Let’s get this out of the way now: the pandemic is still very much ongoing. It never went away. Keep your distance, wear a mask, get your booster (if you can), do everything in your power to limit opportunities for the coronavirus to spread. It’s going to be particularly tough to do now, in the middle of the holiday season and as much of the country plunges into winter...but just try. For yourself, your loved ones, your friends and family, everybody. We’re in this together.
There. That’s your non-basketball tangent (from me, at least). Let’s talk about the Milwaukee Bucks and basketball.
The Bucks are in a rough spot right now, and have been for a while. Brook Lopez’s absence was thankfully(?) unrelated to the league’s health and safety protocols, but Milwaukee has already dealt with lengthy absences from Khris Middleton (who has since returned and got injured anyway) and Jrue Holiday (non-COVID), and is now moving through the schedule without Wes Matthews, Bobby Portis, Donte DiVincenzo (who was just about to make his debut!), and Giannis Antetokounmpo. For any team, missing so many key contributors is a major blow, and the Bucks’ record shows it; despite sitting at 19-13 on the season (4th in the East), their December record is a paltry 6-5.
Sooner or later, the Bucks’ main guys will return, but what about until that point? The NBA recently updated some of the way teams can handle midseason transactions, giving every franchise in the league more options. From The Athletic’s Shams Charania:
Sources: NBA teams will now be required to sign one replacement player when they have two positive tests on the roster. For three positive tests, two replacement signings are required. For four positive results or more, three hardship signings required. https://t.co/tOtwOLzyb4— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) December 20, 2021
Another key note in NBA's roster rule changes for flexibility amid pandemic:— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) December 20, 2021
Two-way players -- who previously had 50-game max -- now have no limit on the number of games they can appear in, sources said. https://t.co/TjwvKcHP9y
What does this mean for the Bucks? Let’s check it out, starting with...
Off the bat, get ready for more Javonte Smart and Sandro Mamukelashvili. Previously, two-way contracts had limits on how much they could play with the “parent club,” with the remainder of their time reserved for the G-League affiliate. With this rule change, that’s no longer the case, as they can effectively be treated as members of the regular roster.
The Wisconsin Herd hasn’t seen very much of Mamu this season, because he’s already been relied upon for minutes consumption with the Bucks. Mamu has struggled, much like any late second-round rookie would, but he’s also shown flashes of talent and understanding the game. Smart has seen less NBA time, given that he replaced Justin Robinson as the other two-way only three weeks ago, but his ball-handling and surprisingly-adept backcourt defense has come in handy for the Bucks.
Given that he was a draftee, Mamukelashvili’s presence on the Bucks’ bench (or even the starting lineup, where he’s already been twice!) is a safe bet going forward, especially since he’s big enough to play center. Smart’s status is less of a guarantee, but he can secure his place with the Bucks by continuing to find ways to make a positive impact, on and off the court. Neither player would be impossible to replace, it just seems unlikely that the upside would be there unless one of them indisputably proves incapable of contributing at an NBA level.
With the two-way issue settled for the rest of this season, the only other reinforcements the Bucks could find is by actively signing a temporary free agent, something that several of their counterparts across the league have already done. Ten-day contracts were the most common mechanism used to patch holes in an injury-riddled roster, but with the recent spike in COVID cases (and the NBA’s clear aversion to postponing any games whatsoever, an obvious move to protect profits at seemingly any cost), we’re in new territory when it comes to the free agent landscape. A notable detail: the salary of any hardship contracts signed specifically as a part of this circumstance will not count against the salary cap or luxury tax.
The most obvious source of temporary support would be the Wisconsin Herd, the Bucks’ Oshkosh-based G-League affiliate. The team’s play by similar principles and use similar systems, so it would be a natural translation. But we’ve already seen some of the Herd’s better players get snapped up by other NBA teams eager to use this newfound source of roster material: Wenyen Gabriel went to the Brooklyn Nets, Rayjon Tucker to the Minnesota Timberwolves, and Jemerrio Jones to the Los Angeles Lakers, and that’s just so far!
Presumably, other experienced free agents would be eligible to join up with the Bucks for a month, and that’s the direction I would imagine general manager Jon Horst would prefer to go. The Bucks are as win-now as a team can get, and their position atop the Eastern Conference in the regular season is being actively eroded with every shorthanded loss. Milwaukee doesn’t need to secure the top seed for postseason success, but it sure would be easier if they did.
Would bringing in a slew of inexperienced G-Leaguers, limited washouts, or creaky old-timers be much of a help at this point? Matthews has been in the protocols for over a week, Donte and Giannis for just about a week, and Bobby for a few days. Provided that they’re symptom-free, feeling good, and able to meet the league’s stringent requirements for exiting the protocols, it’s reasonable to expect these guys to return to action before the end of the calendar year. It’s reasonable to argue that the team can simply ride out this current wave and, assuming that no one else enters the protocols (which is by no means a sure bet) the Bucks could simply go back to normal in a week’s time.
That is perhaps the best explanation for the Bucks’ lack of activity so far. Milwaukee has only five more games over the next 11 days (including the vaunted Christmas Day matchup against Boston, a contest that Giannis and company may still be unable to join) and they’re only mandated to have 8 active players in order for a game to proceed as planned. Is it worth the trouble of going out and signing someone who may not even be here next month, especially when Matthews and DeMarcus Cousins are also on non-guaranteed deals? Choosing to do nothing is still a choice, and time will tell whether it was the right choice for the Bucks to make.