With the trade deadline looming Thursday, no one is really sure where the Bucks stand. It’s a precarious time for a team that’s experienced unexpected success in the midst of what was supposed to be a rebuilding season.
Milwaukee has been right up there with Atlanta as one of the league’s biggest surprises, putting management in an unexpected bind. Do the Bucks make a move to build toward the future, add a piece to bolster this year’s probable playoff roster, or simply stand pat with the collection of players that have already doubled last season’s win total. It’s a question to which, right now at least, the Bucks haven’t provided a definitive answer.
That’s not to say they haven’t said things. Fox Sports Wisconsin’s Andrew Gruman wrote last week about General Manager John Hammond’s short term and long term vision for the team.
“As we move forward, the big picture for us is becoming a championship-caliber organization,” Hammond said. “For us to get shortsighted and say, ‘Let’s try to win today,’ and replace any thought of moving forward into the future — I think we are all aware that’s not who we want to be.”
Oh those words sound sweet to Bucks fans who’ve dealt with one disappointment after the next in recent Februarys. Of course, it’s hard to take much that a general manager says publicly in 2015 at face value, especially when this one seems to have something of a tenuous control over his position. Most indicators make it reasonable to believe that Milwaukee is truly committed to its future at this point, though.
A glance at the standings reveals that Milwaukee is in a tier of its own in the top-heavy Eastern Conference. Entrenched in the sixth spot, the Bucks trail fifth-place Cleveland by two games and lead seventh-place Charlotte/Miami – both 22-30 – by a comfortable 7.5-game margin. While two games isn’t much of a deficit, it’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which Milwaukee leapfrogs Cleveland and joins Atlanta, Toronto, Chicago and Washington in the upper tier. Barring a major injury to any of those teams, or a collapse from Washington or Toronto, the Bucks probably aren’t climbing any higher than sixth. Given how lackluster the glut of teams battling for the final two playoff spots have looked this season, it’s equally unlikely Milwaukee falls in the standings.
However, Milwaukee’s first-round matchup is ultimately out of their control, and running into Chicago – the opponent if the current standings hold up – or star-laden Cleveland seems like it will result in a first round loss. That’s not to say the Bucks won’t put up a fight regardless of the opponent, but it’s imperative that they recognize their short-term ceiling. It will be up to Hammond to decide if it’s worth attempting to bolster the roster at the expense of a future asset, such as the protected 2017 first-rounder acquired from the Clippers in the Jared Dudley hijacking.
Most Bucks trade deadlines between 2008 and 2014 reeked of desperation and attempting to chase the only occasionally possible dream of a very low seeded playoff spot. Last season things had gotten so bad that, fortunately, Milwaukee couldn’t find a way to justify acquiring some haggard veteran at the cost of a young player. But many times before we had seen that move or a refusal to give up on players like Ramon Sessions or Charlie Villanueva who could have been moved for something, rather than lost for nothing in the offseason.
But this is a new team and a new era. It sounds like the Bucks are looking only at moves that could help them tomorrow as much as they could help today.
Here’s an enjoyable line from Steve Kyler at Basketball Insiders:
The Bucks are not in desperation mode as they have been over the last few deadlines, but they do seem to be open for business.
That’s about as encouraging as it gets. It’s the stance of a team confident in what it has, but not stubborn enough to believe it can’t improve. Milwaukee has been linked to a number of players in advance of Thursday evening’s deadline, despite having relatively few tradable assets. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker are obviously off limits, and given how many players contribute to the league’s deepest rotation on a nightly basis, it’s tough to pick out guys who are truly expendable.
Nevertheless, these seem like the people most likely to be traded by the Milwaukee Bucks:
Some things never change. Ilyasova has been on his way out of Milwaukee for years, though it’s unclear how close he’s ever come to actually having to pack his bags. Zach Lowe wrote that he could see the Bucks trying to dump Ilyasova, though that felt like a bit of speculation based probably on some things he’s heard rather than him actually thinking there’s something close to happening.
Ilyasova is owed roughly $16.3 million over the next two seasons before hitting free agency in the summer of 2017. Injuries have prevented him from making much of an impact this season, but he’s been good enough in stretches that he’s not untradeable. And given the highly unlikely return of Larry Sanders and age of Kenyon Martin, Ilyasova could prove too integral to Milwaukee’s depth to finally depart Milwaukee for good.
Frankly, the Bucks can’t expect teams to salivate at the prospect of adding an athletically challenged forward whose ability to stretch the floor is in question after shooting 28 percent from three in 2013-14 and 31 percent this season, so even if he were moved, his potential return may not be exceptional.
But he shouldn’t be completely without suitors. Ilyasova is only 27, and there’s always a team out there that believes it can rekindle the flame that made a player effective in the past.
For the most part, Mayo has silenced his critics after a disastrous first season in Milwaukee, though his per-game numbers really aren’t markedly better. He’s noticeably evolved as a passer, however, and, at times, has carried the second unit as a streaky scorer. Efficiency remains an issue, but Mayo has played well enough that teams wouldn’t balk at the thought of bringing him on board.
The other question that runs parallel to the overarching “should they make a move?” is whether Milwaukee wants to jeopardize the chemistry it’s created in a locker room that’s achieved a college-like atmosphere. With a strong base of young players mixed with a few wily veterans, the environment is night-and-day from last season, by all accounts. While dealing the likes of Mayo or Ilyasova probably wouldn’t carry the same ramifications of annexing, say, Jerryd Bayless or Jared Dudley, it would be somewhat of a risky move considering the premium placed on chemistry following a couple of treacherous years marred by big egos and locker room spats.
These seem like the people most likely to be acquired by the Milwaukee Bucks:
Cole began the season as the Heat’s starting point but got off to a slow start and hasn’t made a start since mid-December. Whether Cole has ever been an above-average player is really up for debate, but he was a fairly integral part of three Finals teams thanks to his quickness and timely shooting. However, he’s shooting a career-worst 39 percent from the field this season, and his three-point percentage has sunk to 27 percent with LeBron James no longer hand-delivering open looks.
The Bucks would be buying low on Cole, and he’d likely come as a half-season rental with free agency ahead this offseason. Cole would presumably join Jerryd Bayless as the co-backup point guard behind Brandon Knight to form a solid three-man rotation.
Kanter is not-so-subtly attempting to force his way out of Utah, claiming last week that the Jazz are not invested in his personal development. He’s emerged as a full-time starter this season, but his minutes have steadily declined of late alongside the rise of Rudy Gobert. According to a Salt Lake Tribune report, the Jazz will listen to offers for Kanter, but they’re setting their price high – probably too high – and are content to hang onto him and confident they can repair the relationship.
Per the report: “The Jazz have not publicly reacted to their center’s trade request. The source said that while the team is aggressively surveying the market and fielding calls, it will take a pretty amazing offer to even think about parting with Kanter — who becomes a restricted free agent at the end of the season.
The Jazz also don’t expect to have any issues with Kanter if, as expected, he remains with the team for the rest of the season. Kanter is generally well liked in the locker room.”
On paper, Kanter is certainly an intriguing target for a Bucks team in need of rebounding and frontcourt help with Larry Sanders highly unlikely to return, but Utah’s asking price will probably be far too high for Milwaukee to be a serious player.
In the aforementioned Steve Kyler article both Lawson and Gibson are referenced as players the Bucks could be interested in, but they’re still long shots for Milwaukee. Acquiring Lawson would likely mean sending Knight or another major asset to Denver, which would be a drastic move for a team in the Bucks’ position. It’s certainly interesting to think about, though.