The era of bad Milwaukee Bucks contracts could be ending soon

Jabari Parker is Milwaukee's long term hope. (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)
Jabari Parker is Milwaukee’s long term hope. (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

A significant part of my life is based around spending money on the internet to get people to try and do specific things. If it wasn’t bad enough that I’m always playing the role of devil’s advocate on this internet blog, I’m also the guy who’s mining your data to try and put in front of you a t-shirt that you don’t really need, but won’t be able to pass up. Could I be any worse?

This is the part of my life that does not involve the Milwaukee Bucks. I work in the e-commerce department of an ad agency. It’s a job I enjoy and it’s a job that involves very trackable successes and failures. If I’m able to get more people to purchase more things and produce more revenue than I did last year, I’ve been successful. If I’m not able to do that, or if I do that and am doing it without producing a sustainable return on investment, I’ve failed.

As I was watching the Kansas City Royals sweep the Los Angeles Angels out of the MLB Playoffs last night, I thought about my job and the stresses of trying to hit certain numbers. I work very hard and make lots of minor tweaks at ridiculous hours to try and make sure I’m not spending more than is being produced. It can be stressful and it’s something I’m often thinking about outside of typical work hours. How nice it must be, I thought, to be the general manager of the Los Angeles Angels.

He’s spent money like a drunken 22-year-old at a food court open only between 3 and 5 AM. There’s no discipline and possibly no threat of consequences. Player after player came up who couldn’t possibly producing a positive ROI last night. Albert Pujols was paid $23 million this season. and Josh Hamilton fetched $17.4 million. This C.J. Wilson fella couldn’t even get out of the first inning made over $16 million this season. Each of these players isn’t a total sunk cost, but the top of the Angels payroll definitely failed to live up to its end of the bargain.

A team can live with that in baseball though. There’s no salary cap, so the penalty for a top quarter of the payroll failing to produce at its expected levels, especially when a team can find an MVP like Mike Trout for under a million. And when a team has as much money as the Angels, they can roll with the losses on salary and recoup them through television revenue.

The Milwaukee Bucks are not the Los Angeles Angels. When it comes to necessity of making the correct decisions with how money is spent, the Bucks are a lot more like me than they are like the Angels. Overpaying the wrong few guys can lead to a rough few seasons, given the percentage of salary cap highest paid players often take up. If a team keeps giving large contracts to players who turn out to be unreliable, it’s easy for that team to struggle to maintain relevancy, even if it can find production among those earning less on its roster.

Such has been the most recent chapter in the history of the Milwaukee Bucks.

Milwaukee Bucks salary and minutes data from 2011-12 through 2013-14.
Milwaukee Bucks salary and minutes data from 2011-12 through 2013-14.

Above is a chart that visualizes the salaries and minutes played among Milwaukee Bucks players since the 2011-12 season. There’s a few things worth pointing out right away:

1. Andrew Bogut was traded in 2011-12 after playing only 364 minutes due to injury. The late-season execution of that deal also meant that Monta Ellis, another highly paid player, got fewer minutes in a Bucks uniform.
2. The following season J.J. Redick arrived in February, which limited his minutes as well.

You guys get trades and understand some of the factors impacting the salary to minutes ratios on this chart. But, trades or no trades, it’s difficult to say the Bucks have been getting much value out of their highest paid players over the past three seasons. Here’s another chart to further illustrate the point:

Milwaukee Bucks salaries and PER numbers since 2011-12. Note: Players who played under 500 minutes not included.
Milwaukee Bucks salaries and PER numbers since 2011-12. Note: Players who played under 500 minutes not included.

The likes of Monta Ellis, Stephen Jackson, Beno Udrih, O.J. Mayo and sometimes Ersan Ilyasova have been disappointing as some of Milwaukee’s highest paid players. Life without high draft picks is tough. The lack of those picks combined with a mandate for playoff appearances has littered Milwaukee’s recent history with contracts that make little sense in retrospect.

Milwaukee’s failed time and again to find consistent, star-like production from the top of its roster. It’s only the general solid depth that kept the Bucks as competitive as they were prior to last season.

John Hammond has done a great job of finding productive players near the bottom of Milwaukee’s salary spreadsheet. He’s hit on a lot of rookies on smaller, later first round pick contracts. He’s picked well in the second round. He invested in a smart, reasonably priced contract in a veteran with a skill in Mike Dunleavy Jr. He’s been quick to move overpaid players like Stephen Jackson. He’s generally left the Bucks in a flexible position from a salary cap situation, but he’s never been able to find someone worthy of lots of money. That’s been Milwaukee’s biggest limitation during Hammond’s tenure as a general manager who was trying to make the playoffs at all costs.

Finally, he’s getting his shot to do things the way he seems to want after a terrible 2013-14 season and finally, Milwaukee could be on the right track.

The Bucks didn’t make a big free agent splash this past season as the team continued course on a rebuilding project that’s slated to take at least another season or two. Larry Sanders has $11 million dollars in annual salary heading his way for the next four years starting this season and he’s a big wildcard. Two seasons ago he was one of Milwaukee’s best players. Last season? We know about last season. But after him, other high paid players like Mayo and Zaza Pachulia have only two seasons left. Mediocre veterans on pricey deals could be a thing of the past by 2016. And by that point, Milwaukee will have a good idea of how the rebuild is working out. At that point, Milwaukee will be able to make some important decisions on the guys they expect to be leading the team on the court and in the books.

Will Jabari Parker be worth a high priced extension? Will Giannis Antetokounmpo have ascended near the top of the NBA’s pack of wings? Those two are Milwaukee’s great, reasonably paid hopes right now. Success depends on them becoming stars and then continuing to produce like stars once a large percentage of the Bucks’ salary cap is dedicated to them. The joy of building from within is that the Bucks are likely to feel a lot more confident about that before they make the commitment.

Categories: Contract Stuff

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  1. im concerned, on what we will do with Brandon Knight. will we get him on a good deal, before he becomes a RFA. will we sign him for too much $ before we find out what the league would pay for him. or, will we wait and see what offers he gets, and match a reasonable offer. 5$M or 6$M i would sign him, and think that is good value. 7$M, look around the league and see what similar players are getting. 8$M, i would wait until he gets to RFA, and see if anyone else wants to pay him that much. i like BK, and hope he improves and grows with the Bucks, but, we cant overpay pieces while being the bottom 3 teams in the league.

    • Knight gets $10 mill/year, minimum. He’s a star on the rise who won’t flake out like Sanders.

    • if you want knight for that much you are going to have a bad time. Knight has already earned more then that, your idea is Meeks money and he is already better then Meeks. He is a durable, playmaking scorer. 10 mil is the minimum. Especially considering the rising cap.

  2. The thing about Knight is that he has shown he’s a capable scorer, albeit not as efficiently as we’d prefer, and that means something. He managed to show verifiable improvements in his game last year despite having to shoulder the load of carrying the worst team in the league, and the worst Bucks team ever.

    Now, with his pending RFA status, the Bucks are smartly trying to negotiate before his window closes and he hits the semi-open market.

    With the new TV deal, ANY deal signed before October 31 is going to be a bargain compared to anything signed next offseason.

    All those solid PG’s that have signed deals in the 4/40-4/48 range over the last 3 seasons are going to be the kind of talent that is readily paid out contracts that look more like 4/58-4/64 with all the new money. The salary cap is projected to be pumped up to the range of 88-90m in the very near future, meaning that if you have a Brandon Knight making $9-10m next to a Larry Sanders (and we hope LARRY SANDERS!) making $11m, you have two positions locked up at relatively cheap deals based on that new cap number. The Bucks should look to get Knight signed to prevent him from hitting the RFA market and getting one of those bigger new money deals.

    Even if they don’t like BK as a long term PG solution, locking him into one of the last extension under the current salary cap terms will make him an easily movable asset starting next offseason and becoming more and more of a value to them as the cap inches higher.

    • Great, great post.

      I would add that Knight’s shooting % will rise with better surrounding talent–as will his assists. He’s an ideal 1-2 hybrid, allowing the Bucks to shift other players where they perform best.

  3. Looks like Middleton and Wolters are the best “bang for the buck” on the team maybe we should hope they develop into steady support players.

  4. Personally, I’m fine with paying Knight anywhere in the $7-10 million range. By the time Giannis and Jabari’s contracts are up, $10 million will be role player money, which Knight can be even if he doesn’t improve.

    If he does improve, he will be a nice bargain at that price in a couple years.

    For years we’ve been begging Hammond and Co. to acquire young talent that hasn’t quite put it together yet to take chances on. Knight is a 22 year old guard that finally improved upon his assist rate and turnover rate and he also improved in terms of finishing ability and his desire to get into the paint instead of settling for 3 pointers so much. I don’t really want to watch him walk away from the team before finding his niche in the NBA.

  5. On a good team on a good playoff calibre Championship aspiring type team is a great third guard or 6th man. I hope the Bucks treat him as such with a 3/4 year contract at 8 million per, I think it is a fair contract for both sides. The Bucks will find/develop their PG/SG of the future in the next 3 or 4 years and BKnight will be right there to show him his great work ethic and demonstrate he is a class act as a player.

  6. “Success depends on them becoming stars”

    I liked the article. The graphs are fascinating and illustrate really well the message you convey. To end the post with the above reference to Jabari and Giannnis though seems a bit obvious and a bit of a weak way to summarise your argument.

    I think the keys to success also lie in recruiting guys that outperform their salary. Bucks have done that reasonably well so far, lets hope the trend continues.