The Milwaukee Bucks may have had a disappointing season thus far, but there are a lot of reasons to be excited about the team’s future. Perhaps the biggest source of this excitement is Giannis Antetokounmpo and the way his game has evolved over the last few weeks.
Ever since All-Star Weekend, Antetokounmpo has taken his game to another level. In his last 11 games, Antetokounmpo is averaging 19.5 points, 10 rebounds, 7.6 assists, 1.9 steals and 1.8 blocks per game, while shooting 48.2 percent from the field.
On February 22, against the Los Angeles Lakers, Antetokounmpo registered his first triple-double of the season, contributing 27 points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists, three steals and four blocks in 42 minutes of action. Since that game, Antetokounmpo has put together two more triple-double performances and now, in less than two weeks, is tied with Hassan Whiteside for third in triple-doubles this season.
After the game, Kobe Bryant spoke to Antetokounmpo and advised him on how to become the great player he is capable of being.
“I said, ‘Listen, that’s just a choice you’re going to have to make,’” Bryant said. “‘If you want to be that great player you have to make certain sacrifices and you’ve got to go after it.’ He has the physical tools, the intelligence. Now it’s just a matter of him believing in himself and going after it. He has the talent to be a great player.”
More significant than the fact that Antetokounmpo is putting up huge stat lines is the fact that he is doing it out of position. He has recently taken over as the de facto point guard for the Bucks after Michael Carter-Williams was lost for the season to a hip injury.
We’ve seen Antetokounmpo attempt to play point guard before. Bucks head coach Jason Kidd experimented with the idea in the 2014 Las Vegas Summer League. The results were mixed at best and we didn’t hear much about the idea of using Antetokounmpo as a point guard much since that time. Now, it seems as though those plans are back in action.
“We’re not calling him the point guard, but he’s dictating the offense and he’s doing quite well with it,” Kidd said. “He wants that. He has the skillset to do that. He has the IQ to do it and he’s doing it well. Being consistent with that at 6’11 causes a problem. And you look at some of the passes that he’s able to throw from half court, a bounce-pass to Jabari [Parker] on the run. Those are things that you can’t teach and he has it in him and he’s displayed it.
“The ball is moving, our pace is up, all the stats are up. [Giannis’] skillset is like no other. He has the ability to put it on the floor, he’s working hard on his jump shot, he can post up, he can pass. Giannis is just going through the process, understanding things don’t happen overnight.”
Kidd is right that Antetokounmpo’s skillset is like no other. He is so long and athletic that he can get the ball up the court in as few as three dribbles. His ball-handling has improved significantly since he entered the NBA and he is now able to keep opponents off balance both in transition and in the half court. And now Antetokounmpo is throwing accurate passes all over the court in a wide variety of circumstances, including in transition, cross-court, from the post and in the pick-and-roll. Antetokounmpo still isn’t a pure point guard, but what we’ve seen out of the 21-year-old recently is very exciting.
In these clips, we see how effective Antetokounmpo can be facilitating the Bucks’ offense with his back to the basket.
Antetokounmpo is displaying great patience in the post, waiting for teams to double him so that he can launch a pass to an open teammate. Teams are consistently sending double-teams, underestimating Antetokounmpo’s ability to find and hit the open man. Antetokounmpo isn’t exactly a dominant scorer in the post, so teams may eventually stop cheating on him and force him to be more of a scorer than facilitator with his back to the basket.
But even if opponents take away Antetokounmpo’s ability to facilitate out of the post, there’s almost nothing they can do about his play-making in transition. At 6’11, with a long stride and strong handle, Antetokounmpo is able to jet past his opponents and draw numerous defenders, leading to easy buckets for teammates that are leaking out and running the court.
He is now also able throw pinpoint passes to his teammates from beyond the half-court line, in the half-court and while inbounding the ball.
Not every assist that Antetokounmpo racks up is the product of any heightened point guard skills. There have been times where he makes a simple pass to a player like Jabari Parker or Khris Middleton, who proceed to make a nice play off the dribble to score. Reviewing Antetokounmpo’s recent run as the Bucks’ de facto point guard was a good reminder that there is a lot of liberty taken in determining what constitutes an assist. There were several plays in which a teammate scored after taking more than one or two dribbles, which seemed to be far outside of what would generally be considered an assist. However, even with those liberties, Antetokounmpo has still racked up an impressive number of legitimate assists in these recent games.
Antetokounmpo is certainly unique among other playmakers and point guards for obvious reasons. However, one of the less obvious things about Antetokounmpo is that, unlike many of the top point guards in the league, he doesn’t rack up many assists in the pick-and-roll.
Part of the reason for that is Antetokounmpo is pushing the pace and doing most of his damage in transition. Another reason is the Bucks’ inability to space the court, which is allowing opposing defenses to stay compact and muck up Milwaukee’s pick-and-roll attempts. However, Antetokounmpo is showing that in limited circumstances, he can operate as the pick-and-roll ball-handler, and he should only get better with more time and experience (and hopefully with better shooters and screen-setting big men around him in the future).
The Bucks still have a lot of issues to figure out. They need to determine what to do with Carter-Williams in the long-term. Carter-Williams’ inability to shoot with any sort of consistency or range is a major problem and limits him to being a Shaun Livingston type of guard. Livingston also can’t shoot with any sort of range, but his length, defensive effort and ability to facilitate an offense make him a very nice backup point guard for any team. If Carter-Williams is set to be that sort of guard, the Bucks need to figure out who will be the long-term starting point guard and to what extent Antetokounmpo will act as the de facto point guard.
Antetokounmpo arguably allows Milwaukee to use Carter-Williams as the starting point guard, but off the ball for long stretches. But that perpetuates one of the Bucks’ biggest problems: they lack shooters and are incapable of spreading out opposing defenses consistently. Antetokounmpo’s development has helped to offset that in this recent run, especially with the rapidly developing chemistry between him and Jabari Parker. Still, this team needs more shooting and needs to figure out how much it can rely on Antetokounmpo to be its leading playmaker. And Antetokounmpo needs to add consistency to his jumper and stretch his range to the three-point line. Right now he is getting by despite not having a jumper, but once he adds that to his arsenal, it’s hard to imagine how defenses will slow him down.
Antetokounmpo’s recent play doesn’t solve all of the Bucks’ structural problems, but it sure does provide excitement and hope for what sort of player he can be and what sort of team Milwaukee can be in the future.
NBA Daily: Surging HEAT Must Overcome Adversity
The Miami HEAT have been hit with a number of injuries at shooting guard. Can they stay hot?
The Miami HEAT have surged to fourth in the Eastern Conference on the back of a 14-5 stretch since Dec. 9, including a seven-game win streak that ended with Monday’s 119-111 loss to the Bulls in Chicago. In the loss, shooting guard Tyler Johnson got his legs tangled with Robin Lopez and appeared to suffer a serious injury.
“I was scared,” said HEAT small forward Josh Richardson, who joined his teammates in racing down the court to check on Johnson. “You never want to see a guy, whether it’s on your team or the other team, down like that. I talked to him when he was in here [the locker room] and he said he didn’t know what was up.”
Coach Erik Spoelstra told pool reporters after the game that X-rays were negative. It was initially feared to be a knee injury, but Spoelstra said the knee is okay and the ankle is the area of concern. Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel tweeted that an MRI was not deemed necessary and Johnson will be listed as doubtful for Wednesday’s game in Milwaukee.
Tyler Johnson will be listed as doubtful for Wednesday's game against the Bucks, still with no plans for an MRI on his sprained left ankle sustained Monday in Chicago. He remains with the team, which did not practice Tuesday.
— Ira Winderman (@IraHeatBeat) January 16, 2018
Meanwhile, the HEAT is facing a serious shortage at shooting guard, having lost Dion Waiters to season-ending knee surgery, Rodney McGruder to a left tibia stress fracture that will likely keep him out until February, and now Johnson. Miami has applied for a $5.5 million disabled player exception after losing Waiters, according to the Sun-Sentinel. HEAT power forward James Johnson said the team will be looking for other players to step up.
“I think it’s the next guy’s gonna step up like we always do,” said Johnson. “As we have guys going down we also have guys getting back and getting back in their groove [like] Justise Winslow. Hopefully, it’s going to give another guy a chance to emerge on this team or in this league.”
Johnson added that the loss to Chicago came against a hot team and the HEAT didn’t have the right mental approach or defensive communication to slow them down.
“Our communication was lacking tonight,” said Johnson. “I think our brains rested tonight and that’s not like us. Tilt your hat to Chicago. They’re shooting the hell out the ball. They didn’t let us come back.”
Richardson echoed the theme of communication and the inability to counter a hot-shooting team.
“We weren’t communicating very well and we were not giving them enough static on the three-point line,” said Richardson. “They’ve been the number one three-point shooting team in the league for like 20 games now. They ran some good actions that we were not reacting right to.”
Spoelstra referred to a turnover-riddled close to the first half as “disgusting” basketball and agreed that the defense let his team down.
“I don’t know what our record is in HEAT franchise history when we give up 120-plus,” said Spoelstra. “I would guess that it’s probably not pretty good.”
The good news for Miami is that it can try a combination of Richardson and Winslow at the wings, while Wayne Ellington has been shooting the leather off the ball from three this season (40.5 percent on over seven attempts per game). The HEAT is the latest team to attempt to defy history by making a serious run without a superstar player. To make that a reality and remain in the upper half of the East’s playoff bracket, Miami will have to personify the “next man up” credo.
NBA Daily: Is It Time To Cash Out On Kemba Walker?
Should the Hornets get serious about trading Kemba Walker or risk losing him in 2019 for next to nothing?
Is It Time To Sell?
Every professional sports team at some point has to decide when its time to cash out, especially if they have a star player heading towards free agency. The Charlotte Hornets are a team teetering on this decision with star guard Kemba Walker.
Now, let’s be honest for a moment. The Hornets are getting nothing of meaningful value in a trade for Walker if they decided to put him on the trade market—that’s something that will drive part of the decision.
The other part of the decision is evaluating the marketplace. This is where Charlotte may have an advantage that’s easy to overlook, which is the ability to massively overpay.
Looking ahead to the cap situations for the NBA in the summer of 2019, there doesn’t appear to be a lot worth getting excited over. While it’s possible someone unexpected goes into cap clearing mode to get space, the teams that project to have space in 2019 also project to have space in 2018, meaning some of that 2019 money could get spent in July and change the landscape even more.
But for the sake of discussion, let’s assume most of the 2019 cap space teams swing and miss on anything meaningful this summer and have flexibility the following summer. Not only will Walker be a name to watch, but guys like Boston’s Kyrie Irving, Minnesota’s Jimmy Butler, Golden State’s Klay Thompson, Dallas’ Harrison Barnes, Detroit’s Tobias Harris, San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard and Cleveland’s Kevin Love can all hit unrestricted free agency.
That’s a pretty respectable free agent class.
While most of those names will likely stay where they are, especially if their teams shower them with full max contracts as most would expect, there are a few names that might make the market interesting.
The wrinkle in all of it is the teams projected to have space. Based on what’s guaranteed today, the top of the 2019 cap space board starts with the LA Clippers.
The Clippers currently have just Blake Griffin and Danilo Gallinari under contract going into 2019. They will have qualifying offers on Milos Teodosic and Sam Dekker, but that’s about it. If the Clippers play their cards right, they could be looking at what could be close to $48 million in usable cap space, making them the biggest threat to poach a player because of the LA marketplace. It should be noted, though, that DeAndre Jordan’s situation will have an impact here.
The Chicago Bulls come in second on the 2019 cap space list with just $35.77 million in cap commitments. The problem for the Bulls is they are going to have to start paying their young guys, most notably Zach LaVine. That’s won’t stop the Bulls from getting to cap space, it’s simply a variable the Bulls have to address this summer that could get expensive.
The Philadelphia 76ers could come in third on the 2019 cap space list, although it seems the 76ers may go all in this summer on re-signing guard J.J. Redick and a swing at a big fish or two. If the 76ers miss, they still have an extension for Ben Simmons to consider, but that shouldn’t impact the ability to get to meaningful space.
For the Hornets, those three situations have to be a little scary, as all of themff something Charlotte can’t offer – big markets and rosters (save maybe the Clippers) with potentially higher upside.
The next group of cap space markets might get to real salary cap room, but its more likely they spend this summer like say the Houston Rockets or are equal to less desirable situations like Sacramento (similar), Dallas (has Dennis Smith Jr), Atlanta (similar) or Phoenix (likely drafts a point guard).
That brings us back to the Hornets decision making process.
If the Hornets put Walker on the market, historically, teams get pennies on the dollar for high-level players headed to free agency. If traded, its more likely than not that Walker hits free agency and goes shopping. That’s the scary part of trading for an expiring contract unless you get the player early enough for him to grow attached to the situation, most players explore options. That tends to drive down the potential return.
The Hornets can also start extension discussions with Walker and his camp this summer and it seems more likely than not the Hornets will pay Walker the full max allowed under the collective bargaining agreement, which could be a deal north of $150 million and he could ink that in July.
It’s possible that someone offers the Hornets the moon for Walker. That has happened in the past. The Celtics gave the Cavaliers a pretty solid return for Irving, a player the Cavaliers had to trade. So it’s not out of the question real offers come in, especially with the NBA trade deadline approaching, but what’s far more likely is the Hornets wait out this season and try to extend Walker this summer.
League sources at the G-League Showcase last week, doubted that any traction could be had on Walker while admitting he’s a name to watch, despite however unlikely a trade seemed today.
The challenge for the Hornets isn’t as simple as cashing out of Walker, not just because the return will be low, but also because where would the franchise go from here?
It’s easy to say re-build through the draft, but glance around the NBA today – how many of those rebuild through the draft situations are yielding competitive teams? How many of them have been rebuilding for five years or more?
Rebuilding through the draft is a painfully slow and frustrating process that usually costs you a coach or two and typically a new front office. Rebuilding through the draft is time consuming and usually very expensive.
It’s easier to rebuild around a star already in place and the fact that Walker himself laughs off the notion of him being anywhere but Charlotte is at least a good sign and the Hornets have some time before they have to really make a decision.
At some point, Charlotte has to decide when to cash out. For the Hornets, the time to make that decision on Walker might be the February 8 trade deadline. It might also be July 1, when they’ll know whether Walker would sign a max contract extension.
If he won’t commit then, the Hornets have their answer and can use the summer to try an extract a package similar to what the Cavaliers got for Irving.
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Cavs Woes Reason For Concern, But Not Dismissal
Spencer Davies takes a look at the Cavs’ issues and why we shouldn’t count them out just yet.
The Cleveland Cavaliers are the classic case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
When they’re on, they look like the defending three-time Eastern Conference Champions. When they’re off, they look like an old team that’s worn down and, at times, disinterested—and it gets ugly.
Take this past three weeks for example. After going on a tear of 18 wins in 19 games, the Cavs have dropped eight of 11 and are falling fast. Two of those three victories in that stretch were decided by four points or less against bottom-of-the-barrel teams in the East.
So what happened? For one, the schedule got significantly tougher. Beyond just the level of competition, Cleveland has been on the road for a long while. Nine of the games in this recent down period have been away games. The only time they’ve been home was for a quick second in mid-December and a short stay for New Years.
You’ve got to think about how that affects a psyche, not only from an on-court standpoint but also in regard to spending time with loved ones and family. LeBron James brought attention to his own homesickness on Christmas Day while he was in the Bay Area instead of in Northeast Ohio to celebrate the holidays. If it gets to him, you know it’s got to get to the other players as well. These guys are human beings with lives, and the rigors of travel can wear differently on people. Luckily for them, seven of their next nine games will be at Quicken Loans Arena.
With that being said, everybody in the NBA goes through it, so it’s no excuse for how flat the Cavs have been. Anybody on the team will tell you that, too. However, when you’re figuring out rotations and re-implementing players who had injuries, it’s not easy. This is exactly why nobody should envy Tyronn Lue.
He’s being asked to make room in his rotations and adjust on the fly as Cleveland gets guys back. When they went on that month-long run, the reason they had success was that the second unit really clicked. Dwyane Wade found his niche as the maestro of the bench bunch along with any mixture of Kyle Korver, Jeff Green, Cedi Osman, Channing Frye, and Jae Crowder. Lue had found the perfect group to spell LeBron James and company.
But then, Tristan Thompson came back and, with all due respect, it messed with their flow. The spacing is no longer there for Wade or Green to penetrate because the paint is clogged. It makes it easier on opposing defenses to just stick to Korver because there aren’t any other threatening shooters on the floor (besides Osman, maybe). Worst of all, the change basically kicked Frye—who has a plus-14 net rating, according to Cleaning The Glass—out of the rotation completely.
Deciding who plays and when is a tough job. Derrick Rose is set to come back soon. Iman Shumpert is coming along as well. Lue likes a 10-man rotation, but there are at least 12 players who deserve to be on that court. We already know Rose is expected to commandeer the second unit in Wade’s absence on back-to-backs. As for if Shumpert remains in Cleveland, who knows? It’ll be interesting to keep an eye on how this situation is managed moving forward.
Isaiah Thomas, on the other hand, is somebody the Cavs have been waiting on to return since the season started. Despite LeBron being LeBron and Kevin Love having as great of an offensive year as he’s ever had on the team, the starting unit lacks an extra punch. Thomas can be that shot in the arm, and he proved that in his debut at home against Portland and on the road in Orlando. There are two snags that both he and the team are going to hit before the 29-year-old returns to his All-Star form: 1) He’s got to get his legs under him to regain the consistency in his game and 2) His teammates are going to have to adjust to playing with him.
These are not easy things to do. Remember, aside from Jae Crowder, there is nobody on Cleveland’s roster that has played with Thomas before. Add in that he’s trying to re-discover his own game and that makes for a pretty bumpy road, at least out of the gate.
Start here—put Thompson in the starting lineup. As poor of a fit he’s been on the bench, he has shown promising signs of a developing chemistry with Thomas. It’s only been four games, but he loves having a partner in the pick-and-roll game. That’s clearly where you’ll get the most production out of him and how he can thrive. He’ll provide hustle, second chance opportunities, and a semi-decent big that can at least bother some of the competition’s drives to the basket. Sliding Love over to the four might change his game a little bit, but you can still get him going in the post before giving him chances as a shooter to work him outside-in.
The resulting effect helps the second unit as well. They’ll get one of either J.R. Smith or Crowder, depending on who would be relegated there. Both of those guys can use a spark to get them going. Because of Crowder’s familiarity with Thomas, let’s say Smith gets kicked out. Maybe that gets him out of the funk he’s in? It also allows for Frye, who hasn’t seen more than 20 minutes in a game since December 4, to get re-acclimated to a group he truly helped on both ends of the floor earlier in the year.
Outside of the need to make a move at the deadline, the Cavs can figure this out. It’s understood that they’re the fourth-worst defensive team in the NBA, but they’ve gone through these kinds of ruts at this time of year, specifically since LeBron came back. There might not be statistical evidence backing up the claim of any improvement, but the track record speaks for itself.
The panic button is being hit, but pump the brakes a bit. This isn’t anything new. The pieces are a little different and things look as bad as they ever have, but in the end, the result will likely be the same.