Retrospective draft talk is often a silly endeavor. Numerous variables (schematic fit, personality fit, injuries, personal issues, etc.) go into whether or not a player maximizes their pre-draft potential. Nonetheless, the draft is one of the most important jobs a GM has. It can be the difference between having a future generational talent and having a future career journeyman for lottery teams. While the stakes are not as high for those with later selections, they still need to hit on those picks. Case in point: the 2022 Milwaukee Bucks.
I want to preface this by saying that the Bucks lost to the Celtics for many reasons. First, the Celtics are really, really, really good. Like probably winning the whole thing-good. When combined with the absence of a two-time all-star and some questionable rotation decisions, it is more surprising that it went to seven games than anything. However, this loss exposed another glaring roster construction issue: the lack of cheap young talent.
The last five drafts for the Bucks have yielded: Sandro Mamukelashvili, Georgios Kalaitzakis, Jordan Nwora, Sam Merrill, Donte DiVincenzo, DJ Wilson, and Sterling Brown. While Sandro is still a work in progress, the rest of those guys provided very little to the Bucks this season, whether it be via playing time or compensation from a trade. In contrast, the last five drafts for the Celtics yielded them guys like Payton Pritchard, Robert Williams, and Grant Williams. These players are cheap, young, and have provided the Celtics stars with the support that the Bucks simply don't have.
It is undoubtedly true that when you have someone like Giannis, you have to do whatever it takes to win as soon as you can. This means selling the house to bring in guys like Jrue Holiday that can help you win a championship right then and there. Considering the Bucks retained Giannis and won their first championship in 50 years, this was an absolutely successful strategy. No one the Bucks traded away for Jrue, PJ, or anyone else was worth that ring.
Yet, the Bucks are beginning to experience the aftermath of that tradeoff. Once Khris went down, they had absolutely no one who could even kind of fill that gap in the team. Grayson Allen got slaughtered on both ends. George Hill looked like he belonged in a retirement home. The fanbase was left begging for an unproven 6-foot Jevon Carter to save the day. The Jevon debate aside, this is not good enough for a team with championship aspirations. Sure, we probably are not having this conversation if Khris doesn't get injured, but none of these guys are getting any younger. With Khris and Jrue on the other side of 30, there will be more instances where one misses a series here and there.
A quick scan around the league shows how vital keeping and hitting on draft picks are. This year, DPOY candidate and legitimate second side creator Mikal Bridges counted five million against the cap. Second-round pick Jordan Poole, a breakout star, cost the Warriors 2 million. Tyrese Maxey only cost 2.7 million. These guys are instrumental to their teams not just because of their skill but because of the value they bring relative to their contracts. Top-heavy teams with salaries tied up in a limited number of guys like the Bucks need to have a few who are acquired cheaply and vastly outperform their cap hit.
Sure, this can be done in free agency, and the Bucks have had success acquiring players who outperform their contracts. Bobby Portis and Pat Connaughton come to mind as the type of guys who are absolutely crucial to a contending team. However, you lose the youth and upside potential in free agency, considering young players with upside are not usually available in the open market. We know what Bobby and Pat are at this point in their careers. The draft offers a potential for a wild card that guys in free agency generally don't have. Trading picks for older guys gives you some guarantees, but you also lose out on the upside of a younger project. The goal should be a blend, and that blend has been absent from the Bucks over the last 5 years.
While I could complain about the Bucks passing on Jalen Brunson and OG Anunoby, the broader point is that they need to start drafting and developing much better. This starts with making sure they keep the pick from this year's draft. While there may be a shiny new 35-year-old you could acquire for the selection, you are sacrificing the potential to have cheap, young, athletic depth that can help the team down the road. To extend Giannis' window as much as possible, Jon Horst and his staff need to start taking the draft more seriously.