What are the Milwaukee Bucks looking to do in the 2024 NBA draft?

In the aftermath of an injury-riddled and disappointing first-round NBA playoff loss to the Indiana Pacers, Khris Middleton offered a simple truth about the Milwaukee Bucks the past few years.

“That’s why you build a team in case some guys go down,” he began. “If a guy goes down, hopefully as a team, you can step up and put it together. Last couple years, we haven’t been able to do that. The year we won it, everybody forgets Donte DiVincenzo had an injury (against Miami in the first round). P.J. Tucker stepped into a role and we were still able to compete and end up winning the championship that year. The past couple years, we just weren’t good enough as a team. And there’s no excuses about it, I feel.

“I’m not going to say just ‘cause Giannis was out, Dame was out, I was hurt, whatever, the last couple years. Every team is going through something at some point. It’s just you have to have the best team to keep playing at this point in the season.”

That 2021 championship team was also equipped to handle the two-game absence of Giannis Antetokounmpo with the Eastern Conference finals tied 2-2 with Atlanta.

Milwaukee Bucks general manager Jon Horst has two draft picks to use, or trade, in the 2024 NBA Draft on June 26-27, 2024.
Milwaukee Bucks general manager Jon Horst has two draft picks to use, or trade, in the 2024 NBA Draft on June 26-27, 2024.

They held up the Larry O’Brien Trophy because, in the end, they were the best team.

To Middleton’s point, the 2024-25 Bucks need to be more well-rounded than they have been. And that begins with the NBA draft, which will be held over two days on June 26-27. The Bucks hold the No. 23 pick in the first-round and the No. 33 selection in the second-round.

Teams may then begin legally negotiating with free agents at 5 p.m. (CT) June 30.

More: What to know about the Bucks offseason: Draft picks, salary cap, roster-building restrictions, key dates

The problem, as it currently stands, is Bucks general manager Jon Horst has no additional first-round draft picks to send out in-season to acquire a reinforcement like Tucker. There are no more second-round picks to send out in-season to acquire the likes of a Jae Crowder or Pat Beverley.

The first- and second-round picks the team does possess can be moved only on draft night. So what does Horst do?

Does he attach them with a high-priced player to acquire a championship-worthy replacement? Does he keep the picks to further build the back end of the roster with 20-somethings?

Let’s look at what is on the table:

Who are the Bucks looking for in the NBA draft?

The Bucks’ draft board is at the mercy of all the teams that pick ahead of them – whether they make their selection or trade out of it. As such, it’s impossible to predict a specific player the team will target.

There is an archetype every team in the NBA is looking for and the Bucks are no different – a tall (think 6-foot-6 to 6-8), strong player who can defend at a high level and knock down open three-pointers. History says picking a player that roughly fits those parameters still will take time to develop and not immediately contribute, but if that player is available, it feels like an obvious choice.

Brook Lopez will turn 37 years old near the end of the season and is in the final year of his contract, and the Bucks have tried to find viable, veteran backup big men via trade and free agency to no avail. A rookie big man could contribute off the bench, but the Bucks may not be looking for a center who can shoot the three as well as Lopez. With Damian Lillard, that floor spacing isn’t as important, so a strong rim protector who can aggressively roll to the basket and finish strong might be a better fit for a reserve who could grow into a bigger role after 2025.

More: Eight names connected to the Milwaukee Bucks in mock drafts with two weeks to go

The Bucks cannot allow themselves to be hard-capped

There is a salary cap line, a luxury tax line, a first tax apron and a second tax apron. Teams are allowed to exceed all of them – with varying degrees of penalty – to construct a roster. But at a certain point, the league says, no, that’s far enough and “hard caps” a team.

In short, if a team chooses to make a specific move and the result is a hard cap, it means just that – they absolutely cannot exceed the apron they are at. No mid-season trades. No buyout signings. Nothing.

Last season, 20 teams were hard-capped at the first tax apron. Denver was hard-capped at the second tax apron.

On a theoretical level, the Bucks could do the following:

  • Send cash as part of a trade, like when they sent money to Orlando last year to acquire the draft rights to Andre Jackson Jr.

  • Trade Pat Connaughton and MarJon Beauchamp to Portland for defensive wing Matisse Thybulle.

But using cash in a deal or aggregating two players for one would trigger the hard cap – and the Bucks would be stuck with nine to 12 players on their roster.

NBA teams must have at least 14 guaranteed contracts by opening night.

Yet the hard cap would not allow them to sign any more. But they legally cannot field a team with fewer than 14. So what would have to happen? They’d have to begin shedding massive amounts of salary for literally nothing in return.

Some teams actively choose to be hard-capped because they feel acquiring a specific player is worth restricting the roster in such a way, but it is a near impossibility to do this in Milwaukee if the goal is to win a title in 2024-25.

More: What to know about the Milwaukee Bucks players’ contracts, salary cap

The Bucks are going to need trade help

The Bucks can still make a trade, but they effectively cannot send out multiple players for a single player.

And they cannot take in more money than they’re sending out.

It’s also important to remember that the Bucks are in win-now mode. They only traded Jrue Holiday because they acquired Lillard. If they were to trade Middleton or Lopez, it must be for an all-star or all-NBA-level player who can help them win the championship in 2024-25.

That drastically narrows the list of available players.

It gets further narrowed when you factor in the restrictions the Bucks face but also the restrictions potential trade partners have.

Let’s just say Milwaukee and Cleveland decide on draft night to trade their big men, with the Bucks sending Lopez and his $23 million salary to the Cavaliers for Jarrett Allen and his $20 million deal. The Bucks likely will have to sweeten their offer with one or both of their draft picks, as Allen is younger and has one more year left on his contract.

But it’s not that simple.

The Cavaliers were a first-apron team last year and are close to that threshold already. Adding Lopez’s additional $3 million along with two picks may be untenable for them. That means the Cavaliers not only must want to make the trade with the Bucks, but also be willing to trade another rostered player to a third team to manage their finances.

An important note: The Bucks can trade their picks after the draft and it will not count as an aggregated salary – as long as they don’t sign the players. At that point, they’ll just be sending the rights to that player out in the deal.

Why would the Bucks eschew two potential draft picks for an older veteran?

Coach Doc Rivers answered that, too.

“There's a lot of talk about young guys and we'll play anybody, but I'll take an old, athletic guy, too,” Rivers said. “It doesn't have to be a young guy, it just has to be a guy with more length and more speed and more pace and more skill.”

Just as it seems the Bucks have little ability to continue changing the roster to compete for a title, Horst has found a way. This summer will be more difficult than most – but not impossible.

This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: What are the Milwaukee Bucks looking to do in the 2024 NBA draft?