When the Milwaukee Bucks ripped off their fifth win in seven games back on January 13, making the playoffs wasn’t the only thing on Jason Kidd’s mind.
Slotted as the fifth-best team in the Eastern Conference with a 20-18 record at the time, this young team full of confidence was a thorn in anybody’s side. Led by first-time All-Star Giannis Antetokounmpo and a locked-in Jabari Parker, it seemed like the sky was the limit.
But things started to worsen pretty quickly thereafter. Following that victory in Miami, the Bucks went on to drop 12 of their next 14 games and descended all the way down to 11th place.
The defense was allowing nearly 112 points and over 12 threes per game. Their opponents were getting to the line at will, forcing a bunch of turnovers and out-rebounding Milwaukee by almost four boards per game during that stretch.
As if things couldn’t get any worse, the Bucks received some tragic news on February 9. Parker, who had left with a non-contact injury in a loss to the Heat the night beforehand, was diagnosed with a torn ACL in his left knee. It was the same knee and the same injury he suffered during his rookie year.
Parker was shut down for the season, and at that point, Milwaukee was just hoping to make the postseason in a race for the bottom two seeds in the East. Luckily for them, help was on the way immediately. One of the Bucks’ most essential pieces, Khris Middleton, ironically returned to the floor in the same game Parker got hurt.
Coming back from a torn hamstring suffered a week before training camp, it would likely take the 25-year-old a little time to get his legs back under him. Once he did, though, Milwaukee would have its best defender and one of its top scoring threats back in the picture.
Fast-forward 16 games and here we are: the Bucks are firmly back in the playoff picture. They’ve won 12 during this stretch and look to have their principles back in order. Although they’re still not quite hitting the glass, Milwaukee has tightened the screws on defense, giving up just 100.6 points and forcing 16.1 turnovers per game, good for top five in the league in both categories from that point.
On the other side of the floor, Milwaukee is capitalizing by scoring 20.8 points per game on their opponents’ miscues. They’re getting to the line 23 times a night and converting 81 percent of their free throws. It’s been an unselfish brand of basketball all season long and it’s starting to pay off.
The Greek Freak has been a constant for Kidd and his staff, but Middleton has made as enormous of an impact as many thought he would. In the 10 games he has started, the Bucks have won nine. Excluding his first two games back, Middleton is averaging 16.6 points per game on 50.7 percent from the field and 43.5 percent from the perimeter. He’s not only doing damage beyond the arc, either.
The more Middleton gets acclimated to being back into the game’s speed, the more he’s started to regain confidence to cut to the basket and drive the lane. His teammates are finding him for easy points in the paint and he’s taking advantage.
Middleton’s most natural abilities come defensively. So far in March, there are two players on Milwaukee’s team that have a defensive rating below 100: Jason Terry and Middleton. What’s telling, however, are the numbers when both are off the court.
When Terry is not on the floor, the Bucks are losing a measly 0.5 points per 100 possessions. According to NBA.com using the same statistic, when Middleton leaves the game, Milwaukee is 12.3 points worse.
Now, in seventh place with 14 games to go, they’re back to .500 at 34-34. As one of the hottest teams in the league right now, the Bucks could realistically make a run to as high as the fifth seed.
But say that Milwaukee has a falling out because of its inexperience—what can this team do to improve its promising core?
Two things: Add depth and bring in somebody to go and get those rebounds.
Approaching the 2017 offseason, the Bucks are expected to have up to $15.1 million in cap space. Before they go out and get some more pieces, though, they’ve got a few decisions to make on their current roster.
In late June, Greg Monroe and Spencer Hawes will make a decision on whether or not to opt-in to their player option for the ’17-18 season. That is out of the front office’s control, but they do have the power to offer Tony Snell a qualifying offer to make him a restricted free agent. The deadline to do so comes on June 29.
Aside from those players, Milwaukee will lose three more. Jason Terry, who’s been a crucial part of the team’s resurgence, will become an unrestricted free agent. He’ll have Michael Beasley and the recently signed Terrence Jones joining him as well.
Considering there aren’t many bigs out there in this upcoming free agent pool, the Bucks should use their first-round draft pick to address the situation. A center that stands out in this rookie class and could be available in their expected range is Edrice “Bam” Adebayo from Kentucky.
Dick Vitale is such a fan of this kid that he dubbed him the next Dwight Howard, and frankly, he might not be far off. At 6-foot-10, 260 pounds, Adebayo’s broad shoulders and bodily build may evoke memories of Superman when he first made waves throughout the league.
In his freshman season with the Wildcats, the 19-year-old is having a banner year. Through 35 games, Adebayo is averaging 13.3 points and 8.1 rebounds on 61.4 percent from the field. He’s also blocking 1.5 shots per game. Those numbers come in just under 30 minutes of work, but the evidence of his success is even more impressive on a per-100-possession scale.
Using that measurement, Adebayo puts up 23.9 points and 14.5 rebounds, as well as 2.8 blocks. His offensive rating is 124.8, whereas on defense his rating is 95 per 100 possessions, per College Basketball Reference.
Adding this upstart, energetic player to a core of other upstart, energetic young players would make the Bucks future even brighter than it already is. It would add more size to an already freakishly long group and improve the NBA’s second-worst team in rebounding immensely.
As for options in the backcourt, there are plenty of guards to take a look at.
A veteran presence who could easily fit in is Anthony Morrow. Shooting a career-worst 30 percent from distance with the Thunder and Bulls, the man could use a change of scenery. As somebody that makes most of his living on catch shoot threes, he’d be an ideal addition because 92.8 percent of Milwaukee’s triples are assisted, which is the highest in the league.
Another potential fit could be Randy Foye, who’s turned into a true journeyman but can produce when called upon. This month with Brooklyn, the veteran sharpshooter is shooting 56.7 percent beyond the arc. Behind Victor Oladipo, that’s the second highest clip in the league with at least three attempts per game in March.
The Bucks are already on the right track, but this offseason could be a real launching pad that makes this team a real contender in the near future.
How soon will that be? Who knows, but rest assured, the NBA will learn to “Fear The Deer.”
NBA Daily: Checking In With Terrance Ferguson
Oklahoma City Thunder rookie Terrance Ferguson talks to Basketball Insiders about learning from his teammates, earning minutes and being mentally tough.
Before he reached the NBA, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Terrance Ferguson was once often referred to as a man of mystery. After changing course on two different programs in a two-month span, Ferguson ditched the typical one-and-done collegiate season for an adventure on the other side of the planet. But even after the Thunder selected Ferguson with the No. 21 overall pick in last year’s draft — the questions still lingered. How would a teenager with one season overseas adjust to the world’s most physical basketball league?
Not many rookies can contribute to a 40-plus win squad out in the cutthroat Western Conference so quickly — but down the stretch, here Ferguson is doing just that. With the Thunder locked in a tight playoff battle with six others teams, the 19-year-old’s hard-working personality has fit alongside the roster’s three perennial All-Stars — Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. And although his rookie season has come with some growing pains, Ferguson is earning meaningful minutes and making the most of them.
“I think it’s my work ethic, I come in every day with the same mentality,” Ferguson said. “I work my butt off — inside the game, being physical. Even though I’m a skinny guy, as everyone can see, I’m still everywhere on the floor being physical. I think [the coaching staff] really likes that, especially on the defensive end.”
Skinny or not, Ferguson is one of the league’s youngest players, so the 6-foot-7 guard has plenty of room to grow — literally. But for now, he’s playing an integral role on an Oklahoma City team looking to protect its high postseason seed. Late January brought the unfortunate season-ending injury to Andre Roberson — an All-Defensive Second Team honoree in 2016-17 — so the Thunder have needed both new and old players to step up in bigger roles.
While those candidates included the three-point shooting Alex Abrines, veteran Raymond Felton and the newly-acquired Corey Brewer, Ferguson’s recent rise in the rotation has arguably been the most interesting development. Since the calendar flipped to January, Ferguson has featured in almost all of the Thunder’s games, tallying just two DNP-CDs and one missed contest following a concussion. This steady diet of opportunity comes as a stark contrast to the 15 games in which he received no playing time, spanning from the season’s opening tip to the new year.
Of course, playing time is not always indicative of success, but Ferguson himself isn’t surprised that he’s carved out a crucial role ahead of the playoffs.
“Not really, it’s all up to coach’s decision,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I’m just here playing my part, staying ready at all times and some minutes came, so I’mma take them and play to the best of my ability.”
Back in October, Basketball Insiders’ own Joel Brigham spoke to Ferguson about his unconventional path to NBA and the choice to spend a year grinding with the Adelaide 36ers, an Australian outfit. In the land down under, Ferguson averaged just 15 minutes a night, considerably less than he would’ve likely received as a highly-recruited prospect here in America. Some five months later, Ferguson’s early-season stance on the move still stands out.
“I’m living the dream now, right? I must have done the right thing,” Ferguson said.
Today, it’s hard to disagree with Ferguson’s decisions considering that they’re currently paying off. In 2009, Brandon Jennings became the first to skip college and play in Europe before being drafted, with Emmanuel Mudiay most notably following in his footsteps six years later. While those two point guards both were selected in the top ten of their draft classes — at No. 10 and No. 7, respectively — it still remains the road far less traveled.
Considered raw by most pre-draft evaluations, an early expectation was that Ferguson would spend much of the season with the Oklahoma City Blue, the Thunder’s G-League affiliate. Instead, Ferguson has played in only three games with the Blue, where he has averaged a commendable 14.7 points, four rebounds and 1.3 steals per game.
But as of late, the Thunder have found somebody that’ll always work hard, learn from others and do the little things that don’t show up in the box score.
“I’ve learned a lot more from when I first started,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I got great teammates — I got Nick Collison, I got Russ, PG, Melo, so just picking their brains. I got Corey now, so just the work ethic they put in, just picking their brains each and every day about what I can do better, watching game film, it’s a lot of things.”
When he was drafted, Ferguson had a reputation as a skyscraping leaper with the athleticism to become an elite perimeter defender. Although his current averages with the Thunder understate his innate potential, Ferguson knows he can contribute without scoring — even noting that he can make up for it “on the other side of the court.” Playing defense and competing hard every night, he has slowly made a name for himself.
And while Ferguson has tallied far more single-digit scoring outings than his 24-point breakout performance in early January, he’s earned the trust of head coach Billy Donovan and his veteran teammates, which is something the rookie will never take for granted.
“Coach believes in me and that means a lot to me,” Ferguson said. “But my teammates believe in me, so I’m not gonna let them down. I’m gonna go out every day and play my hardest, compete and try to get the win each and every night.”
One might assume that his year abroad in Australia helped to mentally mold him into the high-flying, hard-nosed rookie we see today. Ferguson, however, contends that he’s had that edge from the very beginning.
“I’ve been mentally tough, it wasn’t overseas that did that,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I had to be mentally tough just to go over there — so I’ve always had that mentality, the [desire] to just dominate, play to the best of my ability and compete.”
And now he’s doing just that in the NBA.
Is Kyrie Irving’s Second Opinion a Cause for Concern?
Shane Rhodes breaks down the tough situation the Celtics are in with Kyrie Irving.
The Boston Celtics are in one awful predicament.
With a third of the roster out due to injury, Brad Stevens has been forced into the impossible task of maintaining Boston’s championship aspirations with some subpar talent; while they have performed admirably, the likes of Abdel Nader and Semi Ojeleye wouldn’t see the same run they are currently on with most contenders. Gordon Hayward has missed the entire season, save a few minutes on opening night. Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Daniel Theis are all currently out, some for the year and others not. Key contributors Al Horford, Marcus Morris and others have missed time as well.
It couldn’t get worse, could it?
Well, it may just have. Reports surfaced Tuesday that Irving, who had missed time this season — including the last four games — with left knee soreness, is seeking a second opinion after a lack of progress in his recovery.
My understanding is that Kyrie Irving is getting a 2nd opinion on his left knee, perhaps as soon as tomorrow. Bottom line: he needs the screws out. Knee is flaring up. He will either play thru it going forward or … he will get thee screws out and won’t play at all. Stay tuned.
— Tony Massarotti (@TonyMassarotti) March 20, 2018
With lack of progress on his ailing left knee, Celtics All-Star Kyrie Irving plans to travel for a second opinion later this week, league sources tell Yahoo.
— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) March 20, 2018
In the wake of the Isaiah Thomas fiasco and his ailing hip last Summer, an injury that lingered deep into this season, the Celtics will likely be more than cautious with Irving, whom they gave up a haul (the rights to the 2018 Brooklyn Nets first round pick, most notably), to acquire. But one can only wonder if these persistent issues — Irving’s left knee was surgically repaired after he sustained a fractured kneecap in 2015, and he reportedly threatened the Cleveland Cavaliers with surgery this offseason before his trade to Boston — are a cause for concern for general manager Danny Ainge and the Celtics.
The situation presents the Celtics with a quandary, to say the least.
Knee injuries aren’t exactly a death-knell, but fans need not look far for to see the devastating effect they can have on NBA players (e.g. Derrick Rose). They can snowball and, over time, even the best players will break down. Regardless of the severity, Irving’s knee issue presents problems both now and in the future.
The problems now are obvious: the Celtics, already down Gordon Hayward, cannot afford to lose Irving if they are at all interested in making a Finals run this season. Boston struggles mightily on the offensive end when Irving and his 24.4 points, 3.8 rebounds and 5.1 assists aren’t on the court. In a playoff atmosphere, especially, the team would sorely miss his scoring prowess.
Looking ahead, if Irving is dealing with these problems at the age of 25, what could the future hold for the All-Star guard? Knee issues, most lower body issues in general, are often of the chronic variety, and constant maintenance can wear on people, both mentally and physically.
Just a season separated from a likely super-max payday, will the Celtics want to commit big-money long-term to potentially damaged goods?
If there is a silver lining in it all, it is the fact that 20-year-old rookie Jayson Tatum must now shoulder the scoring load, something that should go a long way in building on the potential that made him the No. 3 overall pick last June. And, should Irving miss the remainder of this season, exposure to the fires of the playoffs should only temper the Celtics’ young roster. In the event that Irving’s absence isn’t prolonged, time like this could only serve to strengthen the roster around him.
Still, Ainge brought Irving to Boston for a reason: he was meant to lead the Celtics into battle, alongside Gordon Hayward and Al Horford, in their quest for a title. Obviously, he can’t do that from the bench. Without Irving at 100 percent, the Celtics are not a championship caliber squad, healthy Gordon Hayward or not. That fact alone will make Irving’s situation one to monitor going forward and for the foreseeable future.
NBA Daily: Houston Has It All
Deciphering whether Houston is a contender or pretender is tough, but they’re making it easy.
It is very easy to get caught up in the NBA regular-season hyperbole. The past is littered with a plethora of NBA teams that looked like world-beaters in the regular season only to pull up lame in the playoffs and emerge as a bunch of pretenders.
So when it comes to the Houston Rockets, it’s no surprise many pundits and fans of the game fall heavily on one side or the other. The 2017-18 Rockets are a polarizing squad in that respect. On one side of the fence, you have the folks that are struggling to get behind Houston until they see how the franchise performs in the playoffs under the brightest of lights and on the biggest of stages. On the other, folks that place a great deal of weight on the 82-game regular season and the ability to sustain consistency throughout the marathon.
As always, the truth is somewhere in the middle.
At the top of Houston’s lineup are two future Hall of Famers in James Harden and Chris Paul. The latter was a perennial star in his heyday and is still a top-tier talent in the league. Harden, on the other hand, is closing in on his first MVP award and had serious cases for winning the honors in prior seasons, as well. Both Harden and Paul are criticized for their past playoff failures.
Paul entered the league during the 2006 season and has been dogged by the ever looming fact that he’s never reached a Conference Finals. Harden has been to the NBA Finals but has been dogged for multiple playoff missteps and shaky performances that remain etched in everyone’s memory. But something about this season’s Rockets team (57-14) seems different as the duo closes in on 60 wins.
One way to measure the true greatness of a NBA team is evaluating how many ways the roster can win playing a variety of styles. From the eyeball test, Houston checks the boxes in this category. The team sustains leads during blowouts. They have an offense built to erase large deficits quickly. The team possesses the talent to employ an array of versatile lineups to withstand top heat from opposing teams. Head coach Mike D’Antoni has shown the ability to adjust on the fly during certain situations. Houston is seemingly comprised of a bunch of guys that are selfless and ready to sacrifice at this stage of their respective careers.
Time will tell on all of those aforementioned aspects, but the Rockets are built to compete and win now. On paper at least, the team fits the criteria.
Paul has a chance to go down as a top five point guard in NBA history .His court vision is unquestioned and his big men always seem to end up being in the top five of field goal percentage each season (i.e. Tyson Chandler, DeAndre Jordan and now Clint Capela). In years past, the Rockets faltered down the stretch of games because the entire system ran through Harden. But this year’s club has the luxury of taking some of the on-ball expectation away from Harden and by giving the rock to Paul who naturally thrives in this role the squad doesn’t take a step back on the floor.
This is going to be big for Houston which has seen Harden gassed late in playoff games from carrying the entire load.
Small Ball Ready
Presumably standing between the Rockets and an appearance in the NBA Finals are the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors turned the NBA upside down with their free-flowing offense, long range accuracy and the successful ability to push the pace while playing small ball.
At the height of Golden State’s success they employed the “death lineup” which places All-Star forward Draymond Green at center. In different variations this gives the Warriors five guys on the court who can dribble, drive, pass and shoot. Versatility is important and if you look at this year’s Rockets team they have the ability to match the death lineup with their own version. Veteran forward P.J. Tucker would be able to guard Green in this scenario at center or Houston could just rely on the athleticism of Capela.
When it comes to defense, the Rockets will never be confused for the bad boy Detroit Pistons of yesteryear, however, the team has an assortment of individually capable defenders on the roster. Paul has all defensive team honors hanging on his mantle during his time in the league. Small forward Trevor Ariza made his bones in the league by placing an emphasis on defense. Before Capela emerged as a double-digit scorer, he was relied on as a defensive spark off the bench. Luc Mbah a Moute has a reputation and consistent track record of being a very willing defender.
Shooting, Versatility and Experience
All of this success, leads to the variation D’Antoni can put out onto the floor. The versatility to go with a small ball lineup or a lineup heavily skewed toward defenders is a luxury amenity. Houston also features five guys with 125 or more three-pointers made this season with Harden, Eric Gordon, Ariza, Paul and Ryan Anderson leading the way. A sixth, Tucker, should join the +100 club before season’s end. Veteran Gerald Green has only played 30 games with the franchise but has already knocked down 76 attempts from distance.
Experience is key as well. This year’s Rockets team features only one player under 25, receiving 25 or more minutes per night in the rotation. Look at NBA history, title winning teams are full of veterans not second or third year players.
Again, the Rockets will never be confused with the late 80s or early 90s Pistons but the team has more than a few guys that don’t shy away from contact or physical play. The collection of Nene, Tucker, Green and Ariza have had more than their share of shoving matches when things get heated on the floor.
With the start of the NBA playoffs (April 14) under a month away, the Rockets continue to build momentum toward a title run. Will Harden and Paul’s playoff demons from the past emerge or is their first true shot at greatness with a complete team? These questions will soon be answered.