Bucks set to wheel and deal


Two seasons ago, the Milwaukee Bucks reaped the rewards of having a stalwart perimeter defender.

Last year, the Bucks paid the price for not having one.

The Bucks won the NBA championship in 2021, thanks in no small part to the defensive wizardry of P.J. Tucker. The veteran swingman made his presence felt in each playoff round for the Bucks with his pesky, annoying and in-your-face pressure.

That was particularly evident in the Bucks’ critical Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Brooklyn Nets when Tucker, while not coming close to shutting down Hall of Fame in-waiting Kevin Durant, nevertheless bothered him just enough for the Bucks to escape with a Game 7 victory.

But the Bucks decided to pinch pennies and let Tucker move on to Miami the ensuing summer. The decision was disastrous as the Bucks didn’t have anyone who remotely resembled a shutdown defender in their season-ending series against the Boston Celtics.

While the Bucks didn’t have the services of Khris Middleton and Giannis Antetokounmpo did a disappearing act on offense  (he was a miserable 10 of 26 from the field in Game 7), they still noticeably missed the versatile Tucker as the Celtics created matchup nightmares time and time again. The Celtics closed the series by annihilating the Bucks 109-81.

Considering their premature exit from the playoffs and how they obviously needed a perimeter defender, you would have expected Bucks’ co-general managers Jon Horst and Mike Budenholzer would have addressed their glaring need during the offseason.

Instead, the Bucks opted to sign a shooter: Joe Ingles. While he can be a helpful off-the-bench scorer, Ingles is, at best, a mediocre defender.

Putting Ingles on the floor with other sub-par defenders like Grayson Allen and Bobby Portis would be a fatal mistake for the Bucks come playoff time when teams exploit their opponent’s weakest links.

The Bucks brass is undoubtedly cognizant of their perimeter defense issues, and it fully explains why they have been working the phones and seeking help in that area.

“Good perimeter defenders are hard to find,’’ an Eastern Conference official said. “If you’re lucky to have one, you aren’t going to him away.’’

Indeed, it means the Bucks’ chances of securing a Tucker-like defender are slim. (Tucker, by the way, is now starting for Philadelphia and playing a key defensive role for the surging 76ers). But the Bucks could land a decent one.

The Bucks have been courting Jae Crowder of the Phoenix Suns and, as I tweeted more than two months ago, a deal to secure Crowder seemed likely, a deal that would have involved Allen.

In that same tweet, I noted how the Suns had done “extensive’’ background checks on Allen, something they clearly wouldn’t have done if they weren’t seriously interested in his services.

With the NBA trade deadline looming – it’s Feb. 9 – the Bucks still have their eyes on Crowder, a former Marquette University standout who is 32 and has played with seven NBA teams.

But the odds of the Suns sending Crowder to Milwaukee seems unlikely, especially if Allen isn’t part of the deal or if the Bucks don’t noticeably upgrade their offer.

It would be moronic if the Suns dealt Crowder, who would immediately step into the Bucks rotation, for a young  forward  like Jordan Nwora, who has done little in his two-plus pro seasons, or 22-year-old rookie MarJon Beauchamp who, while an intriguing prospect, is years away from being an a key contributor. Beauchamp is shooting a dismal 39 percent from the field and a weak 32 percent from 3-point range.

A recent report by Shams Charania had the Bucks giving the Suns, in addition to Nwora, two veterans and a second-round pick. The veterans are Serge Ibaka and George Hill. The latter is 36; the former is 33. They have little, if anything, left in their tanks.

As for a second-round pick, that too would be of no help for the Suns. The Bucks’ second-round pick would be a late second-round pick and late second-round picks fail infinitely more than succeed.

“From the Suns standpoint, that deal makes no sense at all,’’ an NBA general manager said.

Crowder is among a slew of swingmen who are on the trading block. Some of the others are Orlando’s Terrence Ross, Charlotte’s Kelly Oubre Jr. (“He’s long and athletic but his mindset is on the offensive end,’’ another NBA official said Oubre.) and Orlando’s Gary Harris (“That’s a good name,’’ an NBA personnel official said. “But he’s undersized (at 6-foot-4) to guard the taller 3s.’’

The Bucks, like several other teams, have also kicked the tires on New York’s Cam Reddish. At 6-8 and athletic, Reddish has the physical attributes to be a top-notch defender.

But Reddish hasn’t shown any inclination to be a defender and, in fact, has been a major bust since being chosen by Atlanta with the 10th overall selection in the 2019 draft.

After almost two underwhelming seasons with the Hawks, Reddish was dealt to the Knicks last January. He has fallen out of the Knicks rotation this season and has appeared in just 20 games.

“He’s talented but he’s immature,’’ an NBA official said. “He just doesn’t get it.’’

Added an NBA general manager: “I’ve heard that too, that he’s immature. But I also heard he’s not all that committed to playing.

“Whoever trades for him is taking a flyer.’’

It has been speculated the Knicks would take back draft picks for Reddish, and that the Bucks have offered a pair of second-rounders. Again, they would be late second-round picks, which would have little value for the Knicks.

The Bucks got an up-close glimpse at Reddish’s talents in Game 7 of the 2021 Eastern Conference Finals against Atlanta when he came off the bench to score 23 points in 28 minutes. He made 6 of 7 3-point shots.

“That’s what he’s capable of doing,’’ an Eastern Conference official said. “But that was one of his few really good games he’s had.’’

Reddish, 23, is being paid $5.9M this season with a qualifying offer of $8.1M for next season.

Another perimeter defender who is drawing trade interest is Atlanta’s Justin Holiday, who is the older brother of Bucks point guard Jrue Holiday.

Justin Holiday is regarded as a good defender. He is 6-6, quick and has active hands. He has played in only 27 games this season and lost his spot in the rotation to talented rookie AJ Griffin.

Holiday, who turns 34 on April 5, is in the final season of his contract, one that pays him $6.2 million this season.

“He’s a really solid defender,’’ an NBA player personnel director said. “And he’s not a liability offensively.’’