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Cart Before The Horse: Planning the Bucks Future

The 2019-20 season hasn’t even restarted yet.

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

If Thomas Dewey were alive today, even he would say that this conversation is premature. Verily, the bubble in Orlando has not yet popped, and the Milwaukee Bucks have not even begun their quest for the 2019-20 NBA Finals. But the United States is still (mostly) socially distancing itself, Twitter is getting hacked and everything is cake now, so what does timing matter anymore?

As Riley mentioned this past Tuesday, we’re not the only ones talking about roster management. Idle hands are the devil’s workshop, and somebody cracked their knuckles and cranked out a half-cooked concoction of a trade that involved Alex Caruso (of all people) coming to the Bucks. Surely, we can do better.

In all seriousness, general manager Jon Horst and the Milwaukee Bucks have an extremely difficult job ahead of them when considering the long haul, which centers entirely around the continued presence of Giannis Antetokounmpo. While there’s no credible reason to worry about his likelihood to remain in Milwaukee, the fact is that we won’t have a definitive answer to the persistent “will he/won’t he?” until a contract is signed (either this offseason or next).

Like it or not, Giannis is currently under contract only through next year (2020-21 season), and the team needs to make moves beforehand in order to remain in contention. This was also the case last offseason, when the team spent big retaining Eric Bledsoe, Brook Lopez, George Hill, and Khris Middleton, while opting to sign-and-trade Malcolm Brogdon. Everything has always been focused on retaining the (soon to be) two-time MVP in Milwaukee, and that will be the case until it isn’t anymore.

So where will things stand after the restarted season is completed (hopefully) in Florida? I’m glad you asked; let’s find out together.

The Roster Locks

As we mentioned, Giannis is under contract for next season, independent of any extension he might sign in the offseason. Additionally, George Hill has one guaranteed season and one partially-guaranteed season remaining, and with Brook Lopez and Eric Bledsoe (22-23) and Khris Middleton (23-24) all with multiple years left, the non-Giannis core should be intact. Furthermore, both Donte DiVincenzo and D.J. Wilson are on their rookie deals (though Wilson will be expiring), and Thanasis Antetokounmpo has a minimum-level season remaining as well.

Of this group, it’s an unfortunate reality that two of the eight guaranteed roster players are glued to the end of the bench. Wilson’s development seemingly stalled due to a lack of opportunity, and Thanasis’ NBA bona fides were always under question. That said, each of the six core players (Giannis, Khris, Bledsoe, Brook, Donte, and Hill) played at least 1100 minutes this season, and averaged at least 21 minutes per game. Having them around for the long haul means that we can assume continuity in how the team will operate, as well as what types of players might be brought in to fill any vacancies.

To Be Determined

There are just as many players on the roster whose status is up in the air compared to the eight locks mentioned above. Of the remaining question marks, Wes Matthews is the lone starter in the group. He and Robin Lopez each signed a 1+1 deal (veteran’s minimum for Wes, standard MLE for Robin), and they will have to make a tough decision when it comes time to exercise (or decline) their player options. While the Bucks don’t have control with either player, it’s hard to believe that the team would be upset about one or the other (or both!) electing to stick around for another year. The downside is that each player has a relatively small cap figure and, were they to depart, it would offer only modest relief on the salary sheet.

Enter Ersan Ilyasova. Having signed a 12:01am deal in free agency back in 2018, fans questioned both the timing (in terms of prioritizing his deal) and the length of his contract. It’s safe to say that he at least met expectations, and it wouldn’t be a shock for the team to keep him for the full extent of his deal. However, his $7M salary is fully non-guaranteed for next season, meaning the Bucks could cut him loose and find some additional breathing room if they find themselves in a money crunch.

Lastly, Sterling Brown will find himself in restricted free agency, and there’s no telling what sort of offers he might field. Like draft class mate D.J. Wilson, his opportunities were more limited in part because of the team’s success, but he also didn’t seem to develop as much as he could have. He’s definitely an NBA-level player, but will he garner a bigger salary elsewhere? Would he rather stay with a proven contender, or seek a bigger opportunity with a lesser team? No matter what, the Bucks will get a chance to match or decline the deal, but their financial restrictions are going to factor in at least as heavily as Sterling’s basketball potential.

The remaining three roster players will all be unrestricted free agents: Kyle Korver, Pat Connaughton, and Marvin Williams each have to determine what they want to do next with their careers. In the case of Korver (39) and Williams (34), retirement is a serious option, especially if they get a chance to end things on a high note, atop a championship parade float. Connaughton (27) on the other hand will have an opportunity to seek a significant salary bump, and the Bucks will be hard-pressed to provide it to him since his two-year tenure only affords him “early Bird” rights, limiting the dollar amount they can offer (175% of the previous salary, which for Connaughton would start at about $3M) while still avoiding using cap space.

Available Assets

If we’re looking at future seasons like a party, we have 8 “yeses” and 4 “maybes,” with three RSVPs yet unreturned. If a roster has 15 spots to fill, and we know not everyone will be back, how else will those seats be taken?

The first solution is the draft, which used to be a staple of any conversation involving the Bucks’ future but has recently become an afterthought. After all, Milwaukee traded away their first round pick (#30 overall, which became Kevin Porter Jr.) last summer in order to clear Tony Snell from the ledger and provide some financial breathing room. But at least for the foreseeable future, this won’t be the case.

Most Bucks fans were sad to see Brogdon go last June, but the return of Indiana’s first round pick softened the blow. The Pacers are a surprising 39-26 and currently rank 5th in the Eastern Conference, meaning the lottery protection on the selection is moot and Milwaukee will be making that pick this offseason. In all likelihood, it will fall somewhere between 18th and 20th overall, and the Bucks’ dearth of young talent should lead them to invest in the future by taking a player for development rather than trading the pick away for more veteran help.

The Pacers’ pick is the only selection Milwaukee currently has in this draft class, which means that next season they will have their own first round pick (thanks Stephen rule!), as well as the Pacers’ second-round pick (from the Brogdon S&T) to work with. Beyond that, their 2022-23 first is owed to Cleveland for the George Hill trade, but they still retain ownership of their own second rounder that draft.

In the short term, we can count on those two first rounders and not much else, and only one of them can be used this summer. So what does the team’s budget outlook look like?

Orange = non-guaranteed; Green = team option; Gray = player option

No matter how you slice it, the Bucks are strapped for cash next season. With nearly $100M tied up in the team’s top 5 players and no reason to expect them to not be here, it’s difficult to project the Bucks as a team that will operate with cap space anytime soon. Even if each of Ersan, Robin, and Matthews find themselves elsewhere, the team’s salary total comes out to $116.9M, which is higher than the league’s original projections for the 2020-21 salary cap.

Here’s the kicker, and this cannot be overstated: there is no chance that the league’s salary cap stays at their original projections, even with the return to play (and the associated revenue that comes with it) in Orlando. Our Atlanta sister-site Peachtree Hoops published a piece on this topic back in May, and they summed it up better than I could:

The oversimplified answer is that there is no way to project what the 2020-21 NBA Salary Cap may be. This is not from a lack of Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) knowledge on the staff’s part nor because we do not know what the Basketball Related Income (BRI) for the 2019-20 NBA Season will be. Even if someone could tell us with certainty the 2019-20 BRI, there would still be no way of determining the 2020-21 NBA Salary Cap due to the coronavirus pandemic causing league officials to consider altering the start date of the 2020-21 NBA Season which in turn alters future revenue streams of the NBA.

Speculating about what the team might do to retool the roster is just that, speculation, and never before has that been so accurate than it is today. Without a cap projection, or a luxury tax line, or even knowing what the CBA might look like if changes are implemented, there is so much that we don’t know about the parameters the Bucks will work within. The only guarantee we have is that they will offer Giannis the supermax extension ($50K well spent) as soon as possible. While it was slated to be the richest contract in NBA history, the supermax’s value is tied to the salary cap as a percentage rather than a flat figure; so as the cap goes down so does Giannis’ future earnings.

There you have it; the Bucks have their hands full this offseason, just like they’ll have their hands full when the season gets (re)started in a couple of weeks. What details did we miss? What direction do you think the team will go with some of their undetermined players or assets? Let us know in the comments; July 30th draws near!