Title windows are precarious, even when you have one the best players in the world under contract in his prime. Just ask the Chicago Bulls of the early aughts. So while the Milwaukee Bucks have already validated themselves as contenders — and, by some metrics, as the best team in the entire NBA — through a hail storm of 3-pointers and dunks, and figure to remain as such as long as Giannis Antetokounmpo is galloping up and down their new arena, they’re not taking a year of their MVP candidate for granted.
On Friday, the Bucks doubled down on the now. The details, according to The Athletic and ESPN: Milwaukee will send Cavaliers legend Matthew Dellavedova and the injured John Henson to Cleveland along with a protected 2021 first-round pick and a 2021 second-round pick to the Cavs in exchange for George Hill; Sam Dekker will also go to the Wizards for Jason Smith and a second-rounder as part of the deal, per ESPN, and the Wizards and Cavs will also exchange second-round picks. Dellavedova has barely played (8.1 minutes a game) this season, Henson tragically tore a wrist ligament just as he started to display some range, and Dekker is not very good. So, basically, this is an exchange of draft picks to a tanking team for a rotation player and cap flexibility (just $1 million guaranteed next season) to a contender.
Hill, 32, can still be an effective player when healthy. (The latter part of that sentence may be as important as the first; Hill has never played 82 games, was limited to 49 and 67 the past two seasons, respectively, and has missed a few this season with a shoulder injury.) In the Basketball Gomorrah that is Cleveland this season, Hill is setting new career highs shooting from the field (51.4 percent) and from 3 (46.4); the latter has come on a career-low 2.2 attempts, but the Bucks, who fling the second-most 3-pointers in the league (40.2), will see to that. Hill, a staunch defender in years past, has been a minus on the other end this season, and a net negative to the Cavs overall. But it’s hard to take much stock in any data coming from the Cavs as they toss their veterans overboard.
The Bucks have a type at guard: tall athletes who can shoot. Hill, at 6-foot-3 with a 38.4 career marker from 3, certainly fits. And though he may not be better than the starting backcourt of Eric Bledsoe and Malcolm Brogdon, he’s an instant upgrade over reserves Pat Connaughton (30.4 percent from 3 this season) and rookie Donte DiVencenzo (26.2). He also gives coach Mike Budenholzer options. While Bledsoe has been better of late, he has a tendency to run hot and cold on offense — and, sometimes, just completely erratic. Budenholzer can now move Hill, a low-usage spot-up shooter, into the first unit and let Bledsoe (whose usage has dipped to the lows of when he used to back up Chris Paul) run a team of reserve-level players like he was back in Phoenix.
Bledsoe is an important figure in what we’ll call the Bucks’ “transition years” in the Giannis era. Last season, the first under GM Jon Horst, Milwaukee made a move similar to the one executed on Friday when he brought the then-Suns guard out of exile. In exchange for Greg Monroe (like Delly, a free-agent signing gone wrong) and protected first- and second-round picks in 2018, the Bucks procured Bledsoe to help lift the team (then 4–6) out of the morass and add another high-level running mate alongside Antetokounmpo. It didn’t really work; the Bucks barely made the playoffs and let go of head coach Jason Kidd along the way. But it did signal, very clearly, that the franchise wasn’t going to wait to compete.
Things are going so much better for the Bucks this season, but the approach is still the same. In addition to adding another live body to help their chances in what is becoming a two-horse race with the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference, they are giving themselves more options this summer — which could ultimately be their most important one before Giannis can hit free agency in the summer of 2021. The Bucks brilliantly worked the fringes of free agency this past summer, adding big-man shooters (Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova) at reasonable prices to help clear a runway for Antetokounmpo and vault their offense to the top of the leaderboard. But the stakes will be much higher next summer. It may take the max to keep Khris Middleton (who holds a player option) off a market that is losing star power by the week. Bledsoe, Lopez, and Brogdon will be up for new deals too. Hill’s contract could open up $19 million in extra money to avoid a hefty luxury tax bill if they preserve their core, or to maybe take a run at a high-level replacement.
Dealing a first that would convey the same summer that Giannis could bolt is risky, no matter how much love the MVP front-runner has now for the city and its smoothies. But if the Bucks play this summer right, and their record rises in lockstep with their superstar’s game, they can erase any danger that lies ahead long before then.