If the Milwaukee Bucks’ splashy trade deadline proved anything, it’s that the franchise has a vision for the future.
It’s a refreshing perspective, one that hasn’t necessarily been a part of the last 15 or so years of eighth-seed-chasing Bucks basketball. With a young core in place, the Bucks appear to be headed in the right direction, but some crucial personnel decisions loom on the horizon. One of those involves the future of John Henson, whose rookie deal expires after next season. Does the third-year big man fit into the Bucks’ long-term vision?
Regardless of whether you believe sending restricted-free-agent-to-be Brandon Knight to Phoenix was the right move, the Bucks deserve praise simply for the matter-of-factness with which they approached the deadline. At some point this season, a combination of the front office and Jason Kidd came to the decision that Knight wasn’t going to fit with Milwaukee’s long-term vision. So they traded him. Rather than standing pat and pushing the decision back a few months, the Bucks reacted aggressively, pursuing a deal that netted a trio of young assets, headlined by potential Kidd-protege Michael Carter-Williams.
It would have been easy for Milwaukee to stick with its best player through the rest of the season and gun for an upset of Toronto or Washington or Chicago in the first round. That would have been the safe play, at least in the short-term, and it’s unbelievably easy to see that happening if this were, say, 2011. But simply getting to the playoffs and seeing what happens from there is no longer the franchise’s goal, and making an aggressive move like dealing Knight, in the process ensuring he wouldn’t sign elsewhere this summer with no return, is an indication that Milwaukee is operating with considerably more foresight than in years past. Would Herb Kohl have signed off on trading a near-All-Star in a year where winning a first-round series is a real possibility? Not a chance.
In adding the 23-year-old Carter-Williams to the core of Giannis Antetokounmpo (20) and Jabari Parker (19), the Bucks have assembled a young trio that’s among the league’s most intriguing and affordable (for now, at least). Next season, Carter-Williams, Antetokounmpo and Parker will earn less than $9.6 million combined, and that number climbs to only $11.5 million in 2016-17. Assuming health, both Antetokounmpo and Parker figure to command near-max deals when their rookie contracts are up, while the jury is still out on Carter-Williams, who essentially has two more seasons to prove he’s the point guard of the future. If the Bucks hope to hang onto the fourth key future piece – restricted free agent Khris Middleton, who is only two months older than Carter-Williams – they’ll likely have to extend an offer in the $8-12 million per year range. That’s a major commitment to a non-star for a team operating on the cheap, but with the cap set to skyrocket in 2016 and Middleton continuing to prove last season wasn’t a fluke, it’s an easier pill to swallow.
Hypothetical contract talk aside, with those four players in place, Milwaukee would undoubtedly have one of the better young cores in the entire league, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t questions that still need to be answered. For instance: Who the hell is going to play center?
The Larry Sanders fiasco has certainly put the Bucks in a bit of a bind. From a purely monetary perspective, however, they emerged relatively unscathed. Assuming Milwaukee stretches Sanders’ buyout money (roughly $15 million) through 2021-22, as expected, he’ll only account for a cap hit of about $2.1 million per season. Considering what the alternative could have been, the Bucks are more than happy to eat what amounts to the equivalent of a late-lottery rookie’s salary. With Sanders out of the picture, the Bucks will have three centers under contract next season: John Henson, Zaza Pachulia and Miles Plumlee. All three are set to hit free agency in the summer of 2016 – Henson restricted, Pachulia unrestricted and Plumlee restricted – when the Bucks and most other teams should have plenty of cap flexibility.
While Pachulia has probably exceeded expectations since signing a three-year, $15.6 million contract prior to last season, he’ll be 32 next summer and doesn’t really fit the profile of what Jason Kidd prefers from his centers. That’s not to say Milwaukee won’t look to bring Pachulia back, but it’s difficult to assert that the Bucks view him as a long-term priority.
It’s anyone’s guess what will happen with Plumlee, who the Bucks were able to buy low on after a rather uninspiring first half in Phoenix. He proved to be a dependable rebounder in 79 starts last season, though right now he probably projects as more of an energy guy off the bench, rather than a future NBA starter. That’s how Kidd has used Plumlee thus far, as he’s averaging just 11.0 minutes with a pair of DNP-CDs in six games since the trade. Even if Plumlee isn’t a perfect fit for the Bucks, he’s under contract for a very palatable $2.1 million in 2015-16.
That finally brings us to Henson, the guy I came here to write about but spent 600 words not writing about.
Of the three centers currently on the roster, Henson is the clear favorite to be the guy going forward, but considering who he’s up against, that might not be saying much. The Bucks are a complex team, and that factors heavily into how things have gone for Henson since he was drafted 14th overall in 2012 and whether he’ll stick around past next year. Henson has been an enigma, of sorts, over his first two-and-a-half NBA seasons, with four different coaches attempting to answer the riddle of whether he’s a power forward or a center (and whether he’s left, right, both or neither-handed). As of late-February, we’re still without a definitive answer to the former, but the pendulum is beginning to swing heavily toward center. And as far as the hand thing goes, we may never know the real answer. He claims he’s a righty, but the sight of him using it on the court these days is about as rare as Antetokounmpo knocking down a three (sorry, Giannis).
After playing nearly three-fourths of his minutes at power forward as a rookie under Scott Skiles and Jim Boylan, Henson played center 72 percent of the time in his second season, per Basketball-Reference. Now, under Jason Kidd, Henson has played 98 percent of his minutes at center, with Kidd often opting for smaller, more versatile options like Ersan Ilyasova or Jared Dudley at power forward.
While Henson’s numbers aren’t drastically different since switching to a near-full-time center role, his style of play has changed. Offensively, as Zach Lowe noted back in January, Henson is posting up far less frequently this season. That has resulted in a nearly four-points-per-game drop off in scoring, but it’s also led to a more efficient overall game. Henson rarely dribbles the ball and almost never sucks the shot clock with extended back-downs. When he gets the ball in the post, he’s decisive, either passing or shooting without much hesitation. Henson has used more than one dribble before only 22 of his 235 field goal attempts this season (9.4%) while 58 percent of his shots have come without a dribble, proof that he’s getting more clean looks than ever at the rim. Henson is also shooting a career-best 59 percent from the field. His offensive repertoire may be as limited as ever, but he’s refined his shot selection. According to Basketball-Reference, 44 percent of Henson’s field goal attempts came from within 0-3 feet last season. This season, that number has vaulted to over 60 percent, while he’s reduced his volume of attempts in the 3-10 foot range.
Those percentages can be interpreted both positively and negatively, though. On one hand, Henson is focusing more on what he does well – using his 7-5 wingspan to rebound, catch lobs, and finish at the rim – but on the other hand, he’s shown minimal improvement as an offensive player since entering the league, so he has no choice but to limit himself to shooting right at the rim if he wants to stay on the floor. I think both interpretations are partially correct. Henson deserves credit for resisting the temptation to launch mid-range jumpers he can’t make, but at the same time, the fact that he has no ability to stretch the floor limits the ways in which Kidd can deploy him.
Henson has an 18.8 PER this season – tops on the team and top-60 in the league among qualified players – but he’s playing only 18.1 minutes per game, in part because he can only play center in Kidd’s system. That means splitting minutes with Pachulia, who is less-limited offensively but more of a liability on the defensive end. Kidd seems to favor Pachulia, the usual starter, in crucial situations, but Henson’s skill set is much closer to what Kidd desires from his big men, as Lowe pointed out:
Kidd has turned Henson into what the Bucks wish Sanders would be — a Tyson Chandler/Andre Drummond/Mason Plumlee–style center who sets picks, dives to the rim, dunks lob passes, and sucks defenders away from Milwaukee shooters around the arc.
The bottom line: Unless Henson develops a serviceable mid-range game, it’s hard to see him playing anywhere other than center as a member of the Bucks.
For as much debate as the futures of Middleton and, until a couple weeks ago, Knight have generated, the conversation has remained mum regarding Henson’s future with the team. He’s somewhat of a difficult player to evaluate, given the fluctuations in coaching and playing time, but Henson is well-regarded around the league for his length and shot-blocking ability. There just aren’t many guys who can do this:
The question for Milwaukee is whether Henson has proven enough to warrant a lucrative extension. And if the answer is yes, when should the Bucks extend an offer?
If the Bucks are interested in locking up Henson, which they would presumably like to do at the right price, would it be in their best interest to try to quietly hammer out an extension this summer, rather than in 2016 when Henson can field offers as a restricted free agent? That’s the strategy Milwaukee employed with Larry Sanders when it signed the big man to a four-year, $44 million deal in August of 2013, a year before he was set to become a free agent. Of course, in hindsight the Sanders deal looks like a major blunder, but at the time small-market Milwaukee was praised for its ability to lock up one of the league’s rising young talents. Making a similar, early play for Henson, a personable, fan-favorite who doesn’t come with Sanders’ baggage, could be the right move for a couple of reasons.
First, and most obviously, agreeing to an extension this summer would totally eliminate the possibility of a team throwing a huge offer sheet at Henson, essentially daring the Bucks to match. In that scenario, Milwaukee would be forced to either overpay or let Henson walk with no return. It’s the exact situation the Bucks avoided by trading Knight to Phoenix, and the Suns will now be faced with that difficult decision this offseason.
Second, locking up Henson a year early would prevent him from potentially increasing his value in what would be a contract year in 2015-16. The NBA teams try and operate like shrewd businesses, and, as with any business, the goal is to get the most value out of your employees. If Henson shows up to training camp in October with a reliable 10-footer and some semblance of a right hand, you can bet front offices around the league will take notice. Hell, even if he doesn’t improve much offensively and just plays, say, five more minutes per game, his numbers would likely make enough of a leap for the league’s collective ears to perk up. At present, Henson’s overall value is still somewhat in question. He’s solidified his place as a rotational guy, but there’s a reason he’s coming off the bench behind Pachulia. If he demonstrates next season that he can be a starting-caliber center for even a decent team, his restricted free agency price tag could jump from seven figures to eight – and that’s not factoring in the salary cap’s expected rise.
Of course, the Bucks were unable to work out extensions with both Brandon Jennings and Knight and were able to get positive return on each player via trades rather than extend them at contracts that the team didn’t feel strongly about.
From an organizational standpoint, the Bucks haven’t said much about Henson’s future. Middleton is looking like more of a priority at this point – not to mention one of the better trade heists of the past few years – and Henson’s situation is yet to garner much conversation. It’s worth noting that his name has, for the most part, averted trade rumors for the past two years, which is generally a positive indication, especially given the type of value he could return.
“We’ve never had any interest in trading John Henson,” John Hammond told Zach Lowe. “He’s the kind of player you want in your organization for a long time.”
That’s pretty strong as far as public endorsements go, but it’s important to keep in mind that Kidd’s fingerprints have been all over Milwaukee’s recent deals, so Henson’s future may not ultimately be up to Hammond.
Regardless, the Bucks will have a decision to make. They won’t necessarily have to make it this summer, though if the Knight deal was any indication, this is not a franchise interested in hesitating as it builds toward the future. Henson is only 24 years old, certainly young enough to be a part of that future. It’s now up to Milwaukee to discern if he’s the right fit going forward.