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Bucks Roster Decision Looms, Buyout Options Sparse

Milwaukee needs to add a fourteenth player by this Thursday

Minnesota Timberwolves v Milwaukee Bucks Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Two Thursdays ago, hours before the NBA’s trade deadline, the Bucks shrunk to thirteen players (not including two-way players Sandro Mamukelashvili and A.J. Green) on deadline day after the 3-for-1 Jae Crowder deal. CBA rules stipulate that teams must carry a minimum of fourteen players on standard contracts (not including two-way deals), but may dip below that number for up to two weeks. That means that GM Jon Horst is required to add a player to his roster by this Thursday. There’s been plenty of speculation about which players, among those previously bought out—some of whom have since signed—would be good fits on the roster. With a decision due this week, let’s look at what the Bucks could do in the coming days.

Before I explore Milwaukee’s options, it’s worth taking account of the roster as it stands after acquiring Crowder. The hope is that injuries to Giannis Antetokounmpo and Bobby Portis’, plus lower body soreness from Pat Connaughton and Khris Middleton that kept them both out of the Bucks’ last game prior to the All-Star break, won’t hold any of them back for much longer.

That’s a lot of bodies at the wing positions, all the way up to the frontcourt. It’s easy to see graphically where the Bucks are thin, though: at point guard and center. That makes sense, of course, given that one player who can play each of those positions (George Hill and Serge Ibaka) was swapped for Crowder. However, neither of those guys saw many minutes; Hill fell behind Jevon Carter for the backup point role, and with two bonafide point forwards in Middleton and Joe Ingles returning from injury, he slid down the ballhandling pecking order further. Portis and Giannis both often shift over to the 5 when Brook Lopez sits, so as the fourth big man, Ibaka got relegated to essentially the fourth-string center.

Beyond the five starters, head coach Mike Budenholzer probably will only use three or four guys max (with the fourth likely not seeing many minutes at all) off the bench in a playoff matchup based on how the last two years have gone. Giannis, Middleton, Holiday, and Lopez are all locks to start assuming health, Connaughton has long held Bud’s (and the fans’) trust in the postseason even if he won’t start, and Portis works well against most opponents. The rest of the rotation will depend likely on who the Bucks are playing but figures to be split mainly among Grayson Allen—whose defense has certainly improved this year—and the two players they invested heavily in with an eye to the postseason: Crowder and Ingles. Matthews and Carter could see some time too, especially when defense is needed.

For those counting at home, I just named eleven Bucks. That’s too many for even a regular-season game! I illustrate this point not to say that the Bucks should look for more depth—as we well know, you can never have enough quality players to step in if the injury bug bites in the playoffs—but that any player(s) they may add soon aren’t going to see the court much, now or during the postseason.

For Crowder, the Bucks sent out flotsam for someone who hopefully will contribute to a title pursuit, but there was some value that both Ibaka and Hill—well, primarily Hill—provided the team. Ibaka is a big body who used to be one of the NBA’s most fearsome shot blockers. Obviously, he’s a shell of his former self, but if Lopez was in foul trouble against the Embiids or Jokics of the world, you felt better about him jumping into the frontcourt rotation for his rather than the defensively-sketchier Portis or Mamu, unless you want Giannis to expend a lot of energy checking bruising, physical post players. Hill brought a steadiness to setting the offense and distributing the rock that the erratic Carter lacks; for all his defensive intensity and surprisingly-sweet jump shooting, Carter taking the offense’s keys is often a bit too adventurous, and in the playoffs that seems risky. While Hill wasn’t likely to play much the rest of 2022–23 (if at all), he was trustworthy enough to run the offense if needed.

If anyone comes in to replace those two in those very supplementary roles, they’ll hardly play because Hill and Ibaka weren’t much either. Certain veterans that were bought out after trades or from non-contending teams recognized this. Dewayne Dedmon jumped from Miami to Philly and slid in as Joel Embiid’s backup, rather than be buried on the Milwaukee bench. Reggie Jackson went to his home state of Colorado, seeing an immediate opening as Denver’s backup point guard after they sent Bones Hyland to Jackson’s former employer.

Then there are buyout guys on the wing and/or at forward, areas where the Bucks are fully stocked. Danny Green, Justin Holiday, and Terrence Ross went to teams who badly needed wings (Cleveland, Dallas, and Phoenix) because of depth issues or trades, thus could offer playing time right away. The Bucks certainly can’t do that for any new additions to their wing corps given how many they already employ and would like to grant court time. Kevin Love can play the 5 in addition to his natural 4 but is signing with Miami, who have rolled an undersized forward tandem of 6’7” Jimmy Butler and 6’5” Caleb Martin all year. Again, that’s playing time which is basically guaranteed, whereas no such opportunity existed for him in Milwaukee.

So who does that leave? Not too many guys, and of the veterans who still have something left in the tank, you can’t blame them for heading somewhere with a clearer route to minutes. Still, the Bucks need to make a move, so here’s what they can do.

Their first option is pretty straightforward: they could convert either of their two-way players onto a standard deal. Mamadi Diakite was the last Buck to undergo this, receiving an NBA contract about a month after the 2021 trade deadline. This would be the cheapest route, but there’s logic beyond it: two-way players are ineligible for the postseason, so if they think Mamu or A.J. Green can help them in the playoffs, making either of them the fourteenth (or fifteenth) guy is the only route for them to play.

Mamu’s two-year, two-way deal ends after the season, and while he won’t exceed the limit of 50 NBA games placed on two-way players—he has appeared in 24 contests this year with 24 remaining in the Bucks’ schedule—promoting him to the roster with a multi-year contract could give the team some flexibility. Even with a minimum salary, future years could be partially or non-guaranteed, including next season. These contracts aren’t bad trade pieces, since an acquiring team can simply waive the player before their guarantee date (the Bucks can always do that too) and be off the hook for money they needed to acquire for salary-matching purposes. Green could also receive a promotion to the full roster, though he too will not exceed the 50-game limit being at 26 on the year.

The big Georgian has shown flashes of NBA potential throughout his career, and while I’m skeptical the Bucks see him as a long-term piece, this would buy them more time to make that determination. Though his shooting has cratered this year, he’s a skilled passer and seemingly works well within the flow of an NBA offense, but gets pretty bullied on the defensive end. Green could very well carve out a career as a three-point specialist, which is always a valuable commodity, though rarely shows capabilities in other areas. Signing either guy to a standard contract wouldn’t be the worst move, especially if they see either as a contributor next season or even as an off-season trade piece.

We all know the Bucks struggle to shoot the three in the playoffs, but something else would be seriously wrong if Green is seeing postseason minutes, so Mamu makes more sense for a promotion. He’s certainly not a good choice to defend opposing big men, but he has six fouls and might not be a zero on the other end. He’s not a good option for the deep-bench big role I laid out several paragraphs up, but he would make more sense on the fifteen-man roster than Green.

Promoting a two-way isn’t the sexy move, though, at least not like the second option: signing a player not currently with the team on a rest-of-season deal. As mentioned, though, why would a vet sign with the Bucks when it seems pretty clear they won’t play much at all? The main thing the Bucks have going for them is their status as an inner-circle title contender. Anyone who signs could follow in Jeff Teague’s “A on the group project” footsteps to chase a ring, maybe seeing some odd minutes here and there, but mostly riding the bench. That’s attractive enough!

As of today, February 20th, these are the teams who have at least one standard roster spot open, given that Russell Westbrook is reportedly staying in LA to join the Clippers: Boston, Brooklyn, Charlotte*, Cleveland, Detroit, Golden State, Houston*, the Lakers, Milwaukee*, New York*, Orlando, Phoenix, and Utah. The asterisks denote teams with two roster spots open. We can count out Charlotte, Detroit, Houston, and Orlando as attractive destinations for obvious reasons. The New York teams and Utah are in the playoff hunt but aren’t legitimate title threats, so they too won’t hold that much appeal.

That leaves these teams competing with the Bucks for the buyout guys: the Celtics, Cavs, Warriors, Lakers, and Suns. The Celtics and Suns are legit title contenders, but the latter has a two-way guy that plays a fair bit in Ish Wainright and is approaching the 50-game limit, so they might earmark their last roster spot for him. The Cavs aren’t in that same class but offer some paths to playing time that the Bucks don’t. The Warriors are the Warriors and the Lakers are the Lakers, so players will always be drawn to them, no matter how far down in the standings they are.

Given all this, it’s far from certain that any free agent would see the Bucks as their best option, but none of those five teams have to make moves. They can ride out the rest of the year at fourteen roster spots and may prefer that avenue if they’re over (Golden State, LA, Boston, Phoenix, Brooklyn) or close (Cleveland) to the luxury tax threshold. So we shouldn’t assume that any of those franchises are going to leap at the chance to add another player.

Next, here are a few current free agents who have played this season and would fit roles for the Bucks (ballhandling guard and big man) that were vacated at the trade deadline. Warning: this isn’t the most fun list!

Patrick Beverley: Perhaps the most-discussed name, PatBev has long been one of the league’s foremost defensive pests. Does that sound like anyone younger who’s currently on the roster? Once a great three-point shooter, albeit low volume, he's much less of a threat from deep in recent seasons, but he wouldn’t be in to shoot. He’s also never been much of a distributor and mainly only a point guard defensively, checking an opponent’s ballhandler or star guard. It’s not a great fit, but they could do worse (like Russell Westbrook with his turnover and shooting deficiencies, mercifully heading to the Clippers).

John Wall: Don’t even think about the star he was prior to 2018 (it’s really been that long) and instead look at who he is now. Wall was terribly inefficient on a Clippers team that severely lacked ballhandlers, and they cut bait with him unceremoniously in a deadline trade that sent him back to the Rockets, who bought him out. However, he still can dish out a few dimes here and there—his assist percentage this year would be the highest on the Bucks—so don’t have to squint to see a decent backup point guard. He still doesn’t take great care of the ball, which is of course an issue for Milwaukee, but all told, Wall would probably be a lot steadier than Beverley in terms of initiating the offense.

Kemba Walker: It’s been a pretty steep decline for Walker since his final year in Boston. He found a non-guaranteed deal with Dallas earlier this season and appeared in nine games, with Jason Kidd’s squad in real need of some more ballhandling at the time. However, in his current state, they decided they were better off without him. Walker didn’t shoot well at all or find too many teammates for buckets in his 16 minutes per game but didn’t turn it over much at least. He would be a “break in case of emergency” option even more than any of the two names above.

Moses Brown: The fourth-year center was on a two-way deal with the Clippers, but was waived on Friday in what was reportedly a mutual decision after he reached his games-played limit. After LA acquired Mason Plumlee, he became redundant. At 7’2”, he certainly has the size you’d like from a backup 5 and showed some promise in his second season with OKC. He’s just 23, but it’s not as if the Bucks will be giving him minutes to develop. Plus after being waived post-deadline last season, he’s only found ten-day and two-way contracts, so there appears to be widespread consensus that he’s not worth a standard NBA deal. If the Bucks signed him to a two-way, he couldn’t play in the postseason, so this doesn’t make much sense unless Mamu gets upgraded from his own two-way.

A few players who haven’t appeared in an NBA game this season (after all, neither has Crowder) that would also make sense (if they’re ready) are Elfrid Payton, Derrick Favors, and old friend DeMarcus Cousins. Payton was always a great passer and could defend a bit too, but never contributed much at all to good teams. Boogie has defensive and effort question marks that coaches don’t enjoy which may be why he hasn’t found his way onto any roster this year. Favors got a ten-day deal last month with the Hawks but didn’t play, though was serviceable enough with OKC last year.

Overall, these are pretty disappointing names. Some of the other rumored targets for the Bucks are actually still currently on rosters, like Derrick Rose and Will Barton. Barton has been connected with Milwaukee a fair bit and seems likely to be bought out by Washington, but maybe not by Thursday. He’s had a poor season and with the glut of more reliable wings the Bucks already have, isn’t going to play much, if at all. Certain segments of the fanbase, who may still think Rose is the player he was even two seasons ago (or further in the past), like his fit on the team. Truthfully, though, he’s been downright bad this year. Combine that with his past demons, and he’s not worth considering if the Knicks buy him out.

Nerlens Noel hasn’t suited up for the Pistons since the day prior to the deadline and has since been listed as “not with team” on their injury report. However, it seems he’s not currently pursuing a buyout, even after Detroit added James Wiseman at the trade deadline alongside a litany of other young big men. The team likely wants to develop the likes of rookie Jalen Duran (19 years old), try to get anything from their second-chance second-overall picks in Wiseman (21) and Marvin Bagley (23), plus have a promising defensive big in Isaiah Stewart (21) who can play the 4 or 5. The 28-year-old long enjoyed a reputation as one of the league’s better rim protectors and shot blockers. To my knowledge, those skills haven’t diminished, so he’d be a good fit as a change-of-pace big off Milwaukee’s bench if he becomes available.

Perhaps the likeliest outcome of all is that Milwaukee will take the route they went in 2021 and 2022 by filling the back end of their roster with international or G League players on contracts not guaranteed for next season. Last year it was Rayjon Tucker and Luca Vildoza; the year before it was Elijah Bryant. None of those guys saw much action at all, and none of them made the roster the following year since the Bucks could cut bait without any cap hit.

I’m certainly not well-versed enough in the foreign leagues to know who could be an interesting addition, but Tucker was signed from the Bucks’ G League affiliate last year in the midst of a big season for the Herd. Lindell Wigginton, who appeared in 19 games as a two-way player for the Bucks last season, is the Herd’s leading scorer, but I’d be surprised if he got another chance in Milwaukee. Jontay Porter, younger brother of the Nuggets’ Michael Porter Jr., has some NBA experience from two years ago and has some decent numbers through ten games. At 6’11” and 240 pounds, he has the size for the league, if not the talent. Other names on the Herd who have seen NBA action (even if just in training camps) are Elijah Hughes and Alize Johnson, but they would be even more buried as a wing and forward, respectively. Alex Antetokounmpo is also on the Herd, so you can’t rule him out.

While there is some urgency to add a player to the roster spot, the Bucks needn’t fret about it being a long-term fit, though. They can sign any player to a ten-day contract and even re-engage that same player on a second ten-day before they’d be required to give him a rest-of-season deal. That means Milwaukee could sign someone like Favors or Brown to a ten-day this week, try them out, and start the two-week grace period at thirteen players again if they decide to cut bait. During such a contract, should a more attractive player become available after a buyout, the Bucks can simply cut bait with their ten-day man. A ten-day might be the best course of action to maintain some flexibility, so it won’t be a surprise for Horst to go that route.

We’ll know the answer to this dilemma in the next 72 hours, but until then, what do you think about the names above? Are there any other players I didn’t mention who are worth a look? Would you look to other positions (perhaps forward) given the Bucks’ recent injuries, in fear they might be longer-term issues? Sound off in the comments.