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Unraveled: How One Reporter Can Scuttle the Milwaukee Bucks Offseason

Did an itchy Twitter finger ruin Jon Horst’s strategy to build a winner in Milwaukee?

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2019 NBA Draft Photo by Mike Lawrie/Getty Images

The Milwaukee Bucks shocked the league when they landed Jrue Holiday in a trade that sent Eric Bledsoe, George Hill, and a king’s ransom of draft capital to the New Orleans Pelicans. As soon as The Athletic’s Shams Charania tweeted the news, Bucks fans rejoiced. That revelry was further intensified when the long-existing rumor about Milwaukee’s interest in Bogdan Bogdanovic resurfaced, and all of a sudden the rumor became reality, courtesy of ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.

The celebration carried from Monday night, through all of Tuesday, and into Wednesday afternoon. The Bucks had one of the most talented five-man groups in the entire league. The deal for Jrue was a massive overpay, but the one for Bogdan was a huge steal. Neither trade was official yet, none of them were, but the news came from Shams and Woj, trusted sources of breaking NBA news.

But then, something changed. Something was out of alignment, like a puzzle piece that had been jammed into the wrong spot. Wasn’t it awfully early for news of a sign-and-trade, a transaction that can only begin once the free agency period opens, to be announced? The Athletic’s Sam Amick, a respected NBA reporter in his own right, was the bearer of bad news: the deal between Milwaukee and the Sacramento Kings was far from a sure thing, because Bogdan Bogdanovic himself did not yet sign off on the terms.

How is that possible? There are a number of factors. The most obvious one: league rules. Free agency doesn’t begin until Friday, meaning that the Bucks (nor any other team) is permitted to have contact with Bogdanovic (nor any other player) ahead of time. The NBA, after all, takes tampering very seriously, and the Bucks were already penalized for discussing a player’s free agency before it was allowed.

From there, the story took off like a kite caught in an updraft, and things got crazy. Bucks fans quickly latched on to the theory that the news was a smokescreen, a coordinated effort to make it look like things were falling apart so that Milwaukee could avoid charges of tampering, and that the deal would still get done. The penalty could be severe, so it makes sense that the franchise might want to avoid it. But as things developed and other outlets reported, the crux of the issue indeed seemed to be Bogdan Bogdanovic and his lack of interest in an arrangement that requires his signature to be processed.

Something went wrong, and tensions are high. How did things go wrong, and how did they go wrong in this specific way?

Before we get into this next section, consider this for a moment: why do we do what we do? Searching that phrase in Google results in nearly 5 billion hits; the question rests at the core of social psychology and has as many possible answers as it has applications. But at the core of it, we know that we have reasons for doing what we do, even if knowing what those reasons are or why we value them enough to pursue them is an entirely different prospect. And that’s concerning what we know about ourselves, making it even harder to speculate about why others do what they do.

That’s the key caveat to everything that’s about to follow. We are speculating as to why other people made the choices they made, took the course of action they took. There is no way, with the currently available information, to know precisely what motivated the series of events that we’re trying to understand today, but we can take a guess. Going forward, please carry that assumption with you like the fabled “grain of salt” you should always keep in your possession.

In pondering the collapse of the Bogdanovic sign-and-trade, we all want to point fingers. We want to assign blame, we want a scapegoat, but more than anything, we want to know why. Some might blame the Bucks and accuse them of circumventing the league’s rules regarding tampering, and trying to cover their tracks. Some might blame the Kings, a franchise saddled with a reputation for ineptitude and disarray, because of course the Kings screwed something up. But I believe that one person is at the heart of this matter, one person who acted as a catalyst and set off a chain reaction that may result in the Bucks losing out on the services of a talented guard from Serbia, thus undermining their efforts at finally making the NBA Finals this season...and convincing two-time NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo that he should stay in Milwaukee for the long haul. It is not exclusively his fault...but without his intervention, it’s likely that none of this would have happened.

Boston Celtics v Miami Heat - Game Three
Adrian Wojnarowski.
Photo by Jim Poorten/NBAE via Getty Images

Let’s rewind back to Monday night, after some of us had gone to bed. The transaction window had just opened up earlier that day, and while no one would be surprised to see reports tying the Milwaukee Bucks and Bogdan Bogdanovic together, the basketball world was shocked to see another name come across the wire: Jrue Holiday. But let’s get into the timeline a little deeper.

The first report of the Holiday deal came from Shams Charania, at 10:30pm. Wojnarowski (who posted his first Tweet on Holiday seven minutes after Shams, who was like an apprentice to Woj) was the first one to report that Milwaukee and Sacramento had agreed to terms on Bogdanovic, at 12:08am. However, Wojnarowski was not the first one to comment that night on the possibility that Bogdan would end up a Buck. The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor reported that rumor at 11:22pm, 46 minutes earlier than the actual report. KOC himself posted a quote-tweet of Woj’s report at 12:15am, shifting his reference to the trade from potential to definite.

Why do these distinctions matter? Part of it is language, and part of it is reputation. I authored a somewhat lengthy Twitter thread on this last night, but why did the conversation shift so drastically after 12:08am on Tuesday morning? Shortly before midnight, people were excited about the possibility of a Bogdanovic acquisition, but shortly after midnight the excitement was focused on the realization of a Bogdanovic acquisition.

Adrian Wojnarowski has built his entire reputation on breaking news, faster than anyone else, and with a higher degree of accuracy than anybody who works at his pace. People treat his reports as fact because he earned the respect over the course of years; he took on ESPN and won, returning to the Worldwide Leader as one of the most prominent journalists in sports media (and ousting some rivals in the process). Once Woj reports something, teams take it seriously and adjust their plans accordingly.

Why did Woj tweet out the deal as a confirmed transaction, rather than as merely a possibility? If we assume that other NBA news breakers (Kevin O’Connor being one of them) had the same information that Woj had, why didn’t they break the news first? We will never know the answer to that question, but there are two possibilities.

  1. Woj got better intel than his competitors, corroborated the story, and was able to report it.
  2. Woj did not have more intel than his competitors, and chose to report it anyway.

Whether Woj’s report was made out of the first or second scenario is immaterial. The fact of the matter is Woj made the report, and that was the first domino to fall.

What happened next? Over 40 hours passed between Woj reporting the deal and Sam Amick countering that report, and then another two hours until Woj walked back his own original report. That’s nearly two days for the news to sink in, and for all interested parties to act on it.

Fenerbahce Beko Istanbul v Crvena Zvezda mts Belgrade - Turkish Airlines EuroLeague
Bogdan Bogdanovic.
Photo by Tolga Adanali/Euroleague Basketball via Getty Images

Wojnarowski may have been the catalyst, but Bogdanovic was the focal point of the narrative shift. Again, there was no obfuscation of Milwaukee’s interest in him (Zach Lowe had reported the possibility back on November 5), and it would be disingenuous to suggest that Bogdanovic or his representation (Jason Ranne and Alexander Raskovic) weren’t aware of the possibility. However, once the Woj report came through and specified the exact parameters of the deal, Bogdanovic’s camp would not need to have engaged in premature contact with Milwaukee; they could reverse-engineer the estimated contract details themselves.

In aggregating the contracts of Ersan Ilyasova, (who has since reportedly been waived) Donte DiVincenzo, and D.J. Wilson, the Bucks were sending out $14.5 million. In receiving Bogdanovic and Justin James ($1.5M in 2020-21), it can be deduced (following the rules of the salary cap and the CBA) that Bogdan’s contract would be worth around $16 million in the first year.

It is impossible to confirm, but reasonable to hypothesize, that Bogdanovic and his agents thought that this was too low of a figure. With enough time to consider the situation and weighing the pros and cons, Bogdan and his representation would be the only individuals who stood to gain (financially) by leaking their disagreement with the terms of the sign-and-trade, resulting in the Amick report that was the beginning of the end. Again, there’s currently no reporting that definitively marks Bogdanovic as the link that broke from the chain, but who else would it be?

The Milwaukee Bucks entered the offseason with limited resources. They swung for the fences with New Orleans to bring in Jrue Holiday, and made a calculated effort to mitigate the risk of that trade by lining up the Bogdan Bogdanovic deal. All along, it was thought that Milwaukee had done what was necessary to build a winner around Giannis, and that these moves were the proof he needed to commit to the franchise long-term. The fallout from the Bogdanovic transaction failing is still to be determined, and perhaps it doesn’t matter in the long run.

But what we can tell is that one tweet, specifically worded and sent at 12:08am on Tuesday morning, may have been the turning point for everything for the Milwaukee Bucks.