Big issue: It’s a sad state of affairs that, coming off the fifth 60-win season in franchise history and the first appearance in the conference finals since 2001, attention after the Bucks’ Game 6 loss to Toronto quickly turned to the future of star Giannis Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee.
Antetokounmpo has never given any indication he is not happy with the Bucks. He is a favorite to win the league’s MVP award and the cornerstone of a franchise led by one of the league’s best coaches and front offices. Oh, and he’s still under contract for two more seasons. What more could he want?
But a look at the elite players of the league shows that the Bucks have some cause for concern about whether their star will remain in town. Teams that draft a star player get him under contract for the length of his rookie deal (four years), then are in good position to re-sign him for a second contract (usually five years, but with a player option after four).
Trouble very often begins to bubble up shortly ahead of the third contract, and that’s when more stars leave than stay put. This past NBA season was the perfect example, defined as it was by Anthony Davis wanting out of New Orleans well ahead of his free agency more than anything else.
Look, too, at the All-NBA teams: Of the 15 players on the three teams, four (LeBron James, James Harden, Kevin Durant, Paul George) signed third contracts that were not with the team that drafted them, and Kawhi Leonard and Kyrie Irving will make Nos. 5 and 6 this summer. Kemba Walker could be the seventh if he leaves Charlotte in July.
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Of the other eight players, five have not come up for their third-year deals yet. Only three – Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook and Blake Griffin (who was traded shortly thereafter) – re-signed a third contract with the team that drafted them. Damian Lillard will make four should he sign an extension this summer as expected.
That’s 11 stars, with probably seven gone by the third contract and four re-signing the third contract. That does not count the Davis saga, either. Two of the three players who signed third contracts with their drafting teams, Curry and Griffin, did so in big markets. Westbrook is the only bright spot for small-market teams that want to draft and keep their stars over the long haul.
The Bucks, though, could not have done much more to this point to ensure that Antetokounmpo stays in Milwaukee. New owners Wes Edens and Marc Lasry took over in 2014 and pushed through a remarkable new downtown arena, upgrading the facilities across the board. They brought in a potential Coach of the Year, Mike Budenholzer. They have been aggressive with the checkbook when it comes to adding to the roster.
Antetokounmpo can sign a supermax extension next summer. There’s no reason to think he wants to leave Milwaukee, not with the way things have gone on and off the floor. The big obstacle the Bucks have is recent history among other star players in small markets.
While Antetokounmpo has always been unique among NBA stars, making sure he is happy is still something the Bucks will be nervously focused on.
Free-agent outlook: This is where all that good feeling for Antetokounmpo and the Bucks engendered by this season could go entirely sideways. Milwaukee has five players eligible for free agency, and each had an impact on this team over the course of the season and the playoffs: guards Khris Middleton, Malcolm Brogdon and George Hill, center Brook Lopez and forward Nikola Mirotic.
Middleton will command the most money and will be a target of multiple teams with cap space. He is eligible for a five-year, $190 million max deal from the Bucks or a four-year, $140 million deal from another team. He was an All-Star this year, and though he could be an inconsistent shooter, he is an ideal complement to Antetokounmpo. The Bucks figure to pay him something near the max.
That sets up some difficult choices thereafter. Brogdon had an excellent year and should get something in the range of four years, $70 million. As a restricted free agent, Milwaukee can match any offer he receives, and if the Bucks hand out a big deal to Middleton (after already giving Eric Bledsoe a $70 million extension in March), you have to wonder how much Milwaukee wants to invest in another wing, even one as solid all around as Brogdon.
Milwaukee does not want to lose Brogdon, but it has three young wings – Sterling Brown, Pat Connaughton and Donte DiVincenzo – in which it has invested. It might make sense to save the money if another team comes in with a hefty offer.
Problem is, the Bucks are not set up to invest in the other guy they really need to keep – Lopez. He resurrected his value this season as a two-way player after signing a scant, one-year, $3.4 million contract last summer, but in doing so, the team does not have his Bird rights and would need to use cap space to sign him.
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The Bucks would have to renounce free agents to create that space, and given the way Lopez played – he made 187 3-pointers, 17th in the league and the most of any center in the NBA – he could well command a short-term deal that the Bucks can’t afford even after renouncing everyone else. And renouncing everyone else means Brogdon is gone.
Mirotic could be a backup plan for losing Lopez. Mirotic played a bit of center in Milwaukee and could take on Lopez’s offensive role, though he would not be as imposing a presence around the basket. The Bucks may have a choice of keeping Lopez or keeping both Mirotic and Brogdon. They can’t keep all three.
Hill, because his contract is not guaranteed, is all but gone. He was a very important and steadying influence on the team in the playoffs, but the Bucks will have to search out a new backup point guard.
Of course, this all could turn sideways quickly if Middleton decides he’s done with Milwaukee and signs elsewhere. Or maybe the Bucks can create more wiggle room by packaging a young player or future asset with the two years, $24 million remaining on Tony Snell’s contract.
That’s a longshot, however. It’s likely that the Bucks are looking at some hard choices this summer, and with Antetokounmpo up for the supermax in 2020, these decisions will be critical.
The young folks: You might think of Brown as a young guy, but he’s already 24, just a few months younger than Antetokounmpo. That’s something.
The youngest Buck is DiVincenzo, who had some promising moments early in the year – 15 points against Orlando followed by 12 points and eight rebounds against Toronto in back-to-back games in late October. But he battled a heel injury throughout the year, and even as he tried to come back multiple times, he could not stay healthy.
The numbers were underwhelming: 27 games, 4.9 points, 40.3 percent shooting, 26.5 percent from the 3-point line. DiVincenzo was a very good cutter to the rim and finished well around the basket, but he needs to be a much, much better perimeter shooter, especially if he gets a bumped-up role should Brogdon leave.
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The other youngster of interest is D.J. Wilson, who had some very bright moments after looking out of his depth in his first NBA season. Wilson was a non-factor in the playoffs, but back in the early hunk of the season, Wilson showed that he can be the stretch-4 the Bucks thought they were drafting the previous year, averaging 5.6 points and 4.5 rebounds in 18.2 minutes before the All-Star break, shooting 37.5 percent from the 3-point line.
It’s almost impossible to figure that the Bucks bring back both Mirotic and Lopez, and that means minutes and opportunities should open for Wilson. He will be a third-year guy and primed for a big step forward. He’d ease a lot of Milwaukee’s worries if that happens.
The Bucks will keep their draft pick this year but will likely have to send off next year’s pick to Phoenix as a result of the Bledsoe trade. It’s top-seven protected for 2020, and if the Bucks are in the top seven next year, that means something went very wrong.
Wait till next year: The Bucks will need to make changes. They won’t find the kind of bargain they got with Lopez last year, and they’re going to lose some of their veteran help. They should keep Middleton, a core piece, as well as another free agent, maybe two at most.
From there, they’ll have to scour the ranks for players who fit Budenholzer’s system, and Budenholzer will have to adjust to what he has on the roster. They’ll have to give some auditions to the youngsters and see what they have.
But the Bucks have established themselves as a contender, and with Antetokounmpo in the middle of it all, that’s not going to change. They just need to ensure that he remains in the middle of it all, long-term.