Almost three months removed from rescuing Eric Bledsoe from the Suns, the Bucks still have figuring out to do as they attempt to balance long-term promise and current success. That much became abundantly clear when Jason Kidd was fired Monday afternoon, though it doesn’t necessarily signal a commitment to one particular direction. With internal development, smart moves on the margins and some luck, Milwaukee has the makings of a title contender in the next era. The front office could also try to speed up that timeline to compete in the near term, and heading into the trade deadline, the team’s future feels anything but solidified.
The argument for going for it now isn’t outlandish. Giannis Antetokounmpo may not be at his absolute peak yet, but he’s still a top-eight (or higher) player in the league. This may be the best we ever see Khris Middleton, who, along with Tony Snell, is a model support player for Antetokounmpo. Eric Bledsoe and Malcolm Brogdon are exactly the sort of complementary playmakers that tie contenders together. Add the right player into that mix, and maybe the Bucks become a more sincere threat.
It will be difficult, however, to add that difference-maker without sacrificing another one. Acquiring another star to place around Bledsoe and Antetokounmpo is not as easy as simply flipping a few role players — and maybe a draft pick — for a disgruntled player on a middling team. Any trade partner would likely demand at least one of the Bucks’ young role players, almost all of whom fit naturally around Giannis and figure to be major parts of the team’s future. Reconfiguring that core in a vain attempt at improving in the near term would be a risky gambit.
The obvious position in need of an upgrade is at the five, where Thon Maker — while intriguing as a long-term project — isn’t quite ready for a prominent role and John Henson is more stopgap than starter. The Bucks are rumored to have interest in DeAndre Jordan, who would shore up their interior defense and rebounding. A front line of him and Antetokounmpo would – theoretically – terrorize on defense. But he would also come at a significant price that would likely cost Milwaukee at least one of Maker, Brogdon or Jabari Parker.
Taking on a center in the Jordan mold would come not only at the cost of assets but of floor spacing as well. Whatever their shortcomings, Henson and Maker pose at least mild threats from 16 feet. That isn’t quite the same threat as Kevin Love or Karl Towns spotting up out to 3-point range, but it provides marginally more space for Antetokounmpo and Bledsoe to venture to the rim relatively unencumbered. Would lineups with another non-shooter cluttering the paint be workable? Perhaps a cheaper, stretchier center — Dewayne Dedmon, for example — could patch that hole at a lower cost, allowing the Bucks to hang onto their core assets while slightly upgrading at a position of need.
Parker and Maker are the two most interesting trade chips Milwaukee has due to their youth and wide range of potential outcomes. It’s too early to make anything of Maker, but an actualized version of what his optimists believe he can be would fundamentally change Milwaukee’s makeup for the better. He’ll be 21 next month and has shown just enough flashes to reveal the potential that might be uncovered in the right circumstances. Parker is 22 and coming off the second ACL surgery of his career. That complicates things to an extent that may not be knowable after the Feb. 8 trade deadline. If Parker can’t return to the court before then, Milwaukee will have a tough time assessing his value, and teams aren’t lining up to trade significant assets for an recovering player on an expiring contract.
That makes Parker immensely more difficult to trade if Milwaukee has intentions of doing so, but the team would be wise to hang onto him and collect more data on how he fits with Antetokounmpo and the rest of its young players. Lineups including Antetokounmpo, Brogdon, Middleton and Snell have scored nearly 116 points per 100 possessions in 246 minutes together. All four are 26 years old or younger. Add a healthy Parker to that nucleus, and it becomes downright frightening.
Milwaukee will always be relevant so long as it has Antetokounmpo; stars of that caliber are as indelible as they are unstoppable. But at present, the Bucks are not good enough to contend for an NBA championship. Even with another major move before the deadline, it’s unlikely they’ll reach that level this year. Maybe it won’t be good enough three years from now either, but whatever Milwaukee decides to do at the deadline will be a calculated risk and a bet on one timeline or the other.