The Milwaukee Bucks are good, but they ought not ignore any opportunities to get better. The offseason was fast and furious, and the front office transformed the roster into a team that currently ranks third in the East, growing pains and all. The second half of the season is already underway, so let’s take a look at how we got to where we are now and where we can go from here.
Over two days in November, the Bucks signed Bobby Portis at a very palatable salary of $3.62 million via the bi-annual exception, then D.J. Augustin using a portion of the mid-level exception at $6.67 million, a number above the non-taxpayer portion of said exception. But as you may know, either move triggered the hard cap, meaning the Bucks could not cross the $138.92 million salary threshold (a.k.a. the tax apron) for any reason during the 2020–21 league year.
Factoring in dead money, the Bucks currently owe about $134.47 million in salaries (the precise figure depends on what source you use for Jrue Holiday’s cap hit) to 14 players, but they sadly do not have $4.2-ish million of space beneath the hard cap. This is due to the nebulous (to us) nature of Jrue Holiday’s contract, which includes a host of incentives: some of which do count towards his usual cap number (likely incentives) and some that don’t (unlikely).
But again, since the Bucks can’t exceed the tax apron for any reason, including in the unlikely event that Jrue Holiday makes an All-NBA team, the unlikely incentives do factor into their team salary figure vis-a-vis the hard cap. It’s been tough to nail down an exact figure, but his unlikely incentives seem to total somewhere between $3.6–4.0 million based on what I can glean, similar to numbers reported by ESPN’s Bobby Marks and The Athletic’s Eric Nehm. That makes their total team salary roughly $138.49 million, which means the Bucks currently have a mere $441,000 or so of space with which to work. Thus, they cannot sign a veteran bought out by his team to a minimum contract until around or on April 7th, when a pro-rated veteran minimum salary for the remainder of the year will be under $441k.
The NBA’s pushed-back trade deadline is just under two weeks away on Thursday, March 25th, so that’s a two-week waiting period. Milwaukee could clear salary via trade to create more room under the tax apron if they want to sign a bought-out player before April 7. What about anything more, though? While a tricky endeavor, the possibility exists for Jon Horst to add players in an effort to capture the Eastern Conference from also-stacked (and getting more stacked) rosters in Brooklyn and Philadelphia.
What do the Bucks have to trade?
Before we identify some realistic targets that Milwaukee could acquire via trade, let’s first look at their tradable assets, bearing in mind that the first-round pick cupboard is essentially bare thanks to the Jrue Holiday and George Hill trades of recent years. Also, without considering moving assets that would significantly decrease the on-court product (keeping Middleton and Holiday untouchable) or make Giannis unhappy (Thanasis’ expiring minimum contract stays). In my opinion, these are their assets in order of likely value to opposing teams:
- Donte DiVincenzo at $3.04 million and one year, $4.68 million left on his contract
- 2021 first-round pick swap
- 2023 first-round pick swap
- Indiana’s 2025 second-round pick
- D.J. Wilson and his $4.55 million expiring salary
- 2022 second-round pick
- 2023 second-round pick
- 2024 second-round pick
- 2027 second-round pick
Bucks fans might not find any of these assets desirable to part with, and it’s debatable whether any other teams would give up value for any of them outside of DiVincenzo or the swaps. Even the gulf between DDV and the 2021 pick swap is huge.
There are some other, less-moveable assets Milwaukee has on its roster. Any of these players are really just salary-matching pieces, and some we won’t consider unless they bring in positional upgrades (Augustin for a different point guard, for example). In order of guaranteed salary remaining:
- Brook Lopez at $12.7 million and two years, $27.2 million left
- Pat Connaughton at $4.94 million and two years, $11.06 million guaranteed left^
- D.J. Augustin at $6.67 million and one year, $7.34 million guaranteed left
- Bobby Portis at $3.62 million and one year, $3.8 million left*
- Bryn Forbes at $2.34 million and one year, $2.45 million left*
- Torrey Craig and his $1.62 million expiring salary
- Jordan Nwora at $898,310 and 1 year, $1.52 million left
- Sam Merrill and his $898,310 salary, non-guaranteed for next season
*includes player option more likely to be declined
^includes player option more likely to be exercised
What do the Bucks struggle with?
Next, let’s identify a few key issues the Bucks have right now and in recent postseasons, why I believe these are a problem, and how consequential they are:
- Inconsistent perimeter defense, particularly regarding three-point shooting, due to new defensive scheming (which can result in botched switches) and replacing some good perimeter defenders with shakier ones. Important, but something that’s been improving lately.
- Occasionally suspect interior defense resulting from implementing Bud’s new strategy on the fly, replacing one Lopez with Portis, and possibly from a decline by the remaining Lopez. This seems pretty critical.
- Bogging down in the half-court due to play-calling and personnel, both of which have changed since last postseason. Thanks to Bud, Jrue, and others, the Bucks’ half-court offense has vastly improved from last year to this year. Not as big of a priority as the other issues.
- Draining three-point shots, particularly open ones. A major issue in the previous playoff runs that had much to do with the on-court talent and players’ inability to hit clean looks. If this regular season is any indication, bringing in some new faces may have solved this problem. This may be the lowest priority of these four, yet still important.
Who could the Bucks use?
Given those issues, how could the Bucks address them via trade? Here are some player types I think they could target to do so:
- A guard who can play alongside Jrue and/or back him up at the point
- A true center behind Lopez and the other bigs (Portis and Giannis) or another big who can moonlight at the 5
- A reserve defensive stopper on the wing (basically what we hoped Craig would be)
- Another shooter at any position (can never have enough of them, right?)
Should a trade actually happen?
Despite some stretches of uninspired play in the first half, there actually aren’t that many issues with the roster. Most will agree it’s enough to win at least one playoff series, but whether it’s enough to win the East is less certain.
Are any of these roles worth targeting via trade? I’d argue 1 (another guard) is the biggest, followed by 4 (another shooter). Ideally, the Bucks find a player(s) who fits multiple team needs. Any of those needs may be addressable on the buyout market in April, but I’d wager it’s easier to find a back-up big or a defensive wing specialist than the other player types. While improving Milwaukee’s interior defense may be a top priority for some fans, upgrading on Brook Lopez is challenging: nearly every top big man rumored or known to be available is too expensive (Al Horford), a downgrade defensively (John Collins), or both (Nikola Vucevic, Andre Drummond).
Another relevant question here: is there any player the Bucks could realistically acquire that would put them over the hump? This would have to be at least a starting-caliber player, kind of like we thought initially about Nikola Mirotic in 2019. That type of player might be gettable, but acquiring any impact player making 8 figures (especially over $20 million) is almost certainly going to require sending out multiple Bucks, paring down the roster further. If the Bucks have fewer than the minimum 14 players on their roster after a trade, they have two weeks to get back to 14 and may still be limited by the hard cap in doing so. So a 3-for-1 (or 4-for-2, 5-for-3, etc.) player deal is really the most they can do while still matching salary.
Hopefully, this isn’t too dispiriting. I’ve identified some targets whom the Bucks could acquire and earnestly upgrade their roster in the table below. I state what needs they could meet, their contracts, and how the Bucks could match them in a trade. A note: the outgoing Bucks are there for salary purposes mainly and could go to a third team instead of the target’s team. Some of these names have been rumored to be available for a while, some are said to be off the market, some have been benched by their teams awaiting a move, and some are even former Bucks. I’ve highlighted any trade which does not save the Bucks money under the hard cap in red, my personal favorites in green, and buyout candidates who may be available post-deadline with an asterisk.
Nearly all of these trades would require the Bucks to send at least one second-round pick in addition to salary. Some may require multiple seconds, but I’d be surprised if any of them would command a first-round pick swap. Milwaukee also could include between $110k and $5.62 million in cash as a sweetener. Due to roster minimums and limits, trades in which the Bucks send out multiple players likely mean getting a third team involved since, in most of these cases, the Bucks couldn’t take back another player and remain under the hard cap or the other team is also hard-capped. Not knowing exactly how Holiday’s unlikely incentives work makes it even more challenging to ascertain if some of these trades will work since the Bucks may need to sign a player to get back to the 14-man roster minimum and would need to account for the hard cap to do so.
These trades, if uninspiring or questionable, are at least realistic. As I mentioned, trading for a higher-caliber and more expensive player will be difficult, but here are some splashier, more impactful trades than above that address needs, perhaps by upgrading a core rotation piece. Some of these players (notably Oladipo) have seen their value fall recently. However, just because they may no longer require an asset like a first-round pick, the salary matching aspect still makes a Buck acquisition unlikely.
Again noting that the outgoing Bucks in each scenario could go to a third team, it’s debatable whether the other side would go for any of these deals (Oladipo again a notable example), even with all the draft compensation the Bucks can muster. Furthermore, some would trade from areas of already-limited depth like point guard (e.g., DJA and Craig for Bjelica), so other moves would then be necessary. And lastly, would any of these players be worth cashing in their best asset: Donte DiVincenzo? The only player above I’d entertain that for is Myles Turner.
If the Bucks can’t acquire any of the players in either table, to the buyout market they will go. I didn't list a slew of names above that would be good fits on the Bucks if bought out—like Evan Fournier or Trevor Ariza—who aren’t very realistic trade targets. If Milwaukee thinks it can sign multiple bought-out veterans, they would have to dump salary in a trade (likely D.J. Wilson or perhaps Torrey Craig) while taking less in return from the other team taking zero in return from a team that has cap space/a large enough trade exception. Coming back to the Bucks could be: $110k–$5.62 million in cash (again, not included in the cap), a heavily-protected future second-round pick (usually protected in the top 55 and unlikely to convey), or draft rights to a foreign player unlikely to ever come to the NBA (some teams have rights from players drafted decades ago!) It’s possible the Bucks would even have to send out a future second-round pick to accommodate a salary dump, which doesn’t sound like a good outcome when dumping a low-earning player like Craig or DJW.
The options exist. While very few of them are sexy, Jon Horst has realistic avenues to upgrade his roster in the next month without hitting the hard cap. Of course, he could also be trying to get the Bucks back under the tax too, making it even more difficult to upgrade the roster. The clock is ticking.