When it comes to the 2019 NBA Trade Deadline, for the Milwaukee Bucks, it feels like an interesting crossroads due to their success this season so far. Will they double-down on their current contender status, pushing future prospects into the chip pile to acquire a bona fide number two to pair with their superstar, Giannis Antetokounmpo? In the spirit of their December trade that netted the Bucks George Hill, will Milwaukee re-work parts of the roster to open up flexibility this offseason and chase a free agent? Or, will the Bucks stand pat, and ride it out with their current roster?
While there are other avenues in-between all of those points, let's focus on whether or not the Bucks actually need a secondary star to pair with Giannis, and if that's the case, how Milwaukee could do it without demolishing the current framework of the team, both present and future.
While fans will gladly spin the trade machine or simulate a trade made in NBA 2K19, NBA trades in real life don't happen in a vacuum. Even the day-to-day of the league can greatly impact the possibility of any one move happening; because there are fewer players to focus on, and more data than most know what to do with, it's nearly impossible to tell whether or not a rumor has anything to it.
Let's argue for a second the Bucks absolutely must acquire their #2, and that between Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, Brook Lopez, and Malcolm Brogdon that this secondary star doesn't exist. It's true that of those four, none will have much of a shot at making the All-Star Game; however, looking at star power strictly by using a popularity contest is kind of silly.
Through January 18, both Brook Lopez and Eric Bledsoe were in the top 25 in the NBA in defensive win shares, while Bledsoe's total win shares put him at #26 in the NBA. Bledsoe ranks as a top-five point guard by win shares, and that's with an incredibly small usage rate of 22.4% (Giannis has a usage rate of 31.7%, by comparison, and top point guards like Kyrie Irving, Steph Curry, and Damian Lillard have rates around 30%). That means Bledsoe is among the most impactful point guards in the league with a far lower rate of usage than his peers; even point guards like Mike Conley and Kemba Walker have sky-high usage rates.
Meanwhile, Lopez is in a big crowd of centers in the NBA in terms of his win shares, VORP, and other measures, but one thing he has been able to do is shoot well in spots and contribute defensively, helping his player efficiency rankings despite having a low usage rate, like Bledsoe.
It's not to say that these two, or any of the Bucks' starters not named Giannis Antetokounmpo, are the second star in disguise. But, it may be that their ability to play well off the ball and still be productive could be a greater effect on the Bucks as a whole than simply acquiring another talent, at the expense of removing one or more of their core pieces while also probably removing future draft capital.
If you think that there's room to improve on the roster, it's going to come in the form of a more well-rounded big, or a shooter who can help distribute the scoring load, especially when Giannis is off the floor. Let's take a look at both positions and see how we can find realistic trade options for your Milwaukee Bucks.
One of the first names that pops up is Bradley Beal, of the Washington Wizards. This year, Beal is averaging 24.9 points per game, is shooting 35% from deep on over seven attempts per contest, and has a track record as an offensive juggernaut. However, Beal's deficiencies are on defense, and he turns the ball over nearly three times per 36 minutes. Only Antetokounmpo is even close to that mark, and his efficiency numbers are still off the charts.
The cost to get a player like Beal would rob the Bucks of part of their core, weaken the defense, and probably cost them the few remaining draft picks they have over the next five years. It's much more of a fantasy that the Bucks would land someone like Beal; there's not enough pieces to move that could make it worth it for one player's sake in this instance.
If you're looking for a pure shooter at a more reasonable cost, Brooklyn's Joe Harris could be considered. Currently hitting 47% of his threes on 5.1 attempts per game, Harris is under contract through next year, giving a potential acquiring team a year and a half of service. Harris has a low turnover rate, a low usage rate, and doesn't do a lot defensively, but if the goal is pure shooting ability, Harris is an intriguing option at only $7.67 million next year.
The cost would probably be an expiring contract and picks if Brooklyn wasn't part of the playoff chase, but the Nets are in sixth place. Brooklyn will actually look to be a buyer rather than a seller, and if the Bucks can't find a win-win trade with limited assets, they won't be able to pry a shooter the caliber of Harris away from the Nets. So, let's dig into the teams on the outside of the playoff chase, Phoenix has a couple of intriguing options for the Bucks if they want to aid in the Suns' rebuild.
T.J. Warren is shooting 42.5% from deep this year on nearly five attempts per game; it's by far the highest mark of his career, and he does it with very few turnovers. But, there is significant risk with Warren, but risk that should make him affordable to a team like the Bucks. He's got three more years left on his deal, going from $10.8 million to $11.75 million to $12.7 million over the next three seasons. More worrisome is that Warren is shooting far above his previous averages, both in college and in the NBA, so the fear is that the current rate of production isn't sustainable. He's also battled some injuries this year, although he's still played in 40 games as of January 18.
A more established option that has some shooting heft is teammate Troy Daniels. Daniels has bounced around the NBA a bit, playing for five different teams in his career spanning four-plus seasons. Unlike Warren, he hasn't started much; his 15 starts last year were a career high. He's also been out of the lineup most of the year, and has logged just 292 minutes so far. In that time, he's put up 83 three point shots, and his average over the last four years is consistent with his career average of 40.3% from deep.
Daniels is the kind of player who isn't going to contribute any more than, say, D.J. Wilson on the current Bucks' roster, however, but is an expiring contract and probably could be had in some form of a swap of second-round picks and back-end player contracts. Let's get back to finding that second star on an affordable trade.
Reggie Bullock of the Detroit Pistons is the right combination of shooting and defense that could play well with the Bucks. A career 40% shooter from deep, with increased roles these past two seasons, he's seen his numbers jump across the board. Bullock's taking three-point shots from deep nearly two of every three shots he takes, and still making them at a respectable 39.3% clip this year. He's also not a turnover machine like some wings, and has a serially-low usage rate for someone who is averaging double-digit points per game on a little over 10 shots per contest.
He's also very affordable; his expiring deal is for just $2.5 million. At a position that is at a premium in the NBA, finding a wing that can shoot and play defense is a steal. However, because of that, the demand for his services will be high, likely driving up whatever cost the Bucks would be willing to pay for an in-division player. He's also not going to satisfy being a second star, likely more usurping a role held by a player like Tony Snell rather than becoming a core piece.
Beyond that, you're into the weeds a bit trying to find capable shooters from non-contending teams (the likes of Heat guards Rodney McGruder and Tyler Johnson, or younger wings currently shooting 36% or less from deep); there's not an obvious borderline All-Star that can be both be had for a platter of expiring contracts like George Hill (who can be traded on deadline day, but not before) and low-first round draft picks. Everybody needs shooting, which is why the Bucks keep overspending for them in free agency. So let's try a different approach.
Trying to find a star two-way big is harder in today's NBA, with everyone launching threes regardless of position. Brook Lopez has been a great fit, but there's no doubt that the Bucks could use an extra body down low to handle some scoring and defensive load, especially in non-Giannis lineups.
If the Bucks are looking to gain a starter, Nikola Vučević is one of the big names out there. His expiring contract is for $12.5 million, and he's a plus-three in box plus-minus on both offense and defense. There are few centers in the NBA statistically having bigger years. Vučević is even expanding his range, taking over three shots from distance per game at a clip of 38.2% this year. The downside is that he's a player that needs to be involved offensively, but that wouldn't be an issue if Giannis wasn't on the floor. Milwaukee already has a productive center in Lopez as well. Yet, he would satisfy the second "star" requirement if that's all the Bucks were after, and it might not be a huge price to go and get him.
If there's a balanced reserve-type player to be had, let's go back to the Suns and consider the case of Richaun Holmes, who is also on an expiring deal at $1.6 million. While he offers little outside shooting, he's averaging over eight points and four rebounds per game in just 16.0 minutes per game played. As a supplement to Lopez, Ilyasova, and Wilson, who are more offensive players who also can ring it up from deep, he'd be more productive than, say, Thon Maker in a slightly expanded role.
A more expensive route would be to go with Dwight Powell of the Dallas Mavericks, who is averaging slightly more points and rebounds than Holmes and will step beyond the arc, but also comes with a big player option next year for $10.23 million. Because of that, the cost in terms of the roster and draft picks could be lower, but it also removes some financial flexibility for the team in 2019-20.
Other bigger names for the down-low positions are out there, but they're either expensive, having less effective seasons than who the Bucks already have, or on contending teams that would be crazy to move them. Milwaukee probably already made the best move it could up front by signing Brook Lopez, but a trade to bring in more frontcourt help could take some load off of players like Lopez and Antetokounmpo, and not have to roll out streaky players like Maker in the playoff rotation.
It would appear that to answer the original question of what the Bucks could do, it probably won't be a blockbuster to bring in a borderline All-Star to the fold (they already have one Eric Bledsoe. It may be a deal with a non-contending team like Phoenix (imagine a trade that netted both Holmes and Daniels mentioned above, productive bench pieces, at the cost of an expiring deal (Jason Smith?), a prospect, and a future draft pick) to pick up a few swing pieces to bolster the bench. It may be another salary dump (any takers for George Hill?) in a three-team trade.
Regardless, it's a precarious position, because fan pressure will demand a move towards the top. With limited capital to spend and a very delicate balance between future draft picks, available draft space, and the big improvements across the board thanks to coach Mike Budenholzer (and how well the Bucks can sustain that into the playoffs). Fans don't run the team, of course, but there is a timer on how long Milwaukee can go before their hand is forced for them: the pending free agency of Giannis Antetokounmpo.
With the current success of the team, the pressure is on as always to make a play for this year, while also making sure that the franchise doesn't tank itself in the near future and squander their superstar. It may be too early to lob a grenade into the core of a team currently percentage points behind or in front of Toronto for the top seed in the Eastern Conference midway through the regular season. Either way, this trade deadline will be an important one to note, because the path the Bucks choose (all-in on Star #2, cap relief/rotation shuffling, or stand pat) will be another flag marking the path of how high this franchise will go in the Giannis era.
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