It’s imperative for the Deer to eventually advance in the playoffs, and cement themselves as authentic winners, for them to retain the once-in-a-decade talents of Antetokounmpo and subsequently self-perpetuate a winning culture. To possess savoir-faire, which is rare in the NBA, a franchise must have a steady core, a good coaching scheme and great personnel. With more accommodations to Antetokounmpo’s game — hiring Budenholzer was one of them — the franchise could be set for the next five to eight years.
In the case of Milwaukee, one key cog in the acquisition of a star player via trade, or key role players via free agency, one positive rejoinder to Bucks’ fans, whom have learned to grow skeptical of the coaching carousel, was the signing of coach Mike Budenholzer to a four-year contract. No secret is it that Budenholzer’s ex-employer, the San Antonio Spurs, have a disgruntled star on their hands, as Kawhi Leonard, a former Defensive Player of the Year, failed to travel with the team, didn’t play when medically cleared, and wasn’t a great communicator with team officials. Of course, being an outsider to the situation, posturing in pure speculation about the severity of Leonard’s injury is inane. The panoramic view of the situation will eventually hit the public, but, until then, the rumors will continue to snowball.
It’s far from conclusive as to whether Leonard will flee San Antonio, in part because R.C. Buford and Co. have some financial leverage — the Spurs can offer their star forward a 5-year, $219 million supermax contract, starting July 1– and still have one of the best coaches in NBA history, one who never fails to maximizes his talents, in Greg Popovich. Though Pop believes in resting his players, it’s important to note that Leonard has never played in more than 74 games, nor has he ever averaged above 33 minutes per game for an entire season. One has to wonder how such minute-related restrictions would work in Milwaukee.
Regardless of all the hoopla circulating the rumor mill, and the fact that Milwaukee (apart from Eric Bledsoe) hardly lands marquee players, Bucks’ fans must at least be curious, given the amount of assets their team has, as to whether Leonard (if he is to be dealt) could wind up wearing cream city cream and good land green. To quench that curiosity, below are potential deals that could pry Leonard loose.
Spurs trade: Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green
Bucks trade: Khris Middleton, Jabari Parker, Matthew Dellavedova
Let’s get one thing straight: this hypothetical deal would require a sign-and-trade of Parker, as well as the inclusion of the oft-injured Dellavedova to pass a physical. Though the deal seems improbable, considering those two things and the fact that Middleton (along with Antetokounmpo) had breakfast with Budenholzer, upon the Bucks officially inking the long-time Spurs’ assistant, this likely means Milwaukee’s front office considers Middleton, who finished second on the team in points per game and win shares, to be a part of the organization’s core, heightening the improbability of him leaving town.
However, from the Spurs’ point-of-view, there is much to like about this trade. As displayed by his first-round playoff high 71.9 percent true shooting percentage, Middleton offers a smooth shooting stroke from nearly anywhere on the floor, and can hold his own on isolation plays, despite his propensity to settle from mid-range. The veteran forward, who is also fresh off setting his career-high in defensive win shares, possesses a 7-foot wingspan and can defend multiple positions. Middleton’s athleticism would fit well into the Spurs’ defensive rotation, which involves a lot of switching and reliance on length.
Parker, despite coming off a torn ACL for the second time and seeing a decrease in minutes per night, proved to be an offensive force, averaging 12.6 points on 48 percent shooting. His on-ball defensive effort is a glaring hole, however, as his agility and awareness seem to vanish — something that’d be hard for the disciplined Spurs to work with. Given that the former Duke Blue Devil also has a propensity to initiate fast breaks and create his own shot off the dribble in the half court would be cause for concern, as San Antonio ranked 28th in pace this season and is known for setting up offense with a lot of facilitation.
Like Parker before him, Dellavedova made his way back from injury late in the season. The Aussie guard struggled mightily, however, tallying career-worsts in turnover percentage, field goal percentage and defensive rating, in his limited time. That said, he does hold one of the best skillsets, intangibly, amongst guards in the NBA, and a scrappiness that would effortlessly fit into a Popovich-driven scheme.
If the Bucks snagged Leonard, the team would benefit greatly in man-to-man, relying less on traps and more on rotations – something Budenholzer, like Popovich, stresses in his basketball philosophy. The All-Star forward could easily be inserted at the three, which would allow Antetokounmpo to stay at home more in the paint, instead of repairing the team’s defensive gaffes elsewhere. While the Bucks forced plenty of turnovers this season, a lot of second chances were lent to opposing offenses due to the team’s inability to grab defensive rebounds. (The Bucks finished 29th in the Association in defensive rebounding percentage (75.9), behind only the Orlando Magic.) After averaging 25 points in 2016, Leonard proved himself as a formidable scorer, one with an underappreciated mid-range game, but also one who can out-muscle defenders in the post.
For the 30-year-old Green, long ago are the days that 45 percent from deep seemed feasible. This season featured him losing his stranglehold on a spot in the starting lineup and playing over 77 percent of his minutes at the three (due to Leonard’s extended absence), as the (otherwise-career) shooting guard came off the bench on 10 different occasions. The corkscrews offered up were largely because the Spurs (gasp) lacked starting chemistry at the wing positions, making for an awkward situation for a player, who, in his own right, is a former All-NBA Defender but was overshadowed by Kyle Anderson and Dejounte Murray.
In Milwaukee, Green would be cherished, however, as there’d be less low-post isolation and more opportunities for Antetokounmpo to feed the marksman behind the arc. With The Claw and The Greek Freak manning the forward positions, Green could be inserted into the starting lineup at the two, or perhaps be a microwavable force off the pine.
Spurs trade: Kawhi Leonard, Patty Mills
Bucks trade: Khris Middleton, Malcolm Brogdon, John Henson, Thon Maker, and 2018 1st-round pick
Mills, who appeared in all 82 games this season and has only missed three games the last three seasons, would offer much-needed durability in the backcourt for the Bucks, being a veteran guard capable of making spot starts or coming off the bench. The former NBA champion possesses a high basketball IQ, one that could help mentor guys like Sterling Brown, as he plays low-turnover ball, and has more quickness than a player like Dellavedova.
Using the same Middleton-related stipulation from the first trade, it doesn’t seem likely that he’d be dealt, though the talent exchange would make this trade easier to stomach for both teams. Brogdon has the intangibles of a Popovich-system player, on defensive rotations, the ability to work around screens and by being offensively sound enough to play a patient team game. He has proven he can play well off-ball, as his minutes at the two don’t stray far from his minutes running an offense.
With the Spurs looking at the impending retirement of center Pau Gasol, adding Thon Maker, who has proven to elevate his game once the postseason commences, and John Henson, who has improved his low-post efficiency, this deal makes sense. Though both players aren’t exactly blowing up the weight room and don’t have great face-up games, the Spurs’ system has always found room for players who are equipped with finesse games and products of ball movement. With their starting center, Pau Gasol, turning 38 in July, the Spurs need some youth in the front court, especially considering no other center will be under contract come July 1. Popovich and his staff haven’t been shy about turning project bigs into sold, multi-faceted guys with starting minutes (such as Atlanta’s Dewayne Dedmon and Boston’s Aron Baynes).
(Note: The inclusion of the 1st-rounder, which is the 17th overall pick, forces the deal to only be agreed upon, not consummated, until post draft.)
The chances of Kawhi Leonard playing in a Bucks’ uniform in the upcoming months are puny, but, if both parties in San Antonio are at truly odds with one another, it makes sense that Milwaukee would be a prime trading partner, due to their collection of young talent.