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.
Pelicans Role Players are Key to Success
The supporting cast in New Orleans is a big part of their playoff surge, writes David Yapkowitz.
The New Orleans Pelicans have taken a commanding 3-0 lead in their first-round playoff series again the Portland Trail Blazers. While surprising to some, the Pelicans only finished one game behind the Blazers in the standings. The Pelicans have the best player in the series in Anthony Davis and the defensive duo of Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday have stifled Portland’s backcourt.
The truth is, the Pelicans have been a good team all season long. A lot of attention and recognition has been given to Davis, Rondo and Holiday this season and playoffs, and rightfully so. But New Orleans wouldn’t be where they are without the important contributions of some of their role players.
Take E’Twaun Moore, for example. Moore bounced around the NBA early in his career, with stops in Boston, Orlando and Chicago before finding long-term stability contract wise with the Pelicans. He’s primarily been a bench player with them before this season, his second in New Orleans, his first as a full-time starter.
He’s given the Pelicans a huge boost, especially from the three-point line. He’s put up 12.5 points per game on 50.8 percent shooting from the field, both career-highs. He’s shooting 42.5 percent from three-point range.
“I think it’s just our style of play,” Moore told Basketball Insiders. “We play fast and open. Coach [Gentry] gives us a lot of freedom, a lot of confidence. That’s why my game is up, my shooting is up.”
It’s not just offensively though. Moore has always been one of the more underrated defensive guards in the league. Paired up alongside Rondo and Holiday, the trio form a solid wing defensive unit. They’re a big reason for Portland’s offensive struggles.
Moore is the type of role player that every playoff contender needs to succeed. He knows that his role may change from game to game. Some nights he may be asked to score a little more. Other nights his defense is going to be called upon. Whatever it may be, he’s always ready to do what’s asked of him.
“I bring the energy. I bring a spark,” Moore told Basketball Insiders. “It’s knocking down shots, playing defense, getting out in transition. Just trying to be a spark.”
The Pelicans bench has also been a huge factor all season long. Their depth took a major hit early in the season with the injury to Solomon Hill. Hill has since returned to the lineup, but his absence paved the way for other players such as Darius Miller to step up.
This is Miller’s second stint with the Pelicans after spending two years overseas. Drafted 46th overall in 2012, he didn’t play much his first three years in the NBA. In 2014, he was cut by the Pelicans only about a month into the season. This year was different, he was thrown into the rotation from the get-go.
“This is a huge opportunity,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I just come in and try to work every day, try to get better every day. My teammates have done a great job of putting me in situations where I can be successful.”
Miller has given the Pelicans a capable stretch four in the second unit who can slide over to small forward if need be. He’s averaging a career-best 7.8 points per game, the most out of any of New Orleans’ reserves. He’s their best three-point shooter off the bench, connecting on 41.1 percent of his long-range attempts.
While he acknowledges that he’s enjoying his best season yet as an NBA player, he’s quick to praise his teammates for allowing him to flourish.
“I just try to bring a spark off the bench. I come in and try to knock some shots down,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “My teammates do a great job of finding me when I’m open, I just try and knock down shots and compete.”
Sometimes time away from the NBA helps players grow and mature. The NBA game is fast paced and it can take awhile to get used to it. While some players have begun to use the G-League as a means of preparing for the league, Miller took an alternate route of heading to Germany.
For him, it’s a big reason why he’s been able to make an easier transition back to the NBA. His contract for next season is non-guaranteed, but he’s probably done enough to warrant the Pelicans keeping him around. He’s a much different and much-improved player. If not, he’s sure to draw interest from other teams.
“It was a lot to learn for me personally,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I had to learn a lot of different things like how to take care of my body, how to manage my time, a whole bunch of stuff like that. The time overseas really helped me to mature and grow up and learn a few things.”
These Pelicans have most certainly turned quite a few heads since the playoffs began. We shouldn’t deal too much with hypotheticals, but it’s interesting to wonder what this team’s ceiling would’ve been had DeMarcus Cousins not been lost for the season due to injury.
This is a confident bunch, however. They’ve beaten both the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets during the regular season. They’ve already shattered a lot of expert predictions with their performance in the first-round. The Pelicans feel like they can hang with anyone out West.
“As far as we want to go,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I feel like we’ve competed with all the best teams in the league this whole season. We just got to come out, stay focused and do what we do.”
Is LeBron Enough For Cavs To Get Through The East?
Cleveland’s offense has struggled through the first two games of the playoffs. Can the four-time MVP consistently bail them out? Spencer Davies writes.
After a less-than-encouraging series opener versus the Indiana Pacers, LeBron James responded emphatically and led the Cleveland Cavaliers to a bounce back 100-97 victory to even things up at one game apiece.
Scoring the first 13 points of the game itself, The King was a one-man wrecking crew out of the gate and carried that momentum throughout all four quarters of Game 2. His 46 points were James’ second-highest scoring mark between the regular season and the playoffs. In addition, he shot above 70 percent from the field for the sixth time this year.
The four-time MVP pulled down 12 rebounds total, and but all but one of those boards were defensive—the most he’s had since Saint Patrick’s Day in Chicago a month ago.
What James did was another classic instance where LeBron reminds us that through all the injuries, drama, and on-court issues, whatever team he’s on always has a chance to go all the way. But having said all of that—can the Cavaliers realistically depend on that kind of spectacular effort for the rest of the postseason? It’s a fair question.
Kevin Love is a solid secondary go-to guy, but he’s struggled to find his rhythm in the first two games. He’s done a solid job defensively between both, but he’s getting banged up and is dealing with knocked knees and a reported torn thumb ligament in the same hand he broke earlier in the season.
Love has admitted that he’d like more post touches instead of strictly hanging out on the perimeter, but it’s on him to demand the ball more and he knows it. But finding that flow can be challenging when James has it going and is in all-out attack mode.
Kyle Korver came to the rescue for Cleveland as the only shooter that consistently converted on open looks. Outside of those three, and maybe J.R. Smith, really, there hasn’t been a tangible threat that’s a part of the offense during this series.
We all pondered whether or not the “new guys” would be able to step up when their respective numbers were called. So far, that hasn’t been the case for the most part.
Jordan Clarkson looks rushed with tunnel vision. Rodney Hood has had good body language out there, but seems reluctant to shoot off dribble hand-offs and is second-guessing what he wants to do. The hustle and effort from Larry Nance Jr. is obvious, but he’s also a good bet to get into foul trouble. Plus, he’s had some struggles on an island against Pacer guards.
As for George Hill, the good news is the impact on the floor just based on his mere presence on both ends (game-high +16 on Wednesday), but he hasn’t really done any scoring and fouled out of Game 2.
Maybe these things change on the road, who knows. But those four, the rest of the rotation, absolutely have to step up in order for the Cavaliers to win this series and fend off this hungry Indiana group, which brings us to another point.
Let’s not forget, the offensive issues aren’t simply because of themselves. After all, the Cavs were a team that had little trouble scoring the basketball in the regular season, so give a ton of credit to the Pacers’ scheme and McMillan’s teachings to play hard-nosed.
Unlike many teams in the league, the strategy for them is to pressure the ball and avoid switches as much as possible on screens. The more they go over the pick and stick on their assignments, the better chance they have of forcing a bad shot or a turnover. That’s what happened in Game 1 and in the majority of the second half of Game 2.
Cleveland has also somewhat surprisingly brought the fight on defense as well. In the first two contests of the series, they’ve allowed under 100 points. Lue’s said multiple times that they’re willing to give up the interior buckets in order to secure the outside, and it’s worked. It doesn’t seem smart when there’s a yellow-colored layup line going on at times, but it certainly paid off by only allowing 34 percent of Indiana’s threes to go down.
Still, looking ahead to what the Cavaliers can do in the playoffs as a whole, it doesn’t bode well. They’re not only locked in a tug-of-war with Indiana, but if they get past them, they could have a Toronto Raptors group chomping at the bit for revenge.
If they’re having this much trouble in the first round, what should make us believe they can barrel through the Eastern Conference as they’ve done in the past?
It’s not quite as obvious or as bad as Cleveland’s 2007 version of James and the rest, but it feels eerily similar for as much as he’s put the team on his back so far. The organization better hope improvement comes fast from his supporting cast, or else it could be a longer summer than they’d hoped for.
2017-18 NBA Report Card: Third-Year Players
Among the third-year players a few budding superstars have emerged, along with some role players who are helping their teams in the 2017-18 NBA Playoffs.
The 2015 NBA Draft has provided the league with a limited quantity of talent so far. After Terry Rozier (at 16th), it’s unlikely that anyone remaining has All-Star potential. Despite the lack of depth, the highest draft slot traded was at number 15, when the Atlanta Hawks moved down to enable the Washington Wizards to select Kelly Oubre Jr.
But placing a definitive “boom” or “bust” label on these athletes might be premature as the rookie contract is standardized at four seasons with an option for a fifth. If their employers are given a fourth year to decide whether a draftee is worth keeping, it seems reasonable to earmark the NBA Juniors’ progress for now and see how they’ve fared after next season’s campaign before making their letter grades official.
The Top Dogs
Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves: Given the dearth of premier choices and their glaring need up front, it’s hard to envision the T-Wolves drafting anyone but KAT if they had to do it again. Although his scoring average is down from last season (21.3 vs. 25.1 PPG), that trend could be explained by the addition of Jimmy Butler and the team’s deliberate pace (24th out of 30 teams).
To his credit, Towns had career highs in three-point percentage (42.1 percent) and free throws (85.8 percent), while finishing second overall in offensive rating (126.7). His continued improvement in these areas could explain why the Timberwolves ended their 14-year playoff drought.
Nikola Jokić, Denver Nuggets: Although he was a 2014 draft pick, Jokić’s NBA debut was delayed due to his last year of commitment to the Adriatic League. His productivity as a rookie was limited by both foul trouble and a logjam at the center position, but he still managed 10.0 PPG.
With Joffrey Lauvergne and Jusuf Nurkic off the depth chart, Jokić became the clear-cut starter this season and rewarded Denver’s confidence by averaging 18.5 points and 10.7 rebounds per game. And by chipping in 6.1 APG, he provides rare value as a center with triple-double potential.
Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks: Although he has never played a full season since joining the league, Porzingis has provided enough evidence that he can be a force when healthy. Before his junior campaign was derailed, the Latvian was enjoying career highs of 22.7 PPG and 39.5 percent shooting from behind the arc.
Unfortunately, the Knicks haven’t provided much support at point guard to help with Porzingis’ development. Trey Burke looked impressive down the stretch in Zinger’s absence, but that was in a score-first capacity. Meanwhile, both Frank Ntilikina and Emmanuel Mudiay have underwhelmed. On the plus side, Porzingis’ outside ability paired nicely in the frontcourt with Enes Kanter, who prefers to bully his way underneath.
Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns: Like Porzingis, Booker’s third year in the NBA was cut short by injuries, but that didn’t stop him from achieving career highs in points (24.9 per game), assists (4.7) and three-pointers (38.3 percent) on an otherwise moribund Suns team. Indeed, cracking the 40-point barrier three times in 54 contests was an achievement in and of itself.
While his short-term prospects would’ve been far better on a team like the Philadelphia Sixers (who might have taken him instead of Jahlil Okafor in a re-draft), Booker can still become a franchise cornerstone for the Suns if they are able to build around a young core that also includes T.J. Warren and Josh Jackson.
Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers: Despite an inconsistent freshman season at Texas, Turner has become a stabilizing influence at center for the Pacers, whose blueprint consists of surrounding a go-to scorer with role players. While he hasn’t shown drastic improvement in any particular area, he has produced double-digit PPG averages all three years as a pro.
Although Turner’s shot-blocking ability fuels his reputation as a defensive maven, the reality is his 104.8 defensive rating (which is just OK) was skewed by his 110.9 d-rating in losses (it was 100.8 in wins). In order to merit consideration for the NBA’s all-defensive team, he will need to bridge the gap in this discrepancy and impact his team’s ability to win more games in the process.
D’Angelo Russell, Brooklyn Nets: Following their respective trades, Russell has fared better in the Big Apple than his 2015 lottery counterpart Emmanuel Mudiay, as the Los Angeles Lakers were forced to cut bait to draft Lonzo Ball. While Ball has shown promise as a rookie, the Lakers’ perception of Russell may have been premature, as the former Buckeye has stabilized a Nets backcourt that had been characterized more by athleticism than consistency.
Despite missing a significant stretch of mid-season games, Russell provided similar numbers for Brooklyn to that of his sophomore season; but without a pick until number 29 in the upcoming NBA Draft, the Nets will have to bank on improved production from DLo and his raw teammates to contend for the eight-seed in the East.
Terry Rozier, Boston Celtics: Injuries have paved the way for Rozier to showcase his talent, most recently with a 23-point, 8-assist effort in game two against the Milwaukee Bucks. But Rozier was already making headlines as a fill-in for Kyrie Irving whenever he was injured. Now that the starting point guard reins have been handed to the former mid-round pick, he has become one of the more pleasant surprises of the 2017-18 NBA season.
The biggest impediment to Rozier’s success might be the regression to limited playing time once Irving returns. While the Celtics could “sell high” and trade Rozier on the basis of his recent performances, they may opt to retain him as insurance while he is still cap-friendly.
Best of the Rest
Larry Nance Jr., Cleveland Cavaliers: Following the trade deadline, Nance has provided a spark for a Cavs frontcourt that has been bereft of viable options aside from Kevin Love.
Josh Richardson, Miami HEAT: A jack-of-all-trades at the small forward position, Richardson has evolved into a three-and-D player that has meshed well with the HEAT’s shut-down focus.
Willie Cauley-Stein, Sacramento Kings: Thrust into the starting center role after the trade of DeMarcus Cousins, WCS has provided serviceable (albeit unspectacular) play as the next man up.
Delon Wright, Toronto Raptors: A key contributor for the East’s top seed, Wright was instrumental in the Raptors’ game one victory over the Washington Wizards with 18 points off the bench.
Bobby Portis, Chicago Bulls: The former Razorback has flashed double-double potential, but playing time at his true position (power forward) has been limited by the emergence of rookie Lauri Markkanen.