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Bucks make potentially fateful choice to let P.J. Tucker leave

Former Bucks forward P.J. Tucker

PHOENIX, AZ - JULY 16: P.J. Tucker #17 of the Milwaukee Bucks looks on during practice and media availability as part of the 2021 NBA Finals on July 16, 2021 at the Footprint Center in Phoenix, Arizona. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2021 NBAE (Photo by Jim Poorten/NBAE via Getty Images)

NBAE via Getty Images

NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

The Bucks would be better with P.J. Tucker on the roster.

That’s not really debatable.

Yes, re-signing Tucker – whom Milwaukee let leave for the Heat on a 1+1 contract with a $7 million starting salary – would have been expensive. Even without Tucker, the Bucks face a $42 million luxury-tax liability.

Tucker, 36, has also already shown signs of decline. His drop on 3-pointers, both volume and efficiency, really pinched Milwaukee’s spacing. His defense isn’t as sharp as it once was. He could slip further next season, maybe to the point he doesn’t warrant a spot in the playoff rotation.

But he was just a key contributor in the Bucks’ championship run. He made Milwaukee far more versatile defensively. Giannis Antetokounmpo (getting ahead in transition or slashing through crowds) and Khris Middleton (shooting off the dribble from mid-range) are particularly well-suited to overcome the spacing problems Tucker creates.

Importantly, the Bucks could have made all the same moves they actually made AND re-signed Tucker through Bird Rights. He definitely would’ve provided more optionality than whomever fills Milwaukee’s final roster spot.

To be fair, it’s not as if Bucks ownership went cheap. Milwaukee:

  • Re-signed Bobby Portis (1+1, $8,912,580)
  • Signed George Hill (two years, $8 million)
  • Traded for Grayson Allen (earning $4,054,695 in the final year of his rookie-scale contract)

Portis is a bargain. The Bucks didn’t have to use their mid-level exception to keep him, getting him to take just the smaller Non-Bird Exception. However, Portis had three DNP-CDs in a second-round series against the Nets, who remain Milwaukee’s top challenger. Tucker played 31 minutes per game in all seven games against Brooklyn.

Hill underwhelmed with the 76ers last season. Maybe that’s because he’s 35. Maybe that’s because he was uncomfortable with Philadelphia’s system. If the latter, it bodes well Hill is just a season removed from playing very well for the Bucks.

Allen provides depth at shooting guard with Donte DiVincenzo injured and Bryn Forbes departed for the Spurs. With the Grizzlies in a roster crunch, Milwaukee got Allen for just a couple distant second-rounders.

In smaller moves, the Bucks signed Rodney Hood and Semi Ojeleye to one-year minimum contracts. Both are fine bets at that price but would have been overpaid at a dollar more. Hood was once a talented offensive player before injury derailed his career. Ojeleye brings strength as a defensive-minded forward, but he’s very limited offensively.

Curiously, Milwaukee gave Thanasis Antetokounmpo a 1+1 minimum contract. It’s no surprise Giannis’ brother is staying. But if they gave Thanasis two separate one-year minimum contracts, the Bucks would have saved money on both salary and luxury tax without changing Thanasis’ income. Given Giannis’ presence, would there have been any risk of Thanasis leaving if not for this more-player-friendly structure or any risk of Milwaukee not offering another minimum-salary deal next summer?

The Bucks also recouped some draft picks by trading the No. 31 pick for four second-rounders, including No. 54 pick Sandro Mamukelashvili and No. 60 pick Georgios Kalaitzakis. Milwaukee signed Kalaitzakis to a standard contract, rather than the two-way contract typical of that draft slot, because that allows further luxury-tax savings.

Really, the Bucks’ spending went multiple directions coming off their championship. They didn’t pay as much as possible to fortify their title defense. But they didn’t cut every corner, either.

Milwaukee gave Mike Budenholzer a three-year extension. Though Budenholzer – who entered the playoffs on the hot seat – didn’t answer every question about his postseason coaching, he earned this extension by guiding the Bucks to a championship. His playoff adjustments were at least good enough.

Tucker’s postseason production was also good enough. Yet, Milwaukee deemed him unessential. It’s a decision that could reverberate through the 2022 playoffs.

With roughly similar costs, it seems the Bucks could have either:

Portis, Hill and Allen


Tucker and one of Portis, Hill or Allen

It’s an interesting thought exercise, and I’m undecided on an answer. Even if choosing Tucker, I’m unsure whether I’d rather have Portis or Hill accompanying him.

But, again, Milwaukee didn’t have to choose. The Bucks could have Portis, Hill, Allen AND Tucker. This is the time – in the midst of championship contention – to pay whatever it takes.

Of course, it’s easy for me to spend someone else’s money.

Offseason grade: C-