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Threading The Needle: How the Bucks Can Fill Out the Roster

After a whirlwind Monday night, the Milwaukee front office has 8 spots to fill.

NBA: Sacramento Kings at Milwaukee Bucks Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

We were expecting a busy week for the Milwaukee Bucks. But no one was expecting this.

When many of us went to bed on Monday evening, the Bucks seemed to be still reeling from the news that Wes Matthews was opting to test the waters of free agency, followed shortly after by Robin Lopez following suit. Did it say something about the team, that two respected veterans would cut bait after only a single season? Their decisions meant the front office had a bit more wiggle room when it came to free agency, but the issues of the franchise’s salary structure and bare cupboard of assets were very real concerns. There was no clear path to making a major difference through trades...until Bucks general manager Jon Horst forged one.

At this point, the Bucks find themselves at a markedly different crossroads. Instead of superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo and All Star Khris Middleton supported by solid depth, they’re now leading what might be the league’s most dynamic five-man lineup on a top-heavy roster that has more empty lockers than full ones. When the games tip off, we can be confident that Giannis, Khris, Brook Lopez, and newcomers Jrue Holiday and Bogdan Bogdanovic stand a good chance to push Milwaukee to a healthy lead...but at some point they’re going to need to sub out and let the reserves take their place. can Horst solve that conundrum?

With some of the pieces falling into place, let’s revisit some of our now-outdated assumptions and explore what paths the Bucks will investigate from here on out.

  • $119,043,173 in guaranteed salary is now on the books for 2020-21, for seven players: Giannis, Khris, Jrue, Bogdan, Brook, Thanasis Antetokounmpo, and sophomore wing Justin James (from the Sacramento Kings). This number is currently an estimate, since Bogdanovic’s starting contract value is unknown and the trade cannot be completed until Friday at the earliest (when free agency starts). Still, this is already about $10 million higher than when we looked at it last week, and now with only seven players accounted for on the roster.
  • $5,034,895 in dead money (stretch provision used on Larry Sanders and Jon Leuer). Yes, those guys are still around, and are still collecting checks in exchange for spreading out their cap hit across multiple seasons when they were waived. There has been some unfounded speculation about the Bucks applying for an exemption for Leuer’s money, along the same lines as they did with Mirza Teletovic. However, there is no indication that the team ever applied for this exemption, or whether or not it was approved, so until further notice we expect his salary obligation to remain on the books.
  • $0 in unguaranteed salary because, once this week’s trades are completed, none of Wes, Robin, or Ersan Ilyasova will remain on the roster, and Ersan’s non-guaranteed $7.0M becomes locked in by virtue of being included in a transaction.

So the Bucks have seven players, eight roster spots to fill, and are already at (an estimated) $123,279,734 of salary commitments. They’re clearly over the salary cap ($109.1M) and likely won’t be for the forseeable future, and the luxury tax ($132.6M) is a foregone conclusion. However, thanks to the sign-and-trade with Sacramento, the Bucks are now fully hard-capped at the tax apron ($138.9M), meaning they cannot, under any circumstances, spend a dollar more than $138,928,000 for the entirety of the 2020-21 season. Subtracting their current salary commitments, the Bucks have just over $15.6 million to fill out those remaining eight roster spots. No small feat, to be sure...but here’s how they can do it.

In the short term, the news that the Bucks will acquire a pair of second round picks from New Orleans (including recouping their own, sent to the Pelicans in the Nikola Mirotic trade) is a huge boon. Because second round picks are not subject to the rookie salary scale, they are therefore only eligible to sign with cap space or another cap exception, which almost always ends up being under the Minimum Player exception. As a result, a second round pick can be signed to a contract worth $898,310 for the first season, which is nearly half of the cap hit as a veteran player signed to a minimum deal (worth $1.6M). This means that Milwaukee can fill two seats on the bench for the price of one; the downside here is that you have lowly rookies on the regular season roster instead of seasoned veterans...but it’s vastly superior to the alternative, which is an empty roster spot.

Assuming that the Bucks bring in two second round picks on Wednesday night, they’ll then have nine spots filled with only six to go, and that’s before we even consider two-way players. Two-way deals deserve their own post, and while it’s unlikely that Milwaukee will get consistent contributions from these players, it’s important to note the additional flexibility the league is granting and how the Bucks in particular can benefit from the updates to the collective bargaining agreement.

For now, we can ignore two-way players since they won’t impact the salary cap, and we can zero in on what can be done with the remaining six regular roster spots and the $13.8M of remaining space under the tax apron Milwaukee has to get there. The majority of these spots will be filled by veteran minimum contracts, the same type of deals that brought in Kyle Korver and Pat Connaughton last season. With a standard value of $1,620,564 (players with 2 years’ experience), any veteran with more than 2 years actually receives higher than the $1.6M but has their salary partially reimbursed by the league, effectively reducing their cap hit to the lower figure. This was the case with Wes Matthews last season, who earned over $2.5M but only counted on the cap for $1.6M. This lets us use that $1.6M figure as a placeholder for nearly any player the Bucks sign in free agency, except for one.

If Jon Horst signs five players to veteran minimum deals, they will together count for around $8.1M on the cap, leaving $5.7M between the Bucks and the hard cap. That $5.7M figure aligns almost perfectly with the Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception, a mechanism for teams over the cap to remain competitive in signing free agents with a market that’s higher than a minimum contract. The MLE can be split between multiple players and can be used to sign multi-year contracts, but for a team like Milwaukee it is more likely that it’s used for a single player on a short-term deal, since that player is going to have a chance to contribute in a major way in the Bucks’ rotation.

In a nutshell, here’s what the Bucks’ roster spots look like in terms of salary slots:

In terms of who those players might be, Bucks fans have been vocal about which candidates are a good match for which contracts. The Milwaukee front office will have to be judicious with who they prioritize in free agency, since they’ll only have one shot to give an impact player a contract worth their while. Beyond that, they’re at the mercy of the market and whichever players are willing to accept a minimum deal to vie for a championship in Milwaukee.

So who do you want, under this framework, and how likely is it that you can get them at the price points listed above? Let us know in the comments, and be sure to join us for the NBA Draft this evening, where we’ll likely see more pieces off the puzzle fall into place.