What’s next for Bucks? Milwaukee must balance current title window with long-term ambitions this critical summer

Only one member of the 2020-21 NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks is still alive in the 2022 playoffs, and as you probably knew, he no longer plays for the Milwaukee Bucks. After winning the title, Milwaukee had two key free agents to try to re-sign. Bobby Portis was willing to take a cut to stay with the Bucks. PJ Tucker was not. So Milwaukee filled Tucker’s salary slot with Portis and returning free agent George Hill, and Tucker received a warm welcome from one of Milwaukee’s biggest rivals: the Miami Heat. Tucker’s Heat will now face the very Boston Celtics team that knocked Milwaukee out of the playoffs for a chance to return to the NBA Finals.

Should the Bucks have kept Tucker? Yeah, probably. There were no apparent basketball or collective bargaining issues preventing a meeting. Milwaukee could have kept it through Bird Rights. The only cost would have been financial. The small-market Bucks are already paying a hefty luxury tax bill. Adding Tucker’s $7 million salary to their current cap sheet would have cost nearly $40 million after taxes. This was untenable for the property, so in a Game 7 in which they shot 4 of 33 from behind the arc and could play Portis just 22 minutes away due to his defensive shortcomings, they had no Tucker alternative to which to go. to turn. If Tucker was still a Buck, Milwaukee’s entire roster could join him in the Eastern Conference Finals.

But losses like Tucker’s are relatively common among contenders. Champions crumble because of compromise. Lists are getting old. They become more expensive. Actors want to be treated like newbies. Beginners want to be stars. The realities of the basketball industry rattle the NBA’s best teams until entropy turns them into mere shells of themselves.

We’re not quite the with the Bucks again. Tucker or no Tucker, Milwaukee probably wins this series and maybe even the championship if Khris Middleton is healthy. But the compromises are already starting to pile up. Milwaukee traded for Grayson Allen in part as a hedge against the loss of Donte DiVincenzo. Allen was willing to sign the kind of extension they were comfortable paying a low-end starting shooter. DiVincenzo was not. DiVincenzo, when healthy (which he has never been for Milwaukee this year) is a solid defender and capable ball handler. Allen was none of those things on this show. Milwaukee lost that series by 55 points. They lost Allen’s minutes by 48.

The fullback who led Milwaukee to the title is also eligible for free agency this offseason. After strong showings in back-to-back playoffs, Pat Connaughton looks likely to decline his player option and hit the open market. Milwaukee could re-sign him. It could cost the Bucks Portis, who also have a player option. Milwaukee has four players earning $126 million next season and is already flirting with the tax line even before new deals for Portis and Connaughton are considered. They’re going to draw a line somewhere.

This entropy deprives the winners of the players they won with, but it is even more cruel for those who remain. The Bucks are getting old. Aside from Giannis Antetokounmpo, they control the team on just three players in their twenties next season: Allen, Luca Vildoza and Rayjon Tucker. The trio of Middleton, Jrue Holiday and Brook Lopez was good enough to shore up Antetokounmpo’s title chase last season. They probably would have been this season, and if the group stays together next year, Milwaukee will be among the favorites.

But Lopez is 34, with an expiring contract, and had to overcome back surgery to play for Milwaukee in the playoffs. Holiday has missed 10 or more games in six of his last eight seasons. Middleton is eligible for an extension this offseason that would add an additional $152.5 million to the $78 million already owed to him.

The Bucks would be more than justified in paying that. Just ask Phoenix how fleeting championship windows can be. Milwaukee’s is currently open. A few bad years on the backend is a price worth paying for an extended window. The Bucks already have a title. They could get a second or a third with this group.

But lingering here is the reality that Antetokounmpo is likely going to outlast every other Buck in existence. Milwaukee has three years of team control over the best player in the world at the age of 27, and after that time passed, he himself said it was no longer a given that he stayed put . “My family and I have chosen to stay in this city that we all love and which has taken care of us, for now”, Giannis said in an interview with GQ in November. “In two years, that could change.”

In two years, Antetokounmpo will be 29 on an expiring contract playing for a team paying maximum money to two likely future Hall of Famers who are likely to decline. This isn’t to spark the kind of free agency hysteria that preceded his last contract extension, but rather to acknowledge the simple fact that a two-time MVP will likely continue to want to win into his 30s, and if the Bucks continue to let entropic agents like Father Time and the almighty dollar gradually weaken their supporting cast, they’re going to have a hard time convincing Antetokounmpo that they can give him the roster he so deserves. he deserves it.

That’s the needle that Milwaukee is going to have to try to thread at some point. They need to find a way to extend their current window without closing it, to get younger and cheaper without getting worse. This is going to require some risk appetite.

Exploring Lopez’s trades might be worthwhile. Even at his advanced age, he is an extremely rare tall man. The list of elite rim protectors that can also space the floor is short. Those who can do it with the ability to scale as an inside scorer and survive as a perimeter defender are rarer, and at the reasonable price of $14 million for next season, the Bucks could likely score multiple assets. for a player they survived without. for most of the regular season. The sweet spot here, even removing the high-end results, is something like the trade San Antonio did for Kawhi Leonard once upon a time: a deal in which Spurs recognized their need for youth and turned a established veteran (Hill) into a pick midway through the first round that they could use on someone they considered a long-term fit.

The biggest roll of the dice would sniff the Middleton market before he was locked into a long-term overtime. Milwaukee is just one game away from beating Boston without him, and he’d likely get a package that could reshape the Bucks for years to come. Are Portland desperate enough to give Damian Lillard a winner that would dangle Anfernee Simons and his lottery pick? The Kings are probably desperate enough to make the playoffs to give up Harrison Barnes and their own pick, depending on where he lands. Such a deal would hinge on Milwaukee falling for someone else’s young player or draft prospect. It would also represent perhaps the biggest bet a GM has made since Sam Presti traded James Harden. The Bucks know full well that the Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Holiday trio can win a championship. Teams simply don’t pull such groups apart without feeling supremely confident in what lies behind Gate #2. Without a top-five pick or a proven youngster returning to Milwaukee, risk outweighs risk here. reward.

But some the risk is going to be necessary, as Milwaukee’s supporting cast is likely to continue to decay without a significant infusion of young talent. The Bucks will have a few traditional opportunities to find him this offseason. They will have the No. 24 pick in the NBA draft in June before doubling down three of his next five selections through the trade of Jrue Holiday. Winners usually use their mid-level exceptions on proven veterans. The Bucks could use it to hit a younger free agent. The Bucks gave 23-year-old Jordan Nwora every chance to earn a rotation spot early in the season. If he re-signs, they might give him another chance next year.

This is a first world problem. Most teams would kill for a chance to win at Milwaukee’s level over the past few years. Having Antetokounmpo means having the luxury of thinking in bigger terms than most players in the league. This iteration of the Bucks is built to win right now. The focus this offseason will be on how to position the next iteration of the Bucks for similar ambitions, because if they don’t take a step in that direction now, they’re going to start seeing more and more of their players adapt. for other suitors without having any means of replacing them.

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