ST. FRANCIS, Wis. — The only thing that was a safe bet to happen in the offseason for the Milwaukee Bucks came Wednesday when the team made it official Jim Boylan wasn’t returning as head coach.
Now comes the part of the offseason where nothing is predictable. With just seven players under contract for next season, the Bucks potentially could look a whole lot different when it begins training camp in the fall.
With so many potential free agents, Milwaukee will have its fair share of cap room as well. If the Bucks choose to use the amnesty clause on forward Drew Gooden, they could have close to $35 million in cap space to rebuild a roster that last year finished 38-44 and was swept in the first round of the playoffs by Miami.
“I don’t think we are starting from scratch at all,” Bucks general manager John Hammond said. “If you look at our roster from the four and five spots, we have some nice pieces there. In the backcourt, we can address that as needed. We are in a position where we can afford to make the decisions we feel are the best decisions for us and not hurt ourselves longterm moving forward.”
It all starts in the backcourt, as Brandon Jennings is a restricted free agent, Monta Ellis can opt out of the final year of his contract and J.J. Redick is an unrestricted free agent.
Ellis has a player option for $11 million next season and must decide by June 20 if he’s going to utilize the option. Milwaukee’s leading scorer last season at 19.2 points per game, Ellis is likely to decline the option and hit the open market seeking a longterm contract.
His backcourt mate for the past year and a half, Jennings is coming off an up-and-down season in which he played well at times but also found himself benched for stretches by former coach Jim Boylan.
Still just 23-years-old, Jennings switched agents during the season and publicly expressed his displeasure after not receiving a contract extension prior to last season. Jennings will test the free agent market and could sign an offer sheet with another team, but the Bucks have the right to match any offer.
Though the young guard has made comments that may indicate he’s ready to move on from Milwaukee, Hammond believes Jennings wants to be in Milwaukee.
“I think deep down in his heart that he would like to be back,” Hammond said. “We’ll see how it works out with him and the team, but I think he does. I think what he said at the end of the season he really means.”
Though his scoring average dropped from 15.1 with Orlando to 12.3 with the Bucks while struggling to shoot just 31.8 percent from beyond the arc, Redick will demand interest on the open market.
While Hammond said bringing all three guards back is a possibility, it isn’t likely. It was evident that the three together didn’t work very well, though Hammond said it would be too far to say Jennings and Ellis together in the backcourt didn’t work at all.
Backup guard Ish Smith is under contract for $985,000 next season, but likely won’t have a guaranteed roster spot.
“All this room means is it gives us an opportunity to operate in the manner in which we want,” Hammond said. “I think we are going to be in a position if we choose to bring back our own players. I think we are going to have very fair discussions to be able to do that. If that doesn’t happen, then the room presents itself and we can go out and make some other decisions. It just gives us an opportunity to play ball.
“I like the fact that we still have our salary structure in such a standpoint where we can control our own destiny to a certain extent. That’s important to us.”
At small forward, starter Luc Richard Mbah a Moute returns and will finally have an offseason to get healthy. Veteran sixth man Mike Dunleavy is an unrestricted free agent but is willing to return to the Bucks under the right situation. Signed just prior to training camp, veteran swingman Marquis Daniels is also a free agent.
While Mbah a Moute is back, the Bucks will need to add depth at the position, especially with the lockdown defender’s injury history and his offensive liabilities.
Power forward and center are positions of strength for the Bucks. Starters Ersan Ilysaova and Larry Sanders return, while rookie power forward John Henson flashed signs of tremendous ability and will have an offseason to gain strength and improve his game. Also returning inside is Ekpe Udoh, a solid backup and solid defender who still is limited offensively and on the glass.
“If you look at our roster, this thing is surely not broke right now if you look at some of the pieces we have,” Hammond said. “Especially up front. You have a really intriguing young piece in Larry Sanders. You have a nice young piece in John Henson. Ersan Ilyasova is turning into an excellent stretch four in this league. We still have Luc Mbah a Moute who can guard the best of the best when he’s healthy.”
What’s missing inside is a bruiser-type big body that is able to defend inside against the bigger post players in the NBA. Milwaukee added a tremendous amount of length to its roster last offseason, but was exposed inside by teams with powerful frontcourts.
It is highly unlikely that backup centers Samuel Dalembert and Joel Pryzbilla will return, as their playing time was scarce. A decision will have to be made on Gooden, who has two years and $13.6 million remaining on his contract. Gooden played in just 16 games last season and is the last player the Bucks could use the amnesty clause on.
If Milwaukee amnesties Gooden, he still would get paid the remaining $13.6 million but it wouldn’t count against the team’s cap number.
The Bucks have a team option for $1.5 million on seldom used forward Gustavo Ayon, one they are expected to decline.
Hammond admitted this year’s roster didn’t work on the court because of all of the free agents that might have been more focused on themselves than the team. He’s determined to improve the chemistry of the team, something that wore down the stretch.
Between the draft in June and the many question marks on the roster going forward, the Bucks are certainly going to have an interesting offseason. It’s Hammond’s job to not only build a winning roster that can get along, but also to hire a new head coach that can fit the new-look unit.
“It’s a two-way street,” Hammond said of fixing the team chemistry. “We have to have the coach that can instill that and have the players that are willing to accept that. I don’t just say, let’s hire the coach and say ‘You fix it.’ It’s my responsibility to fix it, also. It’s our job to get that done and I think we can.”