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Reloading Again: Looking At The Bucks’ Offseason Options

Much is unknown at this point, but let’s start with what we do know.

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Miami Heat v Milwaukee Bucks - Game Five Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

The 2019-20 NBA season is, against all odds, on its way towards a conclusion and crowning a champion. The Milwaukee Bucks are not that champion, and they will instead shift their focus to mounting a successful campaign next season. The only trouble is, thanks to the persistence of the coronavirus pandemic, “next season” exists only in theory at this point.

There are a lot of wrinkles that need to be ironed out, many of them much bigger than basketball. Launching the 2020-21 NBA season in a bubble is unrealistic, and re-introducing interstate travel before COVID-19 has been brought to heel once a viable vaccine is widely circulated is irresponsible, at best. However, even once those issues are resolved, there’s still the matter of the money: the shutdown drastically affected the league’s finances, and the CBA is going to require an overhaul.

The good news: this is not a circumstance where foundational provisions are under dispute. We are not approaching a lockout by the owners or a strike by the players union. All involved parties are interested in finding a compromise that allows for continuity and, eventually, a return to normalcy. From ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski a few weeks ago:

Despite current and projected revenue losses affecting the union’s 51-49 revenue split with the league, there’s optimism that the sides can reach agreements on temporary changes to the CBA — including the salary-cap and luxury-tax thresholds — that would preclude the need to enact the nuclear option of terminating the CBA.

The league was already expecting a drop of both the salary cap and luxury tax lines (relative to projections) due to ongoing revenue loss in China. With the COVID-19 shutdown closing stadiums and keeping fans (and their disposable income) at home, suddenly the NBA is facing the inverse of the cap spike that inflated salaries in 2016. This time around, though, there’s much stronger mutual interest in a “smoothing” mechanism, and it’s widely anticipated that the league will work to operate next season based on this season’s cap figures. From The Athletic’s John Hollinger in June:

The expectation is that the NBA will set the cap at roughly the same level as this year – $109 million, with a tax line of $123 million – and separate it from Basketball Related Income, the mechanism by which the split of money between players and teams is achieved, like the league did coming out of the 2011 lockout, and make up any potential difference that arises by increasing the escrow withholding from players. Such “smoothing” of the cap would eliminate a shock-to-the-system cap spike in 2021 and beyond, eliminating a potential severe one- or two-year drop in the cap and tax lines because of lost revenues from fans not being in arenas, followed by a burst of income whenever they are allowed to return.

Translation: the league says in order to keep the show going, we’re just going to run it back. If we work off of those assumptions, we can keep setting the stage for the Bucks’ offseason efforts. Jon Horst has quite the task ahead of him: build a team around Giannis that can get to the NBA Finals. Here’s what he has to work with.

2020-21 Salary Figures (if carried over from 19-20)

Salary Cap: $109.1M

Luxury Tax: $132.6M

Tax Apron: $138.9M


Players under contract for next year – $113.6M

Khris Middleton – $33.0M (signed through 23-24)

Giannis Antetokounmpo – $27.5M (expiring, extension eligible)

Eric Bledsoe – $16.8M (signed through 22-23, partial guarantee on final year)

Brook Lopez – $12.6M (signed through 22-23)

George Hill – $9.5M (signed through 21-22, partial guarantee on final year)

D.J. Wilson – $4.5M (expiring, extension eligible)

Donte DiVincenzo – $3.0M (signed through 21-22, rookie scale)

Thanasis Antetokounmpo – $1.7M (expiring, extension eligible)

Dead money – $5.0M (Jon Leuer and Larry Sanders, each stretched through 21-22)

We won’t spend any more time on Giannis’ future than we have to: the Bucks are going to offer him the supermax, he may accept it and put all of the speculation to rest, or he may decline it and keep the league in a tizzy until next offseason. We won’t know until it happens, and no matter what the outcome, it won’t affect his salary for next season anyway. Ditto for his brother Thanasis, who’s also technically eligible for a contract extension (in that he’s an NBA player in the last year of his deal) and about as likely to get moved elsewhere as Giannis is.

Khris Middleton is another fixture in Milwaukee; he may not be completely untouchable, but there’s very little sense in moving a player who’s likely to be named to the All-NBA Third Team for his performance this season, unless a clearly superior player were somehow available and Middleton was a necessary sacrifice to acquire said-player. Of the litany of issues present in Milwaukee, Khris Middleton is not one of them.

Eric Bledsoe, on the other hand...when it’s reported that you’re a main trade candidate within 48 hours of your team’s postseason collapse, generally those tea leaves don’t tell you to set down long-term roots. It’s not even Bledsoe’s fault, not really. He earned good grades for his defensive performance, but his poor marks on offense (both as a decision-maker and a shooter) necessitate upgrading. Eric tried, and he simply did not get the results the Bucks needed from the point guard position when it mattered most. His contract is team-friendly (only 25% guaranteed in the final year) so it’s reasonable to expect his name to be mentioned early and often in the upcoming offseason.

Brook Lopez seems like a much safer bet to stick around, but his presence is by no means guaranteed if the right deal presented itself or if Mike Budenholzer is somehow convinced that the zone drop is not sustainable long term. From our very own oldresorter:

I agree

but the devil is in the detail.

for example, if one thinks the zone drop is a gimmick and will be replaced, brook no longer is an all nba defender, and if one also drops the 5 out, is it time to sell high on brook?

A Splash Mountain trade would be a surprise, but not an unthinkable one. He’s a rare case of a player on a “low eight-figure” salary that provides fair value, given how he directs the defense and protects the rim while also stretching the floor on offense, and occasionally providing some low-post scoring punch to boot. He’s valuable to the Bucks, but could be valuable to other teams as well. This applies to George Hill as well; Milwaukee won’t be looking to trade him away, but they’d be willing to part ways if the return was a big enough upgrade.

Lastly, the Bucks’ two “young” prospects on this list, one of whom figures to play a lot (Donte) and the other will barely play at all (D.J.) Donte offers defensive impact in the backcourt (which sorely needs it) and a willingness to let it fly (despite iffy results). I can’t see the Bucks parting with Donte, since he’s their only rookie-scale contributor of note. D.J. offers...$4.5M of expiring salary? He’s been a complete non-entity in the league, and the change he needs the most is of scenery.

Players in flux for next year – $16.6M

Ersan Ilyasova – $7.0M (fully non-guaranteed for 20-21)

Wes Matthews – $2.6M (player option for 20-21)

Robin Lopez – $5.0M (player option for 20-21)

Sterling Brown – $2.0M cap hold (restricted free agent)

With these four, the Bucks have varying degrees of control over the outcome, whether or not these players are in Milwaukee or elsewhere next season. Ersan’s case is the most straightforward: if he is still on an NBA roster as of two days after the NBA Draft, his salary becomes guaranteed. If he’s waived between the start of the league year and that deadline, no money stays on the books. This makes him a valuable trade piece, either for a team that wants to simply cut costs or as salary filler without taking up a roster spot, as long as the Bucks act quickly enough. Of course, the Bucks could instead opt to keep Ersan on the roster for...reasons? I don’t see any reason to believe Ersan will be in a Bucks uni next season.

Sterling Brown’s situation is much more of a toss-up. Having shown flashes of defensive aptitude, rebounding ability, and shooting prowess (particularly in the corners), he’s also seemingly hit his ceiling as a ball-handler and a passer. He is a decent player, albeit limited, and could be successful in the right role. If he doesn’t believe that role exists in Milwaukee, it would behoove him to try his luck on the market and see if a deal can be made. If that happens, Milwaukee then gets the right to match the offer and keep Sterling at the new price, or let him walk. With three years under his belt, the Bucks hold Sterling’s Bird Rights, meaning they’re not constrained by the salary cap to re-sign him, but this may be another situation similar to Malcolm Brogdon in that the best outcome for all parties is a sign-and-trade for draft picks. That would be my preferred outcome for Sterling, compared to letting him walk for nothing or retaining him at a salary significantly above the minimum.

With Wes Matthews and Robin Lopez, the Bucks are completely at their mercy. Each player has the option to return (hence the term “player option”), and would have to decline their option to re-enter the unrestricted free agent market. It’s not likely that Robin will find a team willing to pay him much more than his $5M salary in 20-21, and by all accounts he seems to enjoy Milwaukee, despite having his playing time dry up and having to share a locker room with twin brother Brook. Matthews, on the other hand, could try his luck on the market to maximize his salary, but he’s already cleared the $100M mark on his career and with his 34th birthday approaching, Milwaukee may be his best chance to contend for a ring. My gut tells me that Wes and Robin both stick around for one more season, if Coach Bud and Jon Horst are willing to have them.

Players unlikely to return next year – $8.1M

Marvin Williams – $1.7M cap hold (unrestricted free agent, retiring)

Kyle Korver – $1.7M cap hold (unrestricted free agent, considering retirement)

Pat Connaughton – $1.7M cap hold (unrestricted free agent)

Frank Mason III – $1.5M cap hold (restricted free agent, two-way contract)

Cam Reynolds – $1.5M cap hold (restricted free agent, two-way contract)

This segment of the roster doesn’t require too much analysis. Marvin Williams was an acquisition on the buyout market, and his quest to chase a ring with Milwaukee was unsuccessful. He gave it his best effort, it didn’t work out, so he’s leaving of his own accord. We wish him well.

(Funny coincidence, last season’s major midseason acquisition went a similar path. Nikola Mirotic, after struggling to fit in on the 2019 Bucks team that fell to the Toronto Raptors, opted to return to Europe instead of sticking around in the NBA.)

Kyle Korver’s decision will partly be decided by whether or not there’s space for him on Milwaukee’s roster. He played more minutes than many expected, both in the regular season and playoffs, and it’s clear that Mike Budenholzer values his shooting ability, even if it’s not as potent as it once was. I personally don’t expect Korver to return, but if Jon Horst fills 14 spots and no glaring needs are remaining, maybe Korver gives it one last run.

Frank Mason and Cam Reynolds are both G-League players who have actual NBA experience, so they are not able to be retained on two-way deals any further. It is most likely that the Bucks renounce their cap holds and set them free to pursue a contract elsewhere. Pat Connaughton, on the other hand, is an NBA player whose performance was extremely hit-or-miss with the Bucks. He’s well-liked by the team, good friends with Giannis, and he’s invested in the community (literally!), but Milwaukee can only offer a minimum-level salary to follow up his last two years of minimum-level salary. Will that be enough, and is his unpredictability worth bringing back?

Assets & Resources

Draft picks

2020 1st round pick (via Pacers)

Future 1st round picks: 2021 (Stepien), 2023 (Stepien) 2024, 2025, 2026

Future 2nd round picks: 2022, 2022 (IND), 2023, 2024, 2025, 2025 (IND), 2026

One of the major flaws on the Bucks’ roster, which was fully exposed against the hungry Miami Heat, is a lack of youth and athleticism. Milwaukee bet on veteran savvy to carry the day this season, and had the season not been put on hold for over four months and resumed in a neutral, fan-free location that completely upended expectations for how the playoffs have been conducted, things might have worked out differently. But they didn’t.

Enter the Indiana Pacers’ pick, courtesy of last summer’s Malcolm Brogdon sign-and-trade. We put together a scouting series before the restart, focusing on some of the prospects that might be in the Bucks’ range (24th overall) to pick up. Among the candidates we’ve already reviewed are R.J. Hampton, Kira Lewis Jr, and Tre Jones, and those are just some of the point guards, where it’s widely agreed that Milwaukee has the most room for improvement on the roster. Milwaukee could instead choose to move this pick, but mortgaging the future for a win-now move better actually lead to winning now, or else the Bucks of the future will be thinner than ever.

Looking further ahead, the Bucks also have future firsts and seconds to work with, but by virtue of existing trades that have not yet been fully consummated, they are limited by the Stepien Rule from trading away their picks in 2021 and 2023, meaning they must make those selections. They’re not bound by any restraints with their second rounders, but the market for late picks is pretty thin and doesn’t inspire much flexibility when added to negotiations. They could, as always, try and acquire a pick with cash considerations, which might be attractive for any owners hit harder by the coronavirus shutdown than others, but Marc Lasry, Wes Edens, Jamie Dinan, and the rest of the ownership group hasn’t shown a proclivity for that sort of spending before.

New free agents

Bi-annual Exception (BAE, $3.6M in 2019)

Non-taxpayer Mid-level Exception (MLE, $9.3M in 2019)

Because the Bucks are likely to carry salaries that exceed the salary cap in 2020-21, cap space is a non-starter. There’s simply too much guaranteed money for them to be able to duck below the estimated cap line before you even consider the players that may or may not return (Robin, Wes, Ersan, or Sterling), and they’re not really in a position to dump salary on a team with cap space.

As a result, if the reworked CBA includes much of the same mechanisms as the current CBA, the Bucks get to benefit from exceptions and could use two of them this summer fall winter sometime soon. The Bi-annual Exception is, you guessed it, available every other year for teams that use it; Brook Lopez was originally required as a free agent two seasons ago, under the BAE. Since the Bucks did not pay into the luxury tax and did not use the BAE last year, they have roughly $3.6M of non-salary cap money to work with. Even though it can be split between multiple players, the BAE is best thought of as an upgrade to a minimum-level deal; if used on one player, the starting salary is about a million higher than the largest minimum salary ($2.5M if the player has 10+ years of experience). It can only sign a player to a 2-year deal, though, so it very much is a short-term solution.

There are a number of players who are unrestricted free agents that made less than the estimated BAE last season. Not all of them make sense as targets for the Bucks, but they deserve some consideration. Included the list are old friends Thon Maker, Michael Carter-Williams, and Jared Dudley, the injury-derailed DeMarcus Cousins, the reinvigorated Carmelo Anthony (who was bought out of his deal last year), and seasoned veterans like Wilson Chandler, Thabo Sefolosha, and Anthony Tolliver.

The Mid-level Exception has several variations, and the one that most likely applies to Milwaukee is the Non-taxpayer version. The MLE is available every year (unlike the BAE), but since the Bucks are operating over the cap (eliminating the Room MLE) and under the tax (eliminating the Taxpayer MLE), this offseason they get the biggest version of the exception. With a max starting salary of $9.2M and a max length of four years, the Non-taxpayer MLE could bring in a real difference-maker, if Milwaukee is able to find someone willing to join the Bucks in this range.

With the price of the MLE, there are two ways to think about offers: players who would stand to make a similar amount of money as their last contracts, and players who are coming off significantly higher salaries but are older and at a stage where championships mean more than dollars. The first category includes more old friends (John Henson, Brandon Knight, and Matthew Dellavedova), but realistic targets could be Brooklyn’s Joe Harris, Orlando’s D.J. Augustin, or the Bucks’ newest Fred VanVleet-style tormentor, Miami’s Jae Crowder. The second, more aspirational, category covers players like Denver’s Paul Millsap (made $30.5M last year), New Orleans’ Derrick Favors ($17.6M), and Oklahoma City’s Danilo Gallinari ($22.6M).

It’s critical to note that using either of these exceptions would impose a hard cap on the team, limiting them to spending no more than the “tax apron,” which was set at $138.9M last season. Since the Bucks have roughly $130M of commitments right now, they will have to carefully structure their offseason strategy to remain below that level, but it’s worth pointing out that the apron is about $6 million above the luxury tax line, which Jon Horst and Bucks ownership have been acutely aware of. Still, this is the season that we’ve expected the Bucks to take their first dip into the tax (in order to keep enough talent around Giannis for him to stay long-term), so we may be having more discussions about the hard cap than we had previously.

In summary, the Bucks can expect to return most of their playoff rotation (if everybody wants to be there), and only Connaughton and Korver are question marks at this point in September. They also have players that they may decide to move on from for other reasons, particularly Bledsoe and Ilyasova. They have limited trade chips beyond that, but they could move the Indiana pick and a future first or two, and they will have to navigate carefully in free agency if they decide to use any of their exceptions. No matter what, the priority is to mount a full-fledged effort towards winning the championship next season, a realistic goal which the Bucks firmly failed to accomplish two years running. With Giannis’ long-term future still undetermined, it is imperative that the third time is the charm for Milwaukee.