The Milwaukee Bucks aren’t in the NBA Finals, but they want to be. Were it not for an ill-timed MCL sprain suffered by Khris Middleton, maybe they would be squaring off against the Golden State Warriors rather than the Boston Celtics. But alas, they’re stuck on the sidelines like the rest of us, and all efforts are focused on how to get back there.
Of course there isn’t anything that can be done, not right now. With the final round of the playoffs underway, there’s very little action happening...at least, on the surface. Here are a few things that are worth keeping in mind during this lull for the Bucks.
Rest and recovery
The Bucks are still technically reigning champions, at least for a few more weeks. Their title will be taken by either the Warriors or Celtics sometime soon, but it’s worth remembering that Milwaukee’s title was just 11 months ago, won in July 2021. The end of that season and the start of the new one also bookended the Summer Olympics in Japan, which was additional basketball activity for Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton. That’s a lot of basketball packed into a short amount of time, and the chance to simply not is something that everyone on the roster ought to relish for a little while.
#Bucks all-star Khris Middleton said he was never going to be able to play Games 6 & 7.— Jim Owczarski (@JimOwczarski) May 16, 2022
“I wanted to - but working w/ our training staff & talking to the doctors they said it was just too high of a risk to go back out there so soon.”
Below he says there were no setbacks though: pic.twitter.com/xNPHaI6iPp
For Middleton especially, the injury suffered in the Chicago Bulls series was something that required constant attention and vigorous rehab to even try and have a chance to return to action. The fact that he suffered no setbacks is positive enough; that Middleton can now continue working on healing without the pressure of returning to the court looming over him is undoubtedly helpful. Khris’ game has never relied on otherworldly athleticism, so even though he’s on the far side of 30 (he’ll be 31 by the start of next season) the team should expect a fully capable version of Middleton.
The rest should benefit everyone on the Bucks’ roster, just like it would benefit anyone. Brook Lopez stands out as another person who should get the most out of some extended downtime, considering his lengthy absence due to back surgery last year. Lopez has been targeted by some fans as a trade asset worth moving out to create opportunities elsewhere, but Brook is also fairly foundational to what the team does both on and off the court. Either way, as long as he takes care of his body, Brook still has some great basketball in his future, and this break should give him the opportunity to do exactly that.
“My family is happy here” says @Giannis_An34 in an interview about why he chose Costa Navarino as a place to own a house. Read the full article in our new blog #CostaNavarinoStories. https://t.co/JBsls5OttV— Costa Navarino (@costanavarino) June 3, 2022
And of course, Giannis Antetokounmpo just needs to recuperate after the herculean effort to carry the Bucks in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. By all indications, he’s doing exactly that in Greece and even with an upcoming stint representing his country on the Greek National Team, Giannis should come back rejuvenated and motivated (as he always is.
Regroup and reinforce
While the players need to relax both physically and mentally, the task facing the Milwaukee front office will allow very little breathing room. Bucks general manager Jon Horst has already proven he can make winning moves on the margins, in large part because that’s the only space he has. Going into the summer, Milwaukee will have no cap space and their salary structure will all but guarantee that certain mechanisms are not available to them, specifically those that trigger the “hard cap” like the biannual exception, acquiring a player in a sign-and-trade deal, or the non-taxpayer MLE.
Bucks summer blueprint: focus on re-signing own FAs and exploring trade and MLE options for wing/forward upgrade. For example:— Frank Madden (@fmaddenNBA) May 19, 2022
- Pat 3yrs/$27m
- Bobby 3yrs/$34m
- Wes/Carter min deals
- Keep #24 or package w/Allen/Hill
- TPMLE $6.4m
Total hit: $76m tax bill, $253m total payroll pic.twitter.com/QHVlVr5vuq
The Bucks are going to be so deep into the tax that cap space is a dream of year’s past, which simplifies the options available for building out the roster. As we’ve seen before, Milwaukee values continuity, and therefore suggests that we should see a number of faces returning for training camp. It’s generally accepted that both Jevon Carter and Wes Matthews could return on a minimum-level deal, and at least with Matthews it’s assumed that the interest in sticking around is mutual. Meanwhile Carter may have vocal supporters on social media, but head coach Mike Budenholzer did not play him nearly as many minutes in the second round as Carter might have preferred, and that makes his likelihood to return less clear.
Either way, the two contributors that the Bucks will want to retain but may have difficulty retaining are Pat Connaughton and Bobby Portis. The team holds Connaughton’s Bird Rights, meaning they can pay him any salary the two parties can agree to without worrying about the salary cap. Pat has proven himself as a playoff contributor and has real estate roots all across Milwaukee; it’s difficult to envision him leaving the Bucks as long as Milwaukee is willing to pony up the cash.
Bobby Portis, on the other hand, has only been with the Bucks for two consecutive seasons and is limited by his Early Bird Rights; the maximum amount that Milwaukee can pay him in Year One of a new contract is 105% of the average NBA salary from 2021-22, which is just under $11 million. Given his career-best performance as a starter for much of the regular season, Portis could field offers higher than that number from teams with space and a roster spot. Is that financial opportunity more important to Bobby than sticking around in Milwaukee, a town that has fully embraced him and a basketball situation in which he can thrive? That question is eminently debatable, but reporter Marc Stein suggests that other NBA teams are seeing the writing on the wall that leads to Portis sticking around.
"There is already tangible resignation from some interested teams that they won’t have any shot at luring Portis away from the Bucks. The expectation already in circulation is that Portis will re-sign with Milwaukee on a multi-year deal." - Marc Stein.https://t.co/g8KOvLyWwY— Dalton Sell (@sell_dalton) June 3, 2022
Generally speaking, the blueprint is clear: pay the price of keeping the core together and find difference-makers with the limited options available. As-is, the Bucks roster is clearly a playoff contender and (when healthy...) should be a threat to make it back to the Finals. With a handful of options for adding free agents and a mid-20s pick (#24 to be precise) that Jon Horst can’t trade away until the NBA Draft, Milwaukee doesn’t have a ton of flexibility, but they also don’t necessarily need it to put together a winner. Until then, we watch and wait...