It’s tough when you get knocked out of a competition because of something that couldn’t be controlled. In the case of the Milwaukee Bucks, one of the main reasons they’re at home while the Boston Celtics compete for the NBA Finals is simple: Khris Middleton’s injury. It’s no excuse for losing the series, but it drastically shifts how the team could – and should – approach the task of retooling the roster this offseason.
The Bucks are still contenders. A healthy Giannis Antetokounmpo all but guarantees that status, and when he’s flanked by guys like Middleton, Jrue Holiday, and Brook Lopez, Milwaukee really has no good reason to not be considered a favorite when next season rolls around. They still have to prove it, of course, and one of the ways they’ll prove it is reinforcing through the summer. There are good vibes surrounding the team when it comes to retaining two of their main contributors (Bobby Portis and Pat Connaughton, both of whom can exercise their option to enter free agency), and as a result there aren’t that many spots that need to be filled this time around. That’s a good problem to have when you expect to run it back.
Of course, the downside of that problem means that you only get so many opportunities to add a potential difference-maker, and the Bucks’ salary situation limits those chances even further. Between Giannis ($42.5M), Khris ($37.9M), Jrue ($32.4M), and Brook ($13.9M), the Bucks have four players already accounting for roughly $126.7 million in salary in the 2022-23 season. While the cap figures for next season turned out to be higher than expected, the salary cap is still set at “only” around $122M and the luxury tax will kick in at around $149M. Enterprising NBA 2K players might pretend to shuffle around contracts to move the Bucks beneath either figure, but in reality any approach to either cap space or ducking the tax are purely theoretical. Milwaukee is once again going to have one of the league’s highest payrolls, as is the price of keeping together one of the league’s best cores and contending for a championship.
These structural limitations are the main reason why retention is the most realistic path for the Bucks. There simply isn’t enough to gain by trading away any of their larger contracts that would offset the talent cost it would take to facilitate such a deal. The trade market has much more out there than the Bucks can realistically offer; when your best outgoing package is Grayson Allen ($9.6M), George Hill ($4.0M, expiring), and the rights to whoever is selected at pick 24, and you can’t conduct such a trade until after July 1 (when Allen’s extension takes effect), there simply won’t be many options worth pursuing.
For all intents and purposes, this is the most logical point to start from: assume that Milwaukee will keep most of their guys (at least the ones worth keeping), and fill in the gaps from there. We don’t know who general manager Jon Horst will be able to keep between Portis, Connaughton, Jevon Carter, and Wesley Matthews, but all things considered it seems fair enough to assume that they’ll be back. Likewise, there’s no strong indication that the team will retain Serge Ibaka and Jordan Nwora, or late-season additions Rayon Tucker and Luca Vildoza, meaning their spots will open up. Lastly, Thanasis Antetokounmpo probably isn’t going anywhere, and no one could replace the hype that he injects onto the sidelines, so we can lock him in. With all that in mind, the depth chart (generally) looks like this:
Projected Bucks Depth Chart, as of June 2022
|PG||Jrue Holiday||George Hill||Jevon Carter|
|SG||Wesley Matthews||Grayson Allen||-open-|
|SF||Khris Middleton||Pat Connaughton||-open-|
|PF||Giannis Antetokounmpo||-open-||Thanasis Antetokounmpo|
|C||Brook Lopez||Bobby Portis||-open-|
By breaking down the presumptive roster this way, we can see that the Bucks could use reserves at just about every position. Sure, an upgrade at starting shooting guard would be welcome, but such a luxury isn’t likely. Given how rotations are constricted in the playoffs and minutes are concentrated to fewer players, the team can afford to take a few swings with the resources they have available without undermining their playoff rotation. After all, we’ve seen that if any of the main contributors are unavailable with injury, the team’s ceiling is drastically lower and they’re more likely to lose a winnable series than if they were fully healthy.
What are those resources, anyway? What tools do the Bucks have to meaningfully improve the roster on the margins? Off the bat, their first round draft pick will have a chance to play...if the front office retains the pick and signs the player. The Bucks do not own a second round draft pick this year (forfeited due to the Bogdan Bogdanovic fiasco) and could always try to buy one...but there’s no way to know at this stage. They could always manage to swing a trade, despite the lack of assets or likely worthwhile candidates we detailed earlier, but this might be a summer where Trader Jon isn’t able to swing a deal. With those avenues limited, all that’s left is free agency...where the Bucks are also significantly limited.
Remember the salary structure at the beginning of this post, how the team’s four main players earn more than the projected salary cap? That, combined with the compensation owed to everyone else the team will (presumably) retain, means that the Bucks will be operating over both the cap and the tax apron (which doubles as the hard cap if the team takes any action that invokes it), closing off avenues that other teams might use this summer. We’ve talked a lot in the past about salary cap exceptions, and there are resources out there that detail all the ins and outs of each one, but we simply have less to talk about this time around.
The Bucks are probably going to carry a total salary figure approaching $175 million next season. That’s a full $20 million over the estimated tax apron, meaning the team cannot use the bi-annual exception, the non-taxpayer midlevel exception, or acquire a player in a sign-and-trade. They are simply unavailable mechanisms, full stop. What the front office can do is use the smaller taxpayer MLE, a resource worth about $6.3 million, and veteran minimum contracts, which come in at about $1.8 million each. That’s it.
But that’s not the end of the world! Milwaukee only has between four and five spots to actually fill, assuming that all of the expected return players actually return this offseason. As long as ownership is willing to pay the tax bill associated with these expenditures (not always a guarantee, sadly), the Bucks will have some options. Who are some of the names that might be out there?
Orlando’s Gary Harris stands out as a wing prospect for Milwaukee. After finishing up a $74M deal by languishing with the Magic, Harris is a 27 year old shooting guard who had earned a positive defensive reputation before injuries undermined that reputation. Since 2018, Harris has played in 57, 56, 39, and 61 games; at this point in his career, he might draw similarities to George Hill in that any team that signs him should expect him to miss at least a quarter of the games each season.
Still, Harris is a respectable shooter (36.3% for his career, with a 3PAr of 0.424) who toggles between each backcourt position, and as an unrestricted free agent Harris could be looking for a quick bounce-back deal that includes a clear path to a championship rather than short-term earnings (Harris has accumulated about $80 million for his career). Would Harris be interested in playing on an MLE-level deal for a year in Milwaukee, rehabilitating his career and re-entering free agency in search of another longer deal next summer? And would Harris be worth that hassle for the Bucks? Here’s what our Magic sister site had to say last month about Harris’ time with Orlando:
About a dozen points, a pair of rebounds, a couple of assists, and a steal each night doesn’t seem like much worth getting too excited about. However, that production represents a genuine revitalization for Harris, whose career as a meaningful contributor had been threatened by the ongoing impact of injury. Instead, this season he was genuinely valuable for the Magic, serving as a shooting threat and low-usage connector on offense and a generally reliable individual defender at the other end. Harris was exactly the type of veteran presence that the rebuilding team needed.
Another option the Bucks might find intriguing is Indiana’s TJ Warren, who has been waylaid by injuries since December 2020. Warren is a 6’8” forward who can score at all three levels, and had a run to remember in the 2020 NBA Bubble. Since then, he simply hasn’t been available due to a litany of injury concerns, primarily located in his left foot. Like Harris, Warren is in need of a bounce-back season to show that his career isn’t over, and his isolation scoring acumen could be a boost to a Bucks bench that boasts very little. The Pacers may or may not be the place for him to do that, so why not the Bucks for the taxpayer midlevel?
Another possibility that Bucks fans may need to prepare for is Dennis Schröder, most recently of the Houston Rockets. The German combo guard has reportedly drawn interest from the Bucks before, most recently during the 2022 NBA trade deadline. He also was a draftee of Mike Budenholzer in Atlanta, and the 29 year old guard could find a spot in the rotation if George Hill’s decline is to be believed. Schröder famously miscalculated his free agency two summers ago and did not set the basketball world aflame with his tenure in Houston. Could a season with the Bucks recover his value in time for one more shot at a long term deal, and would he help Milwaukee? His scoring punch may have come in handy as the sans-Middleton Bucks struggled to score on the Celtics this past playoffs, and perhaps the taxpayer MLE is enough incentive for him to finally land here.
What do you think? Do any of these names sound worthwhile to add to the Bucks roster this summer? Who would you target instead? Let us know in the comments!