clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Trader Jon Strikes Again: Bucks Bolster Playoff Rotation, Draft Assets, Financial Flexibility

Milwaukee pulled off a low-risk, high-reward move on Wednesday.

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Houston Rockets Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports

The Milwaukee Bucks entered the season with high expectations, not with regards to the results of the season but with how they would achieve those results. The schematic changes fans demanded of Mike Budenholzer were borne of frustration after the Bucks got bounced out of the postseason in similar fashion for two consecutive years. For the most part, fans have gotten what they wanted in terms of process, and while things worked on offense (offensive rating of 115.6, 5th in the league during a season where production on offense is widely improving) the defense left much to be desired. Credit to the coaching staff for implementing changes; introducing traps and switches and moving away from the ultra-conservative zone drop was a necessary evolution for the team’s playoff viability. The only thing...the players on the Bucks roster were not very good at it.

That, in theory, has changed.

With the acquisition of PJ Tucker, the Milwaukee Bucks have pulled off a rare feat: a low-risk, high-reward midseason transaction. Let’s break it down, piece by piece.

The Players

Let’s stay on the positive side to start: PJ Tucker is a type of player the Bucks did not have before. There was nobody on the roster who combines his defensive acumen, communication, physical strength, mobility, and overall grit. The closest you might get of current Bucks is probably Thanasis Antetokounmpo, but Tucker’s skill level, control, and overall feel for the game is vastly superior. OldResorter found this clip and posted in the comments of the news piece and it illustrates what Tucker brings to the table on defense that a switching defense needs and the Bucks need to improve upon.

On offense, Tucker is mostly a non-factor...except for one piece of valuable real estate: the corner three. Few others have reached Tucker’s level in terms of volume of attempts taken from that spot on the floor, and his reputation among his peers is highly complimentary. For his career, Tucker takes a whopping 72% of his threes from the corners, and he’s shooting a tidy 38.0% on those attempts. Corner threes might leave some expecting a higher conversion rate, but with Tucker’s sheer volume of attempts there is bound to be at least some regression and that 38% mark still beats his career mark of 35.9%.

Whether Tucker will get to camp out in the corner like he did in the James Harden-led Houston Rockets remains to be seen; Mike Budenholzer’s “blue box” system was revamped this season but always relies on motion, meaning Tucker might not find himself in his favorite spots as often as he might like. That being said, two of the five preferred spots on the floor are in the corners, and both Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jrue Holiday will be looking to send passes Tucker’s way when driving.

(It’s worth noting that the Milwaukee Bucks also acquired Rodions Kurucs in the deal, a third-year 6’9” forward out of Latvia. Kurucs has played in only 16 games this season and produced very poorly in those games, and his first two years weren’t exactly hype-inducing. He’s also involved with a particularly concerning legal issue; personal matters aside, there’s little reason to expect Kurucs to contribute in a meaningful way this season.)

On the flip side for Tucker, there’s more reasons for caution beyond any adjustments from his preferred playing style. Besides corner threes, he’s otherwise not considered a threat on offense. His usage is super-low (career USG%: 11.5), he doesn’t create shots for others or get to the free throw line, and standing at 6’5” he doesn’t have much to offer as a finisher at the rim. In short, if he is unable to contribute in his limited, specific role on offense, there’s little reason to expect him to contribute at all. On defense, he’s far more flexible and versatile...but he will also turn 36 before the end of the regular season. Can he move as well as he has over the past few years? Will he hold up for the stretch run of the playoffs? Time will tell, but it’s fair to say that time is also not on Tucker’s side.

If you’re looking for more downside beyond the possibility of Tucker being might be disappointed. That’s what’s so remarkable about this midseason deal, is that the Bucks didn’t lose that much, even if Tucker turns out to be a lemon and can’t help during the playoffs.

Right off the bat, D.J. Wilson and Torrey Craig haven’t played consistent minutes this season. Wilson is in the final year of his rookie deal and it was clear that he would never stick in Budenholzer’s rotation. His archetype as a mobile big who could both stretch the floor and protect the rim is a useful one, but Wilson himself simply couldn’t earn regular minutes. Maybe he’ll get a chance to do so in Houston, but his on-court impact in Milwaukee was negligible and won’t be missed. Craig, an offseason signing in November, was a player worth adding but ultimately didn’t fit in. He struggled with fouls on defense and never seemed to have the impact he showed with Denver, and his offense was riddled with miscues and poor decisions. Maybe it will work out in Phoenix, it just didn’t work out here.

The biggest loss for the Bucks is losing D.J. Augustin, the only “true” point guard on the roster and one of the few ball-handlers fans felt like they could trust behind Jrue Holiday. After struggling mightily at the beginning of the season, Augustin started to figure it out and was starting to contribute by hitting threes (38.0% on the year). However, that was really the only contribution Augustin could make because of the poor fit between his expertise (running pick-and-roll to hunt his own shot) and the Bucks’ offensive system. That he could contribute in any meaningful ways is a testament to Augustin’s professionalism and skill level, but he was constantly a target on defense and had no hope of making shots near the basket (shooting 34.9% on two-point shots). Of all the “second tier” players in the rotation, Augustin is the one most likely to have his minutes cut short in a playoff rotation, and therefore is the easiest one to move in favor of a difference-maker elsewhere on the roster.

In summation, the Bucks took three players and dealt them for two, but they swapped two non-factors (Wilson, Craig) for one (Kurucs) and, more importantly, they got a much bigger difference maker in Tucker in return for a smaller one (pardon the pun) in Augustin. Moreover, what they lose by trading DJA can be mitigated by filling one of the two open roster spots remaining in Milwaukee, making the on-court component of this trade a fairly obvious improvement.

The Picks

After giving up a motherlode for Jrue Holiday, the Bucks cupboard was bare in terms of future picks. Thanks to the Stepien Rule, Milwaukee was barred from trading any first round picks, and could only offer pick swaps in 2021 and 2023 (which are not valued very highly). In the Rockets, Jon Horst found a partner who had an asset that would unlock these picks: the Milwaukee 2022 first. This pick was previously sent to Cleveland as a part of the George Hill trade, and Cleveland rerouted it to Houston in order to capitalize on the larger James Harden deal and nab Jarrett Allen in the process. The Stepien rule forbids a team from trading away first round picks in consecutive years, and Jon Horst realized that only Houston could open the loophole that the Bucks’ front office contorted themselves through.

By regaining control of their 2022 first, the Bucks were able to trade their 2021 and 2023 first round picks (their 2024 first is owed to New Orleans as a swap, which is permitted under the Stepien Rule), which is exactly what they did with the 2023 pick. However, Horst got creative and for the 2021 draft, they agreed to send Houston their first (likely to pick in the mid-to-late 20s) in exchange for the Rockets’ second (likely to pick in the early-to-mid 30s), resulting in a minor change in overall draft position rather than trading out of the draft entirely. So while it is true that Houston gained a first round pick in the deal (two went to the Rockets, only one went to Milwaukee), the overall impact is reduced by the Bucks’ owning the Houston second round pick this year.

This is a remarkable solution to the Bucks’ asset problem; in trading with any other team, Milwaukee would not have been able to finesse their way into draft compensation that ultimately costs them a 10-spot delay in selecting a draft pick. Since Houston was insistent on acquiring a first round pick for Tucker, the Bucks’ front office found a way to meet their demands at a far lower actual price while obtaining a pair of draft assets (the Houston 2021 second and a 2022 first round pick swap) on the other side.

The Money

As of Wednesday morning, the Bucks were over the luxury tax and had a paltry $441K in room underneath the tax apron (effectively the hard cap) to use for their 15th roster spot. It was reported that the Bucks wouldn’t be able to use this money on a pro-rated minimum contract until April 7. It was a tough spot to be...until it wasn’t. After the Tucker trade (which included sending Torrey Craig to Phoenix for cash considerations), the Bucks are suddenly under the luxury tax and have up to $3.5M to spend beneath the hard cap, freeing up plenty of room to sign a pair of pro-rated minimum contracts once the trade is processed by the league. Do you feel that? That’s breathing room.

D.J. Wilson and Torrey Craig are owed a combined $6.23M this season, the last season for each of their deals (Wilson at the end of his rookie contract, Craig having signed a one-year deal with Milwaukee in November). D.J. Augustin, though, got the “Ersan Ilyasova special” from the Bucks; a 3-year/$21 million contract with the final year fully non-guaranteed. Many criticized both the amount and the length of the deal, and even Augustin’s supporters winced at the figures. His $6.67M this season brought the Bucks up to a total of $12.9M in outgoing salary in this trade, but the $7.0M Augustin was due in 2021-22 was a constraint that the Bucks had few ways to work around.

Meanwhile, PJ Tucker is in the last year of his contract, paying him $7.97M and expiring at the end of the season. Rodions Kurucs has $1.78M owed this year (and a team option worth $1.86M next year, which the Bucks may easily decline), bringing Milwaukee’s total incoming salary up to only $9.75M, reducing the Bucks’ salary obligations this year by over $3 million, and allowing the possibility to save the aforementioned Augustin’s $7 million next year.

By virtue of acquiring Tucker via trade, the Bucks also hold his Bird rights, allowing them to go over the cap to either sign him to an extension or re-sign him in the offseason. Whether or not Tucker should be retained is a question best answered by watching and waiting, but the ability to retain him without using an exception is a considerable boost for Milwaukee’s cap sheet. They don’t have the bi-annual exception next season (Bobby Portis was signed with that, making it unavailable until 2022), but they will have the various mid-level exception options at their disposal. If they choose to use the lower taxpayer MLE, they can avoid invoking the hard cap, giving them more flexibility when reinforcing the roster. By avoiding the luxury tax this season, they stave off the repeater tax later on; this benefit means little to anyone not named “Lasry” or “Edens,” but the lack of financial penalty will enable certain options to remain available rather than making decisions purely driven by reducing tax obligations in the future.

In the short-term, the Bucks have two open roster spots to fill as they see fit. It would make sense for them to target a ball-handler to try and fill the void left by Augustin’s departure; the next-best point guard on the team after Jrue Holiday is probably fellow starter Donte DiVincenzo. The Bucks were destined to be spectators on the buyout market, forced to wait because of the lack of space beneath the apron. Now, Milwaukee can sign not just one, but two players to fill out their roster and further fuel their run towards the NBA Finals. There’s already a rumor that the team is interested in Isaiah Thomas, which...didn’t we just trade away an undersized offense-first point guard?

No matter which way you look at it, this trade was an intricate one that contained several moving parts. In every way, though, the Bucks made reasonable trade-offs that have little downside and serious upside. If PJ Tucker helps push the Bucks past a tough series against the Brooklyn Nets or Philadelphia 76ers, it will have been worth it. The ancillary benefits to the salary cap and draft asset stash are worthwhile too, even if they don’t pay off today. Jon Horst and his team are once again demonstrating that they are willing to overturn every stone, search every nook and cranny, and exhaust every avenue to improve the team. It hasn’t paid off for the last two years, but here’s hoping that the third time is the charm.