For general manager Jon Horst and the Milwaukee Bucks, the motto of the weekend may very well be out with the (somewhat) old, and in with the…also somewhat old.
In a surprise Friday trade (in advance of the team’s contest against Golden State), Milwaukee struck a deal with the Cleveland Cavaliers, nabbing George Hill in return for Matthew Dellavedova, John Henson, and draft picks. As the night progressed, the Washington Wizards wedged themselves into the deal and nabbed Sam Dekker (originally bound for Milwaukee), providing Jason Smith to the Bucks in return.
For Milwaukee, the trade affected all three of the primary pillars of roster-building: on-court talent, salary cap flexibility, and draft assets. Initially, the Bucks appeared to be paying a major price for the luxury of clearing out nearly $20 million of 2019-20 salary, but as further reporting emerged, the Bucks made out better than expected. Sending out a future first round pick is enough to make some fans sweat, but just like we saw with the Eric Bledsoe trade last season, Jon Horst dots his is and crosses his ts.
The Bucks owe Phoenix a 2019 first-round pick protected 1-7 and 17-30 via Bledsoe trade, so Bucks will trade Cleveland their first-round pick two years after that one conveys to the Suns — with the protections going in this order. https://t.co/2bS051dP9z
— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) December 7, 2018
Essentially, the Bucks are using the Stepien Rule to their advantage: once the Phoenix Suns get their due for taking on Greg Monroe’s expiring contract (oh yeah, and the Bucks’ current starting point guard), Milwaukee will get one year where they must make a first round pick, and the year after the conditions will kick in to send a pick to Cleveland. Draft capital is not to be squandered without good reason, but so far Horst has been making those future firsts work for him.
On the margins of this deal, the Bucks and Cavaliers are also swapping second round picks in 2021 – Milwaukee might get the better pick that summer! – while the Wizards have simply removed the protections on the 2020 second round pick owed to Milwaukee from the Jodie Meeks trade…which was also the same second round pick given to the Bucks in exchange for Jared Dudley. Who knew that gifting Dudley to the Wiz would pay off like this, three years later?
So the Bucks shuffled second rounders in 2021, gained a second rounder in 2020, but lost another first round pick sometime between 2021 and 2024. With the existing obligations to Phoenix, the future draft pick cupboard is starting to look bare, but the outlook on this front is nothing to compared to how dire the salary cap pinch coming this summer looked only 48 hours ago.
With Delly and Captain Hook going (or going back) to Ohio, $19.34M of 2019-20 salary goes with them. Of the Bucks’ remaining “bad” contracts, only Tony Snell ($23.6M owed for the 19-20 and 20-21 seasons, with the latter being a player option) and Ersan Ilyasova ($14.0M due for 19-20 and 20-21, but the last year is non-guaranteed) remain. Suddenly, the major crossroads facing all four of the team’s non-Giannis Antetokounmpo starters this summer seems more workable, and as The Athletic’s Danny Leroux notes (requires subscription), the team could even stay below the luxury tax to keep Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, Eric Bledsoe, and Malcolm Brogdon.
If Milwaukee receives a long-term injury exclusion for Mirza Teletovic’s stretched salary as expected, it would have about $68.5 million to spend on retentions and additions while staying under the tax. That could be enough for some combination of Middleton, Bledsoe, Brogdon and Lopez, though it is hard to project their total price tag at this moment.
It is still entirely possible that the team doesn’t keep all four starters, but at the very least the Bucks have flexibility under the tax line, and they didn’t pay out the nose in draft picks. But the third pillar of roster building is what matters the most this year, so let’s take a look at what both Hill and Smith might bring to the table.
Hill, 32, might have been attractive because of his contract’s $1M guarantee figure for next season, but it just so happens that he can play, too. A 6’3” guard with a 6’9” wingspan, Hill is a point guard who can adequately defend shooting guards. Not only that, but he is a 38.4% career three point shooter, and he hasn’t hit below 40% of his threes since 2015!
His take-rate doesn’t quite stack up to his make-rate (only 36.0% of his career field goals are threes), and he’s not exactly a threat to pull up off the dribble (77.7% of his career three pointers were assisted). Still, he’s a competent guard who will offer a significant degree of insurance if either Bledsoe or Brogdon misses time…that is of course if Hill doesn’t miss time. Over the past four regular seasons, Hill has played only 43, 74, 49, and 67 games (71% out of a total possible 328), and while his injuries haven’t followed any specific pattern, his availability is more of a question mark than you would prefer.
Nevertheless, George Hill is undoubtedly more qualified to serve as the team’s backup point guard than Matthew Dellavedova. He’s a crafty ball-handler who can make smart passes or tough shots, and his defensive acumen is enhanced by his physical profile whereas Delly’s was more limited. Hill’s main weakness for Mike Budenholzer’s Bucks might be his predilection for midrange shots (34% of his attempts come on non-paint two point shots), but at least he hits them (0.533 from 10-16 feet, and 0.500 from 16 feet to the arc). No matter how you slice it, Hill is an upgrade to the Bucks’ depth…as long as he plays.
First things first, Smith, 32, seems to be a bit of a goofball, which means that John Henson’s void will be at least somewhat filled.
But as a player, Smith is more nondescript. Like Hill, Smith is also attractive because his contract only owes him $5.45M for this season, after which he’ll become a free agent. But unlike Hill, Smith doesn’t have a strong record of production. After 11 seasons in the league, Smith has appeared for an average of 16.4 minutes per game with five different teams. His per-game averages are uninteresting, and for his career his offensive rating (103) trails his defensive rating (108). His team-published highlight video from last season shows a handful of good plays…but it’s less than two minutes long.
Then again, Smith has been on some bad teams. After four years in New Orleans (during the forgettable Hornets era), Smith played for the 14-15 Knicks (17-65) and the 15-16 Magic (35-47) before joining the Washington Wizards. Furthermore, Smith has followed the same career arc as new teammate Brook Lopez: after eight years of merely dabbling with three point shooting, Smith’s 3PAr jumped up to 0.237, 0.278, and 0.270 over the past three. He gets his threes similar to both Lopez and Ersan: as a pick-and-pop big, with 100% of his career attempts coming off of assists, and very few of them coming from the corners.
Smith’s shooting will be important in his quest to replace John Henson in the Bucks’ front court rotation; while Henson is statistically a better shooter this season, Smith’s stronger track record should give him a confident green light from Coach Bud. In addition, his willingness to use his 7’0”, 240 pound frame to box out opposing bigs (something that Thon Maker is not known for) will factor heavily in how much (or little) Smith contributes.
George Hill will clearly slot in as Milwaukee’s backup point guard, but it’s less clear whether or not Smith will get the nod for backup center. Thon has been up-and-down this season, but has generally been better (though still not good) than expected. Additionally, Smith is currently dealing with a neck injury which may delay his return to game action, thus thinning out the Bucks’ center rotation (pun intended) with just Thon – and occasionally Christian Wood – available behind Lopez. But once Smith is fully healthy, the Bucks may benefit from another big big man behind Brook Lopez, allowing Thon to scrounge for PF minutes behind Giannis and Ersan.
All in all, it’s hard to grade this trade as anything but a positive for Milwaukee. They shed long term salary, paid a reasonable price in draft picks, and improved the roster without sacrificing flexibility. Because the trade was completed on December 7, both Hill and Smith are eligible to be traded at the trade deadline in February, meaning that Horst could flip either (or both) of them if necessary. You never know what’s going to happen in the NBA, and having significant salary and talent to work with is a huge boon for the Bucks. But on top of all that, the team’s on court performance should improve! Both Hill and Smith can shoot threes, and while Smith might be relatively average elsewhere with his game, Hill provides a balanced amount of positives while imposing few negatives on the team.
So the Bucks new roster (pending physicals) will look something like this:
1st: Bledsoe, Brogdon, Khris, Giannis, Lopez
2nd: Hill, PatC, Snell, Ersan, Thon
3rd: Donte, Sterling, D.J, Christian, Jason Smith
I’m very OK with how this looks in the short-term.
— Mitchell Maurer (@Mitchell_NBA) December 8, 2018
Given that the Bucks (16-8) have been stuck playing 0.500 ball since their seven-game winning streak to start the season, this trade just might be the shot in the arm Milwaukee needs to get back on track. Neither Hill or Smith is expected to be available on Sunday against the Toronto Raptors, but both will get their chance to contribute between now and Christmas. With a pair of three-game Eastern Conference road trips in the coming weeks, the Bucks’ added depth might bolster their efforts to keep pace in the already-underway playoff race.