Are the Milwaukee Bucks the Future of the East?
Heading into the season many had the Milwaukee Bucks as a sleeper pick to reach the postseason. Those hopes all but disappeared when Khris Middleton tore his hamstring off the bone in late September. Middleton is the team's 2nd best overall player (although many would disagree and say Jabari Parker is), so losing him for an extended period of time lowered expectations for the Bucks. We are now in February, and the Bucks are still in the thick of the playoff race. The Bucks are tied for 10th in the east at 21-28, but they are just 1.5 games back from the 8th seed in the Eastern Conference. With reports that Middleton should return on February 8th vs. the Miami Heat, the question is how much of a threat are the Bucks this season?
John Hammond, the man responsible for constructing Milwaukee’s roster, is hard to evaluate. On one hand, he has made many praiseworthy decisions, but on the other hand he has made plenty of head scratching moves. Hammond has been the Bucks general manager since 2008, but one only needs to look back the past few years to find plenty of examples of his smart and questionable moves. In 2013 Hammond made the best move of his tenure by selecting Giannis Antetokounmpo with the 15th pick in that years draft. It’s hard to know if the Bucks actually knew what they had when they were selecting the Greek Freak, but they deserve credit nonetheless. Giannis will be starting in this year’s All-Star game and has already proven himself to be one of the league's must watch players despite being just 22 years old. Giannis looks like a perennial MVP candidate and the Bucks have him locked up for the following four seasons. The Greek Freaks improvement is the main reason the Bucks have remained in playoff contention with Middleton out. A good case can be made that Antetokounmpo is the top trade asset in the NBA.
The same year the Bucks selected Giannis they also made the poor decision of trading Tobias Harris for JJ Redick. Harris was just a year and half into his career and had seen very little time on the floor for the Bucks. Rather than developing their young player they traded him for Redick in order to chase the 8th seed in the East. The Bucks would have an early exit in the playoffs, and then lost Redick in free agency to the Clippers. Harris has blossomed into a very good player, and all the Bucks have to show for it is a half season rental of Redick and a 1st round playoff loss.
Hammond tried to make up for this move with a strong trade where he acquired Brandon Knight and Khris Middleton for Brandon Jennings. Middleton was merely a throw in at the time, but he has turned himself into the best player involved in the trade. Middleton is the quintessential 3 and D wing for this era’s small ball style. He is a decent playmaker, can score inside and out, and can guard multiple positions. The Bucks really miss him this season and will be a much-improved team if he can return anywhere near full strength.
In the 2014 draft the Bucks selected Jabari Parker with the 2nd pick. In hindsight it’s easy to argue that the Bucks should have taken the risk and selected Joel Embiid, but it’s also hard to fault the Bucks for being scared off by Embiid’s injury history. Parker has really improved his scoring this season by increasing his PPG from 14 to 20 and his three-point percentage from 25% to 37%. More than a year removed from his torn ACL injury, Parker is starting to flourish into the player the Bucks were hoping for when they drafted him.
Hammond would make other strong moves by trading for Jared Dudley and a 1st round pick in a salary dump by the Clippers. In 2015 Hammond went back to his questionable decision making on draft night. The Bucks selected Rashad Vaughn with the 17th pick in the 1st round and he has had made no impact thus far. Vaughn looks like a good candidate to be the rare top-20 pick that never receives a 2nd contract after his rookie deal. Then Hammond got a steal in Norman Powell with the 46th pick, but he would trade him and the 1st round pick he acquired from the Dudley trade to the Toronto Raptors for Greivis Vasquez. This trade made no sense since the Bucks already had Michael Carter Williams and Jerryd Bayless at point guard. Vasquez is no longer in the NBA after suffering serious injuries, while Powell has become a key contributor off the bench for one of the conference's best teams.
This season the Bucks got another 2nd round steal in Malcolm Brogdon at 36th overall, but this time they were actually wise enough to keep him. It’s not everyday you can find a 2nd round rookie that can provide 25.5 MPG and average 9 PPG 4 APG 3 RPG and shoot 43.5% from three. Brogdon and offseason acquisition Matthew Dellavedova form a solid “point guard” duo while Giannis handles the true playmaking responsibilities.
Hammond has burdened the team’s salary cap with many poor signings the past few seasons. These include John Henson (4-years $44 Million remaining), and Mirza Teletovic (3 years $31.5 Million). While these players aren’t useless, they are nonetheless grossly overpaid. Hammond did manage to rid himself of his worse contract when he just traded Miles Plumlee to the Hornets for Roy Hibbert and Spencer Hawes. All three players are of similar value on the floor, but the salary cap savings make this deal a huge win for the Bucks. Hibbert is on a $5 Million expiring deal, while Spencer Hawes has a player option for $6 Million next season.
Meanwhile, Plumlee is in the first year of a 4-year $52 Million deal that Hammond should have never signed in the first place. Even though he found someone to take on Plumlee’s outrageous contract, Hammond’s history of grossly overvaluing players should worry the Bucks for future signings. I can only imagine how much he will offer Tony Snell in restricted free agency this offseason.
Beyond the Cavaliers, who are currently having struggles of their own, the east is really up for grabs. If the Bucks can make a push when Middleton comes back, there’s no reason to think they couldn’t beat any of the other Eastern conference playoff teams. Regardless of what happens this season, the Bucks look like a future NBA powerhouse with a core of Middleton, Parker, and Antetokounmpo. Their length and versatility on both ends of the court will be hard for other teams to deal with.