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Jrue Holiday Proving to be Milwaukee’s Missing Piece

Milwaukee’s aggressive pursuit of Jrue Holiday before the season is finally paying off when they need it the most. Chad Smith looks back at the trade and explains why it will still be the right move, even if the Bucks don’t win the championship this year.

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The NBA Finals roll along as the Milwaukee Bucks will try to even up the series in less than 48 hours. After the Phoenix Suns took the first two games in their arena, the Bucks responded on their home floor with a lopsided victory in Game 3. It was another supreme performance by Giannis Antetokounmpo. This time he had help, and plenty of it. This is the team we all envisioned seeing at the start of the season.

Milwaukee pushed all of their chips into the middle of the table before the season started when they made the blockbuster trade to acquire Jrue Holiday from the New Orleans Pelicans. Jon Horst understood the need for a dynamic point guard and one that could play both sides of the ball. Eric Bledsoe was a part of that deal, and his shortcomings in the postseason were thought to have been eradicated with Holiday’s arrival.

When Antetokounmpo was out of the lineup, Holiday played aggressively and was quite effective. It was a major boost to Milwaukee’s offense, but it has not been consistent. Holiday admitted after Game 1 in Phoenix that he didn’t put enough pressure on Chris Paul. The Bucks were switching every ball screen, oftentimes without any resistance.

Holiday finished that game with just 10 points on 4-14 shooting with 0 blocks, 0 steals and 3 turnovers. He bounced back in Game 2 with 17 points, 5 rebounds, 7 assists, 2 steals and 2 blocks but it was not enough to get the win. Sunday night he had his best game with 21 points, 5 rebounds, 9 assists and knocked down five three-pointers. He was attacking the basket and finding his teammates for easy buckets.

Often labeled as the third star in Milwaukee, Holiday has never really had to deal with the pressure and expectations that Antetokounmpo has felt. Khris Middleton has gotten a taste of that this year and has struggled with consistency just like Holiday. All three were clicking on Sunday night, and the Suns simply had no answer.

The addition of the 31-year old point guard came with one big question. Would he stay in Milwaukee, or depart in free agency during the summer? That question was answered on April 4 when he signed a four-year contract extension. That solidified his place with this core after Antetokounmpo signed his $228 million super-max extension just before Christmas of last year.

With Holiday committing to his future, Antetokounmpo under contract through the 2025-26 season and Middleton locked in through the 2023-24 season, Milwaukee has cemented their place as a contender in the Eastern Conference for the foreseeable future.

Should they not take home the Larry O’Brien Trophy, the next question will be how can Horst improve this team for next year? They won’t have the money needed to lure any big-time free agents so the Bucks must rely on player development and improving the roster around the edges. With teams like the Brooklyn Nets, Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers vastly improving just by getting healthy, Milwaukee will need to do more than just tweak their bench.

The elephant in the room is the status of Mike Budenholzer. After three seasons in Milwaukee, has he done enough to return to lead this team or do they need a new voice and philosophy? The lack of in-game adjustments has always been the knock on Budenholzer but that has been mostly blown out of proportion. With a different strategy and game plan, would the outcome really be any different?

People often mistake monotone behavior as someone that is not fully invested. While the delivery of his words may rub people the wrong way, Budenholzer needs to be given credit for Milwaukee’s success. One adjustment that worked well for them in Game 3 was limiting the Suns backcourt. They essentially decided that if they were going to lose, Jae Crowder and Deandre Ayton were going to have to beat them.

Being a motivator is a tool that many coaches possess, and use effectively. However, it is not their job to get the players motivated. It is the biggest stage in basketball. Legacies and reputations are on the line. What the Bucks desperately lack is a clear leader on the floor. Holiday has never been that guy. Middleton doesn’t fit that mold either. They won’t get that from Brook Lopez. Even Antetokounmpo, a two-time MVP, just hasn’t shown he is comfortable in that role.

It has been another odd season, as teams and players dealt with injuries, COVID-19 protocols, a shortened season, fans returning to the arenas and a new playoff format. One thing we have witnessed is that leads can vanish in an instant, no matter the circumstance. It happened again during the third quarter on Sunday.

Antetokounmpo shined with his second consecutive 40-point performance, but the key to Game 3 was the timely baskets made by Holiday. As the Suns closed to within four points in the third quarter, the All-Star guard knocked down shot after shot and made defensive plays to stop the Suns’ rally.

One noticeable adjustment in Game 3 was Holiday’s defensive assignment, shifting to Devin Booker. The move paid off, as Booker had the worst game of the postseason, scoring just 10 points on 3-14 shooting. The video above shows his ability to stick to his man and still be a force under the basket, then running the floor after making the block. The Bucks thrived in transition, outscoring the Suns 16-6 in fast break points.

Although they had the top-ranked offense during the regular season, defense has always been the one thing that the Bucks could hang their hat on. They are oozing with elite defensive talent at every position, allowing them to switch most screens and be just fine.

Both Antetokounmpo and Holiday were named to the All-Defensive First Team and Lopez has developed into a great rim protector. Only Rudy Gobert blocked more shots on average during the playoffs and everyone knows what PJ Tucker brings to the table. Add Middleton to this group and it is a nightmare for offenses around the league. That is not going to change anytime soon.

Skeptics will point out that the Bucks aided from some key injuries to opposing stars like Kyrie Irving, James Harden and Trae Young, but every team that wins the title catches a break or two along the way. They dealt with Antetokounmpo’s injury and are without Donte DiVincenzo for the entire postseason. It is obvious who has been shouldering the load for the Bucks, but their depth has been crucial to their run to the Finals.

Milwaukee responded on Sunday in what was essentially a must-win game. They understood what it would mean if they went down 0-3 in the series. The key now will be how the Suns adjust in Game 4 and if the Bucks can do it again. Home court advantage should help, as they are 8-1 at home this postseason. Antetokounmpo will aim to continue his historic Finals run, but the key will be the consistency of Holiday and Middleton. At some point, they are going to have to get a win in Phoenix.

As a team, the Bucks average more points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks at home in the playoffs compared to on the road. They also shoot a better percentage overall from the floor and the free-throw line. Antetokounmpo himself was 13-17 from the charity stripe in Game 3, where he struggled mightily during the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Bucks gave up Bledsoe and George Hill, first-round draft choice RJ Hampton and two future first-round draft picks as part of the four-team trade for Holiday. They also gave New Orleans the right to swap two future first-round picks as part of the deal. They were willing to part with all of that because they believe that he was the missing piece.

If Holiday continues to play at this level it just might deliver the Bucks their second title, 40 years after winning their first. Even if they come up short, he will still be worth every penny.

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Grizzlies trade Jonas Valanciunas to Pelicans for Eric Bledsoe, Steven Adams

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According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Andrew Lopez, the New Orleans Pelicans are shipping guard Eric Bledsoe, center Steven Adams, the Nos. 10 and 40 picks of the 2021 NBA Draft, and two future first-round picks to the Memphis Grizzlies for center Jonas Valanciunas and the Nos. 17 and 51 picks of this week’s upcoming draft. So, the Pelicans are giving up the Lakers’ 2022 first-round pick. Valanciunas, the 29-year-old veteran center, averaged 17.1 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 1.8 assists per game in 62 games played throughout the 2020-21 season. He also shot 59 percent from the field. The seven-foot Lithuanian also ranks fourth overall in true shooting percentage (.616) among active players. On July 11, 2019, Valanciunas signed a three-year, $45 million contract with the Grizzlies. He is set to earn $4 million next season.

Additionally, in 71 games played last season, Bledsoe averaged 12.2 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 3.8 assists. The six-foot-one guard also shot 42.1 percent from the field in the 2020-21 season. On November 23, 2020, as part of a four-team trade, Bledsoe and Adams were traded to the Pelicans from the Oklahoma City Thunder, along with two future first-round picks and the right to swap two additional first-round picks. Last season, in 71 games played, Bledsoe averaged 12.2 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 3.8 assists. His field goal percentage was 42.1 percent as well. The 11-year veteran is set to earn $18,125,000 in the 2021-22 season. Before he was traded to New Orleans, on March 4, 2019, the guard signed a four-year, $70 million extension. He earned his first All-Defensive second-team selection in the 2019-20 season.

Moreover, in 58 games played last season, Adams averaged 7.6 points, 8.9 rebounds, and 1.9 assists per game. The six-foot-eleven center ranks fifth among active players for effective field goal shooting percentage (.591). The eight-year veteran also ranks third in offensive rebounding percentage, with an active statistic of 14 percent. On November 23, 2020, the same day Adams was traded to the Pelicans, he signed a two-year, $35 million extension. For next season, he is projected to earn $17,073,171. To add to this trade news, the Grizzlies and Pelicans are swapping second-round picks in this year’s draft, too. Referencing NBA.com’s “Consensus Mock Draft” article, with the No. 10 pick of the draft, the Pelicans were originally expected to draft either Josh Giddey or Davion Mitchell at this number. However, plans have now changed.

From ESPN’s Bobby Marks, the trade will not be finalized until August 6th, and this is because of the annual salaries of these said players. Free agency will begin on August 2, 6:00 p.m. (EST). Furthermore, per Spotrac’s 2021-22 NBA salary cap table, next season’s luxury tax threshold is $136,606,000. The team’s current available luxury tax space is $22,555,195. The Pelicans and Grizzlies have a salary cap maximum of $112,414,000. Brandon Ingram, Bledsoe, and Adams had a combined cap percentage of 39.2 percent. Considering that Bledsoe and Adams are traded away, this will clear up $35,198,171 of dead cap space.

Yesterday, CBS Sports reported the news pertaining to Lonzo Ball’s desire to remain in New Orleans. With extra cap space, the team is expected to re-sign the 23-year-old guard. Likewise, for the Grizzlies, the teams has a luxury tax space of $37,019,952. Their current cap space is $8,321,229. As stated before, the transactions have not yet been finalized. The Grizzlies’ outgoing cap is now $14 million, but from the contracts of Adams and Bledsoe, they are bringing in $35,198,171.

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NBA Trade Rumors: Jazz considering trade offers for Bojan Bogdanovic, Joe Ingles, Royce O’Neale, and No. 30 pick of the 2021 NBA Draft

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Per one interesting announcement from Bleacher Report’s Jake Fischer, the Utah Jazz are open to trading forward Bojan Bogdanovic, forward-guard Joe Ingles, small forward Royce O’Neale, and the No. 30 pick of the 2021 NBA Draft. Fischer stated, “The Utah Jazz are known to be one of the few teams actually searching to move playoff-tested talent. Retaining Mike Conley is an offseason priority, sources said, and the Jazz have held numerous discussions with teams around the league about offloading salary to create for Conley in free agency.” Point guard Mike Conley is set to become a free agent this offseason. Though, general manager Justin Zanik will aim to re-sign the 33-year-old guard in the coming weeks. Conley earned $34.5 million in the 2020-21 season.

“League personnel most often mention Joe Ingles as the Jazz wing to watch, and Bojan Bogdanovic and Royce O’Neale are also considered available for trade as Utah narrows its focus towards building a contender around Donovan Mitchel. The Jazz are also open to discuss trading their No. 30 pick, sources said.” In the 2020-21 season, in 72 games played, Bogdanovic averaged 17 points, 3.9 rebounds, and 1.9 assists per game. On May 1, 2021, in the team’s 106-102 victory over the Toronto Raptors, the six-foot-seven Croatian scored a season-high 34 points, shooting 12-for-22, and he finished his performance with four rebounds and four assists as well. On July 7, 2019, he signed a four-year, $73 million contract with the Jazz.

In 67 games played last season, Ingles averaged 12.1 points, 3.6 rebounds, and 4.7 assists per game. The six-foot-eight forward is set to earn $14 million in the 2021-22 season. Plus, among the mentioned players, Royce O’Neale has contributed the least. In 71 games played last season, he averaged seven points, 6.8 rebounds, and 2.5 assists. On January 19, 2020, the forward signed a four-year, $36 million extension with the team. He will earn $8.6 million next season. According to The Athletic, in the team’s seventh workout for draft prospects, they viewed Quentin Grimes, David Duke, Matt Mitchell, and a few other players. In the first round, if the team chooses not to draft any of the players they are holding workouts for, the organization will trade the No. 30 pick.

Just for a reminder, retrieved from Spotrac, the 2021-22 NBA luxury tax threshold is $136,606,000. Utah’s active roster cap is $133,284,695, the maximum cap is $112,414,000, and the current cap space is $72,990,215. Furthermore, center Rudy Gobert currently has the highest guaranteed contract on the team. On December 20, 2020, Gobert signed a five-year, $205 million extension with the organization. Gobert is set to earn $35.3 million in the coming season, whereas Donovan Mitchell will earn $28.1 million. Gobert and Mitchell combined consume 47.6 percent of the team’s salary cap. For the upcoming 2021-22 season, the Jazz have a guaranteed total of $129,719,453. Based on the team’s future outlook, the Jazz will have to make a trade or two in order to retain their star players. This should go without saying.

NBA Analysis Network reported a few days ago that a potential Jazz-Knicks trade target is Bojan Bogdanovic. Greg Patuto proposed the Knicks receiving Bogdanovic, while the Jazz would receive Kevin Knox II, and the Nos. 19 and No. 32 picks of the 2021 NBA Draft. Now, this could still happen at some point during this draft week, but then again, sports bettors and fans alike understand that these news reports could be just rumors. The most intelligent, unforthcoming general managers know not to leave bread crumb trails for the media, especially leading into the offseason. They will do everything necessary to protect their foolproof plans.

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Raptors, Pacers, Timberwolves, Kings, and Cavaliers among teams showing interest in Ben Simmons

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According to Jake Fischer of Bleacher Report, five teams have shown interest in pursuing Ben Simmons from the Philadelphia 76ers. Fischer reported, “Cleveland, Indiana, Minnesota, Sacramento, and Toronto all showed interest in acquiring the runner-up for Defensive Player of the Year.” Furthermore, the teams are wanting Simmons to change position from point guard to forward. “Multiple executives from those teams, when contacted by Bleacher Report, mentioned their excitement at incorporating Simmons as a play-making forward—not at the point guard position he’s played in Philadelphia.” The six-foot-eleven guard averaged 14.3 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 6.9 assists in the 2020-21 NBA season. This might sound fine for a young rookie, but as a five-year player, these aforementioned statistics were career lows.

However, the 25-year-old also earned his third NBA All-Star selection and second All-Defensive first-team selection last season. After a less than mediocre performance in his third postseason of his NBA career, the majority of 76ers’ fans would agree that it’s now time for Simmons to have a change in scenery. With a regular season record of 49-23 (.681), the No. 1 ranked 76ers in the Eastern Conference entered the conference semifinals as favorites over the Atlanta Hawks. Leading into this series, some NBA analysts were predicting Philadelphia to prevail four games to two. The 2016 first overall pick was expected to limit Trae Young in scoring and rally his team from point deficits, but none of this ever manifested.

Pertaining to postseason averages, Simmons had a playoff series-low of 9.9 points and 6.3 rebounds per game in the conference semifinals against the Hawks. This lackluster showing proved to be a more significant downfall for the superstar, considering Simmons had only five points, eight rebounds, and 13 assists in Game 7 versus the Hawks. In the 2019-20 season, he averaged 2.1 steals per game, leading all other players in the league. Moreover, Simmons currently ranks sixth in the NBA for active player triple-doubles (32). With a total of 32 career triple-doubles, he ranks 13th on the all-time list, tied with Clippers’ guard Rajon Rondo.

On July 16, 2019, Simmons signed a five-year, $169.65 million contract extension with the 76ers. He is set to earn $30.5 million in the 2021-22 season. Among these teams interested in Simmons, Cavs’ Kevin Love has the fourth largest contract guarantee of $91.4 million. Love is due to earn $31.3 million next season, and the 13-year veteran’s contract consumes 26 percent of the team’s salary cap. He could be traded this offseason. Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns has a contract guarantee of $130.8 million. The 25-year-old Wolves center will earn $31.6 million in the upcoming season.

Plus, Kings’ 2017 first-round pick De’Aaron Fox has a guaranteed contract of $171.1 million. Fox will earn $28.1 million next season. To add to that, Raptors’ Pascal Siakim has a contract guarantee of $131.4 million. Not to mention, reported by Yahoo Sports via trade rumors yesterday, the Golden State Warriors are a potential trade partner for Toronto. The Warriors could make a move on Siakim, clearing up space on the Raptors for Simmons. Per Spotrac, the 2021-22 season cap maximum is $112,414,000. In the coming weeks, one of these said five teams might make a substantial trade offer to the 76ers’ organization that they cannot refuse.

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