“No half measures, Walter.” – Michael Ehrmentraut, Breaking Bad
Last summer, the Milwaukee Bucks were criticized for the worst thing a small-market team trying to keep its generational star can do. They didn’t do everything to keep Giannis Antetokounmpo. They let Malcolm Brogdon sign with the Indiana Pacers to save the luxury tax fees.
That, by extension, justified the threat of losing the second-best player in franchise history (behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar).
Then again, their moves Monday won’t change those things either. But those moves do show the Bucks are willing to do what it takes to keep Antetokounmpo.
The Bucks traded three first-rounders, two pick swaps, Eric Bledsoe, and George Hill to the New Orleans Pelicans on Monday for Jrue Holiday, according to the Athletic, then agreed to a sign-and-trade with the Kings for Bogdan Bogdanovic.
The steep price for Holiday stunned rival executives pursuing Holiday, who has a player option for the 2021-22 season, effectively making him an expiring contract this season if he so desires.
The Denver Nuggets were in discussions late on a deal that would have included picks and players but were not willing to go that far for anyone who isn’t an MVP-caliber player, according to league sources.
The presumption from sources around the league is that this deal could only have been made with an agreement from Antetokounmpo in signing his super-max extension to keep him in Milwaukee for another five seasons and getting the Bucks off the knife’s edge with the two-time reigning MVP.
Similarly, discussions had been held with Holiday’s representatives over the recent weeks about extensions with the teams he was interested in being dealt to, once the six-month moratorium for traded players to sign extensions passed. It’s entirely possible that the Bucks are locking up their core for the next 4-5 seasons (hopefully, in their minds).
Clearly, the Bucks also are hoping these moves put them into the Finals they have been chasing the past two seasons.
Holiday, on paper, isn’t a considerably superior player to Bledsoe. Both are physical, tenacious defenders. Both are solid if unspectacular shooters. Holiday is more skilled, Bledsoe is more athletic. The upgrade largely comes in playoff ceiling, with Bledsoe having been a massive disappointment in two postseason appearances.
Holiday may not make Milwaukee’s league-best defense better, but he doesn’t make it worse, for sure. He may not lift their offense to new heights, but he can create offense for himself, something the Bucks badly needed in the late summer playoffs.
Bogdanovic gives them a versatile scorer to pair with Khris Middleton. The Bucks now have three scoring threats around Antetokounmpo, none of which are defensive liabilities, and none of which bring chemistry issues to the table.
The Bucks have mortgaged their future to keep their franchise icon, and hard-capped themselves in the process. Gone are the pieces that made the Bucks one of the deepest teams in the league, for all the good it did them in the postseason.
If one of the primary criticisms of Mike Budenholzer in the playoffs was that he didn’t play his best players enough and played strict rotations too much, one way to address that is to trade all that depth for upgrades. Bledsoe, Hill, Donte DiVincenzo, D.J. Wilson, all were dealt.
This had better work, because if it doesn’t, it will be a disaster.
Then again, here’s the upside. Let’s say it fails miserably and Antetokounmpo, after signing the max extension, demands a trade. The return for a player of his stature on a multi-year deal will be … at least as many picks as the Bucks gave up for Holiday, or more.
The biggest concern has to be that Holiday simply isn’t good enough. He’s a long-time favorite of League Pass junkies, a player who shines in those regular-season February games and whose metrics jump off the page. He had one brief moment of the spotlight three years ago when he shut down Damian Lillard in the playoffs.
Holiday is well-liked and well-respected around the league, but there has to be some concern of him being more of Antawn-Jamison-to-the-Cavs than Pau-Gasol-to-the-Lakers.
Still, there’s only so much the Bucks can do, and they did it. Critics will still and forever point to the decision not to retain Brogdon because once you make a move like that, it follows your franchise wherever it goes, but at least they gave the fans and the team a real shot to retain their best player of the last 40 years.
To be clear, Brogdon would have helped. The Bucks needed another on-ball creator and shooter. But it wouldn’t have changed Jae Crowder’s hot shooting or the structural coaching mishaps that led to their early exit in the second round.
Regardless, Milwaukee is all-in. The title odds won’t shift much, and the popular take on debate shows this week will be that it still doesn’t make them the title favorites, that they’re still limited.
Executives live in mortal fear of going all-in and finding the River has cost them everything. Milwaukee just pushed its chips in.