This past offseason, the Milwaukee Bucks were one of the most aggressive teams in the league and reloaded their roster, and while it didn’t all go smoothly we did end up with Jrue Holiday in the fold and Giannis Antetokounmpo signing his supermax extension. As we have seen, you could do a lot worse when building an NBA team!
The decisions made by general manager Jon Horst and the front office had major effects on the options available to tinker with the roster during the season. Obviously, the overall cost of Milwaukee’s player salaries took the team into the luxury tax, but there are more devils in the details, and ESPN’s Bobby Marks was able to go through all of them (ESPN+ only).
New on E+: A 30 team deep dive into the trade deadline.— Bobby Marks (@BobbyMarks42) February 17, 2021
The front office questions
The valuable trade assets
Expiring and controllable contracts
Draft capital https://t.co/gddjTbq8Vi
For reference, the Bucks’ current contract figures are available on basketball-reference.com. Note that Milwaukee does not have Mirza Teletovic’s money counting against the cap (they were granted a waiver due to his medical retirement), but the salaries of Larry Sanders and Jon Leuer do count since they were waived using the Stretch Provision.
To sum up, Milwaukee has 14 players under contract for this season (not including their two-way players, Jaylen Adams and Mamadi Diakite) for a total of $138,486,426. This puts them about $5.9 million above the luxury tax and (more importantly) gives them only $441K below the tax apron, also referred to as the “hard cap.”
Why are the Bucks subject to the hard cap and other expensive teams, like the Brooklyn Nets, not? The answer is simple: they invoked it themselves. One of the decisions Milwaukee made over the offseason was to use the bi-annual exception (BAE), a mechanism teams can use every other year to sign free agents while over the salary cap to contracts larger than the minimum. One of the stipulations of the BAE is that the team will not exceed the hard cap for any reason for the remainder of that league year, and the combination of signing Bobby Portis and the Bucks’ other obligations bring them just shy of that line, leaving them very little wiggle room.
This means that the Bucks cannot sign anyone to the roster until early April (the date Marks cites is April 7, though the exact date is unconfirmed), which is only possible because the amount of a pro-rated minimum contract would be less than the $441K figure noted earlier. Even the exact salary figure is under some dispute, in large part because Jrue Holiday’s current contract has both “likely” and “unlikely” bonuses, which all must count towards the team’s hard cap calculations. However, if Holiday has a bonus attached to making the All Star team (which won’t happen), does that unlikely bonus somehow get removed from the Bucks’ hard cap number? Probably not, but it’s tough to find a definitive answer based on publicly-available information.
These circumstances change only if the Bucks execute a trade that brings in less salary than they send out, though they have precious few assets or interesting players to attach to a salary dump deal. Milwaukee cannot trade away any first round picks (the Stepien Rule), and has only a few future second round picks available to trade.
All this means is that our previous understanding about how the team could improve is confirmed. The options are severely limited, and the Bucks may end up doing nothing simply because there is nothing worth doing. P.J. Tucker is a popular trade target, but making the money work under the tax apron line (Tucker earns $7.9M) is a major challenge and would further deplete the depth that Milwaukee already willingly thinned out last fall. Tucker has also been fairly underwhelming with the post-Harden Rockets and turns 36 years old in a few months.
Trading the exiled-to-the-end-of-the-bench D.J. Wilson could free up some room under the hard cap and enable the Bucks to sign not one, but two players and fill out their roster all the way, but what teams are willing to take on Wilson, even as an expiring salary? A future second round pick is unlikely enough incentive to make that trade work, especially when considering the Bucks’ likely draft positions (read: low) and the fact that Milwaukee can’t afford to take back much salary. In all likelihood, we will be waiting for the first week of April for anything to happen.
Also noted in Marks’ article is that Jrue Holiday, the team’s main offseason addition and new roster cornerstone, is eligible to sign an extension starting Friday, February 26. He can sign for any amount, independent of this year’s salary situation, because the Bucks acquired him via trade, which includes his Bird Rights. Jrue’s maximum extension is for four years and $135 million. The team has until the end of the regular season to agree on a new deal with Holiday (similar to how the Bucks’ extended Eric Bledsoe a few years ago), and it is speculated that the team and Holiday will come to an agreement quickly.
If nothing else, Jon Horst’s short tenure as GM has at least shown us that he is both active and creative during the season. The Bucks managed to turn a smattering of second round picks and Thon Maker into Nikola Mirotic two years ago, and they turned Matthew Dellavedova and John Henson into George Hill; the team also managed to sign Pau Gasol and Marvin Williams on the buyout market. Even if none of these transactions paid off the way that fans hoped, we can expect Milwaukee to consider all options and to get involved in anything that might put the team in better position to find postseason success.