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NBA AM: The Best Of What’s Left In Free Agency

A look at some of the best NBA free agents remaining on the market with a couple weeks left before training camp.

Steve Kyler

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The Best Of Who’s Left:  For most teams, their players have started to filter into the practice facility started to play pick-up and get into a routine. A lot of rosters are fleshing out, and the amount of open spots for free agents is fairly slim.

There are a few notable free agents still on the market, and it’s looking less and less likely that they may land a spot before camps open. Here is the latest.

Eric Bledsoe

Bledsoe and his camp swung for the fences in restricted free agency demanding a max level contract from the Phoenix Suns and didn’t get one. To say the situation between Bledsoe and the Suns is strained is likely an understatement, but the Suns believe they’ll have Bledsoe in camp either after he signs his Qualifying Offer or if he finally caves and signs their four-year $48 million offer.

The word from Bledsoe’s side is that he is likely signing the Qualifying Offer and playing out his contract to get to unrestricted free agency next summer. However, there is no rush in doing that. As soon as he signs he is basically locked into Phoenix and that would remove any chance of a trade out of Phoenix.

His camp has gone to great lengths to play up the “unrepairable” rift between Bledsoe and the Suns; however the Suns don’t seem overly concerned with that story line.

Trades involving Bledsoe are not out of the question, it would ultimately come down to what Phoenix gets in return. The other part is there are not many teams out there that view Bledsoe as favorably as Phoenix does, especially not enough to offer more than four-years and $48 million.

If Bledsoe genuinely wants a bigger payday, he may have to play out the season to get it and it seems for now, that Phoenix is fine with that plan.

If Bledsoe does sign his Qualifying Offer, he will gain the ability to veto any trade, so he will have a lot more control over his future if he sign the Offer.

Ramon Sessions

A couple of teams have been trying to secure Sessions before camp and word is he may be closing in on a deal.

The Houston Rockets had expressed a lot of interest in Sessions, but couldn’t get a deal done through Milwaukee. They ultimately agreed to a trade for Jason Terry instead.

A Sessions deal could be coming in the next few days, so he may be coming off the free agent board shortly.

Ray Allen

Ray has no shortage of suitors. Virtually every potential contender in the NBA has been linked to Allen in one way or another.

Sources close to the process say he still remains non-committed to playing in the upcoming season and until he decides he wants to play pegging him to one team or another seems unrealistic.

It’s believed Ray may look to join a team into the season, and avoid training camp and the tedious exhibition schedule teams endure in October.

Ray is unlikely to command much more than the league minimum in a salary, so waiting a few months may be more valuable to Ray than signing and getting into camp.

Alonzo Gee

Technically Alonzo isn’t a free agent yet, as the trade that will send him to Sacramento in exchange for Jason Terry can’t be consummated until after September 15. Once the deal goes through Gee is expected to be waived and while it’s possible a team picks up his $3 million non-guaranteed contract in the waiver process. It’s more likely that Alonzo hits free agency.

Word is Alonzo is great shape and ready to play, and will be looking for a chance to log minutes.

A team to keep an eye on is the LA Lakers. Gee had his best seasons in the NBA under head coach Byron Scott and the Lakers have a real need at the small forward spot.

The 6’6 Gee is a little undersized for the three height-wise, but has played some of his best basketball at the three spot.

Michael Beasley

Beasley continues to be one of the last kids standing on the playground. The LA Lakers have taken a long look at Beasley, but it’s looking more and more likely that Beasley may not get signed.

The word from Beasley’s camp is that he has really put in some solid work this summer and is simply looking for a chance to play. Beasley is still being paid by the Phoenix Suns by virtue of a buyout, so it’s more about fit for Beasley than anything.

His camp understands that if he lands somewhere and flames out, that his career in the NBA may be finished, so there is some deliberateness to the process.

It is very possible that Beasley is not on a roster when camp opens, and looks for opportunities as the season progresses and injuries start to mount.

As things stand today a deal with the Lakers is still possible, it just does not seem likely.

Andray Blatche

Blatche is arguably the best unrestricted free agent left on the board. However, his name isn’t connected with anyone.

Blatche played well in the World Cup, so it’s possible he lands an international deal if a NBA job doesn’t open up.

Like Beasley, Blatche is still being paid by the Washington Wizards who amnestied him with several years left on his deal. Blatche will be paid $8.4 million by Washington this season, so there is no urgency for him to agree to something that doesn’t make sense for him.

It’s possible that Blatche opens the season as a free agent and sign somewhere after an injury.

The Brooklyn Nets still have a cap hold and rights to Blatche, so a return to Brooklyn isn’t a stretch either.

Emeka Okafor

Okafor might be the most proven center on the board, however he is still rehabbing from a disc injury that claimed his season last year.

Word is Okafor has made a ton of progress, but isn’t ready physically for training camp. He is expected to explore options in January once he’s a little further down the road.

Okafor is unlikely to be in camp with anyone, but it does seem like he wants to play this season, the question is which team lands him and how much will he cost?

NBA teams that will play exhibition games aboard will open Training Camps on the September 27. The rest of the league will open camps on September 29 with media days and orientation.

Silver Comments On Atlanta Mess:  The Atlanta Hawks are trying to dig out from under a series of scathing and damaging stories that started with an e-mail in 2012 from majority owner Bruce Levenson, which re-surfaced after comments from GM Danny Ferry sparked an internal investigation and review over racially charged comments made during a phone briefing with minority owners.

As the details of the events have become public, the looming question is would Ferry be fired by the Hawks, and while all indications are that he won’t be. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver put his two cents in, making public comments for the first time since this story surfaced; saying that he didn’t think the situation warranted Ferry being fired.

“The discipline of a team employee is typically determined by the team, and in this case the Hawks hired a prestigious Atlanta law firm to investigate the circumstances of Danny Ferry’s clearly inappropriate and unacceptable remarks,” Silver said to Sam Amick of USA Today Sports. “In my view, those comments, taken alone, do not merit his losing his job.

“It’s a question of context … These words, in this context, understanding the full story here, the existence of the scouting report, the fact that he was looking at the scouting report as a reference when he was making these remarks, what I’m saying is – and frankly my opinion — is that this is a team decision in terms of what the appropriate discipline is for their employee. But if I’m being asked my view, I’m saying that, based on what I know about the circumstances, I don’t think it’s a terminable offense.”

Levenson’s share of the Hawks is up for sale, and it’s believed the team will command a sale price north of $700 million.

League sources say there seems to be a desire for the entire franchise to be sold given the rocky and tumultuous history the current ownership group has, however it’s unclear if the current minority owners would be forced to sell their stake if they cannot buyout Levenson on their own.

There have been reports that former Hawks star Dominque Wilkins is involved with a group trying to buy the team, there is also talk that another New York based investment banker is eying the club as well.

Hawks CEO Steve Koonin has said he’s heard from almost a half-dozen billionaires when the news of the franchise being available surfaced, so there does not appear to be any shortage of interested buyers.

The Hawks have a fairly iron clad arena lease that runs through the 2017-2018 season.

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, @AlexKennedyNBA, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @SusanBible @TommyBeer, @JabariDavisNBA , @NateDuncanNBA , @MokeHamilton , @JCameratoNBA and @YannisNBA.

Steve Kyler is the Editor and Publisher of Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA and basketball for the last 17 seasons.

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NBA Daily: With Thibodeau In Town, What’s Next for Knicks?

The New York Knicks reached an agreement to make Tom Thibodeau their new head coach. Drew Maresca examines what’s next for the Knicks and coach Thibodeau.

Drew Maresca

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The New York Knicks have hit the reset button a number of times since 2010, when then-general manager Donnie Walsh and former head coach Mike D’Antoni attempted to lure LeBron James to Broadway. Since then, they’ve had numerous leadership changes and, more pressingly, six head coaches (Mike Woodson, Derek Fisher, Kurt Rambis, Jeff Hornacek, David Fizdale and Mike Miller). Well, let’s make that seven. The Knicks announced this week that they’ve arrived at a five-year agreement with the 2011 Coach of the Year, Tom Thibodeau.

Thibodeau is a polarizing figure, with supporters believing he’s a savior and cynics feeling he suboptimal at talent development and guilty of running players ragged. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle and that’s not a bad thing at all for the Knicks.

Thibodeau is a career basketball guy that is familiar with the bright lights of New York. He was brought in as a Knicks assistant coach under Jeff Van Gundy, where he remained on hand for most of Don Chaney’s tenure, too. But that’s not all. Thibodeau started out as an assistant coach under Bill Musselman in Minnesota. He was also an assistant for John Lucas in San Antonio and Philadelphia, and he joined Doc Rivers in Boston as an associate head coach for three seasons.

He ascended to the head coach of the Chicago Bulls in 2010-11, where he remained for five seasons. In addition to winning a Coach of the Year in his first season as head coach (2010-11), he also coached a league MVP (Derrick Rose, 2010-11) and a Defensive Player of the Year (Joakim Noah, 2013-14). He also won 64.7 percent of regular-season games and his team advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2010-11; like the Jeff Van Gundy-led Knicks teams he was a part of earlier in his career, Thibodeau’s Bulls teams probably would have won at least one championship if it weren’t for their overlapping with LeBron James and the Miami HEAT.

Thibodeau left Chicago before the 2016-17 season to take over as president of basketball operations and head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves. But as coaches often do, Thibodeau struggled to strike a balance between maintaining flexibility for the future and adding talent for the present. But most of his failures in Minnesota were front office-related, and he is still revered by many of his former players including Jimmy Butler, Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose. Van Gundy also remains a big Thibodeau fan.

“This idea that Tom (Thibodeau) doesn’t know how to pace his team is one of the great slanders that has been perpetuated by the media on a coach,” Van Gundy said on a recent ESPN NBA restart conference call.

But what does Thibodeau do for New York? Most importantly, he legitimizes New York basketball. Thibodeau is widely viewed as a basketball savant. But lots of great coaches and executives have come in New York with promises of resetting the culture and turning the team around. Lenny Wilkens, Larry Brown, Mike D’Antoni, Mike Woodson and David Fizdale all tried and failed, as did Phil Jackson (as team president). Can Thibodeau succeed where so many other greats have failed? Maybe. Eventually, someone has to get it right – why not Thibodeau? To do so, Thibodeau must prepare to succeed in the following five areas.

Selecting The Staff

Rumors have swirled about who might join Thibodeau on New York’s bench. Generally speaking, assistant coaches don’t move the needle with regards to national news — but this is New York, the proverbial lightning rod of the NBA.

There is a legitimate reason to get excited about the Knicks’ new coach, though. Team president Leon Rose and Thibodeau allegedly agree on the front office’s involvement in fleshing out the coaching staff, and there is major internal support for a return of former head (and assistant) coach Mike Woodson. There are also rumors about Mike Miller, interim coach, being retained. Woodson is viewed, like Thibodeau, as a defensive specialist, and Miller won serious brownie points as a result of his record relative to his predecessor and his ability to connect with the roster.

Other candidates could include former Thibodeau assistants like Andy Greer, Ed Pinckney and Jerry Sichting.

Getting Familiar With The Roster

First of all, it’s not as though Thibodeau isn’t already extremely versed in the Knicks’ strengths and weaknesses. He was rumored to be pouring over film last weekend before receiving word that an agreement had been reached. And that’s nothing new to Thibodeau, who allegedly stayed up as late as 4 A.M. watching film with coach Mike Krzyzewski in Rio during the 2016 Olympics.

But reviewing film and understanding players’ limitations are worlds apart. The idea of his overseeing the team in a second bubble for the eight teams who failed to qualify for the NBA’s 2019-20 restart would be alluring. But despite the early success of NBA’s Orlando bubble, it’s unlikely they risk the potential negative PR that would coincide with positive tests for eight worst teams in the league.

But a full-on bubble might not be the only way for Thibodeau to begin coaching before the offseason. According to the Charlotte Observer, the NBA and NBPA are expected to come to an agreement that would enable the eight teams who are excluded from the season’s return to begin workouts soon. In fact, individual workouts with coaches could begin as soon as early August, meaning that all that stands between Thibodeau and his soon-to-be players is a formal announcement.

Develop The Young Core

Thibodeau’s effect on the younger guys has been a polarizing topic of late. Many believe he’ll demand too much of them, hurting their confidence and diminishing future returns by leaning too heavily on them. Ironically, former coach David Fizdale was criticized for playing the team’s young core for too few minutes. But that sentiment is not echoed amongst coaches around the league. Monty Williams, Phoenix Suns head coach and former New York Knicks first-round pick, feels that he’ll have a positive effect.

“I kind of laugh at all these people that say he can’t develop younger players and that he just wears his teams out,” Williams, who worked with Thibodeau on Team USA for a number of years, said on SiriusXM NBA Radio. “Look at the success with his programs and his teams and the results bear witness. You talk to guys who played for Thibs, they love him.”

While Thibodeau’s effect will probably vary player-to-player, he will almost certainly favor two very important young guys – Mitchell Robinson and Frank Ntilikina.

Robinson, who averaged only 20.6 minutes per game as a rookie and only 23.1 in 2019-20, will certainly see more playing time under Thibodeau, who is notorious for playing his best heavy minutes; Noah averaged at least 30.4 minutes per game while playing for  Thibodeau in Chicago and he topped out at just over 36 MPG.

But Robinson’s abilities are impossible to ignore, so fans and analysts alike have been mystified by his lack of playing time – although some of that can be chalked up to his propensity to foul and play defense with his hands once out of position. However, Robison set the single-season record for field goal percentage in 2019-20 (74.2 percent) and he averaged 3.6 blocks per-36 minutes over his two-year career. He closes out on three-point shooters better than just about anyone in the game today, and he’s a nightmare to defend in the screen-and-roll. He will almost certainly become one of Thibodeau’s favorite players — and that doesn’t even take into consideration his improved ball-handling that’s been on display via his Instagram account.

Ntilikina has a less impressive resume but has almost as much potential as Robinson. Thibodeau hasn’t had many guards like Ntilikina; in fact, there aren’t many guards like the Frenchman around, period. The 6-foot-4 point guard is a pass-first guard whose defensive presence is incredibly impressive. He boasts a 7-foot-1 wingspan and is absolutely fearless on the defensive end of the floor. He needs to play more confidently and consistently on offense, but he’s demonstrated serious improvements there, too; Ntilikina shot a career-high 32.1 percent on three-point attempts this season, while also posting career highs in field goal percentage (44.4 percent) and points (6.0).

Like Robinson, Ntilikina suffered from inconsistent playing time, receiving only 20.8 minutes per game in 2019-20. But that too could change, especially considering his humble attitude and approach.

But Ntilikina is almost too gifted and smart to fail. His closest comparison — granted it’s a favorable one — is probably Marcus Smart. Smart showed serious improvements this season, but Thibodeau was already enamored with his skillset in 2018, when he gushed over him in a pre-game press conference.

“He’s tough, he guards people, he’ll get to a loose ball and hit the floor,’ Thibodeau said. “He’ll get to an offensive rebound, he allows them to do a lot of switching, he’ll guard big guys, small guys, doesn’t matter.”

Hopefully, Thibodeau is equally impressed with Ntilikina – in which case, the Ntilikina-hive can look forward to serious improvements.

The 2020 NBA Draft

This one’s the easiest since it’s more reactive for Thibodeau than anything else. The Knicks are in desperate need of talent at a number of positions. Fortunately, the Knicks finished with the sixth-worst record in the NBA. Assuming they don’t move in the lottery, they’ll pick behind the likes of the Golden State Warriors, Atlanta Hawks and Cleveland Cavaliers. Thankfully, most teams above them have a point guard. In fact, the only team slotted ahead of them who hasn’t drafted one (or more) point guards in recent drafts or doesn’t already possess a franchise point guard is the Detroit Pistons.

Sadly, the 2020 NBA Draft appears to lack a generational talent like Luka Doncic or Zion Williamson. And with NBA franchises inevitably facing fiscal pressure from COVID-19, most teams will be open to the idea of moving back to a lower-profile draft slot. But the Knicks don’t have the same monetary struggles as most teams. This could be their best shot at moving up to secure LeMelo Ball, who is reportedly number one on their draft board.

Does Ball mesh with Thibodeau? Who knows. But generally, Thibodeau is not overly welcoming of rookies – namely, he doesn’t play them much. In his career as a head coach, he’s played his rookies: 12.1 minutes per game (Omer Asik), 8.5 MPG (Jimmy Butler), 8.2 (Marquis Teague), 16 (Tony Snell), 20.2 (Nikola Mirotic), 17.1 (Kris Dunn), 4.0 (Justin Patton) and 16.8 (Keita Bates-Diop).

But while his track record pertaining to playing rookies isn’t great, he’s had solid alternatives in both Chicago and Minnesota. There won’t be as many in New York. So while he might not love the idea of leaning on rookies, he might not have a choice, either.

Luring Productive Veterans

Lastly, Thibodeau will be a major part of recruiting pitches to star free agents. Now, attracting a star player shouldn’t dictate who is selected as a team’s head coach – and the Knicks finally got this right. They could have gone with Jason Kidd in hopes of attracting his former player, Giannis Antetokounmpo. But they instead went with the more established and respected candidate in Thibodeau.

While Thibodeau has much to prove as Knicks head coach, he, too, has in-roads with numerous star players. Remember, Thibodeau was close to a number of stars as an assistant coach for the 2016 Olympic team. The team’s main roster featured very few soon-to-be free agents – but fear not Knicks fans, the broader talent pool included Victor Oladipo, Anthony Davis, Chris Paul, Damian Lillard and Bradley Beal.

That’s not to say that any of them are likely to join the Knicks – but all of them have recently been connected to New York in some way, shape or form. Thibodeau would obviously love to add any of those stars to a roster in need of star power, but beyond trading for Paul – which might not be an option depending on how Oklahoma City performs in the 2020 NBA Playoffs – these are all unlikely to happen in 2020. Davis looks like a sure thing to re-sign with the Lakers, Beal is signed through 2023 and would have to request a trade as he is signed through at least 2024 (with a player option for 2024-25).

But Oladipo is possible as he’ll enter unrestricted free agency next offseason. The Pacers could try to move him rather than losing him for nothing if he’s deemed to be a flight risk. Would the Knicks be able to build a package strong enough to garner consideration? Would the Maryland native verbalize a desire to come to New York? There are too many unknowns to posit a guess, but odds that the Knicks secure a star free agent are better now than they were before adding Thibodeau as head coach.

Knicks fans are a notoriously an impatient bunch. Unfortunately for them, it will be a long climb back into contention. But there are positives: The roster isn’t inundated with bloated salaries and stars who are past their prime, instead featuring a good deal of youth and flexibility.

That’s a good start – but from here, it’s on Thibodeau, Leon Rose and company. Hopefully, they picked the right guy.

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NBA Daily: LeBron James; Anthony Davis Resume Mantle as NBA’s Best Duo

David Yapkowitz revisits a thrilling first night back in the NBA, all thanks to LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

David Yapkowitz

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It’s been about four months since the Los Angeles Lakers last took the court. The team was sitting in first place in the Western Conference and ready to use the second half of the season to prep for what they hoped would be a championship run when the NBA halted all operations due to the Coronavirus pandemic.

After not knowing if the league would resume play at all this season, the Lakers returned to the court in the NBA’s restart against their crosstown rivals the Los Angeles Clippers on Thursday night.

All season long, the Lakers’ star duo of LeBron James and Anthony Davis looked like the best one-two punch in the league and, against the Clippers, they certainly picked up right where they left off.

With Avery Bradley deciding to opt-out of the restart and Rajon Rondo out six to eight weeks with a thumb injury, James took over as the starting point guard to do what he does best. He helped control the tempo of the game and allowed himself to act as a facilitator, getting his teammates easy scoring opportunities.

As the game progressed, James became more assertive offensively and had what would ultimately end up being the game-winner as he rebounded his own missed shot and tipped the ball in around Clipper defenders.

“I love having the ball in my hands late game when it’s a tie game, being up. For me, it’s just trying to be aggressive. I felt like I got some contact at the elbow from Marcus Morris, but they didn’t call it,” James said after the game. “Like you were told when you were a kid playing basketball if there’s no whistle you keep playing on. I was able to follow my own shot and put us up for good.”

James didn’t shoot particularly well, only 31.6 percent from the floor, but he did finish with 16 points, 11 rebounds and 7 assists. He also clamped up defensively on a couple of possessions against both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.

The long-time megastar has been one of the frontrunners for the Most Valuable Player Award this year and, in his 17th NBA season, he’s showed no signs of slowing down. He’s putting up 25.7 points on 49.8 percent shooting from the field, 7.9 rebounds and a career-high 10.6 assists. Already down two capable ball-handlers and playmakers in Bradley and Rondo, James is going to be shouldering a lot more of the on-ball duties.

Thankfully for him then, he’s got a good running mate in Davis.

Davis got the Lakers going and n command early with his energy around the rim and his size and quickness going against the Clippers’ bigs. He also spearheaded a comeback in the third quarter when the Clippers took a double-digit lead.
He finished the game with 34 points, 8 rebounds and 4 assists and his aggressiveness was rewarded with 17 free-throw attempts. On the season, he’s putting up 26.7 points per game on 51.1 percent shooting from the field, 9.4 rebounds and 3.1 assists.

But aside from his offensive output, one of the ways he’s been most valuable to the Lakers is defensive versatility. Davis is naturally a shot blocker and deterrent in the paint. But he also has the footspeed and discipline to match up with wings on the perimeter.

Against the Clippers, Davis started out guarding Leonard on the perimeter. He’s quite possibly the frontrunner for the Defensive Player of the Year Award. While he did pick up some early fouls, if he’s able to match up at times with either Leonard or George, that could bode incredibly well for the Lakers chances in a potential playoff series.

“We wanted to make sure we came out and executed on the offensive end,” Davis told reporters. “It felt like a real game to me, two teams battling. Obviously, it’s always a good game between us two teams. We knew they were going to make a run. They made their run and got up eleven, we just kept playing, picked it up defensively, and then we started making shots on the offensive end.”

Despite the win, Lakers’ head coach Frank Vogel still feels like this team has an extra gear they have not yet reached, a level of play that they displayed early in the season.

“To me, it feels like we have a long way to go to reach the habits we were playing with when we entered the hiatus,” Vogel mentioned Thursday. “Obviously we did enough to get the win, but we have a lot of work to do.”

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NBA Daily: How To Evaluate The Milwaukee Bucks

Does the Milwaukee Bucks’ dominant 2019-20 foreshadow postseason success, or does last year’s collapse still leave too many questions unanswered? Quinn Davis takes a look.

Quinn Davis

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On May 19th of 2019, the Milwaukee Bucks entered Canadian territory to face the Toronto Raptors for Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals. The Bucks held a 2-0 series lead after a pair of relatively comfortable wins at home. Led by reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Bucks controlled the paint just as they did throughout their stellar regular season.

After losing Game 3 in double overtime, and missing a chance to all but clinch the series, it all fell apart for the Bucks. The Raptors took the next three games to win the series and went on to win the championship.

A year later, the Bucks have put together an absurdly dominant regular season. Despite this dominance, skepticism lingers as that four-game collapse is still fresh in many fans’ minds.

Teams without championship pedigree that come off four straight playoff losses will always garner doubt the following season, no matter their regular season play. The Bucks have tested that sentiment to its absolute limits with this campaign, boasting a robust net rating of 10.7.

Further impressively, the Bucks led the league in net rating by 3.6 points and this puts them in rare company. The only two teams in modern NBA history with a larger lead on the field were the 2016-17 Golden State Warriors and the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls. Both were crowned champions after cruising through the playoffs.

Moreover, both of those teams had been through the gauntlet before. The Bulls featured the greatest player ever and had won three championships with the same key pieces; while the Warriors won a title in 2015, won 73 games in 2016 and then added Kevin Durant for their 2016-17 stroll to the finals.

Two other teams that come to mind when looking for comparisons are the 2014-15 Warriors and the 2008-09 Cavaliers. These units also featured league MVPs and led the league comfortably in net rating, although not quite as comfortably as the Bucks this season.

The Warriors capped off their season with a championship, but they did feature a new coach in Steve Kerr that season – so it wasn’t the same team returning from playoff failure. The Cavaliers were coming off a semi-finals loss in 2008 to the eventual champion Boston Celtics, but they did benefit from a Kevin Garnett injury and a very weak conference en route to 66 wins. That team lost in the Eastern Conference Finals to Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic.

It’s safe to say the Bucks are in unchartered territory. The big question from here is this: Does this dominance supersede the lack of past success when trying to predict the future? The 2018-19 Bucks were a great regular season team in their own right, but has there been enough discernible change to say that this group will fare better in the postseason? To put it simply: Will the Bucks dominate the post-season as those great Bulls and Warriors teams did, or will they fail to get over the hump like the Cavaliers?

The first question is a little more abstract, so the second will kick things off. The Bucks are quite obviously a bettered regular-season team for a myriad of reasons.

Internal improvement has been at the forefront for the Bucks this season. Giannis Antetokounmpo has somehow found another gear from last season, taking a leap reminiscent of Stephen Curry’s in 2015-16 when he followed an MVP season with one of the best of offensive seasons ever.

But Antetokounmpo’s leap has been mostly seen defensively. He has become a snarling monster on that end, shutting off entire sides of the court on a nightly basis. When Giannis plays, the Bucks hold opponents to a ridiculous 51.7 percent shooting at the rim, compared to a still-low-but-not-terrifying 58.9 percent shooting in that area when he sits, per Cleaning the Glass. He is the leading Defensive Player of the Year candidate for a reason and will likely be the third player ever to win that and the MVP in the same season.

Starting center Brook Lopez has been no slouch on that end either. His consistent rim protection has thrust the veteran into the defensive awards conversation and deservedly so.

Elsewhere, Khris Middleton has had his best season as a professional, which is almost hard to believe. The uber-efficient shooting and smooth wing play from Middleton beautifully complimented the bulldozing style of Giannis throughout the season. Donte DiVincenzo has become a nice 3-and-D player in his second year while also flashing ball-handling ability. Eric Bledsoe and George Hill have each had stellar campaigns and more than made up for the loss of Malcolm Brogdon.

The new faces have proven to be smart additions as well. Kyle Korver has provided his usual 40 percent three-point shooting. Wesley Matthews has started every game thanks to his veteran defense and consistent stroke. Marvin Williams, acquired midseason, gives the Bucks another consummate professional on the wing.

However, the most important new teammate has been the other half of the Lopez set. Robin Lopez has helped shore up the defense of a bench unit that struggled a tad when both Antetokounmpo and his brother sat in 2018-19.

Looking past the statistics, the Bucks seem to play with a different edge this season. NBA players are known for being online; the playoff loss and subsequent doubting from fans and media did not fall on deaf ears. It’s rare that a team this good still has something prove.

With these improvements in mind, the question of whether this regular season or last year’s postseason should be key when evaluating the Bucks can be revisited.

The four postseason losses did highlight one weakness and the Bucks’ defensive trade of opponent three-point attempts in exchange for a closed paint often left them susceptible to streaky shooting. The Bucks were willing to allow threes from the Raptors role players, and in the end, it was their demise. Marc Gasol, Fred VanVleet and Norman Powell drained dagger after dagger.

Of their 12 losses this season, eight came when the opposition hit 16 or more threes. For reference, the Houston Rockets lead the league with 15 made threes per game. Three additional losses came while playing without Giannis. Their only full-strength loss to a team that shot below their average from deep came at the hands of LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers.

The Bucks have stuck to their guns on defense and rightly so. Their defense has been historically good this season. Sure, they can be beaten by a barrage of three-pointers, but those are few and far between and could happen to any team. Just because one team got hot for three straight games should not dissuade a team from their bread and butter.

It would, of course, be unfair to the Raptors to chalk up a series win to a statistical anomaly. They locked down on defense as well, keeping the Bucks out of the paint and their stars in check.

This season, Giannis has quietly improved his three-point shooting. He has taken about a quarter of his total shots from deep, up from a sixth last season. He has hit about 30 percent of those attempts compared to about 25 percent a season ago. Teams are sure to take a page from the Raptors’ playbook this postseason, so his continued willingness to shoot will be key in the Bucks’ quest for a championship.

The other, and perhaps most concerning and hard-to-predict cause for the Bucks 2019 downfall, is the decline of the role players in that series. Bledsoe’s shooting fell off a cliff as he furthered his reputation as a postseason underperformer. Brogdon and Nikola Mirotic, two players no longer on this roster, also suffered through ugly shooting slumps.

Some of that is expected: Role players tend to regress as defenses tighten and scouting becomes more detailed. Players like Bledsoe, Matthews, Williams and Korver will need to maintain some semblance of their regular season shooting prowess to keep the Bucks offense humming.

While the Raptors did unveil a few weaknesses, the Bucks addressed the most glaring ones by simply continuing to assemble talent on the fringes. Rather than make large-scale adjustments and overcompensate for playoff heartbreak, the Bucks doubled-down on their approach to become the dominant team they are today.

All of this is further complicated by the current situation. For any aliens reading human literature for the first time, the NBA is currently playing the remainder of their season in a bubble in Walt Disney World due to a global pandemic. This bubble scenario renders the homecourt advantage earned by the Bucks null, as there are no more home and road games for now. Also, it is still unknown how a four-month midseason layoff will affect the players.

In normal times, the Bucks should be considered a heavy favorite. They more closely resemble teams that rampaged through the playoffs than they do teams that fell short. Times are not normal though, so it would be unwise to make any bold predictions.

To answer the third and final question – it’s true, the Bucks seem to resemble those great Bulls and Warriors teams more than they do the 2009 Cavaliers. Whether it will play out that way remains to be seen.

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