[A note before we get into the article: the Milwaukee Bucks offseason preview was going to go up today, June 20, but then the Tony Snell trade news broke late last night, June 19, and moved some things around for Milwaukee and their offseason. As a result, I’ve combined their offseason preview and the analysis of that trade into one article, rather than writing two articles on the same day that overlapped as much as they would have. There’s a few paragraphs on the Detroit Pistons at the bottom of the article, but the majority of it covers how this move affects the Bucks and their upcoming offseason.]
After the blockbuster trade that sent Mike Conley from Memphis to Utah, all was (relatively) quiet on the eve of Thursday’s draft, until news came down from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski that another pre-draft trade had been agreed: Tony Snell and a 2019 first-round pick (No. 30 overall) are to be sent from Milwaukee to Detroit in exchange for Jon Leuer. While this trade doesn’t have the high-end names like Conley or Anthony Davis, it’s still very important for the landscape of the league, particularly because of the Milwaukee Bucks’ involvement and the uncertainty as it pertains to their future after one of the best seasons in franchise history saw them win 60 games and make the conference finals. Detroit was one of the two teams they trounced on their way to the NBA’s final four in a series that was defined by how much of a beatdown it was. Now, for the second time in a few months, the two teams are doing business again, after a midseason trade involving the New Orleans Pelicans brought Nikola Mirotic to Milwaukee and moved Thon Maker to Detroit, among some other players and draft picks changing hands.
Snell has two years left on his contract, assuming he picks up his option for 2020-21, which seems like a pretty safe bet at this point. He’ll make a base salary of $23.5 million over those two years, plus up to $500k in earnable bonuses in each season, $200k of which he did earn this past season with the team success Milwaukee had. The Bucks were actively shopping him and Ersan Ilyasova this offseason to open up additional cap space to re-sign Brook Lopez, who joined the team for very little money last year and is headed for a significant raise this offseason. Detroit was the first to pounce on the opportunity, picking up Snell and a first-round pick in exchange for Leuer, who makes $9.5 million in base salary on the last year of his contract but counts for $9.7 million on Milwaukee’s books due to the bonuses in his contract being deemed likely based on the Bucks’ team success in 2018-19.
From a value perspective, this is a really poor trade for the Bucks. They save about $14 million by moving Snell’s two-year contract for Leuer’s one-year pact, but at the cost of a first-round pick. A first-round pick, in general, is worth about $15 million, though certainly the value of a pick known to be No. 30 is less than an unknown future pick, which could be slightly higher in a future draft. However, taking on $15 million in salary varies from player to player, and the general cost of a first-round pick being $15 million is based on “dead” money, not just total money taken on by a team. Snell’s contract is by no means fully “dead” money; he’s a perfectly fine rotation wing capable of hitting threes in a low-usage role and defending his position well enough. Perhaps his on-court value disappears in the playoffs, but as a regular season rotation wing, he’s worth at least $5 million a year on the open market, lowering the “dead” portion of his contract to roughly $13.5 million. Leuer, on the other hand, played last year for a Detroit team bereft of production at the backup big men spots and still couldn’t get on the floor; his entire $9.7 million cap hit should be treated as “dead” salary, particularly for a Milwaukee team that has competitive aspirations.
Of course, trades don’t happen in a vacuum and are not simply value plays. This trade has ripple effects all the way down the Milwaukee roster, particularly with respect to Lopez, who had a phenomenal season and was a key component of their run to the Eastern Conference Finals. As a result of his small salary in 2018-19, the Bucks won’t be able to bring him back with the Non-Bird Exception, which only allows them to give him a 20 percent raise over his previous salary. Clearly, he’s outplayed that value, leading most to speculate that he would instead be in line for the $9.2 million mid-level exception. However, even that number might not be enough for him; he should have offers on the open market for nearly $15 million; it may take a number like that to keep him in Milwaukee.
Creating $15 million to give to Lopez requires that the Bucks move some salary, starting with this trade, to carve out another few million in space. As things stand right now, Milwaukee will walk into the offseason with $12.4 million in cap space after waiving the partially-guaranteed contract of George Hill and retaining the cap holds for Khris Middleton and Malcolm Brogdon. It’s likely that further moves are coming to open up even more space, whether that’s stretching Hill’s $1 million guarantee to grab another $667k in usable space, stretching Leuer’s $9.5 million base salary to open up another $5.6 million for Lopez or other signings, or another trade to move Leuer or Ilyasova’s money off their books altogether. If things go to plan for Milwaukee, this is just the first of a few moves they can make to clear space for Lopez and perhaps a few million for Hill to come back after he’s let go.
The issue for Milwaukee now is that No. 30 was their best asset to use in a salary dump. Attaching it to Snell in what was a poor value play makes things more difficult on them going forward – they already owe protected first-rounders in 2020 and 2022 to Phoenix and Cleveland, respectively. The protections on the Cleveland pick makes it such that they can’t fully trade a first-round pick until 2026, though they can trade the remaining portions of the picks that are protected from going to Phoenix or Cleveland. They have their own second-rounders in 2022, 2023, and 2026 that they can trade, but overall, the Bucks are very asset poor when it comes to future draft capital.
Creating a three-team trade, as first posited as a theory from Bucks beat writer Matt Velazquez, might be the best way to move Leuer off Milwaukee’s books and create more space for themselves without having to part with further draft picks to do so. The two teams will have time to create a three-team deal during the draft, as Milwaukee can’t consummate the trade as constructed before the draft due to the Stepien Rule and their future draft obligations. The trade works whether the teams do it in this league year or next, as long as it’s after the draft, so we’ll see whether they can rope in a third team to move more money off the Bucks’ books.
Wherever the Bucks end up with their cap space, they should be able to clear enough to bring back Lopez on a deal that matches what the market would be willing to give him. Filling out the rest of their roster with any space that remains, the Room Exception, and minimum contracts will be the next task, though where they have holes in their rotation will depend on the moves they make to clear out the extra space that may or may not be needed to pay Lopez.
The view that this move is a money-saver for the Bucks is technically correct and perhaps explains why they had to part with a first-round pick to make the deal work, but the money they’re saving isn’t just luxury tax savings for ownership. With the market for Lopez producing multiple eight-figure offers, they had to clear this sort of cap space to keep him around; the mid-level exception just wasn’t going to get the job done. As soon as that became obvious to them, the rush to create cap space was on, with Snell and No. 30 as the first casualties of the cause. From a bird’s eye view, the trade accomplishes what was necessary to open up that additional cap space this summer, but there had to be a better way to cut $3.8 million in 2019-20 salary than to part with the best draft asset the Bucks had left in their coffers.
Milwaukee had to open up the additional cap space to bring back Lopez, which made this a necessary move on their part. It’s still a poor value play and poor allocation of their limited resources, but if it becomes a needed part of the larger picture, then it at least accomplishes the more important goal. It’s possible that this was the only move available to them, but given that they were willing to give up a rotation-level wing in Snell and a first-round pick to cut salary and open up cap space, that seems really unlikely. The Bucks are able to open the extra space they need with this move and, from that perspective, this is the right move, but the devil is in the details with the value of this deal, which was decidedly poor for Milwaukee.
For Detroit, a team with no cap space aspirations the next two years, taking on Snell’s extra money is well worth the value they get from another first-round pick in this year’s draft. For now, he’s likely their starting small forward on Opening Night, though perhaps that says more about the dearth of wings on the Detroit roster than it does Snell’s talent level. The Pistons will be declining the team option for Glenn Robinson III as a result of the Snell acquisition, opening up a bit more money below the tax to use their full mid-level exception. Snell will absolutely help the Pistons on the court in a way Leuer absolutely would not have, which gives them the extra bit of value in this deal on top of the first-round pick. Detroit jumping on Snell’s availability and taking advantage of Milwaukee’s willingness to part with No. 30 to get the deal done makes this a fantastic value play for them and one that a number of other teams should have done themselves. There are more than a few teams who will kick themselves for not jumping on Snell and No. 30 and letting that package go to the Pistons for Leuer.
The Pistons aren’t in an extremely different position than they were earlier in the month, when I wrote their offseason preview, but have instead swapped out Snell and No. 30 for Robinson and Leuer and taken on the extra 2020-21 salary that comes with Snell’s contract. They’ll have a bit of extra room under the tax in their current situation versus the previous Leuer-Robinson setup (not to mention that this is an on-court upgrade) and should be able to afford some extra salary after their mid-level exception. About $11.5 million separates them from the tax, a figure that includes Svi Mykhailiuk’s full salary but does not include anything for their own second-round pick at No. 45. It shouldn’t be hard for Detroit to avoid the tax, but it will be close.
All in all, this was a fantastic value play for the Pistons and a necessary move for Milwaukee that was much, much worse than it could have been. There was certainly urgency to get their ducks in a row and set up their offseason with what they have at stake and a move like this isn’t likely to make or break their summer, but it’s these little value plays on the edges that can change the fortunes of championship teams and Milwaukee certainly lost out in making this necessary move in this particular way.