Thursday, July 9, 2015

Building The 15 - The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly 1.0 for 2015-16 Off-Season

It has been quite a busy off-season for Milwaukee Bucks general manager John Hammond.  Given the young, high-end talent on The 15, I actually thought Hammond would have a ho-hum off-season where he resigned restricted shoot guard/small forward Khris Middleton to a large contract, uses both of his draft picks in the 2015 NBA Draft, and chased big name free agents but only ended up with one or two lesser names.  Boy was I wrong.

All told, Hammond moved out $12.15 million in salaries for next season when he traded power forward Ersan Ilyasova ($7.9 million) to the Detroit Pistons for the non-guaranteed expiring contracts of small forward Caron Butler ($4.5 million) and small forward/power forward Shawne Williams ($1.3 million) and small forward/power forward Jared Dudley ($4.25 million) to the Washington Wizards for a future second round draft pick.  Unfortunately the Bucks added $6.6 million on the night of the 2015 NBA Draft when Hammond traded his 2015 2nd round pick (46th overall) and the L.A. Clippers lottery protected 2017 first round pick to the Toronto Raptors for point guard Greivis Vasquez.  All of that was done to give the Bucks enough salary cap space to try to chase a big-name free agent but Hammond really only saved $5.55 million in salary for next season given Vasquez's expensive salary.  Honestly, I would have just kept Dudley, Ilyasova, and the draft picks they moved for Vasquez instead of trading for Vasquez. The only draft pick the Bucks had in the 2015 NBA Draft was the 17th pick, which they used to draft freshman shooting guard Rashad Vaughn.

Although the Bucks have too many players on The 15 right now, they have six potential free agents after this season: two restricted in power forward/center John Henson and center Miles Plumlee along with four unrestricted in point guard Jared Bayless, shooting guard O.J. Mayo, center Zaza Pachulia, and point guard Greivis Vasquez.  As a result, the Bucks could really use those draft picks, especially if they used one of them on a Euro-draft-and-stash guy.  It seemed that the salary cap space created was going to be all for not given that the Bucks never lure big-name free agents so Hammond signed shooting guard/small forward Khris Middleton to a five-year, $70 million contract, which is the exact same contract that former Buck combo guard Brandon Knight signed with the Phoenix Suns.

If Hammond was being honest with himself he had to try but he always knew that he was never going to be able to lure power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, center Marc Gasol, center DeAndre Jordan, or center Brook Lopez.  With all of that long build-up out of the way, I hope that everyone is sitting down because the Bucks actually lured a big-name free agent when they signed former Detroit Pistons center Greg Monroe to a three-year, $50 million contract.

You can checkout my rankings of The 15 in the sidebar below and although I've now essentially covered every transaction that Hammond made so far this off-season, I still think it makes sense to categorize each of those six moves in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.  So without further adu, here are my thoughts:

The Good
The Middleton and Monroe contracts mean the Bucks potentially committed ~$21 million a year to those two players (Middleton averages $14 million and Monroe averages $16.67 million) for the next three seasons.  I say potentially as I mentioned above because the third year of Monroe's contract is a player option.  According to a's Will Law's advanced metric named "Free Agent Quotient, Monroe was the 8th most attractive free agent this off-season and projects as a "Bona fide All-Star" while Middleton was the 23rd most attractive free agent and projects to be an "Above -average starter.  While Law's metric is interesting, if that is NOT easy to wrap your mind around then may be's Kevin Pelton's three-year projections will help determine how much value the Bucks Middleton and Monroe: Monroe is "worth" $69 million and Middleton is "worth" $62 million so the Bucks extracted ~$40 million of surplus value out of those deals given they are on the hook for $91 million for both for the next three seasons.

The 15
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo (SF/PF)
2. Jabari Parker (SF/PF)
3. Greg Monroe (PF/C)
4. Khris Middleton (SG/SF)
5. John Henson (PF/C)
6. Michael Carter-Williams (PG)
7. O.J. Mayo (SG)
8. Rashad Vaughn (SG)
9. Greivis Vasquez (PG)
10. Damien Inglis (SF)
11. Tyler Ennis (PG)
12. Zaza Pachulia (C)
13. Jerryd Bayless (PG/SG)
14. Johnny O'Bryant III (PF)
15. Miles Plumlee (C)
16. Jorge Gutierrez (PG)
17. Shawne Williams (SF/PF)
18. Caron Butler (SF)
If Monroe struggles, I am sure that he will opt-in to the third year of his contract to get paid much like fellow former Georgetown Hoya center Roy Hibbert did this off-season.  If Monroe thrives, I could see him opting out to sign a mega-extension with the Bucks or another NBA team given that he will only be 27 years old and the salary cap is projected to be skyrocket over the next two seasons since it is projected to be $67 million this season, $90 million in 2016-17, and $108 million in 2017-18.  As crazy as it sounds, Monroe could potentially double his salary on his next contract extension.  Either way, the Bucks were deemed a more attractive option by Monroe than the L.A. Lakers and New York Knicks, which makes complete on-the-court sense.  Even more interesting than "outbidding" the Lakers and Knicks is what a perfect fit Monroe seems to be for the Bucks given his ability to score down low and grab rebounds, which are two things the Bucks desperately needed last season.  Sure Monroe is NOT a great defender but he is a long, willing defender.  With Monroe in the fold the Bucks project to have an impressive starting five of MCW at point guard, Middleton at shooting guard, The Greek Freak at small forward, Jabari Parker at power forward, and Monroe at center.  If Parker and Monroe struggle too much defensively, I could see the Bucks giving John Henson minutes alongside Monroe because both guys are quality rebounders and each guy's strength (scoring for Monroe and defense for Henson) off-sets each of their weaknesses (defense for Monroe and offense for Henson).

Assuming last season was NOT an aberration, Middleton's salary could be very palatable despite the fact that he will earn $14 million a year given that he is the prototypical 3-and-D player, which seems to be the most important NBA player type right now outside of all-around superstar.  If Middleton suffers a serious injury, the Bucks and Middleton will have a very uncomfortable five-year marriage but I would be really surprised if Middleton's contract year push last year is the ceiling of his performance so as long as he stays healthy, the Bucks will NOT regret the move.  Plus if you look around at the other 3-and-D free agents that signed deals this off-season, they signed similar contracts to Middleton: DeMarre Carroll signed a four-year, $60 million deal with the Toronto Raptors and Tobias Harris signed a four-year, $64 million contract with the Orlando Magic.  If Middleton continues to shoot 40% or better from behind the three-point arc, I could actually see him averaging 20 points a game at least once over the next couple seasons if the Bucks get quality play out of The Greek Freak, Jabari Parker, and Monroe because that would make Middleton one of the most lethal fourth bananas in the NBA.  Given that the salary cap is scheduled to almost double by the 2017-18 NBA season, there is a chance that Middleton's contract looks like the Bucks got him for the mid-level exception by the third season.

Switching gears, the more I noodle on the Vaughn pick, the more I am open to the upside of the decision despite the fact that FiveThirtyEight has Vaughn ranked as the 23rd best player in the 2015 NBA Draft and Pelton has Vaughn ranked as the 48th best player in the 2015 NBA Draft based on projected wins above replacement for his first five years in the NBA.  Vaughn is a long, skilled shooter and one of the youngest players in the 2015 NBA Draft.  Worst case scenario, I see Vaughn becoming a heat-check guy off the bench for the Bucks by his second or third season in the NBA.  Best case scenario, the Bucks drafted Ray Allen 2.0.  I see Vaughn settling somewhere in between but on the off-chance he fulfills his potential upside by his second or third NBA season, he could be the 7th best player on The 15.

The Bad
The Ilyasova trade seems like the kind of deal that would be on the table at the NBA Trade Deadline, which is why I question the motives for why Hammond made the move before the NBA Draft.  What is even more puzzling to me is how Hammond was NOT even able to snag a future second round pick from the Pistons as a part of the deal.  This trade looks even worse given that the Bucks added salary just a few days later in the Vasquez trade.

The Dudley trade will be felt more off the court than on the court.  Sure Dudley is a versatile player given that he can guard essentially every position on the court beside point guard and super tall centers but Dudley's real value came via his positive locker room presence.  We are just 18 months removed from Gary Neal and Larry Sanders getting in a fight in the locker room.  That is the kind of thing that would never happen in a locker room that included Dudley.  With Dudley no longer around, the four guys set to become unrestricted free agents (Bayless, Mayo, Pachulia, and Vasquez) after this season will be expected to be the veteran voices in the locker room too, which will make for an interesting locker room dynamic.

The Ugly
I almost put the Dudley trade in this category but given that the Vasquez trade is possibly the worst trade of Hammond's tenure, I wanted to make sure that The Ugly is reserved solely for that horrible trade.  The Bucks traded away Ilyasova and Dudley in separate deals but I like both of those guys more than Vasquez.  More importantly, I hate small market teams like the Bucks giving away lottery tickets aka draft picks.  Even late first round picks are valuable commodities for NBA teams because if they can land a rotational player, it gives NBA teams a super cheap commodity.

If the Bucks kept the 46th pick, they could have landed a useful player for next season (Norman Powell, Dakari Johnson, or Tyler Harvey) or a Euro-draft-and-stash guy (Arturas Gudaitis, Marcus Eriksson, Satnam Singh Bhamara, Nikola Radicevic, Dimitrios Agravanis, or Luka Mitrovic).  If the Bucks kept the L.A. Clippers lottery protected 2017 first round pick, they again would have a chance to add another cost-effective commodity to The 15.

I continue to lobby Hammond to leave a few spots open on The 15 so that he can either sign non-guaranteed deals to undrafted free agents or bottom-feed the free agent market.  In terms of bottom feeding, if Hammond had spots on The 15, look at the some of the cost-effective player he could have added: three-year, $18 million contract the Memphis Grizzles signed with power forward Brandan Wright; two-year, $10 million contract the Toronto Raptors signed with power forward Bismack Biyombo; four-year, $16 million contract the New York Knicks signed with center Kyle O'Quinn as a part of a sign-and-trade with the Orlando Magic; or four-year, $33 million contract the Sacramento Kings signed with power forward/center Kosta Koufos.  The most earth shattering thing about two of the deals just discussed are that the Knicks and Kings actually made a prudent free agent move after questionable moves earlier in the off-season.

Finally, backup point guards are a dime a dozen.  The Bucks cut Nate Wolters last season to add power forward Kenyon Martin, I hated that move at the time and despise it now because Martin was tits on a bull for the Bucks and if Wolters was still on The 15, Hammond might NOT have traded for Vasquez.  Leaving Wolters aside, you can add guys like Vasquez via free agency for much less than $6 million a year.  Last year the Bucks did just that when they signed Jerryd Bayless to a two-year, $6 million deal.  I didn't love that signing but at least it did NOT cost the Bucks two draft picks.  This off-season, the aforementioned Gary Neal signed a one-year, $2.1 million contract with the Washington Wizards.  The Bayless and Neal deals are two of many that are much better allocation of salary cap space than Vasquez for $6 million.

Unless Hammond makes a trade, The 15 is essentially set for next season.  On paper I would say the Bucks are much better off on the top-end of The 15 now then they were at the start of the off-season but only time will tell whether that translates to on-court performance.  Our first look will be summer league.  All eyes will be on "rookie" small forward Damien Inglis (missed all of last season due to injury) and actual rookie Vaughn.

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