The James Harden saga is flashy, and fun, and will be immediately consequential, but it is still merely NBA offseason drama 1(b). It’s 1(a), the Bucks’ attempts to convince Giannis Antetokounmpo to sign an extension, that has the potential to reshape the NBA for the next half-decade. Free agency officially begins this coming Friday, teams could begin making trades on Monday, and the deadline for Antetokounmpo to sign a five-year supermax extension is Dec. 21. That gave the Bucks about a month in which to remake this team into one Antetokounmpo wants to play on. It took them a day to go all-in.
Monday evening, the Bucks and GM Jon Horst made two big trades, both very obviously with Antetokounmpo in mind, and, as has been reported, with his input. They landed two quality players who complement Antetokounmpo’s game nicely. Neither of them came cheap.
- Milwaukee got point guard Jrue Holiday from New Orleans for Eric Bledsoe, George Hill, three first-round picks, and pick-swap rights in two drafts.
- Then the Bucks went out and agreed to a sign-and-trade (which can’t be consummated just yet) with the Kings for swingman Bogdan Bogdanovic and 2019 second-rounder Justin James. In exchange, the Bucks will send Donte DiVincenzo, Ersan Ilyasova, and D.J. Wilson.
So, let’s look at the first-order effects, the acquired players themselves. Holiday, at age 30, has emerged as one of the most well-rounded court generals in the league, as comfortable putting up 20 points a night as he is abandoning the shot when it’s not falling and devoting himself entirely to distributing and to defending. He’s an upgrade over Eric Bledsoe in just about every way, from scoring to perimeter defense, and immediately patches some huge holes that were especially glaring when Bledsoe had such a terrible series in Milwaukee’s playoff loss to Miami.
Bogdanovic, 28, is a lot like Holiday in that he’s supremely comfortable playing on or off the ball, and can play multiple positions. He doesn’t do any one thing spectacularly, but he does everything pretty damn well, and he’s shown a steady and marked increase in both his willingness to shoot threes and his ability to hit them. Bogdanovic thrived in Sacramento when he led the second unit, and that’s certainly a long-term possibility here, but even in the starting five he’s a clear upgrade over the likes of Wesley Matthews and DiVincenzo.
The second-order effects of these trades give us a Bucks starting lineup that should be very, very good for the single year it’s guaranteed to be together: Holiday, Bogdanovic, sharpshooter Khris Middleton, Antetokounmpo, and Brook Lopez is a great starting five. This is a unit that can continue to play the five-out offense that allows Antetokounmpo to slice teams up with relentless drive-and-kicks, and it can also rely on Holiday’s abilities as a point guard to run some more nuanced offensive sets when Antetokounmpo starts running into brick walls.
Is this lineup great, which in today’s NBA means, can it beat the Lakers or the potential super-superteam Nets? I don’t know, but it’s pretty well-designed to take on a lot of different types of opponents. Simply having Antetokounmpo and Holiday, who could and maybe should have been all-NBA defensive team again last season, is going to force a lot of teams to rely on their third scoring options. And the Bucks can get creative if they want, with both Holiday and Bogdanovic capable of sliding up a position in a smaller lineup; they’ve done it before, and with decent results.
The Bucks were not actually that easy of a roster to find appropriate pieces for, as both forwards, Antetokounmpo and Middleton, need the ball a lot. What Horst did is find two multidimensional guards, each of whom can create (and one who plays all-world defense), and without sacrificing anything in shooting. This team is flexible, it plays hard, it cares about both ends of the floor, and should—should—make each other better. This was probably as good as Horst and Antetokounmpo could have hoped for,* shy of constructing another superteam.
* Yes, yes, Chris Paul. It will be wondered, especially if Paul goes off on a much worse Suns teams, if Milwaukee could have gotten him for what they paid for Holiday. But I do think Holiday’s defense, and the fact that he’s five years younger, make him the better choice over the length of his, and Giannis’s, next contracts.
But the Bucks are not going to be deep, and least not this year. They now have just seven players under contract: the starting five, Thanasis Antetokounmpo, and Justin James, the throw-in from the Kings. And according to ESPN, they’ll have just $15 million to work with, including to pay Bogdanovic’s new deal. Maybe this won’t particularly matter in an abbreviated schedule and when it’s easy to rest stars and still coast to a playoff berth in the East. But there are a still a lot of minutes to be accounted for this season.
Which brings us to the third-order analysis of these deals, which happens to be the only question that counts: Does this satisfy Giannis? The Bucks cleared out their roster and gave away three future first-round picks. This does not matter a ton if Antetokounmpo signs the five-year supermax deal; it’s a playoff team with him and those picks won’t be worth very much. But if Antetokounmpo peaces out, he’d potentially be followed by Holiday (who has just this one year left on his deal), and the Bucks would be truly, truly putrid, with no mechanism for getting better, for a long time. It’s a gamble, but a worthy one, especially if Horst has information that we don’t:
It’s a fool’s game to try to predict anything six years from now based on a couple of trades, but the Bucks accomplished what was within their immediate power: to put together a better, win-now team that’s miles more appealing specifically to Antetokounmpo’s skillset. Given the extensive talks Antetokounmpo has had with Horst about this fall’s hot stove, it’s hard to imagine Giannis didn’t sign off on these two moves. Will they be enough to keep him? Milwaukee has done what it can, and can’t do anything more. It’ll have to be enough, and there appears to be good reason to think it is.