As the Milwaukee Bucks romped through the 2018-19 regular season, a summer littered with critical personnel decisions loomed over their front office.
Milwaukee general manager Jon Horst, who would later earn Executive of the Year honours for his meticulous construction of a roster that delivered Milwaukee's best campaign since 1980-81, had extended starting point guard and eventual 1st team All-Defensive player, Eric Bledsoe to a four-year, $70 million deal in March.
Despite that, the Bucks would enter free agency with multiple key players up for new deals, which included Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, Malcolm Brogdon, George Hill, and Nikola Mirotic.
"Khris Middleton knows how valuable he is to us and that we want him here. Malcolm Brogdon knows that, and Brook Lopez knows that, and hopefully Nikola Mirotić knows that," Horst shared with Bucks.com during last season's playoffs.
"We aren't satisfied because we won 60 games or satisfied because we won a First Round series. This team wants to win a championship and this team believes that we can," Horst said.
His faith was well-placed. Minutes into free agency, Khris Middleton would agree to a five-year, $178 million deal, and Brook Lopez committed to a four-year, $52 million deal.
Restricted free agent Malcolm Brogdon, however, would head to Indiana on a four-year, $85 million deal with the Bucks receiving draft compensation as a part of a sign and trade agreement.
Indiana is trading a first-round and two future second round picks to the Milwaukee for Malcolm Brogdon, league sources tell ESPN.- Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) June 30, 2019
Bringing Brogdon back would have sent the franchise into luxury tax territory for just the second time in franchise history, so to say this was a controversial decision would be putting it lightly. And that was before Brogdon got off to a brow-raising start with the Pacers. But more on that in a bit.
Brogdon started in every single one of his 64 regular season appearances in 2018-19, averaging 15.6 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.2 assists, eclipsing the elusive 50/40/90 shooting splits in the process. It's a combination of volume and efficiency that puts him in the same company as some of the biggest names in the history of the NBA .
In a recent interview with Ben Golliver of the Washington Post, Horst had this to say on the decision.
"I'm pained by it, yes, Malcolm is a great person and a great player. I wish him the best in Indiana. But I don't feel like we were forced to do anything that we didn't want to. We made a trade with Tony Snell that freed us up to match any offers. We have an ownership group that has allowed us to do whatever we need to do [financially]. The decision on Malcolm really came down to what we thought we could get in return. Do we want to pay for what we think his market could be or do we want to see if we could get something that helps us now and going forward?" Horst said.
While Brogdon was an efficiency monster for the Bucks, he was also playing a role, a piece in Mike Budenholzer's equal opportunity juggernaut that rolled to a 60-win season.
20 plus million dollars a season for a player that was fourth in field goal attempts per game and fourth in usage proved be an asking price too high for the Bucks - and this was before you acknowledge his long injury history that saw him miss 52 regular season games over the past two campaigns.
With the Pacers missing All-Star, Victor Oladipo to start the season, Brogdon has been thrust into the lead role at his second franchise, steering Indiana to solid start while blowing out his previous career-best statistical marks.
Brogdon's assist percentage has risen from 16.2 to 38.9, which ranks the soon to be 27-year-old fifth in the NBA for players who have played a minimum of 200 minutes - only trailing LeBron James, Luka Doncic, Trae Young and James Harden.
Malcolm Brogdon is the first @Pacers player to record at least 20 points and five assists in four consecutive games since Detlef Schrempf did so in December 1992.- Justin Kubatko (@jkubatko) November 6, 2019
Though as expected, a huge spike in usage has been accompanied by a drop in efficiency.
Via Cleaning the Glass , Brogdon's turnover percentage of 13 has him in the 53rd percentile for his position, well down from the 76th percentile he sat in with the Bucks last season as he held far less responsibility for facilitating the offence.
He has also suffered a drop of 9.9 percent in shooting from beyond the arc, while at the rim, his field goal percentage has dropped from the 71st percentile (61 percent) to the 39th percentile (57 percent).
Ultimately, Brogdon's numbers with Indiana are expected to take a hit when Oladipo returns in the near future, but judgement for this trade is misplaced if it is supported by Brogdon's production with Indiana, as it should instead focus on Milwaukee's production without Brogdon.
In the early going, Brogdon's absence has been subtle in Milwaukee, though with Khris Middleton set to miss the next 3-4 weeks with a thigh contusion, the blowtorch may well be applied if Milwaukee struggles during the upcoming stretch without its All-Star wing.
Bucking away from the restricted area:
|Restricted Area FGA||League Rank||FG%||League Rank|
Milwaukee is currently attempting 5.9 fewer shots in the restricted area this season despite putting up insanely efficient percentages, partly due to Brogdon's absence, but equally due to his replacement in the starting line-up, Wes Matthews.
Brogdon attempted 56 percent of his shots at the rim, placing him in the 97th percentile for point guards, while the last time Matthews attempted more than 20 percent of his shots at the rim came way back in 2013-14 - the season before he ruptured his Achilles tendon.
Unlocking the restricted area:
|RA FGA||League Rank||FG%||League Rank||3PA|
|First 4 games||23.5||30th||70.2||4th||45.9|
|Last 6 games||30.9||9th||71.3||1st||38.5|
Before prematurely declaring the failure to sign Brogdon a complete disaster, it should be noted that the Bucks' offence is showing real signs of adaptation with Milwaukee once again finding their dominance inside and out.
While per game numbers are not an ideal metric in isolation, the gap between restricted area attempts and three-point attempts has closed from 22.4 per game to 7.6 per game - a much healthier disparity.
It must be acknowledged that a huge slice of the turnaround has been due to an absurd stretch of seven games from Giannis Antetokounmpo during which the reigning MVP has averaged 34.3 points, 15.0 rebounds and 5.7 assists.
But with the sterling play of the Greek Freak, a further look at the Milwaukee rotation is required.
This is where third-year guard, Sterling Brown becomes an intriguing piece of the Bucks championship puzzle in 2019-20.
After seeing just 5:56 of playing time over the first four games, Brown has quickly moved up in the pecking order in Budenholzer's rotation, and looms as a player to monitor.
In 58 appearances and 17.8 minutes per game last season, Brown attempted 45 percent of his shots at the rim, placing him in the 90th percentile according to Cleaning the Glass .
It's not just the volume of Brown's shots that come at the rim that piques interest as much as his efficiency in scoring in those zones, with the 24-year-old shooting 81-for-128 at the rim last season, good for 63 percent according the Basketball-Reference.com .
In addition, Brown has proven to be an excellent three-point shooter from the corners, where he went 29-for-47 (61.7 percent) last season, while Brogdon finished 24-for-48 (50 percent).
Sterling Brown had a career-high 27 PTS and 9 REB for the @Bucks last night in Atlanta! 🦌#FearTheDeer pic.twitter.com/8XONJGVvyX- NBA TV (@NBATV) April 1, 2019
It's likely that Budenholzer and the Bucks will look to replace Brogdon's production by committee, with Donte DiVincenzo, Pat Connaughton, and George Hill set to play key roles, though it's Brown who has the skillset most similar to that of the ultra-efficient Brogdon.
For that reason, don't be surprised if he enters the starting line-up for Matthews before the regular season is complete. Not so much to replace Brogdon's production and efficiency, but to provide the Milwaukee offence with the diversity it appears to lack on occasion.
The initial showdown
With the Milwaukee Bucks heading to Indiana this weekend to face Brogdon and the Pacers for the first time, conclusions are sure to be drawn from the matchup, with Brogdon vs. Bledsoe set to headline.
Make no mistake, regardless of the result in this one, the narrative will continue throughout the season, but keep an eye on the Bucks' volume of shot attempts at the rim, as that may be the key indicator in determining if the decision to move on from Brogdon was a catastrophic one for the Milwaukee offence.
"I don't think it's said enough in the NBA that it's possible for both parties to win," Horst continued in his chat with Golliver.
"It's possible that we could be a better team without Malcolm. It's possible that he could be a better player in Indiana. It's possible that we could both do a great trade. Early on, it looks like that."
It is easily overlooked that Milwaukee did receive draft compensation in return for Brogdon, giving Horst and co another avenue to improve their roster before the February trade deadline if the answer does not lie from within.
Reality is, the result of the game this weekend won't bring us any closer to legitimately declaring a winner or loser in the Brogdon trade. Those answers won't start to become clear until the postseason, where the Bucks hope to lift the Larry O'Brien trophy for just the second time in franchise history.
It is at that time where we could find out if Brogdon was a requirement in Milwaukee, or simply a luxury.
The views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.