Brandon Jennings is a talented young player. The 23-year-old point guard can score in bunches and helped carry the Milwaukee Bucks to the post-season in 2013, entering free agency on what many felt could be a high note for him. Unfortunately for Jennings, though, front offices have gotten savvy enough around the league over the past few seasons to conclude that you cannot win an NBA championship building around an inefficient, shoot-first point guard. The days of franchises viewing guys like Allen Iverson or Stephon Marbury as “franchise saviors” are long gone. The $12 million-per-season-type deal Jennings desired never came to be and he had to settle for a much more reasonable contract worth three years and $24 million in total, agreeing to a sign-and-trade to the Detroit Pistons for a package centering around another young point guard, Brandon Knight.
Brandon Knight is not a starting caliber NBA point guard right now. He does not make Milwaukee better next season. He is an undersized combo guard who isn’t a great playmaker, can’t shoot a lick, plays mediocre defense and is extremely turnover-prone. But Knight is an athlete on a reasonable contract who is young enough at age 21 to still have a decent amount of upside in the right situation.
More importantly, the Bucks did not acquire Knight to be a franchise-type point guard. This was a trade meant to give Milwaukee a place-holder at the position and a move which enabled general manager John Hammond to maintain flexibility for the franchise going forward as the team enters a new era. By avoiding the bigger contracts of Jennings and the recently departed Monta Ellis, Milwaukee has decided to rebuild around an extremely young and versatile front line that features defensive ace Larry Sanders, second-year 7-footer John Henson and 6’11″ sharp shooter Ersan Ilyasova. Sometimes in the NBA, you need to take a step back in order to move forward and the Bucks have done just that. Suddenly, drafting a young project like Giannis Adetokunbo makes a heck of a lot more sense than it did just a few short weeks ago.
The signing of O.J. Mayo, a confusing move in the eyes of many at the time, now seems even more dumbfounding on the surface. Why add a veteran talent like Mayo as opposed to bottoming out completely and hoping to hit the jackpot in the NBA lottery next year? But the move is much more defensible when you consider the NBA salary floor for next season is set at $52.8 million, a number the Bucks still have not reached (Milwaukee’s current total payroll for 2013-14 is roughly around $49.5 million, according to hoopshype.com). Expect the Bucks to look for an expiring deal or a player looking for a one-year contract in order to reach the salary floor and maintain flexibility in the future.
What started off as an extremely bleak offseason for the Bucks has actually turned out to be the exact opposite. Originally, the vision of the franchise was not immediately clear and several of the moves Milwaukee made appeared to contradict each other. But now that the entire picture is more visible, the Bucks should be commended on the job they’ve done putting together a young roster with upside and without the burden of difficult-to-move, long-term contracts for middling stars such as Brandon Jennings. Next on the agenda will be trying to add a true franchise player that can lead this young core to prominence. In a small market like Milwaukee, that’s easier said than done. But by taking a step back and potentially putting themselves in a position to be a real threat in the 2014 NBA Draft, the Bucks at least have a fighting chance.