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NBA PM: Pressure on Jason Kidd and the Bucks

With the Eastern Conference weakening, pressure is on Jason Kidd and the Bucks to perform, writes James Blancarte.

James Blancarte

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The Cleveland Cavaliers made it to the NBA Finals for the third straight year and LeBron James just went to the Finals for the seventh straight year. Yet James and the Cavaliers are currently dealing with an alarming amount of internal discord. In addition, other Eastern Conference playoff stalwarts took huge steps back – including the Chicago Bulls, Indiana Pacers and the Atlanta Hawks – while many others failed to improve. More so than years past, the Eastern Conference is wide open for teams to break into the playoffs or significantly improve their previous playoff rankings. A team in position to do just that is the Milwaukee Bucks.

The Milwaukee Bucks are led by one of the most exciting young players in the league, Giannis Antetokounmpo.  The Bucks finished the 2016-17 NBA Season with a record of 42-40 and the sixth seed in the East. Although they lost that that first round playoff series to the Toronto Raptors, this still marks progress. The Bucks have not advanced to the playoffs in back to back seasons in nearly 15 years and haven’t finished with a winning record since the 2009-10 season. Much credit is given to young head coach Jason Kidd. Now the Bucks sit on not only potential but the expectation of taking a significant step forward, and Kidd will be tasked with helping Bucks make that next leap.

A little over a year ago Kidd signed a three-year extension to remain as the head coach, which will keep him in this position until the 2019-20 season. The renewal of Kidd’s contract demonstrates a commitment to continuing an investment that began with a trade. After Kidd’s rookie head coaching year ended with a Game 7 victory for his Brooklyn Nets team over the Raptors, the Bucks secured Kidd’s coaching services in exchange for two conditional second round picks in 2015 and 2019. Like many coaches before, Kidd is a former star player turned head coach and Kidd made the rapid transition the season after retiring from the NBA.

With the Bucks, Kidd has overseen the development and play of a number of young players, none more important than Antetokounmpo. The team received much attention when award season came around. First, Antetokounmpo came out as the Most Improve Player. A huge part of the success of last year’s campaign is credited to Kidd for his decision to allow Antetokounmpo to take over ball handling and playmaking duties as a point forward. This helped to unleash Antetokounmpo’s full repertoire on the court.

Antetokounmpo recently espoused a belief that he might win a Most Valuable Player award in a recent interview with Bucks play-by-play announcer Jim Paschke. Antetokounmpo pushed back when told that he probably wouldn’t win another Most Improved Player award.

“Why? I might be MVP this year,” Antetokounmpo responded. “Ok, but…if I win the MVP, I can be most improved.”

In addition, the team’s second round draft pick from last year, guard Malcolm Brogdon, emerged as the Rookie of the Year after an underwhelming year from the rookie class overall. Add to the mix the unexpected emergence of athletic big man Thon Maker. Maker, like Antetokounmpo years earlier, is a player with raw potential and the hope is that he will maximize that potential similar to how Antetokounmpo has. His emergence in last year’s playoffs gave hope that with continued development and improvement, he too could be franchise cornerstone which Kidd will be asked to oversee as he did with Antetokounmpo.

Also, reliable mainstays such as forward Khris Middleton and center Greg Monroe will continue to be relied upon. Unclear is when and in what condition forward Jabari Parker will come back in. Parker is recovering now from a second ACL tear in the same knee and the team is rightfully being cautious in his recovery. As a reminder, Kidd only had Middleton returning from injury and Parker who had not yet torn an ACL again for one game. When Kidd will have the full breadth of his talent at his disposal is unclear.

With the rapid development of the Buck’s young players, part of Kidd’s job will not only be to manage the talent at his disposal but to manage the Buck’s chances of moving up into the upper echelons of the East.

Looking back again at the trade for Kidd’s coaching services, his departure from the Nets organization came with a bit of controversy. Reports indicated that Kidd had sought more managerial power in the organization.

Enter new Bucks General Manager Jon Horst. Horst comes into the franchise after the franchise’s leadership group couldn’t initially agree on whom to hire after the departure of long-time GM John Hammond. Horst comes in both as the youngest GM in the league at age 34 but is not without experience as he has been with the organization for a number of years. In an interview with NBA.com, Horst was specifically asked who would have the final say regarding personnel moves.

“Jason Kidd is our coach,” Horst responded. “Ultimately, I’ve been hired to run the basketball operations for the Milwaukee Bucks, to have final say and to make the final decision.”

With that statement, it appears that Horst has been given not just the title but the final say in personnel moves. If there had been a notion that the hiring of someone so young might allow for a situation where that power might be shared, that notion has been removed for now.

The Bucks now have mature and talented players. They have depth, experience and one of the most dynamic players in the league leading them. They also have a new front office leader in Horst. But even with all of this, the attention is and should be on Kidd. Kidd has been up and down in his short coaching career and has at times struggled to get the most out of his roster. With the top of the East showing signs of vulnerability, arguably no team is better positioned to take a significant step forward than the Bucks. Much of the Bucks’ success next season will come down to how well Kidd puts things together and manages his young and dynamic roster.

James Blancarte is a writer for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney based in Los Angeles, California.

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Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal

The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.

Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.

There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.

Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.

Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.

That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.

Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.

At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.

It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.

One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.

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NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind

Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.

Dennis Chambers

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When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.

“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.

Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.

That didn’t last long.

“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”

With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.

As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.

After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.

In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.

“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”

Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.

“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”

Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.

“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”

After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.

Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.

“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”

All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.

“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”

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Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team

Basketball Insiders

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Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.

“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”

Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN

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