The Milwaukee Bucks brought most of the band back and added some key pieces. What can we conclude from the 2019 NBA offseason?
The Milwaukee Bucks entered the 2019 NBA offseason with a host of decisions ahead of them. Although they locked up Eric Bledsoe to a contract extension during the season, five of the top eight players from their playoff rotation were free agents this summer.
Bringing everyone back was financially punitive, but other than Nikola Mirotic (who left the NBA to play in Europe) there was a path to bringing everyone back.
For a small-market team that historically avoided the luxury tax, many wondered whether the team would wade into the tax to bring the gang back.
Before the free agency fireworks began the Bucks flipped the 30th pick in the NBA draft to the Pistons to move Tony Snell, increasing their cap space in order to free up room for Brook Lopez. The returning player in that deal, Jon Leuer, was on an expiring deal and was stretched.
The biggest splash of the offseason was re-signing All-Star Khris Middleton to a contract worth $178 million over five years, shaving about $12 million off of a full max.
That was followed by new contracts for Brook Lopez and George Hill, as well as bringing in Robin Lopez at backup center on the room exception and wing Wesley Matthews for the minimum.
Starting 2-guard Malcolm Brogdon, fresh off a superb shooting season and a strong Eastern Conference Finals, found himself highly sought after by potential suitors in restricted free agency.
Rather than play the matching game, the Indiana Pacers and Bucks worked out a sign-and-trade deal that brought compensation back to the Bucks and let Brogdon join the Pacers on a four-year, $85 million deal that makes him the second-highest paid player in team history.
Around the rest of the league superstar movement and wild surprise moves leave a very different landscape than the one we saw at the end of the season.
As Milwaukee leans into continuity and gears up for a repeat of last year’s strong season, what are three takeaways from the 2019 NBA offseason?
3. The Bucks are building for the long-term
The Milwaukee Bucks handed out a lot of money in contracts over the past few months, paying high annual salaries on long-term deals for a number of veteran players. This team is clearly focused on contending next season.
Yet many are criticizing the Bucks for not matching the contract of Malcolm Brogdon, specifically criticizing their ownership for not being willing to pay the tax for a contending team.
There is some validity to that, as the Bucks could have matched Brogdon’s contract and still brought back Brook Lopez and Khris Middleton.
If the Bucks were simply focused on convincing Giannis Antetokounmpo to sign the designated player extension coming his way next summer, they may have focused on maximizing their production next season.
But the Bucks are not focusing on the short-term with this team. With Antetokounmpo, the reigning MVP of the league, just 24 years old, the Bucks want to be set up to contend with him for years to come.
Bringing back Brogdon by matching his exorbitant offer sheet would almost certainly have been an overpay. He is an excellent player with a modern game, the perfect off-ball piece to put around Antetokounmpo.
But paying over $21 million per season for such a player is a very steep price, one most acknowledge is an overpay.
Milwaukee also did not simply let Brogdon walk, but instead brought back three draft picks from the Pacers. With two first-round picks outstanding from recent trades this helps to rebuild their cupboard and give them ammunition for a potential in-season trade.
Losing Brogdon for nothing would have been painful; trading him for draft capital, avoiding his onerous contract and signing Wesley Matthews to replace him in the short-term looks like a smart, future-focused move.
The Bucks are building for this year and the future and there is wisdom in that.
2. The Bucks are leveraging familiarity in building their roster
Familiarity is a common thread through a number of NBA transactions, from players returning to teams or coaches they have previously played for, to cities they previously lived in, or to team up with players they are friends with.
Never has that been more apparent than in the 2019 NBA offseason, and the Bucks leveraged those connections as well.
First, their major moves in free agency were to bring back the core of their contending team from last season. The Bucks won 60 games last season and are set up to once again be near the top of the league. Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez and George Hill are all back on new deals.
Secondly, they made signings along family connections. In the case of signing Thanasis Antetokounmpo, that was more of a favor to their superstar, a goodwill gesture they hope will make him even slightly more willing to re-sign in Milwaukee long-term.
They also went back to the sibling-well in signing Robin Lopez to play backup center behind his brother, Brook.
The room exception is probably the right salary level for Lopez, but he could have signed elsewhere to have a more significant role as a starter with teams such as the Golden State Warriors or Boston Celtics.
To play with his twin brother Robin is accepting a more limited role with Milwaukee.
Finally, the team added a strong piece in Wesley Matthews for the veteran’s minimum. Although Matthews has never played for the Bucks or head coach Mike Budenholzer, he does have a connection to the team.
Matthews went to high school in Madison, Wis., and played college basketball at Marquette University. Not only is Marquette located in Milwaukee, they play home games at the same arena as the Bucks.
Matthews should have a solid role in the rotation for a team replacing Malcolm Brogdon, but surely there was a team willing to sign him for more than the minimum. He becomes just one of many players to sign or re-sign with the Bucks with a level of familiarity with the franchise.
1. The Milwaukee Bucks should be the title favorites for next season
Last season the Milwaukee Bucks put together the best regular season in the league, with a dominant point differential and a slew of marquee wins. No part of their profile suggested fluke; they were the real deal.
A tough series with the eventual champion Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference Finals came after an equally dominant 8-1 record in the first two rounds.
That alone should give the Bucks confidence going into next season, as they brought back the majority of that team. They swapped out Malcolm Brogdon, Tony Snell and Nikola Mirotic for Wesley Matthews and Robin Lopez, with at least two roster spots still to play with.
In addition, the Bucks are young enough to expect growth at multiple positions.
Older veterans such as George Hill and the Lopez brothers will more likely stay at a similar level (or slightly decline) in their late-prime, and Eric Bledsoe and Khris Middleton don’t seem to harbor huge upside and are already established as solid starters.
The team’s superstar, Giannis Antetokounmpo, is just 24 and still brimming with potential. Every year of his career he has taken a strong step forward, and even as the reigning MVP has room to grow.
It’s likely that he will come in next season with an improved outside shot, a truly deadly and terrifying proposition for opponents. His passing vision has grown steadily over the years, as have his help instincts on defense.
On the bench the Bucks have a number of young pieces still growing as well. Sterling Brown, Pat Connaughton and D.J. Wilson all had solid years in 2018-19, and rising sophomore Donte DiVincenzo is expected by many to pop next year after an injury-plagued rookie campaign.
Losing Brogdon hurts, but the Bucks can reasonably expect to be similarly dominant this season. What also helps is the clearing out of the greatest obstacle in their way to the top.
With Kawhi Leonard in Los Angeles the Toronto Raptors will take a large step back next season. With Boston losing Al Horford and Brooklyn in a waiting year due to Kevin Durant’s injury, there is only one other true contender in the East other than the Bucks.
The Philadelphia 76ers are built like the Mon-Stars, with huge size at every position. They swapped J.J. Redick and Jimmy Butler out for Josh Richardson and Al Horford, adding Matisse Thybulle in the draft.
There is size everywhere on that team, and defensively they are equipped like no other team to slow down the Bucks.
Yet offensively the Sixers have serious questions, such as who is going to space the floor in a rotation mostly stocked with inside scorers. The Bucks have continuity on their side, while the Sixers are figuring out a new rotation.
Philadelphia will be a serious opponent, but the Bucks should be favored.
With the Western Conference stocked 10-deep with strong teams, no single team should feel confident emerging from their side of the bracket.
Both teams in Los Angeles look formidable, but the Utah Jazz, Houston Rockets, Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers all made moves to improve this summer. And everyone should count out the Golden State Warriors at their peril.
Given the jumble out West and the clear path in the East, the Milwaukee Bucks should be the title favorites next season. With the other contenders all swapping All-Stars like a game of Pit, the Bucks’ continuity should give them a leg up next year.
Most importantly, the Bucks employ the services of Giannis Antetokounmpo. At the end of the day, all the offseason moves around the league cannot change that fact.
With Giannis the Bucks are a title contender, and the summer may have unfolded in just the right way for them to be title winners as well.