Much of the core of the Milwaukee Bucks is signed beyond next season, save for superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo, but the NBA’s best regular-season team the last two years should look different in 2021.
After the Miami Heat ousted Milwaukee in the Eastern Conference semifinals on Tuesday, Antetokounmpo adamantly told Yahoo Sports senior NBA reporter Chris Haynes he would not be demanding a trade this offseason.
“It’s not happening,” he said. “That’s not happening.”
That brings Bucks general manager Jon Horst’s next few months into focus: Build a better playoff roster around Antetokounmpo. Horst is under enormous pressure to make upgrades to a team that was on pace to win 70 games for most of this season, especially if Antetokounmpo declines a super-max extension worth roughly $220 million in October. He may well make that decision for financial reasons, given the uncertain status of the salary cap this year and next, but his potential free agency still looms over the organization.
Of course, Horst wants to build a championship roster around Antetokounmpo regardless, but the risk of losing Antetokounmpo for nothing should at least incentivize Bucks ownership to fully open their wallets, something they avoided last summer, when they opted to let Malcolm Brogdon go in restricted free agency.
So, what can Milwaukee do to build a better contender?
They must first look at the point guard position, where Eric Bledsoe — an All-Defensive guard who was counted among All-Star snubs this season — was an abject failure in the playoffs once again. In the Bucks’ playoff series losses over the past three years, Bledsoe has averaged 11.9 points on 36.5 percent shooting (23.1 percent from 3-point range) and 4.4 assists against 2.1 turnovers in 31.6 minutes per game. He has been a liability, plain and simple, and one scheduled to make $19.4 million for the 2022-23 season.
Oklahoma City Thunder veteran Chris Paul has been mentioned most often as an upgrade. New York Times scribe Marc Stein reported on Tuesday that rival teams expect the Bucks to pursue Paul if OKC makes him available. You saw what Paul was still capable of at age 35 in the playoffs, and Milwaukee can put together a package of Bledsoe, expiring deals and draft assets that would save the Thunder eight figures in 2022. Antetokounmpo’s free agency could leverage ownership into assuming the $85.6 million still owed to Paul.
And Paul would be an incredible fit. He is still a solid defender and arguably the best pure point guard of his generation, someone fully capable of table-setting for Antetokounmpo and creating for himself in the clutch.
There are few other blockbuster trades available to the Bucks. If for some reason Bradley Beal, Joel Embiid or Devin Booker were to push for a trade, Milwaukee has little of value to send in return. Nobody wants to pay Khris Middleton $146.9 million through 2024, and the Bucks have only late-round picks to deal. Trades for Victor Oladipo (2021 free agent), Jrue Holiday (owed $26.3 million in 2021-22) or their ilk would either be cost prohibitive or a downgrade for the opposing team. As a result, deals involving Milwaukee’s best assets not named Giannis will likely count as marginal upgrades, save for taking on Paul’s cumbersome contract.
The other option for the Bucks is to upgrade in the margins. The entirety of the projected salary cap is owed to Antetokounmpo, Middleton, Bledsoe, Brook Lopez, George Hill and Donte DiVincenzo next season, even before Robin Lopez makes a decision on his $5 million player option. That leaves the No. 24 overall pick, cap exceptions and minimum salaries to fill out a roster that will have open spots. Marvin Williams announced his retirement after Tuesday’s loss. Kyle Korver could join him. Wesley Matthews is an unrestricted free agent looking for a pay raise, even if he hinted at returning to Milwaukee next season.
That leaves a Bucks team in search for more reliable shooting help even more aware of that shortcoming. Their midlevel exception of almost $10 million annually will be enticing for non-stars looking to join a title contender, but this year’s free-agent market is fairly thin. Will that be enough to pry away Joe Harris, Jerami Grant or Marcus Morris from teams already in contention? Doubtful. The next tier does little to swing a team’s championship chances, and minimum salaries are an even greater crapshoot. For every Duncan Robinson and Luguentz Dort, there are countless veterans whose playoff impact is greater in theory.
Brook Lopez is Horst’s best free-agent signing, followed by Matthews. The last few years have also seen guys like Jason Terry and Korver come and go. Cheap shooting is hard to find, because everyone is looking for it. The other question is whether working the margins will be enough for a team that has been stomped out of the playoffs before reaching the Finals the last two seasons. The Eastern Conference has gotten stronger, and the Brooklyn Nets’ entry into the fray next season will only make it more difficult to emerge.
The Bucks’ long-term investment in Middleton and Bledsoe — both of whom have fallen short as second and third playoff options on a contender — almost makes pursuing Paul a prerequisite this offseason. Otherwise, Antetokoummpo will have to make yet another leap after (likely) winning consecutive MVPs. As hard as it is to imagine how good he might be in that instance, it is not out of the question for the 25-year-old, but if that does not work, Antetokounmpo may just be out of championship options in Milwaukee.
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