August 9, 2022

It’s hard to be eliminated from a competition because of something that couldn’t be controlled. In the case of the Milwaukee Bucks, one of the biggest reasons they’re at home as the Boston Celtics battle out the NBA Finals is simple: Khris Middleton’s injury. That’s no excuse for losing the series, but it does dramatically change how the team could — and should — approach the task of retooling the roster this offseason.

The Bucks are still in contention. A healthy Giannis Antetokounmpo practically guarantees that status, and when he’s flanked by guys like Middleton, Jrue Holiday and Brook Lopez, Milwaukee really has no good reason to. not be considered a favorite next season. They still have to prove it, of course, and one of the ways they’ll prove it is to go from strength to strength throughout the summer. There are good vibes around the team when it comes to retaining two of their top contributors (Bobby Portis and Pat Connaughton, who can both exercise their option to enter free agency), and as a result, there aren’t many places that need to be filled this time around. This is a good problem to have when you expect to reroll it.

Of course, the downside of this issue means that you only have a limited number of opportunities to add a potential difference maker, and the Bucks salary situation further limits those chances. Between Giannis ($42.5M), Khris ($37.9M), Jrue ($32.4M) and Brook ($13.9M), the Bucks already have four players representing approximately $126.7 million in salary during the 2022-23 season. While the cap numbers for next season turned out to be higher than expected, the salary cap is still set at “only” around $122 million and the luxury tax will kick in at around $149 million. Enterprising NBA 2K players might pretend to shuffle contracts to move the Bucks under either number, but in reality any approach to capping space or dodging the tax is purely theoretical. Milwaukee is once again going to have one of the highest payrolls in the league, as is the price of keeping one of the league’s top cores together and fighting for a championship.

These structural limitations are the main reason retention is the most realistic path for the Bucks. There simply isn’t enough to be gained from trading one of their most important contracts that would offset the cost of talent it would take to facilitate such a deal. The trade market has a lot more than the Bucks can realistically offer; when your best outgoing package is Grayson Allen ($9.6 million), George Hill ($4.0 million, expiration) and the rights of whoever is selected at pick 24, and you can’t make such a trade until July 1 (when Allen’s extension takes effect), there simply won’t be many options to pursue.

For all intents and purposes, that’s the most logical place to start: assume Milwaukee will keep most of its guys (at least the ones worth keeping), and fill in the gaps from there. We don’t to know that GM Jon Horst will be able to keep between Portis, Connaughton, Jevon Carter and Wesley Matthews, but all things considered, it seems pretty fair to assume they’ll be back. Likewise, there is no clear indication that the team will retain Serge Ibaka and Jordan Nwora, or late-season additions Rayon Tucker and Luca Vildoza, meaning their spots will open up. Finally, Thanasis Antetokounmpo is probably going nowhere, and no one could replace the hype he injects on the sidelines, so we can lock him in. With all that in mind, the depth chart (usually) looks like this:

Projected dollar depth chart, as of June 2022

PGHoliday JrueGeorge HillJevon Carter
SGWesley MatthewsGrayson Allen-open-
SFKris MiddletonPat Connaughton-open-
PFGiannis Antetokounmpo-open-Thanasis Antetokounmpo
VSLopez CreekBobby Portis-open-

Breaking down the presumptive roster this way, we can see the Bucks could use reserves at almost any position. Of course, a starting upgrade to the shooting guard would be welcome, but such luxury is unlikely. Since rotations are restricted in the playoffs and minutes are focused on fewer players, the team can afford to take a few hits with the resources they have without jeopardizing their playoff rotation. After all, we have seen that if one of the major contributors is unavailable due to injury, the team cap is considerably lower and they are more likely to lose a winnable streak than if they were in perfect health.

What are these resources, anyway? What tools do the Bucks have to significantly improve the margin roster? Right off the bat, their first draft pick will have a chance to play…if the front office keeps the pick and signs the player. The Bucks don’t have a second-round draft pick this year (abandoned due to the Bogdan Bogdanovic fiasco) and could still try to buy one … but there’s no way of knowing that at this point. They could still be successful in negotiating a trade, despite the lack of likely worthy assets or candidates we detailed earlier, but this could be a summer where Trader Jon is unable to close a deal. With those limited avenues, all that’s left is free will…where the Bucks are also significantly limited.

Remember the salary structure at the beginning of this article, how the four main players in the team earn more than the expected salary cap? That, combined with the compensation due to everyone else the team will (presumably) keep, means the Bucks will both be operating above the cap. and the tax apron (which also serves as a ceiling if the team takes any action that calls for it), closing lanes that other teams could use this summer. We’ve talked a lot about salary cap exceptions in the past, and there are resources that detail all the ins and outs of each, but we just have less to say this time around.

Dollars are Most likely will carry a total salary approaching $175 million next season. That’s $20 million more than the estimated tax apron, which means the team can not use the semi-annual exception, the mid-level non-taxpayer exception, or acquire a player in a sign-and-trade. They are simply unavailable mechanisms, period. What is the front office box do is use the smaller MLE taxpayer, a resource worth around $6.3 million, and the veteran minimum contracts, which cost around $1.8 million each. That’s it.

But it’s not the end of the world! Milwaukee only has between four and five spots to fill, assuming all expected returning players actually return this offseason. As long as the owner is willing to foot the tax bill associated with those expenses (not always a guarantee, unfortunately), the Bucks will have a few options. What are some of the names that might be out there?

from Orlando Gary Harris stands out as a wing prospect for Milwaukee. After landing a languishing $74 million deal with the Magic, Harris is a 27-year-old shooter who had developed a positive defensive reputation before injuries undermined that reputation. Since 2018, Harris has played in 57, 56, 39 and 61 games; at this point in his career, he could draw similarities to George Hill in that any team that signs him should expect him to miss at least a quarter of the matches each season.

Still, Harris is a respectable shooter (36.3 percent for his career, with a 3PAr of .424) who switches between every backcourt position, and as an unrestricted free agent, Harris could be looking for a quick rebound deal that includes a clear path to a championship rather than short-term wins (Harris has racked up around $80 million for his career). Would Harris be interested in playing on an MLE-level contract for a year in Milwaukee, rehabilitating his career and returning to free agency in search of another, longer contract next summer? And would Harris be worth that hassle for the Bucks? Here’s what our sister site Magic had to say last month about Harris’ time with Orlando:

About a dozen points, a pair of rebounds, a few assists, and a steal every night doesn’t seem worth getting too excited about. However, this production represents a real revitalization for Harris, whose career as a significant contributor had been threatened by the continued impact of injuries. Instead, this season he was truly valuable to the Magic, serving as a low-use shooting threat and connector on offense and a generally reliable individual defender on the other end. Harris was exactly the type of veteran presence the rebuilding team needed.

Another option the Bucks might find intriguing is Indiana. TJ Warren, who has been beset by injuries since December 2020. Warren is a 6’8” forward who can score at all three levels, and had a run to remember in the 2020 NBA bubble. Since then, he just hasn’t hasn’t been available due to a litany of injury issues, mostly located in his left foot. Like Harris, Warren needs a bounce-back season to show his career isn’t over, and his keen sense of isolation could be a boost for a Bucks bench that boasts very little. The Pacers may or may not be the place for him to do it, so why not the Bucks for the middle tier of ratepayers?

Another possibility Bucks fans may need to be prepared for is Dennis Schroder, most recently the Houston Rockets. The German combo guard has reportedly attracted interest from the Bucks before, most recently during the 2022 NBA trade deadline. He was also signed by Mike Budenholzer in Atlanta, and the 29-year-old guard could find a place in the rotation if we can believe the decline of George Hill. Schröder miscalculated his free agency two summers ago and failed to set the basketball world on fire with his tenure in Houston. Could a season with the Bucks recoup its value in time for one more hit in a long-term deal, and would it help Milwaukee? His punch may have come in handy as the no-Middleton Bucks struggled to score on the Celtics in the last playoffs, and maybe the MLE taxpayer is enough incentive for him to finally land here. .

What do you think? Are any of these names worth adding to the Bucks list this summer? Who would you target instead? Let us know in the comments!