Offseason Outlook: Milwaukee Bucks

June 12 at 10:06am CST By Chuck Myron

Guaranteed Contracts

Options

  • None

Non-Guaranteed Contracts

Free Agents / Cap Holds

Draft Picks

  • 1st Round (2nd overall)
  • 2nd Round (31st overall)
  • 2nd Round (36th overall)
  • 2nd Round (48th overall)

Cap Outlook

Guaranteed Salary: $45,080,919
Options: $0
Non-Guaranteed Salary: $1,830,486
Cap Holds: $23,613,156
Total: $70,524,561

Former Bucks owner Herb Kohl probably didn’t walk away with many regrets when he sold the team to Wesley Edens and Marc Lasry this spring for $550MM, a record haul for an NBA franchise until Steve Ballmer agreed to pony up $2 billion for the Clippers. Edens and Lasry agreed not to move the team from Milwaukee as a condition of the sale. They also matched the former owner’s $100MM pledge toward the construction of a new arena, helping preserve Kohl’s legacy in Wisconsin, the state he represented in the Senate for 24 years. Still, the Bucks team Kohl leaves behind is a shambles, and the owner’s steadfast commitment to remaining competitive for a playoff spot rather than embarking on a rebuilding project toward loftier goals leaves the club with grim prospects for the future.

Kohl apparently didn’t mean for his tenure as owner to end this way, and he was reportedly so incensed with GM John Hammond this past season that executives around the league figured he would have fired Hammond had he not sold the team. It seems the club’s new ownership is split on committing to Hammond, coach Larry Drew and assistant GM David Morway. Lasry told Gery Woelfel of The Journal Times that all three would return next season while Edens declined to make such a promise. Edens has guaranteed Hammond’s job only through the draft, ostensibly putting pressure on the GM to prove his worth in the next few weeks.

Hammond and the Bucks had middling luck in the lottery, failing to land the No. 1 overall pick but winding up closer to the top than to No. 4, the lowest selection Milwaukee could have ended up with. That means the team is in line for one of Joel Embiid, Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker, widely hailed as the three most prominent stars of the draft. The Bucks are also reportedly high on Dante Exum, but with Hammond’s uncertain future, the chances that Milwaukee would take a chance on the Australian guard seem even more remote than such a surprise pick otherwise would be.

The embattled GM may also elect to make his mark with a significant trade, and it seems as though Larry Sanders is available and drawing interest from the Kings. Another report suggested the Mavericks are in the mix, too, though dealing Sanders at this point would be a case of selling low. The center was a game-changing defensive force during 2012/13, earning a four-year, $44MM extension. The move looks like a mistake now, after a season in which Sanders missed time because of a broken hand he suffered in a nightclub brawl, received a drug suspension, and spent the final month sidelined with a broken orbital bone. Still, the extension seemed like a fair deal at the time. It remains to be seen whether the next four years for Sanders will entail more of the shortcomings of this past season or the vast improvement he showed the year before. Unless a team is willing to place an overwhelming bet that Sanders will repeat or outdo his most productive season, Hammond need not compound his troubles by trading Sanders at the wrong time.

Hammond has plenty of other options for a trade should he seek one. A report from February cast Brandon Knight, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton as the only untouchables on the roster, but presumably the right offer could pry at least Knight and Middleton from Milwaukee. The Kings have reportedly shown interest in Knight, so perhaps the market for the 2011 eighth overall pick, still just 22 years old, will be robust enough to give Hammond some intriguing options. If not, he’ll face a decision about whether to grant Knight a rookie scale extension this summer or let him hit restricted free agency in a year. Middleton is a former second-round pick, and since he’s only on a three-year contract, he can’t sign an extension. His salary for next season won’t be guaranteed until August, but Hammond almost certainly won’t be waiving him to pocket what would be a savings of less than $1MM. Middleton’s 41.4% three-point shooting this season figures to make him attractive to potential trade partners in a market that’s light on shooters.

Antetokounmpo started just 23 games and averaged 6.8 points as a rookie this past season, but the flashes of brilliance that the “The Greek Freak,” still just 19 years old, displayed are enough to compel Hammond to hang on to the gem he unearthed with the 15th pick last June. It’s difficult at this point to assess just what he’ll accomplish in his career, so he seems as reasonable to label an untouchable as anyone on the Bucks.

The ownership change might allow Hammond to deal a player whose name has perhaps been in more trade rumors than any other on the roster the past two seasons. Kohl reportedly saw Ersan Ilyasova as a star in the making, no doubt helping forestall any trade that sent him away. The Rockets reportedly had interest in a trade involving Ilyasova and Omer Asik, the sort of swap that might allow the Bucks to more easily stomach a deal involving Sanders or John Henson. If nothing else, it would clear some salary for next season, as Asik is entering the final year of his contract, while Ilyasova makes $7.9MM in guaranteed salary each season through 2015/16.

The Bucks have more than $45MM in commitments for next season, not counting the No. 2 pick, and they have more than $32MM tied up for 2015/16. There’s wiggle room for them to add a free agent on an eight-figure annual salary this summer. If the Bucks exercise restraint this year, they can accommodate a maximum-salary free agent in 2015. Of course, max salary free agents aren’t exactly clamoring to go to Milwaukee, so perhaps using the cap flexibility to make trades or to sign players to fungible, short-term contracts makes the most sense. Even a long-term deal for an intriguing middle-tier free agent would help if its along the lines of the team’s four-year, $32MM offer sheet to Jeff Teague last summer, one that the Hawks decided to match. Teague’s performance in the playoffs this year demonstrated his value and helped make Hammond’s case as a keen judge of talent, even if the point guard didn’t ultimately wind up in Milwaukee.

Teague’s deal makes a lot more sense than the one that the Bucks gave to another Hawk. Zaza Pachulia‘s three-year, $15.6MM contract stood as a symbol of the team’s stubborn commitment to mediocrity. It’s unclear just how much Kohl had to do with that signing, as much as his fingerprints seemed to be on it, but presuming Hammond is around this summer and Edens and Lasry give their blessing to a more patient approach, it’ll be interesting to see the choices the GM makes.

The new owners no doubt have little sentimentality about the Andrew Bogut trade and what happens with Ekpe Udoh, the last remaining player of the three the Bucks acquired in the swap that sent away the 2005 No. 1 overall pick. Bogut fell short of the lofty expectations that surround top picks, but Udoh, the sixth overall selection in 2010, has been a more profound disappointment. He averaged a career-low 3.4 points per game this season, and while his qualifying offer is lower than it would have been, since he didn’t meet the starter criteria, $4,268,609 still seems too much to lay out for Udoh, who’s already 27 years old. It seems likely that the Bucks will decline to tender his qualifying offer, making him an unrestricted free agent.

The Bucks probably have enough firepower to make the playoffs next season, provided the Eastern Conference stays weak, Sanders returns to form, Antetokounmpo, Middleton and other young players continue to improve, and the No. 2 pick contributes in a significant way. That’s a lot of hypotheticals, but the most significant unknown involves the front office and Hammond’s reaction to the pressure placed on him. Most GMs in his position would scramble to make moves that benefit the short term, the very sort of strategy that put the Bucks in the poor position in which they find themselves. While other harried executives strain to make the playoffs, Hammond’s best moves might be those that, at first, make his team no better.

Cap footnotes

* — Middleton’s salary becomes fully guaranteed if he’s not waived on or before August 1st.

ShamSports and Larry Coon’s Salary Cap FAQ were used in the creation of this post.

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