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NBA Daily: Zhaire Smith ready to take the next step in the NBA

Zhaire Smith is ready to prove his worth and he seeks to transition to the NBA.

Simon Hannig

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Zhaire Smith out of Texas Tech is a name that rises up on a lot of people’s draft boards this season with his stellar play, especially on the defensive end.

This past season, Smith averaged 11.3 points, 5.0 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.1 blocks and 1.1 assists per game. He also shot 55.6 percent from the field and 45 percent from three point range. Despite a strong performance this season, though, Smith has not been consistently appearing in NBA Mock Drafts until at least 2019.

He addressed it at the NBA’s Draft Combine in Chicago.

“Yeah, I didn’t know that,” Smith said of his seemingly low perceived value. “I really don’t pay attention to all that, but it is what it is.”

One of Smith’s biggest strengths that makes him an intriguing prospect for an NBA team is defense.

“Just being a little physical,” Smith said. “Not too physical where they can draw a foul on me, but just playing. Getting low. Just playing. Moving my feet.”

Smith had a highlight reel dunk vs. S.F. Austin in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. It was one of those dunks you had to watch over and over again because you could not believe it. It came off of a pass from his teammate, Keenan Evans.

Although on play is rarely enough to get a player noticed, the play did exhibit Smith’s exceptional athleticism. Along with his defense, his ability to convert explosive finishes could also help his value among NBA teams and potentially help him end up in the league.

“Yeah. If it was a bad pass, I made it look good, but yeah,” Smith said of the dunk. “I just adjusted to it. It just happened. I didn’t even know that was what had happened.”

For players coming into the NBA, there is a bit of a learning curve—both with respect to surviving in the league and how to fit in with their particular team.

“I see myself fitting in probably rookie, first two years, just fitting in, doing good, being a solid role player,” Smith said. “And in a few years I can see myself as an All-Star.”

During his freshman year at Texas Tech, Smith played in all 37 games, including 21 starts. He holds a total points record as a freshman with 417 points. He also totaled 185 rebounds, 42 blocks and 42 steals. The 42 total blocks for a freshman were second in team history.

In terms of his numbers being more than “empty” production, on the season, Texas Tech was 19-8 when Smith scored 10 or more points. And during the team’s four-games March Madness run, he averaged 12.0 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.5 assists, one block and one steal per game.

Although it’s early, Smith could end up being an “under the radar” type of prospect, similar to the Jazz’s Donovan Mitchell. To this point, he has been mostly renowned for his excellent defensive game, but his offensive game is respectable, even if it is still considered a work-in-progress.

As for whether he can be the “next” Donovan Mitchell, Smith didn’t shy away from the prospect.

“I think so,” he said. “…If I put in the work.”

For him, the process is just beginning. Hopefully, for his sake, his NBA journey is far from over.

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NBA Daily: DPOY Watch – 11/19/19

A familiar name is back at the top of the Defensive Player of the Year rankings with established contenders and youthful upstarts nipping at his heels.

Jack Winter

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A month into the regular season, the race for Defensive Player of the Year remains fluid. Even as longtime contenders and preseason favorites further assert their will defensively, a group of position-less wings and dogged guards are making a major impact on that side of the floor, too.

More or less, it comes down to one simple question still: Can anybody dethrone Rudy Gobert and his tenacious, defensive unit-leading prowess?

Here’s where Defensive Player of the Year stands as December quickly approaches.

Honorable Mention: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks; Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics; Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors; Patrick Beverley, Los Angeles Clippers; Jevon Carter, Phoenix Suns

5. Jonathan Isaac – Orlando Magic

Only Anthony Davis has more combined steals and blocks than Isaac’s 45. His individual defensive performance against the Dallas Mavericks on Nov. 6, when he collected five steals and six blocks, is arguably the season’s most impressive.

Isaac, at 6-foot-11 with long arms and an increasingly sturdy frame, simply makes plays the vast majority of defenders can’t, even when the box score doesn’t recognize them. His activity, quickness and instincts routinely allow him to be two places at once defensively. He’s among the game’s most switchable defenders, and there may not be a better help-and-recover player in all of basketball.

It’s not just steals either as both blocks and the ever-important eye test support Isaac’s nascent case for Defensive Player of the Year.

Isaac is the Magic’s only starter with a negative net defensive rating. Better, Orlando — a franchise that goads opponents into more two-point jumpers than any team in the league — forces 5.4 percent more mid-rangers than average with Isaac on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass. He’s top-three in defensive field goal percentage allowed at the rim, too, an ode to both his mastery of verticality and penchant for highlight-reel blocks.

Isaac is realizing his potential as a game-changing, all-court defensive force in his third NBA campaign. He’s probably not a big enough name to garner legitimate consideration for hardware this season, but that doesn’t mean he won’t be worthy of it – or fail to emerge as a perennial DPOY candidate going forward.

4. Bam Adebayo – Miami HEAT

Adebayo’s modest on-off numbers defensively almost certainly aren’t what they would be if the HEAT weren’t subject to so many key contributors coming and going early in the season. Jimmy Butler missed the first three games of 2019-20, and Justise Winslow has been sidelined by a concussion since Nov. 7 after sitting out two earlier games due to back spasms. Derrick Jones Jr. has played in just four games while dealing with nagging groin and hip injuries.

Through it all, Adebayo has been the linchpin holding Miami together on defense. His rare versatility allows Erik Spoelstra to pair him with offensive-oriented bigs like Kelly Olynyk and Meyers Leonard upfront as well. Ultimately, the HEAT have been at their best defensively during the brief time he’s spent at center – a lineup configuration we’re more likely to see when Winslow and Jones return from injury.

Among the numerous attributes that make Adebayo special defensively is his equal penchant for highlight-reel plays and more unspectacular, nuanced ones, both of which make a major impact. He has a keen sense of timing and angles as a pick-and-roll helper, prodding at ball handlers with active hands while splitting the difference between them and the roller.

Adebayo isn’t an elite rim-protector and the statistics say as much. But preventing attempts around the rim is just as valuable as affecting them and the HEAT surrender 9.1 percent fewer shots in the restricted area with Adebayo on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass – the league’s second-biggest discrepancy among high-minute bigs.

As the season continues, don’t be surprised if Adebayo fades from the DPOY conversation. Miami is loaded with quality defenders, and his numbers-based case may grow accordingly thin as Spoelstra gets full use of his planned rotation. Adebayo’s influence, though, will remain obvious to anyone watching the HEAT regardless.

3. Joel Embiid – Philadelphia 76ers

The Sixers have quietly been among the league’s most disappointing teams, going just 3-5 after winning their first five games of the regular season. But don’t chalk those struggles up to Embiid, who has nipped at his turnover rate and made strides from beyond the arc while remaining Philadelphia’s defensive panacea.

On a roster stacked with stellar defenders like Al Horford, Ben Simmons and Josh Richardson, Embiid’s net on-off defensive rating of -11.3 is easily a team-best among regulars. His individual rim-protecting numbers are still lagging behind career norms, though team-wide data suggests Embiid has been as big a deterrent around the basket as ever.

Why? His rare blend of size, timing and understanding as the last line of defense, which Embiid puts on display in the clip below. Covering for multiple mistakes by Tobias Harris, he first cuts off Cedi Osman’s middle drive despite being in ICE position, then recovers for an effective contest at the basket when his teammate gets beaten backdoor.

The 76ers’ opponents have attempted 7.2 percent fewer shots at the rim with Embiid on the floor, while their accuracy on those tries dips 6.1 percent, per Cleaning the Glass. Also indicative of Embiid’s rippling influence in the paint is Philadelphia’s league-worst opponent free throw rate spiking nearly 10 points when he’s sitting.

Philadelphia is too talented defensively to be anything less than elite on that end for long. And when they inevitably rise the ranks in defense from ninth, Embiid will still be the biggest reason why.

2. Anthony Davis – Los Angeles Lakers

It says a lot about the Lakers’ enviable roster of proven defenders that their opponent shot profile doesn’t align with tenets of modern basketball. Los Angeles ranks 11th in preventing shots at the rim and 20th in preventing shots from deep, while forcing only an average rate of shots from mid-range.

But what should be a recipe for mediocrity has instead yielded the league’s top-ranked defense, a ringing endorsement of the Lakers’ personnel and Frank Vogel’s ability to get a veteran team to buy in on that side of the ball.

The presence of Davis, to be clear, doesn’t affect those numbers in an overtly-positive manner. Opponents shoot fewer threes when he’s on the floor, but take more shots from the restricted area. They don’t commit turnovers at a notably higher rate, either, and actually get to the line more often. Davis’ defensive rating is 99.1, the exact same as Los Angeles’ mark with him on the bench and just a hair lower than its season-long rating.

No matter. The Lakers’ wealth of defensive talent and commitment to the scheme shouldn’t affect Davis’ DPOY candidacy to the extent a similar dynamic might others.

The statistics are there, naturally, if that’s how you want to make Davis’ case. His 38 blocks lead the league by a comfortable margin, plus more steals than any other top-tier shot-blocker save Isaac and Andre Drummond. Opponents are shooting a laughably low and league-best 30 percent against him at the rim, interior supremacy buttressed by Los Angeles coaxing a far worse shooting percentage from the restricted area with him on the floor.

Davis is a physical outlier. Other elite rim-protectors, like Embiid and Rudy Gobert, just can’t do what he does across 94 feet.

That alone doesn’t make Davis the DPOY frontrunner — but combined with his sweeping all-around effect and the Lakers’ team-wide dominance, it certainly burnishes his resumé.

1. Rudy Gobert – Utah Jazz

Gobert was second on this list two weeks ago and fifth in our preseason rankings. The assumption was that the Jazz’s overhauled personnel, including a full-time deviation from playing another big next to him, would lead to a downturn in their team-wide defensive performance, thus weakening Gobert’s chances for another DPOY award.

Wrong.

Utah owns the league’s second-stingiest defense. Its entire system is based around the premise that Gobert is waiting in the paint to challenge any would-be penetrators, letting Royce O’Neal, Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell and more put pressure the ball in a way they otherwise wouldn’t feel comfortable.

The Jazz allow 6.9 percent fewer shots at the rim with Gobert in the game and accuracy on those attempts dips by 4.5 percent, per Cleaning the Glass. Their defensive rebounding percentage drops from a dominant 77.6 to 70.8 when he goes from the floor to the bench, with the added bonus of committing far more fouls in that scenario, too.

Gobert isn’t as versatile as Davis and less likely than Embiid to come out of nowhere for soaring weak-side blocks. But to suggest that his impact is limited to tangible and intangible rim-protection would also be remiss. It’s not often, for instance, that Karl-Anthony Towns gets embarrassed in isolation on consecutive possessions.

Look at Mitchell at the end of the clip above. No player in basketball is more prone to inspire his teammates and ignite home crowds by virtue of defense than Gobert. He plays with an arrogant edge that helps make his team’s whole greater than the sum its parts on that end — and it’s once again propelling Utah to the top of the league.

Gobert will face a steep challenge in joining Dwight Howard as the only players to ever win DPOY three times in a row. But as the first month of the regular season has made abundantly clear, any expectation he’d fall from consideration was foolish. For now, then, he’s the leader — but who might come for the back-to-back crown next?

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NBA Daily: Five Stats To Keep An Eye On Revisited

Before the season, Basketball Insiders identified five statistics that could be worth watching in the 2019-20 season. Quinn Davis revisits those five to see how they have looked over the season’s first month.

Quinn Davis

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Before the season, Basketball Insiders pinpointed five statistics that could be worth watching in the 2019-20 season. These statistics each helped tell the story of last season and could be vital in determining the standings of the current campaign.

A month into the season, here’s an update on how those five statistics, and the impact they’ve had thus far. 

Philadelphia 76ers — Forced Turnover Percentage

After starting the season 5-0, the Philadelphia 76ers fell a bit back down to earth and are now sitting at 8-5. Some of the regression can be blamed on a Joel Embiid suspension and a Ben Simmons shoulder sprain, but there have been some legitimate areas of concern over the last eight games.

Their defense, which was operating at an elite level during the first five games, has fallen now to a good-not-great 11th in the league. Interestingly, their forced turnover percentage has not been the culprit for the decline.

The 76ers are up to 11th in the league in forcing turnovers this season after finishing 28th in that category in 2018-19, per Cleaning the Glass. The new additions Josh Richardson and Matisse Thybulle, along with an increase in aggressiveness on that end from Simmons, have been in key in forcing loose balls and errant passes.

While this is encouraging, the increased aggressiveness may be a direct factor in one of their biggest flaws over the first 13 games. The 76ers are currently 29th in the league in opponent free throw rate, giving up 25.1 free throws per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass.

A high foul rate can be seen as a necessary risk for this 76ers team. An increase in turnovers could lead to more transition opportunities, which could help an offensively-challenged team generate more easy baskets.

So far, though, the risk has not been worth the reward. Despite going from 28th to 11th in forced turnover percentage, the 76ers efficiency and frequency in transition have remained relatively the same. They’ve generated transition opportunities off of 68.4 percent of their steals, just one percentage point higher than last season, per Cleaning the Glass. These opportunities have netted them an additional 1.7 points per 100 possessions, only slightly better than last season’s number of 1.6.

For Philadelphia to get back on track, something will have to change. Going forward, it will be important to see if the 76ers can keep up their rate of forcing turnovers while simultaneously reducing their foul rate and generating more transition plans. 

Los Angeles Lakers — Half Court Efficiency

The Los Angeles Lakers have jumped out to an 11-2 record and sport the best net rating in the league. They have done so with a very impressive defense that ranks second in the NBA through the first month.

Meanwhile, their offense hasn’t lagged too far behind, as they rank 7th in the league on that side of the ball. Last season, the Lakers struggled offensively, particularly in the half-court where they were unable to consistently generate open looks.

They were a particularly bad shooting team in 2018-19, finishing last season with an overall three-point percentage of only 34 percent. The Lakers were expected to improve in that department this season with multiple shooters being brought into the fold.

But, while the team has taken a step offensively, it hasn’t been because of their shooting.

While Danny Green has been a marksman, shooting 42.2 percent from three, the rest of the Lakers’ roster has not been up to snuff. Overall, they sit at exactly the same percentage as last season when it comes to three-point shooting, 34 percent.

Their offense has been humming thanks to some old-fashioned domination around the rim. The Lakers are shooting 40.4 percent of their total shots at the rim and finishing 69.1 percent of those attempts, per Cleaning the Glass.

That kind of efficiency around the basket will mitigate any shooting concerns. But, if some of the Lakers’ role players can begin to hit their outside shots, the Los Angeles offense could prove even more imposing.

Denver Nuggets — Opponents’ Effective Field Goal Percentage

One of the harder to project statistics in the NBA is the opponents’ field goal percentage. This number can vary from year-to-year for no reason other than luck.

Last season the Nuggets improved their defense greatly and went from one of the worst units in the league to an average one. But, when digging into some of their numbers, it became clear that some of this may have been due to a lucky streak of opponent shooting, as the Nuggets gave up very similar looks to those they gave up in 2017-18, but opponents simply shot a worse percentage on these attempts.

This season, the Nuggets’ defense has improved even further. They are currently holding opponents to an effective field goal percentage of 49 percent, third in the league, per Cleaning the Glass.

The Nuggets give a few too many threes, particularly from the corner, but opponents haven’t punished them as they’ve shot just 32 percent overall from three against Denver.

So, looking at the tracking data on NBA.com, it would appear as if some of that luck has carried over from last season. The Nuggets are giving up about the same number of wide-open three-point attempts as last season. On these attempts, opponents are shooting 37.1 percent, which is slightly under the 37.6 percent they managed last season.

That number is not extremely lucky, as 11 NBA teams have had better luck than Denver on wide-open shots this season. Where the Nuggets have gotten particularly good bounces, however, is on open shots, classified as those attempts when a defender 4-6 feet away. On these attempts, opponents are shooting just 26.5 percent, good for the second-lowest number in the league.

The Denver defense has certainly improved this season, but it’s unlikely they maintain their current pace in terms of opponent shooting. 

Milwaukee Bucks — Offensive Rating without Giannis

One of the big reasons for the Milwaukee Bucks’ success last season was the performance of their bench. While Giannis Antetokounmpo was certainly the conductor of the team’s attack, the team fared very well when he hit the bench.

But, with the departure of Malcolm Brogdon, there were some who questioned how the team would perform without their MVP on the court. And, so far, it appears as if those reservations were valid, to a point.

This season, the Bucks have felt the loss of Brogdon quite a bit, but not in an overly drastic way. When Antetokounmpo is on the floor, the Bucks boast about a 112 offensive rating, compared to a 107 rating when he sits, per Cleaning the Glass.

Last season, the difference dropped about three points, from 116 when Antetokounmpo was on to 113 when he was off.

Milwaukee’s offense stayed at an elite level last year when Antetokounmpo sat on the back of impressive three-point shooting. But, this season, the Bucks have been getting up a similar number of attempts when he sits, but the shots have just haven’t fallen. From 2018-19 to 2019-20, the bench’s three-point percentage has dropped from 37.4 percent to 32.1 percent, per Cleaning the Glass.

While this is partially attributed to the loss of a 40 percent three-point shooter in Brogdon, the Bucks still have a plethora of solid shooters who should be able to hit more shots as the reigning MVP rests. As the season goes on, it wouldn’t be a shock to see these numbers level out in their favor.

Houston Rockets — Second Half Net Rating

After starting the season in a bit of a rut, the Houston Rockets have ripped off eight straight wins and have played about as well as many expected them to coming into the season. Like last year their success could be attributed mostly to a dominant James Harden, who’s averaged 40 points per game in that stretch.

Last season, the Rockets would often get out to a hot start, but struggle thereon and occasionally give up leads in the second half. The culprit of the second half malaise was theorized to be a tired Harden, given his gargantuan workload, or perhaps a predictable style of play that opponents would catch on and adjust to after a couple of quarters.

Whatever the reason, the addition of Russell Westbrook was to serve as a potential antidote. Last season, Westbrook’s Thunder excelled in the second half of games, as his seemingly boundless energy had a way of wearing opponents down as games went on.

And, in fact, the Rockets have proven much more assertive in second halves. They are currently sporting a 2.2 net rating in the first half, a number that has improved to 3.6 in the second, per NBA.com.

While Harden has continued to take a lion’s share of the work, Westbrook has added a transition threat to the Houston offense and has certainly played a key role in its improvement. If the Rockets can maintain this energy and efficiency throughout entire games, they could prove a major threat come April and May.

Those five statistics are just a few of the interesting trends and storylines to follow across an 82-game season. So, be sure to check back with Basketball Insiders to follow them along.

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NBA Daily: Biggest Disappointments — Central Division

Basketball Insiders’ Biggest Disappointments series continues as Drew Mays explores the struggles of the Central Division.

Drew Mays

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Basketball Insiders has looked at some of the biggest surprises and disappointments to start the new season. And, now, four weeks in, the shift in perception from “The sample size is too small” to “Maybe this is just who this team is” has begun. While there is plenty of time left to justify the former, the latter has looked far more truthful for much of the disappointments in the NBA’s Central Division.

Confused in Chicago

The Chicago Bulls’ postseason hopes were widely known. And it wasn’t just speculation – the Bulls themselves talked playoffs from media day until the beginning of the season. But, sitting at 4-9, each passing game bears a striking resemblance to last year’s 22-60 team, one that was talented but unable to sustain any consistency.

The numbers paint Chicago’s struggles in an even more confusing light. Per Cleaning the Glass, the Bulls take a slightly above-average number of threes and have the most rim attempts in the league. They’ve shied away from the mid-range, while they get to the free throw line and turn the ball over at standard — not great but not terrible — rates. The offense must be clicking, right?

Wrong. Chicago sits at 28th in points per 100 possessions (they’re 14th in points per 100 defensively). Their half-court offense has been stagnant, with a lot of side-to-side action but nothing much in the way of getting to the basket. The league-high rim attempt percentage is clouded by poor decision-making in the paint, where the Bulls often force shots or flat-out miss kick out opportunities.

Lauri Markkanen, arguably Chicago’s most important player, has yet to get going. He’s averaging 14.5 points and 7.7 rebounds per game, but he’s shot just 37.7 percent from the field and 28.2 from deep. He’s scored over 20 points only once, on opening night in Charlotte.

There is reason for optimism. Markkanen is getting good looks; he should start hitting them eventually. Wendell Carter has been excellent in the middle. The Bulls’ shot chart lends itself to success. Outside of Milwaukee, the rest of the division is vulnerable. Chicago held their own against the Bucks and even the league-leading Lakers, controlling much of the game versus the latter. If not for some fourth quarter collapses, the Bulls might have a winning record.

There’s still time to turn it around. But thus far, 2019-20 has been a disappointment in Chicago.

The Last Two for Cleveland

 The Cleveland Cavaliers are frisky!

They’ve beaten two division foes in Chicago and the Indiana Pacers, and they’ve held their own in games against the Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics over the last two weeks.

Kevin Love and Tristian Thompson are both averaging double-doubles. Collin Sexton has upped his scoring and lowered his turnovers this season. Darius Garland has shown some serious flashes as a young rookie.

Defense is the toughest thing to learn in the NBA. Younger teams are usually really bad on defense – especially teams with a starting backcourt made up of a sophomore and a rookie. However, Cleveland has managed to remain in the middle of the pack on defense, ranking 15th in points allowed per 100 despite being in the bottom third in effective field goal percentage allowed.

They’re even 16th in the league in Basketball Reference’s adjusted net rating, which estimates a team’s point differential every 100 possessions adjusted for strength of opponent. There is a lot to be excited about for the future.

However, after defeating the Knicks and losing by one to the aforementioned 76ers, Cleveland was steamrolled in both first halves against the HEAT and the 76ers at home. They were outscored by 48 in the two halves, looked utterly outclassed and outmatched and, ultimately, lost by 11 and 19, respectively.

Growing pains were expected, especially for the young backcourt. And even after an encouraging start, two straight blowouts where the Cavaliers never had a chance is still disappointing.

The bad news with Cleveland is the same as the good news: they still have a lot of growing to do.

Detroit’s Free Fall

After starting off the season 4-5 (about what we’d expect from the perennially middling team), the Detroit Pistons have gone cold.

Their most recent loss was on Friday – Blake Griffin needed 19 shots to get to 19 points, Derrick Rose turned the ball over six times, and the Pistons fell 109-106 to Charlotte, dropping them to 4-9 on the year.

The disappointing thing for the Pistons has surprisingly been their defense. Detroit’s usual pattern has been to plod on offense and use their top-10 defense to put them in a position to win. But the script has flipped this year – Detroit ranks 9th in points per 100 possessions and 3rd in team effective field goal percentage, but they’re just 26th and 28th in those respective categories on defense.

Their biggest offensive struggle has been turnovers. Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond, and Derrick Rose are averaging almost 12 per game between the three of them, leading to Detroit’s 28th ranked turnover percentage.

The other problem for Detroit is that they’ve faced a relatively easy schedule thus far. That SOS is middle of the pack the rest of the way. If they plan on returning to the postseason in 2020, they’ll need to end this losing streak sooner rather than later.

Khris Middleton’s Left Leg

Khris Middleton is out for the next several weeks after suffering a left thigh contusion November 10 in Oklahoma City. He was averaging 18.5 points and 5.3 rebounds on a career-best 59.9 true shooting percentage before the injury.

Milwaukee cruised to a 2-0 record last week without their second banana, defeating both Chicago and Indiana. The Bucks will have to navigate at least the rest of November with Giannis and Eric Bledsoe as the only real playmakers on the roster.

Luckily, they’re built for this – questions continue to surround Milwaukee as to whether Khris Middleton as the complement to Giannis is even enough to win the East – the bench will be able to fill in around Giannis. All of the wings will see increased minutes, and Bledsoe will be tasked with a higher usage rate.

Any time your second-best player goes down, it’s disappointing. But Milwaukee has the system in place to continue winning, even without Middleton.

Again, it’s still early for all of these teams. They have played just 13, 12, 13 and 12 games each. But as 13 moves towards 20 and 25 games in the coming weeks, these disappointments are no longer early struggles – they are identities, and what the team may be left with for the rest of the season.

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