The Milwaukee Bucks are NBA Champions. They fought their way to the top of the hill, and now they are the lone winner out of a field of thirty franchises. But things change fast in the NBA, and all 29 other teams are going to take their best shot at toppling the Bucks from their lofty perch. So we must be prepared, and that’s just what this post is here to do.
Last year the Bucks were stuck reloading for the second time in two tries, and all hopes were that this time, the third time, would be the charm. Going forward, the Bucks are faced with a very different challenge; rather than get to the top, they need to stay at the top. Milwaukee has a big ol’ target on its back and limited tools available to mount the defense. Let’s take stock of where the Bucks are and what they have to work with.
(We’ll put a Bucks-centric tl;dr at the bottom in case you’re not interested in reading 2500 words about the salary cap, restrictions and exceptions, and the collective bargaining agreement. Don’t say we never did anything for you.)
The Salary Cap
After COVID-19 waylaid the expected growth of the NBA’s revenue in 2020, things appear to slowly return to their expected upward trends. The collective bargaining agreement is still in effect , and the special exceptions that were agreed upon last year are settled and the league is largely returning to business as usual. Each team will play their full 82-game schedule again (up from the reduced total of 72 in 2020-2021), and the cap figures will begin to increase at a steady rate between now and the expiration of the current CBA (slated for 2024).
Important Estimates for 2021-22
- Salary Cap: $112,414,000 (up from $109.0M)
- Luxury Tax: $136,606,000 (up from $132.6M)
- Tax Apron: $143,096,039 (up from $138.9M)
Unlike last season, the Bucks’ approach this offseason won’t be as influenced by attempts to avoid the luxury tax...because they’re already there. By virtue of an “unlikely bonus” in Jrue Holiday’s contract, winning the NBA Finals added a full million dollars to his bank account and the Bucks’ books this season, putting them into the tax for 2020-21 without any possible remediation. Of course it is a price worth paying, but going forward the Bucks are aware that continued spending (over the tax line in three out of four consecutive years) will subject them to the repeater tax, and consistently maintaining such a high payroll will limit their ability to use team-building tools that impose the hard cap. To be clear, this awareness is absolutely going to influence roster-building choices...but for now, the Bucks don’t really have any choices, not for the foreseeable future.
The Current Situation
Let’s explore the Bucks’ roster based on the different categories of player, relative to their offseason mobility. We’ll try to keep this as straightforward as possible, while not leaving out any important details.
Virtually guaranteed to return: 6 players, $134,519,176
No, that number isn’t a typo. With the supermax contract for Giannis Antetokounmpo kicking in, alongside Jrue Holiday’s extension and Khris Middleton’s existing contract, over 90% of Milwaukee’s space under the standard salary cap is taken up by just three players, who earn over $106 million in aggregate. On top of the Bucks’ championship trio’s money is the “dead money” owed to Larry Sanders and Jon Leuer ($5.0M, expires next offseason!) and another three guaranteed deals, owned by Brook Lopez, Pat Connaughton, and Donte DiVincenzo. Of those three, only Donte is at the end of his (rookie scale) contract, and while he is eligible for a standard extension it is difficult to predict how much he (and his agent) may expect and how much the Bucks’ front office is willing to commit. Whether they strike a deal now or he decides to test restricted free agency next year, Donte will be on the team next season regardless.
What isn’t guaranteed is Donte’s availability, since the team hasn’t released any information regarding his rehabilitation timetable since he underwent successful surgery for his ankle. It’s hard to believe he’ll be on the court on opening night in October, but Pat Connaughton might be a natural fit as that fifth starter alongside the other four. No matter what, having all the starters and a key reserve locked up is a luxury the Bucks are lucky to have.
If ownership had designs to duck the tax, it would necessitate trading away at least one big-money player from this group, the group that just won a title in Milwaukee for the first time in 50 years. Who would Lasry/Edens/Dinan be comfortable moving on from? Khris Middleton? Jrue Holiday? Gi– I can’t even say it, it’s too absurd. The Bucks may try to reduce their tax burden going forward, but they can’t eliminate it completely without drastic action which, for a defending champion, would not be the best course to follow.
Flexible, but likely to be back: 4 players, $6,096,535
As the top of the roster is secured, so too is the end of the bench. Both of last year’s second round picks (Jordan Nwora and Sam Merrill), as well as a two-way conversion (Mamadi Diakite) and a last-minute signing (Elijah Bryant) are all signed to minimum level deals,
all fully non-guaranteed and there are varying degrees of guarantees on the contracts. There’s similarly no guarantee that any of the four grow into rotation-level players, but at least the Bucks have a stable of prospects to develop internally and, barring any changes, maintain the flexibility to drop any of them in the offseason without significant penalty.
(Update: stoneAge pointed out an oversight on my part in the comments; Jordan Nwora’s salary is in fact guaranteed for this season, while Sam Merrill has a partial guarantee. I’m going to leave the rest of the article as-is, because there aren’t any significant impacts to the rest of the Bucks’ offseason. But credit where credit’s due, thank you for the feedback!)
Updated total team salary if all four stay: $140,616,251
As you can see, we’re already into the luxury tax for 2021-22 by a healthy amount, and we have only filled 10 of the team’s 15 regular roster spots. Even if ownership wanted to cheap out, they’re going into the second luxury tax bracket just with the barebones salary obligations on the books already, much less fleshing out the rest of the roster for a repeat effort.
Decisions, decisions: 2 players, $6,258,152
Bryn Forbes and Bobby Portis had firmly established themselves as rotation pieces during the regular season, and while Forbes got played off the floor as the playoffs went on, Portis became a crucial piece as Milwaukee embraced their size. Each has a player option for next season, and each has a clear financial incentive to consider exercising that option and joining the free agent market (Portis has only $3.8M due, and Bryn would make $2.4M). Then again, they may prefer team success and locker room fit over maximizing earnings, and Milwaukee could be attractive enough to take the one-year hit and delay the next payday.
Forbes and Portis each need to make their decision to exercise their option soon; free agency starts on August 2, and it is sure to draw interest should either one of these championship contributors choose to enter the market.
Personally, I would be surprised if Forbes stayed for another year, given how low his upcoming salary is and how well he performed in the regular season. Shooting specialists are always in vogue, and few specialists can plug into an offense as well as Forbes can. By the same token, Portis has a clear market for his services...but I have a feeling that he loves Milwaukee enough to entertain the option of forgoing a big raise now (remember, Bobby has already made $25M on his career) in favor of staying put, excelling in his current role, and enjoying the adulation of the Milwaukee crowds. Will Portis’ agent agree? Time will tell.
If one, or the other, or both decides to test the market instead of hold fast, the Bucks will have limited options to bring either one back in free agency. We’ll cover that in a later section.
Updated total team salary if...
...Bryn stays, Bobby leaves: $143,070,253
...Bobby stays, Bryn leaves: $144,420,401
...both stay: $146,874,403
Up in the air: 5 players, $21,959,359
This last category of player includes both two-way players (Axel Toupane and Justin Jackson), who are likely to have their minuscule cap holds renounced and set free to seek opportunities elsewhere. After them, two key Bucks reserves and a playoff starter round out the remaining roster spots that need resolution, and we’ll cover each of them in turn.
Jeff Teague is the easiest person to start with, because his situation is straightforward. As a buyout market addition, Teague earned a minimum salary and as a result, the Bucks hold his “non-Bird rights.” This means that Teague could be retained for up to 120% of the veteran minimum, which is a $2.0M hit on the Bucks’ books, even though the Bucks are over the cap. Can Milwaukee find a backup point guard for a similar price who offers more than Jeff Teague did this season? Probably, Teague didn’t play well consistently, but he was the only backup ball-handler Mike Budenholzer could trust (Donte’s injury looms large here), and considering the options available, it is at least feasible (though not ideal) that Teague could return for another run.
Thanasis Antetokounmpo was brought in for his last name, but he at least demonstrated that he has NBA athleticism and can wreak havoc (both good and bad) in limited minutes on the court. He has concluded a two-year deal and the Bucks hold his “early Bird rights,” meaning the Bucks can choose to re-sign him despite operating over the cap. In this circumstance, the maximum that Thanasis can earn is 105% of the league average salary (which is about $10 million, which Thanasis should never come close to), but his cap hold is only 130% of his previous figure. This means that the Bucks can keep Thanasis on the back burner as free agency starts and come back to him and offer something fair once they have settled their other business; he can’t possibly make more money anywhere else (except maybe in Europe) and it’s unlikely Thanasis wants to leave Milwaukee now. All in all, I would expect Thanasis to return, much to the enjoyment of garbage time enthusiasts everywhere.
PJ Tucker is the Bucks’ biggest domino to fall. At 36, he is effectively at the end of his NBA journey, with one or two more serviceable years remaining. The Bucks would not have won a title without him (rewatch that Brooklyn series if you disagree), and his affection for Milwaukee is just as obvious. Since the Bucks acquired him in a trade, they have his “full Bird rights,” meaning they have no limits to what contract they can offer him to re-sign, other than what ownership can stomach in relation to next year’s luxury tax bill. As a “full Bird” free agent, Tucker’s cap hit is 190% of his previous salary, which was below the league average, giving him a hold of $15.1M on the ledger that will remain until he signs a new deal, here or elsewhere. The Bucks gain nothing by renouncing his rights (they’re well over the apron anyway), so they will deliberately negotiate with him to find a deal that works for both sides.
I see no reason why Tucker would end up anywhere else this offseason. How much will he get? Tucker earned between $7-8M over the last few years, so it stands to reason that the Bucks would at least meet that figure over a couple more. Those conversations won’t start until August 2 (wink wink), so we have time to wait and see what happens.
Updated total team salary with cap holds before any free agency moves: $168,833,762
The Options Available
To summarize, Milwaukee has 10 players under contract for next season, another 2 who must choose to return or enter free agency, and 3 more who are free agents but will likely hang around and give the Bucks a shot at bringing them back. No matter what outcome these decisions reach, this leaves them with between three and five roster spots to fill for next season. Here are the tools they have to do just that:
Main resource: Taxpayer MLE, $5,890,000
We covered the three main types of mid-level exception last year, but the Bucks are free from the burden of choice this time around. They have no path to cap space (eliminating the Room MLE, which is only $4.9M), and they are operating well over the tax apron/hard cap (eliminating the Non-Taxpayer MLE, which they used last year and is about $9.5M). The Bucks also used the bi-annual exception last offseason, which won’t refresh until next offseason, so the mid-sized MLE is the only option remaining by default.
This money can be used on one guy or split amongst multiple players, but because it’s so small it’s difficult to imagine the MLE being used on more than one new addition. The Bucks would be better off simply using the veteran minimum exception (more on that later) to add a cheaper free agent, since splitting the MLE would make your “big” contract worth only about $4M to start. Whatever the case may be, this money is the only significant free agent money the Bucks have to spend, so temper your expectations.
Pick 31 (from Houston)
The draft is a surefire way to add cheap bench-filler, as we saw last year with the Bucks’ acquisition of Nwora and Merrill. From the PJ Tucker trade, the Bucks actually have a pretty nice asset with the first pick in the second round, and they’ll be in position to pounce on any first-round talent that survives the first thirty picks. Of course, any player who drops in the draft ends up dropping for a reason (even Khris Middleton, a first-round prospect, dropped due to health concerns), so there is some serious risk involved, but the Bucks are light on young talent, so keeping this pick to build the future of their roster is widely-expected.
Unlike first rounders, second round picks are not subject to rookie scale contracts, meaning that teams have to sign players selected in the back half of the draft using cap space or exceptions. Fortunately, the minimum salary exception is a likely solution (worth about $925K next year for a player with 0 years of NBA experience) for the Bucks, but they cannot offer a single penny over that amount without dipping into their Taxpayer MLE (see above). If a highly-rated prospect plummets down draft boards and feels strongly enough about their value, Milwaukee could find themselves in an impossible situation with a player they picked at #31 overall. This isn’t a likely outcome, but a possible one, and worth keeping in mind.
The Bucks could also always simply buy another team’s second round pick to fill out their roster further, but given the team’s financials it isn’t reasonable to expect them to do so. Remember, the Bucks were hard-capped last season but are not constrained by the apron this year, so it simply makes more sense for them to sign players outright rather than take a convoluted path through the draft’s second round.
Traded Player Exceptions: $1,620,564 & $4,886,515
The legalese involved in these exceptions are extensive, so I won’t attempt to explain them fully (you can try for yourself, if you’re bold!) but the end result is clear. When the Bucks traded Torrey Craig to Phoenix last year, they earned a traded player exception (TPE) worth about $1.6M, which expires next year on February 2. Similarly, when they traded DJ Augustin to Houston last year, they earned another TPE worth about $4.9M, expiring on February 7, 2022.
This is not free money that the Bucks get to spend; they are very specific short-term “credits” that the Bucks can use to accept a player’s salary in a trade. They cannot be combined or converted, and once they’re gone, they are gone. It’s not likely that the Bucks can find a player making less than $4.7M that another team is willing to give away to the defending champions for light draft pick compensation, but it’s technically possible. The majority of players in the NBA who make the amount compatible with the Augustin trade exception are first round picks still on their rookie scale deals, or limited veterans who signed for super-cheap. Willie Cauley-Stein ($4.2M) and Dorian Finney-Smith ($4.0M) would each fit into the Augustin TPE, as would Houston’s Danuel House ($3.9M). Anybody want to bet on whether or not a future second round pick would be enough to acquire them? The Craig TPE is even smaller, about the same size as a veteran minimum contract. Why give up an asset when you can get a similar player for the same amount?
These are the deals that anybody can sign, literally anybody. Young or old, any player can agree to a minimum deal and any team can sign them, irrespective of their cap situation. What’s more, older players have part of their minimum contracts subsidized by the NBA, meaning the most the Bucks have to worry about paying (and counting against their team salary) is about $1.7M. These are almost always the last deals signed in free agency, just to fill remaining spots and round out any corners.
If you made it all the way through this, congratulations. You could have taken the easy way out, but you didn’t. You took the hard way, and now you’re a freakin’ champion.
If you did take the easy way...well, you’re still here, so you’re a champion too. Here’s the summary, as-promised:
The Brass Tacks
Milwaukee currently has 10 players under contract for next season, whose salary ($140.6 million) already puts them into the luxury tax (set at $136.6M). The Bucks have no cap space (the cap is set at $112.4 million), no reasonable path to create cap space, and no incentive to create cap space because they won the damn title. There are 2 players (Portis and Forbes) who control their own destiny through player options and may opt to return or depart, and the Bucks will simply have to respond to their decisions once made.
This results in at least 3 roster spots that the Bucks need to fill for next year, becoming at most 5 if both Portis and Forbes decide to leave. All three pending free agents (Tucker, Thanasis, and Teague) are able to return to Milwaukee if the Bucks choose to afford re-signing them, thanks to Bird rights.
Once they know how many spots are open, the Bucks have limited options to fill out their roster with any players who are not currently on the team. One spot will almost definitely be the 31st overall pick in the draft (coming up on Friday!), another spot will be the Taxpayer MLE (worth about $5.9M), and any other signings will likely be minimum contracts. The Bucks might make a trade, but any predictions about trades would be purely conjecture.
It’s a good thing Jon Horst has been around this block before, because he and his front office have a tough task ahead: build a championship-caliber team to follow up last year’s championship squad. What do you think the Bucks should do? What priorities do you have for this offseason? Tell us in the comments, and hurry up because this offseason is coming up fast!