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Milwaukee Bucks 2016-17 Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 season for the Milwaukee Bucks.

Basketball Insiders

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The Milwaukee Bucks entered the 2015-16 campaign with high hopes. The team had played well in the previous postseason and made headlines last summer by signing big man Greg Monroe away from the Detroit Pistons. However, the Bucks failed to live up to last year’s high expectations, finishing the season with a 33-49 record (12th-best in the Eastern Conference).

Now, Milwaukee is hoping to return to form and look more like the successful team from two seasons ago. Their young core has another year of experience under their belt and they’ve added players like Matthew Dellavedova, Jason Terry, Mirza Teletovic and Thon Maker.

Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 season for the Milwaukee Bucks.

FIVE GUYS THINK

With the Cleveland Cavaliers, Indiana Pacers, Detroit Pistons, Chicago Bulls and these Milwaukee Bucks, the Central seems poised to be one of the toughest divisions in the NBA this year. Over the last two seasons, all five of these teams made the playoffs at least once and each squad enters the 2016-17 campaign with postseason expectations. I love Milwaukee’s young core and I was shocked by last year’s regression. I expected them to take a step forward with Jabari Parker back in the lineup and Greg Monroe added to the roster. Instead, we saw that while their length and athleticism and mismatch potential make them scary on paper, this team does have a number of issues such as their defensive consistency and shooting. Two years ago, the Bucks had the second-best defense in the NBA; last year, they were ranked 22nd. This team’s turnaround starts with their defense improving again. I have them finishing fourth in the division ahead of the Bulls.

4th Place – Central Division

– Alex Kennedy

Talk about crashing and burning. The Bucks had plenty of momentum entering last season, but managed to win just 33 games and struggled to find any sort of consistency. The team added guards Matthew Dellavedova and Jason Terry to help steady some of their backcourt struggles, while also drafting forward Thon Maker in a dare-to-be-great move. Maker is a prospect who most scouts were all over the board evaluating, o we’ll see how that works out. A return to the playoffs is a possibility, but the Central Division figures to be one of the league’s toughest to navigate so don’t bet the farm on postseason activities for Milwaukee.

5th Place – Central Division

– Lang Greene

The Bucks, also known as the Wingspan-Clan, simply couldn’t resist adding more length this offseason and selected Thon Maker with the 10th overall pick in the draft. Standing at nearly 7’1 with a 7’3 wingspan, Maker is one of the most intriguing prospects from this year’s rookie class, but he may need some time to develop physically before he can be a consistent contributor.

While it may not be clear what Maker can bring to the Bucks this season, they did bring in some sharp-shooting veterans like Mirza Teletovic, Jason Terry and Matthew Dellavedova. Each of these players has limitations, but they bring more shooting, which is what the Bucks are in sore need of. If head coach Jason Kidd can utilize the added shooting and recapture the defensive efficiency the Bucks established two seasons ago, they could bounce back next season and make some noise in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

The biggest factor in that equation will be the development of budding star Giannis Antetokounmpo, who came on strong toward the end of last season and started putting up monster numbers consistently. Antetokounmpo trying to be a primary playmaker for the Bucks will be one of the things I will be watching closely this upcoming season.

4th Place – Central Division

– Jesse Blancarte

I’ve had the opportunity to get to know Jabari Parker a bit and there is no doubt that he is a great kid whose personality makes you want to root for him. However, I wouldn’t be doing my job if I weren’t a tad critical of him. Last season, Parker seemed to be carrying a little too much weight around and I think he would be served well by trimming down. The Bucks need good on-court leadership from one of their young guns in order to go to the next level, and Parker, in my opinion, absolutely has the qualities of an effective leader. I look directly at him when I think of what it will take for the Bucks to get to take the next step. Aside from him, the Bucks have a ton of young talent and a smart head coach. They have everything they need to make noise and I’d be willing to bet that they find themselves competing for a playoff spot in the East this season.

Of course, that isn’t necessarily saying much; there will likely be 12 teams “competing” for eight playoff spots. The Central Division could be the most difficult to predict in all of basketball, in fact. I think last season was a bit of an aberration for Jason Kidd’s team and I think they have every shot of competing, neck and neck, with both the Chicago Bulls and Detroit Pistons. At this point, though, I have to put them fifth since they’re still collectively inexperienced.

5th Place – Central Division

– Moke Hamilton

Pretty much everybody of note on this team has the wingspan of a Learjet, which is impressive, but so far hasn’t translated to the kind of success that fans and the front office would like to have seen by now. After falling short of 50-win expectations a year ago, the Bucks head into this season tasked with trying to get Jabari Parker to meet his potential, helping Greg Monroe find his way in this offense and ushering Giannis Antetokounmpo toward legitimate superstardom. Matthew Dellavedova should add something interesting to the point guard rotation, which has been pretty bad in recent years, and rookie Thon Maker has a lot to live up to if he hopes to prove himself worthy of his surprising draft position. Despite all the questions, this is a team that should be really fun to watch as they grow and develop. But in a tough Central Division, it may still prove too challenging to see a big improvement in wins this season.

5th Place – Central Division

– Joel Brigham

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Khris Middleton

While the star of this show in Milwaukee at this point is pretty well established as the “Greek Freak,” Middleton has been the picture of consistency the last few years and in fact did lead Milwaukee in scoring last season with just over 18 points per game. While Giannis Antetokounmpo or Jabari Parker could potentially leapfrog Middleton this year, it seems just as likely that Middleton once again leads the team offensively – perhaps this year even topping 20 per contest. He’s a great secondary ball handler for this team no matter who Jason Kidd drops in at point guard, and his jump shot is as reliable and gorgeous as anybody’s on the roster. For now, he’s the steadiest guy this team has on the offensive end.

Top Defensive Player: Giannis Antetokounmpo

It only takes a couple minutes on YouTube to see the massive defensive potential of Antetokounmpo, as there are several videos of him creeping up on fast-breakers like a predator stalking its prey and then swatting away their sad little layup attempts with the sort of unforgiving punishment only known previously by the enemies of Spartan soldiers. He’s nasty on defense, having averaged 1.4 blocks and 1.2 steals last season thanks in large part to his California Condor wingspan. But nobody seems to think he’s anywhere close to his prime yet, so expect him to wreak even more havoc with those long arms this season.

Top Playmaker: Giannis Antetokounmpo

It took a Michael Carter-Williams injury last season for Jason Kidd to give “Point Giannis” a shot, but almost immediately the entire NBA world fell in love with the gimmick. At 6’11, he’s tall enough to see over pretty much anybody who would try to guard him at the top of the key in a half-court set, and that plus his natural feel for the game means initiating offense is no problem. If the defense throws a smaller, quicker guard at him, he’ll just post up and create that way; if they stick a stronger, slower player on him, he’ll use his length and athleticism to blow right by him. On defense, he can pull down a rebound and then blast down the court for a fastbreak, taking about five long steps to get from baseline to baseline. He’s almost unfair from a gene perspective. While we won’t necessarily see him play point guard exclusively this year, he’s going to initiate a ton of the offense. That, obviously, is a good thing for the Bucks.

Top Clutch Player: Khris Middleton

This isn’t even a hypothetical at this point, as it would be for some other teams. “Who do you want shooting the ball when you need a big-time last-second shot?” is a question that could lead to all sorts of different answers on different teams, but in Milwaukee it’s been Middleton taking (and making) those shots the last couple of seasons. Two seasons ago, he had a couple of dirty last-second thrillers against Miami and Phoenix. Coach Kidd likely will keep putting the ball in his hands when it matters.

The Unheralded Player: Jason Terry

It feels like Jason Terry is about a million years old, and the chances are pretty good that he won’t be a massive on-court contributor for the Bucks in his age-39 season. But anybody who’s seen Terry work with younger players in a locker room knows what kind of asset he can be for a team behind the scenes. Terry almost certainly will get into coaching once his playing career is over, but in the meantime he’ll do great things not only for Antetokounmpo and Parker, but also the more inexperienced players on the roster like Thon Maker, Rashad Vaughn and Malcolm Brogdon. He’s not going to score a ton of points, but his presence on this team matters immensely.

Top New Addition: Matthew Dellavedova

We’ll have to see how Dellavedova transitions to a team that doesn’t feature LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, but despite his somewhat limited skill set, he does bring some things to this team that they were sorely missing a year ago. First and foremost, he shores up a weird and sort of sad point guard rotation as someone who can both initiate the offense and knock down an open three-pointer. Beyond that, he adds a measure of scrappy toughness to a team that lost track of itself defensively last year. They need a little more actual grit in their locker room, and no, Antetokounmpo stink-faces don’t necessarily count as “grit.” He should help with their dismal three-point shooting and shore up that point guard rotation, and we’re all looking forward to the blind alley-oops he’s sure to throw to Antetokounmpo and John Henson.

– Joel Brigham

WHO WE LIKE

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo

There isn’t an NBA fan alive who isn’t absolutely enthralled by this young man – regardless of what position he plays. Physically he’s just on a different level than just about anybody else in the game, with arms that stretch out like a praying mantis and legs that look like they’re on stilts. His athleticism, competitive nature and versatility all suggest we’re in for a fun year with the “Greek Freak.” No matter what happens with Milwaukee this season, he’ll be a treat to watch.

2. Jabari Parker

It’s sort of shocking how little buzz Parker is generating ahead of this season considering how well he finished the 2015-2016 campaign. In his last 29 games of the year, Parker averaged 18.8 points while shooting over 50 percent from the floor. And since last season was essentially his true rookie year, that projects well for where the former No. 2 overall pick may be headed in upcoming campaign. Based on reputation, Middleton has been the team’s top offensive player, but Parker has 20 points-per-game potential and could even be in line for some All-Star votes this year. Year three looks like Parker’s time to shine.

3. Khris Middleton

Criminally underrated, Middleton is now officially on one of the league’s most cap-friendly contracts, and he’s a key part of this team’s young core. He’s a career 40 percent three-point shooter, but for the Bucks to improve their team three-point shooting (they were 21st in the league a year ago), he’ll need to increase his volume without a drop-off in efficiency. Middleton’s percentages sunk a little a year ago as he shot more, but if he can correct that in 2016-17, he’ll prove even more invaluable to his team than he already is.

4. John Henson

For the second year in a row, Henson’s minutes dropped in Milwaukee, leaving him off the floor for over 30 minutes a night. But what’s truly impressive is that despite playing only 16.8 minutes a game, Henson still managed to average 1.9 blocks – enough to place him among the league’s elite and certainly enough to put him in elite company in terms of per-36 minutes stats. In fact, Henson would average 14.9 points, 8.3 rebounds and 4.1 blocks per 36 minutes, which is what makes it so easy to wonder what he could do with a little more playing time.

5. Miles Plumlee

As it stands, Henson is behind Miles Plumlee on the depth chart, but that’s fine considering how well Plumlee has played since coming over to the team in the Brandon Knight trade a year and a half ago. After the All-Star break last season, Plumlee saw his minutes jump to over 20 per game and he even started 11 of 28 games. He also received a huge $50 million deal from the Bucks this offseason, which suggests the team believes he’s ready to start full-time this year. He doesn’t score a lot (averaging just 6.6 points per game last season), but he’s efficient when he does. More importantly, he’s a much more natural defensive fit along the team’s talented young stars than Greg Monroe. That, added to his rebounding ability, make him an underrated player in this lineup who could be even better with a boost in minutes this year.

– Joel Brigham

SALARY CAP 101

The Bucks went under the NBA’s $94.1 million salary cap this summer, using most of it to bring in Mirza Teletovic and Matthew Dellavedova. Milwaukee now has $99.6 million in committed salaries with 15 guaranteed players, which doesn’t bode well for camp invites Orlando Johnson and J.J. O’Brien.  The team still has its $2.9 million Room Exception, but no roster space (barring a trade or cutting a guaranteed player). Milwaukee has a hard cap at $117.3 million, by virtue of the Dellavedova sign-and-trade with the Cleveland Cavaliers, but they’re nowhere near that mark.

Next summer, the Bucks could get to roughly $24 million in spending power under a $102 million salary cap.  That assumes the team picks up the rookie-scale options on Jabari Parker, Rashad Vaughn and Tyler Ennis before November.  Milwaukee also has to decide on extensions for Giannis Antetokounmpo and Michael Carter-Williams by the end of October, otherwise they’ll become restricted free agents when the Bucks extend a qualifying offer next July.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

There’s no question that this team is insanely long and athletic, and when you combine all of that with the enthusiasm of youth, there’s a very good chance that Milwaukee will be one of the league’s most entertaining teams to watch this year. They were efficient scoring a year ago, finishing fifth in the NBA in team field goal percentage (46.7 percent). They also moved the ball around well, finishing ninth in team assists. There is potential galore on this team and they may have an All-Star in Antetokounmpo, but youth and potential still remain their largest asset.

– Joel Brigham

WEAKNESSES

A lot of things broke bad for the Bucks last year, as they finished 27th in rebounding, 21st in three-point shooting and 23rd in points allowed per game. Adding Dellavedova and Teletovic should help with the three-point shooting, but there’s a lot of work to be done with the other problems. They still don’t have a point guard who can create his own shot (not counting Giannis), and their wing rotation is incredibly young and unproven. It’s hard to see the team improving tremendously on their 33-win season, but the playoffs are not completely out of the realm of possibility.

– Joel Brigham

THE BURNING QUESTION

Does Greg Monroe make this team better or worse?

Initially, the belief was that Monroe would bring some much-needed offense to what was, at the time, one of the scrappiest defensive teams in the NBA. What actually happened was that Monroe was utterly discordant on this roster in just about every conceivable way, and the team’s defense suffered drastically as a result. The second-ranked defense in the NBA in 2014-15 (according to points allowed per 100 possessions) dropped to 22nd a year ago.

With Plumlee looking like a much better fit defensively alongside Antetokounmpo and Parker, the answer probably is going to be bringing Monroe off the bench. Monroe’s post scoring against second units could prove a tremendous boon to that Milwaukee second unit, especially with Dellavedova running pick-and-rolls and Monroe helping to create that offense. It’s very likely Milwaukee will continue to shop Monroe, but for as long as they have him, it’s probably best to use him in a reserve role. Giving him minutes alongside Parker and Antetokounmpo just doesn’t make enough sense for the team, particularly defensively, and as a demolisher of second-unit defenders, Monroe could actually still be a helpful part of this team.

– Joel Brigham

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NBA PM: Lopez Leading On And Off The Court

Brook Lopez has been a valuable addition to the Los Angeles Lakers, both on and off the court.

Ben Nadeau

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In spite of the ongoing media circus, an inherently tougher conference and a roster that features just five players with more than three years of NBA experience, the Los Angeles Lakers are 8-10. Naturally, that won’t be good enough to reach the postseason in the West, but it’s better than most expected the young Lakers to fare. Their early season successes can be chalked up to their glut of budding talent — Julius Randle, Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram, among others — but there’s one other major driving force at hand here and his name is Brook Lopez.

Following years of will-they, won’t-they rumors, Lopez was acquired in a shocking blockbuster trade with the Brooklyn Nets just prior to this year’s draft. The Lakers were eager to get out from under Timofey Mozgov’s lengthy, albatross-sized contract, so they packaged him with the once-troubled D’Angelo Russell, shipping the pair off for Lopez and the No. 27 overall pick. The deal was largely made with financial implications in mind, but the initial returns on Lopez have been a massive win for the Lakers as well.

Although Lopez is currently logging a career-low in minutes (24.3), he still often leads the way for Los Angeles — like the night he effortlessly dropped 34 points and 10 rebounds on 6-for-9 from three-point range against his former franchise. Through 18 games, Lopez is averaging just 14.8 points and 5.1 rebounds — a scoring mark that ranks only above his rookie season with the New Jersey Nets in 2008-09 — but his statistical impact is key on this inconsistent roster nonetheless.

But beyond that, it seems as if some of Lopez’s biggest contributions this season have come off the court — just ask Kyle Kuzma and Ivica Zubac.

“[Lopez] has taught me how to be a professional,” Kuzma told Basketball Insiders prior to their game against the Boston Celtics earlier this month. “He’s one of the first guys in the gym, one of the last ones to leave.”

Lopez, who has carried his fair share of incredibly poor teams in the past — and often with a smile — is in the final year of the contract he signed back in 2015. His expiring deal worth $22.6 million made Lopez the perfect acquisition for a Lakers team hoping to shed cap space before the upcoming free agency period — where, allegedly, LeBron James and Paul George are both targets.

For a 7-foot center that just added a three-point shot to his game and knocked down 134 of them last season alone, Lopez may be one of the greatest trade afterthoughts in recent memory. The Lakers will likely finish in the lottery rather than the postseason, but Lopez — along with veterans Andrew Bogut, Corey Brewer and Luol Deng — have been a helpful presence for the slew of young Lakers as they adjust to professional basketball.

“They’re all great — they’ve been there, done that,” Kuzma said. “They have a lot of experience in this league, so it’s good to learn from those guys because they’ve played 10, 13 years and that’s what I want to do.”

Kuzma, of course, was selected with that No. 27 overall pick that the Nets sent to Los Angeles in the trade, and he’s been red-hot ever since. Following an impressive combine, summer league and preseason, Kuzma jumped into the starting lineup after Larry Nance Jr. fractured his hand just eight games into the campaign. Although the Rookie of the Year battle has been dominated by the Philadelphia 76ers’ Ben Simmons so far, Kuzma — averaging 16.8 points and 6.6 rebounds per game — has emerged as a strong runner-up candidate.

For Zubac, however, it’s been a slower start to his NBA career but with Lopez, he says, things have gotten easier.

“The whole summer, I worked on my three-point shot,” Zubac told Basketball Insiders. “But also [I worked on my] post offense too, that’s what [Lopez] is good at. I’m really focusing my game around the post, so that’s where I’m trying to learn.”

Last year, Zubac was a popular late-season member of head coach Luke Walton’s rotation and he finished his rookie year averaging 7.5 points and 4.2 rebounds in just 16 minutes per game. Unfortunately, the new arrivals and recent emergences have limited Zubac to just 10 total minutes over four appearances in 2017-18. Still, Lopez gives Zubac a mentor worth modeling his game after, even if it’s at the expense of real experience this season.

To get Zubac on the floor, the center has spent time with the South Bay Lakers, Los Angeles’ G-League affiliate, as of late. In two games, Zubac has averaged 21 points and 10 rebounds on 73 percent shooting from the field. Despite the lack of playing time, Zubac was more than happy to praise not only Lopez but the efforts of the other aforementioned veterans too.

“I can learn a lot from them and they help me play my game,” Zubac said. “Whoever’s on the court, whoever I’m playing with, I just try to learn as much as I can from them.”

Ultimately, though, it all comes back to Lopez.

Again, Lopez has averaged a career-low in minutes, but his contributions have been crucial in the Lakers’ overall standing thus far. In the games that Lopez has played less than 21 minutes, the Lakers are 0-5; but when he plays more than 30, the team is 3-1. On top of that, the Lakers are 5-1 when Lopez hits two or more three-pointers in a game as well. That sample size is still certainly small, but it’s nice indicator of Lopez’s inherent on-court impact, even when he’s not carrying the team on his shoulders.

“[He makes life] a lot easier for me,” Kuzma said. “He’s one of the most established scorers in the league and his career average is, like, 20 [points] a game. You can always count on him to be there every single night.”

While the Lakers can plan for a dream offseason haul involving James, George and others, they’ll have a tough decision facing them in July. Whether he’s efficiently stretching the floor, finishing off assists from Ball or setting the tone in an inexperienced locker room, Lopez has been quite the addition for Los Angeles.

This summer, Lopez enters unrestricted free agency and will likely garner offers outside of the Lakers’ pay range considering their big plans. If the Lakers decide to focus elsewhere, another team will reap the rewards. Until then, the youthful core in Los Angeles will benefit from having Lopez train and educate them each day.

“[Lopez] takes care of his body, he stays low-key and is never in trouble,” Kuzma said. “He’s the type of professional I want to be.”

Whether this is just a one-year detour in his extensively underrated career or the start of a great, new partnership, Lopez’s arrival in Los Angeles has been a huge success already. But as far as role models go for both Kuzma and Zubac, there are few choices better than Brook Lopez — both on and off the court.

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The Most Disappointing Teams So Far

Shane Rhodes looks at a few teams that have disappointed so far this season.

Shane Rhodes

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Approaching the season’s quarter mark, NBA teams are finally starting to settle into their respective grooves. As more and more players become comfortable, their teams begin to demonstrate what they can really do on the court. While some teams have exceeded expectations, a number of teams have underperformed and are looking worse, in some cases much worse, than expected.

Here are six of the NBA’s most disappointing teams so far this season.

6. Dallas Mavericks

The Dallas Mavericks were going to be bad this season. They just weren’t expected to be this bad.

At 3-15, the Mavericks currently hold the worst record in the NBA. They rank 27th and 22nd in offensive and defensive rating, coming in at 99.3 and 107.6, respectively. Collectively, they are shooting just 42.2 percent from the floor and 34.7 percent from three-point range, both below league average. Nerlens Noel, whom Dallas acquired at the trade deadline last season, has played sparingly.

But there is seemingly a light at the end of the tunnel. The Mavericks’ three wins have come against the Memphis Grizzlies, Washington Wizards and the Milwaukee Bucks, three teams that made the playoffs a season ago and are expected to do so again this season. Victories against the Wizards — who are currently the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference at 10-7 — and the Bucks — who boast one of the best players in the league in Giannis Antetokounmpo — are especially encouraging.

As of now, though, the team is still a mess on both sides of the ball.

5. Miami HEAT

The Miami HEAT were expected to be playoff contenders after a torrid second half last season that saw them win 30 of their final 42 games. Now, the HEAT are currently sitting at the 11th seed in the East and, with a record of 7-9, are currently boasting a worse record than the New York Knicks (9-7), Indiana Pacers (10-8) and the Los Angeles Lakers (8-10).

The offense just hasn’t arrived yet in South Beach. Miami has an offensive rating of 103.13, good for 26th in the NBA. They are shooting under league average from the field (44.5 percent) and from three (35.2 percent) and are fifth in turnovers per game with 16.6 per contest; not exactly a winning formula. The $50 million man Kelly Olynyk has contributed just 8.9 points and 5.3 rebounds in 18.9 minutes per game while the roster outside its starting unit looks flimsy at best. Dion Waiters hasn’t shot the ball as well as last season, either.

The schedule doesn’t get easier for the HEAT, with four upcoming games against the Boston Celtics, Minnesota Timberwolves, Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors in their next seven. Expect Miami to get even worse before they start to get better.

4. Milwaukee Bucks

Last season, the Milwaukee Bucks were the sixth seed in the East. They boast one of the best young cores in the league, headed by phenom Antetokounmpo and supported by the likes of Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, Malcolm Brogdon and, eventually, Jabari Parker.

Somehow, the Bucks find themselves at just 8-8.

In a weakened Eastern Conference, Milwaukee was expected to make a play for one of its top spots. Instead, the Bucks have gotten blown out by the Mavericks, while barely squeaking by teams like the Charlotte Hornets and Lakers. The Bucks are 23rd in the NBA in defensive rating with a mark of 106.5, worse than the Atlanta Hawks and Chicago Bulls while also sitting at 23rd in net rating at -2.2, behind the Los Angeles Clippers (-1.7) and Utah Jazz (-1.3).

Antetokounmpo has yet to improve his stroke from beyond the arc, an undesirable albeit expected deficiency in his game. But, much of the Bucks roster hasn’t shot well from three. Middleton is shooting just 32.1 percent while big-acquisition Eric Bledsoe is shooting an abysmal 16 percent from beyond the arc since arriving in Milwaukee. If they can’t improve here it will be extremely hard for the Bucks to improve their position in the standings.

With six of their next nine games coming against teams at or below .500, the Bucks have a great chance to rebound from their sluggish start. That doesn’t change the fact that, with one of the NBA’s more talented rosters, the Bucks have been a major disappointment up to this point.

3. Cleveland Cavaliers

At the time of this writing, the Cleveland Cavaliers have won five straight games. Most would say that would or should exempt them from a list like this.

They would be wrong.

The collective record of the teams Cleveland has played during its five-game win streak? 35-48. It may be encouraging to the fans to see the team rattle off five straight, but the Cavaliers aren’t exactly beating the best teams in the Association. They have been careless with the ball as well, turning it over more than 15 times per game while

Their biggest problem, however, is the fact that they can defend absolutely no one. With a defensive rating of 109.4, the Cavaliers have the worst defense in the league. They have gotten away with a lackluster effort in the past, Cleveland’s current roster, outside of LeBron James, just doesn’t have enough offensive firepower to make up for it. And the offense has been good; Cleveland is currently averaging 110.9 points per game with an offensive rating of 109.4, but that leaves them with a big goose egg for their net rating.

The Cavaliers will continue to struggle to beat teams as they attempt to outpace them on the offensive end. For a team that has made three straight NBA Finals and has one of the greatest of all time on its roster, that should certainly be regarded as a disappointment.

2. Oklahoma City Thunder

Another “Big-3” was formed in the NBA after Paul George and Carmelo Anthony were paired with reigning Most Valuable Player Russell Westbrook in the offseason. However, the 2017-18 season hasn’t exactly gone according to plan for the Thunder

Labeled as a team to rival the Warriors for Western Conference supremacy, the Thunder have done anything but so far this season. While the individual stats counting of Westbrook, George and Anthony have looked good, the Thunder have not as a collective. The team sits at just 7-9, good for 10th in the Western Conference. They rank 19th, 23rd and 21st in the NBA in points, rebounds and assists per game, respectively while shooting 44.3 percent from the field and 35 percent from three, both good for 21st.

Westbrook’s early season shooting struggles have hurt the Thunder as well. Westbrook is shooting just 39.4 percent from the field and 32.5 percent from three. The dominance he displayed last season, especially late in games, just hasn’t appeared this season and the team is hurting because of it. If the Thunder want to move up in the standings, Westbrook will need to find a way to improve his shooting numbers; they will go as he goes much like last season, even with George and Anthony on the roster.

On a brighter note, the defense has been one of the best in the NBA. But if the Thunder can’t figure it out on offense and score well as a unit, they will continue to struggle, especially when having to face the high-octane offenses of the Warriors and Houston Rockets.

1. Los Angeles Clippers

When losing a player the caliber of Chris Paul, some regression is to be expected. Fortifying the roster with guards Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams and Milos Teodosic and forward Danilo Gallinari, however, the Clippers were expected to weather the storm, to an extent.

Early on the Clippers did exactly that. The team looked impressive in the early going, winning five of their first seven games and averaging 109 points per. Since then? Everything has seemingly gone downhill in Los Angeles, and fast.

The Clippers have lost nine straight by an average margin of 9.8 points per game. Thirteenth in the Western Conference with a 5-11 record, they have looked nothing like the playoff team they were expected to be and are by far the season’s biggest disappointment. They have played poorly on the defensive end, ranking 20th in the NBA with a defensive rating of 106.2. Opponents have shot 45.4 percent from the field and 37.1 percent from three against them.

Things haven’t been the greatest on offense, either. In Paul’s absence, the Clippers have dropped from 15th in assists per game a year ago to 28th this season, averaging just 19.6 per game. While they are averaging 104.9 points per game, they are doing so on just 44.1 percent shooting.

Injuries have played a major role in the Clippers struggles; additions Beverly, Gallinari and Teodosic have all missed or are currently missing time with injury. But it’s discouraging to see that Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan are unable to elevate the Clippers outside of the Western Conference basement.

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NBA AM: Paul Millsap’s Injury Derails Denver

With Paul Millsap injured, the Nuggets hopes to become a contender take a hit.

Lang Greene

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After missing the playoffs for the past four seasons, the Denver Nuggets are a team on the rise. The team won 30 games in 2015, 33 in 2016, 40 in 2017 and are currently on pace to record 48 victories this season, which would be their most since 2013.

The squad features six players averaging more than 10 points per contest, not including two veterans in Kenneth Faried and Wilson Chandler, both of whom are career double-digit scorers. The Nuggets also boast one of the youngest teams in the league with only three players over the age of 30 (Paul Millsap, Chandler and Richard Jefferson).

But the team was dealt a huge blow this week when it was learned that four-time All-Star forward Paul Millsap will be out the next three to four months after suffering a torn ligament in his wrist.

Millsap was extremely durable during his first 11 seasons in the league, missing 10 games just once (2017). This injury marks the first time in Millsap’s career where he will miss significant time while roaming the sideline in designer suits.

Millsap signed a three-year, $90 million deal this past summer and his acquisition was viewed as the next step in bringing the team back into the realm of the playoffs.

After an early season adjustment period, Denver (10-7) has rattled off seven victories in their last 10 games. For the team, Millsap’s injury news couldn’t have come at a worst time.  The veteran was averaging 15.3 points and 6.2 rebounds through 16 contests. The points are his lowest since 2013 and the rebounding output is his lowest since 2010, but Millsap’s presence has helped stabilize the young Nuggets on the offensive and defensive ends of the floor.

The Nuggets do have a plethora of power forwards on the depth chart. Veteran Kenneth Faried has started 366 contests for the franchise since being drafted in 2011. Faried’s future with the franchise has come into question in recent years as his playing time and role in the rotation has consistently diminished. The signing of Millsap likely solidified that fate, however, by not dealing Faried, the Nuggets were able to keep an insurance policy in the fold.

Third-year forward and former lottery pick Trey Lyles is another candidate for an increased workload. Lyles is currently averaging 6.8 minutes in 12 appearances but is shooting a career high from the field (52 percent) and three-point range (42 percent) in his limited court time. Another like candidate for more playing time is second-year big man Juan Hernangomez, who has currently appeared in just six contests.

Offensively, the Nuggets will be able to absorb his loss. Guards Gary Harris and Jamal Murray score the ball efficiently while swingman Will Barton provides pop off the bench. The team will also likely ride the back of their franchise player Nikola Jokic a bit more as well, with the big man averaging just 11.6 shot attempts per game—third on the team.

Perhaps the biggest area the Nuggets will have to adjust is on the defensive end.

According to ESPN’s real defensive plus-minus (DPM), Millsap ranks 31st overall in the league (1.62). He ranks seventh among power forwards with at least 10 games played this season. Last season, Millsap was fifth among power forward and 14th overall in DPM.

The veteran’s track of improving a team’s prowess on the defensive end is proven and it’s exactly the type of “silent” attribute the Nuggets needed on a loaded young team still learning how to play on that side of the ball.

                              Paul Millsap – Real Defensive Plus-Minus
Season DPM League Overall Rank Power Forward Rank
2013-14 2.06                 63                   12
2014-15 2.22                 43                    8
2015-16 3.26                 12                    2
2016-17 3.35                 14                   5
2017-18 1..62                 31                  9

 

The Nuggets will be tested immediately without Millsap in the fold. The team travels to Houston (November 22) and will play nine of their next 13 games are on the road. This includes a six-game road trip from December 4 to December 13.

The team is currently 7-2 at home and just 3-5 away from the Pepsi center.

They will, for sure, be tested without Millsap.

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