The Milwaukee Bucks are in an intriguing place following their surprising 41-41 regular season that ended with a very competitive (pretend the 120-66 loss in game six never happened) playoff series against the Bulls. Milwaukee has a very talented young nucleus to build around and they’re now forced to try to strike a balance between improving the team now, and keeping enough money on reserve to re-sign the likes of Giannis Antetokoumpo, Jabari Parker, and Michael Carter-Williams when their respective rookie deals expire.
The NBA’s new TV deal that is expected to raise the salary cap after next season will afford teams more wiggle room in free agency in this year, and the Bucks could try to use this to their advantage. Keeping the previously mentioned core together is vital for the Bucks to have any lasting success, but even if they save every penny they have, there is no guarantee their young stars will re-sign. Milwaukee might take a gamble and try to assemble the pieces necessary to win before the rookie contracts expire on their best young players.
Khris Middleton should be Milwaukee’s number one priority this offseason. The restricted free agent averaged 13.4 points per game with a 46.7 FG% and a 40.7 3PT% which was good for 14th in the NBA. Middleton’s greatest value, however, is in his versatility on defense. Middleton is able to effectively play three positions due to his wingspan and quickness and was 22nd in the NBA in steals per game, helping the Bucks lead the league in that category. Opponents shot just 39.5% from the field when Middleton was the closest defender to them according to NBA.com, which was second in the NBA. Middleton was better than Tony Allen, Anthony Davis, and Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard in this category and trailed only Draymond Green. Middleton was the biggest factor in the Bucks having the 8th best defensive three-point field goal percentage last year.
Sporting News has reported that an NBA executive has predicted Middleton will command around $15 million on the open market, which is a little hard to wrap your head around at first, but when you take into account Middleton’s overall impact on the court it starts to make sense. Middleton is a Swiss Army Knife on the court and was instrumental in the Bucks regular season and playoff runs. Milwaukee will try to re-sign Middleton, who has said before that he really likes Milwaukee, to a team friendly contract, but you should expect them to match whatever offer sheet he accepts in free agency if it comes to that.
Milwaukee is not a hot free agent destination so fans with dreams of seeing Marc Gasol or DeAndre Jordan suit up with the Bucks will find themselves disappointed at the end of free agency. It’s unlikely the Bucks will be able to make a huge splash at any position in free agency, but they don’t necessarily need to either. Depending on who they draft, which I will not even to begin to speculate on because there are too many variables to worry about, they could fill a need right away. The good news for Milwaukee is that there are not significant needs in any area on the court. The Bucks are a very deep team and were among the league leaders in bench scoring throughout most of the season.
One area they could look to improve is at center. Zaza Pachulia is a solid player but is neither the short- nor long-term answer at center. It’s entirely possible that John Henson could be an in-house answer for the Bucks, as he is a plus rim defender who was fifth in the league in blocks per game and has started to develop a reliable left-handed hook shot in the post. Given starter’s minutes, Henson could be a capable big man for the Bucks next season.
If the Bucks decide to pursue a center in free agency, they will likely be looking at a player in the third tier. With the Celtics and Lakers both interested in Greg Monroe, it’s not likely the Bucks would be able to entice him to join them in free agency, and the same can be said about Brook Lopez if he decides to opt out of his contract with Brooklyn. Their best option may be Oklahoma City’s restricted free agent Enes Kanter.
The Bucks were only 22nd in the NBA in points per game and 24th in rebounding. Kanter would provide them with a huge upgrade in both categories. Once Kanter was traded OKC this season, he took off and averaged 18.7 points and 11 rebounds per in 26 games for the Thunder. For the season, Kanter finished 4th in offensive boards per game and could provide the Bucks with an inside scoring threat they desperately need. He’s a below-average interior defender, but the Bucks defensive system could hide some of his defensive flaws as it is predicated on switching and doesn’t rely on its defenders to be individually great. With Tristan Thompson’s playoff performance emphasizing how valuable offensive rebounding is, Kanter could be looking at a payday upwards of $12 million this offseason. Oklahoma City will likely make a significant effort to keep him, but with Kevin Durant’s free agency looming over them after this season, the Thunder may have to let him go. Kanter could be a reasonably affordable option for the Bucks.
Milwaukee finished the season with the 7th best three-point percentage at 36.3 last season, but after trading Brandon Knight at the deadline, their ability to shoot from beyond the arc took a big hit. Carter-Williams, Antetokoumpo, and Parker, none of whom are exceptional shooters, should be surrounded by floor spacers to allow them room to operate. Bringing Middleton back would be huge for the Bucks, and Ersan Ilyasova is one of the better stretch fours in the league.
Overall, the Bucks are not a great shooting team. Players like Danny Green, Wesley Matthews, Arron Afflalo would be great fits for Jason Kidd’s offensive and defensive philosophies. All three fit into the “Three and D” mold and would help any team. Green will probably command more money than the Bucks would be willing to part with, and Afflalo will not become a free agent unless he opts out of his current deal, so that leaves Matthews. The former three-point makes leader is a great two-way player, who could cash in on a sizable contract this year, but might find his value significantly lowered due to his Achilles injury. The Bucks could capitalize on this and make him an offer. Matthews played his high school basketball in Madison and played four seasons at Marquette so signing with the Bucks would be a homecoming for him. He’d slot in perfectly with the Bucks rotation and make an impact on both ends of the floor. Matthews averaged 15.9 points per game with Portland this season and his three-point shooting was good enough for 31st in the league percentage wise.
In all likelihood, the Bucks roster will look similar to what it already looks like. It will be a tough sell for Milwaukee to convince anyone to sign when Milwaukee could lose their team by 2017 if they don’t have a new arena. Milwaukee isn’t in a bad spot no matter what direction they decide to go. As it currently stands Milwaukee doesn’t have a single guaranteed contract for the 2016-2017 season. They have team options on their young stars which they will obviously pick up, and an $8.4 million option for Ilyasova.
If Milwaukee is unable to sign any impact players this year, it means they will have more than enough money left over to sign their core young players, and if they are able to sign a game changing player, it gives them a chance at contention right away. Milwaukee is in a great position to contend at some point in the near future no matter how they decide to play it.