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Value in the NBA: Crossroad Decisions for Milwaukee

Eastern Conference Finals - Toronto Raptors v Milwaukee Bucks

After going through some updates to our long-running value series, we turned our attention to the ghosts of Milwaukee Bucks recent past in the form of free agent signings and contract extensions. Today, we look at three important decisions that Bucks historians will mark as what made the franchise in the Giannis Era...and what our idea of “value” says about these decisions.

Cutting Ties with Jabari Parker

Bucks withdrew qualifying offer, signed 2-year/$20M with Chicago (non-guaranteed Year 2)

Here’s an easy present-day argument: Jabari Parker is a huge draft bust and has little chance of being more than an NBA rotation player.

This isn’t controversial. Three years ago, that would have been inconceivable. At the time, in 2016-17, Parker had largely shaken off the effects of his first ACL tear, and averaged over 20 points per game as a third-year player. I mean, look at this guy!

What happened? Well, there was the second ACL tear that fundamentally undermined the stability in Parker’s knee. And there was the fact that his best position (power forward) was shared by Giannis Antetokounmpo...who just so happened to go on to become an NBA MVP. And there was that whole “defense” thing...

And yet, even today, Parker is 24 years old with all the natural offensive talent in the world. But with his injury history and his struggles contributing to winning basketball, he barely mustered an MLE-level contract from the rebuilding Atlanta Hawks (2 years, $13 million, player option on the second season). Why is that?

Italics indicate missed time from a major injury; rows in gray indicate projected performance.

The case is far from shut on Jabari Parker, though there’s ample evidence that his lack of defensive acumen will always place a cap on how useful he can be in the NBA. His career WS/48 rate (0.076) is nearly 25% below the league standard (0.099). He has missed crucial on-court development time (there is no substitute for the royal jelly), making any hope of significant leaps of improvement a risky investment at best. That’s partially why his $40M contract from Chicago was largely a waste of the point that the Bulls used him as salary filler to acquire Otto Porter Jr!

It seems like Parker is unlikely to ever produce at the level required to return positive value on a contract larger than eight figures. Then again...has he ever had an opportunity to do so? On his rookie contract, Jabari was productive despite dealing with two ACL the Jason Kidd Era of Milwaukee basketball. He managed to secure a decent contract from Chicago (who was terrible) and got moved to Washington (ditto), and he now finds himself amongst another rebuild alongside Trae Young and John Collins in Atlanta. If Atlanta finds itself on the upswing, will that be because of Parker, or despite him? At $6.5M, the Hawks can afford to find out.

If we play “What if?” for Jabari in Milwaukee, we’re faced with a number of questions over the past season. The largest question: where would Parker play? The starting forward positions were ably filled by Giannis and Khris Middleton, and the bench minutes were soaked up by Ersan Ilyasova (WS/48: 0.119), Tony Snell (WS/48: 0.117), D.J. Wilson (WS/48: 0.093), and Sterling Brown (WS/48: 0.098). Recalling that the average rate in the NBA is 0.099, it’s clear that the Bucks were well-situated in this area. Maybe Parker’s box score performance would have been buoyed by the systemic advantages brought by Mike Budenholzer, would he have actually fit into the system? Would his minutes come at the expense of Middleton (an All Star) or Giannis (the literal MVP), or any of the bench players (which helped propel the team to 60 wins)?

Cutting bait on Jabari Parker was a tremendously difficult decision for Jon Horst to make at the time, but with the money involved in retaining him and the Bucks’ standing as one of the premier teams in the East, no one will argue that it was anything but a no-brainer in hindsight. He didn’t live up to the $20 million figure, as evidenced by the quick termination of the non-guaranteed second year by Washington. Perhaps he both finds his footing in Atlanta and makes a return to making positive contributions...which could lead him to decline his player option the following summer? Stranger things have happened.

Trading Malcolm Brogdon

Sign-and-trade; signed 4-year/$85M with Indiana for draft picks

The critiques of the Bucks front office regarding the decision to let The President serve out another term in Indiana instead of Milwaukee are well-known around these parts. There are a number of paths the team could have gone to try and retain Brogdon, thus maintaining the team’s starting lineup at the expense of entering the luxury tax this season. Most importantly, Brogdon is an extremely good player who produced well beyond his pay scale over his three seasons as a Buck. The operative question, especially for this exercise, becomes this: how will his valuation change going forward, now that he’s gotten paid?

Italics indicate missed time from a major injury; rows in gray indicate projected performance.

Projecting Brogdon’s future is difficult because he’s moving from a first-tier Eastern Conference contender to a second-tier one. We can absolutely judge the value of his new contract based on the amount of time he can spend on the court (which is no sure bet; health is a concern here). Where it gets tricky is using Win Shares to determine how valuable Brogdon is at this salary; in all likelihood, Indiana is going to win fewer games than Milwaukee, which means Brogdon’s opportunity to accumulate Win Shares is decreased, which will make him look worse overall. And at the same time...his WS/48 rate will be impacted by his availability, meaning that he’ll look worse overall if injury strikes again...and he already doesn’t look great based on the league averages for minutes played!

Best case scenario: Brogdon remains healthy and produces a similar number of Win Shares in Indiana as he would have in Milwaukee, improving as his career trajectory takes him through his athletic prime. At roughly $21M per year, Brogdon is well-situated to at least provide an equal return on his contract...if he stays healthy. Knowing that teams have more information than the public does, perhaps the Bucks’ decision to let him walk in return for some draft capital turns out to be less misguided than expected...

Summer of 2020: Giannis Antetokounmpo

5-year/$247M (assuming supermax next summer)

This is it, this is where the words I’m about to type will get taken wildly out of context. The aggregators will get aggregated, such is the way of the world. Nevertheless, here goes:

It is reasonable to question whether Giannis Antetokounmpo will provide a positive return to the Bucks on a supermax contract.

Of course, they should still offer it as early as permissible, and of course his acceptance would solidify Milwaukee’s claims to long-term contention in the league. It’s Giannis! This isn’t a question! Not only is he the one of the league’s best players, but at 24 years old he has as good a chance as anybody of joining the highest echelon of all-time NBA figures; Within the next decade, Giannis’ name could be included in conversations with some of the game’s greats. The salary cap will prevent Giannis from getting paid what he’s actually worth, just like it did to Lebron James.

Recognizing all of that, the supermax extension involves an unprecedented amount of money for a single player, and because it wouldn’t kick in until the 2021-22 season, the salary cap will have two years to grow further, making that 35% of the cap an even more impressive sum. This makes it hard to imagine a world in which a single player paid so much money can significantly exceed the league average for Win Share Value.

None of this is Giannis’ fault; it’s the environment the NBA has created. Through the use of the supermax, the league has placed an artificial cap on how much players can be paid, including the most elite. Combined with the salary cap and luxury tax dynamics, it creates a set of conditions where a max player accepting a contract can end up working against the franchise, when trying to build around said max player. If more of the team’s resources are tied up, they can’t reallocate those dollars to go out and sign better players to the supporting cast, and therefore have to either take huge risks, accept a massive tax bill, or scour the basketball world for potential low-cost contributors. Yes, the Bucks have Giannis, just like the Wolves have Karl-Anthony Towns, or the Pelicans had Anthony Davis. Can you imagine if the Bucks were struggling as much as those other teams have, and how the key piece of keeping the player they need to ever have a chance at contention also caused significant struggles down the road?

But enough about all that. With the projections that we have, and assuming only modest improvements from Giannis in the near future, how do things shake out over the next 4 years (assuming the Bucks offer and Giannis accepts the supermax)?

Rows in gray indicate projected performance on current contract; rows in black indicate projected performance on supermax extension.

Somehow, not bad at all. Of course, Giannis’ minutes are going to fall way below the league average for standard value, but the man is well-paid as-is and is going to make roughly a bajillion dollars. He makes so much more than the league average that it’s hardly possible for him to ever hit that mark based on playing time. But based on the projected Win Shares, he still somehow comes out ahead of the league average, and by double-digits! That’s incredible!

It’s important to remain aware of context when it comes to Giannis Antetokounmpo, and the standards to which he will be held. At 14.4, Giannis was tied for second in overall Win Shares, but led the league in WS/48 at 0.292. This is largely because he’s insanely productive while playing way fewer minutes than he did under the previous regime. And not only did he lead the league in this metric, but the margin between him and second place (Rudy Gobert, 0.262) was substantial (nearly 9% difference). And not only that, but his WS/48 output placed him in the top 20...of all time NBA seasons.

Giannis put together that kind of production, at 24 years old, in his first year in a new system, under a new coach, as the undisputed bedrock of a team looking to finally break free of mediocrity...and he did it all without a jump shot. It’s reasonable to expect the Bucks to take a slight step back in the regular season next year...but does anybody here really believe that Giannis won’t exceed the standards he’s set through his existing play?

The Milwaukee Bucks are incredibly lucky. Players get maxed all the time these days, despite the fact that they are unlikely to be “worth it.” Shoot, Giannis’ best teammate is generally characterized as one of those players. We even called it out not too long ago:

Remember what we said about that salary equilibrium, and how after a certain point it’s nearly impossible to provide higher-than-average value? This is the world in which the NBA’s max-level contracts live, and it’s precisely where Khris Middleton will be for the foreseeable future.

But for as good as Khris Middleton is, he is simply not on the same level as Giannis. Few players are. It takes a special player to be able to give his team so much that he still provides positive value on a massive contract. He’s the sort of player that can buoy a roster of other players that may struggle to deliver the same type of return. So Khris is overpaid, or maybe George Hill or Brook Lopez or Eric Bledsoe are all overpaid. Giannis is the rising tide that raises all ships; it just doesn’t matter quite as much how valuable the rest of the team is when you’re led by the league’s most valuable player.

As long as he signs the supermax and is here to stay, that is. But what if he doesn’t stay, what if he...hey, where are you going?