As the Milwaukee Bucks face up to a challenging offseason, their best strategy remains to trust in those who made this season such a success.
Under four weeks away from the start of free agency, there’s a chance that arguably the most successful Milwaukee Bucks team since 1974 could be set for an immediate overhaul.
Khris Middleton is a virtual certainty to opt out of the final year of his current deal and become a free agent. Fresh off the back of his first All-Star season, the timing couldn’t be any better for his prospects of a big pay day.
Brook Lopez will also be in line for a pay rise, having thrived on what may well have been the NBA’s best value deal last season and helped to reinvent Milwaukee’s style of play.
Malcolm Brogdon heads into the summer as a restricted free agent, meaning the Bucks can at least have some control over his destination. Still, they can’t control the price he might fetch following a 50-40-90 season and a stellar return from injury in the playoffs.
Hanging over all of this, of course, is the future of Giannis Antetokounmpo. With his most recent All-NBA selection, Antetokounmpo has qualified for the super-max, and will be eligible to sign one of the richest deals in NBA history next summer.
On that front, keeping Antetokounmpo happy is essential for Milwaukee’s chances of long-term success, but actually doing so is undoubtedly more challenging.
There are times when change is for the best, even if players will bristle at the thought of losing trusted teammates. If the end result is greater success, those wounds undoubtedly heal over in time. If proof of this needed, look no further than Kyle Lowry and the Toronto Raptors thriving in the Finals without DeMar DeRozan.
Still, Antetokounmpo was largely unambiguous when approached for his thoughts on the subject during the team’s exit interviews.
You’re likely not online (and therefore not reading this) if you haven’t come across reactions in articles and on social media suggesting this particular Bucks squad doesn’t have what it takes to win a championship in the future. That idea is preposterous in its own right considering they were 2-0 up in the Conference Finals just a couple of weeks ago. But still, let’s parse out that idea and what the consequences of that approach would actually be.
If after 60 wins and a deep playoff run, Jon Horst and the Bucks’ brain trust already believed they’d seen enough from this group, they’d face an even more challenging free agency period.
There may be dream scenarios where Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant or Klay Thompson decide they want to play for the Bucks this summer, but for the moment, they remain dreams and dreams that would require taking major risks to meaningfully pursue them.
As it is, the Bucks are staring down the possibility of being a luxury tax team next season, and are certainly going to be over the salary cap once again. That’s the most important starting point for any consideration of what Milwaukee’s best options are this summer, as it rapidly narrows the range of fantasy possibilities that you may find being thrown out on Twitter.
Without falling too far down the salary cap hole, the Bucks have the ability to go deep into the tax to re-sign all of their free agents this summer, if they wish. If that was the approach they opted to take, the sequencing of the deals would become important, but it’s only in play as Milwaukee holds Bird rights for Middleton, Brogdon and Mirotic.
In other words, the Bucks will be able to pay out significantly more money this summer if they opt to bring back their core players than they will if they decide against that approach. An early offer sheet from a rival team for Brogdon could complicate that from a timing perspective, so don’t be surprised if the Bucks try to wrap up an agreement with Brogdon the moment free agency officially opens, as they have done with Middleton and Tony Snell in the past.
With Eric Bledsoe‘s extension already locked in, and Antetokounmpo on the books and hopefully set to see a major pay rise soon, the Bucks aren’t exactly dealing in the realm of cap space as it is. The Bucks have $70.7 million guaranteed this summer, meaning they could have up to $38.3 million to spend below the projected cap but would have to fill nine roster spots in that scenario.
In considering how the Bucks improve for next season, or at least maintain a similar, very high standard, it should also be noted that Milwaukee desperately lacks appealing trade assets, meaning that presents as an unlikely way to complete an upgrade of any sort.
In fact, on that front, Milwaukee’s best path to attaining assets that could be of interest to other teams may well be to bring key free agents back. Re-signing doesn’t necessarily mean any of those players will see out the full term of their contract with the Bucks, and if bigger deals were on the table in the future, players such as Middleton and Brogdon in their prime and under contract would be much more appealing options to dangle than anything Milwaukee would have if they were to let them go.
That’s been part of Milwaukee’s difficulty over the past year, as even when major stars have become available, they didn’t have the caliber of players under contract to make for even the very basic elements of a package.
When conversation focuses around whether Khris Middleton is good enough to be a second option on a championship team, for example, that larger point is so often missed.
The answer to that question could certainly be a no, but equally significant is the fact that the Bucks already know they can be really good with him, and that he could be a useful chip down the line if they did need to push for an upgrade.
The Bucks may well need to improve to win a championship and meet all of Antetokounmpo’s goals over the coming years, but what they certainly can’t afford to do before then is to take a major step backwards.
Retaining core players — at the very least, the other starters (Middleton, Brogdon, Lopez) — is the most reliable route of avoiding such a fate, barring a bolt from the blue superstar signing or improbable sign-and-trade.