An asset is an asset: How the shifting market has stifled the Milwaukee Bucks' best intentions
This week, Milwaukee Bucks wing man Khris Middleton suffered a torn hamstring, and will miss the majority of the upcoming season. Over the last three years, Middleton has made himself into a quality player. Coming into the league as a sub-par outside shooter, Middleton is now one of the league's best, and retains the quirky off-the-dribble game that got him to this point to now be a valuable and versatile scoring presence. He is not a star, but he is an asset on any team, and particularly on the one he is on.
Last year, the Bucks had only the fifth-worst offense in the league, based in large part due to their bad shooting. They made the most two pointers in the league, but both made and attempted the fewest three-pointers, and only because of Middleton were they close to being the second fewest. Only two players made more than 100 three-pointers (Middleton 143; Jerryd Bayless 101; the third highest was O.J. Mayo at a lowly 52.) The whole team made only 440 three pointers - for context, Steph Curry alone made 402.
Moreover, excluding the lone attempt of Johnny O'Bryant, Middleton and Bayless were two of the onlyfive Bucks to shoot over 30% from three. Of the other three, Mayo's 52 for 162 recorded a lowly 32.1%, while Tyler Ennis and Steve Novak combined for only 15 of 45 all year. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jabari Parker and (to a much smaller degree) Michael Carter-Williams are all key rotation, future and offensive pieces, but all three do it without the three, shooting a combined 52-199 from there in a combined 6,880 minutes.
Middleton's absence, then, will decimate the shooting. Making it worse, Bayless and Mayo have already left - Bayless has gone to the Philadelphia 76ers as a free agent, while Mayo is beginning his two year suspension. Novak is also gone - indeed, he was never really there - and Ennis is now gone too, having being traded to the Houston Rockets in exchange for Michael Beasley. Both good shooters have gone, and so have all the mediocre ones.
Over the summer, the Bucks have acquired noted shooters in Matthew Dellavedova, Mirza Teletovic and Jason Terry, whilst also hoping that second round draftee Malcolm Brogdon does not take too long to adapt to the increased range of the NBA. But unless he does, and unless there is significant internal development from the returning non-shooters (including Rashad Vaughn, who cast up many attempts as a rookie but missed most of them), the Bucks figure to be at the bottom of the shooting pile again.
The Ennis trade, which probably would not have been made without this injury to Middleton, speaks to a shift in the NBA landscape over the last few years. So does the Bucks' aforementioned lack of wing shooting. The wing position has changed in the NBA, and the always-cyclical weighting of positional depth is currently heavy weighted towards big men. It comes at a time that big men are valued at less of a premium than they were. And this works against Milwaukee.
The Bucks have on their roster Greg Monroe, a quality centre by any metric. And yet they don't really want him. Despite only signing last summer, Monroe was immediately involved in trade talks, with rumours of trades involving him flying from as early as his first trade deadline with the team. Those rumours have continued this summer, too, and so very rarely is there smoke without fire. It appears that Monroe was not signed for his talent (which he has) or for being a good fit (which he is not), but to have an asset that they can later deal. He was signed to be dealt.
In one sense, the Bucks are the beneficiaries of this weighting. Monroe’s redundancy was known from day zero precisely because of the league’s current big man depth, which Milwaukee shared in. Up front, the Bucks also have John Henson, a perennially underrated player in the Brandan Wright mould who is much better than everyone outside of Milwaukee seems to assume he is. They have Miles Plumlee, a quality backup centre capable of more, and in whom they just invested $52 million. And they also have this year’s #10 overall pick at centre, Thon Maker. These players, plus Parker’s hybrid-style forward game, plus Antetokounmpo’s Odom-like ability to play pretty much anywhere, make Monroe somewhat of a luxury. He is the best of the big men, but he is also the priciest, the less invested in (in terms of time and non-financial assets), the oldest, and the most unnecessary.
This idea of a delayed sign-and- trade is not unprecedented, unheard of or unfounded. A fairly recent and prominent example was that of the Denver Nuggets, who re-signed Nene to a five-year, $65 million contracts late in the 2011 offseason (back when that was a large amount of money), only to swiftly turn around and deal him to Washington for JaVale McGee. Denver were subsequently and logically accused in the media of buyer's remorse, but not correctly. In actuality, re-signing Nene and dealing him for a young back as a de facto extended sign-and- trade was the plan. [Fun fact - the initial target was Tristan Thompson.] The Bucks have tried something similar with Milwaukee – they signed a good player at an acceptable cost, even if he did not fit their roster especially well because an asset is an asset.
The problem, however, is that Monroe and those like him are not the assets they once were. While admittedly flawed, Monroe is a quality big, averaging 15.3 points, 8.8 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game last year in only 29.3 minutes. He posted a 21.8 PER and an 113 offensive rating, the PER leading the team, the offensive rating being second only to Plumlee. But every team has a quality big man now. We are far removed from the days of Dale Davis’s All-Star appearance. Pretty much every team has a quality centre now, and many have two. Those that do have anything close to a hole in the middle do not typically have a surplus of wings they can just reshuffle to fill it with. And that is because as big man depth has grown, wing man depth has shrunk.
Additionally, the position has been under some redefinition. After Scottie Pippen redefined the small forward position with his do-it- all style, ability to defend anybody and ability to initiate the majority of the halfcourt offense, there became a desire to find do-it-all wing players that lasted for many years.
Nowadays, however, the preference in non-star wing players is for “three and D” specialists. This term is now common parlance when one needn’t go back more than about seven years to find it barely if ever used. Whereas we once looked for wing players who could do it all, we now look for wing players who can do two things. Whereas we once looked more for those who could do something off the dribble, we now look for those who can be frighteningly efficient without ever needing to take one. Whereas there used to be Von Wafers, now there are Troy Danielses. For every Antoine Wright or Kendrick Brown, we now have more Doug McDermotts and R.J. Hunters.
It is not without exception – Evan Turner’s massive new contract goes against this paradigm shift, for example. But just as Turner’s situation stands out as anomalous, Lance Stephenson’s offseason speaks to the new norms. Shooting has always been important, and shot creation still is, but there is a reason that Gerald Green types came back. And Michael Beasley is one such beneficiary.
Beasley is a weird player. This isn't meant pejoratively, but he is an indisputably rare type of player who has had a very unique career arc. Drafted second overall by a man who absolutely did not want to draft him second overall, Beasley has fallen out of the NBA multiple teams, often through his own actions and lack of development in his play. But no matter how many times he goes to China, he keeps coming back.
His last comeback was his most successful. Beasley played only 20 games for the Houston Rockets last season as a late-season pickup, but they were a mighty fine 20 games, averaging 12.8 points in only 18.2 minutes per game and attacking the glass like never before. It was a steady stream of mid-range jump shots, as ever, but few do them quite like Beasley, and even in a small 363 regular season minute sample size, a 22.5 PER is highly noteworthy.
Beasley keeps coming back because he scores like this. He doesn’t do much else, normally, and his penchant for always thinking it is his turn to score alienates and aggravates in equal measure. But he can score. He can really, really score. This is always intriguing, always important. Especially to a poor offensive team like Milwaukee who just lost their best scorer.
But if Beasley is the best stopgap Milwaukee can find in the absence of Middleton, that is indicative of the point here. It didn’t exactly take Greg Monroe to get him. Regardless of Beasley's individual talents, the situation is indicative of a point. The Bucks signed Monroe, even knowing they needed wing help and some shooting, as they reasoned they could trade their excess of big man talent for wing help at a later date. One year later, after giving Teletovic and Dellavedova $20 million combined in a desperate bid to shoot at least as badly as last year, they are finding now that they can't.
Whereas a few years before each team wanted at least two quality big men are yet were sharing from a pot of about 30, there is now a pot of about 60, just as the need for them begins to ebb in the pace-and-space, small ball era. Monroe is exactly not a lame duck - he remains a quality player, even if the constant trade talks inevitably make him feel alienated. And the situation will resolve itself someday - Milwaukee's talent level should allow them to eventually be able to broker a deal that rejigs the roster, balances the team, and sees them climb up the Eastern seedings, given a good deal or two. But they cannot find that good deal.
Instead, in the desperate need for a “shooter”, they can at this time only acquire a mid-range shooting specialist who, even after the best season of his career, was deemed available for a third string point guard. Milwaukee wants what everyone else wants, the efficient high-minute, low-dribbling wing shooting staple who betters the team by being there, but most other teams already have it, and they aren’t giving it up.
Indeed, even those who have one or two already want more. The one time dream ticket of having an excess of productive centres now carries less weight. Gone, too, is much of the market for the ‘playmaking’ non-star, non-Evan Turner swingman. The market inefficiency that was the oversight of the high volume outside shooter is no more. Shooting is everything now, and that is what now costs all of the assets. None of which bodes well for Rudy Gay.