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Setting Dominoes: What To Look For From the Milwaukee Bucks

An outline of the major milestones between now and June 30.

NBA: Sacramento Kings at Milwaukee Bucks Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

As the NBA Playoffs march forward towards the crowning of a new champion, the Milwaukee Bucks are planning trips and packing suitcases. An early playoff exit at the hands of the Miami Heat means more free time...and the Bucks’ front office will be spending that time planning what moves they should make to reinforce and reinvigorate the team that had every intention of playing basketball through June.

As we continue navigating the month of May, we can worry less about the schedule of games and more about the major milestones that are on the path between now and June 30, the start of the new league year and opening of free agency, which is when everything is truly “reset” across the NBA. The Bucks don’t have a set schedule for how to figure themselves out, but we have a pretty good idea of what the first three Big Things will be...and when we’ll know what happens with them. Here’s how the calendar looks for the next two months.

Task: Determine Mike Budenholzer’s fate
Due: Summer 2023

This is the first domino to fall for Milwaukee. General manager Jon Horst has fired a coach before, but the circumstances around Jason Kidd’s dismissal and Mike Budenholzer’s current predicament are wildly different. Both teams underperformed relative to expectations, but while giving Jason Kidd the boot enabled the Bucks to bring in a coach to take the team to the next level, doing the same for Coach Bud will require keeping the team in the top tier of the league’s contenders. That drastically changes the stakes and scope of any coaching search the team undertakes, and as such it should be done with great care. As was reported by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the team is doing exactly that.

“They’re going to take their time and get past the emotion of how this season ended, these great expectations they had as the No. 1 seed in the East, and then start to really deliberate about how they might move forward.”

For now, put aside how you feel about Mike Budenholzer’s performance as head coach, or about the potential options out there who could take over from him. Let us simply assume that the team replaces him this summer and see how that affects other decisions.

NBA teams generally want to have their staffing questions answered before the start of free agency, for a number of reasons. Coaches have influence over what players the front office brings in, and some have input on which prospects get acquired in the NBA Draft. Budenholzer has, reportedly, been one of the more involved coaches; his relationship with Jon Horst has often been described as a partnership. Moreover, certain coaches have certain pre-existing relationships with players that the team might target for building out their roster, meaning that there’s a certain logic to having your coach in place before it’s time to make moves, since that can affect which moves are even available to make.

Generally speaking, teams with vacancies hire head coaches in June, ahead of free agency and (sometimes) the draft. From there, teams can make more informed decisions about which players to bring in, and given the number of players the Bucks may need to replace, it leaves us to conclude that the Bucks will probably decide on what to do with their head coach by the end of June. If they somehow decide to keep him, then the front office can proceed to the next items on the agenda knowing what they have leading on the sidelines. If not, then the Bucks will need to go through the entire sourcing, interviewing, negotiating, and hiring process to decide on their next polo-clad leader.

Task: Resolve Khris Middleton’s player option
Due: June 21, 2023

The Bucks and Khris Middleton are once again staring down one another at the negotiating table. We’ve been in this exact position before, in 2019, which is the last time Khris Middleton had a player option at the end of a contract and was considering where to spend the next leg of his basketball journey. That ended up with Middleton declining the option in order to sign a new deal with the Bucks in free agency.

This time around, Middleton’s option is worth not $13 million, but over $40 million. But while the stakes are higher, the conversation around what to do with that money is similarly stunted. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: if the Bucks let Middleton walk, they are not able to spend that money on a replacement. It could even be argued that the Bucks have to retain Middleton’s services, because they can’t afford to let him leave for nothing! The more things change, the more they stay the same.

That’s why the deadline of June 21 is so important; once Khris makes a decision on his player option, the Bucks’ options are shifted accordingly. Yes, the team can work out an extension before he hits the open market, and they can add years to Middleton’s deal starting after next season, as his $40M player option becomes a guaranteed Year One of a new multi-year deal. This is the most lucrative option for Khris, since his option year becomes the new “starting point.” Alternatively, he can decline that option and sign a fresh deal at any number after June 30, whether it’s with the Bucks or someone else. The salary cap doesn’t matter for Milwaukee; as long as they are not “hard capped” they can go as far over the cap (and into the luxury tax) as they want to re-sign Middleton.

But, once again, since Milwaukee is so far over the salary cap and the way the exceptions work, all of the dollars that Khris Middleton has allocated can be used only for Khris Middleton. The money used to pay him cannot be given to anyone else. That’s why the situation is constantly described as “the Bucks have to pay him,” because if they don’t...they don’t even save money. Well, ownership saves money, but the team has no route to use that money elsewhere.

Naturally, this means that the Bucks don’t have a ton of leverage to negotiate with Khris on salary. Either they give him what he wants, or he’ll go and find it somewhere else. There’s already one team – the Dallas Mavericks – with rumored interest in his services. Expect the news of Khris’ player option decision to be the next big indicator of where the Bucks are headed this offseason.

Task: Decide on extension for Brook Lopez
Due: June 30, 2023

Once the team has a sense for how things with Middleton will play out, and assuming that the coaching search has been handled, Jon Horst can turn his attention towards the man in the middle for Milwaukee. Brook Lopez is not just the center on the depth chart, but he’s at the center of everything that the Bucks do. Alongside Giannis Antetokounmpo, Lopez walls off the rim on defense while stretching the floor on offense. He is an integral part of Milwaukee’s success and his contract is expiring, putting him into unrestricted free agency.

That is, of course, unless the Bucks manage to extend his deal. Up until the end of the league year, the front office is allowed to tack more years onto Brook’s contract (should he agree!)...but only so many. As has been noted by ESPN’s Bobby Marks, the “over-38 rule” limits the number of years that Milwaukee can give to Lopez on an extension. Since Brook is currently 35, the Bucks are able to offer an additional 3 years that would start at an amount somewhere above his current salary ($13.9 million). They could, just like with Middleton, also offer Lopez a standard contract at any number in free agency, since they have his full Bird rights, but an extension would at least come with security and prevent another team from swooping in and wooing Brook away. Of course, declining to extend Brook’s contract and allowing him to sign elsewhere would be a major signal about the Bucks’ intentions for the future, given how critical Brook is to the team’s current on-court schemes.

Those are the first three dominoes we can expect to fall for the Bucks. Once the franchise decides what to do with the role of head coach, which is working on an unknown timeline but certainly is a top priority, the next two decision points to watch for are Khris Middleton and his player option, and a potential contract extension for Brook Lopez. These three things won’t tell us the whole story about how the Bucks intend on bouncing back from this season’s disappointing ending, but those broad strokes will impact all of the details that will follow.