FanPost

Release The Vultures! A Path to Steph in Milwaukee

Now that us Bucks fans are assured of a long-term future with Giannis in Milwaukee, we can get on with the important business of building a team around him by poaching stars from large markets!

I'm half kidding. Though I do enjoy needling Warriors fans as much as the next Bucks fan and I'm happy to see them eat crow, I think we can legitimately wonder if Steph Curry will ever team up with Giannis—as the media and Dubs fans tried to speak into existence for these last few years—but in Milwaukee.

After all, the Steph-Giannis narrative is by no means dead. As we all know, the two have some sort of friendship as endlessly evidenced by the media and Bay Area vultures, seemingly based on just two instances: their bounce pass-alley oop hook up in the 2019 All Star Game, and a moment they shared after a game in January 2020 at Chase Center, where apparently Steph only was giving Giannis his gamer tag.

To be clear: these rumors seem to have come primarily from Warriors-centric media, and the rest from ESPN. Just Google "Steph Curry Giannis" and you'll see a first page almost totally filled with Bay Area outlets, including the venerable NBC Sports BayArea.

But my my, how the tables have turned. While Steph clearly appears to be back in form so far this year (though I might add he's shooting a career low 39.4% from three... some career low!), the jury is very much out on the Warriors. After opening the season with a pair of drubbings at hands of the Bucks and Nets, they've been up and down: unconvincingly beating bad teams (the Bulls and Pistons) and splitting games to good teams (the Clippers and Blazers, who blew them out). It's too early to glean anything and a 5-4 record is pretty par for the course in this so-far wacky season, but the question marks are very much there.

While Wiseman looks promising, Wiggins' efficiency is average at best (even though he's shooting 40% from deep) and has major defensive flaws, Draymond Green has zero impact on offense, and Kelly Oubre has been flat-out garbage so far. These were the guys Golden State is counting on to support a healthy Steph in a playoffs return, and in Oubre's case to provide some facsimile of Klay's production (he was acquired after Klay tore his Achilles). The rest of the roster is very marginal: Paschall is the only one who would definitely be in other teams' rotations.

This doesn't sound like a roster worth a giant luxury tax bill. In the stacked West, it's tough to imagine this Warriors team making the top six seed playoff group over improved squads in Phoenix and Portland plus perennial playoff teams like Denver, Utah, and now Dallas—to say nothing of the juggernauts in LA. In previous years, we'd have looked at this and thought 8-seed at best, but with the play-in they'll have a better shot, though they'll have to contend with the team from the aforementioned group who finishes outside the top six, plus the Pelicans and Spurs most likely, who I think are better teams on paper. Best case scenario: this team is first round fodder for the Lakers.

Is that the franchise a star seeking a ring would want to commit to? Even when that star is as indelibly linked with it as Steph is with Golden State? Huge tax commitments hampering its flexibility to configure a quality roster notwithstanding, after 2 years contending with quite possibly the two worst injuries a basketball player can have, there's no guarantee Klay Thompson is the two-way stud of old and still capable of being an elite second fiddle.

The Warriors are very much in the all-too-familiar, Herb Kohl spot between vying for the 8 seed and taking. The prospects for rising above this are a bit dubious. As SI's Michael Pina put it in a recent article:

"There’s a chance Golden State can compete for another championship with Curry as its most expensive player, but the path to get there is littered with optimistic assumptions and stormy variables. If Wiseman looks like the Rookie of the Year and then takes a significant sophomore leap; Green and Thompson enter 2022 in peak condition; Steph remains one of the NBA’s 10 best players; and the top 3-protected first-round pick Minnesota owes Golden State in 2021 (it’s unprotected in 2022) manifests immediate contribution, either via trade or with a special prospect who can help right away, then the Warriors will be in a pretty good spot."

That's a lot of ifs. Plus, their ownership must still be willing to continue paying the 9 figure tax bills (they're paying $137.1m in tax alone this year, per Spotrac) and EVERYONE needs to stay healthy. Most critically, the three players who have totaled a whopping 147 games combined missed due to injury since the 2019 Finals concluded (and that's after a season where the Warriors played just 65 games). You can add at least another 72 to that with Klay missing this year.

Let's be objective and honest here: the Dubs window is closed. Their title run is done; that era has finished. If it wasn't over last year when the team was led by D'Angelo Russell-then-Andrew Wiggins and without both Splash Brothers to the worst record in the league, or when Kevin Durant signed with Brooklyn, or when Klay Thompson tore his ACL in June 2019, it is now most definitely over, and was over from the moment Klay tore his Achilles in November. If they can trade any of their assets like the Minnesota pick for more viable pieces around Steph, Klay comes back solidly, or hope Wiseman has a Luka-like rise from seasons 1 to 2, maybe they're in the top six playoff group, which maybe is a "pretty good spot." But a title? Dream on.

Since actual media members are also fanning the Steph-is-leaving flames, I'll join the vulture chorus and submit that the Bucks are legitimately one of the best places Steph Curry could go in search of another ring. The on-court fit is obvious: elite shooters pair very well with Giannis as do playmakers capable of being primary ball-handlers like Khris and Jrue. If Steph joined the Bucks today, they may overtake the Lakers in title odds.

But a Curry to Milwaukee trade isn't very realistic this year. Steph is on his own supermax, of course, and for the Bucks to match salaries with their proximity to the hard cap they'd need to send out at least $43m, meaning you could kiss Khris and likely Donte goodbye. Gutting the team for Steph this year is not advisable, but in 2021–22 could at least be done without the restriction of a hard cap, should the Bucks not do anything that triggers it. It would just mean a huge tax bill for a roster which would zoom past the tax line in year 1 of Giannis' extension, even without Khris Middleton.

What's more, other teams can offer better packages even if the asking price for Curry lower than it should be. Based on the Jrue Holiday trade (two years younger than Steph but in the same draft class), it would likely require multiple firsts that the Bucks don't have plus rising star talent on a rookie deal. Donte by himself is probably not enough to meet that last requirement, despite his great start this year. Should the Warriors go this route, they'd be asking what the Rockets are asking for James Harden; likely more.

Would the Warriors consider trading him? I don't think it's far-fetched. Golden State could not reach an agreement with Curry on an extension prior to the 12/21/20 deadline. Such an extension would start in 2022–23 and while it maxes out at only three years, the annual values are gargantuan: $48m, $52m, and a whopping $56m at age 36, which will be Curry's 16th year in the league. The Dubs can still extend him this offseason at that 3 year/$156m amount, and Curry has gone on record saying he wants to finish his career in Golden State, but is that a wise investment for a franchise? Not hard to make the case that it's a bad idea.

Should Golden State sign him to that figure, that's not a contract I'd want to be trading for unless Steph maintains a LeBron-like durability and effectiveness into his mid-30s, which seems unlikely given Curry's more extensive injury history. The price would be lower for acquiring him under that contract, but matching those salaries would be more difficult: even Khris Middleton in the final two years of his deal would not be nearly enough to balance it.

Let's hypothesize that Golden State does not extend him. I think Curry would reject a sub-max extension offer if he stays healthy this year, and lowballing a superstar is never a good idea. Hometown discounts really never happen either. Anything under the max would be Curry wanting to give his team better flexibility to form the roster, as LeBron did in Miami. Let's also assume that Curry is still an obvious max salary free agent in 2022 even at age 34, which seems likely barring injury. Based on what I know, here are the Bucks' salary commitments beginning in 2022:

2022–23 2023–24 2024–25 2025–26
Giannis $42,492,568 $45,640,166 $48,787,764 $51,935,362
Middleton $37,948,276 $40,396,552 UFA
Lopez $13,906,976 $20,860,464
Augustin* $333,333 UFA
Connaughton $5,728,395 $10,883,951
Guaranteed: $100,409,548 $86,036,718 $48,787,764 $51,935,362
Estimated Salary Cap: $115,700,000 $119,200,000 ??? ???
Cap Room: $15,290,452 $33,163,282 ??? ???
Estimated Luxury Tax: $140,000,000 $144,900,000 ??? ???
Below Tax: $39,590,452 $58,863,282 ??? ???
Estimated Tax Apron: $148,018,196 $150,257,019 ??? ???
Below Apron: $47,608,648 $64,220,301 ??? ???
Player Option UFA + Cap Hold (not included in totals) Team Option
*Reflects guaranteed portion of D.J. Augustin's $7,333,333 salary

By my analysis of this, creating max cap room in summer of 2022 to sign Steph would require all of the following:

  • renouncing cap holds for Jrue Holiday, Bobby Portis, and Bryn Forbes, thus removing the ability to go over the cap to re-sign them
  • waiving D.J. Augustin before his guarantee date
  • trading Brook Lopez, Pat Connaughton, the player(s) they selected in the 2021 draft (they posses both their picks that year), and Khris Middleton without receiving more than $24.9m of salary in return

Based on a cap estimate of $115.7m, a max salary for a player with 10+ years of NBA experience is 35% of the cap, so $40.495m. However, a salary for Steph would indeed be higher, since a free agent's max salary is always 105% of his previous year's salary. This is where the $48m figure comes from above: Steph would make $48,070,143 in the first year of a max contract and that is the cap room the Bucks would need to create. Needless to say, if Jrue Holiday is indeed extended this season or next, any 2022 cap room vanishes.

Let's say the unlikely happens and the Bucks somehow accomplish all of the above, then manage to sign Stephen Curry to a three-year max contract. Here's how that would look going forward:

2022–23 2023–24 2024–25 2025–26
Curry $48,070,143 $50,473,650 $52,997,333 UFA
Giannis $42,492,568 $45,640,166 $48,787,764 $51,935,362
Guaranteed: $90,562,711 $96,113,816 $101,785,097 $51,935,362
Estimated Salary Cap: $115,700,000 $119,200,000 ??? ???
Cap Room: $25,137,289 $23,086,184 ??? ???
Estimated Luxury Tax: $140,000,000 $144,900,000 ??? ???
Below Tax: $49,437,289 $48,786,184 ??? ???
Estimated Tax Apron: $148,018,196 $150,257,019 ??? ???
Below Apron: $57,455,485 $54,143,203 ??? ???
Player Option

$25m in cap room plus the MLE, BLE, and vet minimum would be sufficient to fill out up to 12 more spots on their roster. They also could receive players in trades so long as they don't total more than $24.9m. That could solve a few more roster spots.

Dealing any of the necessary trade pieces for no salary in return would be tricky because they'd need to find with a team or teams under the cap, of which there are always very few, so they'd have to take some salary back. But this may net them a future second round pick or two. I'd hope that Khris is still good enough to fetch at least one future pick in 2022, though perhaps not a first given the massive salary the acquiring team would be receiving. The team would have its own first round pick in 2023, and so long as the team is better than the Pelicans in 2025, they'd have it that year too.

So the trades could restock the draft cupboard a bit and I think that via the draft and cap space, the Bucks would have decent flexibility to create a roster around two max players each year of their contracts.

This raises some very important questions:

  • Is this all worth it, even for an all-time great who would be 36 in the last year of a massive deal?
  • Would you pay this much for a star that Giannis wants to play with?
  • Would the Giannis/Steph combo leading an otherwise lacking roster (sounds like the 2020 Lakers) be enough to win a ring?
  • Would Steph take less than the max for his next contract, wherever it is?

This scenario is probably just as far-fetched as the ones NBC Sports BayArea, ClutchPoints, and others were proposing to get Giannis to Golden State, though I think what I outlined above is more realistic than a Giannis trade headlined by Andrew Wiggins and Draymond Green. So this is a pipe dream, but so was Giannis to the Warriors, and we had to suffer through that for years, even when it was people proposing actual methods of making it happen instead of casual/bandwagon fans pontificating without knowledge of the CBA. My effort here is an attempt at the former, hopefully to the chagrin of Dubs fans.

I'd love to read your thoughts on these questions in the comment section. Also let me know if any of my math is off, or I'm missing something due to a CBA rule.

h/t to Bobby Marks and cbafaq.com for the data and help writing this

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