The Bucks are one of the NBA’s biggest feel-good stories.
They’re 21-9, on pace for their best record in more than three decades. They have the NBA’s best net rating (+8.5 points per 100 possessions). Expectations are growing they’ll get their first playoff-series win in 18 years.
They’re talented and well-coached. They play hard and together. And they’re fairly young.
But a threat to their ascent lurks beneath the surface. Four of their starters – Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, Brook Lopez and Malcolm Brogdon – can become free agents next summer.
Will Milwaukee pay to keep all four? Will all four even want to return to a small market that was, until recently, the go-to butt of undesirable-location jokes?
Those questions loom over the Bucks’ ability to build a big winner over the coming years.
But Milwaukee superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo – the lone Bucks starter already locked up for next season – wants to put half the concerns to rest.
“All of them want to re-sign next summer,” Antetokounmpo said. “Personally, I’m not going to put our conversations out there. … I always talk to them every day and want them to be back.
“We can make a dynasty in the East. As long as we play together and as long as we grow together as players, I think the sky is the limit for this team.”
But other limits exist – namely payroll.
Milwaukee projects to have about $67 million below the luxury-tax line next season before accounting for those impending free agents. That’s a tight squeeze.
All four of Middleton, Bledsoe, Lopez and Brogdon are currently on contracts that could easily leave them hungry to get paid next summer.
Middleton re-signed with the Bucks on a five-year, $70.3 million contract in 2015 that was so team-friendly, it was used as evidence his agent had too close of a relationship with Milwaukee. “When I got there, they took care of me,” said Middleton, who went from the Pistons to the Bucks in a 2013 trade initially headlined by Brandon Knight and Brandon Jennings. “They were honest with me about playing time. My situation, my contract, they gave me a chance. And second, I thought the future was bright here. I think it still is.” Middleton has a $13 million player option for next season he’ll surely decline. Milwaukee will reportedly do everything it can to keep him.
Bledsoe spent most of the 2014 offseason engaged in a bitter contract negotiation with the Suns, who held his restricted rights. He said he even signed his qualifying offer. But he never actually submitted it. Shortly before training camp, Bledsoe and Phoenix agreed on a five-year, $68,760,870 contract. The next month, the NBA announced new national TV deals that sent the salary cap skyrocketing and rendered old-money contracts like Bledsoe’s relatively cheap. He had a falling out with Phoenix, which traded him to Milwaukee last year.
Lopez signed a max deal with the Nets in 2012 and re-signed for an even higher salary in 2015, finishing that second deal with the Lakers last season. It seemed, as both a big and a floor spacer, he’d fit well with LeBron James in Los Angeles. But in free agency last summer – which he called an “interesting experience” – Lopez got just the $3,382,000 room exception from the Bucks. Lopez said he prioritized a one-year contract so he could prove himself.
Brogdon signed a three-year contract after Milwaukee drafted him No. 36 in 2016. In exchange for granting Milwaukee such great team control, Brogdon received just $381,529 above the minimum. And this was at a time second-rounders had tremendous leverage. Brogdon became the first second-rounder to win Rookie of the Year since the NBA-ABA merger. But he couldn’t capitalize.
Until next summer.
All four players will have a chance to cash in – because they’re each playing so well.
Middleton remains a borderline All-Star. Maybe he’ll finally make it this season. He’s a 3-and-D wing in a league that craves those, and he has shifted many of his long 2s beyond the arc. He’s the best player of the four.
Lopez might be the most valuable, though. Even in an era of stretch centers, Lopez is pushing the limit even further. He’s attempting 8.9 3-pointers per game, the most ever by a center and far and away the most by any center this season. The 7-footer is drilling 36.6% of those triples. More importantly, he’s pulling opposing bigs out of the paint. That’s deadly with a rim attacker like Antetokounmpo. The Bucks score 115.6 points per 100 possessions with Lopez on the floor. Only a few rotation regulars (Raptors Danny Green, Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka and Pascal Siakam) see their team score so well while on the court.
Bledsoe has also taken advantage of Milwaukee’s floor-spacing. The lightning-quick point guard slices to the rim regularly and is finishing a blistering 73.2% there. He’s also a solid outside shooter and defender.
Brogdon, who was starting at point guard when the Bucks traded for Bledsoe and was initially concerned about his future with the team, has shifted nicely to shooting guard. He has become more decisive and comfortable off the ball. He’s shooting 47.2% on 3-pointers, keeping the ball moving and playing solid defense. His all-around game impresses.
While each player is playing well, the real beauty is they’re all playing well. Contract years lend themselves to selfishness, but there have been no signs of that in Milwaukee. Each of the four players expresses similar themes.
Middleton: “Winning takes care of everything. So, we don’t have to go out there and worry about our futures, worry about how much money we make. We have a great team here, a great situation here. So, as long as we do our job, there’s nothing else we should be thinking about.”
Bledsoe: “We’ve just got a great bunch of guys in here that’s in a great space. That’s all I can tell you. We don’t have no type of selfish players on this team.”
Lopez: “We don’t play for ourselves, regardless. We’ve got a lot of unselfish players and we’re out there just trying to help the team win in any way possible. We know, if the team is winning, that’ll make everyone, all the parts look good.”
Brogdon: “The objective is to win. Winning cures all. If we win, everybody will get paid. So, we don’t have to worry about it.”
Will the Bucks be the team to pay all four, though?
Milwaukee will hold full Bird Rights on Middleton, Bledsoe and Brogdon. Re-signing Lopez could be trickier. The Bucks can give him a starting salary up to $4,058,400 through the Non-Bird Exception. Paying him any more would require cap space (unlikely) or the mid-level exception, which projects to land at about $9 million.
But just because they can pay Middleton, Bledsoe and Brogdon any amount up to their max salaries doesn’t mean the Bucks have an unlimited budget. They’ve paid the luxury tax only once, the first year it was assessed, 2003.
Maybe an NBA Finals run this season convinces the Bucks to pay the luxury tax next season. But it’s hard to see. It’s logical to treat the tax line as a likely limit for Milwaukee.
The George Hill trade – which sent Matthew Dellavedova‘s and John Henson‘s multi-year contracts to the Cavaliers – adds flexibility. But the exact amount of breathing room below the tax won’t be known for a while.
The salary cap and luxury-tax line won’t be set until next summer, though I used the NBA’s latest projection. I anticipated Mirza Teletovic’s salary getting excluded and Milwaukee waiving and stretching Hill (who has just $1 million of his $18 million salary guaranteed next season). I counted the Bucks’ first-round pick based on Basketball-Reference’s odds. I also left Milwaukee’s roster at 14 players.
The result: $67 million below the luxury-tax line.
I’m not sure that’s enough, but maybe it could look something like this:
- Middleton: $30 million
- Bledsoe: $17 million
- Brogdon: $11 million
- Lopez: $9 million
But to a degree, that’s a problem for later. The Bucks are having an awesome season. Their chemistry looks excellent. Everything is clicking. This should be enjoyed.
Still, this could be just the start.
“The ability to move forward with this group and continue to build, that’s where we think we’re going to get better,” Budenholzer said. “And part of that is keeping our group together.”