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NBA Sunday: Are the Bucks Contenders?

It’s not a matter of IF the Milwaukee Bucks will win the Eastern Conference, it’s WHEN, writes Moke Hamilton.

Moke Hamilton

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The calendar turns to September and NBA lifers officially begin to think about the upcoming season. As fans continue to bide time until training camp and preseason play begins, we spend copious amounts of time thinking about what transpired over this past offseason and, more importantly, what could lay ahead for this coming season.

One thing I am expecting, personally, is for the Milwaukee Bucks to emerge as a legitimate contender in the Eastern Conference. This coming season, so long as health permits, the Bucks will take a significant stride forward. And if things break right for them, who knows how far they could go? After all, nobody thought that the Atlanta Hawks would have had a chance at winning 60 games entering last season, but look at what happened there.

The Bucks have everything they need to make some serious noise, and they have it at this very moment.

Fear the deer.

* * * * *

Call it a coincidence if you would like, but I’m not going that route. As I have recently said in relation to Fred Hoiberg succeeding Tom Thibodeau in Chicago and Steve Kerr becoming the first rookie head coach to lead his team to the championship since Pat Riley did it in 1982, the right head coach makes all the difference in the world in the NBA.

First and foremost, a team’s featured player and the head coach need one another. They depend on one another in the same way that peanut butter needs jelly. Asking Jason Kidd to command the respect of Deron Williams, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett was a losing proposition. Those three saw Kidd as more of a peer than an authority figure, and from what I hear, his attempts at enacting “player friendly” policies were seen as weakness on his part.

Similarly, asking a player like Derek Fisher to be taken seriously and to reprimand the likes of Carmelo Anthony—it is not a wise decision. Fisher has proven nothing as a head coach and, in Anthony’s mind, the Knicks revolve around a franchise player, not a franchise coach.

Few coaches rise to the level of being a franchise coach, especially considering that only three coaches in the entire league have been in their current job for at least five years: Gregg Popovich (20), Erik Spoelstra (eight) and Frank Vogel (six).

Pat Riley, Phil Jackson, Jerry Sloan, Gregg Popovich and perhaps Spoelstra are on the short list, but the main point is this: in the NBA, requiring a player to subjugate his personal agenda and desires to a head coach who has proven less than he has, as a player, is an almost impossible task.

Coaches that are wet behind the ears need to be handed a roster full of youngsters whose potential is still untapped, and in that regard, Kidd hit the jackpot in Milwaukee. In Brooklyn, he was saddled with a roster of old veterans who were not interested in doing things his way or subscribing to his philosophies, and why would they? Everyone within Mikhail Prokhorov’s reach was paid handsomely. With multi-year contracts and millions of dollars, where was the incentive?

The youngsters that Kidd have in front of him respect him and what he has accomplished during his long and illustrious career. And since they themselves have not come close to accomplishing anything in the same category, to a man, they will run through a wall for him.

It is, after all, much easier to trust someone to lead you to a place when you have no idea how to get there.

Aside from that, the main part of the reason that the Bucks and Kidd had eyes for each other was the pre-existing relationship between Bucks co-owner Marc Lasry and Kidd. Lasry and Kidd became close when Lasry was a minority owner of the then New Jersey Nets many moons ago, and it was Lasry who was the driving force behind Kidd making his way to Milwaukee—a process that began while Larry Drew was still employed by the team.

In short, expect Kidd to enjoy substantial security and loyalty from the front office in Milwaukee, especially after helping the team go from a 15-win cellar dweller to a 41-win darling. And that happened in just one season.

But as for Kidd? Yeah, I’d say he traded up.

* * * * *

Another man who traded up would be Greg Monroe.

Monroe entered the offseason as one of the most coveted free agents on the market. Since November, I had been hearing that Monroe would ultimately wind up in New York, and that was an account that was eventually echoed by the New York Daily News.

Then, surprisingly, after a source in Detroit assured me that Monroe would not be re-signing with the team, news broke that it was the Bucks who had won the bid for the 25-year-old center on a three-year maximum contract worth $50 million.

Monroe joins Kidd and an impressive array of mostly young players who, last season, managed to increase the team’s 2013-14 win total by 26 games. The core players for the Bucks may not be household names, but to a man, they are impressive, plus-contributors on the NBA level. And collectively, they form a team that plays for one another and contains complementary pieces. That is the reason why the Monroe acquisition was tremendous.

Monroe gives the Bucks a legitimate low-post threat that can both create opportunities for himself or for his teammates. With Jabari Parker returning to the lineup, Michael Carter-Williams handling the ball and the 20-year-old Giannis Antetokounmpo emerging as an impressively versatile force, these four form a conglomerate that has the potential to be scary good. What’s ever scarier about these four is that the 25-year-old Monroe is the oldest of the bunch. Combined, they average just 22 years of age.

And the best part of all? We already know that they can play.

Therein lies an important distinction, though: we already know that they can play. What you should probably know about the Bucks, however, is that they have two other players who are exceptional young talents, but because of a lack of national television appearances, you probably don’t know it.

Khris Middleton started 58 games for the 41-win Bucks last season and turned in the best per-36 minute averages of his young career. In his third season, the 24-year-old gave Kidd 16 points, 5.3 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.8 steals while converting about 41 percent of his three-point looks. At Kidd’s urging, the Bucks signed Middleton to a five-year, $70 million extension this past summer. Middleton was arguably the most consistent offensive force on last season’s team and is an underrated two-way player. While he may never become an All-Star, he is a surefire starting-caliber shooting guard in the NBA. Think of guys like Wesley Matthews and Arron Afflalo. For my money, today, I take Middleton over either of them and it’s not close.

John Henson, another 24-year-old, was a dominant force on the defensive end for the Bucks last season. While not possessing the same kind of game-changing ability as Middleton, Henson gave the Bucks 13.8 points and 9.1 rebounds per-36 minutes last season. Most impressively, though, were the four blocks per-36 minutes he gave his team. If there is one critique about Greg Monroe, it is that he is not exactly a defensive stalwart. Henson, in many ways, will be the perfect complement.

Sprinkle in a few veterans such as O.J. Mayo, Greivis Vasquez and Jerryd Bayless and combine them with a few other youngsters in Miles Plumlee and Tyler Ennis, and all of a sudden, you will find yourself looking at the 10-man rotation that Kidd will deploy during the 2015-16 season and, without a question, furrow your brow.

That is especially so when one considers that both Monroe and Parker are being added to a team that won 41 games last season, without them.

* * * * *

Andrew Wiggins is the reigning Rookie of the Year, and for good reason. But there are a great number of scouts who believe that Parker will ultimately be the better professional. Aside from the Grant Hill comparisons, after having a few conversations with Parker, I can at least attest to his positive attitude and confident demeanor.

It’s not necessary to extol his virtues here, but know this: he is every bit as legit as any other impressive 22-year-old in the NBA today.

As you look around the Eastern Conference, obviously, the Cleveland Cavaliers stand almost head and shoulders above all other challengers. Around the rest of the conference, however, there are questions.

Can Fred Hoiberg lead the Chicago Bulls to higher heights?

Have the Washington Wizards grown enough to take the next step?

How much will the Atlanta Hawks miss DeMarre Carroll?

Will the Toronto Raptors never be anything more than a first round loser?

Is Paul George going to revert to pre-injury form? How will his Indiana Pacers fare without Roy Hibbert, David West and Lance Stephenson?

Does Dwyane Wade have enough left in his tank to restore the Miami HEAT as legitimate contenders?

Yes, there are questions aplenty in the Eastern Conference. So while we are here, I pose another one: why can’t the Milwaukee Bucks emerge as one of the top teams out East?

It’s not a matter of if the Milwaukee Bucks will win the Eastern Conference, it’s when.

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NBA Daily: Defensive Player of the Year Watch

An inside look-in at the early frontrunners for the Defensive Player of the Year Award.

Dylan Thayer

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In this fresh edition for Basketball Insiders, there are a few players that should be finalists for the Defensive Player of the Year Award. Of course, this prestigious award is given to the contributor who makes the biggest impact on the floor for their team on the defensive side of the ball. In two out of the last three seasons, the award has gone to Rudy Gobert, the rim-protecting center for the Utah Jazz. This past season, Giannis Antetokounmpo won both the DPotY award, as well as Most Valuable Player for a second straight year. Over the past few years, the trending group of finalists for the award has been consistent no matter what the order ends up being. 

Can anyone new break in this year?

Anthony Davis

Anthony Davis will always be in the conversation for this award as he has shown throughout his career that he is one of the league’s most ferocious game-changers. Despite never winning the award before, he has made four NBA All-Defensive teams as well as being the NBA’s leader in blocks on three occasions. Davis’s block numbers are a little lower than they usually are at 1.9 blocks per game this season – compared to 2.4 for his career, per Basketball-Reference. This could be due to the addition of Marc Gasol to the Lakers’ frontcourt, a move that has boosted the team’s rim protection. If Davis can raise his numbers again, he should be in consideration for the award purely based on his defensive presence on the court – but he should still finish among the top five in voting.

Myles Turner

The center for the Indiana Pacers – the former potential centerpiece of a Gordon Hayward trade with the Boston Celtics – has continued to show why the team would not package another one of its top players with him. Turner is the current league leader in blocks with 4.2 blocks per game, elevating his game beyond any doubt in 2020-21. He is one of the more underrated rim protectors in basketball, as he has only one top-five finish in the DPotY voting in his career. Turner has also improved his steals metrics this season by averaging 1.5 per game, thus providing a strong defensive presence alongside All-Star frontcourt mate, Domantas Sabonis. Turner should be the frontrunner for the award as things stand right now, but that could change as the season progresses, especially as his injury impacts proceedings.

Giannis Antetokounmpo

The reigning two-time MVP should always be in the conversation for the DPotY award as he revolutionizes the defensive side of the floor at an elite level. Currently, Antetokunmpo is averaging 1.2 steals and 1.1 blocks per game to go along with a 106.5 defensive rating, per NBA Advanced Stats. It goes without saying, but Antetokounmpo is a chase-down block artist, always there to contest shots around the rim with his long frame. The 6-foot-11 power forward is one of the league’s top five players due to his exceptional play on both sides of the ball and will always be considered for the DPotY award as long as he in the NBA.  

Kawhi Leonard

The Los Angeles Clippers’ superstar has been arguably the best defensive small forward in the game over the past few years. He first gained major recognition for his defense during the 2014 NBA Finals against the LeBron James-led Miami HEAT. Since then, Leonard has racked up six All-Defensive team nominations to go along with two Defensive Player of the Year awards. This season, Leonard remains an elite defender for the championship-hopeful Clippers with 1.8 steals and 0.8 blocks per game – but his defensive rating is the highest of his ten-year career at 107.8. 

Andre Drummond

The current league leader in rebounds for the Cleveland Cavaliers is having a monster season thus far. In a contract year, Andre Drummond is currently putting up 19.3 points per game, 15.8 rebounds per game, 1.7 steals per game and 1.6 blocks per game. He also has a very stellar defensive rating of 105.0, a culmination of points allowed per 100 possessions. Drummond is not on a very good team, but that should not take away from the impact he makes when he is on the floor. As a pure rim protector and rebounding machine, he should finish higher up in the voting results than usual, even if his season doesn’t end with Cleveland. 

Honorable Mention: Tobias Harris

The Philadelphia 76ers have started the season on a very high note at 9-5, all despite loads of COVID health and safety protocols preventing their full team from taking the floor. Tobias Harris has played a major part in their early-season success leading the NBA in defensive win shares among starters who have played at least 10 games with 0.184, per NBA Advanced Stats. Along with that, Harris is also second in defensive rating among qualified starters at 99.6. The veteran forward has averaged 1.1 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. So if the 76ers want to remain at the top of the Eastern Conference, Harris’ overall play will be a huge reason for that success.

 As the old saying goes, defense wins championships – and these players are the type of players that can change the result of a game every night. Keep an eye on these players as the season moves along as they should garner consideration for both All-Defensive team nominations and the DPotY award.

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NBA Rookie of the Year Watch – Jan. 21

Basketball Insiders’ Tristan Tucker provides an update on some of the rookies around the league and which are truly in contention for the Rookie of the Year award.

Tristan Tucker

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Through the NBA’s first month, the rookie class has continued to show what they can do on the court. While some have faltered or succumbed to injuries as the games have piled up, others have shone bright and even cracked their team’s starting lineups as the race toward the Rookie of the Year award heats up.

With that in mind, let’s take a third look at Basketball Insiders’ Rookie of the Year ladder stands and see where they stand.

1. LaMelo Ball (Previous: 2)

Through the first month of play, Ball has been, undisputedly, the Rookie of the Year. With numbers that could rival some NBA veterans — 11.8 points, 6.8 rebounds and 6.1 assists per game — Ball has found a way to impact winning for the Charlotte Hornets without starting a game thus far.

While much of the hoopla around Ball has come from his offensive, he’s been pretty solid on the defensive end as well; his 1.5 steals per game are good for 13th in the NBA, while his 21 total steals tie him for 10th.

On Jan. 9, Ball also made history as the youngest player in NBA history to record a triple-double. An eventual move to the starting lineup should only further promote his game.

He could stand to improve his efficiency, as Ball has shot just 40.3% from the field, 33.3% from three and 67.9% from the free throw line. That said, the sky’s the limit for the young rookie. With Ball at the helm, Charlotte and their fans should feel pretty confident about their group going forward.

2. Tyrese Haliburton (Previous: 1)

Haliburton’s late-lottery selection was a surprise, as the point guard that reportedly shot up draft boards late in the process had always played with a hardworking and winning mentality at Iowa State. Still, he hasn’t missed a beat with the Sacramento Kings and paced the Rookie of the Year race from the start.

His 11.1 points, 5.3 assists and 1.2 steals per game, along with his 51.6% mark from the field and 51% clip from three (on over four attempts a contest) are mightily impressive. Meanwhile, lineups that have featured Haliburton with the Kings’ usual starters have fared exceptionally well; when he’s replaced Marvin Bagley, the Kings are a plus-10.6 and play at a torrid pace.

Haliburton and Ball have comparable stats, with Ball being a better rebounder and Haliburton being a better shooter. But Sacramento’s 5-10 record has kept him out of the top spot for now, as leading his team to a positive record — and a potential playoff spot — will almost certainly work in Ball’s favor when voting commences at the end of the season.

3. James Wiseman (Previous: 3)

After taking a year away from competitive basketball, the fact that Wiseman has been able to contribute at such a high-level right away has come as a pleasant surprise for the Golden State Warriors. Wiseman’s 10.7 points per game place him fifth among rookies, while his 6 rebounds per game place him second.

Fresh off a career-high 20 points against the San Antonio Spurs, Wiseman has continued to learn more each day. Draymond Green’s role in Wiseman’s development could also pay some extreme dividends for the Warriors, as the young center might prove unstoppable were he to incorporate Green’s court vision and handle into his own game.

With numbers comparable to Kevin Garnett’s and Giannis Antetokounmpo’s age-19 seasons, Wiseman has helped put the Warriors in prime position to push for a playoff spot despite the loss of Klay Thompson prior to the season.

4. Tyrese Maxey (Previous: Not Ranked)

With a move into the starting lineup, Maxey has rapidly climbed the board as he’s earned more and more praise. He was always going to be an impressive piece for the Philadelphia 76ers — in fact, Maxey was seen as so crucial to Philadelphia’s future success that he was held out of any potential James Harden trade package — but his 39-point outburst against the Denver Nuggets has seemingly sparked more trust from the team in Maxey early on.

For the season, Maxey has averaged an impressive 11.4 points on 47.7% shooting from the field. But his numbers have spiked since he moved into the starting-five: in six starts, Maxey has averaged 16.2 points, 3.7 rebounds and assists and has shot 46.7% from the field.

If he can sustain that kind of productivity as the 76ers’ health improves, Maxey might be a lock for the All-Rookie First Team. Likewise, expect him to hold down a spot on this list for the foreseeable future.

5. Patrick Williams (Previous: 5)

Despite his late rise, many saw Patrick Williams’ selection by the Chicago Bulls as a reach. But, so far, Williams has proven the doubters completely wrong, as he’s started every game in which he’s made an appearance for the 6-8 Bulls.

That isn’t to say Williams hasn’t been perfect, as many of Chicago’s groups that feature the young forward are net negatives by a good margin. But, so far, Williams has already brought the confidence and energy that you want to see out a top pick. He hasn’t shied away from tough matchups, either, as Williams took to the task of guarding both LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard in the Bulls’ recent games against the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers, valuable experience that should only further improve his game.

His 10.2 points, 3.8 rebounds, 48.5% field goal and 87% free throw percentages are nothing to slouch at, either. So, while it may be a while before he reaches the height of some of his classmates, Williams has look of a special NBA talent.

6. Anthony Edwards (Previous: 4)

Edwards has put up some incredible scoring numbers off the bench for the Minnesota Timberwolves, as he’s averaged a rookie-leading 12.2 points in 25 minutes per game.

However, Edwards’ shooting splits have disappointed, while he hasn’t been able to do much to turn around the Minnesota Timberwolves 3-10 season in the absence of Karl-Anthony Towns.

Edwards’ placement on this ladder is contingent on how the Timberwolves both fare in Towns’ continued absence and how different they look upon his return; they showed plenty of promise when he was on the court and Edwards’s standing could improve drastically if the team can turn it around and win some games.

Each year, it would seem as if that the next group of young talent is more exciting than the last. And, with so many talented rookies in the fray, almost any of them could crash the Rookie of the Year party. Make sure to check back on our next update to see who might do just that.

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NBA Daily: The Memphis Grizzlies’ Young Core Rises

The Memphis Grizzlies have built one of the most exciting young teams in the NBA – and it won’t be long before they’re competing at the top of the Western Conference.

Zach Dupont

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Needless to say, the NBA is flush with some exciting young rosters. Trae Young’s Atlanta Hawks, Luka Doncic’s Dallas Mavericks and Zion Williamson’s New Orleans Pelicans are bursting at the seams with talent and, in short order, have sparked discussions as to which team might be basketball’s next big thing.

While each of those teams excites in their own, unique way, it’s the Memphis Grizzlies that stand out from the rest of the pack.

The Grizzlies are led by Ja Morant, their sophomore star point guard out of Murray State. As a rookie, Morant proved he was one of the NBA’s brightest up-and-comers, but he’s taken it to another level this season. While he missed time with an ankle injury, Morant has averaged 22.6 points and 7.0 assists per game on 53.2 percent shooting. Morant is also first in the NBA in fast-break points per game, averaging 5.8 per game.

The bright hooper hasn’t had the hype that someone like Young did early on in the season, but there’s a case to be made that Morant is just as promising as the Hawks’ star guard. Per 48 minutes, Morant is averaging 37.1 points and 11.5 assists versus Young at 33.6 points and 13.1 assists per game. While not a perfect comparison given the former’s smaller sample size in 2020-21, it does show that Morant is absolutely in the discussion for the best young guard in the league.

The Grizzlies already have their cornerstone of the future, but what separates them from the rest of the NBA’s fascinating teams is the organization’s ability to acquire talented role players. Five of the Grizzlies’ top seven scorers are players the Grizzlies drafted in the last four seasons; better, four of them were players selected in the previous two.

Memphis only has two players older than 30, Gorgui Dieng and Tim Frazier, the latter of which has played just 33 minutes this season. That number jumps to three with players 28-years-and-older by adding Jonas Valanciunas to the list.

Lead amongst those role players is the Grizzlies’ second-leading scorer Dillon Brooks, the 45th overall selection for Memphis in 2017. Brooks is putting up 15.2 points per game in his fourth season in the NBA despite not shooting the ball well, just 36.9 percent from the field and 30.5 percent from three-point range. Brooks has never shot below 35 percent from three or 40 percent from the field in his career, so it stands to reason his percentages will increase by the end of the year and, with it, his entire scoring output.

Elsewhere, Brandon Clarke, a second-year forward out of Gonzaga, is one of Memphis’ five players averaging over 10 points per game this year, putting up 13.2 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. While his scoring numbers are substantial, Clarke’s value comes on the defensive end – much like the two Grizzlies’ rookies, Desmond Bane and Xavier Tillman.

Bane and Tillman were picked between 30-35th overall, and through a handful of games, both have well exceeded their draft slots. Bane is averaging 8.6 points per game on crazy efficient shooting percentages of 47.1/48.9/77.8. Beyond that, Tillman has shown his worth on both ends of the ball too, averaging 8.6 points, 3.9 rebounds, 1.6 steals and 1.3 blocks per game. This doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the Grizzlies’ talented young core which includes two ultra-talented youngsters who have yet to play this season.

Jaren Jackson Jr. may be the Grizzlies’ second-best player behind Morant; last year, he averaged 17.4 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game on 46.9/39.4/74.7 shooting splits. Winslow hasn’t played since early on in the 2019-20 season with the Miami HEAT, before being traded to Memphis at the deadline for Andre Iguodala. During his last full season, Winslow averaged 12.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game on 43.3/37.5/62.8 shooting splits, making him a valuable wing player that the Grizzlies have just waiting on the bench.

Of course, Memphis is one of the youngest teams in the NBA with an average age of 24.3, second-youngest in the league, and have dealt with significant injury problems early on this season. Despite this, the Grizzlies are one of the best defensive units in the league, holding a defensive rating of 106.66, second-best league-wide. The Memphis offense has struggled so far this year, but a major reason why is because of Morant’s injury.

When Morant plays, the Grizzlies’ offensive numbers are much improved. With Morant on the floor, they’ve got an offensive rating of 115.4, which would be the sixth-best mark in the NBA. Without him on the floor, their offensive rating drops to 103.8, good for second-worst. Given that Morant has missed more than half the Grizzlies’ games this year, it’s no wonder their offensive rating is a 105.66 on the season.

Ultimately, this has left the Grizzlies with a record of 7-6, putting them at the eighth seed in the Western Conference and right in the hunt for the playoffs.

The scary thing is that the Grizzlies are only going to get better. Morant and Jackson Jr. are both 21-years-old, Tillman and Bane are 22 and Brooks, Winslow and Clarke are 24. The entirety of the core is young, while their two best players are hardly old enough to buy alcohol. Even though the Grizzlies are young, they’ve already shown themselves to be one of the league’s best defenses and possess the tools to improve their offense in-house.

Come the end of the season, the Grizzlies will be a real playoff contender – and with such a young roster, it’s only a matter of time before Memphis is competing for more than just the backend of the playoffs.

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