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The Bucks’ Championship Aspirations Will Depend on … Malcolm Brogdon?

Since returning from a foot injury in the second round, the role player known as “The President” has unlocked new levels to the Bucks’ devastating two-way system. He’s been great against the Raptors; he’d be essential against the Warriors.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Malcolm Brogdon has been a cheat code in the playoffs. The Bucks went from good to great when he returned from a plantar fasciitis injury four games ago. Their net rating with him on the floor (plus-24.8 in 105 minutes) doesn’t even seem real. Milwaukee still has another level it can reach: It has been using Brogdon as its sixth man since he came back. Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer said that he wants to keep Brogdon in that role even after they lost Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals on Sunday, but moving him back into the starting lineup is his trump card if the series gets any closer. He would be even more important in a potential NBA Finals matchup with Golden State. It could be the perfect showcase for Brogdon, who will be a restricted free agent this summer.

Brogdon, a second-round pick in 2016, will be in line for a massive raise after playing on a minimum contract the last three seasons. He’s one of the most complete guards in the NBA. It just took a new coaching staff in Milwaukee for people to realize it. Like Khris Middleton, Brogdon was a victim of the mismanagement of the previous regime. He was known mostly for backing into the Rookie of the Year Award in 2016-17, beating out Joel Embiid primarily because the oft-injured big man only appeared in 31 games. It was hard for Brogdon to make a name for himself last season: How good could a secondary option on a team that won 44 games and lost in the first round really be? The reality, as we saw this season, is that a team with enough talent to make Brogdon the fourth or fifth option should be one of the best in the NBA.

Brogdon reached the Valhalla of shooters this season: Shooting higher than 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from 3, and 90 perfect from the free throw line. There have only been 14 seasons in NBA history where a player has hit those benchmarks. Brogdon is the first since Steph Curry in 2015-16. And he’s not just a shooting specialist, either. Brogdon was a point forward in college: He can handle the ball, shoot off the dribble, and make plays on the move. There are no good options for the defense when he is playing off the ball. He can drain open 3s or attack closeouts and create open 3s for someone else. He’s a smart player who rarely gets sped up or makes bad decisions, averaging 3.2 assists on only 1.4 turnovers per game this season.

A player who shoots and passes as well as Brogdon is a force multiplier. He can slide into almost any role in the offense. He was the fifth option in their starting lineup behind Giannis Antetokounmpo, Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, and Brook Lopez in the regular season, and there were large stretches of games where he was the second option on the second unit. He can handle any amount of offensive responsibility in between. One of the few times the Bucks struggled this season is when Brogdon anchored lineups without either of their two All-Stars. The numbers are striking: He had a net rating of plus-16.5 in 497 minutes with Giannis and without Middleton, and plus-20.7 in 231 minutes with Middleton and without Giannis. Take them both out and his net rating falls to plus-1.4 in 251 minutes.

Brogdon is so efficient offensively that he would be valuable even if he were a minus on the other end of the floor. The fact that he’s also a versatile defender with the size (6-foot-5 and 229 pounds with a 6-foot-11 wingspan) to match up with players at multiple positions makes him one of the most valuable role players in the league. He has been their most effective defender on Kawhi Leonard over the last three games. It’s impossible to shut down a superstar like Kawhi, but Brogdon has at least made him work, holding him to 9-of-22 shooting in 77 possessions as the primary defender. Brogdon has the strength and savvy to be an excellent positional defender: He doesn’t let Kawhi beat him to spots or push him around. He stopped him on consecutive possessions in the final minute of the first OT on Sunday.

The one hole in Brogdon’s game is his lack of elite quickness. He doesn’t have a great first step on offense, and he can struggle to keep smaller and faster players in front of him on defense. He’s actually had more success on Kawhi in the series than Norman Powell, an uber-athletic shooting guard who has shot 3-of-3 in 21 possessions where Brogdon was his primary defender. Brogdon started his NBA career as a point guard, and he has improved since being moved to the wing following trades for Bledsoe and George Hill. He’s at his best when he can attack a rotating defense that can’t overload to stop him.

It’s hard to know whether Brogdon is at 100 percent. He doesn’t seem much slower since returning from injury, but he was never that fast to begin with. Budenholzer has increased his playing time over the last four games, from 17 minutes in Game 5 against the Celtics to 37 minutes in their double-overtime loss in Game 3 against the Raptors. He will need to lean on Brogdon even more going forward. Putting him back in the starting lineup would give them another shot creator with Middleton struggling (averaging 10.7 points on 33.3 percent shooting and 2.7 assists per game in the series) and Giannis now being guarded primarily by Kawhi. Swapping Nikola Mirotic for Brogdon would improve their defense, too. A legitimate two-way player like Brogdon is invaluable in the playoffs.

That ability would be crucial if the Bucks outlast the Raptors and face the Warriors in the Finals. Golden State will be the first team Milwaukee faces in the playoffs that can spread the floor as well as the Bucks can. Toronto has had a difficult time attacking the weak spots in Milwaukee’s defense because it doesn’t get consistent 3-point shooting from every position: Giannis has been playing off Pascal Siakam and roaming the floor as a help-side defender. Golden State will be able to spread out and attack slower big men like Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova in space, which will force the Bucks to play smaller lineups with more capable perimeter defenders. They would need Brogdon to average 35 to 40 minutes per game in the series.

The exciting part about that hypothetical series is that Milwaukee would present just as much of a challenge to Golden State. The Bucks would be the first team the Warriors face in the Durant era that have enough two-way wings to match up with the Lineup of Death: Bledsoe, Hill, Brogdon, Middleton, and Giannis. The closest thing to a weak link is Bledsoe, and he’s still an elite defender who averaged 15.9 points on 48.4 percent shooting and 5.5 assists per game this season. The Bucks can switch screens across all five positions and attack Steph Curry in space with Giannis. While the Warriors will still be the favorites, their margin for error will be smaller than ever before. The Bucks could be the best opponent the Warriors face in the Kevin Durant era.

Brogdon will have a lot to play for over the next few weeks. He isn’t one of the headliners in this year’s free agent class, but he would be a great consolation prize for any team with cap space. Three stand out: Utah, Dallas, and Indiana. Brogdon could be a great secondary option behind Donovan Mitchell, Luka Doncic, or Victor Oladipo. There aren’t many free agents who can create their own shot, run the offense, space the floor, and defend multiple positions without disrupting the locker room. Brogdon is the kind of player that any coach would love: a wise-beyond-his-years 26-year-old who founded a charity that builds wells in East Africa and is known as “The President” by his college teammates.

Brogdon should get a long-term contract for more than $15 million a season. The issue for Milwaukee is whether they can give that much money to someone with such a small role in the offense. They don’t need Brogdon in the regular season: They can plug in a more limited shooter like Pat Connaughton and Sterling Brown and be fine. He only becomes crucial when they advance in the playoffs and every player’s weaknesses are magnified. There’s no basketball reason to let a player like Brogdon walk for nothing, but keeping a legitimate championship contender together over the long haul is also incredibly expensive. Just ask Golden State and Cleveland, who paid massive luxury tax penalties over the last few seasons.

The ownership group in Milwaukee will have to dig deep into their pockets this summer. Almost every key player in their rotation will be a free agent: Middleton, Brogdon, Lopez, Mirotic, and Hill. They gave Bledsoe a four-year, $70 million extension in March, which means just keeping Middleton, Lopez, and Brogdon will push them deep into the luxury tax. Middleton will get a max contract from someone, while Lopez, who is on a one-year, $3.4 million contract, is almost as underpaid as Brogdon. Hill ($19 million) and Mirotic ($12.5 million) would have to take deep pay cuts to stay in any scenario. This is where handing out big contracts to Bledsoe and Tony Snell (player option for $12.2 million in 2021-22) could haunt the Bucks. One thing that could help is packaging draft picks to a team with cap space to move off one of those salaries. The Bucks traded their first-round pick in 2020 for Bledsoe and their pick in 2022 for Hill, but they can still take someone at no. 30 overall in this year’s draft and then send that player to another team.

There are more steps to Milwaukee becoming the next Cleveland than Giannis being the next LeBron James. Their owners, a group of hedge fund operators lead by Marc Lasry and Wes Edens, also have to spend like Dan Gilbert. This will be their first big test since buying the franchise four seasons ago. They opened a publicly financed stadium this season. Will they pay the price to put a contender in it? The NBA has done everything it can to give small-market franchises the chance to compete with ones in places like the Bay Area, but the owners in those markets still have to be willing to spend. The Bucks’ window looks wide open at the moment, but it could close fast. If they won’t pay Brogdon, this season might be their best shot to win a championship in the Giannis era.