Bucks Free Agency Offers Optimism to Milwaukee


With NBA free agency starting this Friday, June 30, at 6 p.m. ET, Milwaukee fans will be tuned in to see if the Bucks retain the services of star players Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez. But if any Bucks fans are worried, they shouldn’t be.

No doubts about Middleton

Last week, Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Middleton would be declining his $40 million player option with the Bucks for the 2023-2024 season. 

This decision didn’t come as a surprise. The 31-year-old may not command $40 million next year in Milwaukee or elsewhere, but declining the option allows him to sign a multi-year contract and ensure he continues to net long-term money as he gets older. 

In fact, Wojnarowski even tweeted about the possibility of Middleton re-signing on a long-term deal, “A return to the Bucks on a new deal remains a possibility for Middleton.” The phrasing of this is misleading. It makes it sound like a return to Milwaukee is not the most likely outcome for Middleton. With what we know, the opposite is true.

Middleton was reportedly invited to attend a dinner with Bucks management in which they told him and Giannis Antetokounmpo about their intention to hire Adrian Griffin as the new head coach in Milwaukee. Involving Middleton in decisions that impact the franchise’s future would seem to indicate that they intend to make him a part of that future. 

During the NBA Draft on Thursday, June 22, Wojnarowski stated that, “I think there’s still a very good opportunity for the Bucks and Middleton to get together on a new contract this offseason.” Assuming that is the case, it will be the 11th season for him and Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee.

A string of ailments beginning with a knee injury suffered during the 2022 playoffs have plagued Middleton. Last season saw his lowest scoring average — 15.1 PPG — since the 2016-17 season. His drop in production and ability to shoulder consistent minutes sowed doubt in the minds of many Bucks fans.

After undergoing successful surgery on his right knee following the Bucks’ exit against Miami this April, Bucks fans can be cautiously optimistic about Middleton going forward. He has received the necessary medical attention to address lingering injuries, but will he be able to maintain his health?

There are doubts about Lopez, but why?

Lopez’s decision is inspiring a lot less confidence in the Bucks faithful. Many feel it is far from a certainty that Milwaukee retains both he and Middleton, and if one guy is going to leave, it’s more likely to be Lopez. 

While I agree that Lopez is more likely to leave than Middleton, it still does not seem likely. But, then again, the Houston Rockets are beginning to make things difficult. 

“The Bucks are also facing Brook Lopez’s free agency,” Wojnarowski said on draft night. “There’s an expectation that the Houston Rockets, flushed with a lot of salary-cap space, are going to be a real threat for Lopez.”

With the signing of Ime Udoka as head coach and acquiring yet another young prospect in Amen Thompson, the Rockets want to prove they can compete next season. The best way to do that is to use their roughly $60 million in cap space to sign veteran players that can help direct the young core and collect wins throughout the season. 

Lopez is the veteran big man Houston has in mind. 

The 35-year-old is coming off one of the best seasons of his career, and certainly the best defensive performance he’s had — he was the runner-up for defensive player of the year. 

Lopez couldn’t have picked a better season to have shown out. Now, instead of being handed the veteran’s minimum, he will have the opportunity to sign a sizable contract — potentially north of $20 million a year. 

Houston would be better served if they didn’t make a push for Lopez, though. Offering a large contract to a 35-year-old center is not the solution for every team’s problems. Lopez is great, but certainly is not going to be enough to flip the script for the Rockets in one year. Houston was tied for the worst record in the Western Conference last season. Lopez likely will not be able to help that roster reach contender status, or even the playoffs.

This begs the question: why would Lopez want to play the fleeting years of his career on what will likely be a middling team?

Kane Pitman, the host of the “Locked On Bucks” podcast, said it best on an episode last week, “The idea of Brook Lopez playing for the Houston Rockets next year doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.”

A move to Houston could make sense for the Rockets, but not for Lopez.

The Rockets can offer more money than Milwaukee, but the Bucks should be able to offer a solid contract to their championship center as well. If Houston wants to pay Lopez a ludicrous amount, that is their prerogative, but it seems that Lopez’s best interest lies in Milwaukee. 

What does Milwaukee do if they leave?

Here lies the biggest problem. Milwaukee almost has no choice but to bring back Middleton and Lopez. 

If either decides to sign elsewhere, the Bucks will have to hit the free-agency market with very little money to offer. The money Milwaukee does have would likely not land them players of Middleton or Lopez’s caliber, especially not ones that fit the system meticulously built around Antetokounmpo.

Re-signing the pair of veterans could be an important step in getting Antetokounmpo to reaffirm his long-term intentions with the franchise moving forward. Missing on either player likely wouldn’t help the franchise’s relationship with their most pivotal player.

Then there’s the fact that the Bucks cannot simply promote players from within the system to replace Middleton or Lopez. For example, Bobby Portis is unable to replicate Lopez’s defense, and fellow free agent Meyers Leonard is far from that level of player on either end of the floor. 

The Bucks want and have to re-sign Middleton and Lopez. The good news for general manager Jon Horst is that it seems likely both players will come back. But the Bucks must stay vigilant with Houston in the mix for Lopez. These are the most critical decisions this offseason.

Once Middleton and Lopez re-sign, the Bucks can focus on filling out the rest of the rotation and making decisions on whether to re-sign role players such as Jae Crowder.

Milwaukee must be cautious heading into the weekend, but there shouldn’t be any reason to worry.

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About Ben McCormick

Ben McCormick is a sports writer from North Carolina. He has run independent blogs and begun writing for The Lead in 2023. He writes for The Daily Tar Heel as well, where he has worked since September of 2022.

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