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Fixing the Milwaukee Bucks

The Milwaukee Bucks have been awful this year, but the future is bright. Here are several things they need to do as they rebuild

John Zitzler

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The 2013-14 season may hasn’t gone how the Milwaukee Bucks had hoped, but the season full of losses might have been exactly what the team needed. Unlike the Philadelphia Sixers, the Bucks went into this year hoping to fight for one of the final playoff seeds in the weak Eastern Conference. They brought in veteran players such as O.J. Mayo, Gary Neal, Caron Butler, Carlos Delfino, Zaza Pachulia and Luke Ridnour to help bring stability and leadership to an otherwise young group, with aspirations of a surprising season.

However, it didn’t take long to see that even with the team’s offseason additions, they weren’t going to win many games. The Bucks rolled into the All-Star break with a paltry record of 9-43. It was evident to even the most optimistic fan that despite being in the very down Eastern Conference, this season was not going to end with a playoff berth.

The team unloaded a few of the veteran players brought in just a few months prior, trading Ridnour and Neal to the Charlotte Bobcats for Ramon Sessions and Jeff Adrien, and also waiving Caron Butler, who would go on to sign with the Oklahoma City Thunder. These moves were a step in the right direction and will give the Bucks increased flexibility going into this offseason. There is still a lot of work to be done for the Bucks to return to playoff contention, but if they play their cards right that time could come sooner than later.

Build Around Giannis Antetokounmpo

When discussing the Bucks’ future, the conversation starts and ends with Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Bucks hit a home run in last year’s draft, stealing the young Greek with the 15th overall pick. Bucks general manager John Hammond and his staff have to be commended for taking such a big risk on somewhat of an unknown player. Antetokounmpo has paid dividends for the Bucks much earlier than expected. It was anticipated that due to his age and lack of experience against high level competition that Antetokounmpo would not offer much in terms of production during his rookie campaign, but it quickly became apparent that he was much better than expected. Even with his surprising play, there remains plenty of room for growth – growth that will play a major factor in the Bucks’ success going forward.

Antetokounmpo was able to carve out a nice role for himself as a rookie, playing 24.3 minutes per game and even starting in 22 contests. He showed he is capable of contributing in a number of different ways, averaging 6.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 1.9 assists and .8 blocks. While his numbers may not seem incredible, some of the highlight reel plays he has made this year certainly have been. On a number of occasions, he has swatted a shot off the backboard and followed the rejection with a dunk on the other end. It’s these glimpses of brilliance on both ends that have fans in Milwaukee so excited. Antetokounmpo seemingly has one of these moments every few games, making plays that leave your jaw on the floor. There is no doubt the talent is there.

With the his first NBA offseason approaching, the franchise must now focus on harnessing and developing Antetokounmpo into a player that will be a difference maker for years to come. His shooting has been spotty but encouraging for such a young player, shooting 31.8 percent from three and 41.7 percent overall from the field. He has shown he is more than capable from beyond the arc and has looked especially comfortable shooting from the wing.

If Antetokounmpo can work to develop a more consistent jump shot this offseason, it will really allow for him to become more efficient on the offensive end. At the same time, he must work hard to add some muscle to his slight frame, as added strength would help him in many aspects of his game, especially finishing around the rim, playing defense and rebounding the ball. Bucks fans should be very excited to see what the future holds for Antetokounmpo, and the Greek Freak should be viewed as a cornerstone piece for the franchise going forward.

Develop the “Other” Young Players

Even though the team brought in some veterans last offseason, the Bucks still have a nice crop of young players outside of Antetokounmpo to work with. Development of Antetokoumpo should be a major priority, but there are some other good prospects on this roster as well. John Henson, Brandon Knight, Khris Middleton and Nate Wolters are all under the age of 24.

Henson, who had his third-year option picked up by the team in October, must focus on adding strength and continuing to develop his inconsistent mid-range jumper. He has proven that he can deter and block shots (1.8 per game) around the rim, but does sometimes get out muscled by bigger players. Right now, it is tough to play Henson and Larry Sanders together, as both players score primarily at the rim. This clogs up the lane, making it difficult for the guards to penetrate the paint and create. If Henson can get to the point where he is confidently knocking shots from the baseline and inside the arc on the wing, it would give the Bucks some increased flexibility with their frontcourt rotations and also add some needed versatility to his game.

In his first season in Milwaukee, Knight has become a focal point offensively and has been the team’s most consistent threat on that end of the court throughout the season. He leads the team in scoring (17.5 PPG) and has the highest Usage Percentage at 26.9 percent. The big question for Knight is should he be the one running the offense or is he best suited playing off the ball? Knight does lead the team in assists per game (4.9), but can have trouble when the play breaks down creating for teammates. If Knight wants to be the point guard of the future for the Bucks, he will have to become a better playmaker. He must also work to become more efficient from three-point range. He leads the team in attempts from deep at 294 but is only shooting a meager 33 percent.

Middleton, who came over to Milwaukee from Detroit as part of the Brandon Jennings trade, has been a very pleasant surprise. He has shown that he can be very dangerous threat from outside. Middleton has been the most consistent shooter on the team, leading in three pointers made (106) and three point percentage (42.2 percent). Though his sample size is somewhat limited, it appears Middleton will be a very capable shooter from deep. At times his game can be a little one dimensional. Middleton’s 2014-15 salary is non-guaranteed, but Milwaukee will almost certainly keep him and then extend a qualifying offer to him the following summer to make him a restricted free agent. While Middleton may never be star, he will be solid contributor as long as he can continue to shoot the ball efficiently, one the Bucks should look to keep around.

Wolters was selected in the second round of last year’s draft and, like Middleton, has been somewhat of a revelation. In 58 games, including 31 starts, before recently injuring his hand, he showed that he can be a steady option at point guard. He does a great job protecting the ball and rarely turns it over. He does need to work on his outside shot, but has a chance to be solid backup at point guard for years to come.

Make the Right Draft Pick

This June, thanks to their less than stellar season, the Bucks will have the chance bring in some young talent via the draft. Depending on how the ping pong balls bounce, the Bucks could pick as high as one and most likely no lower than fourth. Luckily for the Bucks, this draft has a number of very intriguing prospects including Joel Embiid, Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins, Marcus Smart and Dante Exum among others. Jeff Goodman of ESPN.com has stated that “sources indicate” that Hammond favors Joel Embiid with the Bucks’ first pick. Once the Bucks know exactly where they will be choosing on draft day, it should make it easier to pinpoint exactly who the team will target but for now it looks as if Embiid tops the team’s wish list.

The Bucks need to target the best player available regardless of their current roster make up. The team can’t afford to pass on a potential All-Star and possible superstar, even if it may unbalance roster. Embiid, Parker and Wiggins are all very highly regarded and could change the course of the franchise if they play up to expectations. Hammond has a very important decision to make, one that will have a major impact on the future of the team.

One area in which Hammond has really excelled is finding solid players in the second round. Some of his second-round picks include Nate Wolters (2013), Doron Lamb (2012), Jon Leuer (2011) and Jodie Meeks (2009), all players contributing for NBA teams this season. The Bucks will have three picks in the second round of this coming draft and it will be another great opportunity to add youth and depth to the roster. Following the draft, the team should have a very good core group of young players to build around.

Resurgence of O.J. Mayo and Larry Sanders

In the short-term, the quickest way for the Bucks to get better is with increased production from their two highest paid players. Larry Sanders and O.J. Mayo both had disappointing years and their missing production certainly played a part in the team’s poor season.

Mayo was signed to a three-year, $24 million contract last summer, with the expectation that he would be the starting two guard. He was given the job to begin the season, but never really settled in. Mayo has only ended up starting 25 games. Even when Mayo was playing starter’s minutes, he rarely seemed to assert himself on offense. He tended to be very stagnate and lethargic, often waiting for the ball to swing around to him for a three rather than aggressively working for a better look. He can be a prolific three-point shooter, but can be all too willing to float around the perimeter waiting for the ball to find him. This may be one of the last opportunities Mayo has to prove that he’s an NBA starter. If he can bounce back with a strong year, it would go a long way in helping the Bucks improve.

Sanders made a name for himself during the 2012-13 season for his intimidating play in the paint. He was a shot blocking machine, sending back just under three shots a game. The Bucks rewarded Sanders by signing him to a four-year, $44 million contract last summer. It’s safe to say things haven’t turned out exactly as the Bucks had planned since signing Sanders to an extension. Sanders missed 25 games to start the season after being involved in a nightclub altercation in which he injured his thumb. Sanders did return in late December, but struggled to replicate his production from a season ago. The rough stretch for Sanders continued as he fractured his orbital bone in early February and has since been declared out for the season.

Having Sanders anchor the defense is a must for the Bucks if the goal is to win as soon as possible. Sanders has proven that he can be an elite rim protector and if he can stay out of foul trouble, he can really influence a game. Sanders’ ability to return to 2012-13 form will be a major factor for the Bucks next season because when he’s on top of his game, there are few players who can singlehandedly elevate a defense the way he can.

This is John's second year with Basketball Insiders, after spending last season working as an intern. Based out of Milwaukee, he covers the NBA with a focus on the Milwaukee Bucks and the Central Division.

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VIDEO: Tobias Harris – 2018 NBA All-Star

New LA Clipper Tobias Harris talks about the trade from Detroit, his mindset after being traded a few times and more.

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New LA Clipper Tobias Harris talks about the trade from Detroit, his mindset after being traded a few times and more.

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Rest Assured, the 1-16 NBA Playoff Format Is Coming… Kinda

Based on Adam Silver’s comments, it’s safe to assume that the NBA will soon reformat the playoffs.

Moke Hamilton

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If there’s one thing Adam Silver has proven in his four years as the NBA’s Commissioner, it’s that he isn’t afraid to do things his way.

And if Silver has his way, the league will eventually figure out how it can implement a system that results in a more balanced playoff system. On Saturday, though, he revealed that it’s probably closer to a reality than many of us realize.

During his annual All-Star media address, Silver admitted that the league will “continue to look at” how they can reformat the playoffs to both ensure a better competitive balance throughout and pave the way for the league’s two best teams to meet up in the NBA Finals, even if both of those two teams happen to be in the same conference.

“You also would like to have a format where your two best teams are ultimately going to meet in the Finals,” the commissioner said on Saturday night.

“You could have a situation where the top two teams in the league are meeting in the conference finals or somewhere else. So we’re going to continue to look at that. It’s still my hope that we’re going to figure out ways.”

Since Silver took over the league, he’s been consistent in implementing dramatic changes to improve the overall quality of the game. Although Silver didn’t take over as the league’s commissioner until 2014, he was instrumental in getting the interested parties to buy into the notion that the “center” designation on the All-Star ballot was obsolete.

As a result, beginning with the 2013 All-Star Game, the Eastern and Western Conference teams have featured three “frontcourt” players, which essentially lumps centers in with forwards and eliminates the requirement that a center appear in the All-Star game. That wasn’t always the case.

From overhauling the league’s scheduling to reducing back-to-back games to implementing draft lottery reform to, this year, eliminating the traditional All-Star format which featured the Eastern Conference versus the Western Conference, it’s become clear that Silver simply “gets it” and isn’t afraid to make revolutionary changes if he deems them to be in the overall best interest of the league.

At this point, everyone realizes that something needs to be done about the league’s current playoff system.

Last season, for example, the Western Conference first round playoff series featured the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder squaring off against one another. Only one series—the Los Angeles Clippers versus Utah Jazz—went seven games.

Meanwhile, in the Eastern Conference, the first round series that were contested weren’t exactly compelling.

The Cleveland Cavaliers steamrolled the conference to the tune of a 12-1 run to their third consecutive trip to the NBA Finals. It wasn’t the first time that the public questioned the wisdom behind separating the playoff brackets by conference, but the dominance of the Cavs and LeBron James specifically (who is expected to win the Eastern Conference for the eighth consecutive time this season) has caused renewed scrutiny.

The most common solution offered to this point has been to simply take the 16 best teams across the league, irrespective of conference, and conduct the playoffs as normal.

From afar, this solution seems simple enough, but the obvious concerns are twofold.

First, if the Celtics and Clippers, for example, were pitted against one another in a first round series, the travel would be considerable. Private charter flight or not, traveling is taxing, and the prospect of having to make five cross-country trips over the course of a two-week span would certainly leave the winner of such a series at a competitive disadvantage against the opponents they would face in subsequent rounds, especially if the future opponent enjoyed a playoff series that was contested within close proximity.

Atlanta to New Orleans, for example, is less than a one-hour flight.

Aside from the concerns about geographic proximity, the other obvious issue is competitive balancing of the schedule, which seems to be an easier issue to fix.

Using the Pelicans as an example, of the 82 games they play, 30 are played against the other conference—in this case, the Eastern Conference. The other 52 games would all be played within the conference. If playoff seedings were going to be done on a simple 1-16 basis, the scheduling would have to be realigned in a way to essentially pit all teams against one another evenly. It wouldn’t be fair for a team like the Celtics to be judged on the same standard as the Pelicans if the Celtics faced inferior teams more often.

On Saturday night, Silver revealed that the league’s brass has been thinking about this and is trying to find a solution, and in doing so, he may have tipped his hand.

* * * * * *

As a multinational conglomerate, the NBA values the inclusion of as many markets as possible. Wanting to improve the overall quality of the product, though, there are interests that may not align fully.

What’s obvious with this year’s All-Star game is that the NBA has found a way to balance the two.

Rather than eliminating the conference designations altogether and simply choosing the “best” 24 players to be in the All-Star game, the league still chose All-Stars based on their conference, but then distributed them within the pool to allow for better competition.

That’s exactly what Silver revealed the NBA is considering doing with the playoffs. It makes perfect sense, and it’s probably just a matter of time before it’s implemented.

A report from ESPN notes that the idea that the league is kicking around would essentially do exactly what the league did with the All-Star selections with the playoff teams: choose the best from each conference, then disburse them in a way that allows for competitive balance. 

The proposal would have the league’s teams compete as they normally do and would still feature the top eight teams from each conference getting into the playoffs.

Once the teams are qualified, however, they would be re-seeded on a 1-16 basis and crossmatched, on that basis.

It’s not perfect, but compromises never are. The travel issues would still persist, but the league would accomplish two goals: the less dominant conference wouldn’t be underrepresented and discouraged from competing, but the two best teams would still be on opposite ends of the bracket.

An NBA playoffs that featured 11 or 12 teams from the Western Conference would be a ratings nightmare for the league. Eastern Conference cities are less likely to stay up past midnight during the week to watch playoff games, and less competitive markets would frown at the prospect of having to compete against the other conference for a playoff spot. For many small market teams, the millions of dollars generated from a single playoff game often has a significant impact on the team’s operations, so there would naturally be discord.

This system would at least eliminate that contention.

On the positive side, it would allow for the Rockets and Warriors, for example, to meet in the NBA Finals. In both the NFL and MLB, geography hasn’t been a determining factor on which teams battle for the league’s championship.

Why does it have to be in the NBA?

* * * * * *

With the league having begun regular season play earlier this season, at the All-Star break, most teams have played about 57 games. A lot can change over the final 25 games of the season, but if the seeds were frozen today and the league took the top eight teams from each conference and then crossmatched them, the Los Angeles Clippers would be the team that got the short end o the stick.

Although the Clippers have the 16th best record in the league, they would be the ninth-seeded Western Conference team and would thus be eliminated from postseason contention by the Miami HEAT. The HEAT have the 17th best record in the league but are the eighth-best team in the Eastern Conference, so to preserve the conference weight, the HEAT would win out.

This is what the seedings and matchups would look like…

(1) Houston Rockets versus (16) Miami HEAT

(2) Golden State Warriors versus (15) New Orleans Pelicans

(3) Toronto Raptors versus (14) Philadelphia 76ers

(4) Boston Celtics versus (13) Portland Trail Blazers

(5) Cleveland Cavaliers versus (12) Denver Nuggets

(6) San Antonio Spurs versus (11) Oklahoma City Thunder

(7) Minnesota Timberwolves versus (10) Milwaukee Bucks

(8) Washington Wizards versus (9) Indiana Pacers

Here, the Celtics would face the nightmarish scenario of having to travel to and from Portland for their playoff series, while virtually every other series would feature much more friendly travel (especially the Spurs-Thunder and Raptors-Sixers).

The Cavs would have a very tough road to the Finals, having to beat the Nuggets, Celtics and Rockets if the seeds held. The Celtics would have a similarly tough road, as they’d have to get past the Blazers, Cavs and Rockets.

At the end of the day, the Rockets and Warriors would be aligned in such a way as to avoid one another until the championship, but each of the two would face daunting competition. The Rockets would have to go through the HEAT, Wizards and Celtics, while the Warriors would have to face the Pelicans, Timberwolves and Raptors—again, assuming the seeds held.

It would be a benefit to all observers.

One of the unintended consequences of implementing this system would be to make every single game count. If the Celtics were able to move up to the second seed, for example, their road to the Finals, in theory, could become much much easier, comparatively speaking.

The end result would be less resting of players during the course of the season and certainly less instances in which star players take the final week of the regular season off in other to be fresh for the postseason.

Everyone wins.

No, there’s no perfect solution, but just as the league has found a clever way to serve multiple interests as it relates to the All-Star game’s competitiveness, Silver has revealed that the league is at least considering following suit with the playoffs.

Best bet?

It’s only a matter of time before we see it actually see it happen.

It simply makes too much sense, and if there’s one thing the commissioner has already proven, it’s that he isn’t afraid of changing tradition.

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NBA All-Star Saturday Recap

Brian Slingluff recaps All-Star Saturday from Los Angeles.

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Basketball Insiders is here to recap an eventful All-Star Saturday that led to three first-time champs in the various skills contests. Let’s get right to it.

Taco Bell Skills Challenge

In Saturday night’s Taco Bell Skills Challenge, the “Bigs” team, boasting 3 All-Stars, set out to claim a third straight title. The competition kicked off with Joel Embiid coming from behind to best Al Horford, and sharpshooter Lauri Markkanen swishing his first 3 point attempt to eliminate Andre Drummond. On the Guard side, Buddy Hield had an early lead before losing out to Spencer Dinwiddie, and Jamal Murray upset hometown favorite Lou Williams.

In the semifinals, Markkanen was able to dispatch Joel Embiid, who struggled with the pass portion of the competition, and Dinwiddie topped Jamal Murray by making his first 3 pointer for the second consecutive round.

In the Final round, Dinwiddie finally missed a 3 pointer, but it did not matter as he finished with a wire to wire victory over Lauri Markkanen. Dinwiddie, competing in front of his friends and family, was able to end the Bigs’ two year win streak in impressive fashion.

JBL Three Point Contest

The event started off with Tobias Harris scoring a solid 18 points. Wayne Ellington was next, sporting the hot new alternate Miami Vice jersey. Ellington started off cold and heated up on his last three racks, ending up with a score of 17. Devin Booker and former three-point champion Klay Thompson tied for a round-high 19 points. Paul George, Bradley Beal, and Kyle Lowry struggled from the start and never found a rhythm, falling short of making the championship round. Defending champion Eric Gordon never got it going, and would not defend the title, scoring only 12 points.

In the Championship round, Tobias Harris was on fire through the first 3 racks, but quickly got cold, scoring 17 points. Devin Booker was next and could not miss, scoring 28 points, leaving Klay Thompson a high number to match. Thompson fell just 3 points short, and Devin Booker was crowned the 2018 JBL Three Point Champion.

Verizon Slam Dunk Contest

The final and most anticipated event of the night started with Donovan Mitchell bringing out a second hoop, bouncing it off the second backboard and finishing with an impressive windmill dunk, scoring a 48. Victor Oladipo followed with a difficult look-away alley oop dunk attempt that he was unable to complete, totaling 31 points from the judges. Dennis Smith Jr. had a nice reverse double pump that got 39 points and Larry Nance Jr., in a throwback Phoenix jersey, payed homage to his father’s cradle dunk, nailing it almost exactly for a score of 44 points.

Oladipo started the next round of dunks by borrowing Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther mask, and scoring 40 points with a tomahawk windmill dunk. Smith Jr. hit a seemingly impossible reverse 360, through the legs, switching hands dunk for a perfect score of 50. Nance Jr. pulled off a Vince Carter level windmill, nearly missing a perfect score. Mitchell jumped over comedian Kevin Hart to advance to the finals against Larry Nance Jr.

In the Finals, Nance started things off with a windmill alley-oop with some help from Larry Nance Sr., garnering a score of 46. Mitchell completed the difficult one handed alley-oop he had attempted in the previous round, scoring a perfect 50. Nance Jr. answered with an incredible double pass off the backboard dunk, scoring yet another 50 points.  Mitchell ended the contest with a Vince Carter tribute dunk, coming out on top by just two points. It capped off an exciting Saturday night, setting things up for the main event on Sunday, Team LeBron versus Team Stephen.

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