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Milwaukee Bucks 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

The Milwaukee Bucks had a quality offseason and with the internal growth of their own players, they might be one of the best-kept secrets in the East. Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Milwaukee Bucks in this 2018-19 NBA Season Preview.

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With LeBron James departing Cleveland, the Central Division is up for grabs. Many are predicting Giannis Antetokounmpo will be the new face of the Eastern Conference.

Mike Budenholzer has moved from the south to the north to take on a head-coaching job fit for his type of style. He has arguably the most talented roster to guide since taking the Atlanta Hawks to new heights five years ago.

If any franchise can use stability to take the next step, it’s the Milwaukee Bucks. Budenholzer can provide that, which is exactly why the Bucks could be primed for a big season.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

I’ve been a fan of the Milwaukee Bucks’ core of young talent for several seasons but the team has repeatedly fallen short of my expectations. However, I am very excited to see what new head coach Mike Budenholzer can do with this roster. Budenholzer is well-regarded around the league and may be the person who can finally make this roster more than just the sum of its parts. If Budenholzer generates some early chemistry between his key players, the Bucks could be one of the surprise teams of the season. Other notable items of business include Jabari Parker signing with the Chicago Bulls, Milwaukee drafting Donte DiVincenzo 17th overall in this year’s draft, signing Ersan Ilyasova to a partially-guaranteed three-year, $21 million contract and signing Brook Lopez to a one-year, $3,382,000 contract. I’m not a fan of the deal for Ilyasova but I think getting Lopez on this contract is a steal.

2nd Place – Central Division

– Jesse Blancarte

One thing is clear in Milwaukee after the summer of 2018: This is a franchise that’s acutely aware of how much longer star Giannis Antetokounmpo is under contract, and is clearly doing everything it can to show him progress. That started with the hiring of Mike Budenholzer for the vacant head coaching position back in May – Budenholzer comes with a fantastic track record, and the Bucks will hope he can get more out of their talent than his predecessors. They also made significant franchise moves on the personnel side, such as parting ways with former second overall pick Jabari Parker and smartly bringing in stretch center Brook Lopez for a cheap contract. If Budenholzer can unlock the bits of potential left in guys like Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and the rest of the strong talent on this roster, this could be a dark horse team to end up in the conference finals and maybe even threaten to play in June. If not, and if the Bucks can’t show us anything more than last year, the Giannis panic will begin in earnest next summer.

1st Place – Central Division

– Ben Dowsett

Giannis Antetokounmpo has established himself as one of the league’s premier young superstars. It’s just a shame that his team hasn’t followed suit. The Bucks have been one of the league’s biggest underachievers since the Greek Freak rose to prominence, but that might not be the case moving forward. Now that the Bucks have added Coach Bud and floor-spacing bigs, the Bucks have given Giannis the best supporting cast he’s ever had. Whether he develops a reliable jumper or not, Giannis has arguably become the league’s most unstoppable force not named LeBron. Should the Bucks’ additions work out, they may finally get past the first round.

2nd Place – Central Division

– Matt John

Mike Budenholzer is going to be the best thing that happens to this Bucks ball club. The superstar talent is there. All it has needed is stability. Giannis Antetokounmpo has barely even scratched the surface. Khris Middleton is entering his prime as one of the top two-way wings in the NBA. Eric Bledsoe just needs to tap into that extra gear to achieve heights we know he is capable of achieving. It’s high time Milwaukee turns into a championship contender. One year with Coach Bud will instill a winning culture they’ve never experienced before, starting with taking the franchise’s first Central Division title since the 2000-01 season.

1st Place – Central Division

– Spencer Davies

All the talk in the East is about the Boston Celtics and the Toronto Raptors. However, remember the old adage that the team with the biggest star will often win the most games. How aren’t the Milwaukee Bucks the leader in this clubhouse? It’s easy to forget about Giannis Antetokounmpo, but if he makes that jump from borderline MVP to full-fledged MVP front-runner, he has the supporting cast and a head coach in Mike Budenholzer that could not only collectively turn the corner, the Bucks could be legit front-runners to win the East. Looking at how well he has developed over the years, believing that as a possibility isn’t a stretch, which makes Milwaukee a sleeper team to win the East.

1st Place – Central Division

– Steve Kyler

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Giannis Antetokounmpo

It shouldn’t come as a surprise, but you’re going to see Antetokounmpo’s name come up in this preview quite a bit. He’s made the All-NBA 2nd Team in back-to-back years. He’s earned All-Star team honors in the last two seasons. It might not be far off to say he may be the best player in the entire NBA in as soon as a year or two from now.

In 2017-18, the man they call Greek Freak accounted for 31.5 percent of the Bucks’ offense according to Cleaning The Glass. His 26.9 points per game average ranked fifth in the league and he made the fourth-most amount of field goals (742) amongst his peers. Antetokounmpo got to the free throw line over eight times per game and had a 59.8 true shooting percentage.

Chances are if you dole out any statistic on this end for Milwaukee, he is at the top of the list across the board. As Antetokounmpo enters his sixth season as a professional, it’s certain that the 23-year-old will continue to dominate and add to his arsenal, especially with the long-range jump shot. Combined with the fact that he’s added a ton of muscle and weight this summer—it’s not going to be fun for opponents to deal with him.

Top Defensive Player: Eric Bledsoe

All things considered, Antetokounmpo would probably be the selection here because of his dominant season as a disruptive individual defender and a shot blocker, but we’ll give somebody else the nod here.

Bledsoe is a physical player. He’s aggressive on the ball with his matchups. He’s not tall by any means for his position, but 205 pounds of pure muscle and long arms definitely make up for it. “Mini-LeBron” averaged two steals per game and showed off his chase-down block skills in multiple instances.

The Bucks’ opponent turnover percentage was 16.5 percent with Bledsoe on the floor. As specified by Cleaning The Glass, that figure is in the 91st percentile compared to the rest of the league. He’s a bothersome defender as it is, but with one season under his belt with a new squad, he’ll know how to play off his teammates even and hopefully will give a more sustained effort.

Top Playmaker: Giannis Antetokounmpo

Everything previously mentioned about Antetokounmpo as Milwaukee’s best player on offense didn’t even include statistics outside of scoring. What about his improving ability to share the basketball? He did average 4.8 assists per game and was responsible for 23.6 percent of his teammates’ made field goals in 2017-18, per CTG. If you don’t mention that, you almost have to bring up how he corralled 10 rebounds per game last season. That number is second to Anthony Davis among forwards in the NBA.

Whenever the Bucks need a guy to step up and make something happen on either end, Antetokounmpo is up to the task. If his year-to-year progression is any indication for what’s to come next, things should continue to trend upwards from here.

Top Clutch Player: Giannis Antetokounmpo

Who do you go to when the game is on the line? Your best player, of course. We saw this in action quite a bit last year. Perhaps his most impressive fourth-quarter performance came in the third game of the entire season.

Antetokounmpo scored 17 of his 44 points in the final period. With 19 seconds remaining and Milwaukee down by one, he poked the ball loose from C.J. McCollum, received a bounce pass in transition and slammed the go-ahead bucket. On the Blazers’ ensuing possession, Antetokounmpo was hanging just outside the paint before he saw Jusuf Nurkic receive a pass cutting to the lane. He went straight up and blocked Portland’s big man on a dunk attempt to seal the ball game. The Bradley Center was loud and Giannis showed emotion. It was a star-defining moment.

That is only one example of the kind of impact Greek Freak can have on a contest going down to the wire. In the 41 games he was involved in clutch situations, Antetokounmpo had a plus-11.2 net rating according to NBA.com. Only Victor Oladipo, Anthony Davis and Bojan Bogdanovic have a better net rating among those who have played in 40 or more games in the clutch.

The Unheralded Player: Malcolm Brogdon

Coming into last season as the reigning 2016 NBA Rookie of the Year, Brogdon had high expectations for season two of his career. Unfortunately, it didn’t go quite as planned for him. For starters, he was pulled in and out of the starting lineup. This went for both the regular season and the playoffs. It was partially because of the trade for Bledsoe, but the two played alongside each other often.

Secondly, the injury bug hit him hard. Brogdon missed over two months of action between February and mid-April due to a partially torn tendon in his left quadriceps. He was able to return in time for the postseason, but didn’t quite look like his usual self with the exception of two 16-point games.

Year three should be a perfect opportunity for him to get back on track. Brogdon offers the sort of size and length at guard that often creates mismatches. He can drive it, he can dish it and he can shoot it. That’s the hat trick for somebody who doesn’t need to force his role into an offense to produce. He lets the game come to him.

Best New Addition: Ersan Ilyasova

Ilyasova joining the Bucks organization is a reuniting on two levels. On one hand, Milwaukee drafted the 31-year-old forward back in 2005 and he played seven seasons for the team. In addition, Budenholzer coached the veteran forward during his short stint in Atlanta. It’s a sense of familiarity that will help him adapt with ease along with his new teammates.

Known for stretching the floor and rebounding the basketball, Ilyasova will likely play a key role with multiple sets of lineups. He can knock down the elbow three with the best of them and will provide second chances on the offensive glass. He is a great fit for a team that can use somebody who plays consistently on both ends.

– Spencer Davies

WHO WE LIKE

1. Khris Middleton

Picking up where he left off before he tore his left hamstring in September 2016, it was a great season for Middleton last year. He’s the clear-cut second option to Antetokounmpo and provides a notable scoring punch, as he averaged a career-high 20.1 points per game on over 46 percent from the field. In addition to that, he was always available and played in every single game in the regular season and playoffs.

2. Brook Lopez

Similar to Ilyasova, the veteran Lopez will have an opportunity to space the floor as a versatile center. In the last two years, the 30-year-old has taken more than 300 threes. Before that, he hadn’t attempted more than 14. If need be, he’ll be utilized in the post, but chances are he’ll be sent to the corner in order to make room for the playmakers to drive.

3. Tony Snell

His career numbers aren’t going to wow you, but Snell is somebody who just plays team ball. There’s nothing fancy about what he brings to the table. If you need a stop, he’s capable of getting it. If you need a key three to swing the momentum or keep it in your favor, he’ll knock it down. You have to think that playing within a system Budenholzer-crafted system is going to only benefit him.

4. Thon Maker

Entering his third year in the pros, Maker may be poised for a jump. People forget that he’s only 21 years old and is still a raw prospect. This new coaching staff coming in should help continue his development and mold him into one of the better young big men in the entire league. There was somewhat of a regression for him in season two, but a brand new environment and a consistent culture should help turn things around.

– Spencer Davies

STRENGTHS

The Bucks boast a ton of length and the ability to exploit mismatches on both ends of the floor. They have a roster full of wide wingspans and size. As evidenced by how many turnovers they forced and the amount of shots they blocked last season, it’s hard to imagine them taking a step back. Milwaukee also loved staying in attack mode as a top-eight team in free throw categories across the board.

– Spencer Davies

WEAKNESSES

Rebounding the basketball. Averaging fewer than 40 rebounds as a team is not a key to success. You have to believe that will be a point of emphasis. Everything that had to do with the perimeter did not work out in the Bucks’ favor last season, either. They took less than 25 threes per game and made only 35.5 percent of those attempts. On the other end, Milwaukee allowed opponents to hit over a 37 percent clip of their triple tries.

– Spencer Davies

THE BURNING QUESTION

Is Mike Budenholzer the man to finally get the best out of Milwaukee?

There is so much potential for greatness. We’ve seen what the Bucks are capable of. What we haven’t seen is the sustainment of it. Having a proven head coach like Budenholzer come into a situation with the mixture of veteran and young talent—the possibilities are endless. Regardless of who was going to be in charge, we knew Antetokounmpo’s goal this season was to cement himself as the top forward in the Eastern Conference. Middleton and Bledsoe are entering their prime years. With coach Bud handling the in-game decisions and guiding these guys, it’s high time these talented players are pointed in the right direction.

– Spencer Davies

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NBA Daily: Ranking The Small Forwards

Spencer Davies continues Basketball Insiders’ positional ranking series by taking a look at the top small forwards in the game.

Spencer Davies

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Well folks, it’s April 10 and sports remains in a standstill, meaning that the NBA is still waiting to figure out when it will be feasible to either resume play or move ahead with the offseason. So while that’s happening and players are participating in video game tournaments and spreading the word of social distancing, we at Basketball Insiders have decided to spark a positional ranking series, sure enough to garner some healthy discussion about the elite of the elite in the Association.

Ben Nadeau kicked us off on Tuesday by not only breaking down statistical areas, but also facial hair and fun facts about the top shooting guards. Drew Maresca continued with a system based on individual numbers and impact on the team via net ratings when discussing the best power forwards. My strategy will be kind of a smorgasbord of sorts, counting what I’ve personally seen in my coverage of the league — no points system, really.

My draw was small forwards, a position that’s kind of been altered due to the rise of the point forward and playmaking twos. There’s an overlap of all kinds when you look at how teams construct rotations. It all depends on what the head coach’s beliefs are and where the respective players are put in lineups. You can look at size or you can look at abilities, depending on your view of the situation. Point being, the definition of small forward has been pretty subjective as of late.

For example, I would’ve listed Paul George as a three, however Ben decided to throw him in on his list because he’s technically the starting shooting guard for the Los Angeles Clippers. Jayson Tatum is one who is clearly on the come-up as one of the top forwards in the league, yet Drew put him — as well as the reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo — as a four because that’s how the Boston Celtics choose to use him in certain combinations.

Injuries can also play a major factor, so we’re not going to leave those players out because they didn’t make an impact on this current season. We know what their capabilities are and that can’t go unnoticed despite the “what have you don’t for me lately” crowd.

So enough babbling on my part, let’s get to it, shall we?

8) DeMar DeRozan, San Antonio Spurs

To be as consistent of an offensive threat that DeMar DeRozan has been for the past decade is *not* easy. The way he plays the game is a throwback, somebody that backs you down on the block and turns around with a fadeaway. He’s looking to draw fouls on his way to the tin. He loves a good 15-footer on the baseline, at the nail or at the corners on the key. The Spurs haven’t put together winning basketball this year, unfortunately, but pointing the finger solely at DeRozan would be foolish — especially with his annual statistics backing up his impact.

7) Zach LaVine, Chicago Bulls

Zach LaVine is “the guy” in the Windy City. He’s the most consistent player that the Chicago Bulls have and is a scoring machine. All of a sudden, he’s launching eight threes per game and cashing in on 38 percent of those tries. For a guy who came into the league with crazy athleticism, LaVine’s known for much more than that these days. And while he may not fit the mold of a three, he certainly could start at that position for a number of teams.

6) Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans

A first-time All-Star this year, Brandon Ingram is turning heads going into free agency — although in all likelihood, he’ll be staying with the New Orleans Pelicans. He’s continued his upward trajectory that he really started to find toward the end of last season with the Lakers, which was abruptly ended due to a blood clot in his arm.

Ingram’s willingness to be the aggressor has been the primary reason for this ascension. He’s been putting on a clinic in a career season as a three-point shooter (38.7 percent on 6.3 attempts per game), while taking responsibility as the first option in Alvin Gentry’s offense, with Zion Williamson being groomed to share those touches. That’s quite a duo moving forward if you ask me.

5) Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks

Khris Middleton’s evolution into an All-Star player has been a joy to watch because it’s been a steady rise. He hasn’t stopped growing. When you’re touted as a 3-and-D guy, it kind of puts you in a box, especially in the sense of contract talk. However, he didn’t allow that to happen and has exploded out of that box with authority, earning a well-deserved payday prior to this season.

Under Milwaukee Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer, Middleton has been able to expand his game while employing what brought him to the dance at the same time. He’s lethal from both the perimeter and inside it as a jump shooter (51.8 percent from 10-to-16 feet, 53.8 percent from 16 feet to the arc), is reliable as a secondary playmaker and displays tenacity as an individual defender.

It’s not as if Middleton came out of nowhere. He’s not some overnight sensation or a one-hit wonder. He just kept grinding and working on his game, and the results have come from it. That, in and of itself, should be why he deserves respect from everybody.

4) Jimmy Butler, Miami HEAT

Jimmy Butler’s desire to win is what makes him so special. He’s a refuse-to-lose type of player and will stop at nothing to ensure victory for his team. With him as the *technical* No. 1 option, the Miami HEAT have benefited. He’s gotten everybody around him involved while simultaneously knowing when he needs to score. If you need evidence, see Kendrick Nunn and Duncan Robinson, who have become household names just like that.

Aside from his outside shooting taking a hit this year, Butler’s efficiency has improved tremendously — he’s averaging the fewest amount of shot attempts he’s had since 2013-14. His straight-to-the-point demeanor on the hardwood has elevated his game since he entered the league, and it’s been well received in South Beach as opposed to the way things went for the Minnesota Timberwolves.

The man they call Jimmy Buckets craves the pressure and the big shot. He salivates at the opportunity to get a key stop in crunch time. He loves to be a mentor to his guys. That’s what makes Butler so fun to watch, for me — his attitude.

3) Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets

The basketball world needs Kevin Durant back. Forget the outside noise and just go back to watch him make magic happen on the floor — there may not be a smoother player in the NBA. We’re all anxiously waiting to see what the new-look Brooklyn Nets look like with him and Kyrie Irving paired together.

Durant’s game is an unorthodox meeting of in-your-face and finesse. He finds crevices and navigates his way to the paint with his slick handles. As soon as he sees defenders take one step back, BOOM, he’ll pull up from wherever he is at that moment. When he’s guarding you, it’s like a real-life Doc-Ock is swarming because his ridiculous length feels as if he has more than two arms. Most dangerous of all? His clutch gene. I’ve seen it live at the NBA Finals, where he put the Cavaliers away with two daggers from basically the same exact spot in nearly identical scenarios in back-to-back years.

Talk about the skills for a “small forward” who is in essence a seven-footer and you’ve discovered a man who has broken basketball — in a good way. And while he’ll already go down as one of the best to ever play the game, something tells me KD is going to come back with a vengeance next season. Scary thought.

2) Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles Clippers

Ah yes, the Fun Guy. There aren’t not many like Kawhi left in sports. He comes into work, clocks in and clocks out. No focus on “flash” and little emotion on the court. There’s a very old-school feel to his tendencies: hard-nosed, physical, deliberate. He thrives in the mid-range and can attack you in a straight line drive to get to the bucket. His other nickname is the Klaw because of his massive hands, the same hands that deflect, steal and block opponents who try to sneak by him.

When he was traded to the Toronto Raptors last summer, Kawhi got back to work and ultimately helped lead the franchise to its first NBA title. It’s easy to forget exactly how good somebody is when they’re out of the picture with an injury as he was at the end of his time with the San Antonio Spurs. He’s back home in Los Angeles now along with Paul George, where the stars truly reside nowadays on both sides at Staples Center.

As far as what he’s done this season, Kawhi is one of three players in the Association with a usage above 32 percent, so he’s *heavily* depended on to guide the Clippers in the right direction. Judging by the team’s 44-20 record, his improved vision and consistent scoring output, so far, so good.

1) LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers

Surprise, surprise…not. It seems pretty pointless to discuss the piles upon piles of awards and accolades LeBron has earned over his historic 17-year career. Everybody knows about them, and even the most casual and laid-back fans of sports in general understand the magnitude he has on the world as a whole. When it comes to the hardcore NBA enthusiasts, it’s essentially split down the middle between whether or not he’s the greatest to ever play the game in comparison to Michael Jordan.

Unlike many of my colleagues, comparisons don’t suit my style. I appreciate greatness and can’t stand pitting the likes of two iconic superstars against one another. It’s simply unfathomable for somebody to believe LeBron isn’t great at this game, as it is for MJ. I know it’s fun to envision and debate, but let’s get away from that, please. It’s been around for way too long and just getting old at this point, if you ask me (or maybe I’ve become the old man yelling at a cloud).

Anyways, the fusion of magnetism, power, unselfishness, athleticism and headiness — and the sustainability of those qualities — makes up for a Megatron-like presence (MegaBron? No offense, Calvin Johnson) on the floor that can rarely be stopped. There are so many intricacies within LeBron’s game that it’s hard to know where to start regarding a full-on breakdown of what he brings to the table. His mind is almost robotic in the way he can pinpoint plays in a game at exact moments and run through them verbatim. You’ll realize that when you speak to his teammates, past or present, in any scenario.

While covering the Cleveland Cavaliers in their last two Eastern Conference championship seasons before his decision to head west in the summer of 2018, LeBron specifically mentioned watching film of Kyle Korver and where the veteran sharpshooter liked to catch the ball, with seams or without. To be able to process that in the moment during actual games and deliver that preference spot-on is nothing short of amazing — and he did it. LeBron’s continued to make the game easier on his teammates with the ball in his hands, too. He has always successfully found ways to adapt. Watch the playoffs from that year and you’ll get a stern reminder of his capabilities (or just, you know, pay attention to the age-defying season he’s having with the Lakers).

At 35 years old, LeBron is playing at an MVP level, as healthy and engaged as he’s ever been. He’s always said Father Time is undefeated, but that man has yet to put The King away.

Honorable Mention: Tobias Harris, Philadelphia 76ers; Kelly Oubre Jr., Phoenix Suns

That was fun, wasn’t it? As I wrote this piece, it turned into something completely different than I had initially thought. That’s the beauty of what we do right now. We can be creative in different ways and take an unconventional approach to these.

Again, small forwards weren’t an easy draw, but the eight players listed here more than deserve their due at being the best to do it at their position.

Stay tuned to Basketball Insiders for more of our positional ranking series!

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NBA Daily: Ranking The Power Forwards

Drew Maresca continues Basketball Insiders’ positional ranking series, picking the league’s best power forwards. Will anyone challenge Giannis Antetokounmpo?

Drew Maresca

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The 2019-20 NBA season was supposed to be winding down. We were supposed to be only a week or so away from the start of the 2020 NBA Playoffs. Instead, we’re self-quarantining with the only basketball-related content to look forward to being ESPN’s The Last Dance documentary, which follows the late ’90s Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls.

To fill the void created by the COVID-19 shutdown, Basketball Insiders is busy churning out new content. Our latest endeavor involved our rankings of the best players at each position – and this writer drew the short straw. So let’s pick out the very best power forwards in the game today.

It’s important to note that due to the rise of small-ball and the ever-increasing value of the three-point shot, the power forward position has changed more than any other. Gone are the days of bully ball and the bruising power forward. But what remains is far more aesthetically pleasing –  a more skilled and versatile breed of players who defends guards in pick-and-rolls, handles the ball and shoots three-pointers. We’re not saying power forwards are better now than ever before, but it’s hard to picture power forwards of the past defending the elite stretch fours of today.

But given the rise of positionless basketball, it’s more difficult than ever to identify power forwards – some look like wings and others are built like centers. So we simply went with the distinctions made by teams. Further, as is usually the case in league-wide rankings, we made our decisions based partially on statistics, and partially on the eye-test.

Needless to say, there are lots of great power forwards currently on NBA rosters who won’t appear in the list below. Injuries and opportunities played a major role, too. Therefore, we aren’t claiming these are the eight best power forwards alive; but instead, that the following is a list of the eight best power forwards in the 2019-20 season.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

Antetokounmpo is the obvious first choice. In fact, the only aspect up for debate is if he can really qualify as a power forward. Remember, the Bucks used him as their starting point guard in 2016-17.  But since the Bucks presently list him as one, we’ll call him the best power forward of 2019-20.

The defending NBA MVP was in the middle of another MVP-caliber season. He averaged 29.6 points per game in 2019-20 with a league-leading 31.6 PER. He’s still just 25 years old and is just beginning to learn to shoot the three-ball –30.6% on 4.8 three-point attempts per game, up from 25.6% on 2.8 attempts last year.

Antetokounmpo’s drive to win sets him apart from the players listed below. Yes, he’s versatile. Yes, he attacks the basket like few before him. But the improvements he’s made each year weren’t predestined. He put in the work. And he did so because he wants to win that badly.

Antetokounmpo built himself into one of the very best players in the world, and it’s not really open for debate.

Statistics – 9.5 out of 10

Net effect – 9.5 out of 10

Overall score – 9.5 out of 10

Anthony Davis, Las Angeles Lakers

Like many great power forwards before him, Davis finds himself classified as a center more often than he’d like – but we really don’t care how he self-identifies. Davis is an exceptionally versatile player who can defend the rim (2.4 blocks per game), shoot the three-ball (33.5% on 3.5 attempts per game), swallow up rebounds (9.4 per game) and do pretty much anything else you’d like him to do.

His past is impressive – Davis is a three-time All-NBA and three-time All-Defensive player – but the 27-year-old was showing no signs of letting up. He took home two player-of-the-week awards in 2019-20, and he would have been a top-two MVP candidate had it not been for his teammate, LeBron James. Unfortunately, it appears unlikely that we’ll see exactly how far Davis and James could lead the Lakers.

Passing Antetokounmpo as the league’s best power forward is unlikely, especially for someone who isn’t even their team’s best player – but Davis is the ying to Antetokounmpo’s yang. Statistically, it won’t appear close. But in a head-to-head match-up, Antetokounmpo will have his work cut out for him (assuming he’s tasked with defending Davis).

Statistics – 8.5 out of 10

Net effect – 8.5 out of 10

Overall score – 8.5 out of 10

Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors

Siakam’s coming out party was last season. But even still, Siakam was a leader for the 2019-20  Most Improved Player award – he’d made THAT much progress, again.

Only this season, the training wheels were off. Last year, Siakam was the Robin to Kawhi Leonard’s Batman. This season, Batman was nowhere to be found. And yet, Siakam and the Raptors kept pace. Sure, the 2018-19 team won the 2019 NBA Championship, but the 2019-20 Raptors had the second-best record in the Eastern Conference – and the third-best record in the entire league.

And much of Toronto’s success can be attributed to Siakam’s strong play. He averaged 23.6 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.6 assists. Oh, and he’s an elite wing defender.

The 26-year-old appears ready to take on the responsibility of leading a contender. But we’ve seen players better than Siakam struggle to lead their respective teams to the playoffs. He currently has the help he needs; will Toronto ensure that remains the case? If so, Siakam’s star will continue to rise for at least the next few seasons.

Statistics – 7.5 out of 10

Net effect – 9 out of 10

Overall score – 8.25 out of 10

Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

Tatum is as smooth as Italian leather. He’s grown into an incredibly adept scorer, averaging 23.6 points in 2019-20 – making him the leading scorer on the third-best team in the Eastern Conference. The 22-year-old also averaged 7.1 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game, and he’s a supremely underrated defender. Oh, and he shot a hair below 40% on 7.1 three-point attempts per game this season – making him the best marksman on this list.

Tatum’s ceiling is almost impossible to define. He’s incredibly skilled at converting tough shots, and he’s a better ball handler than some point guards. He’s definitely the most “small ball” four we’ve mentioned thus far; but at 6-foot-8 and with a 6-foot-11 wingspan, Tatum can stay with just about any power forwards in the association.

Tatum and Siakam are essentially interchangeable. We gave the edge to Siakam as he is clearly the Raptors’ best player, whereas Tatum played alongside Kemba Walker this season, who could be perceived as the Celtics best player.

Statistics – 7.5 out of 10

Net effect – 8.5 out of 10

Overall score – 8 out of 10

Kristaps Porzingis, Dallas Mavericks 

Like Davis, Porzingis falls into the “isn’t he a center?” category. And like Davis, his 9.5 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game support that argument. What’s more, Porzingis’s 7-foot-3 frame REALLY confuse matters.

But the unicorn is more than just a lanky big man. Porzingis was the first player in NBA history to convert 300+ three-pointers and 400+ blocks in less than 200 career games. And he’s a 35.7% career three-point shooter. But Porzingis does more than shoot. He’s also a skilled big man who can put the ball on the floor and jump over equally tall defenders.

His return from a February 2018 knee injury was uncertain, but he looked better recently than he did before being suffering a left ACL tear. After a slow start to 2019-20, Porzingis averaged 24.5 points, 10.8 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 2.4 blocks per game in February and March (14 games). He might’ve ranked even higher on this list had he put up those numbers all season.

Statistics – 7.5 out of 10

Net effect – 8 out of 10

Overall score – 7.75 out of 10

Bam Adebayo, Miami HEAT

Adebayo’s breakout season was one of the worst kept secrets in NBA history. When the HEAT agreed to send Meyers Leonard to Portland in the Jimmy Butler trade, it was a clear sign that leadership in South Beach felt like they already had their big man of the future.

The HEAT may have known about Adebayo’s versatility prior to this season, but there wasn’t much tape to prove it – the third-year pro hadn’t averaged more than nine points per game in either of his first two seasons in the NBA. Well that’s no longer the case. Adebayo averaged 16.2 points and 10.5 rebounds per game to go along with 5.1 assists and 1.3 blocks. He’s what you’d call a stat stuffer. He’s a uniquely versatile big man whose athleticism enables him to block shots floating far above the rim, collect the loose ball, initiate the break and finish it with a lob pass to one of his teammates.

But Adebayo’s game has one massive hole – he’s a sub-par midrange shooter (23.5%), and he’s awful from beyond the arc (7.7%). But if Adebayo becomes a serviceable shooter, he’ll have a skillset like few others before him.

Statistics – 7.5 out of 10

Net effect – 7.5 out of 10

Overall score – 7.5 out of 10

John Collins, Atlanta Hawks

Collins is a hard player to gauge. The Hawks underperformed preseason projections, and Trae Young’s usage was so high that it began to overshadow his teammates.  But Collin’s PER was so impressive that we couldn’t rank him lower than seventh. He posed a 23.5 PER in 2019-20, good for third-best of any power forward in the entire league.

Collins had a great individual 2019-20 season, averaging 21.6 points, 10.1 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game, while shooting 40% on 3.6 three-point attempts per game.

Collins rolls off screens exceptionally well and he has excellent hands to catch passes in traffic. He also finishes around the rim, catches lobs with relative ease and generates lots of free throws thanks to his activity and motor. It will be interesting to see how his role develops alongside Young and the up-and-coming Hawks.

Statistics – 7.5 out of 10

Net effect – 6.5 out of 10

Overall score – 7 out of 10

Jaren Jackson Jr., Memphis Grizzlies

Ranking the top seven power forwards was relatively easy. The eighth spot was harder. Ultimately, we went with the eye test.

If Porzingis is the unicorn, then Jackson Jr. is version 2.0. Of the players on this list, only Davis (6.2%) and Porzingis (5.6%) blocked a higher percentage of field goal attempts while on the floor; Jackson Jr. blocked 5% of all field goal attempts while in the game. And he has a knack for getting himself back in defensive position and capitalizing on his length after being pushed off of his spot.

But Jackson does a whole lot more than just defend. His overall feel for the game looks even better than Porzingis’s, as he shot 39.7% on an impressive 6.3 attempts three-point attempts per game. In total, Jackson Jr. averaged 16.9 points per game while giving the Grizzlies a little bit of everything. He possesses great footwork in the post and the ability to score with both hands around the rim.

While his game is already impressive, Jackson Jr. has the most room left to grow of anyone on this list. And that’s probably the most impressive thing anyone can say about the second-year pro from Michigan State.

Statistics – 7 out of 10

Net effect – 7 out of 10

Overall score – 7 out of 10

Honorable mention: Domantas Sabonis, Indiana Pacers; Paul Millsap, Denver Nuggets; Kevin Love, Cleveland Cavaliers; Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic; Danilo Gallinari, Oklahoma City Thunder; LaMarcus Aldridge, San Antonio Spurs

Modern power forwards are far from the burly enforcers of the 80s and 90s. The present-day power forward must still collect rebounds and set screes, but they are also expected to dribble, pass and shoot. The range of size and skill within the position makes for a number of enticing matchups. With the possibility of watching Porzingis vs. Davis, Adebayo vs. Antetokounmpo, and Tatum vs. Siakam, can you blame us for being impatient to get back to basketball?

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NBA

NBA Daily: Ranking The Shooting Guards

Ben Nadeau kicks off a set of April rankings by tackling the shooting guards. Can anybody take James Harden down?

Ben Nadeau

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It’s April and, let’s face it, the world is starved for basketball-related content.

Less than a week ago, this space included the admittance of imaginary one-on-one rules and a wholehearted recommendation for a video game tournament. Literally, seriously, honestly: Anything to scratch that itch. And speaking of the aforementioned itches, it must be poison ivy season because the content rash is calling out once more – this time in the form of rankings lists. Generally speaking, these are often relegated into calendars during the sweaty days of August – perhaps even September should the mood feel right – but in April? That’s borderline unheard of.

On this list of shooting guards, there is an MVP, many All-Stars, some freakishly-good scorers and, in all likelihood, a fair share of future Hall-of-Famers. Putting them in order after 60-plus games of basketball feels a tad bit underwhelming – and you’ve probably got your own unshakable opinions at this point of the year – so we’re ranking them with three extra criteria in mind:

A. The best fun fact on their Wikipedia page
B. By facial hair
C. Is their coolest nickname objectively cool?

With that said, and on a 1-to-10 scale, it’s time to dive in and chat about the NBA’s very best shooting guards, their top achievements and whether or not they’ve known Nelly for 20 years.

1. James Harden, Houston Rockets

In any true-to-the-genre ranking, James Harden would be the undisputed champion because of his other-worldly scoring ability, playmaking chops and influence on the game of basketball as a whole. Back in 2017-18, Harden took home a well-deserved MVP award by notching 30.4 points per game and somehow followed that up with 36.1 during the next season and didn’t win – thus launching a widely-casted net on narratives and whether or not the NBA media succumbs to them.

Aside from leading the league in points per game for three consecutive seasons, Harden has also done so in assists once as well (11.2, 2016-17) and hasn’t missed an All-Star Game in almost a decade.

Before the season began, ESPN’s Kirk Goldsberry reported that Harden, 30, is already the NBA’s all-time leader in unassisted three-pointers, a downright insane footnote, and, of course, there’s the 30-plus points streak over 32 consecutive games in 2018-19. By Harden’s standards – which, in case you’re living under a rock, are now firmly in the best-shooting-guard-of-all-time territory – this shortened campaign fell on the slightly disappointing side but no Western Conference team wanted to face him in the postseason.

On the fun fact front, Harden became the first player in NBA history to score 30 or more points against all 29 teams in a single season – a list that topped out with two 60-point efforts for good measure. Without much discussion either, Harden’s facial hair is marketable, recognizable and the face, literally, of a candy spin-off – the beard is untouchable magic.

WFF: 8 | FH: 10 | COOL: 7
TOTAL: 25

2. Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards

Bradley Beal is a bad dude… but if an All-Star shooting guard averages 30 points per game in Washington, does anybody hear it? Snubbed from the big midseason exhibition, Beal has toiled away with the Wizards and continued to grow exponentially in each passing season. At 30.5 points per game, Beal only trails Harden in that category and, of note, doesn’t have a Hall of Fame-worthy partner in Russell Westbrook to pry away the constant defensive pressure either. Cooler, the 26-year-old sharpshooter was coming in hot toward the top 50 for most made three-pointers in NBA history (60 away) and has shown zero signs of slowing down.

Thanks to Beal’s daily heroics, Washington found themselves in 9th place for the Eastern Conference – 24-40, sure, but 9th nonetheless – a consideration made even more notable by noting the Wizards’ fourth and fifth-highest scoring leaders on the year: Jordan McRae, who was moved at the trade deadline, and Isaiah Thomas, who was moved at the trade deadline. If not for Harden, a historic, one-of-a-kind player, Beal would lay serious claim to the league’s best shooting guard title. And although his facial hair is nothing to write home about, Beal’s Wikipedia Factoid is.

Nelly – yes, that Nelly – used to walk Beal to school. Of the nicknames listed for Beal on Basketball Reference, it’s quite the smattering: Real Deal, Big Panda, Blue Magic, Brad. While the latter bunch doesn’t bring much to the table, Real Deal, then often followed by Beal, is a quality nickname. Who doesn’t love a good rhyme? Real Deal Beal, nearly nickname bliss.

WFF: 10 | FH: 4 | COOL: 8
TOTAL: 22

3. Paul George, Los Angeles Clippers

Year after year, Paul George continues to be one of the NBA’s most consistently underrated. Despite top-three finishes in both MVP and DPotY in 2018-19, George is hardly ever mentioned in the same breath as LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard or Giannis Antetokounmpo. Still, that hasn’t stopped George from crushing opponents on either side of the ball – a reliable, healthy leader since he began to ascend the league-wide rankings in 2013. Teamed up with Leonard, George and the Clippers were poised for big things and a potential LA-LA conference finals looked tastier than almost any other playoff series out there.

George has averaged over 20 points in six consecutive seasons – barring the year that must-not-be-named – and led the league in steals (2.2) last year. Back in 2013, George recorded his first-ever career playoff triple-double – 23 points, 11 rebounds and 12 assists – and it was Indiana’s first since Mark Jackson notched one during the 1998 postseason. It’s not exactly the Most Fun of all Fun Facts – yet, being the first to do something since an NBA legend did it is undeniably cool.

The PG-13 moniker may sell jerseys and tickets, but not my heart. Clever, sure, but inspirational? Deadly? Fear-inspiring? That’s a question better suited for every underwhelming PG-13 horror movie out there – but for a future Hall-of-Famer, however, it could be better.

WFF: 7 | FH: 7 | COOL: 7
TOTAL: 21

4. Jrue Holiday, New Orleans Pelicans

Like George, Holiday remains in the running for the basketball’s most underappreciated title. Dependable and heady, New Orleans’ long-term leader has reached back-to-back All-NBA Defensive Teams, opted to stay post-Anthony Davis and, at the age of 29, is having another career-year. At 21.2 points, 5.1 rebounds, 7.7 assists and 1.6 steals per game, the stat-stuffing Holiday is an on-ball menace, while pairing excellently with Lonzo Ball thus far. Although the addition of Zion Williamson, complete with a late-season surge, may not ultimately find its own conclusion, Holiday’s veteran presence and timely contributions steered the ship until the generational talent could make his debut.

One might mistakenly believe that Holiday’s fun fact would involve his brothers – Justin and Aaron – and that the trio shared the court in late December, the first time in NBA history, but that’d be incorrect. Instead, Holiday is married to the USWNT’s Lauren Holiday, formerly Cheney, and the two met at a UCLA game in 2013 – when Lauren accidentally mistook him for Darren Collison. The rest, eventually, was history. Since Holiday broke into the team in 2007, the USWNT has won two Olympic gold medals, took silver in the 2011 Women’s World Cup and then, of course, got revenge with a first-place finish four years later.

Their daughter, Jrue as well, has some seriously-tight shoes to fill down the road.

WFF: 10 | FH: 4 | COOL: 5
TOTAL: 19

5. Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns

Booker is part of the generation’s new school: Icy cool from the arc, but even cooler off-the-court. The Suns’ franchise cornerstone appears to only be scratching the surface of his true potential lately, but the 23-year-old finally reached his first-ever All-Star Game before the shutdown. His elite scoring ability makes Booker a nightmare for opposing defenses and it’s legitimately exciting to imagine a playoff-ready roster around the playmaker. Three years earlier, Booker hung 70 points on the Boston Celtics on the road, becoming the youngest player ever to score 60-plus, and quickly smashed many other age-related records in his path as well.

To wit, Booker is already signed up on a maximum contract worth $158 million with Phoenix and was on course to repeat his incredible 2018-19 – 26 points, 4.1 rebounds, 6.6 assists per game – but on even better efficiencies.

Admittedly, Book is not the greatest nickname, nor does his facial hair strike fear into the opponent’s heart… but his icebreaker contribution certainly would. Back on Jan. 2, 2016, when Booker was just 19 years old, he scored 21 points in a loss to the Sacramento Kings. For a superstar that now regularly drops 40, half that as a rookie seems skippable at first sight. But the only people to score more than that at his age: Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, Dwight Howard, LeBron James and Kevin Durant – all bonafide locks for the Hall of Fame.

Not bad company, not at all.

WFF: 9 | FH: 3 | COOL: 5
TOTAL: 17

6. Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz

After going at No. 13 overall three years ago, Mitchell continues to take the NBA scene by storm. Mitchell, a cool, calm and collected rim-rattler, was the franchise cornerstone that Utah so desperately needed to fall into their laps. Although their campaign hadn’t gone exactly to plan so far in 2019-20, Mitchell was having a career-year with 24.2 points, 4.4 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game. A fierce competitor, the 23-year-old is often ready to tear down the hoop with every electric dunk or go-ahead bucket. Always ready to attack the paint, Mitchell’s rapid-fire footwork and above-average jump shot keep defenders guessing – and generally to no avail.

Best of all, Mitchell may be young, but he, without a doubt, sports the best nickname of the shooting guard bunch – Spida – and these days, the first-time All-Star seems destined for greatness. Likewise, in 2018, Mitchell revealed that he was at LeBron James’ famous Boys and Girls Club ceremony. Mitchell, he says, wanted James to head to Miami and get his first championship ring. A decade later, he’s not only competing on the same level as James – but Mitchell is absolutely holding his own.

WFF: 5 | FH: 2 | COOL: 10 
TOTAL: 17

7. CJ McCollum, Portland Trail Blazers

Every superhero needs a sidekick.

And sure, maybe McCollum isn’t as prolific as Damian Lillard, but this is a deadeye marksman that puts the shooting in shooting guard. At 22.5 points per game, McCollum was nearing a career-high in that category, playing his part to keep the Trail Blazers in a tight postseason picture in spite of vast roster injuries. In fact, the 28-year-old had knocked down three or more three-pointers in 34 of Portland’s 62 games thus far, providing half the firepower in one of the NBA’s most dynamic backcourt partnerships.

Via Lehigh, McCollum took the road less traveled to the NBA, even opting to return to college for his senior year – even though he already ranked high on most draft boards. Noting his passion for Journalism and Sports Broadcasting, two facets of McCollum’s off-the-court persona today, the three-point destroyer stayed in school when 99 percent of the world would’ve taken the money. Oh, if that wasn’t enough, dropping 50 points – joining Brandon Roy, Andre Miller, Clyde Drexler, Damon Stoudamire, Geoff Petrie and Lillard in Blazers’ franchise history to do so – isn’t a minor accomplishment either. While McCollum is docked for having no remarkable nickname but makes up for it with an often fantastic mustache and goatee combo and his love for learning – both on and off the court.

WFF: 9 | FH: 5 | COOL: 1
TOTAL: 15

8. Victor Oladipo, Indiana Pacers

Although the campaign was halted before Oladipo could truly shake off the rust, the warning signs were certainly there: The All-Star guard was back, baby.

After a gruesome injury ended Oladipo’s rise into stardom over a year ago, questions of his eventual return – and if he’d even be the same player again – remained and lingered ominously on the surface. Thankfully, the 6-foot-4 bucket-scoring machine had the Pacers looking like a fearful postseason matchup as the calendar turned to March. During Indiana’s final game pre-quarantine, he dropped 27 points on 5-for-7 from three-point range – Boston, Philadelphia, Toronto, it doesn’t matter: Nobody wants to go toe-to-toe with a hungry (and healthy) Oladipo.

To round out our foray into fun facts, unsurprisingly, Oladipo has already managed to reach mainstream recognition as a singer, his passionate side hustle. In 2018, the 27-year-old released his first-ever album, V.O., and has been featured at the NBA All-Star Game and on The Masked Singer – so if this whole basketball thing doesn’t work out, Dipo will be juuuuuuuuust fine.

WFF: 7 | FH: 1 | COOL: 6
TOTAL: 14

Honorable Mentions: Caris LeVert, Jaylen Brown, Gary Harris, Buddy Hield

In the end, the new-fangled criteria didn’t change too much on the sliding scale, but Harden’s greatness was too powerful to ignore. While Beal, George and others may lay claim to the throne, the shooting guard position brings a ton of confidence and consistency to the sport – top to bottom, it’s a list of absolute competitors and tide-changing athletes. It remains to be seen if this season will resume safely and effectively at some point, but, if it does, these eight sharpshooters can pull their weight (and then some) in a big way.

For more quarantine-ready content, stay tuned to Basketball Insiders’ feed, we’ve got you covered.

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