Malcolm Brogdon is not James Harden, but the Milwaukee Bucks' summer makes me think about the Harden trade. I say this not to slam the Bucks; I merely see a parallel in that the Oklahoma City Thunder reached incredible heights in 2011-2012, then made a difficult decision, betting that the rest of their core could keep them in title contention.

As awful as the Harden trade looks in hindsight, the Thunder were not exactly wrong about that. Their regular-season winning percentage and point differential increased in 2012-13, and they might have made it back to the Finals if Russell Westbrook hadn't torn his meniscus in the first round of the playoffs. 

Oklahoma City remained elite mostly because Kevin Durant got more efficient, Westbrook improved his playmaking and Serge Ibaka became a better midrange shooter. Kevin Martin, acquired in the Harden trade, fit in nicely, but the team largely relied on its existing infrastructure. In this respect, Milwaukee's offseason was similar, but not the same. It re-signed Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez and George Hill, and it is hoping that Giannis Antetokounmpo will make more strides, but it also made a bunch of moves on the fringes, most notably adding veterans Wesley Matthews, Robin Lopez and Kyle Korver.

Executive of the Year Jon Horst and the rest of the Bucks' front office had to get creative to make that stuff happen. To open up cap space, Milwaukee traded Tony Snell for Jon Leuer, then stretched Leuer's contract. It did not pursue a reunion with Nikola Mirotic. It waived Hill because his 2019-20 salary was mostly non-guaranteed, then re-signed him at a lower number. Brook Lopez signed a four-year, $52 million deal, likely taking a smaller salary in exchange for a longer deal in a comfortable place. Brook's presence helped lure Robin, and coach Mike Budenholzer recruited Korver. Brogdon's departure allowed the Bucks to sell Matthews on playing a real role for a contender. 

Still, It can't have felt good to say goodbye to a 26-year-old guard who won Rookie of the Year as a second-round pick. Brogdon had a 50-40-90 season in 2018-19, and is the exact type of player Milwaukee should want next to Antetokounmpo: effective on and off the ball, able to guard multiple positions. In the playoffs, he held his own for stretches guarding Kawhi Leonard and made plays when the Bucks' offense bogged down. The sign-and-trade with the Indiana Pacers was preferable to letting Brogdon go for nothing, but, down the road, Milwaukee might wish it had simply kept him, even if the price -- four years and $85 million -- was not what it had in mind. 

It's a bit strange to see a championship-caliber team -- especially one that is hoping the MVP will sign a contract extension when he is eligible -- decide not to bring back one of its most important players. Much like the post-Harden Thunder, what's important is not what happens in the first season after the deal, but how it affects the team's long-term outlook. As clever as Milwaukee's maneuvering was, we can't properly judge it until we see if next season's team is good enough to keep Antetokounmpo around. 

The glowing quote

"In some ways, we were already the deepest team in the league in my opinion last year, and I think we might have become deeper. We still have four studs in the starting lineup and we have a fifth guy that fits great with them. I think we could be better. I really do. I think we've filled the gaps in a great way." - Horst to The Athletic's Eric Nehm

What could have been

Milwaukee could have paid Brogdon instead of Eric Bledsoe, who signed a four-year, $70 million extension in early March and then had his second straight playoff meltdown. It also could have maintained more cap space had it not signed Snell to a four-year, $44 million contract in 2017 and Ersan Ilyasova to a three-year, $21 million contract in 2018. With all of those contracts on the books, though, the Bucks were limited in terms of their flexibility, and it's sort of a miracle that they managed to keep Lopez without his bird rights. 

I wonder what would have happened if Milwaukee had played hardball with Middleton instead of re-signing him to a five-year, $178 million deal, but that never seemed realistic. The big what-if is obviously Brogdon: it could have opted to match Indiana's offer, go into the luxury tax and figure the rest out later. 

Taking the temperature

A hypothetical conversation between someone who believes the deer should be feared and someone who doesn't 

Positive fan: Giannis is going to be even better, Robin Lopez is going to shoot 3s like his brother and the Bucks are going to skate to the Finals now that Kawhi is out of the East. I know everyone is making a big deal about Brogdon, but hey, he was taken with the No. 36 pick. Maybe they will get a player like him with the first-rounder (or one of the two second-rounders) they got from Indiana. 

Skeptical fan: Are you sure about the Finals? They didn't get there last year, and their offense looked predictable when the games mattered most. Giannis needs either more moves or more help, and you can't possibly think that Milwaukee will have an easier time creating offense without Brogdon. I worry that asking Giannis to do even more heavy lifting is a less-than-ideal recruiting plan.  

Positive fan: Meh, the Bucks had the fourth-best offense in the league in the regular season and the playoffs. Giannis had all the space he ever wanted and his numbers went up across the board despite playing fewer minutes. Forgive me if I'm not all that worried about their system, especially given that they went 7-1 in their first eight playoff games without Brogdon. You might have a point if the Raptors had kept Leonard, but I'm not scared of anyone in the East anymore. 

Skeptical fan: What about Philly? In March, the Sixers won in Milwaukee by putting Joel Embiid on Giannis and refusing to send help. Giannis scored 52 points, but it wasn't enough. Now Philadelphia has Al Horford, too, and he makes Giannis work for everything he gets. 

Positive fan: How did things work out for Horford's team in the playoffs? It's also convenient that you left out the Bucks' two regular-season wins against the Sixers, including the one that took place weeks after the game you mentioned in which Giannis had 45 points and the Bucks were unstoppable in the fourth quarter. Anyway, last year's Sixers were more of a threat than the new version; without Jimmy Butler and J.J. Redick, Milwaukee should be able to shut them down defensively. 

Skeptical: fan: I can buy that the Bucks are the favorites (or at least co-favorites) in the East. I'm just not convinced that they have made the right moves. They didn't need to extend Bledsoe, they overpaid Middleton and they're basically trying to replace Brogdon with Matthews and Hill. When Giannis has to decide whether or not to sign an extension, will you really be able to look at Milwaukee's cap sheet and say that this is the best place for him to win multiple championships? 

Eye on

The whole league will be watching to see what Antetokounmpo learned from the loss against Toronto, especially after he told The Athletic that he sees Leonard and Marc Gasol double-teaming him "every day in my head." Beyond that, though, I suggest keeping tabs on D.J. Wilson, a favorite of the nerdier contingent of Bucks fans. Budenholzer didn't trust the big man to perform in the playoffs, but he showed flashes in the regular season of being able to do a bit of everything. He is mobile enough to defend the perimeter, long enough to protect the paint and, if he develops the way the team hopes, could space the floor as a shooter and a lob threat.

As much potential as Wilson has, though, it's unclear what kind of opportunity he will get next season. The Lopez brothers will likely eat up the vast majority of the center minutes, and then there's Ilyasova and the Giannis-at-5 lineups. Wilson will have to earn his playing time and probably play out of position. Such is life on a deep team with title aspirations.