What does a team with multiple significant free agents do after getting bounced in the Eastern Conference Finals? That was the question facing the Milwaukee Bucks as they trekked into the offseason at the beginning of this month.
On one hand, making the Conference Finals signals that your roster is strong. Keeping together a squad that has terrific-fitting parts around the league’s MVP makes a lot of sense.
On the other hand, cap space is appealing, and trying to acquire other pieces that could upgrade the team as Giannis Antetokounmpo’s prime begins is a strategy that has a lot of merit.
It would have been challenging, but it wasn’t impossible.
Running concurrently with these decisions was free agency for the rest of the Eastern Conference. Pretty much every playoff team in the East outside of the Detroit Pistons and (eventually) the Toronto Raptors had a pathway to improve their roster and challenge the Bucks.
Day 1 saw chaos unfolding: The Brooklyn Nets brought in Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. The Boston Celtics replaced Irving with Kemba Walker. In Philly, the 76ers shipped Jimmy Butler to Miami while also acquiring Josh Richardson and Al Horford. Those three teams went on to re-shape the rest of their roster in substantial ways as well.
Then the Indiana Pacers swooped in and fired a direct hit on the Bucks organization by acquiring Malcolm Brogdon. The hyper-efficient guard was one of Milwaukee’s best players in the 2019 NBA postseason and played a crucial role in winning. Though he was sporadically hurt for much of the 2018-19 campaign, one wonders if Milwaukee would have taken a mulligan in re-signing Brogdon before committing four years and $70 million to keeping Eric Bledsoe that previous spring.
Bledsoe’s athleticism and defense are highly appreciated, but Brogdon’s efficiency and floor-stretching may have been worth bumping him to the front of the line (in hindsight).
Tony Snell had been previously traded away to the Pistons in a money-saving move just before the draft. Though he didn’t contribute much in the postseason, he was a useful rotation caliber wing in the regular season. Then, Nikola Mirotic went back overseas to Barcelona. Though Mirotic was terrible in the postseason, he had shown productive flashes after being acquired from the New Orleans Pelicans near the trade deadline.
After trading away multiple second-round picks for him, I’m sure the Bucks would have loved to have him back, especially since losing Brogdon meant he likely could have stayed.
Suddenly, the Bucks looked around and everyone else near the top of the East had re-tooled. To keep their title as the East’s team to beat, especially once Kawhi Leonard left Toronto, they had to respond.
Armed with cap space after Brogdon departed and cap holds of some key incumbent players still around, the Bucks were staring at a situation that would allow them to keep all of their non-Brogdon contributors AND add some needed depth on the edges. Nailing those edge pieces was the key to maintaining their status as an elite roster.
Well, sort of.
Improving on the margins is critical, but you must also have the star power on top that allows those players to thrive. For the Bucks, that meant keeping Khris Middleton around. And they made sure to do that right away.
The Bucks’ urgency in the Middleton sweepstakes emphasizes how important he is to the Milwaukee roster as close to a perfect fit alongside Giannis Antetokounmpo. As a number two, you have to be able to defend your own position and score the ball effectively. Middleton does both at a high level.
Anecdotally, I could just point at the Milwaukee-Toronto playoff series as evidence.
K-Midd did an excellent job defending Kawhi Leonard. Statistically, Leonard only shot over 50 percent one time during the 6 games and was hindered more than he was at essentially any other time in the postseason.
On offense, Middleton is truly an All-Star-caliber wing can create a shot for himself off the dribble—he hit 45.3 percent of his shots after taking at least one dribble—and can hit the three at an above-average rate even on a sizeable volume of attempts.
He pairs those key skills with solid finishing at the basket and efficient work at the charity stripe. His well-rounded offensive game is only magnified alongside the MVP, and his defensive prowess takes some pressure off the Greek Freak on that end of the floor.
The next move was clearing out the necessary cap space to retain Brook Lopez. Doing so to keep a center in a league where that position has become ancillary seems odd, but it was imperative for the Bucks.
That’s because Lopez isn’t your typical center.
He stretches the floor better than almost any giant person in the league, hitting 36.5 percent of his threes while taking over 500 (!) of them this past season. That changes the geometry of everything on the floor and allows Antetokounmpo, Middleton and pretty much everyone to have the necessary space to thrive.
The numbers show how crucial Lopez is for Milwaukee. The Bucks offensive rating was 107.8 this past season when he was on the sidelines taking a breather. With him on the floor, that number jumped up to a basically unstoppable 114.9.
Couple that with the fact the Bucks defense only got .6 points per 100 possessions worse when Lopez played, and you’ve got yourself the consummate role player. He helps the team substantially on one end without hurting them on the other.
That’s exactly the type of guy you clear cap space to keep.
With the rest of their cap space, Milwaukee kept George Hill. I was admittedly puzzled by this move at first, but then I remembered how good he was in the playoffs last season. There was many a time when the veteran point guard was the Bucks’ second most effective player there, notching a 65.3 true shooting percentage and playing pesky defense.
Hill is on the decline, but he was an important part of the playoff rotation for Milwaukee. You have to keep that type of player if you want to compete for a title. The Bucks had a net rating of +10.5 with him on the floor in the postseason, which seems like a typo. To have that good of a net rating against the best teams in the league is unheard of.
The Bucks needed Hill to stay in the guard rotation.
Retaining Hill, Lopez, and Middleton were necessary moves for the Bucks to stay really good. But they lost Brogdon, a 50/40/90 guy who can credibly defend 4 positions. In order to remain the class of the conference, they would need to absolutely nail the rest of their signings.
It was time for them to actually make their earlier discussed moves around the edges.
There were two crucial things to consider with each player the Bucks wanted to add. One was that they had to fit well around the infrastructure already in place. The player(s) have to complement Giannis’ game as well as be players who can work well alongside Middleton, Lopez, Hill and Eric Bledsoe.
They would also have to fit in Head Coach Mike Budenholzer’s system. Quick, yet smart decision making, outside shooting and terrific switching skill on defense are all skills a player needs to possess.
Signing No. 1 checks off a ton of those boxes. The Bucks signed Wesley Matthews to a contract for… the minimum. That’s incredible value for a player who might start in Milwaukee.
Give him even a hair of space and he will let it fly. He just finished top-10 in three-point attempt rate in Pacers franchise history, and he hits them at an above-average rate. Matthews is also a fine passer who never lets the ball stop in his hands.
He’s also stout, can reasonably hang with any position 1-3 using his quick feet and hands, and is smart enough to be in the right position at the right time. He should be able to spot a few minutes on the other team’s better players if any combination of Hill, Bledsoe or Middleton are injured or resting.
Robin Lopez, kyle korver & thanasis Antetokounmpo
Move number two was signing Brook Lopez’ twin brother Robin to a deal. Beyond the camaraderie added by having two brothers on the same team, Robin Lopez helps improve the backup center spot. Last season, that role was filled by an ancient (and injured) Pau Gasol, a still-unpolished Thon Maker and a useless Jason Smith.
Lopez can at least play. He’s a great rebounder, is agile enough to not be a minus defender around the basket, and he finishes over 70 percent of his shots at the rim. That is all Lopez will be asked to do in the limited minutes he will get, bolstering the Bucks second-unit just by giving them a few extra possessions.
After the dust cleared in free agency, Kyle Korver was waived by the Suns and became a free agent. After consideration from many teams, he chose to sign with the Bucks, and that fit couldn’t be better for Milwaukee.
Korver is not just an elite shooter, he’s literally one of the best ever. He can fly off screens from any angle and hit the outside shot, and his gravity alone makes things easier for everyone. He and Brook Lopez could combine to make enough space to build a studio apartment!
But, FULL DISCLOSURE: There is the pesky reality that Korver is 38 years old and is clearly compromised on defense. (He used to be pretty decent on that end.) Then again, he also has never shot worse than 37.5 percent from deep in a season of his 16-year career, which seems impossible.
He’s going to get a ton of open looks playing limited minutes but always alongside a plethora of shot creators, which should rejuvenate some of his effectiveness. He can’t really pass and his defense isn’t good anymore, but for the 15-20 minutes a game he is on the floor, the Milwaukee offense should hum.
Oh, and remember the whole “fit in Budenholzer’s system” thing? Bud made Korver a damn All-Star in 2014-15. If anyone knows how to get the most out of Korver, it’s Budenholzer. It’s a match made in heaven.
Korver and Matthews fit superbly with Giannis, which makes them splendid signings. The longer-haired Lopez improves the second unit by adding some around-the-basket-skills the squad lacked for the past couple seasons (aside from Bledsoe’s drives and Giannis’ dominance). Those 3 were as close to perfect as “around the edge” signings can be.
To top it all off, the Bucks signed Thanasis Antetokounmpo, an older brother of the MVP who has some G-League experience under his belt with the New York Knicks. Even if this Antetokounpo won’t play much, he makes Giannis happy. That should be the No. 1 off-court goal all season long.
The number one on-court goal should be a title, and the Bucks made moves to ensure that dream remains possible.
The top of the East got better, and Milwaukee couldn’t sit around pouting after losing Malcolm Brogdon. Instead, they stuck to their guns and kept the rest of their key players while adding the pieces that will make their depth stronger.
They didn’t add a big-name talent like the rest of the Eastern Conference’s upper class, but they retained enough collective talent to remain conference favorites.
Tony East is an Indianapolis resident and being from Indiana has shaped him into a basketball fanatic. He writes about the Indiana Pacers for Forbes and about the NBA for BBall Index.