Christmas seemingly came early for Bucks fans last week.
In the middle of Monday night while most sensible people were sleeping, Milwaukee's roster got two gifts in its stocking – no, not from Santa, but from the NBA equivalent, ESPN reporter and scoop master Adrian Wojnarowski. The presents? A trade for New Orleans Pelicans point guard Jrue Holiday and a deal for Sacramento Kings sharpshooter Bogdan Bogdanovic, creating a starting five that put the Bucks firmly at the top of its conference and maybe the entire NBA.
There was just one problem: One of the gifts turned out to actually be coal – a lump that's dirtied everything that's happened since that once-glorious late Monday night.
Two days later, the Bogdan sign-and-trade – expected to send Donte DiVincenzo, D.J. Wilson and Ersan Ilyasova from Milwaukee to Sacramento in return – was reported by The Athletic as "in peril" due to some still-yet-unknown combination of the league's concerns about tampering (the deal was made before Friday, the start of the free agency period and any negotiations *wink, wink*) and Bogdanovic apparently never signing off on the deal to begin with.
For a while, hopeful Bucks fans speculated that rumors of the deal's death were greatly exaggerated, a smoke screen put up in the hopes of getting the NBA off the teams' scent while still landing Bogdan in the end. Alas, the NBA started investigating around, the Bucks started using money and cap space to sign other players not named Bogdan Bogdanovic and then the final blow landed on Sunday: The Kings shooter was signing a offer from the Atlanta Hawks.
So what do we make of the Milwaukee Bucks now that their seemingly master plan exploded in everyone's faces in a horrific way only 2020 could devise?
Let's start with the most important and basic question: So who's actually on the Bucks now?
As for trade that actually happened, the Jrue Holiday trade will send Eric Bledsoe to the Pelicans and George Hill to the Oklahoma City Thunder. Meanwhile, DiVincenzo and Wilson are back now that the Kings trade immolated before the world's eyes, but Ilyasova was placed on waivers, ending his latest stint with the Bucks. Marquette alum Wes Matthews departed to try for a ring this time with the defending champ Los Angeles Lakers, Robin Lopez split with his twin brother Brook to play with the Washington Wizards, Sterling Brown bounced over to the Houston Rockets, mid-season addition Marvin Williams retired and veteran three-point sniper Kyle Korver is still on the market but unlikely to end up back in Brew City.
That's a lot of holes to fill and unfortuately no Bogdan Bogdanovic-shaped piece to fill any of them – but the Bucks did their darnedest.
After snagging two shooters with their low draft picks – Jordan Nwora and Sam Merrill – Milwaukee started by staying close to home with one of its reported free agent signings, according to Woj reteaming with bouncy bench spark plug Pat Connaughton on a three-year deal (complete with a complicated financial slip-up that, long story short, is likely going to accidentally handcuff the team).
The Bucks then reportedly reached back to wish lists of yore and picked up former New York Knicks power forward Bobby Portis on Saturday, who the team was rumored to be hot for when he came out in the 2015 NBA Draft. (Milwaukee ended up drafting Rashad Vaughn instead. Remember Rashad Vaughn?) The same day, the Bucks also reportedly signed point guard D.J. Augustin from the Orlando Magic. The team then wrapped up their free agency weekend of dreams and nightmares by, according to Wojnarowski, signing guard Bryn Forbes, formerly of the San Antonio Spurs, and forward Torrey Craig, a defensive specialist last with the Denver Nuggets.
It's a lot of new names, all for relatively small deals, but the result should be the same: The Bucks should be good, at least on par with the last two seasons. But on par with the last two seasons won't cut it when the two-time MVP might crave a championship or bust.
The question isn't whether they'll be good. It's "Will they be better?"
DiVincenzo made some leaps in his sophomore year, but he still feels more like a role player than a key cog for a contending team. Meanwhile, D.J. Wilson is D.J. Wilson, and Connaughton hopefully plays more consistently like the energetic Swiss army knife bench contributor he seemed like for most of the season as opposed to the guy who was largely unplayable late in the playoffs against the Miami Heat.
As for the newcomers, Portis is an intriguing question mark, bringing defense and toughness off the bench as well as an unknown ceiling after getting messily exiled from the Chicago Bulls to the hapless Washington Wizards and the shimmering Siberia that is the modern New York Knicks. He should be an improvement on the likes of Ilyasova, Williams and Lopez. D.J. Augustin should slip nicely into the George Hill role, a seasoned back-up point guard who can smartly manage the offense when necessary. Forbes is a three-point specialist, something the Bucks are always looking for to surround Giannis; his younger legs should hopefully make him a slight upgrade over Korver. And Craig will be your Wes Matthews stand-in, likely tasked with being a lockdown defensive specialist. On the whole, it's a lot of slight upgrades, but upgrades nevertheless.
And then there's the forgotten trade that actually worked: Jrue Holiday. The Pelicans point guard's reported deal may have gotten lost in the huzzahing and harrumphing, but he won't be overlooked on the court where he stands to be a signficant improvement over the playoff-shy Eric Bledsoe, providing equally strong defense with hopefully more consistent offense. Holiday alone likely makes the 2020-21 Bucks squad an enhancement over the past two years on paper – and these past years have landed the Bucks at the top of the East in the regular and two varyingly deep playoff visits.
So why does this all feel so deeply unsatisfying? Blame the Bogdan debacle.
To mix sports metaphors, the Bogdan trade was a big swing that resulted in a dinky bunt. Even though filling out the bench would've been a massive question mark, a Bucks starting five with Bogdan looked like a force to be reckoned with; the Bucks as put together now are ... the Bucks again, more or less: Giannis, Middleton, Holiday in place of Bledsoe and a mostly capable supporting cast that hopefully shows up when things get tough. And the past two years, they haven't, so pardon fans if they're a little skeptical of small deck furniture rearrangements rather than fixing some of the foundation.
In the end, we saw a house we loved but was taken by someone else before we could put down a payment – and while the house we ended up with is still solid and wonderful and can even see a future in it, you can't stop thinking about the house and the possibilities that could've been.
That being said, none of this matters if Giannis signs his supermax deal this offseason. If the Bucks lock in Antetokounmpo for five more years, then all of these moves were brilliant – or at least brilliant enough. And even without the Bogdan deal, Milwaukee was making moves like they knew their superstar was staying. The Jrue Holiday deal includes three first round picks along with two future pick swaps, the kind of move that signals the Bucks don't think those picks will be very valuable, aka they'll be going deep into the playoffs, not in rebuild mode. Last Monday night, many of the NBA's big-name reporters were leaning toward that kind of thinking. But maybe that deal was made with the idea that Bogdan was coming – and that Giannis' signing was contigent on that not violently imploding in the national spotlight.
We'll find out by Dec. 21, the deadline for Giannis to sign the supermax deal, if he likes this reshuffled team and believes in the future they represent. Until then, you've got a bunch of new Bucks to learn, a botched trade to forget and dreams of at worst one more push for the Finals to renew.
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.