So many questions. So few answers. That’s true for the entire NBA this offseason, but no team faces a more critical summer, er winter, than the Milwaukee Bucks. The back-to-back regular season champs have zero NBA Finals trophies (or even appearances) to show for their October through April domination in each of the past two years.
After falling painfully short in consecutive postseason appearances, Milwaukee appears to be on the verge of a re-calibration in the midst of a championship contending run—a dangerous proposition to say the least. Let’s take a look at all the decisions the Bucks face before tipping-off next season.
Mike Budenholzer’s job as head coach is reportedly safe, but it’s unlikely he’ll survive another disappointing postseason campaign. After dominating the regular season by winning nearly 75 percent of their games with a five-out offensive scheme and a protect the rim at all costs defensive blueprint, his team flamed out in two consecutive playoff appearances; raising the questions about his inability to adapt to eardrum shattering levels.
Budenholzer will probably spend the majority of the offseason (however long) concocting a new style of play on both ends of the court. Or at least alternatives to his primary schemes. Whatever he comes up with will risk lowering their regular season ceiling with the hopes of raising their playoff potential. His job in Milwaukee will depend on what he brews up in his office.
Giannis Antetokounmpo Extension
We know Giannis Antetokounmpo is eligible to sign the supermax this offseason. We know the Bucks are going to offer it to him. We know COVID and the salary cap have made this murky situation even muddier.
Whether Antetokounmpo will accept the extension is anybody’s best guess (if he’s smart he’ll decline and wait to see what happens with the salary cap while simultaneously putting pressure on the organization to immediately improve). Whatever his decision is it will probably have little correlation to his long-term future in Milwaukee as counter-intuitive as that may sound. If he declines, expect the already rampant rumors to get even more out of control. If he accepts, Bucks’ fans will finally be free of the never-ending rumors from opposing teams’ fans and aggregators.
Eric Bledsoe’s Future
Eric Bledsoe laid an egg for the third straight postseason, cementing his status as a very good regular season point guard whose game doesn’t translate well to a team with championship aspirations in the playoffs. Defenses are able to completely ignore him on the perimeter while mucking up driving lanes for his teammates. And Bledsoe wasn’t able to do enough with the rock in his hands—either as a driver, scorer or playmaker for others—to offset that lack of defensive attention.
He’s the obvious player at the top of the roster the Bucks would like to move on from to upgrade the team around Antetokounmpo. That’s easier said than done. For starters, there aren’t many point guards in the NBA as a whole who are better than Bledsoe (maybe 10-15?) so they risk downgrading talent at an extremely crucial position. Then, which of those guys are available? Maybe Chris Paul and Jrue Holiday? Here’s a non-exhaustive list of 11 potentially available point guards—most of whom are not an upgrade and the others whom would be extremely costly to acquire—to give you an idea what Milwaukee is dealing with this offseason.
Improving The Roster
Speaking about improving the roster, that appears to be general manager Jon Horst’s number one task this winter. How he does that is anybody’s best guess, as Horst just bet on his core and locked up Bledsoe, Brook Lopez, Khris Middleton and George Hill to multi-year deals one long offseason ago.
Horst will likely have to get creative and explore at multiple team trades, attaching future assets or even the positions and players he’s looking to acquire. A lot of it will depend on Budenholzer’s willingness to adapt his schemes. If Bud ditches the drop coverage defense he’s implemented the last two seasons, Lopez becomes a lot more expendable, as he’s vulnerable as a big man who can’t spend entire defensive possessions roaming the paint. The general manager and head coach must work in conjunction to build a team that’s better equipped to exploit the opposition come playoff time.
Trade For Chris Paul
The most popular route to improve the team is to trade for Chris Paul who had a resurgent season as a 35-year-old floor general for the Oklahoma City Thunder. Paul would be a great fit for the Bucks, as he’s a master of the pick-and-roll, can create his own shots, lifts his teammates to new heights and is hungry for the championship that has eluded him his entire career.
He does come with risks, however, as he will be 36-years-old before next season ends, has an injury history and he’s owed $41.4 million in 2020-21 with a player option for $44.2 million the following year, creating difficult financial decisions for the ownership.
Who the Bucks have to give up for Paul is another topic of discussion. If they can get away with just trading Bledsoe, Ersan Ilyasova, Robin Lopez and D.J. Wilson (as this ESPN article speculates) it’s a no brainer for Horst and company. However, if they have to attach other assets such as draft picks or Donte DiVincenzo, the trade becomes a lot more costly. They also figure to have competition in the New York Knicks and Philadelphia 76ers which could raise the price even higher.
Decisions, decisions, decisions. Horst and the front office will definitely have their work cut out for them, not only with decisions about external candidates to bring onto the team, but also about players currently on the roster. From player options to restricted free agents, to guaranteed money to unrestricted free agents, let’s take a look at each player whose contract needs tending.
Robin Lopez: He has a $5 million player option for 2020-21 and it’s tough to say whether Milwaukee prefers him to pick it up or move on. Despite not playing in the playoffs, he was their Joel Embiid insurance plan and that plan could be needed next time around. He could also be used to match salaries such as in the Paul trade mentioned above. On the other hand, do the owners really want to pay a player that much who had no value when it mattered most?
Wes Matthews: He also has a player option, worth $2.7 million, and the Bucks should do everything in their power to convince him to sign it. Matthews was their primary wing defender this season, allowing Middleton to focus on offense and have a career year on that side of the court. Matthews brings toughness and some outside shooting, and for that price, it doesn’t get much better.
Ersan Ilyasova: He has a non-guaranteed $7 million salary for next season which is more complicated than it seems. If Milwaukee guarantees it and trades him, his new team would be forced to pay him his entire salary and can’t then renege on the money. That might be the only scenario the Bucks agree to pay his 2020-21 salary.
Sterling Brown: A restricted free agent, the Bucks are able to match any contract Brown finds in free agency. However, after taking a step back in his third season, it’s unclear what kind of deal he’ll be able to find, especially with the uncertainness surrounding the salary cap and COVID.
Pat Connaughton: An unrestricted free agent, Connaughton’s play was erratic during his two-year Bucks’ tenure. One thing is likely (in a normal free agency, at least), he’s due for a pay raise from the $1.7 million he made this year.
24th Overall Pick
Thanks to last year’s trade of Malcolm Brogdon to the Indiana Pacers, Milwaukee owns the Pacers’ first round pick this year which comes in at 24th overall (it would’ve been a number of spots higher had Indiana not won so much in the bubble!). That gives them an outside shot at acquiring a role player in the future, but also gives them an additional asset to flip in a trade this offseason. As of now, the draft is set to be held on November 18th so there’s still time for Milwaukee to evaluate their options.
Finally, we get to the options the Bucks will have in free agency to upgrade their team. Unless something dramatic happens, Milwaukee will exceed the salary cap in 2020-21 which gives them two primary vehicles to acquire new players; the bi-annual exception and the non-taxpayer mid-level exception.
If you remember, the bi-annual exception is what they used to sign Lopez two years ago and they’re now eligible to use it again. It was worth $3.6 million in 2019-20 which gives them a decent amount of money to attract a free agent with high hopes of joining a championship-caliber team.
The biggest resource they’ll have available is the non-taxpayer mid-level exception which was worth $9.3 million in 2019-20. If they use either of these exceptions, they would hard cap themselves at the cap apron (which was $138.9 million last year) and add yet another layer to their offseason.