gain? Probably not, but what might that look like?
To reiterate, there are few valid circumstances for creating a $10+M cap hit (which is nearly one-tenth of the salary cap) as a contending team, especially when that cap hit would cost you another $15M over the following two seasons. The Bucks are very much a contending team...and the thought of creating between $17.1M and $22.7M in cap space is at least an entertaining one. Theoretically, the Bucks could use some of that space for Brook Lopez, some of that space to return George Hill, and have a decent amount of space left over (before needing to resort to minimum-level contracts), and still have the $4.7M Room MLE available once they’re over the cap. There’s no telling what talented players might find themselves in a depressed market for their services (hello, Pat Connaughton in 2019!), and Milwaukee’s ability to offer (slightly) more than a minimum contract could be as appealing as the chance to chase a ring.
Just pretend that all of the dead money is tacked onto Giannis’ contract instead of weighing down the cap sheet, that’s easier.
July 7 and beyond: Filling out the roster
Regardless of whether the Bucks stretch either of their burly backup power forwards, the order of operations is clear. Given the assumptions we’ve made earlier, here are Horst's next steps, in rough chronological order:
- Sign Brook Lopez using cap space
- Optional: Stretch Leuer and/or Ersan for more cap space (if not already done)
- Use remaining cap space on non-minimum contributors (George Hill? Others?)
- Re-sign (or match) Brogdon
- Re-sign Middleton
- Fill out the rest of the roster with minimum contracts
- Keep the Room MLE until needed
Depending on the value of these various contracts, this plan would, at worst, leave the Bucks right around the tax apron line of $138 million (assuming Khris gets $30M, Brogdon gets $20M, and Lopez gets $10M). If either (or both) of Leuer or Ersan is stretched, then the amount of wiggle room is even more considerable, and gives the team a bit of breathing room when putting together all of the offers for Brogdon, Middleton, and Lopez in free agency. Milwaukee would still have 3-5 roster spots that need filling, but they could feasibly bring back all of last year’s top talent (minus Nikola Mirotic, sorry bud) and take a few shots at bargain contributors for the next year or two.
Of course, the slightest thing could throw everything off. A $100+M offer sheet from Brogdon would force Horst to reprioritize what moves to make when. A max contract for Brook Lopez from a desperate Lakers or Knicks team would be as shocking as it would be hilarious (not that Brook isn’t worth it, but c’mon). A team with space claiming George Hill could be a wrench in Milwaukee’s grand Rube Goldberg machine-esque plans.
But the best you can do is set yourself up for success, and Jon Horst has done exactly that. The Milwaukee Bucks are in position to run back the team that won 60 games last year, and step by step, they can retrace their path to the Eastern Conference Finals...and hopefully beyond.