30 Teams in 30 Days: Milwaukee Bucks Offseason Preview

The clock isn’t ticking loudly, but it’s ticking nonetheless. Giannis Antetokounmpo still has three years left on his contract, so nobody in Milwaukee is panicking, but capitalizing on Antetokounmpo’s prime is the top priority within the Bucks organization. Already a bonafide superstar at 23, he’s been in MVP conversations, has already made multiple All-NBA teams, and looks to be a lock to earn his way into the supermax criteria in a few years, but Milwaukee is going to have to take steps forward in order to earn his signature come 2021. It’s not an immediate concern, but maximizing the time they have with Antetokounmpo to convince him that the Bucks are the best team for him for the rest of his 20s and beyond hangs over everything they do and every move they make.

Before the summer even really started, Milwaukee already made the biggest move of their offseason. Hiring Mike Budenholzer as their new head coach will make a world of difference on both ends of the floor as he’ll come in with established offensive and defensive systems that can be tweaked for the current Bucks roster. Budenholzer was an immensely successful developmental coach in Atlanta in addition to being an innovative offensive and defensive coach. He drew the reputation of employing an aggressive trapping scheme in pick-and-roll defense and a motion-based, Spurs-like offense during the Hawks’ 60-win season in 2014-15, but his adaptability will be immensely important for a Milwaukee team that has failed with an aggressive defensive scheme in the past. Budenholzer went through multiple defensive and offensive schemes every season and can capably coach any of them, from high-pressure trapping to laying back and protecting the rim and from motion- and ball movement-based offense to a heavy dose of high pick-and-roll.

From a roster standpoint, the Bucks will be absolutely operating over the cap this summer, which somewhat limits their options but gives them enough wiggle room to make some key additions. Given their current financial situation, they should be able to use their full mid-level exception and bi-annual exception, if they so choose, in addition to possibly bringing the injury-riddled and ill-fitting Jabari Parker back into the fold in restricted free agency. I project that they’ll begin July with $101.8 million in salary and dead money on their books after cutting ties with Brandon Jennings and Tyler Zeller and signing their first-round draft pick, which puts them just over the cap but gives Jon Horst and his staff plenty of room under the tax and apron to sign (or re-sign) a few important contributors.

Parker’s free agency will be the biggest storyline in Milwaukee this offseason. Still just 23, Parker’s already torn his ACL twice and missed most of his fourth season before returning for the second half of the season and playoffs in advance of his restricted free agency, but wasn’t particularly impressive in his time back on the court. He’s an intriguing offensive talent who absolutely would have succeeded in a previous era, but the days of an isolation- and post-heavy power forward who can’t space the floor and doesn’t defend at even a passable level are over in today’s NBA. Compounding Parker’s problems this summer is that he’s not the best or even second-best power forward on the restricted market: both Aaron Gordon and Julius Randle will garner offer sheets ahead of Parker. With so little cap space available to teams this summer and Parker further down on the totem pole, the Bucks may be able to get him on a bargain-basement deal for the next few years, simply because he has nowhere else to go. It’s likely that he’ll get an offer from someone and Milwaukee will have the opportunity to match, but it’s not unreasonable to think that he’ll run out of options and return to the team for a contract in the $10-12 million range for two or three seasons to continue to build his value. Signing the qualifying offer to play for one year before becoming an unrestricted free agent won’t be appealing to a player who has had as many injury issues as Parker.

Based on my projections of their roster moves before July starts, they’ll begin $21.2 million from the tax, which should be more than enough to bring back Parker on an 8-figure contract and still use their full mid-level exception ($8.6 million) to bring in a key contributor or two to add to the team’s depth at the wing and big man positions. Putting more shooting around Antetokounmpo will be important for Milwaukee—players like Joe Harris, Doug McDermott (though he’s restricted), James Ennis, and Wayne Ellington would be strong additions to the team and might sign for less than the full MLE, leaving the Bucks room to nab another free agent with the remainder. Adding depth to the center position will largely hinge on what management thinks of Thon Maker, who has excelled in two consecutive playoff runs but sandwiched a down regular season in between, leading to long-term consistency questions. If they’re not convinced of Maker’s potential to be a starting-level center, Brook Lopez would be a fantastic signing and might be available at the mid-level because of the lack of space around the league and the rather large supply of big men looking for new contracts this summer. Aron Baynes doesn’t bring the offensive firepower Lopez does, but showed high-level defense this past season in Boston in a variety of schemes.

Impacting Milwaukee’s decision-making with regards to the tax and apron is Mirza Teletovic’s $3.5 million in dead money, on the Bucks’ books for the next three seasons. In almost every situation, dead money is as dead as it gets; there’s no moving it, teams can’t trade it, it just sits there and eats away at space under the cap, tax, and apron. However, Milwaukee might get some relief in this case, as Teletovic was forced out of the game with a medical retirement related to blood clots he first suffered with the Brooklyn Nets in 2015. Like Chris Bosh before him in Miami, the second instance of blood clots may well prove to be the end of his NBA career, and like the Heat were able to do last year, the Bucks should be able to remove Teletovic’s money from their books. They won’t officially remove his money until a year after his final game, which took place on November 7, 2017, but in terms of their financial planning, that extra $3.5 million will be key to staying under the tax and perhaps using their full bi-annual exception to add another wing in Treveon Graham, Josh Huestis or shooting big man Mike Scott, who has previous experience with Budenholzer in Atlanta.

Note: Team’s luxury tax bills are calculated at the end of each league year, so if the Bucks go over the tax this summer, they can get back under at a later date when Teletovic’s money comes off the books and not be penalized in any way. However, this isn’t the case with the apron, which is triggered whenever a team uses their mid-level exception, bi-annual exception, or acquires a player in sign-and-trade. With regards to the apron, Milwaukee wouldn’t be allowed to cross that line for any reason at any time, even if they were confident that the league would grant them clemency on the Teletovic money later on.

Building around Antetokounmpo to bring shooting and defense to the other positions on the floor is the goal for Milwaukee this offseason and while they’re limited as an over-the-cap team, they’re not nearly as constrained as many other teams with regards to using the full mid-level and bi-annual exceptions, thanks in part to Parker’s injuries and ineffectiveness harming his market value considerably. In a perfect world, Milwaukee will be able to bring back Parker on a light deal and sign a few players in free agency to round out Budenholzer’s new rotation.