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 Sunday: Kristaps Porzingis Sure Looks Ready To Be The Franchise
The Knicks hope Kristaps Porzingis can become their franchise. Thus far, he seems up to the challenge.
He stood in front of his mentor, isolated, just like they used to do in practice.
He’d seen the jab steps before and the head fakes—they were nothing new. And when Carmelo Anthony mustered the acceleration he still has in his 33-year-old legs to drive around Kristaps Porzingis, Anthony knew he had the 7-foot-3 Latvian big man beat.
Anthony triumphantly rose to the basket and delicately attempted his right-handed layup. Before he knew what hit him, though, Anthony’s shot had been sent to the free throw line.
The message was clear—Kristaps had taken the torch.
“It was fun,” Porzingis said about his confrontation with Anthony. “We went at it in practices a lot and one-on-one after practices.
“It was a lot of fun knowing what he was going to do and try to stop him.”
The Oklahoma City Thunder were much closer to the NBA Finals than the Knicks were last season, and removing Anthony from the Knicks and pairing him with Russell Westbrook and Paul George gives the Thunder a triumvirate that can at least conceivably challenge the Golden State Warriors. They are perhaps the only team in the entire league with enough firepower and defensive pieces.
So no, the Knicks may not be hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy anytime soon, but at the very least, the franchise seems to be in good hands—the big, soft hands of Porzingis.
As young NBA players come into their own and attempt to fulfill the lofty expectations that everyone has of them, the third year is the charm, almost invariably. And in that that year, a young player can’t control the other pieces that are around him—that’s why they shouldn’t be judged by their team’s wins and losses.
In that third year, a young player also can’t really control the frequency of his injuries. The simple truth is that many 21 or 22-year-old players simply lack the hardened bones of a fully grown adult that most men become after the age of 25.
But what the young player can prove is that he is prepared to shoulder the burden and take the fight to anyone who stands before him. Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks epitomizes this ideal better than any other young player in the league. He is absolutely fearless and it’s a pleasure to watch.
So is Porzingis.
Since the influx of European-born players began about 20 years ago, we have seen our fair share of “soft” European players. His talent aside (which is considerable), Porzingis has proven to be anything but, and that by itself can help players go a very long way.
In what must have felt like the longest summer ever, Porzingis saw the franchise that drafted him undergo an overhaul that resulted in a light beaming so brightly on him, you would have thought the third-year forward was starring in a Broadway musical.
Say what you want about Porzingis, but he has already done all that he can to notify everyone that have anything to do with the Knicks that his bony shoulders aren’t indicative of the weight he’s capable of carrying.
And in Oklahoma City, against his mentor, Porzingis did the heavy lifting.
“I saw energy,” head coach Jeff Hornacek said after his team’s opening night loss.
“He was great moving. He played 38 minutes, and maybe last year that would be a struggle. He would maybe get tired, and get some silly fouls, but even toward the end on that 37th or 38th minute, he was still up hollering, moving, blocking shots and getting rebounds, so he had a great game and we expect a lot more of that from him.”
Being a Knicks fan is something that nobody should wish on their worst enemy. The franchise has made scores of maneuvers that lacked wisdom and seemingly gone out of its way to alienate people beloved by the franchise. On top of it all, Knicks tickets are among the highest in the entire league.
Fans as passionate and dedicated as Knicks fans deserve a team they can be proud of and a front office that dedicates itself to putting winning ahead of petty feuds and politics.
The hiring of Scott Perry may signify just that.
So when the Knicks traded Carmelo Anthony and ended up getting back 10 cents on the dollar for his value, everyone should have prepared for a long season in New York City.
Coming in, Knicks fans once again found themselves in the unenviable predicament of having to talk themselves into believing that Ramon Session, Michael Beasley and Tim Hardaway were capable of giving this team feel good moments. And while they certainly are, they will surely pale in comparison to the amount of losses that the club accrues along the way.
If there’s one thing the Philadelphia 76ers have taught everyone, however, it’s that the losses don’t necessarily need to be in vain.
So heading into this season, what Knicks fans should have been looking forward to and hoping for is nothing more than the installation of a culture that’s marked by effort, communication and selfless basketball—the hallmarks of the Golden State Warriors.
Aside from that, yes, they should have also come in with the hope that Kristaps Porzingis would take an appreciable step forward and prove himself to truly be a capable franchise cornerstone.
To this point, from the way he holds his head highly, despite a win or a loss, and the way he competes to the best of his abilities, despite his limitations. For now, it’s really all that could reasonably be asked of him.
When it was all said and done—when Porzingis looked the Knicks’ past in the eyes after the Thunder had soundly defeated his New York Knicks—Carmelo Anthony probably told him that he was proud of him and that he wished him all the luck in the world.
He probably told him to continue to work on his game and hone his craft and to block out the background noise.
And above all else, Carmelo probably told Kristaps that he believes he is capable of being his successor.
With his nodding head and serious demeanor, Porzingis, in all his glory, listened intently. Even more so, he believed every word.
It doesn’t take all day to figure out whether the sun is shining—it’s an adage that remains as true in basketball as it does on a May Day in New York.
For Porzinigis, the bright sky and the beaming sunlight—he’s basking in it all. Not only has he becomes the Knicks’ franchise by default, he believes he’s capable of shouldering the burden.
In this town, that’s more than half the battle.
Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal
The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.
It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.
Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.
There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.
Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.
Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.
That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.
Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.
At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.
It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.
One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.
NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind
Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.
When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.
“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.
Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.
That didn’t last long.
“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”
With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.
As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.
After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.
In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.
“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”
Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.
“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”
Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.
“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”
After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.
Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.
“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”
All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.
“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”