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Report: Bucks’ willingness to pay luxury tax next season depends on this year’s playoffs

Milwaukee Bucks v Boston Celtics

BOSTON, MA - MARCH 29: Khris Middleton #22 of the Milwaukee Bucks celebrates with Malcolm Brogdon #13 during the fourth quarter against the Boston Celtics at TD Garden on March 29, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts. 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 the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

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The Bucks have been the NBA’s best team throughout the season.

They won 60 games in the regular season. They swept the Pistons in the first round. They just won four straight to beat the Celtics, 4-1.

But money threatens to prevent Milwaukee from rolling this momentum into next year.

Four key Bucks – Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, Malcolm Brogdon and Nikola Mirotic – will be free agents this summer. Keeping all four could push Milwaukee into the luxury tax, a rare expenditure for the small-market franchise. The Bucks have paid the tax only once, the first year it was assessed, 2003.

Would Milwaukee really pay the tax to keep this team intact?

Tim Bontemps of ESPN:

That is something ownership is willing to do, sources say, depending on how far the team goes this season.

This is a misguided outlook. The Bucks’ willingness to pay the tax next season should be based only on whether that extra spending would produce sufficient rewards next season.

Of course, the best indication of Milwaukee’s ceiling next season is probably this postseason. It’s just important to assess with a forward-looking, not backward-looking, approach.

And maybe the Bucks are. Their internal process could easily get twisted as it leaks to the public.

The important thing is their willingness to pay the tax. A conference finals appearance certainly bodes well in that regard.

Milwaukee projects to be about $54 million below the tax line before considering those four starter-level free agents. It’s unlikely the Bucks can keep all four for that little. Middleton, an All-Star this year, could get more than $30 million himself.

With full Bird Rights for Middleton, Brogdon and Mirotic, Milwaukee can re-sign them for any amount up to the max. The only cost is real dollars, which would be multiplied as the team enters the tax.

But it gets tricky with Lopez. To give him a starting salary above $4,058,400, the Bucks would have to clear cap space (highly unlikely) or use a mid-level exception. The non-taxpayer mid-level exception projects to be about $9 million, and the taxpayer mid-level exception projects to be about $6 million. However, using the higher mid-level exception would hard cap Milwaukee at a projected team salary of about $138 million.

Based on their current roster, a $30 million salary for Middleton, a $12 million salary for Brogdon (whose market could be depressed by his restricted status), a $9 million salary for Mirotic and the non-taxpayer mid-level exception would put the Bucks right near the hard cap. And those salaries are conservative estimates.

At least salary-cap rules won’t stop Milwaukee from paying Middleton, Brogdon and Mirotic more. Lopez comes with different constraints.

There’s no guarantee Lopez would settle for a starting salary of just $9 million. He has been so valuable as a stretch five and paint protector. He could get far bigger offers, though maybe not a better fit.

The Bucks could also unload Tony Snell ($11,592,857) and Ersan Ilyasova ($7 million) to create more flexibility. However, Milwaukee already has two outgoing future first-round picks and will be limited trading another.

It’s incumbent on the Bucks to solve these dilemmas, not just to maintain an excellent team but to keep Giannis Antetokounmpo happy as he approaches his super-max-extension decision. Paying the luxury tax could go a long way.