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NBA PM: The Last Restricted Free Agent

Donatas Motiejunas is the last restricted free agent available. Why is he unsigned and what’s next for him?

Alex Kennedy

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Donatas Motiejunas: The Last Restricted Free Agent

There is only one restricted free agent remaining on the market and that is Donatas Motiejunas, who has spent all four seasons of his NBA career with the Houston Rockets. The 25-year-old seems like the kind of free agent who should’ve had teams lining up to pay him this summer. After all, he’s a seven-footer who can play power forward and center and his range extends out to the three-point line.

He has the size, stats, versatility and shooting ability that executives typically drool over. But unfortunately for Motiejunas, this past year was a mess and his value decreased significantly for reasons largely out of his control.

It was just two seasons ago that he averaged 12 points and 5.9 rebounds in 28.7 minutes per game while shooting 50.4 percent from the field and 36.8 percent from three-point range. He started 62 games that year for the Rockets, emerging as a real difference maker who scored inside and out – particularly when Dwight Howard was sidelined due to injury. However, in March of that campaign, a herniated disk in Motiejunas’ back ruled him out for the rest of the season (including the playoffs). The Rockets would go on to make the Western Conference Finals without Motiejunas.

Last summer, he had surgery to repair the herniated disk. He missed the start of the year, but was able to make his season debut in early December. However, after a brief rehab stint in the D-League and 14 games with the Rockets, he was sidelined once again due to his back pain resurfacing. He missed all of January and most of February.

It was at this point, before the trade deadline, that the Rockets dealt Motiejunas and Marcus Thornton to the Detroit Pistons in exchange for a 2016 first-round pick. The three-team trade also included the Philadelphia 76ers, who would receive Joel Anthony and a second-round pick

At the time of the trade, he had played just 14 games with the Rockets (averaging 5.6 points and 2.1 rebounds) in addition to four games with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers of the D-League as part of a rehab stint. It seemed like the change of scenery could be good for Motiejunas, especially since he’d be playing under a terrific head coach in Stan Van Gundy (who is also the team’s president and has had success with stretch bigs) and paired alongside dominant young center Andre Drummond in the frontcourt.

Right after acquiring Motiejunas, Van Gundy raved about the team’s acquisition. He was seemingly excited that he added an additional stretch big, especially since Motiejunas could be a “stretch-five” in some lineups and provide further flexibility.

“We think when you add Donatas to the group we already have, going forward we think we’re equipped to deal with any kind of lineup anybody might play against us,” Van Gundy said at the time, according to Aaron McMann of mlive.com.

However, several days later, it was announced that the Pistons had rescinded the trade because Motiejunas failed the physical that all traded players are required to take within 48 hours of any deal being agreed upon. Rather than joining the Pistons, Motiejunas had to go back to the Rockets in what had to be an awkward return.

He would come back from his back injury in late February and finish the season averaging 6.2 points, 2.9 rebounds and 1.1 assists in 14.8 minutes. His shooting percentages fell to 43.9 percent from the field and 28.1 percent from three-point range.

Around the same time he returned to action in February, Motiejunas did an interview with a Lithuanian outlet in which he suggested that he was healthy enough to pass his physical with the Pistons but that Detroit’s front office just used his health as an excuse to change their mind about the trade.

“The medical examination is a funny thing,” Motiejunas told a Lithuanian reporter in an interview that was translated into English. “The team doctor simply says whether you pass or don’t, although they may not even do any checks. Those 48 hours actually just let the team decide whether they want you or not. The Pistons announced I did not pass the medical, although I surely did pass it and played even before it. I just got screwed. The injury was a pretense to call off the trade. They changed their minds.

“The Pistons had access to my full medical history, so they shouldn’t have done what they did to me. They decreased my value. The medical examination I ‘failed’ was a joke. The Pistons will have some explaining to do as to why they did not want the trade anymore. We will see what happens.”

Van Gundy later responded and, while he completely understood Motiejunas’ frustration, he stressed that the Pistons voided the deal after their doctors found red flags with his back that made the deal too risky to give up a 2016 first-rounder (which was later used on 19-year-old stretch-four Henry Ellenson).

“We went through a very thorough process and we made the decision we made for the reasons that we thought it was too much risk,” Van Gundy said, according to Brendan Savage of mlive.com. “Look, I feel bad for him, too, because I understand his points in terms of his value and everything else. But we felt we had to make the decision we made.

“It’s a really tough profession for players. People, I think, focus on the money they make and obviously that’s great, but how many of us have jobs that, on 48 hours notice, you’ve got to move your family anywhere they tell you to go and you’ve got absolutely no say in it? And then in our case, we rescinded and you go back. Guys are going to have negative reactions to things like that and I think you have to give them the room to have that. He’s got the right to have whatever reaction he wants to have. I’m not resentful of that at all. I don’t take that personally at all. He was in a tough situation.”

Now, Motiejunas is once again in a tough position. He’s right that the failed physical hurt his value because it perpetuated the notion that his back injury is potentially serious and perhaps an issue that could affect him long-term. Whether true or not, that’s going to scare some teams. Detroit’s decision to void the trade did hurt his value a bit, but so did the fact that he missed so many games this season and saw a drop in his production when he did play.

However, it is worth noting that Motiejunas was effective in the Rockets’ first-round series against the Golden State Warriors. At times, he was one of the few Houston players who seemed engaged and battling since the Rockets were basically a train wreck by that point.

Throughout the course of the five-game series, Motiejunas averaged 8.8 points and 5.2 rebounds in 19.6 minutes, while shooting 43.2 percent from the field and 44.4 percent from three-point range (on 1.8 attempts per game). He was a big reason for Houston’s lone win of the series, as he had 14 points, 13 rebounds, two assists, two steals and one block in 31 minutes (while shooting 5-11 from the field and 2-3 from three-point range) in the Rockets’ Game 3 victory.

At this point, the number of teams that have significant cap space is relatively small. And make no mistake, it would likely take a significant offer sheet from another team for the Rockets to let Motiejunas go. Houston isn’t going to let him walk away for nothing (when they almost got a first-round pick for him in February) if a team makes a small offer. In that scenario, they would just match the contract and retain Motiejunas – either to keep him on the roster or to protect the asset so they could trade him and get something in return at a later date.

Motiejunas doesn’t have much leverage at this point, which is why he’s in such a difficult spot. He could negotiate with Houston and sign a multi-year deal, but they have no reason to offer him a lot of money when they’re essentially bidding against themselves. He can try working out for some of the teams with cap space (such as the Brooklyn Nets) and hope that they see what they like and make an offer, but that seems like a long shot. The Nets, in particular, have already tried to play the restricted free agency game twice this summer with Allen Crabbe and Tyler Johnson and didn’t get either player despite overpaying for them and offering very player-friendly contracts. The Portland Trail Blazers and Miami HEAT ultimately matched those offer sheets, and the Rockets could do the same for any Motiejunas deal.

One option that remains on the table for Motiejunas is signing the one-year, $4,433,683 qualifying offer from Houston. This would allow him to enter unrestricted free agency next summer, when the salary cap is projected to increase to an unprecedented $102 million. Ideally, he would be able to play out the 2016-17 season without any health issues and prove to teams that he’s still capable of producing at a high level. Then, he could cash in next summer without having to worry about restricted free agency questions about his back.

This is somewhat risky since it puts off signing a multi-year deal, but it’s also the route that likely leads to the biggest pay day if Motiejunas does well during the upcoming campaign. If his back feels fine, betting on himself may be worth it.

However, there are some uncertainties to consider too. The Rockets have a new head coach in Mike D’Antoni, and it remains to be seen how he’ll use Motiejunas. And while the departures of Dwight Howard and Terrence Jones would seem to open up minutes for Motiejunas, keep in mind that Houston signed veteran big men Ryan Anderson and Nene this offseason.

It’s been a rough year for Motiejunas and he certainly faced a series of unique challenges leading up to his free agency. Now, he has an interesting choice to make – even though he doesn’t have full control over the process due to his restricted status. He can help a team if he’s healthy, but the uncertainties surrounding him make his future pretty murky and that’s why he is the last restricted free agent on the market.

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA Daily: 76ers Should Look To Shake Milton For Point Guard Duties

With Ben Simmons out for an extended period, the Philadelphia 76ers will need to rely on a committee of potential ball-handlers to fill those minutes. Quinn Davis looks at one of those candidates and why he should get the bulk of that responsibility.

Quinn Davis

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During the Philadelphia 76ers’ first practice following the All-Star break, Ben Simmons felt some discomfort in his back. The team initially listed him as questionable for their game against the Brooklyn Nets before ruling him out after a pre-game warmup.

The official designation at the time was back tightness, a seemingly short-term nuisance. Concerns were further alleviated when Simmons was listed as probable for a showdown against the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday before starting that game.

Sixers fans’ halcyon lasted no more than five minutes, as Simmons was sent to the locker room early in the Bucks game. He was quickly ruled out for the remainder of the game and reports followed saying that Simmons would be given an MRI on Sunday.

On Tuesday, it was announced that Simmons had suffered a nerve impingement and would be re-evaluated in two weeks. The actual timeframe for his return to action will likely not be decided on until that re-evaluation.

With Simmons out for an extended period, the team will need contributions from an ensemble cast of ball-handlers. Brown was asked before the game about his decision on who will take the lion’s share of those duties. He answered that it will be “by committee,” citing Josh Richardson, Alec Burks, Shake Milton and Raul Neto as possible candidates.

Out of those four, Milton may be the best option. His combination of point guard skills and three-point shooting make him a good candidate to play with the starters as he did Monday against the Hawks.

Milton’s start was not the only surprise, as Al Horford was also moved back in the starting lineup after being relegated to the bench just before the All-Star break. The decision was prudent as that group got off to a hot start and powered the Sixers to a 41 point first quarter.

Milton was asked after the game about the conversation that preceded his starting nod.

“There was no conversation,” Milton said. “He just came in and slapped my name on the board, that’s how I found out.”

Milton was then asked whether there was any specific preparation for the role.

“No, but it’s my job to be ready for whatever the team needs me to do, I feel comfortable on the ball, I feel comfortable off the ball. When someone goes down, and you don’t want to see injuries, but it’s next man up.”

Milton looked prepared enough, albeit against one of the league’s worst defenses. In 26 minutes, he tallied 7 points, 5 rebounds and 6 assists while tying for a team-high plus-21.

While Milton is a riskier play than veterans Burks and Neto, he has a clear advantage in upside. He has shown an improved ability to get to the rim this season and has flashed nice passing ability in tight spaces.

One of the keys to running the offense while Simmons is out will be the ability to get the ball to Joel Embiid on time and on target.  Here, the Sixers run one of their more frequently used plays with Richardson setting the screen for Embiid to roll to the rim. The Hawks get caught up on the screen, Milton recognizes that Embiid has sprung free and makes the pass. It’s a tad high, but Embiid hauls it in and gets the layup.

The Sixers also like to run dribble handoffs with their star center. None have perfected it as JJ Redick did in the previous two seasons, but Milton could be useful in this action. This was not on display Monday night, but they have run it with Milton earlier in this season. Here is an example from an earlier contest against the Hawks last month.

Damian Jones jumps out to contest the shot, so Milton finds the rolling Embiid for the dunk.

The obvious caveat here is that both of the above clips were from games against one of the league’s worst defenses. Milton will face more resistance against other teams who will not allow Embiid to get a wide-open role to the rim, leaving Milton with the task of either driving or hitting the pull-up jumper.

His proficiency in those plays will certainly be a factor in his playing time. His passing overall is solid and maybe the best out the Sixers’ backup guard contingent. He can read defenses well thanks to his experience as a point guard through college and in his time in the G League. If he begins to flash close to the pull-up scoring ability of Burks, he will quickly rise to the top of this group.

On the other side of the ball, Milton has held his own. He came into the season with defense being one of his most apparent weaknesses, but he has worked to improve on that end and was tested on Monday against some solid offensive players. While Milton isn’t close to the defender that Simmons and Richardson are, his length and effort level can make him serviceable on that end.

Milton was even tasked with guarding Trae Young for brief periods. Young can make any defender look silly, but Milton managed to play him tight. In this play, he does a good job of sticking with Young around the screen and recovering to block the floater.

Of course, things are a little easier when a player of Embiid’s caliber is patrolling the paint. The perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate has been upping his defensive intensity the last few games, and on the above play makes Trae Young think twice about going all the way to the basket or attempt the lob.

Basketball Insiders asked Brown after the Hawks game about the confidence he has in Milton’s defense.

“He comes in and plays as if he belongs,” Brown said. “He can guard better than I originally thought. He’s got some legit point guard thinking in his psyche and I think he can guard multiple positions.”

And, further, on his defensive improvement:

“Just having a year being around players who are as good as they are,” Milton stated. “When you’re going up against guys like these every day, it forces you to get better and it forces you to work harder.”

Given the success in Philadelphia’s first game, Milton will likely stay as the starter. With Simmons out for an extended period, Brown should stick with him in that spot to foster some chemistry between the young guard and Embiid.

If Milton continues to play well, he could carve out a role for when Simmons returns to the lineup. It’s certainly possible that a tightened playoff rotation leads to Richardson being the only guard on the floor when Simmons sits. If Brown feels more ball-handling is needed, though, it will likely come down to Milton and Burks for that spot.

Burks has the edge in experience, which is usually one of the biggest factors in rotation decisions come April. Burks also is a proven scorer out of the pick-and-roll, an area where the Sixers lack. With that said, Milton’s all-around play could be more valuable for a team with two stars that he will likely be sharing the court with.

There is time for those decisions, though. For now, the Sixers will need to find a way to go on a run and secure home-court without their star point guard.

Taking a chance on Milton’s upside may be their best shot.

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NBA Daily: Samanic, Johnson Impressing With Austin Spurs

David Yapkowitz speaks with two young San Antonio Spurs standouts, Luka Samanic and Keldon Johnson, about their time in Austin with the G League.

David Yapkowitz

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For rookies starting their NBA careers in today’s league, their journey is a little bit different than in the past.

In prior years, rookies who weren’t in the rotation immediately were often buried on the bench and relegated to garbage time minutes. It could be a frustrating and difficult situation for players used to being team focal points in college or high school.

What’s changed within the past decade is the way NBA teams have used the G League. The G League has grown tremendously to the point where almost every NBA team has its own affiliate. The New Orleans Pelicans became the 28th team to have an affiliate this season with the Erie Bayhawks, leaving only the Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers without a G League team.

More and more NBA teams have begun using their G League affiliates to get their young players playing time and development that they wouldn’t receive by staying the entire season with their NBA parent club.

One team that has taken full advantage in recent years of having a G League affiliate is the San Antonio Spurs. When the Columbus Dragons of the then NBA D League relocated to Austin, Texas, they were purchased by the Spurs and renamed the Austin Toros. They’ve since changed their name to the Austin Spurs.

Throughout their team history, Austin has had several call-ups to the NBA, and San Antonio has used its affiliate to get young players seasoning and development. Within the past five years, Kyle Anderson, Dejounte Murray, Derrick White and Lonnie Walker, all Spurs first-round draft picks, saw extensive time in the G League as rookies.

Coming into this season, San Antonio had two first-round picks, Luka Samanic and Keldon Johnson, who didn’t figure to be in the rotation right away. To this point, Samanic has yet to suit up for San Antonio and Johnson has played in only four games. Both have spent the majority of their time in Austin.

Samanic was an intriguing prospect with a bit of a versatile skill set when the Spurs made him the 19th overall pick in last summer’s draft. He can score in the paint, handle the ball a bit and has improving range on his jump shot.

A native of Croatia, Samanic played professionally in Slovenia and Spain before declaring for the 2019 NBA draft. As a youth, he participated in the Adidas EuroCamp, an NBA pre-draft camp, and he had a few Division 1 schools monitoring him. He opted to play professionally while preparing for the NBA.

He’s spent the entirety of his rookie year thus far in Austin, where he’s been adjusting to the American pro game.

“It’s much different. I go from game-to-game and we practice a lot so that’s made it easier,” Samanic told Basketball Insiders. “Being with this group has helped me a lot, too. Just being more physical, coming here and adjusting to the physicality.”

In 31 games with Austin, Samanic is putting up 15.3 points per game on 43.6 percent shooting from the field to go with 7.6 rebounds. He’s had several double-doubles and after struggling a little bit early in the season, seems to have found a bit of a rhythm. He’s shooting only 31.9 percent from three-point range on the year, but in January, he was at 34 percent.

He credits the staff in Austin with helping his game and getting him adjusted to NBA style play. He knows that this season is mostly about development in Austin, but he does have the goal of making a difference for San Antonio by next year.

“I can bring the same things I bring to Austin. Whatever [Gregg Popovich] needs me to do, I’ll do,” Samanic told Basketball Insiders. “I just want to adjust as much and as quick as possible. Get experience and then next year, I’m trying to be in the rotation in San Antonio.”

In Johnson’s case, he’s been brought up to San Antonio for a few games here and there, but has also spent the majority of his rookie season with Austin. He was a highly-touted prospect at Oak Hill Academy and played only one season at Kentucky before declaring for the NBA draft.

Once projected to be a lottery pick, Johnson has the ability to be an impact player on the wing. He can put the ball on the floor and attack the rim. He has a strong inside game too and has the tools to be an effective perimeter defender. He’s shown flashes in the G League of why he was considered to be a steal when the San Antonio grabbed him with the 29th pick.

He, too, credits the G League with helping him adjust to the NBA level and is confident he can contribute to San Antonio’s rotation if needed.

“I think the main things are pace and just staying in shape. Getting up down, getting my body right and eating right,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “Just playing hard and playing defense. Everything else will come in time. As long as I can be myself and do what I know I can do, I’ll be fine.”

Johnson has been one of the top standouts for Austin this season. He’s started in 29 of the 30 games he’s played in the G League and put up 20 points per game while shooting 52.3 percent from the field, 5.8 rebounds and 2.4 assists. The one area he stands to improve upon is his outside shooting, as he’s only converting on 23.3 percent of his long-range attempts.

He was recently named to the Western Conference mid-season All-G-League team and if his performances are any indication, the Spurs could have another diamond in the rough on their hands. So far, he’s been impressed with the level of competition he’s faced up against in the G League. He knows that since he has an NBA contract, he’s getting everyone’s best shot night in and night out.

“I think it’s everything you can ask for. You’re playing against great players, night in and night out,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “You don’t get to take days off. Everybody is grinding, they’re hungry, we come in and they’re ready to play. You’ve got to be ready every night.”

The G League regular season ends next month, but Austin is one of the top teams in the league and could be playing into mid-April in the G League Finals. Johnson will likely be assigned to Austin for the duration of their playoff run, making next season his opportunity to get minutes in San Antonio.

For now, he’s continuing to work on his game and be ready for whenever his name should be called upon.

“I just want to get better and be the best Keldon Johnson I can be,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “Throughout my rookie season, just staying consistent is the main thing. Just get better honestly, that’s my main goal.”

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NBA

NBA Daily: DPOY Watch — 2/25/20

Robert Covington’s off-ball disruption, the Philadelphia 76ers’ revamped rotation and Giannis Antetokounmpo’s unsurpassed individual dominance highlight this edition of Defensive Player of the Year watch. Jack Winter dives in.

Jack Winter

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The regular season is over two-thirds finished, and the playoffs start in 53 days.

Unsurprisingly, the front of the Defensive Player of the Year race has remained largely stagnant as 2019-20 enters its final stretch. But there’s ample time for movement among the obvious top-four candidates, with factors like injuries, lineup changes and even overall team performance poised to play a large part in the inevitable shuffle.

Here’s where Defensive Player of the Year watch stands as spring quickly dawns.

Notable Defenders

Robert Covington – Houston Rockets

The league’s stingiest small-ball lineups have never played all that small.

The bygone Golden State Warriors, at least before adding Kevin Durant, routinely doled out crunch-time lineups absent a defender taller than 6-foot-8. The length and physicality of Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala, Harrison Barnes and Klay Thompson allowed the Warriors to switch across positions with near impunity.

But a quartet of like-sized defenders didn’t give the Death Lineup its name or defensive effectiveness. Golden State’s ability to compensate for limitations provided by the presence of Stephen Curry and a collective lack of height is what made the team’s closing five special, a reality best explained by the off-ball genius of all-time defenders like Green and Iguodala.

The Houston Rockets, embracing small-ball like no team ever before, don’t possess a single defender at that exalted level of historical greatness. Just two of Mike D’Antoni’s top-eight players, in fact, are considered an objective plus on that side of the ball irrespective of surrounding circumstances. But the Rockets’ downsized defense has held up well thus far regardless, and Robert Covington’s rare, all-court impact as a help defender is arguably the biggest reason why.

Covington, 11th in deflections per game this season, was credited with three blocks in his new team’s convincing road win over the Utah Jazz on Saturday. The film reveals just how large those blocks loomed to the game’s outcome — and how unlikely they would have been for most any other 6-foot-8 wing challenging Rudy Gobert at the rim.

Covington is often mislabeled as a traditional stopper. He’s certainly a better option checking superstar alpha dogs than an average wing and boasts the versatility to guard pretty much anyone without being consistently exploited.

The real scope of Covington’s influence extends to All-Defense levels, though, because of his imminent penchant for disrupting action away from the offense’s initial point of attack. That’s a trait especially valuable for a team like Houston, whose switch-heavy scheme inevitably lends itself to double-teams and a losing numbers game on the backside of the play.

Through six games, the Rockets’ defensive rating with Covington on the floor is a team-best 102.5, a hair worse than the Milwaukee Bucks’ league-leading mark. They’re allowing nearly 20 points per 100 possessions more when he sits, easily the highest discrepancy on the roster.

Those numbers portray Covington as a more valuable defender than is realistic. Not even basketball’s best rim-protectors make that big a singular difference all by themselves. Still, they’re telling of Covington’s unique defensive worth to Houston and indicative of the game-changing off-ball plays – whether highlight-reel or barely-noticed – he makes on a nightly basis for basketball’s smallest defense.

The Philadelphia 76ers’ New Rotation

Good on Brett Brown for making the necessary change that confirms Philadelphia’s odd-ball offseason was a mistake.

There might be a world in which Joel Embiid and Al Horford thrive playing together, owning the paint on both ends, exploiting mismatches from the inside out and affording ball handlers ample space to operate with canny screens and dribble hand-offs. But this one definitely isn’t it, not with Ben Simmons cramping the floor by refusing to shoot outside the paint and Horford’s three-ball falling at a rate well below career norms.

The theoretical silver lining, even if it’s one you have to squint to see, is that the Sixers aren’t taking anything off the table by moving one of their best players to the bench. Embiid is almost a top-five defense unto himself. The hope is that negative fallout defensively from replacing Horford with a wing like Furkan Korkmaz or Glenn Robinson III proves minimal, while additional spacing and off-dribble dynamism on the other end juices an offense that’s lagged far behind its talent level all season long.

Fortunately for Philadelphia, there’s ample evidence supporting the viability of those assumptions. The Sixers have defended at a league-best level with Embiid on the court whether Horford plays next to him or not, surrendering equal effective field goal percentages of 50.2. Their offensive rating spikes from a putrid 98.9 to an average 108.8 when Embiid mans the middle sans Horford, with the former’s true shooting percentage bumping nearly four points to just below the hallowed 60 percent threshold. Philadelphia remains elite defensively with Horford at center, too, surrendering 104.8 points per 100 possessions, a number that would rank third in the league overall.

Obviously, the real test for the Sixers’ revamped rotation – which is still very much in flux even before accounting for Simmons’ back injury, by the way – will come in the playoffs. But this team was always built more for the postseason than 82-game grind, and Philadelphia proved last spring that it’s more than comfortable knocking jaws in a half-court series.

Should that prove the case again, don’t be surprised if Brown reverts to relying on units featuring both Embiid and Horford. Either way, what a luxury that the Sixers’ in-season about-face prompts little to no concern about their ability to hold up defensively.

Giannis Antetokounmpo – Milwaukee Bucks

The Bucks don’t play a single negative defender.

Eric Bledsoe and Brook Lopez deserve All-Defense consideration. No team in the East has a better collection of versatile, experienced wing defenders than Khris Middleton, Wesley Matthews and Marvin Williams. The defensive bona fides of George Hill, Robin Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova need no explanation. Donte DiVincenzo has quietly become one of the most disruptive perimeter defenders in the league. Pat Connaughton’s 2.5 percent block rate this season ranks sixth among all guards since 2010.

Mike Budenholzer and his staff deserve immense credit. No defense in the NBA is more connected than Milwaukee’s, moving in perfect sync on the flight of the ball and letting questionable shooters launch wide-open from deep while protecting the rim at all costs.

But the above personnel’s unrelenting symbiosis and commitment to scheme isn’t what takes the Bucks’ defense from the top of the league to historical greatness. Giannis Antetokounmpo, of course, owns that distinction all by himself.

It’s not always easy for the naked eye to deduce Antetokounmpo’s defensive value. He’s rarely tasked with shutting down his team’s top offensive threat, instead primarily used as an omnipresent deterrent away from the ball. But no matter who Antetokounmpo is guarding, they’re noticeably hesitant to attack him.

Gobert leads the NBA in contested shots per game with 20.5, while Pascal Siakam ranks 20th by averaging 14.4 contested field goal attempts. Jonathan Isaac, another multi-positional defensive monster, is 52nd in that category. Antetokounmpo, by contrast, finds himself outside the top-100 in contested shots per game.

Don’t be fooled by his lackluster standing there relative to other dominant defenders, though. As the New Orleans Pelicans’ young franchise players learned earlier this month, going at Antetokounmpo is such a losing proposition that it’s best avoided altogether.

Is any other player in basketball capable of meeting Zion Williamson at the mountaintop and coming down left standing, let alone completely swallowing Brandon Ingram one-on-one in the same game? No way.

Antetokounmpo is a shoo-in for his second consecutive MVP. The case for his first Defensive Player of the Year award is nearly as strong, even if it’s much less discussed.

Defensive Player of the Year Rankings

5. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers

4. Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers

3. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz

2. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

Honorable Mention: Kawhi Leonard, LA Clippers; Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics; Robert Covington, Houston Rockets; P.J. Tucker, Houston Rockets; Bam Adebayo, Miami HEAT; Toronto Raptors – Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry, O.G. Anunoby

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