Over the coming days and months, the Milwaukee Bucks have a number of decisions to make, and yesterday they made the first two: exercising contract options on John Henson and Giannis Antetokounmpo. As many of their young players move into their second, third and fourth seasons, the Bucks need to choose whether make free agent re-signings, qualifying offers and contract extension offers. Some of these decisions have October 31 deadlines and others need to be made in the coming offseason. Yesterday, the Bucks made the easiest two choices, but tougher ones loom ahead.
Recent first-round picks
The Bucks had until Halloween to decide whether or not to exercise the option on Giannis Antetokounmpo’s third season. His salary will cost them about $1.95 million for the 2015-16 season. The decision to opt for the third season triggers a similar option for his fourth season (2016-17) that will need to be decided by November 2, 2015 but should be another easy choice.
The October 31 deadline also applied to John Henson. 2014-15 will be Henson’s fourth season. As noted with Giannis, teams that keep their first-round picks for three seasons get an option to exercise on their fourth. and as a result, the Bucks had to decide this month whether or not to exercise that option. The cost? $2.94 million. At that price, this deal was another lock. Rookie contracts are cheap — really cheap — mostly because when the NBA Players Association negotiates deals, it doesn’t give a hoot over compensating the players who haven’t gotten into it yet.
The situation is a little bit different for Henson’s college and current teammate, Kendall Marshall.
Back in March 2012, Henson and Marshall both declared that they would leave the University of North Carolina in order to enter the pool for the NBA Draft. Marshall, the #13 pick in the 2012 draft, was chosen one spot before Henson. However, the Phoenix Suns, the team who drafted him, traded him to the Washington Wizards, and the Wizards waived him just before the start of his second season. As a result, the third-season option was never exercised (thus nixing any possibility of a fourth-season option or beyond that, restricted free agency). He lated signed a minimum two-year deal with the Los Angeles Lakers, a contract that will expire this summer and leave him as an unrestricted free agent.
If Marshall plays well, then the Bucks would have to take a look at re-signing him. At that point, they would be operating on a level playing field with the 29 other teams.
The Big Decision for this month, of course, relates to Brandon Knight. Knight will be playing this season, his fourth in the NBA, on the final option of his rookie contract: $3.55 million. His future status can go one of three ways.
1) The Bucks can extend his rookie deal if they do so before October 31. With only two weeks left, the clock is ticking.
2) The Bucks can make a qualifying offer this summer, ensuring the right of first refusal in restricted free agency. If signed, the one-year qualifying offer would end with Knight being an unrestricted free agent. However, teams and players rarely follow this path, though Greg Monroe and the Pistons are playing it out this season. The much more likely outcome is that Knight signs a longer deal with the Bucks or that he negotiates an offer sheet from another team, an offer that the Bucks could choose to match.
3) The Bucks could decide not to make a qualifying offer this summer, making Knight an unrestricted free agent. (Barring something unforeseen, this one isn’t happening.)
How big a market is there for Brandon Knight if he gets to restricted or unrestricted free agency? There may not be too many buyers waiting around for Knight. Most teams already have an established incumbent point guard. It is a very deep position in the NBA. On the other hand, Knight, who is probably the best all-around athlete on the Bucks, will be 23 years old next summer, and teams will surely have to consider making an offer to a heady player who projects to average somewhere around 19 points, 5 rebounds and 3 assists for the Bucks this season.
In the end, in a fashion similar to what happened with Eric Bledsoe this summer, supply and demand will be the forces than win out.
Recent second-round picks
When NBA teams make second-round picks, they aren’t required to make salary cap holds for them, and the teams are allowed those picks for the minimum salary for their first two years regardless of whether they have cap space or not. However, teams are allowed to sign second-round picks for a third season, provided they have the cap space and/or cap exceptions to do so. The Bucks have typically gone the cap space route.
Nate Wolters signed one of those three-year deals after the 2013 Draft. According to Sham Sports, the Bucks have Wolters under contract through 2015-16. However, the final year of that deal currently consists of entirely unguaranteed money, and it will only become a guaranteed deal if the Bucks do not waive him on or before July 15, 2015.
With Kendall Marshall also on the roster, it seems much of the decision of whether or not to retain Wolters will come down to how these two play this upcoming season. The one factor in favor of Wolters getting retained is that it would cost less than $1 million and it would trigger the same qualifying offer/restricted free agent scenario a year later.
Even if Marshall outplays him, Wolters could be leverage and/or Plan B as the Bucks negotiate with Marshall.
Like the Bucks, the Detroit Pistons were also savvy enough to lock up their second-round pick for an extra third season when they drafted him in 2012. As a result, the Bucks will only have to pay Khris Middleton $915K for 2014-15. But in the coming summer, Middleton will be a restricted free agent, and it is not unthinkable that Middleton draws even more interest from other NBA teams than Knight does.
If Middleton has another season like he did last year, teams may start poking around to see if Middleton fits their needs. And he probably does. How many teams have filled their quota of 23-year-old, 6’8″ wings who can make 40% of their threes and shoot equally well of the catch and the bounce?
The Bucks cannot reward Middleton with a contract extension that keeps him in Milwaukee for the long term. The rules for former first- and second-round picks differ. So Middleton is destined to hit the free-agent market this summer no matter what happens between now and then.
In the end, Middleton may not be the creator or the focal part of an offense that Brandon Knight is, but he may draw more interest than Knight for being nearly an ideal role player.
The conundrum for the Bucks is that role players aren’t core players, even the really good role players. If the Bucks want to develop a team centered on the talents of Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker, and if that core is a few years away from prime NBA success, the Bucks — a team that has historically overpaid role players … badly … sadly … ugh — have to figure out the right price for Middleton. Surely they want to keep him, but they have to be careful about getting into a bidding war with a win-now team with whom Middleton may be a better match.