Where Do the Bucks Go From Here?
In the 2011-12 season, the Milwaukee Bucks were just mediocre enough to miss the postseason by a couple of games, but they were also just good enough to earn a scant 0.7 percent shot at landing Anthony Davis in this June’s draft. That’s the basketball equivalent of purgatory and, in a small market like Milwaukee, the team simply couldn’t continue on like that.
For that reason, the Bucks made one of the splashiest trades of the year by shipping off Andrew Bogut and Stephen Jackson in exchange for Monta Ellis, Ekpe Udoh and Kwame Brown. Considering Bogut was hurt anyway, Ellis’ contributions went a long way toward improving the outlook of the team. Long-term, Milwaukee was losing one of the league’s top defensive centers and gaining a top-flight scorer who, in another year, could test free agency and potentially walk away from Milwaukee with no compensation.
Is Ellis part of this team’s long-term vision? Can he coexist in an offense with Brandon Jennings? Is there enough left over on this roster to get the Bucks back into the postseason next year? These are the questions the team is going to have to answer, and relatively soon, as they figure out what’s next for their franchise.
The good news is that, in terms of salary, this team is built in a way where GM John Hammond could take the organization in a couple of different directions. Ellis’ $11 million salary for 2012-13 and potentially the year after (he has a player option worth that much for 2013-14) is far and away the largest salary on the team, and Kwame Brown’s $7 million will come off the books this summer. Beno Udrih will likely pick up his $7.8 million player option for next season, and Drew Gooden is slated to make $6.8 million each of the next three seasons.
Outside of those four players though, nobody else cracks the $6 million mark for an annual salary. Luc Mbah a Moute is one of the most reasonably priced players in the league, Mike Dunleavy is an inexpensive $3.75 million for just one more season and everybody else of note (Brandon Jennings, Ekpe Udoh, Larry Sanders, Tobias Harris and Jon Brockman) are still on their rookie deals.
The Bucks have three noteworthy free agents this summer: Carlos Delfino, rookie Jon Leuer and, most importantly, breakout forward Ersan Ilyasova, who we’ll talk about more in a moment.
In short, next year’s roster is more or less locked up, and it’s probably going to look an awful lot like this year’s roster.
It’s the year after that when we could be looking at wholesale changes. Ellis could decline his option and test free agency. Jennings will be up for an extension and expensive raise. As of right now, only five other guys will definitely be under contract, and that means the summer of 2013 could be the ideal time to look at rebuilding this organization from the ground up, if that’s what it comes to.
Of course, it might not come to that.
One major question heading into this offseason is how much time head coach Scott Skiles will be afforded considering how disappointing his teams have been the last couple of years. Granted, injuries have been a big part of that that disappointment, but we’ve seen plenty of coaches get more out of lesser groups and if you can’t change the players, a change of coach may be the only reasonable way for a team to experience a quick turnaround.
But let’s not count Skiles out just yet. Easily one of the best X’s and O’s coaches in the game, Skiles has always been good for a two to three year burst of productivity as soon as he steps on the scene because he works his guys so hard. That, in turn, has generally resulted in a positive response to his coaching tactics, particularly early in his tenures. However, that coaching style tends to wear on players, and Skiles has now been head coach of the Bucks for four years and counting. With one more year on his deal, it’s certainly fair to ask how much longer he’ll be with the team.
The biggest issue with this current roster is Skiles’ propensity for playing the hot hand, and on a team with no real superstar that means a lot of different looks and no set roster rotation. NBA players obviously prefer consistency when it comes to minutes, but that’s not the kind of coach Skiles has ever been. Jennings and Dunleavy have publicly called for their coach’s return next season, but it’s certainly not a given. If he’s fortunate, he’ll be given the opportunity to ride out his contract and get his team back into the postseason. One more disappointing year, however, and he’s all but gone.
Whether Milwaukee keeps Skiles or not won’t change the fact that the Bucks will have a draft pick to make late in the lottery, most likely the #12 overall selection. This is a deep draft, which means there should still be plenty of star power left by that point in the lottery, and the Bucks are fortunate enough to have enough guys at each position where they’ll probably draft the best player available instead of some positional need.
Of course, with Bogut gone, it’s not hard to imagine Hammond selecting a center with that pick, and there are a couple of reasonable options for them in North Carolina big man Tyler Zeller and Illinois center Meyers Leonard. Zeller would be preferable, but it’s unlikely he’ll still be around by pick #12. Leonard, meanwhile, doesn’t come in with very many positive things to be said about his work ethic or ability to work with others. In other words, a center would be nice, but it might not work out that way.
So if not a center, the Bucks are looking at a clump of swingmen and point guards right around the end of the lottery. Damian Lillard and Kendall Marshall are both options for the latter, but their selection will depend largely on what happens with Beno Udrih and Shaun Livingston this summer. If the Bucks want to bring both back, a point guard seems unlikely. If they’re going to let one or both walk, either of these two kids would be a great backup to Jennings and potentially soften the blow should he choose to leave for greener pastures in the next couple of years.
All that said, UConn’s Jeremy Lamb, Duke’s Austin Rivers, Kentucky’s Terrence Jones and Baylor’s Quincy Miller are the four most intriguing prospects in Milwaukee’s range. Miller and Rivers particularly offer a certain level of star quality that the Bucks so sorely need, though Miller—a 6’9 small forward—might be the guy who finds more minutes in this rotation.
Whomever they end up with, it’ll be a strong enough talent to step right in and positively affect the team next year. That, at the very least, is what they need from the draft, regardless of what position the new kid plays.
Amnesty and Free Agency
After the draft, there will be two priorities for the Bucks this summer as it pertains to free agency; the first is to re-up Ersan Ilyasova, who certainly will command more than the $2.5 million he earned last season, and the second will be to explore free agency for another reasonably affordable piece that could potentially help push the Bucks back into the postseason.
Re-signing Ilyasova could be harder than it appears, particularly if teams like the Brooklyn Nets, who reportedly are already interested in the power forward, get involved and jack up the price. In 27.6 minutes per game last season, Ilyasova scored 13 points and hauled in 8.8 rebounds, which certainly is good enough to indicate that he could be capable of more with a bigger role on another team.
Of course, with numbers like that the Bucks would love to keep him, and it seems all but certain that they’ll make a strong effort to do so when free agency opens later this summer. But with so many other frontcourt players on the team also vying for minutes, and playing for a coach in Scott Skiles who’s more than happy to spread those minutes all over the place, it’s easy to see him being happier elsewhere, should he decide to leave.
One way to free up that minutes logjam, as well as a considerable amount of cap space to allow the team to re-sign Ilyasova and perhaps another notable free agent, would be to use the amnesty provision on Drew Gooden. Gooden, who will be 31 in September, is slated to make a total of $20 million over the next three years, and he’s taking minutes away from a more talented (and younger) player in Ilyasova.
Using the amnesty provision on him would kill the proverbial two birds with one stone, but there’s also an argument to be made for using it on Udrih, who likely will make $7.8 million this year, assuming he picks up his option. That gives the team an extra $1 million in cap space this year and clears a roster spot for someone less integral to the team than Gooden. Not that either is necessarily essential, but depending on what kind of space Milwaukee felt they needed this summer, Udrih could take out a bigger chunk.
Without amnestying anyone and declining Shaun Livingston’s $3.5 million team option, the Bucks could have about $5 million in cap space come July. Using amnesty on Gooden would bump that to just under $12 million, and using it on Udrih instead would give them nearly $13 million in space. Depending on what they do with Ilyasova (and when they do it), the Bucks could potentially add another mid-tier talent with that sort of cash, but who that is would depend entirely on who the team drafts and who they use the amnesty provision on.
If all this sounds very vague, it’s because the Bucks have a lot of dominoes that need to fall between now and the start of next season, and there’s really no telling right now which of the dominoes will be the first to topple. They’ll either keep their coach, or they won’t. They’ll either re-sign their only major free agent, or they won’t. They’ll either use their amnesty provision on a point guard or a center, or maybe they won’t even use it all. The player they draft could either come as a result as these moves, or could be part of the reason for them. We just don’t know these things yet.
What we do know is that next year’s team will look reasonably similar to this year’s team, barring any sort of major trade. How well they play in 2012-13 will determine whether or not Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis stick around long-term. That’s really what Bucks fans should be most concerned about. The moves they make this summer will be what sets them up for the moves they’re able to make next summer. What happens next for the Bucks is either a success or an indication that it’s time to blow this thing up and start from scratch. Either way, another year and the Bucks will be out of their basketball purgatory.