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Milwaukee Bucks 2017-18 Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the Milwaukee Bucks, who feature tantalizing talent and could be a threat in the Eastern Conference.

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For a team that did not make any major offseason splashes, (their only new summer addition is rookie D.J. Wilson), the Milwaukee Bucks are counting on internal development to help them build on what was a highly successful 2016-2017 season. Giannis Antetokounmpo has blossomed into a legitimate franchise superstar, and he isn’t anywhere close to being a finished product. The Bucks front office also hit big in last summer’s draft with Thon Maker and Malcolm Brogdon, both of whom became starters by the season’s end and played crucial roles in the Bucks’ first round playoff series against the Toronto Raptors.

The Bucks surprised many and put quite a scare into the Raptors in the playoffs. They even led the series, 2-1, at one point. Simply making the playoffs was the goal last season. Now that they’ve gotten a taste of what the postseason feels like, they’ll have to take that next step of winning a round and making an extended playoff run.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

A time is coming when Giannis Antetokounmpo is in the MVP conversation every single year — likely starting this season. Players that good are enough to make a team competitive regardless of who else is on the roster, but Antetokounmpo’s supporting cast is far from mediocre. Malcolm Brogdon was last season’s Rookie of the Year, Khris Middleton is still among the league’s most underrated scorers, Thon Maker’s rookie season exceeded expectations and Jabari Parker is a former No. 2 overall pick that, when healthy, is yet another scorer to fear. The youth on this team is getting older, which is why it feels like the Bucks will make a jump. The rest of the Central is falling apart, so if nothing else Milwaukee has a great chance to be opportunistic.

2nd Place – Central Division

Joel Brigham

Few teams have as much tantalizing talent as the Milwaukee Bucks. However, each season the Bucks seem to fall at least a bit below everyone’s collective expectations. Some of this has been a result of injuries. Some of it has been a result of shaky coaching and poor chemistry. However, this young team now has the collective experience and the overall talent to really distinguish itself in the weak Eastern Conference. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the engine that drives this team, but Milwaukee will need a healthy Jabari Parker to have any hope of keeping pace with the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers. Parker hasn’t always produced a winning brand of basketball for Milwaukee, but his talent is considerable.

2nd Place – Central Division

Jesse Blancarte

Another season of the Greek Freak’s continued takeover of the NBA is coming in hot.

After proving last season that he has the ability to become a superstar of epic proportions, Giannis Antetokounmpo looks poised to carry the Bucks into the next phase of his superstar ascension.

With Paul George and Jimmy Butler both leaving Milwaukee’s division, the Bucks will have an easier path this year than they did last year, which still saw them finish second in the Central division anyway.

Antetokounmpo plus another year of improvement from Malcolm Brogdon and Thon Maker, plus the eventual return of Jabari Parker, and a healthy Khris Middleton should give the near 7-foot jack-of-all-trades plenty of weapons to help propel his team past a first round playoff exit this season.

2nd place – Central division

— Moke Hamilton

We all look for sleepers every year, and the Bucks might be the best possible candidate for this role. While much of the talk out East surrounds the Cavs and Celtics, with token mention given to the Wizards and Raptors as conference mainstays, the folks in Milwaukee are quietly biding their time. They’ll bring back Giannis Antetokounmpo, a trendy dark horse pick for MVP in some circles, and should be looking forward to a fully healthy year from Khris Middleton. Rookie of the Year winner Malcolm Brogdon will reprise his role as a caretaker with strong defensive chops, and whatever positive growth the Bucks get out of Thon Maker will be a cherry on top. If they can keep everyone healthy, watch for this group to make some noise and surprise a few people in the East.

2nd place – Central Division

Ben Dowsett

Another season of the Greek Freak’s continued takeover of the NBA is coming in hot.

After proving last season that he has the ability to become a superstar of epic proportions, Giannis Antetokounmpo looks poised to carry the Bucks into the next phase of his superstar ascension.

With Paul George and Jimmy Butler both leaving Milwaukee’s division, the Bucks will have an easier path this year than they did last year, which still saw them finish second in the Central division anyway.

Antetokounmpo plus another year of improvement from Malcolm Brogdon and Thon Maker, plus the eventual return of Jabari Parker, and a healthy Khris Middleton should give the near 7-foot jack-of-all-trades plenty of weapons to help propel his team past a first round playoff exit this season.

2nd place — Central division

Dennis Chambers

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Giannis Antetokounmpo

Last season was Antetokounmpo’s breakout year. Dubbed ‘The Greek Freak,’ he posted career-highs in every major statistical category including points (22.9), rebounds (8.8), assists (5.4), steals (1.6), and blocks (1.9). What was more impressive was that he also was the Bucks leader in these particular areas. He also shot a career-best 52.1 percent from the field. He can get to the rim at will and his length and athleticism allow him to seemingly finish in traffic over anybody. He’s a capable ball handler who had major success while playing a point forward role last season.

There are still aspects of his offensive game he could stand to work on, however. He’s an improving shooter, but his outside shot is still not as consistent as it should be. For a forward in today’s NBA, a consistent perimeter jumper is a must as is range out to three-point territory. He shot only 27.2 percent from behind the arc. The Raptors defense had some success against him when they collapsed and took away his drives to the rim and forced him into becoming a jump shooter. He’s still only 22-years-old though. He has plenty of time to become a complete package offensively.

Top Defensive Player: Thon Maker

When the Bucks selected Maker with the 10th overall pick in the 2016 draft, the move was widely regarded as a major reach. With one year passed since then, it’s become evident why the Bucks were so high on him. Jason Kidd trusted the rookie with the starting center spot over the more talented and higher paid Greg Monroe, and by the time the Bucks were eliminated in the playoffs, it was obvious why.

Maker’s interior defense was a major reason why the Bucks put such a scare into the Raptors. Whether it was challenging the Raptors drives to the rim or recovering on a switch and contesting a jump shot, Maker’s defense had the Raptors second guessing themselves at times. He has the skills and abilities to become an elite interior defender. He has good quickness for a big man allowing him to keep up with guards on drives to the basket and being able to recover fast enough on open shooters. With Maker anchoring the inside, the Bucks should have an elite defensive team for years to come.

Top Playmaker: Malcolm Brogdon

Perhaps one of the biggest surprises of the season, as a second round pick, Brogdon wasn’t expected to contribute much, if at all. He ended up starting at one of the most important positions on the floor and won the Rookie of the Year award. As the floor general, Brogdon did a solid job throughout the season keeping the offense flowing and getting other players involved. It helped that he spent a full four years in college and was much more developed and ready to contribute than most young rookies. His 4.2 assists per game were good enough for third on the team behind Antetokounmpo (5.4) and Matthew Dellavedova (4.7).

During the playoffs, his assist numbers (3.5) dropped as bit as the Raptors defense began to force him into looking for his shot rather than moving the ball around. For the most part, though, he kept up his steady play and overall playmaking duties. As he heads into his second season, he’ll be asked to do more of the same. He’ll need to continue to move the ball around and not let it stagnate which happened at times in the playoffs and to keep other guys involved in the offense while taking his shot as he sees fit. With one of the best point guards in NBA history in Jason Kidd, guiding him as the coach, he should do just fine.

Top Clutch Player: Giannis Antetokounmpo

Already the best offensive player on the team, Anteotokounmpo is also the player you want the ball in the hands of during crunch time. His length just allows him to get his shot off over anyone as well as attack the rim and finish over anyone. He has such great body control that when attacking the rim, he’s able to hold on and finish with contact.

Against the Raptors in the playoffs, it was Antetokounmpo who sparked a Bucks run in the fourth quarter of Game 1 that turned an otherwise close game into a blowout win Milwaukee. In Game 2, it was also Antetokounmpo that led a furious fourth quarter rally to whittle away the Raptor’s double digit lead to the point where the Bucks had a chance to go up 2-0. As he continues to improve, so will his decision making in the clutch, and he’ll take his place among the elite with the game on the line.

The Unheralded Player: Matthew Dellavedova

Before the start of last season, the Bucks traded Michael Carter-Williams to the Chicago Bulls. They had already signed Dellavedova in the offseason and with Brogdon being the only other point guard on the roster, it was assumed that Dellavedova would be the starter. He did start off and on throughout the season, but Kidd eventually gave the reins to Brogdon and kept Dellavedova with the second unit.

Coming over from the Cleveland Cavaliers, fresh off of winning a championship, Dellavedova provided some much needed veteran leadership to the young Bucks. He was second on the team in assists with 4.7 per game, and he shot a decent 36.7 percent from three-point range. During the playoffs, when Brogdon struggled at times, he gave the team a steady veteran hand off the bench. His pesky defense frustrated the Raptors at times, and he made the most of his open looks upping his three-point percentage to 37.5 percent. This upcoming season, he’ll reprise his role as a veteran leader off the bench. A lot of the little things he does like taking charges and hounding his opponent defensively, don’t show up on the stat sheet, but they sure do make a difference on a team with big playoff aspirations.

Best New Addition: Jabari Parker

So Parker really isn’t a new addition so to speak, he’s been on the team since 2014, but he missed the second half of the season and the playoffs due to an ACL tear. He’s supposed to miss the start of this upcoming season and be out of game action until at least February. The Bucks didn’t make any offseason moves except for re-signing their own free agent (Tony Snell) and drafting D.J. Wilson. Thus, Parker could classify as a ‘new addition.’ Parker tore the same ACL his rookie year, but seemingly looked recovered the following season. He was well on his way to becoming a top scoring threat and a good compliment alongside Antetokounmpo.

Provided that Parker is able to make a similar recovery this season, his return to the lineup will be a most welcome addition. He gives the Bucks another offensive threat who can score in a variety of ways. He also gives them another option in small ball lineups as he’s able to shift to power forward at times. He will make them that much more dangerous come playoff time as he gives the opposing team’s defense yet another scorer to have to game plan for. It’s all a big if, however, as the list of players to make such a recovery is pretty much non-existent. But if he can do it, watch out for the Bucks come playoff time.

-David Yapkowitz

WHO WE LIKE

1. Khris Middleton

Possibly one of the most overlooked players in the NBA, Middleton has quietly risen to become one of the top wing scorers in the league. He’s a knockdown outside shooter, he shot a career-high 43.3 percent from the three-point line this past season. He also moves incredibly well off the ball, constantly freeing himself for open jumpers by coming off multiple screens. Should Parker not be able to make a full recovery from his injuries, Middleton stands to be a great compliment to Antetokounmpo. While not as freakishly athletic as the Greek Freak is, Middleton still has great length for a wing and is a big reason why the Bucks are a good defensive team. He’s really the ultimate 3 and D guy. The Raptors defense eventually started giving him fits when they took his open looks away, but in the beginning of the series, he was a big reason why the Bucks went up 2-1. If the Bucks do end up making some postseason noise, he’ll be a big reason why.

2. Greg Monroe

Two seasons ago, after being the prized acquisition of the Bucks in the summer of 2015, Monroe found himself yanked in and out of the starting lineup, hearing his name in trade rumors, and looked like a bust of a signing. A year later, all of that changed. Kidd introduced him to a sixth man role this past season and it made a huge difference. Monroe anchored the second unit, providing scoring and rebounding to a group that desperately needed it. He picked it up in the playoffs when the Raptors second unit was unable to handle him. His playoff numbers looked a lot more in line with his career averages from his Detroit days than they had at any time he’d been in a Bucks uniform. His numbers as the series went on evened out a little bit, but the fact remains that he proved himself to still be a formidable player that the Bucks need.

3. Tony Snell

Sometimes all a player needs is a change of scenery. That sure seemed to be the case for Snell. When the Bucks traded for him for Michael Carter-Williams, it was a minor move. Snell, however, ended being quite a major player for the Bucks. He was inserted into the starting lineup in Milwaukee right away and he responded well. He turned in his best season as a pro with career-highs in points (8.5), field goal percentage (45.5 percent), and three-point percentage (40.6 percent). For a team that already had a definitive 3&D guy in Middleton, Snell gave them yet another welcome addition in that regard. He took his game to another level in the playoffs averaging 10 points per game on 50 percent shooting from the field, and 51.6 percent from three-point range. He also provided the team with a versatile perimeter defender. The Bucks were able to keep him on a relatively fair contract, if a bit steep, but he became a big part of what the Bucks do on both the offensive and defensive end of the floor.

4. Rashad Vaughn

Entering his third year in the league, Vaughn has shown very little in terms of being a meaningful impact player. This may be the year that he finally gets his opportunity. With Parker still sidelined for a good chunk of the first half of the season, and both Snell and Middleton in the starting lineup, backup wing minutes appear to be there for the taking for Vaughn. Last season, most of the backup shooting guard minutes went to Jason Terry. Terry still remains unsigned and the Bucks still have one open roster spot left. But if nothing should materialize, this is Vaughn’s chance to prove he belongs in the NBA. He had a very strong summer league during which he displayed an ability to score by attacking the basket and by knocking down outside shots. Of course, summer league is not much of an indication of how a player may perform during the regular season, but it was a welcome sign nonetheless. He has all the tools to be yet another wing defender who can shoot the three ball, and the Bucks are going to need some perimeter scoring from their bench.

-David Yapkowitz

SALARY CAP 101

The Bucks are well over the NBA’s $99.1 million salary cap, escaping luxury tax by stretching out the salary of Spencer Hawes over the next three seasons. Milwaukee still has most of their Mid-Level Exception ($7.6 million) and all of their Bi-Annual Exception ($3.3 million) but they may be unlikely to spend over the league’s $119.3 million tax threshold.

Bigger decisions loom, specifically on Jabari Parker, who is eligible for an extension before the start of the season. The Bucks also need to decide on 2018-19 options for Thon Maker and Rashad Vaughn prior to November. Next season, Milwaukee does not project to be below the NBA’s salary cap.

-Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

The Bucks were a very tough defensive team last season. That should continue this year. They have so many solid perimeter defenders with length that it can be a nightmare trying to score on them, just ask the Raptors. Antetokounmpo, Middleton, and Snell are all above average to elite defensive players who can guard multiple positions. Brogdon is also a tough defender who can slide over and guard shooting guards if need be. Round out that lineup with Maker who is an emerging interior defensive force, and they appear capable of locking down nearly anyone. It’s not only imperative that teams be able to score, especially from beyond the arc, in order to have success, but they need to play defense as well. The Bucks are able to do just that.

-David Yapkowitz

WEAKNESSES

The Bucks bench looks a little bit thin as the start of the season approaches. Part of what got them in trouble against the Raptors in the playoffs was erratic bench play. The starters would be hanging tough with Toronto, and then the bench came in and often gave the lead away or got down bigger. Monroe was the only real consistent guy off the bench. Dellavedova was hot and cold. Same with Michael Beasley. Mirza Teletovic rarely gave them anything. John Henson has been glued to the bench seemingly forever. Monroe will do his part to anchor the second unit this upcoming season, but he’s going to need some help. Terry provided a little of that, but he’s remains unsigned. Obviously when Parker returns this will be alleviated somewhat as somebody in the starting lineup will likely move to the bench and help bolster it. But that’s going to be a little ways off and the Bucks will need some production in the interim. Much will depend on if Vaughn is truly ready to contribute. If not, the starters are going to find themselves playing a lot of minutes.

-David Yapkowitz

THE BURNING QUESTION:

Can the Bucks take the leap into becoming one of the elite teams in the NBA?

Simply making the playoffs was the Bucks goal last season. They got a taste of it and even managed to put a little scare into the higher seeded Raptors. With a blossoming franchise superstar in Antetokounmpo and some solid role players around him, the goal should be a little higher. Now it’s time to win a round and see how deep in the playoffs this team can go. They have all the tools to be an elite defensive team, and their starting lineup has enough firepower to score with anyone in the Eastern Conference. Overall, the Bucks have the best chance out of anyone to truly competing with, and eventually challenging Cleveland. Not Boston, not Toronto, not Washington, but Milwaukee. Antetokounmpo still has several levels he can reach, and he was recently issued a challenge over Twitter by Kobe Bryant to win the MVP Award. Building off of last season’s playoff run, the Bucks will finish with a top 4 seed in the East and home court advantage in the first round. They will beat their first round opponent, and they will put a scare into whoever they face in the second round.

-David Yapkowitz

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NBA

NBA PM: Oklahoma City Thunder 2017-18 Season Preview

The Thunder were very good a season ago, could they be even better this season? We explore the Thunder in this season preview.

Basketball Insiders

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The Oklahoma City Thunder were dealt a crippling blow last year when Kevin Durant took his talents to the Bay Area. Considering where the franchise was around this time last year, the historic season Russell Westbrook put together and the strong moves the front office made this season, Thunder fans have plenty of reason to be cautiously optimistic about the team’s prospects both for this upcoming season and beyond.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

So, Oklahoma City having just one top-10 player in the league didn’t last long, as the Thunder acquired Paul George from the Indiana Pacers to pair with the league’s MVP, Russell Westbrook.

With Westbrook set to hit free agency next summer, general manager Sam Presti is pulling out all of the stops to try and ensure another homegrown superstar doesn’t fly the coop for greener pastures. However, despite the addition of George, the Thunder still lack the depth to truly compete with the big dogs of the Western Conference. One step further, OKC may not even have enough firepower to be the best team in their division. The boys in Minnesota will have plenty to say in that regard.

2nd place – Northwest Division

– Dennis Chambers

The Thunder’s consolation prize for losing Kevin Durant a year ago was apparently an MVP campaign for Russell Westbrook and the one-year rental of Paul George, acquired over the summer for a middling former lottery pick and an overpaid wing. George makes the team immediately better, but the Thunder have the misfortune of playing in the most competitive division in the NBA. I don’t see a whole lot of distance between any of the five teams in the Northwest this year, but I do have a feeling OKC will eke out the top spot by the time everything wraps up. This really is a good team, if not quite a contender.

1st Place – Northwest Division

– Joel Brigham

Much of the attention when it comes to the potential for topping the world champion Warriors out West has gone to the Rockets this offseason, and rightfully so. But don’t overlook the Thunder, a team that, at least conceptually, might match up a little more organically with the Dubs. In Paul George they now have one of the few bodies on earth who can hope to credibly match up with Kevin Durant for a full game or series, and also a guy who can relieve some of the offensive burden on Russell Westbrook. Guys like George, Andre Roberson, Alex Abrines and even Jerami Grant can do a reasonable amount of switching on the perimeter, an absolute necessity against a beast like the Warriors. Whether they have enough firepower to make this matchup sneakily more entertaining than we’d assume remains to be seen, and a lot has to go right fit-wise. But if there’s any group that can give the Warriors trouble (and we aren’t sure if there actually is), don’t sleep on the Thunder.

1st Place – Northwest Division

– Ben Dowsett

The Oklahoma City Thunder had the best overall offseason of any NBA team. The Thunder fleeced the Indiana Pacers in trading Victor Oladipo and Damontas Sabonis in exchange for Paul George. George could walk away for nothing in return after this season but the deal was such an absolute steal that it was still a no-brainer for Sam Presti. The Thunder shed long term salary in the deal, bolster their prospects for the upcoming season, give Russell Westbrook a legitimate star to play next to, and, even George walks away, the Thunder are in a solid position to move on and rebuild (depending on what Westbrook opts to do). The Thunder also re-signed Andre Roberson and signed Patrick Patterson on a team-friendly deal – an underrated move that could have a bigger impact for Oklahoma City than most people realize. In short, the Thunder took care of their short term and long term interests this offseason and are now one of the most capable teams of matching up with the Golden State Warriors.

1st Place – Northwest Division

– Jesse Blancarte

The thing I love about the Thunder more than anything else is the fact that Russell Westbrook is entering what will likely be the final year of his contract and that the Thunder have tendered him a $200 million extension that he hasn’t signed. As the league’s reigning Most Valuable Player, it’s amazing that this hasn’t become a much bigger storyline, especially with Russell’s hometown Los Angeles Lakers armed with some major cap space next summer.

Anyhow, focusing on the here and now, the Thunder have gotten much stronger this offseason. They lost one of my favorite players in Taj Gibson but brought in Paul George and some much-needed backcourt help in Raymond Felton. They walked away from the draft with the highly-regarded Terrance Ferguson and re-signed the impactful Andre Roberson. All things considered, they enter this season as a much stronger team than they were last year, at least on paper. What I’ll be looking for more than anything else is whether and to what extent Westbrook and George’s status as pending free agents impacts the team. Aside from that, though, based on what Sam Presti has done with the roster this past offseason, there’s no reason to think that the Thunder won’t pick up where they left off and that they’ll be competing for the Northwest Division crown again.

Winning it, though, certainly won’t be a walk in the park. It’s the toughest division in the league this year.

1st place – Northwest Division

– Moke Hamilton

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Paul George

Paul George is one of the most complete offensive talents in the NBA. He can run his team’s offense as a point forward, score in isolation, knock down three-pointers and score from just about any area on the floor. Russell Westbrook could also be slotted in as the team’s top offensive player but George is more of a natural scorer and doesn’t need to dominate the ball quite as much as Westbrook to be an elite offensive contributor. How George and Westbrook share the ball and play off of one another is going to be one of the more interesting dynamics to follow and monitor this upcoming season.

Top Defensive Player: Andre Roberson

There are a lot top-tier defenders on the Thunder’s roster, but we give the nod here to Roberson. He may not be at the level of Kawhi Leonard or Draymond Green but he isn’t that far off either, which says a lot. There are other lock down wing defenders in the league, but few can match the consistent impact of Roberson. For an excellent breakdown of Roberson’s defensive skills, check out this article by Basketball Insiders’ Ben Dowsett.

Top Playmaker: Russell Westbrook

Westbrook doesn’t rack up assists the way more traditional point guards like Chris Paul does or the way Steve Nash used to. However, this isn’t a criticism of Westbrook. Westbrook is an athletic freak who attacks his opponents relentlessly off the dribble, which forces teams to switch, send help and leave his teammates open. Few players can generate gravity like Westbrook, which comes about as a result of his high octane, relentless style of play. Westbrook, arguably, doesn’t have the elite vision or passing abilities that some of the best lead guards in the NBA have or had, but he averaged 10.2 assists last season for a reason. Paul George is likely to take on some of Westbrook’s playmaking responsibilities this upcoming season, so don’t be surprised if Westbrook’s assists numbers fall off a little bit.

Top Clutch Player: Russell Westbrook

Some may be tempted to think George should get the nod here, but this isn’t even close. Westbrook had one of the most clutch seasons in NBA history last season and singlehandedly willed the Thunder to several wins in late-game situations. Westbrook was truly incredible as he went on several scoring outbursts late in fourth quarters with his team down by what seemed to be insurmountable deficits. Every opponent knew Westbrook was going to have the ball in his hands and was the person who was going to take the game-winning attempt and they still couldn’t stop him. Westbrook was an unstoppable force in clutch situations last season and earns the top clutch player designation here.

The Unheralded Player: Patrick Patterson

How did the rest of the NBA miss out on signing Patrick Patterson to a competitive contract? The Thunder managed to sign Patterson to a three-year, $16.4 million contract this offseason, which is a great deal for Oklahoma City. Patterson’s per-game statistics won’t blow anyone away, but he is a 27-year-old power forward that shot over 37 percent from three last season, can defend multiple positions and was almost always a positive contributor for the Toronto Raptors last season. For less than $6 million a season, the Thunder addressed their starting power forward position (which was one of their biggest holes last season) and bolster their defensive personnel. No team can truly stop the Golden State Warriors, but the Thunder have a handful of versatile defenders, including Patterson, that are necessary to have a shot of even slowing the Warriors down. So we ask again – how did the rest of the league let Patterson slip to the Thunder on such a team-friendly deal?

Top New Addition: Paul George

Yes, Paul George can walk away at the end of this season. It’s a real concern for the Thunder. However, the deal to acquire George was so lopsided that there was no downside in acquiring the star forward. The Thunder shed long term salary and get a shot to pair George up with Westbrook. Ideally, the pairing will be so effective that both George and Westbrook decide to commit to playing in Oklahoma City together long term. However, even if that doesn’t happen, the Thunder still have the young talent and financial flexibility to retool or rebuild on the fly.

– Jesse Blancarte

WHO WE LIKE

1. Sam Presti

Sam Presti, to some extent, will always be haunted by the deal that sent James Harden to the Houston Rockets. Presti has also made some other deals over the years that didn’t exactly work out. Nevertheless, Presti seemingly had little to work with this summer and yet ended up with Paul George without giving up draft picks, unloaded the bloated contract of Victor Oladipo, re-signed Roberson to a reasonable contract, signed Patterson to a team-friendly deal and overall had the best offseason of any general manager. If there were any doubts as to Presti’s abilities as a front office executive, they were put to rest this offseason.

2. Russell Westbrook

He’s coming off a historic MVP season and seems primed for another epic year. The only concerns with Westbrook are whether he will gel with George and whether he will ultimately commit to the Thunder long term.

3. Paul George

As previously mentioned, George is a complete offensive talent. Additionally, he is one of the better perimeter defenders in the league and one of the few players that has any shot of matching up with Kevin Durant defensively. I for one am hoping to see the Thunder face the Warriors in the postseason to see how well George can matchup with Durant over a seven game series and to see how well the Thunder’s stingy defense can slow down the Warriors’ offensive attack.

4. Steven Adams

It goes unnoticed, but Steven Adams put together a career-year last season. Adams has developed into a top-level defensive center and does all of the little things to make it possible for players like Westbrook to focus on scoring and filling up the box score. Whether it’s hauling in offensive rebounds, setting hard screens, finishing a lob or anchoring the team’s defense, Adams does everything he can to help his team win.

5. Patrick Patterson

As previously discussed, Patterson comes to the Thunder on a team-friendly deal and is likely to fill a role the Thunder desperately needed to address. From the power forward position, Patterson can play off the ball, stretch the floor and move the ball within the team’s offense when he’s not open for a shot. Defensively, Patterson has the strength to guard bigger players in the post and the mobility to switch onto wing players when necessary. That sort of skill set usually garners a hefty contract in free agency. Fortunately for the Thunder, they nabbed him on a favorable deal.

– Jesse Blancarte

SALARY CAP 101

The Thunder reportedly have a $207.1 million extension on the table to Russell Westbrook but the MVP has yet to sign it. If he waits until next summer, opting out of his final year at $30.7 million, he’ll be eligible to sign a new contract for the exact same figure. The benefit of inking now is locking in long-term security but then he won’t know if Paul George, who can opt out of his $20.7 million for 2018-19 is going to re-up. If only one stays, Oklahoma City won’t have the cap room to add in a replacement star.

If both do leave in free agency, along with Enes Kanter, who can opt out of his final year $18.6 million, the Thunder can get to roughly $42.8 million in cap space. The team can also give Doug McDermott to an extension before the start of the 2017-18 season. Oklahoma City also has to decide (before November) on Josh Huestis’ option for 2018-19. In the meantime, the Thunder are over the luxury tax threshold ($119.3 million) by at least $6 million for a bill of about $10.5 million.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

The Thunder’s defense should be top-notch this season. The lineup of Westbrook, Roberson, George, Patterson and Adams should make life miserable for opposing offenses. This lineup has the collective skill, size, mobility and experience to take on the league’s best offenses – perhaps even the Warriors. The Thunder’s offense may falter at times, but the defense should be a constant asset for Oklahoma City.

– Jesse Blancarte

WEAKNESSES

The Thunder don’t have many weaknesses, but one concern is how Westbrook will adapt to life with Paul George. Westbrook maintained an absurdly high usage rate last season and his teammates even seemed to facilitate his run for the triple-double record. George similarly needs the ball in his hands to maximize his skill set and likely won’t be interested in helping Westbrook break records. Finding a proper balance and adapting the team’s offense to be more inclusive is of tantamount importance. There will be times where Westbrook feels the need to take matters into his own hands. It might become a problem if he feels inclined to do so too often and at the expense of George and his other teammates.

– Jesse Blancarte

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can Paul George and Russell Westbrook convince one another to partner up long term in Oklahoma City?

Both Westbrook and George have the ability to take their talents elsewhere after this season. If the duo quickly develops chemistry and finds a recipe for competing with the Warriors, they may be convinced to stay put and team up for the long term. However, if it becomes clear that the two cannot coexist and that they each have better opportunities elsewhere, the Thunder will be left without their two star players and will have to quickly restructure on the fly. With Sam Presti in charge, Thunder fans should take solace in the knowledge that he and his staff are likely fully prepared for that worst case scenario. Still, Thunder fans will be on edge all season wondering what will ultimately happen with the team’s two best players.

– Jesse Blancarte

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NBA

Washington Wizards 2017-18 Season Preview

The Washington Wizards have invested big into their young core. Could they be serious contenders this year? We take a look in this season preview.

Basketball Insiders

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The Washington Wizards needed to win a game on the road to overcome the Boston Celtics’ home court advantage in the second round of the playoffs. Less than two quarters into the series, Wizards starting power forward Markieff Morris suffered a sprained ankle. He was limited to 11 minutes in Game 1 but played through the injury in Game 2, only to see Isaiah Thomas drop 53 points and the Celtics prevail in overtime in what was the Wizards’ best chance to steal a game on the road. Boston would ultimately prevail 4-3 with the home team winning every game of the series. With John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter all signed long-term, the Wizards are now committed to one of the NBA’s best starting lineups with little financial flexibility to address a lack of quality depth. Now Washington must look to internal improvement, better luck with injuries and personnel moves on the margins to improve on a season in which the Wizards were one road victory away from reaching the Eastern Conference Finals.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

This is the year that John Wall asserts himself as a perennial league MVP candidate — or at least the year the rest of the league stops pretending that he isn’t.

As the driving force behind the Washington Wizards’ attack, Wall is another year further into his prime and looks poised to fully utilize the weapons he has around him in D.C. After last season’s breakout year (finally) for Wall’s backcourt partner, Bradley Beal, the one-two punch in Washington is plenty capable of hanging around with the likes of Boston and Cleveland.

With a weaker back half of the Eastern Conference set to provide a few more easy wins for the Wizards, Wall and Co. look to have the makings of a 50-win team this season.

1st place — Southeast Division

– Dennis Chambers

I am a big believer in John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter, Jr. and a few other players on the Washington Wizards, but I’m not convinced this team has the collective talent to scare the Cleveland Cavaliers or Boston Celtics this upcoming season. Wall and Beal make up one of the best backcourt duos in the league, but if either player is off their respective games or struggling with injuries, Washington simply cannot keep up with the Celtics or Cavaliers. If players like Porter or Kelly Oubre Jr can take a significant step forward in their development, that could change the dynamic in the Eastern Conference a bit. Outside of that scenario or a lopsided deal that bolsters Washington’s roster, I just don’t see Washington having much of a shot at taking Cleveland or Boston down in the postseason.

1st Place — Southeast Division

– Jesse Blancarte

Last season, the Wizards showed tremendous growth. They were still haunted by inconsistency and growing pains, but John Wall and Otto Porter, Jr. each grew quite a bit. The best part of all was that Bradley Beal managed to play in 77 games, a career-high.

I thought that the acquisition of Bojan Bogdanovic from the Nets was quite shrewd and underrated. In 26 games, he gave the Wizards about 13 points off the bench and shot 39 percent from distance. After matching Brooklyn’s offer sheet to Otto Porter, though, the Wizards rescinded his qualifying offer, which cleared the way for him to sign with the Pacers on a two-year, $21 million deal. In the long run, his departure could hurt the club. If the Wizards stay healthy this season, though, their continuity should allow them to easily win the division again. Last season, the Hawks finished second, but six games worse than the 49-win Wizards. Both the HEAT and Hornets are improved, but I don’t think they’ll make up enough ground on Scotty Brook’s team to pose a real challenge.

Out East, this season, it’s supposed to be the Cavs, Celtics, Raptors and Wizards vying for supremacy as the top four seeds. So long as the Wizards stay healthy and continue to be the team we saw last season, they should be right there.

1st place — Southeast Division

– Moke Hamilton

John Wall is the best. He’s been talking about taking the “next step” in his postseason career every summer for the last half a decade, and one gets the sense that the Wizards are closer to that than they ever have been. With Cleveland potentially vulnerable in the wake of losing Kyrie Irving and Boston integrating a lot of new pieces, the Wizards have a great opportunity to jump out to the East’s best overall record, especially early in the season. Beal should have been an All-Star last year and probably will be this year, while new-max player Otto Porter is expected to make a jump, too. I’m a believer in this Washington team, which is to say I’m a believer in John Wall.

1st Place – Southeast Division

– Joel Brigham

All the talk in the East surrounds the Cavs and Celtics, and something tells me the boys in Washington are going to have something to say about that. Fresh off a playoff collapse against Boston that they likely feel should never have happened, the Wizards will be itching to show the league that this isn’t a two-team conference. John Wall and Bradley Beal are an All-Star backcourt, and swingman Otto Porter is entering a brand new massive contract extension. The bench still remains an area of concern, though improvements from guys like Kelly Oubre Jr. could stem that tide somewhat. Don’t be surprised if Washington makes some real noise to challenge for a conference final appearance if they can keep the primaries healthy.

1st Place – Southeast Division

– Ben Dowsett

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Bradley Beal

John Wall led the Wizards in scoring for the postseason at 27.2 points per game while shooting 21-for-61 (34.4 percent) from three. Beal struggled from three in the playoffs, shooting 29-for-101 (28.7 percent) and trailed Wall at 24.8 points per game. Beal was slightly better than Wall in overall shooting percentage, but most interestingly he was far more efficient as the ball handler in pick and rolls during the playoffs. In 70 possessions, the Wizards scored a spectacular 1.14 points per possession with Beal as the ball handler, which ranked in the 95th percentile. In 149 playoff pick and rolls initiated by Wall, the Wizards scored only .8 per possession, which ranked in the 44th percentile. With Beal struggling to hit from outside and Wall hitting at a respectable clip, the Wizards might have been better served to allow Beal to initiate more plays with Wall playing off-ball.

Top Defensive Player: Ian Mahinmi

In the summer of 2015, Washington used its opportunity to make a major commitment to a free agent to sign Ian Mahinmi to a four-year, $64 million contract. He promptly suffered a partially torn meniscus in the preseason and missed most of his first season as a Wizard. He then suffered a calf injury which limited his effectiveness in the playoffs. Earlier this summer, Mahinmi underwent what was described as a minor procedure on his left knee. With the Wizards set to pay the luxury tax, the team needs its major free agent signing to pay dividends in his second season.

To contend for an NBA championship, teams typically need to be ranked in the top 10 in both offense and defense. The Wizards finished the regular season ranked 20th in defensive efficiency. A healthy season from the rim-protecting Mahinmi could be the factor that helps Washington turn the corner defensively and take advantage of the roster flux in Boston and Cleveland to make a run to the conference finals — and perhaps beyond.

Top Playmaker: John Wall

Despite any struggles as a ball handler in the pick and roll, Wall is unquestionably the turbocharged engine that makes the Wizards go. Wall exerts major pressure on opposing defenses by pushing the ball in transition, leading to efficient opportunities at the basket and three-point line. The Wizards are the best transition team in the Eastern Conference, but the mediocre defense has limited the team’s transition opportunities. If the team can improve defensively in 2017-18, it will give Wall more chances to push opposing defenses to the breaking point. During the playoffs, Beal also acknowledged Wall as the team’s vocal leader and organizing force on the court.

Top Clutch Player: Marcin Gortat

It’s a tiny sample, but last season Marcin Gortat shot 21-for-29 (72.4 percent) on field goal attempts in clutch situations. Porter was second among Wizards with double-digit attempts at 53 percent on 32 attempts while Markieff Morris shot 49 percent on 49 clutch attempts. The lion’s share of shot attempts in clutch situations went to Beal — who shot 43.3 percent on 104 attempts — and Wall — who shot 41.2 percent on 119 possessions. Gortat told CSN at the conclusion of last season that he planned to speak with GM Ernie Grunfeld about his fit with the team after grousing about his limited role in the playoffs. Perhaps Gortat has a point. Given the far greater efficiency of the other starters in clutch situations, perhaps it’s time for Wall and Beal to share those responsibilities more evenly.

The Unheralded Player: Kelly Oubre Jr.

In 2011, the Wizards passed on future All-Stars Kemba Walker, Klay Thompson and Kawhi Leonard to draft Jan Vesely. Washington obviously wasn’t in the market to draft a point guard the summer after drafting Wall, but the point remains. One of the greatest factors standing between the Wizards and true contender status is the team’s past failures at talent evaluation. Currently, the team’s biggest hope for internal improvement from a former first-round pick is Kelly Oubre Jr. The Wizards need defense, and Oubre combines with Porter to give the team a pair of wings who can guard multiple positions.

Unfortunately, Oubre’s offensive development hasn’t gone as well as hoped. Part of the reason could be that, in February, the Wizards opted to sacrifice a first-round pick to obtain Bojan Bogdanovic, who was averaging a career-high 14.2 points for the Nets. Bogdanovic was another score-first, defensively-challenged player who was never going to factor in Washington achieving a top-10 defense. Additionally, he got in the way of Oubre’s development. Bogdanovic wasn’t a difference maker in the playoffs.

Had the Wizards committed those regular-season minutes to Oubre’s development, his offense might have come around by the playoffs and given the team another impact defender. Oubre shot just 28.7 percent from three during the regular season but upped his percentage to 36.7 in the playoffs in limited opportunities. Multiple Wizards observers have speculated about a small ball lineup for Washington featuring Morris at center, Porter as a stretch four and Oubre at small forward. Provided Oubre continues to hit threes at a league-average clip, that lineup could be a nightmare for opponents. Had the Wizards not traded for Bogdanovic, Oubre might be farther along and Washington would have had a first-round pick in this summer’s deep draft to address depth issues.

Best New Addition: Jodie Meeks

With few options to add talent due to cap restrictions, the Wizards made a low-risk, high-upside move by signing former Magic shooting guard Jodie Meeks to a two-year, $7 million free agent contract in July. Meeks is a 37.6 percent three-point shooter for his career and shot nearly 41 percent in 36 appearances last season for Orlando. The Hawks tried to go small to get past the Wizards in the first round, but Washington crushed Atlanta’s small-ball lineup. Meeks could give the Wizards another floor-stretching option to open driving lanes. However, like Wizards additions of the past, Meeks has a long injury history. He has appeared in only 99 games over the last three seasons.

– Buddy Grizzard

WHO WE LIKE

1. Otto Porter

Porter will be the Wizards’ highest-paid player the next two seasons after Washington matched a four-year, $106.5 million restricted free agent offer sheet from the Nets. It’s an overpay on the surface until you consider that Washington had no way to replace him if the team didn’t pay up. Through March 20 — when he was overtaken by Kyle Korver — Porter led all NBA players with at least 200 three-point attempts at 44.9 percent. He’s not the most explosive player, but he’s so efficient as a scorer that the Wizards must find ways to get him more involved in the offense.

2. Coach Scott Brooks

The Wizards are the closest the franchise has been to contending for a championship since Washington defeated the Seattle SuperSonics in seven games during the 1978 NBA Finals. Scott Brooks is a big part of that. In interviews, Brooks oozes confidence and competence. He’s modernized the team on both sides of the ball and helped get the most out of the Wizards during the John Wall era. He’s proven to be much more for Washington than Kevin Durant bait.

3. Owner Ted Leonsis

Speaking of Oubre’s importance to the Wizards, how can you not like an owner who shows up wearing this after his young player is suspended for a playoff game:

4. Markieff Morris

If he could defend without fouling (an unlikely proposition), Markieff Morris could be an All-Star. The Hawks lost in the first round because Mike Budenholzer went small. Based on individual stats, Paul Millsap outplayed Morris. Per on/off differentials, Washington was far better with Morris on court than Atlanta was with Millsap on court. For the playoffs, the Wizards were +10.1 points per 100 possessions with Morris on the court, easily a team-high. Unfortunately, due to foul trouble and injuries, Morris played only 372 postseason minutes compared to over 500 for Beal and Wall.

– Buddy Grizzard

SALARY CAP 101

The Wizards are heavily invested in their roster with $123.5 million in guaranteed salaries, easily above the NBA’s $119.3 million luxury tax threshold. Washington will pay at least $6.4 million in tax, more if they keep two of their four non/partially-guaranteed players (Sheldon Mac, Daniel Ochefu, Carrick Felix and/or Donald Sloan).

After re-signing Otto Porter to $106.5 million and giving John Wall $169.3 million in an extension (both over four years), the Wizards are heavily invested in their core with Bradley Beal. Before November, the team needs to decide on the 2018-19 options for Kelly Oubre and Chris McCullough. Regardless, the team is not projected to be under the cap next season – instead facing another luxury tax penalty.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

As mentioned, the Wizards are the best transition team in the East and boast one of the league’s best starting lineups. The three-pointer will continue to be a weapon for Washington. If Porter spends time as a stretch four, he will get pushed around by most power forwards but the Wizards will be trading three for two. Few NBA power forwards can chase Porter over screens and prevent him from launching from deep — Korver was his closest analogy for most of last season. Because the Wizards can stretch the floor and have one of the league’s best point guards at attacking the basket, Washington is a nightmare for opposing defenses. If not for injuries and Beal’s curious struggles from distance, Cleveland might have had its hands full in the conference finals against the Wizards.

– Buddy Grizzard

WEAKNESSES

Again, as mentioned, sub-optimal use of draft picks and injury woes have robbed the Wizards of the depth that is vital to a deep postseason run. And until the Wizards show enough pride on the defensive end to be something better than average, the team is unlikely to ascend to contender status. If this is the season when Morris limits his fouls, Mahinmi stays healthy and the Wizards become a top 10 defense — yes, that’s a lot of ifs — you’ll finally see peak John Wall unleashed in transition against terrified defenses.

– Buddy Grizzard

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can the Wizards use continuity to challenge the in-flux Celtics and Cavaliers in the East?

As much as the Wizards are handcuffed by the salary cap and dearth of developmental options, having the team’s core signed long term gives Washington continuity that’s not shared by its Eastern Conference rivals. The Celtics will miss Jae Crowder’s ability to guard an opposing team’s best player and Kyrie Irving has never accomplished anything without LeBron James. With Thomas set to miss extended time with a nagging hip injury, Cleveland has huge questions at point guard. And then there’s the matter of LeBron’s pending free agency next summer. If he heads West, as so many have speculated, Washington’s list of true rivals in the East becomes shorter. For all the question marks, the fact that Brooks has figured out how to make Wall and Beal complement each other and Washington has most of its key pieces signed long-term means the Wizards will be a force to be reckoned with — this season and in seasons to come.

– Buddy Grizzard

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NBA

NBA AM: Kyrie Irving Wants To Be His Own Star

Kyrie Irving says his decision to leave Cleveland is less about LeBron James and more about Kyrie Irving.

Steve Kyler

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Can You Blame Him?

Former Cavalier guard and current Boston Celtic Kyrie Irving has started to make his rounds on the PR circuit to not only set the record straight, but to try and clear the air before the 2017-18 season opens. During his appearance on ESPN’s First Take, he was asked directly about his motivations for wanting a trade from Cleveland.

“The request came at a time I deemed right for me,” Irving said. “As a 25-year-old evolving man, coming in to perfect my craft every single day, I just wanted to be in an environment where I felt I could be taught every single day and have that demand from my coaching staff and have that demand from a franchise that would propel me to exceed my potential and see how far I can go.”

As much as people have tried to make Irving’s exit from Cleveland about LeBron James, the story coming from Kyrie continues to be the same—he wanted to be the focal point, not just in the offense, but in how the team was coached and constructed.

Let’s be real for a minute: Irving is just 25 years old. He is not wise beyond his years, he is a young guy trying to make his mark in the NBA, and he’s doesn’t want to do so as the second option or the afterthought next to the Hall-of-Famer. Instead, Irving wants the chance at creating the opportunity for himself to be in the Hall-of-Fame discussion in his own right.

As much as people have blasted Irving for exiting a winning situation, the thing most don’t seem to want to accept is that Irving was also going to be the second concern in Cleveland. That’s a tough thing to expect from a young player. It’s easy to expect players to want to accept secondary roles or, worse yet, play from the bench, but when you consider how much blood, sweat and tears players put into their careers, can you blame Irving for wanting to see how far he can go on his own terms?

That’s what the exit from Cleveland was really about. Irving wanted to put himself in the environment to be the very best player he could be and give himself the best opportunity at long-term greatness.

Were there problems in Cleveland? Absolutely. You can’t look into that situation and think everything is perfect, because the evidence on the floor showed you that it wasn’t. That’s a tough thing to expect a player to accept.

“I was raised being in a professional environment,” Irving said about how long this was brewing. “Being in a workplace and making sure it’s conducive for everybody. So having those relationships and developing those every single day, and on top of that, still wanting to be as successful on the court and still trying to figure out myself off the court. I had to balance those two. When I was coming into that environment, there were times where my energy was a little off. I just had to figure that out. There were times when after games I would go out and shoot, and as any professional athlete or any person knows, when in your workplace and you have those tough days, there are questions that you ask yourself, ‘Is this the right thing for me right now?’ I answered that question for myself.”

As Irving has started to explain his motivations, it’s becoming increasingly clear that his desire to move was more about the environment he was in more than any interpersonal relationship. That’s not a surprising thing either. If you didn’t know, the Cavaliers are built around LeBron James. The offense is built around James, the defense is built around James, the pace of play is built around James. That’s great for James and it’s great for support players that benefit from James, but is that great for a 25-year old player trying to become his own superstar?

It’s not, and it’s a little naïve to think a player should accept that at this point in his career.

Irving may grow to regret leaving a sure-thing like the Cavs. He may find out the grass is not always greener on the other side. He may think he’s landed in a better environment than Cleveland, but that too can change. Just ask the Celtic players that were traded away before free agency decisions. Still, the one thing Irving can absolutely embrace is that he has bet on himself. He has taken the chance to be great on his own terms, and that’s what most players truly covet—especially the ones in Irving position.

As much as people have lambasted Irving for exiting a Finals team in its prime, Irving has put himself in a position to be his own guy. While that may seem short-sighted in the grand scheme of careers, ask yourself how you really view Scottie Pippen, Klay Thompson or Tony Parker. Being the guy next to the guy is pretty good way to become a footnote to a Hall-of-Fame career. You might win a lot of games and even make a lot of money, but when the book is finally written on your career, did you become what you set out to become when you started the journey? That’s the question Irving wants to answer on his own terms and if that means he fails, he will fail trying to be great, not just accepting the accolades of being the guy next to greatness.

It is easy to be dismissive or Irving’s desire for individual greatness, but can you really blame him for wanting to try? Isn’t that how the greatest of the greats got to their place in NBA history?

By blazing their own way?

Kyrie Irving wants to be his own star, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @MikeAScotto, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @TommyBeer, @MokeHamilton, @jblancartenba, @Ben_Dowsett, @CodyTaylorNBA, @SpinDavies, @BuddyGrizzard, @JamesB_NBA, @DennisChambers_ and @Ben__Nadeau.

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