On Thursday, Feb. 19, the Milwaukee Bucks acquired point guard Michael Carter-Williams from the Philadelphia 76ers along with point guard Tyler Ennis and center Miles Plumlee from the Phoenix Suns in exchange for Brandon Knight and Kendall Marshall. It was a move that stunned many within the league, and the Bucks locker room.
OnMilwaukee.com takes you inside the trade, how it happened, and what happened when Knight was told he was leaving.
Early in the afternoon on deadline day, the lower bowl of the McGuire Center on the campus of Marquette University filled nicely despite it being cold – and a school day – as fans wanted to see head coach Jason Kidd and his surprising team go through a workout.
There was some buzz in the crowd, as the Bucks had ended the first half of the season winning nine of 11 and sending Brandon Knight and Giannis Antetokounmpo to represent the team in New York during All-Star weekend.
The entire team of active players, except Larry Sanders, were on hand and accounted for. Media and fans alike conducted a head count at the start of the session, which began just hours ahead of the trade deadline.
On Feb. 10, Bucks general manager John Hammond was very clear about his intentions heading to the deadline.
"Right now, anything we're looking at today is still, hopefully, going to be focused on maybe acquiring a piece or talking about adding pieces that can be future, long-term player for this organization," he said.
Little did anyone know just how transparent Hammond was being with those words.
How the trade unfolded
Multiple league sources confirmed the Bucks expressed interest in Carter-Williams previously, but – like nearly every team that called Philadelphia general manager Sam Hinkie about the reigning Rookie of the Year – were rebuffed.
And why would the Bucks would express interest in Carter-Williams? After it was circulated that Hinkie would move the first year player in late May, many teams inquired about the point guard – so why not see what the asking price would be?
But, as Hinkie told the media following the trade, he would only entertain the idea of moving Carter-Williams if he could secure a high lottery pick – an asset the Bucks did not have.
An asset the Bucks did have – Knight – was not attractive to Philadelphia. And while league sources maintain Knight was always "available" this year, the Bucks weren’t going to just give him away.
Fast forward to Feb. 19. It looked as if nothing would happen on the Bucks trade front until Phoenix Suns general manager Ryan McDonough got creative, and the pieces began to move.
The Bucks practice at Marquette, which included Knight through its entirety, concluded around 45 minutes before the 2 p.m. Central deadline. Several players lingered on the court to interact with fans.
As fans mobbed the floor, Kidd received a phone call and immediately left the court, pulling a curtain closed behind him underneath the McGuire Center bleachers.
Kidd returned shortly thereafter, met with reporters for a brief question and answer session – in which he said no trade was imminent – and the team bussed back to the Orthopaedic Hospital of Wisconsin Training Center in St. Francis.
As that was happening, multiple league sources confirmed it was McDonough who called the Bucks about Knight, and the one who secured Carter-Williams for Milwaukee.
The Suns general manager was shuffling his deck, trading three players for three future first round picks and three disposable veterans to make the salary math work.
But, he wanted Knight, who averaged 17.8 points, 5.4 assists and 4.3 rebounds while shooting 43.5 percent from the field through his first 52 games.
So, how to get him?
McDonough looked at an asset in his portfolio he wasn’t sure he could use – a protected first round pick from the Los Angeles Lakers, which the Suns received in the Steve Nash deal in 2012.
He connected the dots.
McDonough had the high lottery pick Hinkie covets, or at least a pick that had a high probability of being one. John Finger of CSNPhilly.com broke it down this way – "the Sixers gave up the No. 11 pick of the 2013 draft for possibly the No. 6 pick in the 2015 draft. Then it's top-3 protected the next two years, then unprotected after that."
McDonough knew the Bucks had interest in Carter-Williams.
So, he went to work.
Hinkie agreed to his end of the deal first – he’d move Carter-Williams for the pick. Then McDonough reached back out to the Bucks armed with that information.
In the final moments of the deadline, the deal was struck.
It was personal
The Bucks were already back in their locker room at the Orthopaedic Hospital of Wisconsin Training Center as this trade was being approved by the NBA. The deadline had come and, more importantly, gone – or so some players thought.
Then Knight was pulled out, and brought upstairs to the offices that overlook the practice court. He was informed about his impending departure to Phoenix, and then he was the one to tell his teammates.
"I thought that nothing was gonna happen, nothing gonna change," said Giannis Antetokounmpo, who was changing to get in a post-practice shooting session. "He’s just going up and you see his reaction. Everybody’s reaction was shock, like ‘what?!’ I mean he explained and I think, I don’t know, its something that I’m not going to blame the team but I think you’d be better to know, to be a little more prepared like, before practice, so we don’t have like so much shock. Just so much shock."
Zaza Pachulia sat in silence, looking at his teammate as the news was delivered. A 12-year veteran, Pachulia knew the scene well. But, this was different. The team had coalesced, and Knight was comfortable and playing well. It was emotional in that locker room, one that deeply affected those within in.
"First couple minutes obviously it was shock, shock because it’s just not expecting this," Pachulia said.
"He was our family member for a couple years now. So especially when you have good things going on, we care about each other, on and off the court, so with this reaction we got sad as well because he was sad."
Knight was so affected that Kidd had two conversations with him – in person, and on the phone.
"Yeah. Yeah, it was very tough because of what he’s accomplished in a short amount of time," said Kidd, a future Hall of Famer who was traded twice in season (1996 and 2008) and once more in an offseason (2001).
"We talked when he got traded and then we talked later that night, giving him a little time to catch his breath. Because it’s emotional. It’s very emotional. Especially going through the year last year and then coming back this year, improving, and betting on himself because there was no deal done. And the year that he was having, being one of our leaders on this team. So it was a tough conversation to have. But it was a better conversation later that night, understanding what’s in front of him."
The three new players were not yet with the team by shoot around on the morning of Feb. 20, but were introduced to the media a few hours later prior to the game against Denver. Carter-Williams was still injured, nursing a pre-All-Star break foot injury, but Ennis and Plumlee were in uniform.
Pregame, the locker room was quiet – unified, but quiet.
Antetokounmpo had lockered next to Knight at the BMO Harris Bradley Center for all 130 regular season games of his career. Now, Ennis occupied that corner space, Carter-Williams replacing Marshall on the other side.
Khris Middleton, who had been teammates with Knight for all 162 of his regular season games beginning with their rookie year in Detroit in 2012-13, lost a dear friend to the mechanics of the business.
"It was tough," the shooting guard admitted. "He’s part of our family. That’s the type of atmosphere we have around this season. A person I’ve played with for three years, he’s one of my closest friends on the team. But it’s a business at the same time."
Then there were the veterans, like Pachulia, O.J. Mayo, Jared Dudley and Jerryd Bayless, all under contracts that expire after the 2015-16 season. Their future in Milwaukee is now – not in three to four years when the front office expects the troika of Antetokounmpo, Carter-Williams and injured rookie Jabari Parker to emerge as a legitimate Eastern Conference power.
They immediately rallied to the defense of Carter-Williams and his uneven play in Philadelphia, but weren’t necessarily thrilled Knight was no longer their teammate either.
"I was a little surprised, man," Mayo said. "You know, me and ‘B-Knight’ had got some work, we worked out together in Miami over the break. A little surprised like everyone else I think, but we definitely told him it was a business, stay positive, you’re a great player so don't let it … because you know, it happened to me before. Not really getting traded, but switching teams once something got going.
"In Memphis, it had really turned into a good team and I had adjusted, finally, to coming off the bench and I was out of there (as a free agent in 2012). So, it can, kind of, maybe discourage you a little bit. But he’s a great player, (it’s) a great opportunity in Phoenix, an up and down offense (and) he’s a great offensive player, so go make it work, man. One thing about it is he’s an incredible worker, man, a great attitude, so he’ll make it work."
Before the trade deadline, Kidd said flatly that any move that is made in the game is always business, and never personal. To succeed, in his mind, it can never be personal.
But in this case, it clearly was. At least for a little while – which in itself was a confirmation to those in the organization that that culture inside the Bucks locker room was indeed changing, even after just about seven months of work.
"I think there’s a bond, there’s a family, right?," Kidd said. "We’ve created something here in a short amount of time that these guys really care about each other, not just on the court but off the court. They want the best for each other and I think you can see with their play. They share the ball, they help each other on defense and so there is a bond. They lost a member due to the business side of things, but now they get three new members to join their family and hopefully speed them up to how things are done here in in Milwaukee."
The hidden component
League sources indicated Knight was seeking $12 million annually once he hit the restricted free agent market this summer, a number the Bucks clearly didn't feel they could entertain. The Bucks do feel confident they can retain Middleton, also a restricted free agent, and that Dudley will exercise his $4.25 million player option.
Including those two players, and factoring in their 2015 first round draft pick, the Bucks will have 15 guaranteed contracts on the books for next season – a full roster. But, 13 of those contracts check in at less than $6 million annually (i.e. highly desirable).
The highest paid player on the team next year will be Mayo, at $8 million, and he is on an valuable expiring deal (as are Pachulia, Dudley, Bayless, John Henson and Miles Plumlee).
While many teams are positioning themselves for cap room – and will get it once the salary cap spikes in two seasons – the Bucks also have an additional first round pick beginning in 2017 thanks to the trade that brought Dudley to Milwaukee from the Los Angeles Clippers.
Such flexibility will allow the team to make a splash acquisition, at some point.
"They're better for it financially, and down the road," one league source said.
Afterward, each organization felt they "won the day" in their public addresses.
Hinkie said his team was the only buyer.
McDonough said they got the best player, coming or going, in all of his moves.
And in Milwaukee, the Bucks believe they took a step forward in truly owning their future – a marketing tag line that possesses far more truth to those in the front office than just clever jargon.
Multiple league sources, who were not involved in any of the trades between the three teams, said the trade was surprising; mainly because Hinkie was sure enough that the Lakers would be bad enough next year to secure a top lottery pick.
But the general feeling around the league is that while there is risk with Carter-Williams, it has more to do with his maturity, than his game.
As for the grand experiment the Bucks undertook in making the move …
"If it fails, it’s not because of MCW," a league source said.
This is how trades are created and evaluated around the league. It’s rarely about just the one player, in the one moment. Especially in Milwaukee, where the eyes of the decision makers have clearly been set down the road since former owner Sen. Herb Kohl welcomed his successors to the BMOHBC on April 16, 2014.
So, on balance, did the Bucks make the right decision at the deadline?
"Yeah, they did," one league source said. "I think it will work. I think their vision will work."
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.