Almost to a fault at times, making a comparison is so easy when it comes to the NBA. Whether if it’s comparing teams or players, we always like to think someone or something reminds us of Team X or Player X.
This season is still in its infant stages, yet we’re already seeing reminded of us crews we’ve seen in previous years.
Take this year’s Golden State Warriors. Following their reign of dominance over the last several years, their best players are all so marred with injuries that their best course of action might just be to throw the season away in hopes of acquiring a high draft pick. That, then, could be following a path similar to the 1996-97 San Antonio Spurs.
Another example might be this year’s Chicago Bulls. We were so swept up in how promising the Bulls looked with their youth toward the end of last season that the overhyped was ultimately undeserved. The team currently stands at 2-6 and they haven’t exactly faced the toughest competition in that timespan. For contrast’s sake, Chicago may be a reincarnation of the 2015-16 Milwaukee Bucks.
Which brings us to the Bucks as they stand now. Milwaukee came into this season with many expecting them to be one of the better teams in the league. At 5-2, they look just about as good as advertised. The Bucks have an unstoppable, all-time player entering his prime, a brilliant coach and a bunch of players on the roster who, thanks to their shooting abilities, fit like a glove alongside their franchise player.
Let’s check that again and be a little more specific. They have a superstar player whose freakish abilities physically make him arguably the hardest player in the league to stop. Milwaukee has players that help their alpha dog because they can shoot the rock and a wisened coach who knows how to mix and match.
Sound familiar? It should because those were some of the exact components that made the Orlando Magic — way back when they were led by Dwight Howard — an elite franchise from 2008 to 2010.
Now, these two teams aren’t the exact same team detail-by-detail. In their primes, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Howard had some distinct differences between each other. Howard’s natural athleticism — combined with his overpowering strength — made him an all-around terror on both ends of the floor. In fact, when he was at the peak of his power, Howard may have been the most terrifying shot-blocker the NBA has ever seen.
Antetokounmpo, by contrast, is renowned more for his length, handle and speed, three advantages that Howard never really had. The Greek Freak’s long limbs and body control make him a matchup nightmare for opponents — whether if it’s in the half-court or on the fast break.
The overarching theme between the two future Hall of Famers is that their physical gifts allowed their respective franchises to max out the full roster’s potential. Thanks to that, there are several similarities between these current Bucks and those Magic teams from a decade ago.
The Play Styles
At the height of their playing abilities, Orlando lived and died at the three-point. Back then, detractors labeled that sort of playing style as “soft.” Nowadays, they should be revered for being ahead of their time.
Back in the 2008-09 season, Orlando took 26.2 threes per game which, at the time, seemed absurd when you compare them to their other elite competitors like the Boston Celtics (16.5, ranked 21st), Los Angeles Lakers (18.5, 15th) and Denver Nuggets (18, tied for 17th). That year, the Cleveland Cavaliers ranked fifth in three-point attempts a game, but they shot only 20.4 from distance.
Last season, only four teams took less three-point shots than the 2008-2009 Orlando Magic. But in 2008-09, only one team attempted more threes than the Magic. Yeah, the times have changed.
It was more of the same the following year, as the Magic led the league in three-point attempts with 27.3. Again, many scoffed at the idea of a team’s identity offensively centering so much on the three-ball. Now, you’re scoffed at if you don’t shoot enough from three-point land.
The offensive strategy could be boiled down to this: Surround Howard with floor spacers and playmakers that could let him do damage in the post. Back then, Howard was so imposing that opponents usually doubled him and left someone else open.
There was a good reason for this: From 2008 to 2010, the Magic had a wide array of dependable floor spacers to surround Dwight. Rashard Lewis, Hedo Turkoglu, Vince Carter, JJ Redick, Courtney Lee, Mickael Pietrus, Rafer Alston and Matt Barnes — all beyond capable three-point shooters. Over both years, they shot 38.1 and 37.5 percent from three, percentages that got them in the top ten league-wide.
It was an effective strategy that many believed wouldn’t work. Following the Warriors’ reign of terror, more teams than ever rely on shooting from the perimeter. It may have taken a few years, but the Bucks are following a similar pattern.
After adding players who turned out to be bad fits next to Antetokounmpo — Michael Carter-Williams, Greg Monroe, Matthew Dellavedova — the Bucks realized last summer that consistent shooting would help more than anything else. Since the summer of 2018, they’ve added Brook Lopez, Ersan Ilyasova, Nikola Mirotic (briefly), George Hill, Wes Matthews and Kyle Korver.
By adding this shooting, the Bucks’ offense not-so-coincidentally took off. Last season, they had the league’s fourth-highest offensive rating, scoring 113.8 points per 100 possessions. Part of their newfound success was the improved shooting as they took 38.2 three-pointers a game — with the much-needed bonus of extra room for Antetokounmpo to operate.
When Howard started coming into his own around the end of 2007, the Magic knew he needed help around him for Orlando to take the next step. So, that summer, Otis Smith gave Rashard Lewis a near-max contract believing that he would be Dwight’s partner-in-crime.
Paying Lewis around $20 million seemed like an overpay for someone that had only made the All-Star Game once in his career, but it was a good addition in the prime of his career.
Lewis may not have been worth as much as Orlando was paying him, but he produced about as much as he could in a Magic uniform. His dead-eye shooting played a key role in the franchise making a surprise NBA Finals appearance in 2009, as he averaged 19 points on 45/39/78 splits. Those were good numbers, but were they numbers that of the second-best player on a championship-level team?
Whether it was or not, Lewis’ mysterious decline — or lack thereof — played a role in Orlando slipping in 2010 and taking a major step back the season after that. Lewis’ sharpshooting elevated the Magic to contender-status with Howard, but we were never sure if he was the best go-to guy next to your superstar.
Thusly, this brings us to Khris Middleton. Middleton has a very similar story to Lewis in regards to how he made it to the NBA. A second-round pick that gradually left his mark on basketball as he proved to be one of the league’s best shooters. But how he got paired with a titan for a teammate is a tad different.
While Lewis was brought in to be a dynamic duo with Howard via free agency, Middleton has been with Antetokounmpo from the beginning. In the six-plus years that they’ve been together, the two have had their highs and lows — eventually reaching where they are today: NBA contenders.
Giannis is now finally playing in an offense that helps him play to his full potential, while Middleton has established himself as a scoring threat thanks to his ability to shoot from just about anywhere.
The NBA has definitely taken notice of this. Middleton’s skill set earned him his first All-Star appearance. Middleton is the No. 2 option in Milwaukee for the same reason Lewis was in Orlando — he can shoot the rock. Now Lewis faced plenty of doubts surrounding if he could be the second guy on a title team, but he performed admirably in the role when the playoffs came. For Middleton though, he raised some red flags last year.
Overall, the two-way standout’s performance in the postseason wasn’t bad. He did his usual thing during the first two rounds, but it came against a team without their superstar (Detroit) and another that was already self-imploding (Boston). When the Bucks faced the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference Finals, Middleton couldn’t keep it up.
Outside of Game 5, Middleton’s production as a whole trailed off. He was barely a factor in any of the series, actually. Overall, he averaged 13.7 points on 41/34/55 splits, which are not acceptable for a guy who was playing 40-plus minutes a night.
While Middleton may not flame out as Lewis did, the question remains: Can a sharpshooter be your second-best player on a team looking to win it all?
The Lost Piece
Much has been said about how Milwaukee and Orlando were built around an all-time talent and a bunch of shooters — still, there is a little more nuance to it than that. Both franchises needed playmakers on their squads to get their offense rolling.
For the Magic, that member was Hedo Turkoglu, a savvy playmaker and shooter that had a reputation for coming through in the clutch. He wasn’t the best athlete, but he was unselfish and complemented Howard and Lewis as as much as he could.
Much like Lewis, Turkoglu played a pivotal role in getting the Magic to the NBA Finals. Averaging 16.8 points, 4.8 assists and 4.5 rebounds while putting up 43/39/82 splits would convince any team to re-sign him long-term, but Orlando didn’t see it that way. They sign-and-traded him to the Raptors for Vince Carter in hopes of replacing, or possibly upgrading, in the process.
What does this have to do with the Bucks now? If you haven’t guessed yet, Milwaukee ran into a similar predicament with Malcolm Brogdon. In Milwaukee, he was never a star, but he was the guy that the Bucks relied on to make the extra play because of his fundamentals — both as a passer and as a shooter.
He was excellent in the role that the Bucks gave him and, in fact, there were times where he played like the second fiddle to Antetokounmpo. His sturdy play in the postseason also made it easier to stomach Eric Bledsoe’s struggles. Surely, hanging onto would have been wise, but Brogdon wanted to be more than the third guard. Conversely, the Bucks had already invested in so much of their roster that paying top dollar for a sixth man seemed steep.
However, herein lies a key difference between the Bucks of today and the Magic of 2010. The Bucks have not acquired someone in hopes of replacing what Malcolm Brogdon brought to the table, unlike the Magic that believed Carter would do an admirable job filling in for Turkoglu.
Given how Turkoglu did after he left the Magic in 2009, you can see why they opted not to keep him. Not to take away from how amazingly Brogdon has done in Indiana — he’s been worth every penny — but his would-be role with Milwaukee didn’t match up with the money the young player desired.
Both Orlando and Milwaukee had those glue guys that kept the team afloat — but their departures, as sensible as they may have been, left a hole that became tough to smooth over. For the Bucks, that lingering issue has not yet resolved itself.
But the overarching debate to come from all of this is: Are these similarities a good or bad thing for Milwaukee?
Well, on one hand, Orlando never came away with a championship with the core that they had and that window was only two years long. On the other, a few unexpected twists changed their fortunes for the worse, like Jameer Nelson’s shoulder injury in 2009, Lewis mysteriously falling out of his prime at 30 and a few missed free throws altering the 2010 Eastern Conference Finals.
Milwaukee’s window finally opened last year and, for now, it’ll be open until at least 2021. If they want to keep it that way — Antetokounmpo’s status could change overnight without palpable results — they may have to ask themselves if the best route is to follow that of the 2008-10 Orlando Magic or to go another path.
NBA Daily: Kobe’s 81 Is An Untouchable Feat
Of Kobe Bryant’s lengthy list of accomplishments and records, his 81-point game is the one that has no peer.
Of Kobe Bryant’s lengthy list of accolades, accomplishments and records, the most obvious of them may also be the most under-appreciated.
NBA fans can cite Kobe contemporaries that can match his five NBA championships. In addition to Tim Duncan and Steve Kerr, LeBron James is at No. 3 and still counting. And of course, James passed Kobe’s 33,643 career points just this weekend, moving into third all-time.
Continuing to move the game forward @KingJames. Much respect my brother 💪🏾 #33644
— Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant) January 26, 2020
Kobe’s career-high 35.4 points per game in 2005-06 falls short of James Harden’s current stretch, averaging 36.07 this season and 36.13 last year. In fact, Harden’s career average of 24.97 points slots just behind Kobe’s 24.99, both behind LeBron’s 27.10 and Kevin Durant’s 27.02.
But no modern player has come close to Kobe’s legendary 81-point game during that 2006 season. Sure, Devin Booker tallied 70 three years ago and David Robinson got to 71 back in 1994, but neither were actually that close to Kobe’s iconic torching of the Toronto Raptors.
When Booker poured in 70 against the Boston Celtics, he needed 40 field goal attempts to do it. At his shooting rates that March night, he would have needed to take another seven shots to reach Kobe’s 81. If he didn’t attempt more free throws, then that number ticks up to 10 more attempts.
Sticking to that math, Robinson’s 71 would have needed six more hoists to beat Kobe to 81, a total of 47 hypothetical attempts.
By no means was Kobe the epitome of efficiency when he outscored everyone but Wilt Chamberlain by going 28-of-46 and 7-of-13 from deep – supplemented by an 18-of-20 performance at the free throw line. Nonetheless, he was hardly detrimental to the Los Angeles Lakers’ offense.
In the last 40 years, only five players have come within 20 points of Kobe’s singular feat while shooting at rates such that they could have theoretically gotten to 81 points on fewer than his 46 field goal attempts. Two of those, naturally, came from Kobe himself.
|Player||Date||Points||FGA||Total FGA needed to reach 81|
For someone long-criticized for his shot volume, Kobe was the definition of an efficient mass scorer more often than anyone else, to such a degree he has essentially been without a peer for 30 years.
Aside from Thompson, the obvious nominee of who might match Kobe is a healthy Stephen Curry, even though he has never scored more than 54 points in a game. When Curry reached that mark at Madison Square Garden in 2013, he would have needed to take another 14 shots to have a genuine chance at 81, for a total of 42 attempts. His 53-point effort in 2015 would have also needed to get to 42 attempts to be on pace to match Kobe.
There is, however, another volume scorer to watch, one who came within 20 points of Kobe’s best just last week. Damian Lillard’s week warrants Kobe-esque notice.
Last Monday: 61 points on 17-of-37 shooting against the Warriors; would have need 50 shots to catch Kobe.
Thursday: 47 points on 16-of-28 shooting against the Mavericks; would have needed 49 shots to catch Kobe.
Sunday: 50 points on 14-of-23 shooting against the Pacers, would have needed 38 shots to catch Kobe.
To wit, take last night as an example: Lillard scored 50 points in an impeccably efficient matter, but if he had somehow not missed a single shot, he would have scored only 74 points.
Fittingly, a monomaniacal guard with a penchant for game-winning shots is the one scoring in bunches in ways that can be compared to only Kobe – yet the Portland Trail Blazers’ guard remains far short of the 81-point standard.
But that just goes to show how amazing Kobe’s night on Jan. 22, 2006 really was.
The five-time champion, first-ballot Hall of Famer achieved many things and left an imprint beyond our grasp this tragic week, but his one night of heaviest binge scoring may be the least likely piece of his career to ever be repeated.
It has no modern peer and even those the closest to matching it have tended to fall a dozen shots and 20 points short.
But that day? In today’s modern NBA landscape, that’s a great chance we’ll never, ever see something quite like it again.
Kobe Bryant, a legend and icon in so, so many ways.
NBA Daily: Deadline Dilemma In Toronto
After winning the 2019 NBA Championship and losing Kawhi Leonard, the Toronto Raptors have defied the odds, winning 30 of their first 44 games this season — but Drew Maresca argues that conceding this season in hopes of building an even stronger future roster is the smarter long-term move.
The Raptors have overachieved in a ridiculous way in 2019-20. They were +700 to repeat as NBA champions prior to the 2019 free agency period, according to the Draft Kings.
Immediately after Kawhi Leonard fled West, the Raptors’ odds grew to +2200 to repeat – tied with the Celtics, who just lost Kyrie Irving, and the Nets, whose best player was set to miss the entire year. And yet through 44 games, the Raptors are third in the Eastern Conference with a 31-14 record and only one-and-a-half games behind last year’s pace (32-12).
But what’s in a record? There’s more to unpack than just wins and losses, especially when success has almost certainly been redefined in a city that just experienced its first NBA championship ever. So a logical test is how well you’re playing against the crème de la crème. And in that regard, the Raptors haven’t fared too well. Including their home win against Philadelphia on Wednesday night, the Raptors are still only 7-12 against winning teams with a net rating of minus-37 in those 19 games.
Very few teams would be terribly upset to be in a similar situation as the Raptors. In fact, most teams would be thrilled to be third overall in their conference. But the Raptors are barreling toward an interesting decision: embrace the opportunity to continue to gain playoff experience (and additional playoff revenue) or expedite a miniature rebuild. This writer’s thoughts on the matter are well documented in our 2019-20 Toronto Raptors Season Preview and our recent Atlantic Division – buyers or sellers piece. But let’s officially build a case supporting the Raptors trading some of their veterans in an attempt to add assets prior to the Feb. 6 trade deadline.
The Raptors’ most valuable trade chip is also their longest-tenured player – starting point guard, Kyle Lowry. Lowry is 33 years old and experiencing a career resurgence after taking a back seat to Leonard last year. Lowry is averaging a near career-high 37.1 minutes per game, in which time he’s scoring 20 points per game – more than he’s scored since 2016-17 — and dishing out 7.5 assists.
But Lowry is probably the last guy the team wants to move. He’s a fan favorite and has been with the team for eight consecutive seasons; Lowry is currently third overall for games played in franchise history. But if they chose to dangle Lowry on the trade market, they would certainly get a good amount of interest from teams like the Lakers, HEAT, 76ers and maybe even the Jazz and Nuggets. What interested parties would offer is an entirely different story, but it would have to be pretty aggressive to get the Raptors to part with their franchise player.
But there are other guys who make more sense in a trade.
There’s Marc Gasol, their soon-to-be 35-year-old center. Unlike Lowry, Gasol is not experiencing a career renaissance. He’s missed 12 of their 44 games, with down years in scoring (7.8 points per game compared to his 14.7 career average), two-point shooting (44% compared to his from 49.7% career average) and rebounds (6.4 rebounds compared to his 7.6. career average). But he still has a good amount of utility in him. After all, he leads the Raptors in defensive plus/minus, per Basketball Reference – something that he’s prided himself on throughout his career and an attribute that would be a welcomed addition to most contenders.
There’s also Serge Ibaka, their 30-year-old sometimes-starting, sometimes-backup big man. Ibaka is actually outpacing career averages in scoring (14.9), rebounds (8.4) and assists (1.3). Ibaka is still widely viewed as an above-average and versatile defender, and the fact that he’s shooting 37% on three-pointers makes him all the more valuable to teams like the Boston Celtics – who lack a true big man who can stretch the floor.
Gasol and Ibaka’s standing in Toronto is especially vulnerable since both will enter free agency this summer — whereas Lowry signed an extension last year that runs through 2020-21, when he’ll make $30.5 million. The Raptors could choose to keep Gasol and/or Ibaka, but either or both could walk without returning any assets as soon as this July. Further, the team is unlikely to break the bank for either considering they’ll have to make a generous offer to retain soon-to-be free agent guard Fred VanVleet – who is having a breakout season, averaging 18.7 points and 6.7 assists per game while shooting 38.8% on a career-high 6.9 three-point attempts per game. VanVleet is only 25 years old and fits alongside Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby and the team’s young role players like Norman Powell far better than Ibaka or Gasol.
As it stands, the Raptors have about $85 million in salary commitments for 2020-21 with $3.8 million in a player option (Stanley Johnson) and another $1.5 million in a team option (Terence Davis). The cap is projected at $116 million with the luxury tax kicking in at $141 million. They can (and should) invest between $20 and $25 million per year in VanVleet, which brings them up to about $110 million. If negotiations begin creeping north of $25 million per year, the Raptors will have to make concessions elsewhere if they hope to retain VanVleet – Ibaka would theoretically be among those concessions since he’ll probably be looking for at least one more generous payday. It’s unclear what Gasol would seek in a new contract.
All three of the aforementioned Raptors have at least one thing in common – they are the only three Raptors born before 1990. So whether they like it or not, the Raptors have turned their roster over quickly and effectively to the extent that they have a talented young core with the framework of a contender in the making.
All three veteran players can definitely continue contributing for at least the remainder of this season – and to varying degrees, well beyond it. But their impact will be more profound on a contender looking to add quality veterans. And despite what their record tells us, that’s just not the Raptors right now.
Instead, the Raptors are a team in the very fortunate position of being able to reload relatively quickly around a blossoming young core. Yes, they’re significantly better than average, but which would you prefer: a team that qualifies for the conference semifinals in 2019-20 or a team that loses in the first round of the 2019-20 playoffs, but adds additional assets — some of whom help the team remain competitive for years to come?
Granted, dislodging Lowry from Toronto requires a monster offer and would result in at least some backlash; but neglecting to trade Gasol and/or Ibaka is likely to result in one or both leaving to pursue more money and/or additional championships – neither of which can the Raptors offer. The Raptors and team president Masai Ujiri have made bold moves time and again. There is no reason to hold off on moving either Gasol and/or Ibaka before Feb. 6 – and if a sweetheart offer comes in for Lowry, then him, too.
Regardless, the Raptors are fairly well set up for the future, so it is unlikely that this move (or lack of it) is analyzed too aggressively in the future. And also, there is certainly a fine line between being opportunist and greedy. But trading one, both or all veterans allows the team to add additional assets to a cupboard that already looks pretty well stocked.
And it’s probably one of the final opportunities to add talent before their core takes its final form — and if that form results in future championships is partially dependent on how the Raptors proceed before the 2020 trade deadline.
NBA Daily: Raptors’ Thomas Patiently Perseveres
It took a tight family, two years in Spain and a broken finger, but Matt Thomas’ chance to showcase his shooting on the biggest stage might be finally just around the corner.
Matt Thomas’ long-awaited break was disrupted by a more literal break. After the shooting guard spent two years impressing in the Liga ACB in Spain, Thomas’ first season with the Toronto Raptors was supposed to be his chance to prove himself NBA-ready.
And as the Raptors suffered injury after injury in November, that chance looked like it could grow into a full-blown role, if only on a temporary basis.
“He’s shown he can play at this level, where we can come out there and run stuff for him and he can do work,” Toronto head coach Nick Nurse said. “He’s a really good team defender; he’s much better defensively than maybe people give him credit for.”
Instead, Thomas joined the walking wounded with a broken finger, the first injury to force him to miss extended time in his professional career.
“Anytime you’re injured, it’s hard,” Thomas said. “As a competitor, I want to be on the court, especially we had so many injuries. There was a big opportunity on the table for a first-year guy like myself.”
Thomas had hit 14-of-26 threes at that point, 53.8 percent, already arguably the best shooter on the Raptors’ roster, albeit in limited minutes. The Iowa State product was making the most of his break until his break.
He had waited for it since finishing his four-year career in Ames and Thomas seemed on the verge of reaching the NBA right away in 2017. He spent that Summer League with the Los Angeles Lakers, knowing the Raptors were keeping a close eye. In time, though, Valencia beckoned, a tough decision for someone exceptionally close with his family. Up until that point, the closeness had been as literal as figurative, with Iowa State a four-hour drive from Thomas’ hometown of Onalaska, Wisconsin.
“I wanted to spread my wings and get out of my comfort zone a little bit,” Thomas said of his two years in Spain where he averaged 13.3 points and shot 47.2 percent from deep. “The distance is tough. The time change is the other thing. It’s a 7-to-8 hour time difference, so you really have to coordinate when you’re going to talk to people.”
That was frustrating for a brother intent on keeping up on his sister’s college career, now a senior at the University of Dubuque. Moreover, it was an even bigger change for a family that had been tight-knit since Thomas lost his father in fifth grade.
Thomas’s mother, brother and sister did manage to visit him in Spain, but watching games stateside is obviously much easier. At least, in theory. When the Midwestern winter dumped five inches of snow on the highways between the Target Center and his hometown about 2.5 hours away, that recent trek to see him became that much tougher.
Nonetheless, about four dozen Thomas supporters filled a section above the Raptors’ bench. They were most noticeable when Nurse subbed in the sharpshooter with just a minute left in the first half.
“It’s special because I have a really good support system,” Thomas said. “I’ve had that my entire life . . . It’s just really special to have so many people make the trip, especially given the weather conditions. I was talking to one of my cousins from Iowa; he was driving 30 on the highway. He got here in six hours, it would normally take maybe three.”
If anyone could understand that Midwestern stubbornness, it would be Nurse, himself from just four hours south of the Twin Cities. When asked why his fan club was not as vocal as Thomas’, Nurse joked his was stuck “in a snowdrift somewhere in Carroll County, Iowa.”
It might not have been a joke.
Nurse did not insert Thomas just to appease his loyal cheering section. The end of half situation called for a shooter — he had gone 7-of-18 in his four games after returning from the broken finger. Of players averaging at least two attempts from beyond the arc per game, Thomas leads Toronto with a 46.7 percentage.
“It’s too bad that he was one of the guys out when we had everybody out because he could have logged some serious minutes,” Nurse said. “Now he gets back and everybody’s back and he kind of gets filtered in.”
That close family, that time in Spain, that broken finger and now that filtering in have all been a part of Thomas getting a chance to prove himself in the NBA.
If he has to wait a bit longer before seeing serious minutes, so be it.
The Raptors did, after all, give him a three-year contract. He has time on his side.