When Milwaukee Bucks Coach Jason Kidd was asked about the team’s decision to trade Brandon Knight to Phoenix before last season’s trade deadline, he did his best to frame the argument to his liking.
“I wouldn’t say we gave up a lot,” Kidd said before Milwaukee was routed by the Washington Wizards, 115-86, at Verizon Center Tuesday night. “[Knight] was having a great season, and he’s having a great season this year. But it wasn’t [that] we gave up on Brandon. We had a decision to make in our back court.
“It wasn’t Klay Thompson or Stephen Curry. We weren’t going to max out our back court. As an organization, we had a decision to make, and we made it.”
The “decision” that Kidd referred to was whether to give a big contract to Knight or Khris Middleton, as both members of Milwaukee’s back court last season were set to be restricted free agents and receive big paydays after helping the Bucks unexpectedly post a 30-23 record heading into the all-star break.
But by trading Knight, who they sent to Phoenix as part of a three-team trade with the 76ers that saw Milwaukee get point guards Michael Carter-Williams and Tyler Ennis, the Bucks weren’t actually choosing between paying Knight and Middleton; they were choosing between paying Knight and Greg Monroe, their celebrated free agent signing in July.
“When we made the decision to trade [Knight], it gave us the opportunity to not only look at [Carter-Williams], but also flexibility going into the summer,” Kidd said after Tuesday’s loss. “If we were going to commit to both our back-court guys, then we would never have been able to recruit.
“Look, we could have gone the other way, too, and had no problems. At that point, we had to figure out which one we could move, and had the opportunity to get something in return.”
What the trade did was give the Bucks an opportunity to sign Monroe to a three-year, $51.7 million maximum contract in July – easily the biggest move in the franchise’s history. Milwaukee has never exactly been a free agent destination, and for Kidd, General Manager John Hammond and co-owners Wes Edens and Marc Lasry, landing Monroe – who had been courted by the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers, among others – was seen as a landmark signing, and one that could push the Bucks into the next level in the Eastern Conference.
There’s no arguing the significance of a small market in a cold weather location landing a coveted free agent like Monroe. But since Milwaukee traded Knight, a borderline all-star at the time, the Bucks have gone 16-24 in 40 regular season games – including a 5-6 record this year after Tuesday’s blowout loss to the Wizards.
Before the trade, the Bucks had the second-best defensive rating (99.3 points per 100 possessions) in the league last season, per NBA.com, and had an average offense that benefited greatly from the three-point shooting prowess Knight (40.9 percent) and Middleton (40.7) provided to go along with playing terrific defense.
Swapping out Knight for a terrible shooter in Carter-Williams changed that dramatically, sending the Bucks from a respectable offense to one choked for any space. To attempt to counterbalance that, Milwaukee pursued Monroe, hoping that the former Georgetown standout’s ability to score inside would help make up for the team’s lack of spacing and shooting elsewhere.
But the decision to sign Monroe – and, more importantly, to pair him with second-year forward Jabari Parker, who sat out Tuesday’s game with a sprained right foot – has wound up creating more problems than it solved. While Monroe has been productive, averaging 16.5 points and 9.7 rebounds per game thus far, both he and Parker are below-average defensive players. The result has been the Bucks tumbling from the second-best defense in the NBA last season – while Parker was sidelined with a torn ACL and Monroe was in Detroit – to the third-worst in the league through 11 games this season.
Kidd, though, has another theory: the team’s youthful roster still has plenty of learning to do.
“It’s a work in progress,” Kidd said. “You have to go through being on the scouting report … last year we weren’t, and we surprised a lot of people. Now we’re on the scouting report, and there’s a lot of things that are expected from us.
“But we’re not quite ready for that, and we have to go through that.”
A team that can’t space the floor offensively and that starts two bigs who can’t protect the rim defensively provides scouting reports opposing teams are thrilled to exploit. That’s the equation the Bucks find themselves grappling with at the moment, and have been ever since they agreed to trade Knight nine months ago.
It would have been simple for the Bucks to stand pat last season. Milwaukee could’ve just kept Knight, paid him and Middleton and then built around a starting five of Knight, Middleton, Parker, Giannis Antetokounmpo and John Henson, with the hopes that group could grow into the spine of a contender.
But the Bucks decided that group couldn’t get them to where they wanted to go, and chose to swing for the fences. So far, though, it appears they may have hit a pop-up instead of the home run they were seeking.