Milwaukee Bucks: Setting expectations for Tony Snell’s restricted free agency

Tony Snell is the biggest free agent on the Milwaukee Bucks, and at the same time may be the biggest free agent they can sign. What should we expect to happen?

Tony Snell is an NBA player. Tony Snell is not a max contract player.

Those two statements set the extremes for the Milwaukee Bucks‘ top free agent this summer; he is worth somewhere between $0 per season and the ~$25 million a player is estimated to earn in the first year of a max contract. Where his price ultimately lands will determine in large part whether the Bucks retain his services.

One year ago, Tony Snell was firmly entrenched on the bench of a Chicago Bulls team that was making little use of his services. The former New Mexico Lobo started just 33 games for the Bulls in 2015-16, averaging 20 minutes per night and taking 5.3 shots per game.

When starting 2-guard Khris Middleton went down with a gruesome torn hamstring injury, the Bucks flipped backup point guard Michael Carter-Williams to the Windy City for Snell. The pressure was now on for two young players to step up — Snell as the starter at shooting guard, and second round rookie Malcolm Brogdon as the new backup PG.

Step up they did, branding the preseason trade a resounding success for the Bucks. For his part, Brogdon ended up taking over the starting point guard job en route to winning Rookie of the Year. Snell started all 86 games he appeared in for the Bucks, more starts than in his entire career combined before the season, while playing an important role in Milwaukee returning to the postseason.

Snell fit perfectly in a two-way role for Milwaukee. On defense Snell is tall and long, exactly what head coach Jason Kidd and defensive assistant Sean Sweeney value in their wing players. At 6’7″, Snell was significantly taller than the average shooting guard, and was long enough to switch when necessary in Milwaukee’s aggressive scheme.

Offensively, Snell turned into a sharpshooter for the Bucks, a role he not only filled well but that desperately needed to be filled. Without Middleton for much of the season, the Bucks were completely without a consistent three-point shooter. That’s where Snell stepped in.

The shooting guard pulled the trigger on 4.4 three pointers per game, over two-thirds of his overall shot attempts. He hit a sharp 40.6 percent of those shots, spacing the floor around Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jabari Parker and Greg Monroe on offense.

Snell’s strong season came at the perfect time to propel the Bucks into the postseason, and the perfect time to earn himself a significant payday. As July and the start of free agency quickly approach, both Snell and the Bucks must make a decision as to how much they believe the restricted free agent is worth.

The Bucks are a team on the rise, but they are doing so with a large amount of committed salary. While Antetokounmpo’s extension is below market value, it’s still a sizable chunk of change, and he will be one of six Bucks making at least $9.6 million next season. Players with little on-court impact such as John Henson and Spencer Hawes are still owed hefty sums.

That limits the amount of flexibility Milwaukee has to retain a player such as Tony Snell. While as a restricted free agent the Bucks can match any offer, they are committed to $107.8 million in team salary, according to Albert Nahmad of HeatHoops.com. That leaves them around $11 million to re-sign Snell, find a rebounder and either bring back or replace Jason Terry and Michael Beasley.

The problem is that Milwaukee cannot easily replace Snell either, at least not while Jabari Parker is out rehabbing a second torn ACL. Khris Middleton has to start at the 3 because the team truly lacks another option, leaving a hole at shooting guard waiting to be filled by Snell. Rookie Sterling Brown could be an option there, but it’s hard to envision a rookie second-rounder stepping in and having an immediate impact. Brogdon last year was the extreme outlier, not the norm.

Tony Snell is not a perfect player. He lacks the strength to reliably guard forwards, and once he catches the ball, if he doesn’t shoot his options with the ball are basically nonexistent. A stronger off-the-dribble game would elevate him from decent rotation piece to solid starter.

There are teams around the league who could use a tough defensive 2-guard who can space the floor. The Los Angeles Clippers may need to replace J.J. Redick. The Minnesota Timberwolves need shooting, although they would bring Snell off the bench. The Philadelphia 76ers could set him between Markelle Fultz and Robert Covington on the wing. Detroit, Atlanta, and Memphis can all fill a need with Snell.

If one of those teams decides to bite on a larger contract in spite of a smaller-than-expected cap, the Bucks may have to let Snell go to greener pastures. $16-18 million per year for Snell is almost certainly an overpay, but more importantly, it’s a number outside the realistic range of Milwaukee.

The Bucks will probably offer a contract in the $10 million range and hope Snell wants to stay with the team for a slight discount. More than likely, he will settle into the $12 million range and the Bucks could try to move salary to have the room to both re-sign Snell and look around for upgrades elsewhere.

If teams sense the Bucks may not match any contract, they could get adventurous in courting the 25-year-old. While playing teams off of each other is best for Snell’s paycheck, it is not best for the Bucks and new general manager Jon Horst, who are trying to keep Snell’s costs low. Too high and the team is crippled with yet another unwieldy contract.

There is a defined role for Snell in Milwaukee, and this is a team on which he thrived last year. Outside of the confines of Chicago he found success, and there will be a pull to stay with the team that elevated his game to that level. But money is important as well, and other teams can almost certainly offer more.

Whether Tony Snell re-signs with the Bucks or heads to greener pasture, he will be making much more money next season than he has to this point in his career. It’s an opportunity to set himself up financially and take the next step in his progression as a basketball player.

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