There is a 6-foot-5 shadow hanging over the Bucks this season. On the surface, they look as dominant as ever, with the fourth-best record in the NBA (10-3) and second-best net rating (plus-9.0). They haven’t really missed Malcolm Brogdon, whom they sent to Indiana in a sign-and-trade this summer because they didn’t want to pay the luxury tax, and who has been playing like an All-Star for the Pacers ever since. But his absence still looms large, given that Giannis Antetokounmpo is up for an extension this offseason. Milwaukee should find a replacement for Brogdon, if for no other reason than to show Giannis it is willing to spend the money.
Brogdon was a force multiplier for the Bucks last season. He was fourth on the team in scoring and fourth in usage rate among rotation players, but he was their most efficient 3-point shooter, one of their best perimeter defenders, and a versatile playmaker who could play off of their starters and run the second-unit offense. Brogdon could fill any role the Bucks needed over the course of a game. His value became even clearer in the playoffs; he had the second-best net rating on the team (plus-14.3 in 198 minutes) after returning from a foot injury.
There were questions about how Brogdon would fare in Indiana, especially without Victor Oladipo for the first few months. But the 26-year-old has been more than up to the challenge, averaging career highs in points (19.2 per game), rebounds (4.8), and assists (8.2). He has gone from being fourth on his own team in touches (52.3) to tied for 13th in the NBA (81.2). His efficiency has slipped now that he’s running pick-and-rolls instead of spotting up off Giannis, but not as much as you might expect. Brogdon is no. 20 in true shooting percentage (57.3) among the 50 players with a usage rate higher than 25 this season, ahead of guys like LeBron James and Pascal Siakam. And he’s doing it without much help. Domantas Sabonis, Myles Turner, and Jeremy Lamb have all missed time this season.
The Bucks have replaced Brogdon by leaning more heavily on Giannis, who has been even better than he was last season. The reigning MVP is averaging more points (30.3 per game), rebounds (14.0), assists (6.2), and steals (1.5) while shooting a higher percentage from the field (58.1). He’s getting to the line more often (11.3 attempts per game) and shooting 32.1 percent from 3 on a career-high 4.3 attempts per game. Giannis covers up a lot of sins in Milwaukee. The only way to guard him is to leave him open on the perimeter—and now he’s starting to make those shots. All the Bucks have to do is play enough 3-point shooters to spread out the defense for him.
They signed Wesley Matthews, an aging 3-and-D guard, to take Brogdon’s spot in the starting lineup. Matthews is a more limited player who takes a much higher percentage of his field goal attempts from 3 (71.4) than Brogdon did last season (32.6), while handing out far fewer assists (0.9 per game) than his predecessor (3.2). And he’s not even as good of a 3-point shooter: Matthews is shooting 32.0 percent compared with 42.6 percent for Brogdon when he was in a similar role.
The other player the Bucks brought in to replace Brogdon is Kyle Korver, who is even more one-dimensional than Matthews. Korver is still one of the best shooters in the NBA at age 38, but he was never much of a defender and now has to be hidden on that end as much as possible. The drop-off between Korver and Brogdon will be even more glaring in the playoffs, where Korver’s poor defense makes him almost unplayable. He went from a net rating of plus-6.3 in 1,083 minutes for Utah in the regular season to minus-35.2 in 30 minutes in the playoffs.
There are some warning signs for Milwaukee when looking at their numbers this season. The Bucks are far more reliant on 3s. They have dropped from no. 2 in the percentage of field goal attempts taken within 3 feet of the rim (34.0) to no. 20 (27.4). The difference could be seen in losses to the Heat and Celtics at the start of the season, when they went cold from 3 and didn’t have a Plan B.
That’s why their two most effective players by net rating this season have been third-year wing Sterling Brown (plus-19.3 in 156 minutes) and second-year guard Donte DiVincenzo (plus-19.2 in 174 minutes). Brown and DiVincenzo aren’t just younger and more athletic, but more dynamic than Matthews and Korver at this stage in their careers. While they don’t get much offense run through them, they can at least attack off the dribble when the defense closes out on them.
But it’s unclear how much playing time they will get once everyone is healthy. The two youngsters have been thrust into bigger roles without Khris Middleton, who remains sidelined the next few weeks with a thigh contusion. Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer tends to prefer playing veterans over younger players. The best example came last season, when he buried third-year big man D.J. Wilson on the bench after a midseason trade for Nikola Mirotic, even though Wilson’s ability to move his feet made him less of a defensive liability than Mirotic.
Brown and DiVincenzo are far from perfect players. Brown is a less consistent shooter than Brogdon, and he doesn’t always play within himself on offense, while DiVincenzo is a smaller combo guard (6-foot-4, 203 pounds) who can be attacked on defense. The odds are that their coach will favor Matthews and Korver over them even if it hurts the team.
The Bucks front office should consider taking the decision out of Bud’s hands by trading for a proven veteran with a skill set closer to Brogdon’s. The best option is probably Sacramento’s Bogdan Bogdanovic. Bogdanovic, a 27-year-old in his third season from Serbia, is an elite shooter (43.8 percent from 3 on 6.8 attempts per game) who can also run point (4.8 assists on 1.9 turnovers per game). According to NBA Advanced Stats, he’s currently averaging 7.6 drives per game, which would rank third on the Bucks’ roster behind Giannis and Eric Bledsoe. He has never really gotten the chance to show what he can do in Sacramento, where he has been stuck behind Buddy Hield and De’Aaron Fox. He could be a star in Milwaukee.
The Kings also have to think about moving Bogdanovic, who will be a restricted free agent this offseason. He has been a huge part of their turnaround after a disastrous 0-5 start, but he’s still caught in a positional logjam behind Fox, Hield, and Harrison Barnes. Sacramento signed the latter two to contracts worth a combined $179 million this offseason, and has to extend the rookie deals of Fox and Marvin Bagley III in the near future. Would they go into the luxury tax to pay a sixth man?
The Bucks have the pieces to make a deal. They dealt away their first-round picks in 2020 and 2022, but they still have some interesting young players (Brown, DiVincenzo, and Wilson) as well as three picks they got from the Pacers (a lottery-protected first-rounder in 2020, and second-round picks in 2021 and 2025) in the sign-and-trade for Brogdon. Milwaukee should overpay, even if it means adding pick swaps and trading away first-round picks far into the future, like the two L.A. teams with similar title aspirations did this offseason.
Forget the basketball element of losing Brogdon. The optics look even worse. Every other title contender went all in this summer. The Lakers mortgaged their future for Anthony Davis, and the Clippers did the same for Paul George. The 76ers rebounded from losing Jimmy Butler by turning him into Josh Richardson and signing Al Horford. And none of those teams have a franchise player who could leave in two seasons.
Milwaukee sent a message when it let an All-Star-caliber player in his prime walk and replaced him with two 30-somethings on minimum contracts. Giannis will soon decide where he wants to spend the prime of his career. His peers—LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, and Kevin Durant—are all in either New York or Los Angeles. If the Bucks want Giannis to stay in a small market, they have to spend money like a big one. They need to do something to make sure that Brogdon doesn’t become the James Harden to his KD.
Stats current through Tuesday’s games.