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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.

Quinn Davis is a contributor for Basketball Insiders. He is a former collegiate track runner who currently resides in Philadelphia.

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NBA Daily: Can the Hawks Keep Up Their Strong Play?

Drew Maresca analyzes the Atlanta Hawks strong play and looks ahead at how they’ll fare in the final 16 games of the season.

Drew Maresca

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This season’s condensed schedule has resulted in less time to assess teams and the transactions they made at the trade deadline or in the buyout market. So it’s understandable if you wrote off the Atlanta Hawks as the bust of 2020-21 – but make no mistake about it, the Hawks are surging.

As alluded to above, Atlanta began the year slowly. They started off 11-16. Trae Young played relatively well through that stretch, averaging 26.6 points, 9.3 assists per game and shooting 37.1% on three-point attempts – but the results just weren’t there.

And while you can debate if Young was a catalyst for or a victim of his team’s poor start, he bore the brunt of it. After he was named an All-Star in the 2019-20 season, he was left off the team this season, as the narrative around him has shifted to that of someone hunting for fouls who could be hurting the game more than he’s helping it.

Surprisingly, Atlanta decided to keep its core group together, opting to hang onto John Collins despite his butting heads on offensive philosophy with coach Lloyd Pierce and Young, separately. According to The Athletic’s  Chris Kirschner and Sam Amick, Collins voiced displeasure in a January film session over the timing of certain shot attempts and a needed to get settled into offensive sets more quickly.

Rather than succumb to the trade rumors, the Hawks decided that Pierce was at fault and or lost the locker room. Per The Athletic’s Chris Kirschner, Sam Amick and David Aldridge, Young, Cam Reddish and other Hawks were reportedly on board with a potential change and so a move was made.

At the time it appeared shortsighted. But in hindsight, it was exactly what the Hawks needed.

While there are still questions to be answered around Collins and his long-term fit in Atlanta, especially since he’ll become a restricted free agent this Summer and little progress was made in negotiations last offseason, the Hawks are 16-6 under interim head coach Nate McMillian.

In fairness to Pierce, the Hawks are just beginning to get healthy. Danilo Gallinari and 2020 lottery pick Onyeka Okongwu recently returned from injuries, with the former playing a key role, averaging 13.4 points on 40.7% shooting from deep; Gallinari is back on the mend, though, with foot soreness.

But the Hawks were also without guard Bogdan Bogdanovic from mid-January until early March. And they are still without Reddish and De’Andre Hunter, both of whom are instrumental to the Hawks success.

Still, the Hawks have pushed through. Lou Williams, who was added via trade for Rajon Rondo at the deadline, should definitely help. Williams is a walking bucket and he’s matched his Clippers output through nine games with Atlanta (12 points, 3.5 assists and 2.0 rebounds per game.)

A significant result of their strong play is that Atlanta is currently tied for fourth in the Eastern Conference, meaning that the Hawks could realistically secure home-court for the first-round of the playoffs. But before the Hawks do so, there are some questions that need to be answered.

First up, how do the Hawks manage their rotation when they haven’t even seen lots of combinations of their best players on the floor together?

When healthy, the Hawks are incredibly deep. There are the presumed starters: Young, Bogdanovic, Kevin Huerter, Gallinari and Capela. And there’s the bench: Collins, Gallinari, Reddish, Hunter, Williams, Solomon Hill and Okongwu.

Remember, McMillian has only been the coach since March 2, Williams was just added in late March and Hunter hasn’t played since late January.

Coach McMillian has been around long enough to know that 12-man rotations simply don’t work in the playoffs. Unfortunately for the Hawks, they haven’t had nearly enough time to land on a starting lineup, let alone which players work best together.

Atlanta has just 16 games remaining to figure it out. And they can’t waste a single game.

And that brings us to a second challenge: while it is nearly impossible for the Hawks to overtake the 3rd-place Milwaukee Bucks, Atlanta is far from guaranteed the fourth seed. As previously mentioned they are tied with the Celtics, meaning they could just as easily find themselves in the fifth spot. And while the Hawks have the tenth-easiest remaining schedule, according to Tankathon.com, the Celtics possess the eleventh-easiest.  And the Celtics are surging, too, having won seven of their last 10 contests.

But it’s not just Boston. the New York Knicks, Miami HEAT and Charlotte Hornets are all within striking distance, too. While Charlotte and New York have their own challenges ahead that make them less-than-likely to pass Atlanta, Miami’s fate is closely aligned with that of Victor Oladipo and his recently reinjured knee. If Oladipo returns quickly with little to no effects, the HEAT could surpass be problematic for the Hawks and a number of other Eastern Conference opponents.

And if you’re really cynical, you can focus on who Atlanta has beaten in its time under McMillan. Over the course of the 22 games in which McMillian has been interim head coach, 11 of the team’s 16 wins have come against sub-.500 opponents – and another three were against teams that are exactly .500.

Looked at differently, the McMillian-led Hawks have defeated just two winning teams, one of which was against the Anthony Davis-less Lakers in a contest in which LeBron James exited after just 11 minutes due to injury.

So kudos to Atlanta for turning around a season that easily could have went sideways. But there is much left for the Hawks, an untested team who’s beaten mostly teams that they should, to prove.

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NBA PM: Defensive Player of the Year Watch

It’s clear at this point in the season that Rudy Gobert should be the Defensive Player of the Year. But is there any way another player could unseat him for the award?

Dylan Thayer

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The seventh edition of The Defensive Player of the Year Watch for Basketball Insiders is here! In this week’s ranking, there’s not much change beyond the addition of the formerly-injured Philadelphia 76ers star, Joel Embiid. It’s impossible to leave him off of this list and it should come as no surprise if he ends the year as both a contender for this award as MVP. Sure, he’d have to outplay Rudy Gobert, but he’s only a streak of lockdown games away.

As the last full month of games for the NBA season gets underway, it’s time to see who else’s elite defensive play has kept them in the running.

1. Rudy Gobert (Previous: 1)

The Utah Jazz center has been the clear frontrunner for a third career Defensive Player of the Year award, as well as his third in the last four seasons. There is no denying the fact that the Stifle Tower has been the focal point of the defense throughout their unprecedented run with the best record in the NBA. When Gobert is on the floor, it’s going to be hard for an opposing player to get an uncontested shot around the rim, and his presence is a factor night-in and night-out.

Coming off a strong month of March where he averaged 3.5 blocks per game, the Frenchman has tailed off a bit, averaging only 1.6 blocks per game midway through April. While this recent downward trend isn’t lessening his case, Gobert still holds the No. 2 spot with 2.8 blocks per game.

Diving deeper into the numbers is where Gobert really shines, however. His defensive rating is 102.3 this season, second to only Jazz teammate Mike Conley, per NBA Advanced Stats. He also finds himself third in defensive win shares with 0.166. It’s clear that Gobert is the leading candidate for another DPotY, even the likely winner barring any significant setbacks to his season.

Even the center is our clear frontrunner, Ben Simmons may say otherwise.

2. Joel Embiid (Previous: N/A)

Returning from a left knee bone bruise, the 7-foot center has gotten right back to the elite level few others can match. In a matchup against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Embiid showed the NBA that he is back and out for blood. Over 27 minutes, Embiid totaled 27 points, 10 rebounds, 4 assists and 4 blocks. The star took over in a short amount of time as the 76ers trounced the Thunder 117-93 – but his defensive impact should not be taken for granted.

Stacking up against the rest of the league, Embiid ranks in the top five in three major defensive categories: defensive win shares, defensive rating and blocks per game. Embiid is just behind Julius Randle in the defensive win shares statistic with 0.149, good enough for fifth in the NBA, per NBA Advanced Stats. In defensive rating, Embiid is also fifth with a rating of 104.6, just .1 off Marc Gasol. 

If Embiid can raise these numbers more in line with Gobert, he may be able to steal the award. Think about it. Giannis Antetokoumpo was able to win the award after an unbelievable season in which he won the MVP – why can’t Embiid do it too?

3. Myles Turner (Previous: 2)

If not for the elite defensive play from Gobert and Embiid, Turner would be the de facto leader in the race. After being a rumored name on the trade market this past offseason, the decision to keep Turner in the fold has paid off for the Indiana Pacers. The league leader in blocks has managed to put together a great season on defense but the Pacers, and specifically Turner himself, have been hurt by injuries.

Where things stand right now, Turner has a sizeable lead in blocks per game with 3.5, 0.7 more than Rudy Gobert. It’s looking more and more likely by the day that Turner will once again be the leader in blocks in the NBA, a feat he also achieved in 2018-19.

While this is an outstanding feat for the young center, it won’t be enough to get him this coveted award – there’s always next season though.

4. Mike Conley (Previous: 3)

The Jazz floor general has made his impact felt this season on both ends of the floor following a down season. Many had written off Conley and bashed the Jazz for the trade as he just didn’t look like the same player, but he has completely turned that around. Needless to say, without Conley, it’s hard to imagine the Jazz having the success they have had this season. Together, Conley and Gobert have been a nightmare for opposing offenses as they constantly apply pressure to the ball. 

But the advanced statistics are what truly put Conley’s season in perspective. In the defensive rating category, Conley has been the league leader for some time now. While it has fluctuated throughout the season, he has still managed to keep an incredible 100.9 defensive rating, per NBA Advanced Stats. He also ranks second in DWS with 0.171, just .02 off the league leader, LeBron James. Conley has also been very efficient in stealing the ball as he is tied for seventh with 1.3 steals per game. 

If a guard were deserving enough for this award it would be Conley, but due to the play of the guys ahead of him, it doesn’t look like he will have the strength to win it. 

5. Giannis Antetokounmpo (Previous: 4)

The Greek Freak has a had very underrated season on defense, if not overall. He hasn’t been the topic of the MVP conversation as he was the past two seasons, but his defensive presence in the paint is undeniable. 

Antetokounmpo has averaged a stellar 1.1 steals and 1.3 blocks per game, all thanks to those incredible athletic abilities and length. He also ranks seventh in defensive win shares with a DWS of 0.139, per NBA Advanced Stats. His defensive rating of 106.6 also ranks in the top 15. 

While the Bucks have looked like a contender out of the Eastern Conference this season – their franchise cornerstone won’t be named the winner of any awards this year.

Honorable Mention: Jimmy Butler (Previous: 5)

The leader of the Miami HEAT is putting together another elite defensive season. Currently, he is the league leader in steals per game with 2.1, a lead he has held steady for weeks now. Butler ranks seventh in defensive rating with a mark of 105.4, per NBA Advanced Stats. He also ranks sixth with a DWS of 0.148. But if the HEAT surge through the last stretch of the season, Butler could earn more consideration for this prestigious award.

As the last full month of the regular season takes off, it has been clear that the Utah Jazz have the frontrunner for the DPotY award – plus another major runner-up contender to boot.

Will anyone else be able to top Gobert’s defensive output this season? It doesn’t seem likely, but anything is possible in this crazy, ever-changing landscape.

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NBA Daily: Is Mitchell Robinson’s Injury a Blessing in Disguise?

Drew Maresca explores what Mitchell Robinson’s injury means to the New York Knicks — this season and beyond.

Drew Maresca

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The New York Knicks are right in the middle of a playoff push. They are currently in the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference and they appear to be in good shape to at least qualify for the play-in tournament, 6.5 games ahead of the 11th seeded Toronto Raptors.

The Knicks have remained in the playoff picture despite starting center, Mitchell Robinson, missing 23 of the team’s 55 games.

Most recently, Robinson exited a March 27 contest against the Milwaukee Bucks in the first quarter with a broken foot. Including the March 27 game against Milwaukee, New York has won five of their last 10 games without Robinson.

As recently as last season, Robinson was viewed as the team’s answer at center – and, along with RJ Barrett, the team’s only long-term building blocks. This take has aged badly given the progress made by Julius Randle and the success had by rookie Immanuel Quickley (and to a lesser degree, Obi Toppin.)

But in celebrating the team’s present, it’s fair to question their future – does New York’s success without Robinson mean he’s expendable?

The 2020-21 season has been challenging for Robinson, who already missed 15 games earlier this year with a broken right hand. Somewhat miraculously, the Knicks have continued their strong play without Robinson In total, New York is 13-11 without Robinson and just 15-16 with him.

The timing of the injury is apropos.

The Knicks and Robinson were expected to engage in contract discussions this offseason. They still have some time to figure out a path forward, but the injury makes an otherwise straightforward contract negotiation trickier. The Knicks possess a team option for Robinson in 2021-22 for $1.8 million, which is significantly below market value for a player of Robinson’s stature.

Robinson is averaging 8.3 points, 8.1 rebounds and (a career-low) 1.5 blocks per game. He’s also averaging a career-high 27.5 minutes per game, due — in part — to his ability to avoid fouls. Robinson averaged 3.2 fouls per game last season, fouling out of seven games. He’s down to 2.8 personal fouls per game this year and hasn’t fouled out of a single contest.

A long-term agreement appeared likely between the Knicks and Robinson prior to his (presumably) season-ending foot injury. Similarly skilled, albeit more polished, players have signed significant deals in the recent past. Clint Capella signed a 5 year/$90 million deal in 2018, which is higher than what most expected Robinson to fetch — but it probably would have been referenced in negotiations.

Following the injury, a smaller deal is likely — if at all. The Knicks will probably still pick up Robinson’s option, but they could either trade him or let him play out next season without an extension. And while the Knicks must decide if they’d like to prioritize Robinson, Robinson must decide how much of a discount, if any, he’s willing to accept from New York (or anyone.) Robinson just signed with his sixth NBA agent (Thad Foucher of the Wasserman Group) and he’s expected to chase some of the money he missed out on by skipping the 2018 NBA Draft Combine and falling into the second round.

But Robinson shouldn’t push too hard in negotiations as the Knicks can just as easily turn to someone on their current roster as his replacement — and it would cost them far less in guaranteed money.

Enter Nerlens Noel. Noel has been a pleasant surprise for president Leon Rose and Knicks’ fans alike. He’s averaging 5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game on the season; but he’s come off the bench for much of it, receiving just 23.1 minutes per game.

But even in limited time, Noel has had a major impact on the team’s defensive. He’s first in the NBA in defensive plus-minus (3.3), second in the percentage of the team’s blocked two-point field goal attempts (8.9%) and third in defensive win share (2.7).

And he’s been even better in Robinson’s absence. In his last 10 games, Noel is averaging 5.4 points, 7.4 rebounds and 2.7 blocks in 26.1 minutes per game.

Noel signed in New York for just one year/$5 million this past offseason. While that is cheap relative to other starting-caliber centers, he’s not doing anything he hasn’t done in the past. Noel is averaging fewer points, assists and steals per game while securing more blocks and essentially the same number of rebounds. So, if teams knew what Noel could do entering 2020-21, why would they pay him more next season for the same output? Unfortunately, free agency is a fickle beast and there’s no rhyme or reason as to why teams weren’t interested in like Noel last year — but the Knicks will likely have the upper hand in negotiations.

Ultimately, the Knicks’ desire to keep Noel shouldn’t influence their preference to re-sign Robinson. Remember, Robinson set the single-season record for field goal percentage last season (74.2%) and he averages greater than two blockers per game over his career. He’s an elite lob target, and he closes out on shooters better than just about anyone in the league.

Contract negotiations are a zero-sum game in which one party wins at the expense of the other. Robinson and the Knicks should enter into negotiations delicately. Robinson probably feels owed given his cumulative salary relative to his past performance, and the Knicks were probably hoping for a more concrete body of work, leading to more certainty around an offer.

The reality is that Robinson has struggled with injuries — this year and in previous seasons — and his game hasn’t developed significantly since his rookie season. He is also a very unique talent who should get even better with more time under coach Thibodeau.

So for the best possible outcome, all parties must concede.

The Knicks are best with both Robinson and Noel. As much as Robinson’s injury will hinder how far New York can go this season, it can be key in their future. If Robinson and Noel are amenable to the idea of returning at a slight discount, it can ensure their defensive excellence continues — and if it’s at the right number(s), it should allow for considerable financial flexibility to continue maneuvering.

And the Knicks haven’t been savvy maneuverers in a long time.

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