As the eyes of many NBA fans shift towards the postseason, some front office executives are thinking about how they can improve the fates of their franchises that are not currently vying for postseason play. The pre-draft process is filled with tons of scouting, evaluation periods, internal discussion and workouts for some of the hopeful rookies that want a spot in the NBA.
Taking the drafting needs and picks into consideration, financial considerations can paint the biggest picture to what decisions will be made beyond the draft. Trading some players, utilizing cap space for taking on others, and preparing for free agency all are highly informed by the team's salary situations – after all, the NBA is a business.
As two Eastern Conference teams that made the playoffs and pushed their first-round series to seven games, both the Indiana Pacers and Milwaukee Bucks are trending upward. Both have drastically different salary situations, but these two division foes could find themselves in great positions moving forward with the right additions and tweaks made this summer.
2017-18 Record: 48-34
2018 Draft Picks: 23rd, 50th
Restricted Free Agents: none
Unrestricted Free Agents: G/F Glenn Robinson III, F/C Trevor Booker
Other Players of Note: C Al Jefferson (only $4m of $10m salary guaranteed; guarantee date Jan. 10), G/F Bojan Bogdanovic (only $1.5m of $10.5m salary guaranteed; guarantee date June 29), PG Darren Collison (only $2m of $10m salary guaranteed; guarantee date July 1), F Thaddeus Young ($13.8m player option), G Lance Stephenson ($4.36m team option), G Joe Young ($1.6m team option), C Ike Anigbogu (non-guaranteed contract), F Alex Poythress (non-guaranteed contract)
Committed Salary: $92,815,802
Cap Room: $5.9 million
Of all the teams to bow out in the first round of the playoffs, perhaps none have more upside to continue their building than the Indiana Pacers. 2017-18 was a miraculous run for Indy, getting to push the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round behind the great play of Victor Oladipo and a strong supporting cast of misfits. Now the Pacers are primed with not just a young core of Oladipo, Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis, but the possibility of having a great deal of cap space. That cap space, and when the Pacers try to open it up, could be the key to the franchise taking a step towards elite status.
Order of Operations
1. Wait a year to clear max cap space, but waive or trade Al Jefferson now
With the way their current roster stands, the Pacers have two guaranteed roster spots to be open, about $5.94 million in cap space and the 23rd overall pick in the draft. Thaddeus Young has a $13.76 million player option he could exercise, which could raise the number to $19.7 million, but provide the Pacers with a starting position they need to fill. There are also two team options for the Pacers: Lance Stephenson ($4.36 million option) and Joe Young ($1.6 million option) that could be declined and open up more space, but both players seem to be on team-friendly deals they'd likely exercise.
If Indiana's front office gets Young off the books, they have five partially guaranteed contracts – and three large deals – that they can use to clear more cap space to target some big names on the market. Al Jefferson ($10 million with only $4 million guaranteed), Darren Collison ($10 million with only $2 million guaranteed) and Bojan Bogdanovic ($10.5 million with a $1.5 million guaranteed) could all be cut and open up an additional $23 million in space. Bogdanovic and Collison are starters that are difficult to replace. While cap space might sound appealing, the thought of having to spend it on players that move the needle forward isn't easy.
GM Kevin Pritchard has a dilemma here this summer: should he use the non-guaranteed deals for flexibility now or punt it until 2019 and have more than $60 million in cap space next summer?
The best maneuver might be a middle-of-the-road split from Pritchard and company, cutting the players that don't help them next year or beyond. Getting rid of Al Jefferson and trimming $6 million would give the Pacers about $10.5 million to fill out their roster with before going over the cap. In this year's market, where many teams are relying heavily on the Mid-Level Exception to attract new players, being able to outbid the MLE by a few million could be the difference in swinging a good player to Indianapolis.
There is another path that the Pacers could use without eating too much into their 2019 cap space: trading their non-guaranteed contracts. Many franchises are butting up against the luxury tax and struggling to keep costs low. For that reason, a player like Jefferson might have some trade value, as a team might want to swap bad contracts, throw in a sweetener to the Pacers, and then cut Jefferson to lower their salary. Could the Wizards throw in a draft pick to swap Gortat for Big Al? Would Denver do the same with Kenneth Faried? There are options beyond simple cutting or keeping all these players. The bottom line: it will be great for Pritchard and the Pacers to operate from a bargaining position of power, as cap space is a major premium right now.
2. Assume Thad Young will opt-in
Pacers point guard Cory Joseph has already opted into his contract for next season with the Pacers, and now the organization is only waiting on Thad Young to make up his mind. It seems highly likely that Young will exercise his $13.76 million player option to return to Indiana. On a year where there's a market crunch, Young isn't likely to recoup that amount of money anywhere else on the market for next season.
The only reason he would opt out is if Young thought he'd get buried on the depth chart in Indiana to the point where he couldn't make more than the minimum per year if he were a free agent in 2019. His stock likely won't take that much of a plummet barring serious injury, so this is the likely course for Young.
3. Value the 23rd pick
Indiana has the 23rd pick coming up and a great deal of flexibility – the non-guaranteed contracts – to potentially trade up or into another selection. The Pacers, being at a great point in their retooling efforts around Oladipo, should look to add one more solid youngster, and he might be around that late in the first-round. Indiana has a need for depth on the wings and one more multi-positional defender to compete, but that shouldn't detract them from taking the best player available.
It just might happen that those two birds can be killed with one stone: the 23rd selection. Creighton's Khyri Thomas, Boise State's Chandler Hutchison, Miami's Bruce Brown and Cincinnati's Jacob Evans could all be in play here as multi-positional defenders and immediate impact guys. In this year's draft, 23 is a solid place to be. There's a clear top 14 or 15 players, but after the lottery there's little difference between when a team will select. Pritchard should be excited about adding one more piece to his team through the draft and have high expectations that they can contribute right away.
4. Outbid other teams in free agency
The answer to this question is obviously complex and driven by how much cap space they end up with and how many starting spots they need to replace. It also changes based on whether the organization goes over the salary cap and if they decide to use the Mid-Level Exception. Still, there are names that the Pacers can reasonably expect to target with a solid $11 million budget, in the aforementioned scenario where they outbid teams with the Mid-Level Exception.
Another shotmaker and creator could be coming on the wings for the Pacers. Guys like Will Barton, Avery Bradley or Tyreke Evans could be great additions since they have size and would shoulder some of the offensive burden from Victor Oladipo. Even a restricted free agent like Marcus Smart, where the Pacers bid more than most Mid-Level Exceptions and enough for the Celtics to give up on matching his salary, could be within reach for Indiana.
Looking at the roster though, Indy is pretty well set when it comes to big men, with two foundational young bigs and a depth flier in Ike Anigbogu. They should focus on adding more switchable wings and pieces this summer, either through the draft, free agency or trade. That's the formula that over the long term would help them against teams like Boston, Cleveland and Philadelphia.
5. Begin talks with Myles Turner on an extension
Turner is extension eligible this summer, and the big man has made only minimal strides over the last season and a half. After starting out as a great draft steal for the Pacers, Turner lost some footing to Domantas Sabonis down the stretch this year and might not be the franchise-caliber center the team had hoped for. Still, Turner has more value to the Pacers on an extension and long-term contract than simply letting him shop around and see who else believes in him.
Expect Indiana to work diligently to get Turner locked in long-term. Not only is the hope to get him below market value by doing so, but that signing him this summer or fall would give the team a clearer picture of exactly how much space they'll have to attract new names in the summer of 2019.
2017-18 Record: 44-38
2018 Draft Picks: 17th
Restricted Free Agents: F Jabari Parker
Unrestricted Free Agents: G Jason Terry, F Shabazz Muhammad
Other Players of Note: G Malcolm Brogdon (non-guaranteed contract), C Tyler Zeller (non-guaranteed contract), PG Brandon Jennings (non-guaranteed contract)
Committed Salary: $100,870,408
Luxury Tax Room: $17.6 million
If the rumors on the street are true, Mike Budenholzer will be the next head coach of the Milwaukee Bucks, a welcomed lift for a team that has gotten horrid coaching over the last few years. That coaching change should provide enough of a boost to the team that overall roster overhaul shouldn't be necessary. With one of the brightest stars in the game in Giannis Antetokounmpo, a great number two in Khris Middleton and two high-end guards in Eric Bledsoe and Malcolm Brogdon, the Bucks could rise to the top of the Eastern Conference next season.
That said, they still have their fair share of decisions to make this summer with drastic impacts on their long-term roster stability. From the key decision on Jabari Parker to how they approach their bench and center positions, GM Jon Horst has his hands full and must hit each button correctly if Milwaukee is to keep up with other Eastern Conference teams trending upwards.
Order of Operations
1. What to do with Jabari?
Before midnight strikes on July 1st, the Bucks need to have a plan in place with Jabari Parker and his agent for what the initial offer from Milwaukee will be. That offer is so difficult to predict; Parker has performed very well on the offensive end when healthy, averaging over 20 points per game a season ago. However the health is incredibly questionable, with two ACL surgeries over the last three years have made Jabari a bit of a liability on the defensive end even when healthy.
It's hard to predict what the external market will be for Jabari, so Milwaukee is fairly blind with whether they're bidding against themselves or another team will come in and raise the stakes on them. Because Parker is a restricted free agent, Milwaukee will have the ability to match any offer he receives. However if he signs an offer sheet first, that could trigger exorbitant spending on Milwaukee's part and propel them above the luxury tax.
There's also the matter of Jabari not getting any bites on the market but being insulted by a low offer that comes from the Bucks. What would then occur? Parker would likely accept the qualifying offer of just above $4.3 million from Milwaukee, take next year to rehabilitate his value, and then become an unrestricted free agent in 2019. The Bucks would have all their key pieces flanking Giannis eligible to leave without recourse next summer, and that's a dangerous bridge to cross a year before Giannis could be the top name on the market.
The most likely course of action though is that Jabari accepts a long-term offer somewhere – given his injury history. The Bucks should hope to get him back at around $12 million a year for the first season of his contract. Add that to the full Mid-Level Exception and their first-round pick cap hold and the Bucks should be right at the level of the salary cap.
2. Nailing the draft
It's hard to say the Bucks have hit on the draft since nabbing Giannis and Jabari in two consecutive seasons. The pick of Thon Maker has revealed mixed results and frustrating inconsistency, 2015 pick Rashad Vaughn never panned out, and 2017 selection DJ Wilson struggled to find the floor as a rookie. There's a major need for the Bucks to, at the very least, get a competent bench player when they select 17th overall on June 21st.
There's no reason to draft for position, nor to expect the Bucks to go after only a certain type of player. Simply taking the best prospect available when they're on the clock and getting them in the rotation is what Milwaukee needs right now.
3. Mid-Level Targets
Much of who the Bucks should target is contingent on whether they'll get a 4-man in Jabari Parker or need to add another stretch candidate. Either way there is one priority for the Bucks to add in a new player on the roster: shooting.
Players like Wayne Ellington, Joe Harris and Marco Belinelli could be the exact type of role players that the Bucks target. If they need a 4-man after not getting Jabari to stay, perhaps a player like Michael Beasley or Wilson Chandler could fill the void.
4. Extend Malcolm Brogdon
Brogdon will be extension eligible this summer, and he's one of the few players they should certainly lock up long-term. On July 29th, Brogdon could be eligible for a four-year, $46 million extension – good value for a player like him who is just about to enter his prime. The Bucks should jump at the opportunity to extend him and be prepared to pay for his borderline sixth man service, serving at the very least as an insurance policy for Eric Bledsoe if he bolts after this coming season.
5. Cross your fingers for Teletovic to be deemed unable to play
Right now the Bucks have stretched the contract of Mirza Teletovic over the next three years, providing an unsavory $3.5 million cap hit each season. That said, the Bucks will begin a process with the league to prove that Teletovic is unfit to play and receive a medical waiver for him. If that comes to fruition, the league will wipe away that $3.5 million, but not until November at the earliest.
The question is, should the Bucks assume that $3.5 million will get wiped away and over-spend this summer, or take the conservative path and let that money potentially open up this Winter. Either course the team takes they should feel confident that their cap amount will raise by a few million. The one downside: if Teletovic is ever cleared to play again that $3.5 million cap hit in future years would return onto the Bucks cap sheet, so they should tread carefully when handing out long-term money.
Head Boys Basketball Coach, Boys' Latin School (MD).