While there were a million and a half people who a year ago thought that the 2015-16 Milwaukee Bucks would win 50 games and make the postseason, some voices of reason suggested we all pump the brakes a little bit on the Milwaukee love-fest. This was still a young team, after all, and whatever highly-touted free agent signing Greg Monroe brought in offense, the team was sure to lose in defense thanks to the departures of players like Zaza Pachulia and Larry Sanders.
As it turned out, that’s exactly what happened, as the Bucks had a hard time playing any sort of defense, dropping from fourth in the NBA in Defensive Rating last year to 23rd this past season. And while Monroe has been every bit as efficient offensively as he was expected to be, the fact that he’s slowed down the offense and detoured the defense absolutely played a part in Milwaukee’s step backward this season. The Bucks finished the season with a paltry 33 wins.
There were other factors at play—ill-timed injuries, coaching issues—but more than anything this was a team that looked long and nasty on defense a year ago, only to come back with a significantly worse effort a year later. It’s hard to see improvement in the NBA when your defense regresses, and the defensive gambles these young Bucks once turned into big plays no longer paid off.
There’s a chance that that John Hammond could move on from the front office or that something could happen with head coach Jason Kidd, but assuming all of those pieces remain intact, here’s a look at a few things Milwaukee could do this offseason to improve themselves significantly for the 2016-17 campaign:
Rebuild the Offense so Antetokounmpo Can Create
If there’s one thing we learned in this lost Bucks season, it’s that Giannis Antetokounmpo is far and away the most interesting point guard the NBA has ever seen. About three-quarters of the way through the year, Kidd decided to play around with his seven-foot wunderkind and immediately found that the Greek Freak was a revelation at the one. He already was a monster in transition, but handling the rock gave him access to passing lanes smaller players never could have seen, and attempts to double- and triple-team him in this fast-paced experiment did not typically result in good things for opposing defenses. Antetokounmpo racked up a ton of triple-doubles down the stretch as a result, so now we know exactly how good he can be as a creator on offense.
It may not be the best thing, though, for him to be the full-time point guard. Milwaukee still was going to have to look into more depth at that position considering the lack of production and health issues attached to Michael Carter-Williams, Jerryd Bayless and O.J. Mayo (the latter two are unrestricted free agents, anyway). But Antetokounmpo’s emergence as ball-handler changes what kind of point guards they may chase, and it certainly changes how their offense will run next year. The kid probably shouldn’t be responsible for knowing a full, complicated playbook or for bringing the ball up the floor each and every possession, but he should be given plenty of opportunities to create on offense. Rest assured, next year’s offense will feature him in that role prominently, even if he’s not the full-time guy at that position.
Make Changes at Point Guard
While there certainly is a chance that Tyler Ennis could improve to the point that he’s a viable, playable NBA point guard by next season, it looks a whole lot likelier that Carter-Williams will be the team’s best player at that position heading into the year (not including the aforementioned Greek Freak).
Milwaukee has tried shopping Carter-Williams, at least casually if not aggressively; however, interest in the former Rookie of the Year has been tepid at best because today’s point guards are usually only as valuable as their three-point shot, of which Carter-Williams has none. If that didn’t matter as much as it does, we’d be talking about Kris Dunn in this upcoming NBA Draft a whole heck of a lot more than we’re talking about Jamal Murray right now.
Neither guy, for what it’s worth, is going to fall to Milwaukee at pick No. 10, assuming that’s where they stay, so they may have to reach out into free agency for a more gifted all-around point guard. They could draft Notre Dame’s Demetrius Jackson, but Antetokounmpo’s emergence means not having to necessarily use their best pick at that position. It also means they don’t have to splurge on guys like Mike Conley or Rajon Rondo, but Jeremy Lin or Matthew Dellavedova could make for interesting additions and so would Jordan Clarkson, though he would do very little for improving the team’s all-around defensive efficiency.
One way or another, though, they have to add some point guard depth this year, not only due to potential lost free agents, but out of necessity for improvement.
Trade Greg Monroe
Now we get to the heart of what would completely revamp the Bucks this summer, and it involves trading the player who at one point was believed to be the guy that tipped the scales in Milwaukee’s favor moving forward.
In Monroe’s defense, he’s been everything he was supposed to be, but the fit just hasn’t been good with the Bucks as they’ve seen Antetokounmpo flourish in his new role, Jabari Parker come alive as a young star in his own right and Khris Middleton prove he’s worth every dollar of that big contract he earned last summer. The team has its good, young core and as those young players evolve and NBA teams in general move away from the traditional big man, Monroe just doesn’t look like a good fit anymore.
From the All-Star break on, he averaged only 12.6 points and 7.8 rebounds, which is considerably below where he had been before February. His usage rate sunk like a stone too, showing that the future of this offense doesn’t come anywhere close to running through him. Since he’s currently employed there strictly for offense purposes, it’s worth considering whether he’s got a future as a Buck.
With so many teams flaunting massive cap space this summer and so few players actually worthy of that cap space, Milwaukee shouldn’t struggle too mightily to find a taker. It just depends what they hope to get back in return for a player who’s going to fit quite well somewhere else. If the asking price is reasonable, they could move on from an experiment that just has not worked.
Find a Defensive-Minded Center
And moving on would mean finding some guys to replace him in the frontcourt. Miles Plumlee and John Henson both have proven to be valuable guys at times, but the Bucks absolutely could use some help in diversifying the center position.
Marquette star Henry Ellenson falling to them in the draft would be a boon not only for ticket sales but for adding a big guy to the rotation who can do a lot of really nice things. He’s a bruiser in the traditional sense, but has more range than is typical for a guy his size and despite all of his talent on that end of the floor, he’s not necessarily known for his defensive acumen.
Still, the Bucks could draft him to play at the four off the bench and then invest some decent money in a real starting center. That money will be there whether or not the team trades Monroe, and there are plenty of defensive-minded centers available in free agency at various price points. Timofey Mozgov would be a great fit at a fairly reasonable price, for example, as would Bismack Biyombo. Roy Hibbert has been largely disappointing the last two or three seasons but is huge, skilled and probably inexpensive. There’s also Joakim Noah or Dwight Howard if the team wants to spend big money at that position.
Whoever they end up chasing, it’s a fair bet that a good chunk of their free agency cash goes to that frontcourt. They’ll also need to add a point guard and some three-point shooting, but that should get them most of the way to being on the right track.
Antetokounmpo, Parker and Middleton are the future for this franchise. Keep them healthy and developing, and everything else will come together. Making the right moves this offseason, though, will just get it to come together a little more quickly.
NBA Daily: Jayson Tatum: Boston’s X-Factor
Celtics rookie Jayson Tatum speaks to Michael Scotto about his early adjustments and success.
When All-Star Gordon Hayward dislocated his ankle and fractured his tibia five minutes into the season, the outlook changed drastically for the Boston Celtics this season.
“I think our group, going into the season, there were a lot of expectations with Gordon [Hayward] and then the injury happens, and a lot of our younger guys had to grow up a lot quicker,” Celtics center Al Horford told Basketball Insiders on January 6 before facing the Brooklyn Nets. “It has given our team an opportunity to develop, to embrace the challenge that we have in front of us, and it’s opened up a lot of playing time for guys.
“I feel like we’re taking advantage of it. We’re growing as a group and, really, I feel like there’s no ceiling for our group. As long as we keep defending and keep doing the things that we need to do on the defensive end, I think it’s going to put us in a position to be successful.”
Those expectations included challenging the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Eastern Conference crown and potentially a championship.
In Hayward’s absence, the youngest player had to grow up the quickest: third overall pick Jayson Tatum.
“It just gave me more of an opportunity that I wouldn’t have had,” Tatum told Basketball Insiders in a video interview. “It’s definitely unfortunate that it had to come the way it did with one of our best players getting hurt, but we’ve all just had to contribute more, step up more losing him on the first night. We had 81 more games left, so we couldn’t make excuses for that.”
The 19-year-old forward has made the most of his opportunity as a full-time starter in his rookie campaign. Tatum is averaging 13.9 points while shooting 50 percent from the field, a league-leading 46 percent from beyond the arc, and 82 percent from the foul line as of January 16.
The 6-foot-8 forward has shown a penchant for coming through in the clutch halfway through the season. According to Basketball-Reference, Tatum has shot 60 percent from the field and 54 percent from beyond the arc in the fourth quarter.
The Eastern Conference December Rookie of the Month has taken some notes in the clutch from four-time All-Star Kyrie Irving.
“I grew up in high school and college seeing him on TV and now seeing it live on your own team,” Tatum told Basketball Insiders. “He’s one of the best players in the world, and he puts on a show each and every night.”
Tatum and Irving, both Duke alumni, played for coach Mike Krzyzewski and are in their first season under Celtics coach Brad Stevens.
Tatum notices differences between the two coaches who have molded the talented teenager.
“They’re both great terrific coaches,” Tatum told Basketball Insiders. “Coach K has been coaching for a long time, but they definitely both know a lot. Brad is a lot more chill, Coach (K) is a lot more fired up, slapping the floor and yelling at guys. I definitely respect them both, and it’s an honor to play for both of them.”
Stevens’ defensive system has helped Tatum realize the defensive potential that drew comparisons to Paul George from scouts and executives before the draft. According to Basketball-Reference, the rookie is tied for third in defensive win shares with George (2.5) and ranks eighth in defensive rating (101.5).
On offense, Tatum has put in time with trainer Drew Hanlen of Pure Sweat Basketball to work on his isolation moves and improve his 3-point shooting. Tatum shot a pedestrian 34 percent from 3-point range at Duke, but now leads the NBA shooting 46 percent from beyond the arc.
Thus far, Tatum has shown encouraging flashes of becoming the player he ultimately wants to be on both sides of the court.
“Just being in the All-Star game as many times as possible, win MVP, win a championship,” Tatum told Basketball Insiders. “Everyone wants to win a championship. Just play as long as possible. Hopefully, I can do that.”
If Tatum continues to be near the top of the Rookie of the Year conversation, rise to the occasion in the fourth quarter and remain a lockdown defender and 3-point shooter, maybe he and the Celtics can realize those heightened expectations after all.
Is that a lot to ask of a 19-year-old?
However, as the NBA has learned, Tatum is no average teenager and the x-factor towards how far Boston can go this season.
NBA Daily: Surging HEAT Must Overcome Adversity
The Miami HEAT have been hit with a number of injuries at shooting guard. Can they stay hot?
The Miami HEAT have surged to fourth in the Eastern Conference on the back of a 14-5 stretch since Dec. 9, including a seven-game win streak that ended with Monday’s 119-111 loss to the Bulls in Chicago. In the loss, shooting guard Tyler Johnson got his legs tangled with Robin Lopez and appeared to suffer a serious injury.
“I was scared,” said HEAT small forward Josh Richardson, who joined his teammates in racing down the court to check on Johnson. “You never want to see a guy, whether it’s on your team or the other team, down like that. I talked to him when he was in here [the locker room] and he said he didn’t know what was up.”
Coach Erik Spoelstra told pool reporters after the game that X-rays were negative. It was initially feared to be a knee injury, but Spoelstra said the knee is okay and the ankle is the area of concern. Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel tweeted that an MRI was not deemed necessary and Johnson will be listed as doubtful for Wednesday’s game in Milwaukee.
Tyler Johnson will be listed as doubtful for Wednesday's game against the Bucks, still with no plans for an MRI on his sprained left ankle sustained Monday in Chicago. He remains with the team, which did not practice Tuesday.
— Ira Winderman (@IraHeatBeat) January 16, 2018
Meanwhile, the HEAT is facing a serious shortage at shooting guard, having lost Dion Waiters to season-ending knee surgery, Rodney McGruder to a left tibia stress fracture that will likely keep him out until February, and now Johnson. Miami has applied for a $5.5 million disabled player exception after losing Waiters, according to the Sun-Sentinel. HEAT power forward James Johnson said the team will be looking for other players to step up.
“I think it’s the next guy’s gonna step up like we always do,” said Johnson. “As we have guys going down we also have guys getting back and getting back in their groove [like] Justise Winslow. Hopefully, it’s going to give another guy a chance to emerge on this team or in this league.”
Johnson added that the loss to Chicago came against a hot team and the HEAT didn’t have the right mental approach or defensive communication to slow them down.
“Our communication was lacking tonight,” said Johnson. “I think our brains rested tonight and that’s not like us. Tilt your hat to Chicago. They’re shooting the hell out the ball. They didn’t let us come back.”
Richardson echoed the theme of communication and the inability to counter a hot-shooting team.
“We weren’t communicating very well and we were not giving them enough static on the three-point line,” said Richardson. “They’ve been the number one three-point shooting team in the league for like 20 games now. They ran some good actions that we were not reacting right to.”
Spoelstra referred to a turnover-riddled close to the first half as “disgusting” basketball and agreed that the defense let his team down.
“I don’t know what our record is in HEAT franchise history when we give up 120-plus,” said Spoelstra. “I would guess that it’s probably not pretty good.”
The good news for Miami is that it can try a combination of Richardson and Winslow at the wings, while Wayne Ellington has been shooting the leather off the ball from three this season (40.5 percent on over seven attempts per game). The HEAT is the latest team to attempt to defy history by making a serious run without a superstar player. To make that a reality and remain in the upper half of the East’s playoff bracket, Miami will have to personify the “next man up” credo.
NBA Daily: Is It Time To Cash Out On Kemba Walker?
Should the Hornets get serious about trading Kemba Walker or risk losing him in 2019 for next to nothing?
Is It Time To Sell?
Every professional sports team at some point has to decide when its time to cash out, especially if they have a star player heading towards free agency. The Charlotte Hornets are a team teetering on this decision with star guard Kemba Walker.
Now, let’s be honest for a moment. The Hornets are getting nothing of meaningful value in a trade for Walker if they decided to put him on the trade market—that’s something that will drive part of the decision. Check out these UK sports books with free bets!
The other part of the decision is evaluating the marketplace. This is where Charlotte may have an advantage that’s easy to overlook, which is the ability to massively overpay.
Looking ahead to the cap situations for the NBA in the summer of 2019, there doesn’t appear to be a lot worth getting excited over. While it’s possible someone unexpected goes into cap clearing mode to get space, the teams that project to have space in 2019 also project to have space in 2018, meaning some of that 2019 money could get spent in July and change the landscape even more.
But for the sake of discussion, let’s assume most of the 2019 cap space teams swing and miss on anything meaningful this summer and have flexibility the following summer. Not only will Walker be a name to watch, but guys like Boston’s Kyrie Irving, Minnesota’s Jimmy Butler, Golden State’s Klay Thompson, Dallas’ Harrison Barnes, Detroit’s Tobias Harris, San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard and Cleveland’s Kevin Love can all hit unrestricted free agency.
That’s a pretty respectable free agent class.
While most of those names will likely stay where they are, especially if their teams shower them with full max contracts as most would expect, there are a few names that might make the market interesting.
The wrinkle in all of it is the teams projected to have space. Based on what’s guaranteed today, the top of the 2019 cap space board starts with the LA Clippers.
The Clippers currently have just Blake Griffin and Danilo Gallinari under contract going into 2019. They will have qualifying offers on Milos Teodosic and Sam Dekker, but that’s about it. If the Clippers play their cards right, they could be looking at what could be close to $48 million in usable cap space, making them the biggest threat to poach a player because of the LA marketplace. It should be noted, though, that DeAndre Jordan’s situation will have an impact here.
The Chicago Bulls come in second on the 2019 cap space list with just $35.77 million in cap commitments. The problem for the Bulls is they are going to have to start paying their young guys, most notably Zach LaVine. That’s won’t stop the Bulls from getting to cap space, it’s simply a variable the Bulls have to address this summer that could get expensive.
The Philadelphia 76ers could come in third on the 2019 cap space list, although it seems the 76ers may go all in this summer on re-signing guard J.J. Redick and a swing at a big fish or two. If the 76ers miss, they still have an extension for Ben Simmons to consider, but that shouldn’t impact the ability to get to meaningful space.
For the Hornets, those three situations have to be a little scary, as all of themff something Charlotte can’t offer – big markets and rosters (save maybe the Clippers) with potentially higher upside.
The next group of cap space markets might get to real salary cap room, but its more likely they spend this summer like say the Houston Rockets or are equal to less desirable situations like Sacramento (similar), Dallas (has Dennis Smith Jr), Atlanta (similar) or Phoenix (likely drafts a point guard).
That brings us back to the Hornets decision making process.
If the Hornets put Walker on the market, historically, teams get pennies on the dollar for high-level players headed to free agency. If traded, its more likely than not that Walker hits free agency and goes shopping. That’s the scary part of trading for an expiring contract unless you get the player early enough for him to grow attached to the situation, most players explore options. That tends to drive down the potential return.
The Hornets can also start extension discussions with Walker and his camp this summer and it seems more likely than not the Hornets will pay Walker the full max allowed under the collective bargaining agreement, which could be a deal north of $150 million and he could ink that in July.
It’s possible that someone offers the Hornets the moon for Walker. That has happened in the past. The Celtics gave the Cavaliers a pretty solid return for Irving, a player the Cavaliers had to trade. So it’s not out of the question real offers come in, especially with the NBA trade deadline approaching, but what’s far more likely is the Hornets wait out this season and try to extend Walker this summer.
League sources at the G-League Showcase last week, doubted that any traction could be had on Walker while admitting he’s a name to watch, despite however unlikely a trade seemed today.
The challenge for the Hornets isn’t as simple as cashing out of Walker, not just because the return will be low, but also because where would the franchise go from here?
It’s easy to say re-build through the draft, but glance around the NBA today – how many of those rebuild through the draft situations are yielding competitive teams? How many of them have been rebuilding for five years or more?
Rebuilding through the draft is a painfully slow and frustrating process that usually costs you a coach or two and typically a new front office. Rebuilding through the draft is time consuming and usually very expensive.
It’s easier to rebuild around a star already in place and the fact that Walker himself laughs off the notion of him being anywhere but Charlotte is at least a good sign and the Hornets have some time before they have to really make a decision.
At some point, Charlotte has to decide when to cash out. For the Hornets, the time to make that decision on Walker might be the February 8 trade deadline. It might also be July 1, when they’ll know whether Walker would sign a max contract extension.
If he won’t commit then, the Hornets have their answer and can use the summer to try an extract a package similar to what the Cavaliers got for Irving.
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