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NBA MIP Watch 2019-20: Preseason Edition

While the Most Improved Player Award is the hardest to forecast, there are certain signs that a player may be poised for a season worthy of this honor. Quinn Davis names five that could be in the running come season’s end.

Quinn Davis

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Forecasting the Most Improved Player award is not an easy undertaking. Unlike other awards, the field for Most Improved cannot be narrowed down to a select few that usually are in consideration. Theoretically, any player in the NBA could make a significant enough improvement to win this award.

Rookies heading into their second year could be an easy choice, as a year of NBA experience usually translates to improvement on the court. The issue here is that the voters think it’s too easy, and second-year players who were high draft picks are rarely considered for this award.  

De’Aaron Fox bucked this trend last year, finishing third in voting. Using that as a guide, it would be fair to say that it will take a Fox-like improvement for a second-year lottery pick to be considered for Most Improved.

The task becomes much more fun, and much more difficult, when looking beyond that batch of players. There are certain things to look for, such as an increased role or a player who has received praise for their work over the summer. In the end, it may just come down to a gut feeling.

Here are five players that check one or multiple of those boxes.

Jonathan Isaac

The third-year big man enters this season primed for improvement after a summer spent training with the USA Select team. Isaac has particularly shown flashes of defensive ability in his two seasons and could blossom into a disruptor on that end in this upcoming campaign.

Isaac’s coach, Steve Clifford, made it clear that he has high hopes for the Flordia State product this season in an interview he gave before training camp.

“He’s had a terrific summer. He looks good physically. He’s worked really hard with (assistant coach) Bruce (Kreutzer) and with (assistant coach) Pat (Delany) on his shooting, his range, his mechanics, his ISOs, his post-ups, his shot-making,” Clifford told Josh Robbins of The Athletic. “I think he’s in a really good place. Last year from Game 1 to Game 82 he made great strides. He was a big reason why our team improved so much. I think people will see he put a lot of hard work in. I think it’ll pay off.”

Clifford mentioned the improvements across last season, which were particularly seen in Isaac’s shooting. The versatile forward shot a dreadful 28.7 percent from deep prior to the All-Star break last season, but improved to 38.2 percent following that time off, per Basketball Reference.

Isaac is armed with a 7-foot-1 wingspan on a 6-foot-10 frame, giving him the ability to contest shots and take away passing lanes. One of his biggest weaknesses on the defensive end has been his skinny build, which makes it difficult for him to body up against some of the league’s brutes.  

Isaac is reportedly up to 230 pounds, after ending last season at 209. This weight could not only help him guard in the post, but also score in the post on the other end. Isaac will likely be guarded by opposing fours starting next to Vucevic, and his length could give him a significant advantage over opponents at that position.

Last season, Isaac averaged 9.6 points and 5.5 rebounds. If those numbers jump up to 15 points and eight rebounds with strong defense for a playoff-bound Magic team, he could be in the running for the league’s Most Improved Player.

Zach Collins

Another third-year big who teems with potential resides in Portland. Collins, who will likely start at power forward this season for the Trail Blazers, should see a large minute increase and has many excited for the possible leap he could take this season.  

A lot of this excitement was brought about by Collins’ performance in the playoffs last season when he played a pivotal role in Portland’s series win over the Nuggets. Collins flashed his defensive potential late in that series, recording five blocks in Game 6 and four blocks in Game 7 – both Blazers wins.  

Portland will ask Collins to stretch the floor this season next to the paint-bound Hassan Whiteside. Collins has shot 30 percent from deep in each of the last two regular seasons and will need to climb towards league average to give his team’s star backcourt requisite room to operate. 

If Collins can better space the floor while being an impactful defender, he may emerge as Portland’s third-best player this season. With increased minutes and a more defined role, the stage is set for Collins to build on his playoff performance and put himself into contention for Most Improved.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

As mentioned, it is very hard for second-year players to make a case for this award. Since the expectation for these players is to improve, they need to make a very significant leap to stand out for the voters. De’Aaron Fox did this last season, going from lost rookie to stud point guard that helped the Kings chase a playoff seed. Shai will need to do something similar on his new team in Oklahoma City if he is to make an impression.

Last season, the Kentucky product showed an ability to get into the paint and finish around the rim. He attempted 39 percent of his shots at the rim and finished 61 percent of those attempts.  Those numbers ranked in the 78th and 72nd percentiles for his position, respectively, per Cleaning the Glass.

SGA also shot a serviceable 37 percent from beyond the arc and a very impressive 48 percent on long mid-range attempts, per Cleaning the Glass.  

Now under the tutelage of Chris Paul, Shai may be able to take his all-around efficiency to the next level and learn how to get to his spots out of the pick-and-roll. The future Hall-of-Famer could also school SGA on the art of the pass, which is an area the second-year guard may have the most room to improve on.

While Shai had a very low assist rate for a point guard, he did show the ability to scan defenses and make the right play. With further experience and more teaching from Paul, he could make great strides in that department.

The second-year guard also has defensive potential thanks to a 6-foot-6 frame and 6-foot-11 wingspan. He already showed an ability to block shots and swipe passes as a guard last season and could immediately become a strong defender if he reduces his foul rate and stays focused off of the ball.

While he is poised to build off a strong rookie year, Shai’s candidacy may come down to the construction of the Thunder roster as the season goes along. It may be difficult to stand out while playing next to a ball-dominant point guard like Chris Paul.

If Paul is traded, SGA may have the opportunity he needs to control the offense and make a large enough leap to vault into the Most Improved conversation.

Lonzo Ball

There have been few players that have had as tumultuous first two seasons as Ball. Coming out of UCLA with his father as a hype man, Lonzo was drafted by the Lakers and asked to turn the franchise around.

After two seasons that featured a LeBron free-agent signing sandwiched between them, Ball was sent to New Orleans this summer as part of the Anthony Davis trade. He will now have the luxury of being away from the spotlight and could put more focus on his game.  The early returns on this focus have been encouraging.

Multiple videos have come out of the Pelicans training camp showing an improved jump shot form from Ball, and he’s looked confident putting it up in the preseason. If the confidence translates to the real games, Ball could truly take his game to the next level.  Already a brilliant passer and strong defender, Ball could go from an internet punching bag to an above-average NBA player this season with improved scoring ability.

The threat to shoot off the dribble would instantly improve his pick-and-roll game, which has been a weakness thus far in his career. This improvement could be amplified with the presence of Zion Williamson, who could make for a great partner in those plays.

Maybe more important than his on the court improvements are his lack off the court distractions.  Without the constant attention of the Los Angeles media, Ball could quietly make a case for Most Improved if his jumper is indeed improved this season.

Ben Simmons

Yes, it would be quite an achievement for a player to win Most Improved after already being an All-Star the year before; but Ben Simmons has the room to improve, specifically in one area, and could take a leap this season that warrants consideration for the award.

Simmons authored maybe the biggest moment in a preseason game thus far when he drilled a 27-foot three-pointer off the dribble in a game against the Guangzhou Loong Lions. The shot sent the crowd into a frenzy and gave many Sixers fans hope for a new Ben this season, one that isn’t afraid to launch from deep.

While it is unclear whether this newfound brashness from beyond the arc will translate to games against actual NBA teams, the fact that he took the shot in any game is encouraging. If the shot attempts keep coming and a few makes come along with them, Simmons could go from All-Star to All-NBA this season.

The best comparison for Simmons’ Most Improved campaign would be Giannis Antetokounmpo in the 2016-2017 season. In 2015-16 Giannis averaged about 17 points, 8 rebounds and 4 assists on 50 percent shooting. The next season, he averaged about 23 points, 9 rebounds and 5 assists on 52 percent shooting on his way to being named Most Improved Player.

Last season, Simmons averaged about 17 points, 9 rebounds and 8 assists, on 56 percent shooting. It’s plausible that an improved jumper and increased confidence could give Simmons the push he needs to make a similar jump that Giannis did. 

Both players have proven to be impactful defenders. Giannis has longer arms and is a better rim protector, but Simmons can lock down perimeter players when he needs to, as seen in his total erasing of D’Angelo Russell in the Sixers’ playoff series against the Nets. If Simmons further engages on that end he could make himself an even more viable candidate.

Simmons making this leap would be a surprise and a fun story, but it would not be unprecedented.  If the jump shot proves viable, he will certainly garner some consideration for Most Improved.

All of these players share the ability and the opportunity to make a run at Most Improved this season, but that is not to say that they will be the only candidates. It is likely that multiple players will surprise us with a breakout season and throw their hat into the ring for this award. 

Be sure to stay up to date and check out Basketball Insiders’ postseason award watch, for all of the awards, this season.

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NBA Most Valuable Player Watch – March 1

With the All-Star break on the horizon, Tristan Tucker updates the MVP ladder, with two former MVP winners picking up steam in recent weeks.

Tristan Tucker

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In a typical year, it’s rare to see more than two players in serious contention for the MVP award midway through the season. But, as everyone knows all too well, this is no normal NBA season, with three players alternating between the top three spots on what seems like a daily basis.

With the All-Star break nearly here, it’s time to take a look at how the MVP race is shaping up at the halfway point of the season.

1. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers (Previous: 1)

Embiid is at the top of his game right now, averaging 31.5 points, 13.2 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game in the time since Basketball Insiders’ last ladder update. In that span, Embiid is shooting 47.2 percent from downtown, with a 50-point performance against the Chicago Bulls and a 42-point performance against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Even more impressive, the 76ers are outscoring opponents by 18.8 points when Embiid is on the floor, which ranks in the 100th percentile of the NBA. That kind of production is literally unmatched, which should give Embiid a clear edge in the MVP race.

Philadelphia is a far more up-and-down team now than they were to begin the year, but Embiid’s continued growth has the 76ers with legitimate title hopes just five years removed from a 10-72 season.

2. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets (Previous: 3)

In the last two weeks, Jokic embarked on an amazing stretch, averaging 27.3 points, 8.9 rebounds, 7.9 assists and 2.1 steals per game while shooting 56.7 percent from the floor and 55.2 percent from deep. While the Nuggets are still searching for answers to their season, Jokic is doing everything in his power to keep them in the playoff picture.

If Jokic’s play this year was combined with Denver’s 2019-20 record, there’s little doubt that he would be leading the MVP race. However, a lack of consistency (with some embarrassing losses to the Washington Wizards and the injury-riddled Atlanta Hawks) has kept Jokic from outright claiming the top spot.

3. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers (Previous: 2)

James’ case for MVP has stagnated over the last two weeks, with the Lakers losing four-straight in that span. It’s hurt his case, but that isn’t to say that his on-court production hasn’t been ridiculously impressive, averaging 25.4 points, 8.6 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game in the last two weeks.

The Lakers are 14.5 points better when James is on the court and it’s evident to see that “The King” is keeping the Lakers afloat in spite of an injury to co-star Anthony Davis. That being said, James is going to need to cut back on games like those played during the team’s four-game losing streak; he committed eight turnovers against Washington and was a minus-20 against the Utah Jazz.

4. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors (Previous: 6)

Curry had an incredible February, especially closer to the beginning of the month. On the month, Curry averaged 32.1 points per game while shooting 41.9 percent on 12.8 attempts from three per game. That kind of production is reminiscent of his play in 2016, when he was unanimously awarded MVP.

Curry’s February numbers would have looked even more impressive if it weren’t for mediocre showings against the Miami HEAT, Indiana Pacers and Lakers. But the fact that Curry missed 30 threes combined in those games and still finished shooting better than nearly everyone else in the league is a testament to just how rare of a talent Curry is.

5. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers (Previous: Not Ranked)

With injuries to CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic, it seemed as if the already struggling Portland Trail Blazers were doomed to fade out of the playoff picture. Despite four straight losses, Lillard is carrying Portland with all of his might to a potential postseason berth, with the Blazers sitting at 18-14.

Over the span of two weeks, Lillard’s been on another planet, averaging 32.2 points and 10.8 assists per game while averaging 13 threes and making 37.2 percent of them. Take a second to think of the names that are starting next to Lillard: Gary Trent Jr., Enes Kanter, Robert Covington and Derrick Jones Jr. Trent and Kanter are playing well, but it’s hard to believe that that lineup is currently the sixth seed in the Western Conference.

6. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks (Previous: NR)

The competition at the bottom of the ladder is getting tighter with each passing week, with Kawhi Leonard and Luka Doncic each making promising cases while the HEAT’s Jimmy Butler has been a triple-double machine. But the selection here, at least this week, is Giannis Antetokounmpo, fresh off a game against the Los Angeles Clippers in which he put up 36 points, 14 rebounds and 5 assists.

In the last six games, the Bucks have put together a five-game win streak, with Antetokounmpo averaging 33.6 points, 13 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.7 blocks per game. “The Greek Freak’s” per game numbers have soared as Milwaukee’s overall success has grown, with his numbers inching closer to that of his MVP seasons. His success was even recognized around the league, with Antetokounmpo most recently named Eastern Conference Player of the Week.

While Antetokounmpo has a lot of work to do to make up lost ground in the MVP race, the Bucks’ recent play should have him among the top vote-getters despite some likely voter fatigue.

The period after the All-Star break is when teams buckle down and commit to playoff runs, separating the pretenders from the contenders. The feeling here is that the same will happen with the MVP race and that one true leader of the pack will soon emerge. Be sure to stay tuned to Basketball Insiders for the next MVP ladder!

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NBA PM: Boston At The Crossroads

Boston’s not-so-recent struggles may leave them with some tough decisions to make, writes Matt John.

Matt John

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There’s no need really to ask “what’s wrong with the Boston Celtics?” because it seems pretty clear as day what’s wrong with them. Jayson Tatum hasn’t returned to his dominant form since coming back from COVID. Kemba Walker’s slow recovery has led to maddening inconsistency. Marcus Smart’s calf injury put things out of whack. They don’t have the support from their rotation players that they once did. And, as it turns out, losing Gordon Hayward can sting a little.

A team that seemingly hadn’t skipped a beat since losing in the Eastern Conference Finals has now become losers of 14 of their last 23 games. Their last three losses were particularly demoralizing.

  • They had a 24-point lead over New Orleans, only to lose by five in overtime.
  • They lost on a buzzer-beater by Luka Doncic in a tight game against Dallas.
  • They got crushed by Atlanta in a double-digit loss that looked much worse than the box score showed.

Now here they are, standing at 17-17 and the blame game very much up and about. Pretty much everyone on the Celtics’ end unanimously agrees that the team is underperforming. That’s not a good look seeing they were the only franchise to have two All-Stars and a losing record at the same time.

The one excuse they have at their disposal is that they’ve never had their team at full strength. Sadly for them, it’s hard to know if full health will ever be an option with the current roster. That starts and ends with Kemba Walker. Working Walker back slowly is definitely the right move with his gimpy knee, but when he’s taken the court, his return to form has come in baby steps. He’s having more good nights than bad in recent weeks – scoring 32 points on 53/40/100 splits to go with 6 assists in a victory against Indiana cements his best performance of the season – but that’s not ideal for a player on a max contract.

He has yet to prove that he can play like the All-NBA player that Boston brought him to be – or even that he can play on a night-in, night-out basis. Those are two tough hurdles alone. Beyond that, who knows how long it’ll be before he gets it all back? If he gets it all back.

There’s plenty of season left and, from the looks of things, this team desperately needs the All-Star break to regroup. At 17-17 and the losses piling on in recent weeks, it seems that Boston has reached an impasse. Do they stick it out and ride this bad stretch hoping that the rotation gets it together or is this team due for a massive mid-season overhaul?

To answer that, first, consider how straight-up bizarre this anomaly of a season has been. Even in a 30-game span, teams have managed to flip the switch on their seasonal outlook.

It wasn’t too long ago that Toronto’s subpar play was building up a lot of ‘blow it up’ chatter. Now they’re right back in the playoff race with no signs of falling back. It only took a month for them to pull a 180. Further, it wasn’t that long ago that Washington was playing so poorly and Bradley Beal completely dead inside when he took the court.

Now, the Wizards have won seven of their last 10. Suddenly, they’re not too far behind in the Eastern Conference playoff race. Their start made them look worse than they actually were – now, they’re one of the hottest teams in the league.

And remember when Brooklyn had the league’s worst defense after selling the farm for James Harden? About that…

And they’ve done just that without MVP candidate Kevin Durant. The point is, this season was going to come with a lot of growing pains for just about everyone involved. There were expected twists and turns following the little time off between the Finals and opening night –it just wasn’t clear from whom.

For Boston, their season has flipped but in the exact opposite direction. Given the overall talent, Boston could be capable of flipping right back by virtue of patience and nothing else. The prospect of a healthier Walker and Smart would definitely seem like enough to get the season right back on track.

Even if time is all they need, that doesn’t mean a trade wouldn’t help them. The Celtics have the largest trade exception in NBA history to use – now more of a necessity than the perceived luxury it was a few months ago. After everything, general manager Danny Ainge has a spectacular ace in the hole.

An exception that can acquire someone as expensive as $28 million – so, potentially, a star-caliber player – would make teams salivate, but return ask is always much larger than imagined. Worse, only picks can be dangled – who might give up a legit piece without a young package in return? The answer is not many.

So although Bradley Beal and Nikola Vucevic would definitely turn the tides back in Boston’s favor, their teams would want more than just a treasure chest of first-rounders for them – and they might not even be available in the first place.

At this moment, the sellers market is beginning to settle, but that’s only in the Western Conference. Minnesota is firmly (and unsurprisingly) out of the race. Houston, Sacramento and Oklahoma City are not too far above them. If their seasons continue to freefall, that gives the Celtics options, albeit not the best ones.

Victor Oladipo aside, options like Harrison Barnes and George Hill aren’t often thought of as game-changers that can pivot the course of a season. Still, they’re better than what Boston has to support Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Walker and Smart.

So they can hold steady and pray for the best or trade for some help with draft assets. Then there’s the nuclear option: make some wholesale changes – an option that likely starts with Walker.

Walker never getting back to normal is a frightening – and real – possibility. As pessimistic and quick to judge as it sounds, maybe what we see is what we get. Someone who can put together a string of excellent performances, just not enough to maintain consistency. If this is who he is, given Boston’s lofty internal expectations, then they may not have a choice but to trade him.

At this point, trading him for something of value is probably out of the question. Just getting him off the roster would require including assets on top of him. Executives would usually rather swallow those contracts wholly or stretch them before giving up assets to part with a bad deal. Boston’s only hope would be to trade him for an equally bad contract that would better support the Celtics than Walker currently is.

That is a tall order, but still doable. Without naming names, we’ve seen players with previously declared ‘untradeable’ get moved, so nothing is impossible.

But odds are high that Walker will get all the time he needs before such a drastic decision is made. As bad as it’s looked for Boston in recent weeks, the wins against Indiana and Washington boosted them from ninth to sixth in the Eastern Conference race. They’re one good stretch from being right back where they were before the walls came crashing down on them.

Long-term, the Celtics should be fine. Tatum and Brown, of course, have already led them to two conference finals appearances over the last three years. While this stretch, which has objectively been one the worst in the Brad Stevens era, just seems so troubling for a team as successful as Boston has been for the last several years.

And for a team that once seemed to have all the time in the world, time might be of the essence for them now.

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NBA Daily: The Jrue Holiday Effect

Drew Maresca examines how good the Bucks can be with Jrue Holiday back in Milwaukee’s lineup.

Drew Maresca

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Jrue Holiday’s return from a bout with the novel coronavirus was uneventful. He played just under 18 minutes, tallying only 2 points and 3 assists. But despite Holiday’s ineffective outing, the Milwaukee Bucks still pulled out a win against the second-best team in the Western Conference. So just imagine how good they’ll be once Holiday fits back in.

Fitting in in itself isn’t that big of a challenge for a guy like Holiday. Coach Mike Budenholzer raved about his impact after a December win, according to BehindtheBuckPass.com. Opposing coaches, including Steve Kerr, did the same. And even the otherwise go-at-it-alone superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo seemed to give Holiday his stamp of approval, agreeing to a supermax extension after the trade for him was consummated.

But the fact remains that basketball is a team sport that requires cohesion – which is predicated on time and repetition. This year’s Bucks team – like any team that made major additions in the abbreviated offseason, training camp and preseason – simply didn’t have enough time to form the necessary on-the-court continuity.

Still, the Bucks probably felt pretty good about themselves entering the 2020-21 season. The price for Holiday was pretty high – costing them Eric Bledsoe, George Hill, the draft rights to R.J. Hampton (the team’s 2020 first-round pick), another two future first-round picks (unprotected) and two additional pick swaps – but that’s the cost of adding a borderline superstar.

But everyone around the team seemed satisfied with the move.

“Jrue is an incredibly high character person and one of the premier guards in the NBA,” Bucks general manager Jon Horst told the media shortly after the trade was consummated. “He will make us better on both ends of the floor, as he’s an elite defender and a proven playmaker on offense with the ability to score, shoot and facilitate. His experience will help our team and we are thrilled to welcome him and his family to Milwaukee.”

High praise from the new boss – but not surprisingly, the lack of preparation resulted in relative struggles. Milwaukee entered Sunday’s matchup with the Los Angeles Clippers with a 20-13 record, good for third in the conference. And while that’s quite good, it’s actually a step back for the Bucks, who won 28 of their first 33 games last season.

Specifically, Holiday numbers are down, at least when comparing his season averages to prior efforts. Holiday is posting 16.4 points, 5.4 assists and 4.8 rebounds per game through 23 games in 2020-21. He’s scoring nearly five less per game less than he did during his best season (2018-19), although he’s doing so in 32.5 minutes per game – down from the 35.6 average over the past three seasons.  

But Holiday appears to be a quick study. Through the first 11 games, Holiday averaged just 14.6 points 5.0 assists and 4.2 rebounds in 31 minutes per game. And he was shooting just 47.7 percent from the field and 36.7 percent on three-point attempts. However, through the next 12 games, Holiday increased his tally, scoring 18.0 points, dishing out 5.8 assists and grabbing 5.3 rebounds per game on 52.1 percent shooting from the field and 40.3 percent on three-point attempts.

Further, Holiday is second in the league in steals per game (1.9) across the entire season, and he has the second-best defensive plus/minus and PER (19.9) on the team, as well as the third-highest assist percentage (22.6 percent).

So it appeared as though, despite acclimating to a new team with a new system, Holiday was fitting in quicker than most would have thought. But the chaos that began in 2020 wasn’t done yet. Holiday got COVID-19 a few weeks ago and, as a result, he was forced to miss 10 consecutive games prior to Sunday’s contest against the Clippers.

Examining the Bucks’ last 10 games makes Holiday’s value and impact all the more evident. Sure, Milwaukee won four in a row, but they also went 1-5 before that – which adds up to a 5-5 record without Holiday. What’s more, their four-game winning streak came against Oklahoma City, Sacramento, Minnesota and New Orleans, four of the five worst teams in the Western Conference.

Further, the Bucks, who boast the league’s 10th best defense with a defensive rating of 110.6 including the past 10 games without Holiday, were suddenly giving up nearly four more points per game without Holiday than they did prior to his entering the league’s health and safety protocols

Admittedly, that return looked particularly difficult against seven-time All-Star Paul George. Maybe that’s why head coach Mike Budenholzer brought Holiday off of the bench, restricting him to only 18 minutes of playing time. Holiday looked rusty, notching only 2 points and 3 assists.

Still, Holiday was on the court in crunch time, demonstrating his value for all of Milwaukee to see. The long-time veteran was involved in the most important play of the game, dishing the hockey assist on the game-securing bucket – driving and drawing the defense before swinging the ball to the corner, which eventually led to Antetokounmpo flying in for an emphatic dunk.

Holiday spoke with the media following the game about how he felt in his first game since getting over his bout with the COVID-19 virus.

“Conditioning is just a little behind,” Holiday said. “I felt like I was a step slow. Again, just being able to play against actual NBA players in NBA games is so different from in practice.”

So Holiday is back, but he’s not back just yet — and still, the Bucks beat a healthy Clippers team, which is a feat for any squad. It’s not hard to imagine how good they’ll be once he’s fully healthy and conditioned.

Ultimately, adding Holiday was a stroke of genius for the Bucks, and the finished product isn’t even here yet. Subject to recency bias, it’s understandable why the media and fans alike have gravitated toward the Brooklyn Nets, but don’t forget about the Bucks because they’re not the same team they were last year – and Holiday is the reason why.

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