The Milwaukee Bucks won an NBA-best 60 games last season. They were knocking on the door of the NBA Finals with a 2-0 lead against the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference Finals. Then Kawhi Leonard took over, the Raptors ran off four straight wins, and the Bucks were sent into the offseason facing a series of difficult decisions in free agency that would ultimately define the next two seasons with Giannis Antetokounmpo still under contract.
With their backs against the luxury tax, the Bucks had four key pieces unsigned heading into free agency: Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, Nikola Mirotic, and Malcolm Brogdon. Eric Bledsoe was also originally supposed to be a free agent, but the Bucks decided to lock him up to a $70 million extension in March.
Brogdon, at age 26, was the youngest player of the group and the one with the most positive momentum in his career after putting together a solid two-way campaign that saw him join the vaunted 50/40/90 club for shooting efficiency. He was also Milwaukee’s best guard in the playoffs, providing an essential shooting threat on the perimeter while being a tough defender and careful ball handler who didn’t make mistakes.
Brogdon never actually had any say in where he would land. As a restricted free agent, the Bucks had the right to match any offer. But when Middleton and Lopez were re-signed, Brogdon suddenly became the odd man out. Milwaukee decided to trade the guard after he had reached a deal with the Indiana Pacers. The Bucks would get Indiana’s lottery protected first round pick in 2020 and two second rounders, while the Brogdon would get a four-year, $85 million contract.
Brogdon is now off to the best start of his career for the Pacers and is having an all-star caliber season. The Bucks are 9-3 and in second place in the Eastern Conference, and will again have an excellent chance to reach the Finals. At the same time, it’s hard to see how Milwaukee is better without Brogdon. It’s fair to wonder if the Bucks’ decision to let him go will have any impact on Antetokounmpo’s free agency decision in the summer of 2021.
Milwaukee letting Bledsoe walk is going to continue to be a talking point that can only be silenced by the Bucks winning the championship. It’s a move with multiple layers.
The Bucks didn’t want to pay the luxury tax
ESPN reported that Bucks ownership would pay the luxury tax at the start of the Eastern Conference Finals. Ultimately, Milwaukee chose flexibility, assets, and immediate savings by deciding to trade Brogdon to the Pacers.
The Bucks did spend a lot of money this summer. Milwaukee re-signed Middleton to a five-year, $178 million deal. It re-signed Lopez for four years, $52 million after getting him last year on the $3.3 million biannual exception. Letting Mirotic walk always seemed like part of the plan. Brogdon was the swing card, especially after re-signing Bledsoe during the season.
Because Milwaukee owned Brogdon’s bird rights, it could have kept him at a cost of nothing but ownership’s money. Milwaukee had the chance to sign Middleton, Lopez, Bledsoe, and Brogdon, but it simply chose not to. Ultimately, the Bucks decided to stop just short of the luxury tax, putting together a $129 million payroll with $2.8 million in room before the tax.
If the Bucks were really going to draw a hard line in the sand about the luxury tax, did they make the right choice prioritizing other players ahead of Brogdon?
Did the Bucks make a mistake with their Brogdon decision?
Again, the Bucks could have kept everyone. But if they were going to let someone walk for assets and cap relief, it’s easy to wonder why they ultimately chose to keep Bledsoe over Brogdon.
Bledsoe potentially gave the Bucks a slight discount by signing his deal in March before anyone else could make an offer. The Bucks were able to get three picks, one of them a first rounder, for Brogdon, and that likely wasn’t on the table in a potential Bledsoe trade. But it sure feels like Brogdon is a better fit for the Bucks going forward than Bledsoe for three main reasons: he’s younger, he’s a better shooter, and he’s a superior decision-maker.
Brogdon and Bledsoe were both productive members of Milwaukee’s starting backcourt last year, each averaging 15 points per game in the regular season, though Brogdon scored more efficiently with a 61.4 true shooting percentage compared to 57.7 percent for Bledsoe. The differences between the two seemed more noticeable when the game slowed down in the playoffs. While Bledsoe only shot 23 percent from three-point range in the Bucks’ playoff run, Brogdon hit 37 percent of his threes and again was the more efficient scorer.
It’s also worth asking how the Middleton deal is going to look moving forward compared to Brogdon’s. Middleton, at 28 years old, is currently out with a left thigh contusion, but had been playing well for the Bucks, putting up the best scoring efficiency of his career through 10 games this season. He has to continue to produce, because his first-year salary of $30 million is only going up. He’ll be making $40 million by the last year of the deal in 2023-24.
The Bucks’ best option was likely spending money and keeping everyone (we’ll see what they do with these picks). But they also could have prioritized Brogdon over other players they did keep.
Maybe Brogdon needed a change of scenery to take off
Brogdon might not have had any say in where he played as a restricted free agent, but it’s possible his breakout season wouldn’t be happening without changing teams. When asked about leaving the Bucks recently, Brogdon sure sounded like a man who wanted to play for the Pacers all along (via The Athletic’s Eric Nehm):
“I had to figure out what my options were,” Brogdon said. “I had two or three teams in the mix that we were really considering, but Indiana was by far the best. It was the team I was really pushing for and my agents made it work.”
The Bucks’ system will always be built around Giannis. In Milwaukee, Brogdon was mostly an off-ball threat who didn’t handle traditional point guard duties. That has changed in Indiana. Brogdon’s assist percentage has gone up from 16.2 percent to 40.8 percent. He’s also getting more minutes, more shot attempts, and more free throws. That’s how you go from averaging 15 points per game to averaging 20. It’s worth noting Indiana’s offense will change when star Victor Oladipo returns from injury.
Brogdon’s breakthrough could look even more impressive if he was shooting the ball as well as he normally does. He’s currently only hitting 30.8 percent of his attempts from behind the arc. Being the focal point of the offense and not having defenses attached to Giannis is having a negative effect there.
How will this impact Giannis?
This is the big question. When asked about Brogdon’s departure before Sunday’s game with the Pacers, Giannis said this, per The Athletic:
“Definitely wish he was still here,” Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “One of my friends, one of the guys that I always teased every day when I see him — call him ugly, we’re just going back and forth. I’m going to miss that, but at the end of the day, you got to do what’s best for you. I wish him the best, I wish his team the best and I’m excited to play against him.”
Added Antetokounmpo about his Saturday matchup with Brogdon: “That’s my guy. It’s going to be weird. Played with Malcolm, I think, three years — my fourth, fifth, and sixth year — yeah, three years. Big part of our team’s success last year. It’s going to be weird seeing him in a different uniform.”
Giannis isn’t a free agent until the summer of 2021. No one knows what he will do, and it’s likely how the Bucks perform this season and next will play a role in his decision. At age 24, can he trust ownership and management to build the best possible team around him for the remainder of his prime?
This is going to be the biggest decision shaping the NBA landscape for the next decade. Perhaps the Bucks will use the assets they got in the Brogdon deal to trade for a player who can help them win right now. Maybe they will keep the picks and draft players who make a lasting impact. It’s also possible this Bucks team is good enough to win the title even without Brogdon. Giannis is just that good.
As long as Brogdon continues his breakout season, though, there will be speculation that the Bucks messed up by going cheap. The entire NBA is waiting to see what happens next.