We’re finally starting to see some real clarity on the Bucks’ current financial situation and how that could dictate moves—or lack thereof—between now and training camp. Like I’ve done a couple times already since the offseason kicked into gear, let’s get our bearings on how Adrian Griffin’s first roster is coming together.
With news that Jae Crowder did indeed take the veteran’s minimum to return to Milwaukee, just as Robin Lopez and Malik Beasley did, GM Jon Horst did some pretty solid work filling out the roster in free agency given the limited tools he was allowed by the new CBA. After committing a combined $54m next year to Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez, the Bucks had $169.5m earmarked for just eight players on their roster, which didn’t even include their two recent second-round picks.
Speaking of them, Chris Livingston took a minimum-salary deal that will pay him $7.7m over four years, with two years guaranteed. Jackson took essentially the same contract, though the second year is only partially guaranteed. The Bucks also promoted A.J. Green from a two-way to a standard roster slot, and his salary reportedly will come in slightly above the league minimum for a second-year player at $1.9m, with non-guaranteed minimum salaries for two more seasons thereafter.
Even before factoring in those three cheap players, using the entirety of the $5m taxpayer version of the midlevel exception—as a team over the NBA’s $165.3m luxury tax threshold, that’s all they’re allowed—was going to be pretty difficult, because if team salary exceeded the $182.8m second apron, that exception vanishes. In order to have used all of that $5m on one player, the Bucks would have ended up just $25k shy of that apron by signing the Beasley-Crowder-Lopez trio to vet minimums plus the two rookies on their minimums.
Replacing one of those vets with a third rookie and his minimum only would have only opened up another $900k in space. Even an unrealistic five rookies on minimums would have them just $2.7m below the apron, not much more than a vet minimum costs the team, and cheaper than what a player with eight years or more of experience would make on a minimum deal. Splitting the MLE up between two players wouldn’t have made the situation much better, only permitting two vet minimum deals.
In any of those scenarios, however, the roster would be at fourteen men and the brother of a certain superstar would not receive a guaranteed contract. Using the entirety of the $5m taxpayer MLE was all but out the window even with the Bucks getting something of a bargain on Middleton, despite having to outbid the Rockets for Brook Lopez, and signing two guys to vet minimums (a third vet min free agent completely eliminated the chance) all because Thanasis needs to be on the roster. And right now, he’s not technically on the roster.
Like it or not, while Thanasis frankly lacks NBA skill, one roster spot plus its associated cap hit is a small price to pay to make Giannis happier. I understand the frustration to some degree, but ultimately, one player out of fifteen is not something to get in any semblance of a huff about. The Bucks should certainly always have a roster spot earmarked for Thanasis—it sounds like they do, but were purposefully holding off on re-signing him to maintain some flexibility—and it’s up to him whether he wants to stay in Milwaukee with his little brother or go somewhere else. Maybe eventually he wants to move on, or into coaching as some fans hope, but that time is not now, and that’s totally fine.
When Thanasis invariably signs that minimum, the Bucks will have a full fifteen-man roster that totals about $181.7m in salary, plus a projected $49.7m in luxury tax penalties. They’ll be taxed at a higher rate than in previous seasons thanks to the repeater provision of the CBA, having paid the tax in at least three of the past four seasons. That’s all well and good—they’re spending as much as they can while maintaining the right to use the TPMLE (the other punitive measures imposed from surpassing the second apron won’t start until next season)—but you might be wondering: is there any way they can open up space to use even some of the TPMLE?
The answer is: not unless they’re able to open up some more room under the second apron in a trade. If Horst constructs a deal that sends two (or more) Bucks out for fewer players coming back and results in about $3.9m salary coming off the books, then he’ll be able to spend all of that $5m exception. Is anyone on the market worth that, though? Nearly everyone on that list could be had on a minimum salary right now, so for many of those guys, a trade needn’t open up more than about $915k if he’d take the vet minimum. There are a couple veteran point guards on that list—Kendrick Nunn and John Wall the most viable—who could help address the Bucks’ current lack of depth behind Jrue Holiday.
Is that a concern for Horst, though? Recent comments indicate that it’s not. Though he extols the virtues of Omari Moore and Lindell Wigginton as their two-way players and notes they have “a lot of secondary ballhandlers” beyond primary guys Holiday and Middleton (which I think is an overstatement, even if Jackson proves ready for NBA game action and joins those two as more than a secondary option), he’s “at peace” without having a “true, pure backup point guard.”
To be fair, that’s a situation that worked to some extent two years ago. When the Bucks had only Jeff Teague backing up at the point for their run to the 2021 title, he was the third guy off the bench during the playoffs at best, more often the fourth. Teague had his moments but was no better than many of the options available in free agency, and it’s debatable whether or not Milwaukee actually needed him. Do the Bucks win the 2021 championship without Jeff Teague? With all due respect to his play in the Eastern Conference Finals, they probably still do.
When healthy, the Middleton/Holiday duo of primary ballhandlers proved to be enough in terms of playmaking, initiation, and passing to win a title once before. They might be enough to do it again, and even that lofty outcome feels more likely than one of the deep bench point guards becoming a rotation player. Of course, players are less and less likely to ever amount to anything in the league the further down the draft board you get; it’s more likely that established players will improve or hold previous form than the Beauchamps or Jacksons of the world become quality rotation pieces (at least this upcoming season, if ever) that answer the team’s roster composition/depth and youth issues.
That’s not to say one shouldn’t be optimistic about the young guys, but why wouldn’t one also be optimistic about the team’s veteran core being good enough to win it all, even without the depth we might envision? The latter is a far likelier outcome, if only because they’ve done it before, not too long ago. Even if they hadn’t, the safer money would be on the steady recent All-Stars leading the team deep in the postseason over the unproven guys popping.
The issues of the roster we’re looking at today remain, of course. As ever, health is a question mark with Middleton and decision-making with Holiday. Regular season depth in the ballhandling corps would be nice since any one of the Jackson/Wigginton/Moore trio is unlikely to be better than a third-stringer. Plus with the signing of Beasley, the team is heavily tilted towards off-ball wings who fit best at the 2 rather than the 3, and certainly not running point. Furthermore, given the expanded role MarJon Beauchamp has undertaken in Summer League, the Bucks would probably like to find minutes for him on the wing (not to mention Jackson and Livingston), so clearing the current logjam is a wise goal.
Again, the best way to deal with this dilemma—which perhaps may not end up being as much of a dilemma as it currently looks—would pretty much have to involve a trade from the holdovers. Such a move might not happen between now and training camp, though, and we should stay open to the possibility that this roster might work out well in its current state. As is, Griffin may indeed be able to run a productive NBA offense with this group, one that doesn’t get bogged down in the halfcourt as we’ve been accustomed to in recent years. Maybe Horst will be right about that vote of confidence. That also feels like a much safer bet than any of the three inexperienced guards earnestly breaking into the rotation.
in the meantime, feel free to talk through some trade ideas for the fun of it. It’s likely that anything we can gin up has been discussed in the Bucks’ front office. After all, they’re professionals who have pulled plenty of the right strings over the years. Not pulling any more of them could end up working out, so let’s at least be open to that.