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Pivot Point: Where The Bucks Can Go Next At Center

Brook Lopez has played in one game this season, and is out indefinitely.

Utah Jazz v Milwaukee Bucks Photo by John Fisher/Getty Images

Milwaukee Bucks fans were thrown for a loop on Thursday, when the team abruptly announced that starting center Brook Lopez had undergone successful back surgery and would be out indefinitely. Some had been convinced that this was the case all along, and that the team was not being forthright with details because the situation was worse than they let on. No matter what, nobody appreciated the surprise news and everybody wants Brook to get well soon.

Beyond that, there is very little agreement amongst the fanbase about the answer to the question, “now what?”

Going into the season, Milwaukee opted to favor depth on the wing and prepared to start the season with only Brook, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bobby Portis, and two-way big Sandro Mamukelashvili available to effectively play the 5. Theoretically, some of those wings might have been able to play up a position in certain Giannis-centric lineups, serving as the nominal center despite standing shorter than the Greek Freak. That approach would help the team prepare small-ball lineups that would really come in handy in the playoffs when Brook or Bobby were not effective...if it worked.

The plan didn’t work, not at this point. Thanasis Antetokounmpo and Semi Ojeleye each struggled to capitalize on the opportunity to seize the backup PF role, and Ojeleye is also missing time with a calf injury. Pat Connaughton can play the 4 in a pinch, and he’s certainly had a productive start to his season, but he’s also needed on the wing and in the backcourt as the Bucks’ do-it-all reserve. Jordan Nwora continues to struggle with both defense and decision-making, leaving him on the outside of the rotation for now and leaving the Bucks without a non-Giannis contingency plan at center.

To his credit, Giannis Antetokounmpo is covering up the majority of the defensive flaws exposed by Brook Lopez’s absence. He’s playing a career-high percentage of his minutes at center, and is somehow more productive and reliable than ever before. He was always going to play some center so it’s not a surprise that he’s thriving in the role, but there is some concern about the workload that playing the 5 includes and whether or not it’s too much for Giannis to handle while also maintaining playoff readiness once April rolls around.

Staying on the positives, Bobby Portis has also been a fully competent starter since returning from a hamstring injury in training camp. His shooting has stayed scorching and his rim protection at least hasn’t gotten worse, and his mobility has actually allowed the Bucks to play a more aggressive style of pick-and-roll defense without necessarily weakening the team’s overall defense. He’s one of the younger players in the rotation (26, same age as Giannis) so he should be able to handle the increase in his playing time (27.9 minutes per game, up from 20.8 mpg last year), though the more minutes Portis plays, the more likely he’s going to play while Giannis sits, which is a risky proposition for the Bucks’ defense.

As superb as they are, Giannis and Bobby are still only two guys, and Mamu simply isn’t ready to consistently contribute at an NBA level. Even with Brook in the fold, there’s a certain thinness to the front court that made some fans uneasy, and now that Brook is fully unavailable (not that he wasn’t before...) the concern has morphed into outright worry. Had the Bucks resolved to sign a backup big instead of, say, Semi Ojeleye or Rodney Hood, perhaps this could have been mitigated. We didn't know this would be a problem back then; hindsight is 20/20, after all.

Thankfully, the team has already taken steps to shore up this weakness by bringing in DeMarcus Cousins. Boogie had an encouraging Bucks debut in the game against Charlotte, but at 31 years old and with declining athleticism coupled with a significant injury history, there’s a reason his contract is non-guaranteed until January 7. A healthy Boogie would be a tremendous third big to partner with Giannis and Bobby and Brook, once he returns. Will Boogie stay healthy? That’s the hope, but that hope happens to be a somewhat significant gamble.

All of that takes us to where we are right now. The Bucks have three bigs capable of playing center, and one of those players happens to be the most valuable player in franchise history. Should the team stand pat and have the current trio hold down the fort until Lopez comes back? Or should the front office be proactive and reinforce the front court before something else goes wrong?

If you fall in the camp of wanting to do something rather than nothing, then it’s high time to review the Bucks’ options. As it stands, Milwaukee is responsible for a whopping $155.9 million in salary, and all fifteen standard roster spots (plus both two-way spots) are filled. Cap space is a pipe dream, and the only exception that’s available to sign another free agent is the veteran’s minimum which would require the clearing of another roster spot. Presently, DeMarcus Cousins is the only player without guaranteed money due to him, and Georgios Kalaitzakis has half of his salary guaranteed. You could waive Cousins for nothing, but that would be counter-productive since we’re hypothetically trying to add a center. You could waive Kalaitzakis for a modest cap hit (about $463K), but that money plus whatever additional money is paid out gets added to the luxury tax calculations, a figure that grows more and more burdensome with each transaction.

(To be clear, the money paid for luxury tax penalties is paid by ownership, which is a group of literal billionaires. They can afford it. It’s their money, so spending it has no real effect on you or me...but their willingness to spend more of their money makes it so that adding to that bill will be a tough case for Jon Horst to make.)

Besides, there aren’t many worthwhile veteran centers available now that Cousins is signed. Johnny O’Bryant spent a few weeks of training camp with the Bucks, but he’s playing in Turkey. Noah Vonleh is playing in China, mainly because he wasn’t able to stick in the NBA. Likewise for Jahlil Okafor, who isn’t playing overseas but was a high-profile disappointment in the league. Bismack Biyombo, Meyers thanks. Aron Baynes is perhaps the most interesting name out there, but he’s dealing with a significant neck injury and may not be able to play again. There could always be a new name added to the free agent pool through a contract buyout, but that can’t be predicted and would require the Bucks to wait until well after Cousins’ guarantee date anyway, making it a moot point right now.

The trade market is always a possibility, but Milwaukee doesn’t have very many assets to pry a backup big away from a competitor. As it stands, the Bucks are highly unlikely to trade any of their main players because...they’re good, and they make the team win games. Rodney Hood, Semi Ojeleye, and Jordan Nwora are all currently on the outside of the main rotation and are theoretically gettable...but few teams are going to advertise one of them as their main haul in a trade. Nwora has the most marketable skill (bucket-getting), but why trade for him now when you could make a run at him in free agency?

Milwaukee also lacks the draft capital to get involved in any significant trades; they can’t move any first round picks because of the Stepien Rule (they exhausted the last of their tradable firsts last season, acquiring Jrue Holiday and PJ Tucker), and they even lost their 2022 2nd round pick in the Bogdan Bogdanovic fiasco. Is a future second round pick going to be enough to bring both sides to a handshake? Probably not.

Donte DiVincenzo is a dark horse candidate to get traded for help elsewhere, especially since Grayson Allen has been so successful in the starting lineup and both Pat Connaughton and George Hill have played well in their roles. However, Donte also remains out indefinitely as he recovers from ankle surgery, and his contract status makes it so that the Bucks have little incentive to move him now.

He’s in the final year of his rookie scale contract, making him eligible for an extension this offseason if he wants to avoid restricted free agency. More likely, though, is that the Bucks (who hold his Bird rights), can sign-and-trade him to another team even though they’re way over the cap, and Donte’s salary in that instance would be much higher (and therefore much more useful in a deal) than it is currently. Remember that draft capital we mentioned a minute ago? Sending Donte out in a S&T would be a great way to recoup some of those assets. As an aside, Donte DiVincenzo was also a really good contributor on this Bucks team when he was healthy, and once he returns he adds additional dynamism on the wing. Keeping Donte makes a lot of sense, at least for the remainder of this year.

There is one possible method the Bucks could pursue in order to create an avenue to acquire another big: ask for a Disabled Player Exception. The DPE is a mechanism in the CBA that allows a team over the cap to apply for an additional exception if a player is not healthy and cannot play for the rest of the season. If granted, the exception is essentially another MLE-style slot that the Bucks could use to bring someone in, either on a fresh rest-of-season contract or in a trade (as long as the player being acquired with the DPE is on an expiring deal). For Brook Lopez, the DPE would be worth about $6.75 million, which might be enough to find someone out there that can help fill the void...but this is a highly unlikely scenario for the Bucks to actually pursue.

First of all, there’s no guarantee that the league would actually grant the exception. There is a rigorous process that the team and player have to cooperate with, and the league doesn’t just give these exceptions out. Notably, the Wizards were denied the exception for John Wall back in 2019 because his injury couldn’t be proven to be season-ending. Second, the Bucks have already said that they expect Brook Lopez to return before the end of the season, meaning they’d have to go back on that with the league. Third, the exception would disqualify Brook from playing in the postseason, which the Bucks don’t want because Brook Lopez is really freaking good. Fourth, the amount the exception allows is expensive and would add several millions to the luxury tax bill. Fifth, the exception doesn’t clear up a roster spot (Brook is still on the team!), so another transaction would have to be conducted to open up a seat on the bench why not just go that route in the first place?

No matter which way you look at it, the Milwaukee Bucks are in a tough position with Brook Lopez’s indefinite absence. He is an anchor of the defense and a huge part of how they won the NBA Finals last year, and his presence is sorely missed already. Should the team stay the course with Portis, Giannis, and Cousins while Brook recovers from surgery? Or do they need to take more drastic action sooner than that?


What should the Bucks do about their front court?

This poll is closed

  • 15%
    Nothing; wait for Brook to return, when he’s ready.
    (58 votes)
  • 70%
    Wait and see; let Cousins be the guy, replace him if he can’t do it.
    (256 votes)
  • 13%
    Act now; make another move to bring in additional depth.
    (50 votes)
364 votes total Vote Now