Jason Kidd has been consistent in his message to the public about his Milwaukee Bucks team, especially when it comes to questions about how he views its future. Kidd always redirects, bringing the focus back onto the present.
You can’t get to the future without the present, he’ll often say.
So, since noting on media day that the "analytics guys" told him that the timeline for building the Bucks into a championship-level team would take just over three years, Kidd has rarely allowed himself to look past the next game.
It makes sense.
First, it helps in the day-to-day grind of a long NBA season. This team is playing this year, and it includes many players who won’t be wearing the Bucks logo when it is ready to win a championship – they hope – in 2018 or 2019.
And he needed this team to buy in this year to create a day-to-day urgency, to win every game, to buy in. It’s one of the reasons this team is, surprisingly, in the thick of the Eastern Conference race.
But with the trade of restricted free agent Brandon Knight – who was also the team’s best player – even Kidd had to acknowledge the long game that the Bucks are playing with its roster.
"Any time there's a change, there's always outside influences that want it to happen right away. Good things tend to not come until later," Kidd said last week. "I was in that position from Jersey to Dallas (in 2008). I thought we were going to win a championship right away. It took a couple years."
The day after the trade on Feb. 20, John Hammond met with the media to discuss the move, and its implications.
With his hands in the pockets of his black dress pants, his black glasses frames popping off his crisp, white shirt, the Bucks general manager admitted, simply, that the trade of Knight (and Kendall Marshall) for Michael Carter-Williams, Tyler Ennis and Miles Plumlee was "a great opportunity for us. It’s a great opportunity for us today and maybe it’s just as important that it’s a great opportunity for us in the future."
A lot is going to happen in the NBA, and to the Bucks, in that three to four year window Kidd spoke of as to when this team could mature into a title contender.
"That’s exactly what it’s all about," Hammond said in February. "I think the easy thing to do was to stand pat. We’re enjoying the success thus far this season. Our guys are overachieving. I keep saying that Jason and his staff have done a remarkable job. But this is not about today. This is about the future."
Carter-Williams and Giannis Antetokounpo, part of the rookie class of 2013, will be at the end of their rookie deals in 2016-17. Jabari Parker’s rookie deal will expire a year later.
And that will coincide with the influx of $2.67 billion into the league from its new television deal, of which a reported $870 million will be funneled into player salaries beginning with the 2016-17 campaign. The salary cap could jump from its current number of $63 million to $94 million.
That means first round picks like Carter-Williams, Antetokounmpo and Parker could max out at a whopping $23.5 million per year, each (of course, the Bucks would love to have that problem, but it’s unlikely all three develop into that caliber of player. The odds are that just Parker will command that level of contract).
So, looking ahead, you see that the only player currently under a hard contract for the 2016-17 season is Ersan Ilyasova, with an valuable expiring deal worth $8.4 million.
Parker, Antetokounmpo, Damien Inglis, Johnny O’Bryant and Tyler Ennis will still be under their rookie deals, which are team-friendly options that would likely be picked up.
And, anticipating that financial windfall, free agents-to-be this summer and next may be opting for one-year deals (a la NBA Players Association vice president LeBron James) to capitalize on the bigger pay day yet to come.
The way it stands, the Bucks have put themselves in a position to keep their core of Parker, Carter-Williams and Antetokounmpo while being able to add key veteran supporting pieces.
And make no mistake – those three are the most important part of the equation.
"That’s what you hope," Hammond said. "That’s he real hope right there, that you say do we have now, potentially, maybe in the nucleus, that we have hopefully the point guard of the future, the small forward of the future and the power forward of the future for this organization that can be those type of players that we’ll be championship caliber players."
Why is important that at least of of these three turn into an All-Star, max-level player, and the others turn into really solid, above-average sidekicks?
Because teams around the league are already shedding salaries, and everyone will be looking to create as much cap space as possible for the bevy of free agents that will be looking for long term deals.
So, what would make Milwaukee an attractive destination when similar money could be earned elsewhere?
Well, if this trio, and Kidd, have indeed turned the franchise around, the Bucks could be the Midwest version of the current Los Angeles Clippers – a franchise no high level, winning-minded free agent player wanted to be a part of until a respected ex-player with championship pedigree took over a talented group of young players and ushered them into the title conversation.
Which brings us back to today, and the immediate future.
Most notably, what to do with Khris Middleton.
From the beginning, the Bucks front office has called him the potential gem of the Brandon Jennings sign-and-trade that netted the team Knight, Middleton and Vyacheslav Kravtsov in the summer of 2013.
Considered a first round talent after his first two years at South Carolina, Middleton fell to the second round of the 2012 draft after missing 12 games of his junior season with a knee injury.
With Knight out of the picture, Middleton is the only real decision this team has to make that affects the salary cap and team’s construction going forward (John Henson has one more year left on his deal, and has proven to be a rotational big and won’t command the type of money Middleton might).
"Yeah, I think when you look at the team, the makeup of the team, you have your starting point guard and your backup point guard under the age of 23," Kidd said on Feb. 20. "We have a big summer this summer with Khris. But when you look at Giannis and Jabari, so you look at the one, three and four (positions), are pretty much settled. And then we have a committee at the five. So when you look at the makeup of this team it’s pretty much set.
"Now it’s just a matter of can we keep ‘em together for five to seven years so they can have that consistency of being together and also understanding when things are good how to handle ‘em and when things are bad how to get out of ‘em."
Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.
A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.
To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.
Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining OnMilwaukee.com.
In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.
Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.