The NBA is a crazy league, and the 2019 offseason has been one for the ages. Kawhi Leonard: a Clipper, along with Paul George. Chris Paul: a Houston Rocket no more, sent to Oklahoma City in exchange for Russell Westbrook. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving are Nets, DeMarcus Cousins is a Laker (along with LeBron James and Anthony Davis), Jimmy Butler took his talents to South Beach, Al Horford joined up with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons in Philly, and Kemba Walker took a trip up to Beantown.
By that standard, the Milwaukee Bucks have been downright boring! But that was the plan all along; the goal was always to retain as much of the 60-win team from 2018-19, and keep the NBA’s MVP (Giannis Antetokounmpo) in charge of the Eastern Conference. By and large, Jon Horst has been able to do that, by re-signing Khris Middleton (made official just yesterday), Brook Lopez, and George Hill, while adding Robin Lopez (fun!), Wesley Matthews (cool!), and Thanasis Antetokounmpo (…okay!). The only surprise of the summer was the sign-and-trade of Malcolm Brogdon to the Indiana Pacers, but the Bucks recouped some draft capital in the exchange, allowing them to move forward with some flexibility (though not as much as if they had managed to keep the traded player exception from the Brogdon trade.)
Because the Bucks used cap space to re-sign Brook Lopez and George Hill (made possible only by stretching Jon Leuer and renouncing the ~$10M TPE from the Brogdon S&T), and the room mid-level exception to sign Robin Lopez, and the veteran’s minimum exception for Wes Matthews and Thanasis Antetokounmpo, and Bird Rights to re-sign Khris Middleton, the Bucks are not hard capped at the tax apron line and are only able to offer veteran minimum contracts for the rest of the season.
Here’s how things stand on the salary side of things as we exit the frenzy that is early July:
So far, Milwaukee’s roster is built largely how we expected. Middleton got his near-max, both Brook Lopez and Hill took slightly below-market salary (relative to their contributions) in exchange for additional years, Robin Lopez accepted the room mid-level (which was roughly market-rate), and the rest of the roster is being filled out with minimum-level deals (Matthews, Thanasis, and the rest to be determined).
Many will point to the team’s lack of a hard cap constraint and admonish the Bucks (or more specifically, the ownership group) for allowing Malcolm Brogdon to leave rather than shelling out the $20+M it would take to retain him long-term. After all, while imperfect, he was the team’s best shooting guard and one of the most efficient players in the league. He also would have taken the Bucks deep into the luxury tax in 2019-20 (about $15M above the line), which would put the Bucks in a difficult position in the years to come. Let’s take an estimated look at the future, thanks to Frank Madden’s always stellar work keeping us informed:
The remainder of the team’s core (Giannis, Middleton, Brook, and Bledsoe) are all under contract through 2022-23. Only Bledsoe’s final year is partially guaranteed (ditto for George Hill, who just finished a contract with a partial guarantee on the last year and signed another one), and those four players take up a ton of space. As is, the quartet of Giannis/Khris/Brook/Bledsoe will be paid $90+M (est. 77% of the cap!) next year, $110+M (est. 88% of the cap!) in 22-23, and $118+M (est. 90% of the cap!) in 23-24. None of us expect the Bucks to operate under the cap anytime soon, but those figures are jarring enough as it is before adding Malcolm Brogdon’s cap hit to the books.
It isn’t the salary cap that really matters when you’re maintaining a contender, though. It’s the luxury tax, and the Bucks are all but guaranteed to pay it for the foreseeable future…after this season. By retaining about $7M in wiggle room below the tax line, Milwaukee is able to stave off the dreaded repeater tax for an additional season, making it so the team is really paying into it when it counts the most. Now, that’s not my money, or your money, but it is ownership’s money, and since they’re ultimately approving these decisions, they care deeply about the costs and benefits of those decisions. This isn’t to excuse letting Brogdon walk, to be clear, just to define the environment that Horst and company are working within.
This is the Bucks team that we’ll be rooting for, both now and for the foreseeable future. I have no doubt that the front office will consistently and reliably search for improving on the margins, and be willing to use any/every tool they can manage in order to create a successful program that will entice Giannis to re-sign next summer. That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?