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Milwaukee Bucks 2016-17 Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 season for the Milwaukee Bucks.

Basketball Insiders

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The Milwaukee Bucks entered the 2015-16 campaign with high hopes. The team had played well in the previous postseason and made headlines last summer by signing big man Greg Monroe away from the Detroit Pistons. However, the Bucks failed to live up to last year’s high expectations, finishing the season with a 33-49 record (12th-best in the Eastern Conference).

Now, Milwaukee is hoping to return to form and look more like the successful team from two seasons ago. Their young core has another year of experience under their belt and they’ve added players like Matthew Dellavedova, Jason Terry, Mirza Teletovic and Thon Maker.

Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 season for the Milwaukee Bucks.

FIVE GUYS THINK

With the Cleveland Cavaliers, Indiana Pacers, Detroit Pistons, Chicago Bulls and these Milwaukee Bucks, the Central seems poised to be one of the toughest divisions in the NBA this year. Over the last two seasons, all five of these teams made the playoffs at least once and each squad enters the 2016-17 campaign with postseason expectations. I love Milwaukee’s young core and I was shocked by last year’s regression. I expected them to take a step forward with Jabari Parker back in the lineup and Greg Monroe added to the roster. Instead, we saw that while their length and athleticism and mismatch potential make them scary on paper, this team does have a number of issues such as their defensive consistency and shooting. Two years ago, the Bucks had the second-best defense in the NBA; last year, they were ranked 22nd. This team’s turnaround starts with their defense improving again. I have them finishing fourth in the division ahead of the Bulls.

4th Place – Central Division

– Alex Kennedy

Talk about crashing and burning. The Bucks had plenty of momentum entering last season, but managed to win just 33 games and struggled to find any sort of consistency. The team added guards Matthew Dellavedova and Jason Terry to help steady some of their backcourt struggles, while also drafting forward Thon Maker in a dare-to-be-great move. Maker is a prospect who most scouts were all over the board evaluating, o we’ll see how that works out. A return to the playoffs is a possibility, but the Central Division figures to be one of the league’s toughest to navigate so don’t bet the farm on postseason activities for Milwaukee.

5th Place – Central Division

– Lang Greene

The Bucks, also known as the Wingspan-Clan, simply couldn’t resist adding more length this offseason and selected Thon Maker with the 10th overall pick in the draft. Standing at nearly 7’1 with a 7’3 wingspan, Maker is one of the most intriguing prospects from this year’s rookie class, but he may need some time to develop physically before he can be a consistent contributor.

While it may not be clear what Maker can bring to the Bucks this season, they did bring in some sharp-shooting veterans like Mirza Teletovic, Jason Terry and Matthew Dellavedova. Each of these players has limitations, but they bring more shooting, which is what the Bucks are in sore need of. If head coach Jason Kidd can utilize the added shooting and recapture the defensive efficiency the Bucks established two seasons ago, they could bounce back next season and make some noise in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

The biggest factor in that equation will be the development of budding star Giannis Antetokounmpo, who came on strong toward the end of last season and started putting up monster numbers consistently. Antetokounmpo trying to be a primary playmaker for the Bucks will be one of the things I will be watching closely this upcoming season.

4th Place – Central Division

– Jesse Blancarte

I’ve had the opportunity to get to know Jabari Parker a bit and there is no doubt that he is a great kid whose personality makes you want to root for him. However, I wouldn’t be doing my job if I weren’t a tad critical of him. Last season, Parker seemed to be carrying a little too much weight around and I think he would be served well by trimming down. The Bucks need good on-court leadership from one of their young guns in order to go to the next level, and Parker, in my opinion, absolutely has the qualities of an effective leader. I look directly at him when I think of what it will take for the Bucks to get to take the next step. Aside from him, the Bucks have a ton of young talent and a smart head coach. They have everything they need to make noise and I’d be willing to bet that they find themselves competing for a playoff spot in the East this season.

Of course, that isn’t necessarily saying much; there will likely be 12 teams “competing” for eight playoff spots. The Central Division could be the most difficult to predict in all of basketball, in fact. I think last season was a bit of an aberration for Jason Kidd’s team and I think they have every shot of competing, neck and neck, with both the Chicago Bulls and Detroit Pistons. At this point, though, I have to put them fifth since they’re still collectively inexperienced.

5th Place – Central Division

– Moke Hamilton

Pretty much everybody of note on this team has the wingspan of a Learjet, which is impressive, but so far hasn’t translated to the kind of success that fans and the front office would like to have seen by now. After falling short of 50-win expectations a year ago, the Bucks head into this season tasked with trying to get Jabari Parker to meet his potential, helping Greg Monroe find his way in this offense and ushering Giannis Antetokounmpo toward legitimate superstardom. Matthew Dellavedova should add something interesting to the point guard rotation, which has been pretty bad in recent years, and rookie Thon Maker has a lot to live up to if he hopes to prove himself worthy of his surprising draft position. Despite all the questions, this is a team that should be really fun to watch as they grow and develop. But in a tough Central Division, it may still prove too challenging to see a big improvement in wins this season.

5th Place – Central Division

– Joel Brigham

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Khris Middleton

While the star of this show in Milwaukee at this point is pretty well established as the “Greek Freak,” Middleton has been the picture of consistency the last few years and in fact did lead Milwaukee in scoring last season with just over 18 points per game. While Giannis Antetokounmpo or Jabari Parker could potentially leapfrog Middleton this year, it seems just as likely that Middleton once again leads the team offensively – perhaps this year even topping 20 per contest. He’s a great secondary ball handler for this team no matter who Jason Kidd drops in at point guard, and his jump shot is as reliable and gorgeous as anybody’s on the roster. For now, he’s the steadiest guy this team has on the offensive end.

Top Defensive Player: Giannis Antetokounmpo

It only takes a couple minutes on YouTube to see the massive defensive potential of Antetokounmpo, as there are several videos of him creeping up on fast-breakers like a predator stalking its prey and then swatting away their sad little layup attempts with the sort of unforgiving punishment only known previously by the enemies of Spartan soldiers. He’s nasty on defense, having averaged 1.4 blocks and 1.2 steals last season thanks in large part to his California Condor wingspan. But nobody seems to think he’s anywhere close to his prime yet, so expect him to wreak even more havoc with those long arms this season.

Top Playmaker: Giannis Antetokounmpo

It took a Michael Carter-Williams injury last season for Jason Kidd to give “Point Giannis” a shot, but almost immediately the entire NBA world fell in love with the gimmick. At 6’11, he’s tall enough to see over pretty much anybody who would try to guard him at the top of the key in a half-court set, and that plus his natural feel for the game means initiating offense is no problem. If the defense throws a smaller, quicker guard at him, he’ll just post up and create that way; if they stick a stronger, slower player on him, he’ll use his length and athleticism to blow right by him. On defense, he can pull down a rebound and then blast down the court for a fastbreak, taking about five long steps to get from baseline to baseline. He’s almost unfair from a gene perspective. While we won’t necessarily see him play point guard exclusively this year, he’s going to initiate a ton of the offense. That, obviously, is a good thing for the Bucks.

Top Clutch Player: Khris Middleton

This isn’t even a hypothetical at this point, as it would be for some other teams. “Who do you want shooting the ball when you need a big-time last-second shot?” is a question that could lead to all sorts of different answers on different teams, but in Milwaukee it’s been Middleton taking (and making) those shots the last couple of seasons. Two seasons ago, he had a couple of dirty last-second thrillers against Miami and Phoenix. Coach Kidd likely will keep putting the ball in his hands when it matters.

The Unheralded Player: Jason Terry

It feels like Jason Terry is about a million years old, and the chances are pretty good that he won’t be a massive on-court contributor for the Bucks in his age-39 season. But anybody who’s seen Terry work with younger players in a locker room knows what kind of asset he can be for a team behind the scenes. Terry almost certainly will get into coaching once his playing career is over, but in the meantime he’ll do great things not only for Antetokounmpo and Parker, but also the more inexperienced players on the roster like Thon Maker, Rashad Vaughn and Malcolm Brogdon. He’s not going to score a ton of points, but his presence on this team matters immensely.

Top New Addition: Matthew Dellavedova

We’ll have to see how Dellavedova transitions to a team that doesn’t feature LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, but despite his somewhat limited skill set, he does bring some things to this team that they were sorely missing a year ago. First and foremost, he shores up a weird and sort of sad point guard rotation as someone who can both initiate the offense and knock down an open three-pointer. Beyond that, he adds a measure of scrappy toughness to a team that lost track of itself defensively last year. They need a little more actual grit in their locker room, and no, Antetokounmpo stink-faces don’t necessarily count as “grit.” He should help with their dismal three-point shooting and shore up that point guard rotation, and we’re all looking forward to the blind alley-oops he’s sure to throw to Antetokounmpo and John Henson.

– Joel Brigham

WHO WE LIKE

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo

There isn’t an NBA fan alive who isn’t absolutely enthralled by this young man – regardless of what position he plays. Physically he’s just on a different level than just about anybody else in the game, with arms that stretch out like a praying mantis and legs that look like they’re on stilts. His athleticism, competitive nature and versatility all suggest we’re in for a fun year with the “Greek Freak.” No matter what happens with Milwaukee this season, he’ll be a treat to watch.

2. Jabari Parker

It’s sort of shocking how little buzz Parker is generating ahead of this season considering how well he finished the 2015-2016 campaign. In his last 29 games of the year, Parker averaged 18.8 points while shooting over 50 percent from the floor. And since last season was essentially his true rookie year, that projects well for where the former No. 2 overall pick may be headed in upcoming campaign. Based on reputation, Middleton has been the team’s top offensive player, but Parker has 20 points-per-game potential and could even be in line for some All-Star votes this year. Year three looks like Parker’s time to shine.

3. Khris Middleton

Criminally underrated, Middleton is now officially on one of the league’s most cap-friendly contracts, and he’s a key part of this team’s young core. He’s a career 40 percent three-point shooter, but for the Bucks to improve their team three-point shooting (they were 21st in the league a year ago), he’ll need to increase his volume without a drop-off in efficiency. Middleton’s percentages sunk a little a year ago as he shot more, but if he can correct that in 2016-17, he’ll prove even more invaluable to his team than he already is.

4. John Henson

For the second year in a row, Henson’s minutes dropped in Milwaukee, leaving him off the floor for over 30 minutes a night. But what’s truly impressive is that despite playing only 16.8 minutes a game, Henson still managed to average 1.9 blocks – enough to place him among the league’s elite and certainly enough to put him in elite company in terms of per-36 minutes stats. In fact, Henson would average 14.9 points, 8.3 rebounds and 4.1 blocks per 36 minutes, which is what makes it so easy to wonder what he could do with a little more playing time.

5. Miles Plumlee

As it stands, Henson is behind Miles Plumlee on the depth chart, but that’s fine considering how well Plumlee has played since coming over to the team in the Brandon Knight trade a year and a half ago. After the All-Star break last season, Plumlee saw his minutes jump to over 20 per game and he even started 11 of 28 games. He also received a huge $50 million deal from the Bucks this offseason, which suggests the team believes he’s ready to start full-time this year. He doesn’t score a lot (averaging just 6.6 points per game last season), but he’s efficient when he does. More importantly, he’s a much more natural defensive fit along the team’s talented young stars than Greg Monroe. That, added to his rebounding ability, make him an underrated player in this lineup who could be even better with a boost in minutes this year.

– Joel Brigham

SALARY CAP 101

The Bucks went under the NBA’s $94.1 million salary cap this summer, using most of it to bring in Mirza Teletovic and Matthew Dellavedova. Milwaukee now has $99.6 million in committed salaries with 15 guaranteed players, which doesn’t bode well for camp invites Orlando Johnson and J.J. O’Brien.  The team still has its $2.9 million Room Exception, but no roster space (barring a trade or cutting a guaranteed player). Milwaukee has a hard cap at $117.3 million, by virtue of the Dellavedova sign-and-trade with the Cleveland Cavaliers, but they’re nowhere near that mark.

Next summer, the Bucks could get to roughly $24 million in spending power under a $102 million salary cap.  That assumes the team picks up the rookie-scale options on Jabari Parker, Rashad Vaughn and Tyler Ennis before November.  Milwaukee also has to decide on extensions for Giannis Antetokounmpo and Michael Carter-Williams by the end of October, otherwise they’ll become restricted free agents when the Bucks extend a qualifying offer next July.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

There’s no question that this team is insanely long and athletic, and when you combine all of that with the enthusiasm of youth, there’s a very good chance that Milwaukee will be one of the league’s most entertaining teams to watch this year. They were efficient scoring a year ago, finishing fifth in the NBA in team field goal percentage (46.7 percent). They also moved the ball around well, finishing ninth in team assists. There is potential galore on this team and they may have an All-Star in Antetokounmpo, but youth and potential still remain their largest asset.

– Joel Brigham

WEAKNESSES

A lot of things broke bad for the Bucks last year, as they finished 27th in rebounding, 21st in three-point shooting and 23rd in points allowed per game. Adding Dellavedova and Teletovic should help with the three-point shooting, but there’s a lot of work to be done with the other problems. They still don’t have a point guard who can create his own shot (not counting Giannis), and their wing rotation is incredibly young and unproven. It’s hard to see the team improving tremendously on their 33-win season, but the playoffs are not completely out of the realm of possibility.

– Joel Brigham

THE BURNING QUESTION

Does Greg Monroe make this team better or worse?

Initially, the belief was that Monroe would bring some much-needed offense to what was, at the time, one of the scrappiest defensive teams in the NBA. What actually happened was that Monroe was utterly discordant on this roster in just about every conceivable way, and the team’s defense suffered drastically as a result. The second-ranked defense in the NBA in 2014-15 (according to points allowed per 100 possessions) dropped to 22nd a year ago.

With Plumlee looking like a much better fit defensively alongside Antetokounmpo and Parker, the answer probably is going to be bringing Monroe off the bench. Monroe’s post scoring against second units could prove a tremendous boon to that Milwaukee second unit, especially with Dellavedova running pick-and-rolls and Monroe helping to create that offense. It’s very likely Milwaukee will continue to shop Monroe, but for as long as they have him, it’s probably best to use him in a reserve role. Giving him minutes alongside Parker and Antetokounmpo just doesn’t make enough sense for the team, particularly defensively, and as a demolisher of second-unit defenders, Monroe could actually still be a helpful part of this team.

– Joel Brigham

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Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards

Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.

David Yapkowitz

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We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.

The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.

With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.

The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.

Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old

Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.

He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.

Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.

Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old

Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.

He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.

Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.

Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old

Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.

He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.

One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.

Honorable Mentions:
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old

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Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards

Basketball Insiders’ examination of the 2020 draft class continues with a look at the small forwards.

Drew Maresca

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It was announced on Wednesday that the NBA Draft would be delayed from Oct. 16 to Nov. 18. The rationale is that the extra month gives the league and its players association more time to negotiate changes to the CBA. It also grants teams additional time to procure information on prospects and allows the NBA to establish regional virtual combines. But nothing is set in stone.

Still, draft prep must continue. This year’s draft class has more question marks than usual – which was complicated by the cancellation of the NCAA tournament (along with the NIT and a number of conference tournaments). There are incredibly skilled offensive players with limited offensive upside and jaw-droppingly talented defenders with incomplete offensive packages. But if (recent) history serves as a guide, there will be a few guys who make an immediate impact – and some of them very well could be small forwards.

The small forward position is key for the modern NBA. Want proof? Survey the league and you’ll find that most – if not all – contenders have an elite small forward – Milwaukee, Los Angeles (both), Boston, Miami, Toronto.

But the list of can’t miss small forward prospects feels smaller than usual. Scanning the numerous legitimate mock drafts (including our own by Steve Kyler), it becomes apparent that we lack a consensus on which small forwards will be selected (and in what order) after the top 3 or 4. Can any of them grow into a star? Maybe. Maybe not. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s identify what the top few bring to the table.

Deni Avdija, Israel – 19 years old

Avdija is a relatively well-rounded prospect who’s played professionally since he was 16. He boasts good height (6-foot-9) and uses it effectively to shoot over and pass around opposing defenses. Further, Avdija is an exceptional playmaker and he’s incredibly confident, enabling him to take chances many players would be apprehensive trying. Avdija is a high-IQ player. And what’s more, he’s a surprisingly strong defender. His height and above-average athleticism allow him to block shots, and he’s more physical than you’d expect him to be.

But there are drawbacks to Avdija, too. His main issue is around shooting. Avdija shot only 28% in the EuroLeague last season, and he shot only 60% from the free-throw line. Further, while he’s a decent athlete, he’ll struggle to secure a role in the NBA. He’s going to need to add speed to stay with modern wings, and he’ll also have to bulk up to bang with power forwards.

Still, Avdija’s upside is alluring. He’s only 19, and his smarts, confidence and grittiness should provide him cover for much of his rookie season. Avdija should be the first small forward off of the board.

Isaac Okoro, Auburn – 19 years old

Avdija might be the flashier name currently, but Okoro will give him a run for his money in terms of which small forward is first off the board. Okoro is built like a traditional NBA wing; he’s 6-foot-6 with good strength packed in his muscular frame (215 lbs). Okoro finishes well around the rim and he converts well through contact. He’s an exceptional athlete who excels catching the ball on the move. Like Avdija, Okoro has the poise and composure of a more experienced player. Also, like Avdija, Okoro looked the part of a high IQ player in his lone season at Auburn.

And while all that is great, the main allure of Okoro is his defense. He’s a fairly advanced defender given his age, and his athleticism and timing make him an effective weak side help defender.

While Okoro’s raw abilities are exquisite, his refined offensive skills leave something to be desired. Okoro shot 28 percent on three-point field goals and he struggled from the free-throw line (67.2 percent). His mid-range jump shot also needs work, and he struggles in isolation situations.

If Okoro can hone his offensive game, he could grow into an All-Star. He has the ability to guard multiple positions, and his strength and athleticism give him a leg up on most prospects. But even if he doesn’t become an All-Star, he possesses a fairly high floor given his defensive abilities — and the guy definitely fills the state sheet (12.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, .9 steals and .9 blocks). He has lockdown defender potential and he’ll put his stamp on the game beginning on night one.

Devin Vassell, Florida State – 20 years old

Vassell played two seasons at Florida State, but he came into his own in his Sophomore season. He averaged 12.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. He shot a more than respectable 41.5% on three-point attempts, and he demonstrated a strong stroke from the free-throw line (73.8 percent) and on two-point field goal attempts (53.2).

Vassell is an extremely athletic leaper, who can rise up for a highlight dunk and sprint down the floor with ease. He has good body control and demonstrated a strong mid-range game, especially his step-back jump shot. But Vassell must generate more free throws through decisive moves to the hoop, which would be bolstered by a more muscular frame. Additionally, he must improve his ball-handling to get more from isolations.

Vassell will have an adjustment period in terms of scoring the ball at the next level. Fortunately, his defense and shooting should get him by. If he can bulk up and improve his handling, Vassell could grow into a serious player.

Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt – 20 years old

Nesmith probably has a lower floor than any of the other top small forward prospects given that he’ll be 21 by the draft. Still, he looked quite good in his Junior year, averaging 23 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game on a scorching 52.2 percent shooting from deep. Nesmith is an incredibly gifted shooter who has impressive range. His ability to catch-and-shoot and create space with fakes makes him a promising prospect – for the right team.

Nesmith is a high IQ player who uses his smarts on the defensive end. He’s also quite strong, can get buckets in the open floor and demonstrates above average ball-handling skills, as long as he’s not taking the ball to the hoop.

But there are inherent limitations in Nesmith’s game. He’s doesn’t create for his teammates too effectively and he turns the ball over more frequently than one would like with. Further, Nesmith is plagued by robotic movements that limit his athleticism. His ball-handling breaks down when taking the ball to the rack – something he’ll certainly have to work on in the NBA if he wants to be a versatile scoring threat against the bigger and stronger competition.

Still, Nesmith’s positives give him an excellent chance at being selected in the first round. His range alone will intrigue teams in need of a shooter.

Honorable Mentions:

Saddiq Bey, Villanova – 21 years old

Jaden McDaniels, Washington – 19 years old

Robert Woodard II, Mississippi State – 20 years old

With the uncertainty around small forward prospects, expect to see a revolving door of names enter the discussion after the first four wing prospects are off the board prior to Nov. 16 – assuming the draft is held then. But regardless of how you have them ranked, all of the aforementioned prospects have question marks. But all have had far more time to improve than they would have in years’ past. Let’s hope that shows come next season.

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NBA Daily: Opposite Plotlines for Today’s Matchups

With the two matchups going on today, Matt John examines the two teams who could be in the most trouble because of one of their individual stars for opposite reasons.

Matt John

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The second round of the NBA playoffs was hyped up to be one of the most entertaining we’ve had in years. So far, they haven’t fallen short of expectations. We knew that Houston and Los Angeles’ battle of opposite philosophies would make for some twists and turns. We knew that Boston and Toronto would duke it out in an Atlantic Division showdown. We knew that Miami would push Milwaukee to new heights. We didn’t really know if the Nuggets would give the Clippers a good series, but the fact that they have so far has made an intense postseason all the more gripping.

Anyway, today we’re getting two games from two series in completely opposite places. The Lakers and the Rockets will face off for the series lead, while the HEAT will try to finish off the Bucks once and for all. Below, we’re going to focus on two teams who have an individual star that either may be more flawed than we thought or one that may not be as flawed as we thought.

Bucks vs. HEAT: Giannis is great and all, but…

We all pretty much knew this was going to be a good series. We did not expect this.

The buzz surrounding Bucks v. HEAT was that Miami was going to make Milwaukee earn every win they got in this series. If that was the plan, then Miami has failed miserably, because until Khris Middleton went supernova on them on Sunday, Milwaukee had come up terribly short.

Let’s first give Miami the credit that they are due and more. With Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler alone, Miami was going to be a tough matchup for Milwaukee – but to see the Bucks all but roll over in this series is an unpleasant sight. Acquiring Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala has paid huge dividends and it’s showing. There are other factors involved, but Miami’s defensive efforts have limited Giannis to 21.8 points a game and that’s played a role in the HEAT being in the driver’s seat of this series.

Speaking of Giannis Antetokounmpo, this series has not been a good look for the Defensive Player of the Year. Especially since it looks like his second consecutive MVP (presumably) is right around the corner. So, to see both him and Milwaukee, once an unstoppable force without an immovable object in sight, get stopped by a sturdy but not immovable squad is saddening.

Nearly a year ago, Basketball Insiders compared these current Bucks to the Dwight Howard-led Orlando Magic from the late-2000’s/early 2010’s. To oversimplify things, both were contenders led by a superstar with a rare physique that made them tough to stop. To put the superstar in the best position, they surrounded them with playmakers and three-point shooters.

While the teams’ roster constructions weren’t exactly the same, their strengths as a team certainly were. Now we’re seeing the Bucks’ flaws just as we did the Magic 10 years ago. If you have the personnel to make the lone superstar uncomfortable, the team doesn’t function as well.

Giannis is near impossible to stop, but the one major flaw is that if you take away his ability to drive and force him into a jumper, he loses his rhythm. Even if his shot is on – never a guarantee – his opponents will let him beat them that way until he makes them pay. Hardly any team can pick on this, but the HEAT are one of them, and now they’re one win away from their first Eastern Conference Finals since LeBron James took his talents out of South Beach.

This ultimately is what puts Antetokounmpo below the likes of LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard for now. Those guys are rare physical specimens like him, but their elite games don’t revolve entirely around their natural gifts as he does or Dwight did. At 25 years old, there’s plenty of time for him to change that and, for all we know, he will, but to see him struggle at a time when the conference was supposed to run through him has ignited tons of questions.

Milwaukee’s technically not out yet, but they’ve shown their mortality against Miami. If this really is it for them, then they’ve got to find a quick fix for this problem because if they don’t, then the unspeakable may happen.

Lakers vs. Rockets: Westbrook has been bad and all but…

Shaking off the rust and recovering from a balky knee would be tough for anyone. For Russell Westbrook, it’s killing his productivity and, in turn, the Rockets’ playoff chances. He’s averaging 15.6 points on 39/16/47 splits with a most recent 10-point, 4-of-15 effort from the field which included seven turnovers and air balling wide-open threes sticking out like a sore thumb.

It also doesn’t help that he’s playing the Lakers of all teams. When Westbrook has been in, the Lakers have taken advantage of his shortcomings offensively and it shows both on the court and the stat line.

Most of Westbrook’s damage is hurting Houston on the offensive end. With the All-Star guard in the game, Houston is minus-13.7 with him on the court, the worst offensive rating on the team. The 12 turnovers he’s coughed up in this series probably have something to do with that.

With Westbrook’s struggles and his predecessor Chris Paul coming off of his best individual season since 2016, this, of course, has led to many second-guessing the swap last summer. Or let’s rephrase that: People have been second-guessing that trade since the moment it was announced and, in light of recent events, they’re piling on now more than ever.

Maybe they’re right. Even after playing in the NBA for over a decade now, Westbrook still hasn’t proven that he can control himself enough to reach his potential as a team player. We’ve seen glimpses. On the other hand, Paul showed that he can still pick apart defenses while holding his own on that end.

But replacing Paul with Westbrook was Harden’s idea. He didn’t want to play with Paul anymore and chose to play with one of his closest friends. You may think that the better fit is what’s best for the team, but we’ve seen the damage that can happen when your team’s best players have friction with one another. It hurt Utah this season. It hurt Boston last season. It destroyed the Lakers back in 2013. There’s no telling what it could have done to Houston this season.

Besides, we know that as bad as Westbrook has been, he’s capable of being better. Not a knockdown shooter, not even an efficient scorer, but he has done better in the past when the focus was on him. The more days he takes to shake off the rust from his knee, the more optimistic the Rockets ought to be.

The Rockets have to take the glass-half-full on this one because they don’t really have a choice otherwise.

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