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Bucks Trade Deadline Preview: Cobbling It Together

What does Milwaukee need and how can they get it?

NBA: Houston Rockets at Milwaukee Bucks Michael McLoone-USA TODAY Sports

We are now exactly two weeks and four hours from the 2022 NBA trade deadline at 2pm CST on February 10th. Soon we’ll start to see more and more deals reported, building towards a fever pitch in the hour or two leading up to the deadline Are the Bucks going to be involved in that melee?

GM Jon Horst made at least one trade ahead of all but one deadline since taking command of the front office, catching fishes both small (Rashard Vaughn and a second-round pick for Tyler Zeller) and big (Thon Maker, Jason Smith, and some seconds for Nikola Mirotic; two guys named D.J. plus two first-round picks for P.J. Tucker and a first). The year he didn’t, he still managed to nab a big name post-deadline in Marvin Williams, that year’s most sought-after bought-out veteran.

With Horst’s reputation and the Bucks again contending for a title, he’s probably already in hot pursuit of roster improvements, but what are his options? Using the same format as I used last year when I kind of predicted the Tucker trade in a roundabout way, let’s dive in.


What do the Bucks have to trade?

We’ll start by taking stock of what’s in the Bucks’ coffers, both in terms of players and draft picks. They have a new first-round pick to swap (but not actually trade) in 2028, one they were unable to move at the 2021 deadline per the CBA, as it was more than seven years out.

As a reminder, here are all the picks the Bucks no longer possess. Note that because of the Stepien rule, they cannot trade their 2022 first-round pick, but they can use it in a pick swap where the acquiring team gains the right to draft from the more favorable position between the Bucks’ spot in the draft and their own. Milwaukee can do the same with their 2028 first-round pick, but cannot trade it since they don’t control their 2027 first-round pick. (h/t to wiguy94 for the correction)

However, so long as the Bucks contend for a ring, their pick will be pretty late in the first. An acquiring team likely won’t find that swap very valuable in 2022 (or maybe even 2028) and may not see any value in it at all, even if they project to finish with a better record than the Bucks. This might all sound negligible, but as we saw in the Tucker trade last March, Horst can finagle future picks he owes elsewhere in order to trade one that isn’t currently tradeable. Why? It's because the Stepien rule states basically that must possess firsts every other year, but doesn’t stipulate that the pick has to be their own. Anyway...

  • Their 2023 first-round pick is owed to the Rockets from the P.J. Tucker trade (worth it).
  • Their 2025 and 2027 first-round picks are owed to the Pelicans thanks to the Jrue Holiday trade of November 2020 (worth it).
  • Their first-round picks in 2024 and 2026 may not be traded because of the Stepien rule, plus New Orleans has the right to swap them with their own anyway because of the Holiday trade (worth it).
  • Their 2022 second-round pick was forfeited due to Woj snitching and scuttling the botched Bogdan Bogdanovic sign-and-trade deal from November 2021, a situation where the NBA saw fit to penalize by taking away a pick (worth i—never mind).
  • Their 2025 and 2026 second-round picks are owed to Cleveland and Orlando, respectively.

Like last year, I won’t consider assets that would significantly affect the team’s quality (the Big Three plus Bobby Portis, the latter being one of just two healthy big men on the 15-man roster) or would make Giannis unhappy (i.e. Thanasis). These are their realistically tradeable assets ranked in what I believe to be their value to opposing teams:

  1. Donte DiVincenzo and his $4.68m expiring contract (eligible for a rookie-scale extension)
  2. Jordan Nwora and his $1.52m expiring contract (eligible for a rookie-scale extension)
  3. Indiana’s unprotected 2025 second-round pick
  4. Rodney Hood and his $1.67m expiring contract*
  5. Semi Ojeleye and his $1.67m expiring contract*
  6. 2028 first-round pick swap
  7. 2023 second-round pick
  8. 2024 second-round pick
  9. 2022 first-round pick swap
  10. 2027 second-round pick
  11. 2028 second-round pick

*their actual salaries are higher, but their cap hit is only the veteran’s minimum of $1.67m.

Depending on your opinion of DiVincenzo and Nwora, there’s not a lot of trade value here. It’s likely that other teams around the league agree. It’s worth pointing out that trading either Hood or Ojeleye for cash considerations or a heavily-protected future second would be a fine idea too. This is exactly what the Bucks did with Torrey Craig last year. Shipping both out and taking zero money in return (any team can acquire them using the minimum-salary exception) would save about $14m in tax payments, money which could be reinvested in a trade or buyout acquisition.

Here are the other assets they have that the Bucks and their fans probably don’t want to part with, in order of value. Note that Wesley Matthews is ineligible to be traded until after the deadline on March 3rd and that Sandro Mamukelashvili’s two-way contract has no salary-matching value, plus is extremely unlikely to be moved (to my knowledge, a player on a two-way has never been traded).

  1. Brook Lopez at $13.3m and one year, $13.91m remaining on his deal
  2. Pat Connaughton at $5.33m and his $5.73m player option for next season*
  3. George Hill at $4m and one year, $4m remaining on his deal
  4. Grayson Allen at $4.1m and two years, $18.7m remaining on his deal^

*likely to be declined

^subject to the Poison Pill Provision with his extension kicking in next year

What do the Bucks struggle with?

Last year, I listed some issues the Bucks had not only leading up to the deadline but also the ones they had in previous postseason runs. Now that they have a championship, I’m going to come at it from a different perspective and ask what might prevent them from repeating, instead of simply listing their problems at this juncture. In order of importance:

  1. Bogging down on offense in the half-court. This is something I listed last season and while I think play-calling is part of the problem, player decision-making is too. Often the blame goes to the Bucks’ key players, who obviously aren’t being traded. Because of that, this one may be the hardest of these four to fix with a transaction and during the season.
  2. Hitting open threes. Hey, I said this last year too! Milwaukee is currently shooting 37.4% from deep when left wide open (the nearest defender is at least 6 feet away), which ranks a very uninspiring 18th in the NBA. Even if that number were higher, though, three years in a row of cold outside shooting in the postseason means it stays on the list.
  3. Bench production. This relates to the previous two. For the season, the Bucks reserves rank a disappointing 20th in net rating at -1.1 points per 100 possessions and an abysmal 29th in scoring at 27.1 per game, shooting .392/.330/.714. It’s been even worse in January at 23.2 PPG on an awful .348/.290/.844 shooting line and -3.3 net rating. Yes, a lot of guys were forced into the starting lineup or out of the rotation completely due to the health and safety protocols, but prior to the outbreak in November and December those numbers weren’t much better and 29.1 PPG and 26.7 PPG, respectively. Last season, Milwaukee came in at 19th with 34.8 PPG before dipping to 23.2 PPG in the postseason, which was 7th out of the 8 teams who advanced past the first round.
  4. Defending opponents down low. While the Bucks have done a solid job protecting the rim in Lopez’s absence by only permitting 21.9% of their foes’ shots to come within 3 feet of the basket (9th in the league), they are allowing a very average 67.9% opponent FG% from that area (literally the league average and 13th). Compare those to last year when their 21.3% opponent frequency at the rim ranked 3rd and their 65.8% opponent FG% at the rim ranked 7th. This isn’t higher on the list because rivals are scoring 42.7 PPG in the paint this year (5th), which is pretty consistent with 43.1 PPG in 2020–21 (3rd).

Since he underwent back surgery, the Bucks’ sentiment has been that Lopez is likely to play again this season, and perhaps could be back well in advance of the playoffs. A healthy Lopez would go a long way towards the first and fourth points, plus the Bucks won a ring last season with only 3 viable big men on their roster. It also would push Portis back to the bench, where his scoring was critical in the latter rounds of last year’s playoffs, so that helps with the third problem. Missing clean looks and logy offensive possessions also didn’t sink the Bucks last summer but I certainly don’t want to bank on that again. This is also an addressable point for players on the roster who need to work on postseason shooting (looking at you, Holiday). More reliable bench production would go a long way too.

What type(s) of players could address those issues?

While the above is not an exhaustive list of the Bucks’ (comparatively few) woes, confronting them will go a long way towards another banner in the Fiserv Forum rafters. What kind of players could help do that? In no particular order:

  1. A big man with the size and strength to match up with opposing centers (i.e. Joel Embiid)
  2. A long, physical wing capable of guarding dynamic opposing forwards (i.e. Kevin Durant)
  3. A legitimate bench scorer who can a) create his own shot and/or b) is a catch-and-shoot three-point option
  4. Depth at point guard and/or another player capable of being a primary ballhandler

The Bucks likely hoped that Ojeleye would fill role number 2 (the Tucker role, obviously) and Cousins would fill number 1, at least during the regular season. It’s painfully clear that Ojeleye shouldn’t play in the postseason, and Cousins’ struggles to protect the rim (plus his penchant for fouling) would have made him a liability in a playoff series.

Of course, just because the Bucks don't add players who fit these criteria at the deadline, it doesn’t mean they won’t after it passes. If the 15-man roster still isn't full come February 11th, they are likely to be a desirable destination in the ensuing buyout market.

Should a trade actually happen? If so, for whom?

Leading up to the deadline last March, I thought it was less obvious that a big transaction was necessary for the Bucks to get to the promised land. Given how important Tucker was, it turns out it was pretty necessary. This year, I think it’s clearer that the Bucks need another piece, but it need not be as impactful an addition as Tucker. After all, you’re not always going to be in a position to acquire guys like him or Marc Gasol.

As long as Lopez is healthy and at a typical workload once the postseason tips off, I argue that Milwaukee doesn’t need a major addition to the rotation. All of the player types I listed above are likely to be fill lower-impact rotation spots unless (I shudder to say this) a top Buck is hurt. Essentially, they’re guys who would be the 9th or 10th man in a rotation.

Plus, playoff rotations rarely get as big as 9: coach Mike Budenholzer typically kept his at 7 or 8 and leaned heavily on his starters, even shrinking it to 6 at times during the Brooklyn series. You could argue that acquiring a low-rotation guy isn’t very necessary and not worth giving up much.

This type of player is a lot easier to come by than a Tucker or Mirotic, which is good for the Bucks since they lack the salary-matching pieces to deal for anyone making the type of money associated with starting-caliber players. Key players along those lines are typically making 8 figures or high 7 figures at the very least. Last year, D.J. Augustin’s $6.67m salary served as a convenient number to balance the scales. This year, there’s a big gap on the salary sheet between Connaughton at $5.33m and Lopez at $13.3m.

As negligible as the above might sound, I do think a new acquisition would be great to have in certain matchups, even if the main rotation is healthy. If the Bucks finally face the Sixers in the playoffs, a reserve center could be pretty important to spell Lopez, Portis, and Giannis against Joel Embiid. Especially if any of them happen to rack up personals.

Obviously, the Bucks need to plan for facing KD. Tucker, Holiday, and Middleton were the primary defenders on him last year and if the Nets’ game a few weeks ago was any indication, Matthews seems capable of that responsibility alongside the two remaining Bucks (I personally think they should try Giannis on him at times too, given how successfully Giannis dealt with Jimmy Butler in last year’s first-round series). Still, it wouldn't hurt to replace Ojeleye and/or Hood with someone who can help check Durant.

Also, note that the Bucks never filled the open 15th-man roster spot created by waiving DeMarcus Cousins. Luke Kornet, Langston Galloway, and Jeff Dowtin Jr. were all signed to the unique ten-day hardship contracts necessitated by the recent COVID outbreak: these did not count against the Bucks’ active roster limit, the salary cap, or luxury tax. Throughout that time, a roster spot was open. At no point did they sign Kornet or anyone else to replace Boogie on the roster, because the roster spot he filled was at no point actually occupied. It remains open, meaning the Bucks are not obligated to send out player(s) in a trade.

Trades!

Unlike last year, Milwaukee doesn’t have a hard cap to worry about, so we don’t need to be concerned about the luxury tax apron or the tax line. The Bucks proved this year they’re willing to incur a lot of tax penalties (if the season ended today, they’d owe $46.1m for their already $156.9m roster) and I believe they’re willing to raise that number higher in order to bolster the team.

Below is a chart of targets I’ve identified who can fill the player roles I mentioned above. So you don’t have to scroll, I’ll repeat them: 1 is a big man, 2 is a long and physical wing, 3a is a shot creator off the bench, 3b is a spot-up shooter off the bench, and 4 is a point guard/ball-handler. It’s almost guaranteed that every trade below would require outgoing draft capital to some degree, be it their 2028 first and/or the seconds they possess. Picks could come the Bucks way in these trades as well, depending on what they send out.

The outgoing column is merely what the Bucks need to send out in order to match salaries; these pieces won’t necessarily go to the target’s former team. They could go to a third (or even fourth!) team. Any acquiring team(s) also may need to open up space on their roster(s) to accommodate the player(s) the Bucks send out. That’s all nigh-impossible to predict.

Any of the above that are 3-for-1 trades aren’t as ideal, seeing as that would put the Bucks at 12 men, under the regular-season roster minimum of 14 players. They’d have to fill two spots, perhaps with a buyout and by converting Mamu to a standard contract.

My personal favorites are in green, and the asterisk indicates players who I consider buyout candidates. Almost all of these aren’t headline-grabbers, but as I said, they don’t need to be. I’d argue that Tucker wasn’t a flashy addition when he was acquired either.

Of the trades I fancy, I think only the deals for Batum, Washington, or Aaron Holiday might require surrendering a future first unless DiVincenzo is the outgoing piece. Washington would probably command both DiVincenzo and a future first, and the Bucks only have first-round pick swaps to offer. Future seconds would probably need to be attached to all of the transactions I like too.

Here’s another table of more far-fetched targets. Given Lopez’s importance to the team and his recent, bearded return to Fiserv Forum, I’m not going to include him in any of the following deals. However, if he does remain out, trades for some of the starting-caliber big men become more realistic. These are plausible, yet somewhat questionable moves that may significantly disrupt the current rotation, depending on who’s leaving. Some of them are splashy and some may not move the needle much, but all are legal under the CBA. Nearly all of them would require surrendering a future first and some seconds too.

There are some other names (like Myles Turner) that would really only be attainable in a 4-for-1 deal, which is implausible for the Bucks right now; given the other roster machinations they would require, it’s not worth speculating on them because the trade package is rather unrealistic. However, some of those names are buyout candidates: Goran Dragic, Jeremy Lamb, Gary Harris, and Taurean Prince come to mind as guys that could fill a role on the Bucks if their team buys out the remainder of their contract’s final year.


That’s a lot to digest, so major props if you’ve read this far. I’d handicap the chances of Horst swinging a trade in the next two weeks at 75%, but what about you? Are there any trades I’ve outlined above that you’d like to see come to fruition? Let’s get a big comment thread going, then circle back in a couple of weeks to see who was right!

All stats as of games played through Wednesday, January 25th.

Contract and pick info from RealGM, Basketball-Reference, Spotrac, and Larry Coon’s CBA FAQ. Stats from stats.nba.com and Basketball-Reference. Salary-matching courtesy of Fanspo’s Trade Machine & Cap Manager.