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Now what? Where the Bucks stand a few days into the offseason

Milwaukee is running out of room under the second apron

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NBA: Orlando Magic at Milwaukee Bucks Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

After a flurry of signings on Friday and Saturday, plus a few trades, the 2023 NBA offseason is starting to settle down a bit. Many of the top unrestricted free agents have found new homes or re-signed with their previous team. While some teams have largely set their 2023–24 group by getting at least fourteen guys on standard contracts, the Bucks are not one of them. As of today, they’ll pay guaranteed salaries to nine players this coming season, meaning they need to add at least five names to the roster to be in compliance with the league’s minimum roster size.

Note: two-way players don’t count toward the fifteen-man standard roster

Two of those spots might take care of themselves easily. Second-round picks Andre Jackson Jr. and Chris Livingston have yet to be signed, and with the NBA’s new second-round pick exception, Milwaukee needn’t dip into their mid-level exception to sign them as they had to in previous years. Livingston is a candidate for a two-way deal (remember, those are fully non-guaranteed, meaning a two-way player can be released at any time with no further obligation), and the Bucks currently have an open slot there, but Jackson seems like a lock to get a guaranteed contract. As rookies, both will make the NBA minimum.

Thanasis Antetokounmpo might have the safest job in Milwaukee aside from his younger brother, and though he’s currently a free agent, Eric Nehm believes the Bucks will wait to re-sign Thanasis for another go-around so they can remain flexible in the coming days or weeks. He too seems destined for another minimum. So, the Bucks are then left with between two and four spots to fill, depending on whether they want to—or are able to—carry fourteen or fifteen players on standard deals.

The catch is, with the reported salary figures coming on Khris Middleton’s new three-year, $102m deal and Brook Lopez’s new two-year, $48m deal, GM Jon Horst leaped over the tax line and in the vicinity of the punitive new second apron. Details of Jae Crowder’s new deal have yet to become public but no matter how much of a pay cut he’s taking from last season’s $10.2m, Milwaukee is rapidly approaching the second apron, which functions as something of a hard cap. Go over it, and they lose the privilege to sign players on next winter’s buyout market, take back more salary than they send out, or aggregate players’ salaries together in trades. Those problems are more for the future, but the one that’s most damning—at least in the present—is the loss of their mid-level exception.

Based on 8% yearly raises—the highest possible raise for a player re-upping with his previous team—we can estimate what Middleton’s and Lopez’s salaries will be next year. Middleton is likely to earn just under $31.5m in 2023–24 and his Disney-loving friend a shade over $23m. That combined $54m on top of the Bucks’ existing commitments puts them at $169.7m for eight players. Whatever Crowder is making, it will draw them close enough to the $182.8m second apron to make adding two to four more players from the open market pretty tough, even when factoring in minimums for the two rookies.

What’s left for the Bucks to use in adding players from outside the organization?

As a taxpayer, the Bucks get a smaller version of the MLE but this year it’s even smaller than last year’s $6.5m, down to $5.0m even. While that’s been enough to sign guys like Shake Milton and Reggie Jackson, it needn’t all go toward one player. Unfortunately, Milwaukee really can’t use all of it and might not be able to use any of it. If we guess that Crowder will earn $4m next season, adding one or multiple players for a total of $5m would put team salary at $178m. If that all went to one player, the remaining four roster spots can only be filled by...

Minimum salaries. Any team can sign a player for their minimum (which is based on years of service) and the NBA will help pay it beyond this year’s figure for a player with two years of experience: just over $2m. That’s the only money that goes on a team’s books for a veteran minimum, so if Thanasis does indeed accept such a deal, $2m is how much he’ll cost them. Rookies and sophomores (like last year’s two-way man and current restricted free agent A.J. Green) make even less: $1.2m and $1.8m, respectively. The former figure would represent the salaries Jackson and Livingston would make. For this exercise, we’ll assume Livingston gets a standard contract and doesn’t join Omari Moore and Lindell Wigginton (whose two-way deal is for two years) as the Bucks’ three two-way players. The money works out the same, anyway.

These are the only tools Horst has at his disposal on the open market, but he’s very limited in one he can offer. Let’s take a look at the ways he can and can’t use them:

Using the taxpayer mid-level exception

All of the TPMLE Age 2023–24 Salary Splitting the TPMLE Age 2023–24 Salary
All of the TPMLE Age 2023–24 Salary Splitting the TPMLE Age 2023–24 Salary
Giannis 28 $45,640,084 Giannis 28 $45,640,084
Holiday 33 $36,861,707 Holiday 33 $36,861,707
Middleton (est.) 32 $31,481,481 Middleton (est.) 32 $31,481,481
Lopez (est.) 35 $23,076,923 Lopez (est.) 35 $23,076,923
Portis 28 $11,710,818 Portis 28 $11,710,818
Connaughton 28 $9,423,869 Connaughton 28 $9,423,869
Allen 28 $8,925,000 Allen 28 $8,925,000
Full TPMLE $5,000,000 Crowder (est.) 33 $4,000,000
Crowder (est.) 33 $4,000,000 Beauchamp 23 $2,609,400
Beauchamp 23 $2,609,400 Partial TPMLE $2,800,000
Jackson 22 $1,119,563 Partial TPMLE $2,200,000
Livingston 20 $1,119,563 Jackson 22 $1,119,563
Rookie minimum FA $1,119,563 Livingston 20 $1,119,563
Rookie minimum FA $1,119,563 Rookie minimum FA $1,119,563
(empty) (empty)
Total $183,207,534 Total $182,087,971
Second Apron $182,794,000 Second Apron $182,794,000

Put simply, there is no way to avoid exceeding the second apron when committing all $5m of the TPMLE to one player. If split between two players, the Bucks would come up just a few hundred grand shy of the apron with extremely limited room to operate, but since the vet minimum and its exception is worth $2m, there’s not much point in offering one player anything more than $2.8m since the other would be making barely over the minimum. In both these scenarios, forget about bringing back Thanasis on his minimum, so let’s also forget about them to keep Giannis happy.

So we know that as things currently stand, using all $5m is a no-go, but what about using just some of it? Here are a few scenarios:

Using some of the TPLME and/or minimums

Partial TPMLE + rookie Age 2023–24 Salary Partial TPMLE + vet Age 2023–24 Salary Two vets, no TPMLE Age 2023–24 Salary
Partial TPMLE + rookie Age 2023–24 Salary Partial TPMLE + vet Age 2023–24 Salary Two vets, no TPMLE Age 2023–24 Salary
Giannis 28 $45,640,084 Giannis 28 $45,640,084 Giannis 28 $45,640,084
Holiday 33 $36,861,707 Holiday 33 $36,861,707 Holiday 33 $36,861,707
Middleton (est.) 32 $31,481,481 Middleton (est.) 32 $31,481,481 Middleton (est.) 32 $31,481,481
Lopez (est.) 35 $23,076,923 Lopez (est.) 35 $23,076,923 Lopez (est.) 35 $23,076,923
Portis 28 $11,710,818 Portis 28 $11,710,818 Portis 28 $11,710,818
Connaughton 28 $9,423,869 Connaughton 28 $9,423,869 Connaughton 28 $9,423,869
Allen 28 $8,925,000 Allen 28 $8,925,000 Allen 28 $8,925,000
Crowder (est.) 33 $4,000,000 Crowder (est.) 33 $4,000,000 Crowder (est.) 33 $4,000,000
Partial TPMLE $3,686,322 Partial TPMLE $2,786,179 Beauchamp 23 $2,609,400
Beauchamp 23 $2,609,400 Beauchamp 23 $2,609,400 Thanasis 31 $2,019,706
Thanasis 31 $2,019,706 Thanasis 31 $2,019,706 Vet minimum FA $2,019,706
Jackson 22 $1,119,563 Vet minimum FA $2,019,706 Vet minimum FA $2,019,706
Livingston 20 $1,119,563 Jackson 22 $1,119,563 Jackson 22 $1,119,563
Rookie minimum FA $1,119,563 Livingston 20 $1,119,563 Livingston 20 $1,119,563
(empty) (empty) (empty)
Total $182,793,999 Total $182,793,999 Total $182,027,526
Second Apron $182,794,000 Second Apron $182,794,000 Second Apron $182,794,000

In option one, you can see that the largest amount of the TPMLE the Bucks can spend without crossing the second apron is just under $3.7m. However, they’d need to fill that last roster spot with a third rookie in order to get up to fourteen. Not great, Bob. If they’d like to use some of the MLE and also add a veteran free agent on a minimum as shown in option two, the Bucks could only spend up to around $2.8m. They might as well just sign two vets to a minimum and gain a very tiny amount of breathing room as in option three. Signing A.J. Green to a standard contract for his second season would save them a couple hundred thousand bucks versus signing a veteran.

All in all, Lopez and Middleton making a combined $54.5m next year plus Crowder’s return mean the taxpayer midlevel exception is barely an option for the Bucks on the free agency market right now. Furthermore, they seem destined to stick with a fourteen-player roster if they want to stay under the second apron, and is adding one last minimum really worth inching over it? I don’t think so.

What free agents are still out there?

Not many! With all the bigger-name guys gone, the available names among vets are generally average role players or ring chasers. There are some intriguing young players who might take a minimum to join a winning team, but it seems unwise to bet on those guys really popping to be rotation players. Still, let’s have a look at some names and where the holes are currently on the roster.

With Jevon Carter heading “south of the border” to Chicago, the Bucks have a glaring need in the backcourt behind Jrue Holiday. Joe Ingles’ flight to Orlando further depletes Milwaukee’s corps of playmakers, so barring a reunion with Goran Dragic, this should be their focus. Eric named (get it?) Kendrick Nunn as a potential fit in the backcourt. Nunn has plenty of experience running offenses and flashed lots of scoring potential early in his career, making him a great option on a minimum.

I’ll add Holiday’s brother Aaron and former Grizzly Kennedy Chandler to that group. The youngest Holiday looked promising in his early years with a floor of a good backup point guard, but he’s fallen deeper into benches while bouncing around the league the past two years. Perhaps the 27-year-old can rejuvenate his career under his big brother’s tutelage. Memphis waived Chandler for some reason as the regular season ended, but the 2022 early second-rounder will be just 21 next year and isn’t far removed from a promising freshman season at Tennessee.

Since you can never have enough shooting and the Bucks regularly don’t have enough in the postseason, three-point specialists are worth looking at, eminently attainable on minimums at this time of year. The Bucks made an offer to veteran guard Eric Gordon which would have likely been a minimum deal, but he picked the Suns. They’re also apparently interested in former Laker Malik Beasley and former King Terence Davis (according to Michael Scotto and echoed by Nehm). Davis would be reuniting with Adrian Griffin, his former assistant coach from his years in Toronto. Rodney McGruber is also available.

With a full year of action rather than just eighteen regular season games, Crowder should assume Ingles’ minutes moving between the forward spots, but this is an area I’d like to see Milwaukee add some depth. There are a couple ways they could address this; if they like defense and athleticism, former Bulls Derrick Jones Jr. and Javonte Green are solid choices. Jones, 26, doesn’t shoot well but is hard to stop going to the rim where he routinely makes athletic finishes. The 30-year-old Green shoots a bit better but is coming off an injury-marred season. Either guy could pitch in on the perimeter, and though they’re both undersized for the forward spots at 6’5” and 6’4”, respectively, they can definitely guard up.

Marquette alum Juan Toscano-Anderson and Stanley Johnson are other defensive options for the deep bench. They both were recently in some winning situations in Golden State and Los Angeles two years ago but got buried on their new teams’ benches last season. I like Justise Winslow as a combo forward who can defend and take on some ballhandling roles. Back in his Miami days, he looked like a productive point forward, so something like a poor man’s Joe Ingles that can’t shoot but is more athletic and younger. Jaylen Nowell, Kevin Knox, and Romeo Langford are other flyers they could take on the wing, all about to turn 24. Older options are T.J. Warren if prefer offense and another year with Wesley Matthews if you prefer defense.

They could also look for more size up front with JaMychal Green, who has been a solid reserve on contending teams for the past several seasons. He still can shoot it and does great work on the boards. The name I like most, though, is Trendon Watford, waived by Portland on Friday ostensibly for financial reasons. If he clears waivers, the 6’9” 240 pound LSU alum would be a great development undertaking for Milwaukee. But it’s not like he hasn’t shown he belongs in the NBA after averaging 7.4 PPG, 3.8 RPG, and 2.1 APG on a shooting line of .560/.391/.720 over 62 games (19.1 MPG) last year. Defensively he’s a mixed bag, but his size and athleticism make him profile well. Blazer’s Edge has a good deep dive on Watford here.

One more big might be a good idea too, and returning Meyers Leonard wouldn’t be the worst option. His shooting and screen-setting may be tools Griffin wants to employ more often, even as a deep reserve. The only names that stick out between the Biyombos and Dedmons of the veteran 5s are Mo Bamba and Omer Yurtseven. Both are 25 and showed flashes of high-level play on their respective Florida teams, though Bamba obviously moreso. He’s added a reliable three-point shot in recent seasons and is a great shot blocker, so some corners of the fanbase have been interested in him for years. Of all the names I’ve listed, though, he seems the least likely to take a minimum deal.

How about a trade?

This might be the only way the Bucks could create enough room under the second apron to use the full TPMLE. Since most of the options available seem gettable on minimums, though, trading out some salary and taking less—or none—in return for the main purpose of being able to use the TPMLE doesn’t seem worth it. Still, a cost-cutting move would make things easier for midseason moves, and they could land a new contributor while doing it.

Bearing in mind that Milwaukee’s newest contracts won’t be tradeable—and they’re both very tradeable, should they look to acquire a star talent down the line—until well into the season, let’s refer back to some of the potential deals I mentioned last week. However, with the nearly $60m in salary added since, I’m going to focus on some in which Milwaukee will be sending out more salary than they acquire:

Trade Targets

Player Age Team Fit 2023–24 Salary Seasons Remaining Possible Outgoing Salary Possible Outgoing Picks
Player Age Team Fit 2023–24 Salary Seasons Remaining Possible Outgoing Salary Possible Outgoing Picks
Alec Burks 31 Detroit Playmaking wing $10.4m 1 Portis
Alex Caruso 29 Chicago Defensive combo guard $9.4m 2 Connaughton or Portis Two seconds
Cole Anthony 23 Orlando Shot-creating PG $5.5m 1 Allen Two seconds
Collin Sexton 24 Utah Shot-creating PG $17.3m 3 Allen + Portis, Allen + Connaughton, Allen + Beauchamp + Portis Multiple firsts/swaps/seconds
De'Andre Hunter 25 Atlanta 3 & D forward $20.0m 4 Allen + Beauchamp + Portis Multiple firsts/swaps/seconds
Delon Wright 31 Washington Versatile combo guard $8.1m 1 Any of Allen, Connaughton, or Portis One second
Dorian Finney Smith 30 Brooklyn Defensive forward $13.9m 3 Allen + Portis Two seconds
Gary Harris 28 Orlando 3 & D wing $13.0m 1 Allen + Connaughton One second
Jae'Sean Tate 27 Houston Versatile wing $6.5m 2 Allen Two seconds
Kenrich Williams 28 Oklahoma City Versatile forward $6.1m 4 Allen Two seconds or a first
Kevin Porter Jr. 23 Houston Playmaking wing $15.8m 4 Beauchamp + Portis or Allen + Portis One second
Larry Nance Jr. 30 New Orleans Versatile big $10.3m 2 Portis Two seconds
Maxi Kleber 31 Dallas 3 & D big $11.0m 3 Portis
Norman Powell 30 LA Clippers 3 & D wing $18.0m 3 Allen + Portis Both seconds or a first
T.J. McConnell 31 Indiana Versatile PG $8.7m 2 Any of Allen, Connaughton, or Portis One second
Terry Rozier 29 Charlotte Shot-creating PG $23.2m 3 Allen + Connaughton + Portis Both seconds or a first
Tyus Jones 27 Washington Playmaking PG $14.0m 1 Allen + Connaughton Both seconds

With one of my favorite targets (Monte Morris) traded for cap relief in a deal that Milwaukee couldn’t match, I still think linking up with Washington for one of their other point guards is a capital idea (forgive the pun). They’ll probably prefer to keep the recently-acquired Jones, but Wright’s size, length, shooting, defense, and playmaking chops seem like a perfect fit in the Bucks’ backcourt. On a cheaper deal too.

There still are a few bigger names on this list who Milwaukee could acquire and save money, but a three-for-one deal would have the drawback of opening two roster spots. Even with the savings, filling those with minimums and staying under the second apron may not be possible. Still, among the targets who would likely jump into a starting role for Milwaukee immediately, I like Norman Powell the best.

Tomorrow is Independence Day in the US, but that didn’t stop Kevin Durant from announcing he was going to Golden State in the middle of everyone’s BBQ, so if anything further happens on the holiday, we’ll be on it. In the meantime, how would you like the Bucks to fill their remaining roster spots while staying under the second apron? Or should they just say screw it and pull a Phoenix, steamrolling past it? Let me know in the comments.