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Milwaukee Bucks 2017-18 Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the Milwaukee Bucks, who feature tantalizing talent and could be a threat in the Eastern Conference.

Basketball Insiders

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For a team that did not make any major offseason splashes, (their only new summer addition is rookie D.J. Wilson), the Milwaukee Bucks are counting on internal development to help them build on what was a highly successful 2016-2017 season. Giannis Antetokounmpo has blossomed into a legitimate franchise superstar, and he isn’t anywhere close to being a finished product. The Bucks front office also hit big in last summer’s draft with Thon Maker and Malcolm Brogdon, both of whom became starters by the season’s end and played crucial roles in the Bucks’ first round playoff series against the Toronto Raptors.

The Bucks surprised many and put quite a scare into the Raptors in the playoffs. They even led the series, 2-1, at one point. Simply making the playoffs was the goal last season. Now that they’ve gotten a taste of what the postseason feels like, they’ll have to take that next step of winning a round and making an extended playoff run.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

A time is coming when Giannis Antetokounmpo is in the MVP conversation every single year — likely starting this season. Players that good are enough to make a team competitive regardless of who else is on the roster, but Antetokounmpo’s supporting cast is far from mediocre. Malcolm Brogdon was last season’s Rookie of the Year, Khris Middleton is still among the league’s most underrated scorers, Thon Maker’s rookie season exceeded expectations and Jabari Parker is a former No. 2 overall pick that, when healthy, is yet another scorer to fear. The youth on this team is getting older, which is why it feels like the Bucks will make a jump. The rest of the Central is falling apart, so if nothing else Milwaukee has a great chance to be opportunistic.

2nd Place – Central Division

Joel Brigham

Few teams have as much tantalizing talent as the Milwaukee Bucks. However, each season the Bucks seem to fall at least a bit below everyone’s collective expectations. Some of this has been a result of injuries. Some of it has been a result of shaky coaching and poor chemistry. However, this young team now has the collective experience and the overall talent to really distinguish itself in the weak Eastern Conference. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the engine that drives this team, but Milwaukee will need a healthy Jabari Parker to have any hope of keeping pace with the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers. Parker hasn’t always produced a winning brand of basketball for Milwaukee, but his talent is considerable.

2nd Place – Central Division

Jesse Blancarte

Another season of the Greek Freak’s continued takeover of the NBA is coming in hot.

After proving last season that he has the ability to become a superstar of epic proportions, Giannis Antetokounmpo looks poised to carry the Bucks into the next phase of his superstar ascension.

With Paul George and Jimmy Butler both leaving Milwaukee’s division, the Bucks will have an easier path this year than they did last year, which still saw them finish second in the Central division anyway.

Antetokounmpo plus another year of improvement from Malcolm Brogdon and Thon Maker, plus the eventual return of Jabari Parker, and a healthy Khris Middleton should give the near 7-foot jack-of-all-trades plenty of weapons to help propel his team past a first round playoff exit this season.

2nd place – Central division

— Moke Hamilton

We all look for sleepers every year, and the Bucks might be the best possible candidate for this role. While much of the talk out East surrounds the Cavs and Celtics, with token mention given to the Wizards and Raptors as conference mainstays, the folks in Milwaukee are quietly biding their time. They’ll bring back Giannis Antetokounmpo, a trendy dark horse pick for MVP in some circles, and should be looking forward to a fully healthy year from Khris Middleton. Rookie of the Year winner Malcolm Brogdon will reprise his role as a caretaker with strong defensive chops, and whatever positive growth the Bucks get out of Thon Maker will be a cherry on top. If they can keep everyone healthy, watch for this group to make some noise and surprise a few people in the East.

2nd place – Central Division

Ben Dowsett

Another season of the Greek Freak’s continued takeover of the NBA is coming in hot.

After proving last season that he has the ability to become a superstar of epic proportions, Giannis Antetokounmpo looks poised to carry the Bucks into the next phase of his superstar ascension.

With Paul George and Jimmy Butler both leaving Milwaukee’s division, the Bucks will have an easier path this year than they did last year, which still saw them finish second in the Central division anyway.

Antetokounmpo plus another year of improvement from Malcolm Brogdon and Thon Maker, plus the eventual return of Jabari Parker, and a healthy Khris Middleton should give the near 7-foot jack-of-all-trades plenty of weapons to help propel his team past a first round playoff exit this season.

2nd place — Central division

Dennis Chambers

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Giannis Antetokounmpo

Last season was Antetokounmpo’s breakout year. Dubbed ‘The Greek Freak,’ he posted career-highs in every major statistical category including points (22.9), rebounds (8.8), assists (5.4), steals (1.6), and blocks (1.9). What was more impressive was that he also was the Bucks leader in these particular areas. He also shot a career-best 52.1 percent from the field. He can get to the rim at will and his length and athleticism allow him to seemingly finish in traffic over anybody. He’s a capable ball handler who had major success while playing a point forward role last season.

There are still aspects of his offensive game he could stand to work on, however. He’s an improving shooter, but his outside shot is still not as consistent as it should be. For a forward in today’s NBA, a consistent perimeter jumper is a must as is range out to three-point territory. He shot only 27.2 percent from behind the arc. The Raptors defense had some success against him when they collapsed and took away his drives to the rim and forced him into becoming a jump shooter. He’s still only 22-years-old though. He has plenty of time to become a complete package offensively.

Top Defensive Player: Thon Maker

When the Bucks selected Maker with the 10th overall pick in the 2016 draft, the move was widely regarded as a major reach. With one year passed since then, it’s become evident why the Bucks were so high on him. Jason Kidd trusted the rookie with the starting center spot over the more talented and higher paid Greg Monroe, and by the time the Bucks were eliminated in the playoffs, it was obvious why.

Maker’s interior defense was a major reason why the Bucks put such a scare into the Raptors. Whether it was challenging the Raptors drives to the rim or recovering on a switch and contesting a jump shot, Maker’s defense had the Raptors second guessing themselves at times. He has the skills and abilities to become an elite interior defender. He has good quickness for a big man allowing him to keep up with guards on drives to the basket and being able to recover fast enough on open shooters. With Maker anchoring the inside, the Bucks should have an elite defensive team for years to come.

Top Playmaker: Malcolm Brogdon

Perhaps one of the biggest surprises of the season, as a second round pick, Brogdon wasn’t expected to contribute much, if at all. He ended up starting at one of the most important positions on the floor and won the Rookie of the Year award. As the floor general, Brogdon did a solid job throughout the season keeping the offense flowing and getting other players involved. It helped that he spent a full four years in college and was much more developed and ready to contribute than most young rookies. His 4.2 assists per game were good enough for third on the team behind Antetokounmpo (5.4) and Matthew Dellavedova (4.7).

During the playoffs, his assist numbers (3.5) dropped as bit as the Raptors defense began to force him into looking for his shot rather than moving the ball around. For the most part, though, he kept up his steady play and overall playmaking duties. As he heads into his second season, he’ll be asked to do more of the same. He’ll need to continue to move the ball around and not let it stagnate which happened at times in the playoffs and to keep other guys involved in the offense while taking his shot as he sees fit. With one of the best point guards in NBA history in Jason Kidd, guiding him as the coach, he should do just fine.

Top Clutch Player: Giannis Antetokounmpo

Already the best offensive player on the team, Anteotokounmpo is also the player you want the ball in the hands of during crunch time. His length just allows him to get his shot off over anyone as well as attack the rim and finish over anyone. He has such great body control that when attacking the rim, he’s able to hold on and finish with contact.

Against the Raptors in the playoffs, it was Antetokounmpo who sparked a Bucks run in the fourth quarter of Game 1 that turned an otherwise close game into a blowout win Milwaukee. In Game 2, it was also Antetokounmpo that led a furious fourth quarter rally to whittle away the Raptor’s double digit lead to the point where the Bucks had a chance to go up 2-0. As he continues to improve, so will his decision making in the clutch, and he’ll take his place among the elite with the game on the line.

The Unheralded Player: Matthew Dellavedova

Before the start of last season, the Bucks traded Michael Carter-Williams to the Chicago Bulls. They had already signed Dellavedova in the offseason and with Brogdon being the only other point guard on the roster, it was assumed that Dellavedova would be the starter. He did start off and on throughout the season, but Kidd eventually gave the reins to Brogdon and kept Dellavedova with the second unit.

Coming over from the Cleveland Cavaliers, fresh off of winning a championship, Dellavedova provided some much needed veteran leadership to the young Bucks. He was second on the team in assists with 4.7 per game, and he shot a decent 36.7 percent from three-point range. During the playoffs, when Brogdon struggled at times, he gave the team a steady veteran hand off the bench. His pesky defense frustrated the Raptors at times, and he made the most of his open looks upping his three-point percentage to 37.5 percent. This upcoming season, he’ll reprise his role as a veteran leader off the bench. A lot of the little things he does like taking charges and hounding his opponent defensively, don’t show up on the stat sheet, but they sure do make a difference on a team with big playoff aspirations.

Best New Addition: Jabari Parker

So Parker really isn’t a new addition so to speak, he’s been on the team since 2014, but he missed the second half of the season and the playoffs due to an ACL tear. He’s supposed to miss the start of this upcoming season and be out of game action until at least February. The Bucks didn’t make any offseason moves except for re-signing their own free agent (Tony Snell) and drafting D.J. Wilson. Thus, Parker could classify as a ‘new addition.’ Parker tore the same ACL his rookie year, but seemingly looked recovered the following season. He was well on his way to becoming a top scoring threat and a good compliment alongside Antetokounmpo.

Provided that Parker is able to make a similar recovery this season, his return to the lineup will be a most welcome addition. He gives the Bucks another offensive threat who can score in a variety of ways. He also gives them another option in small ball lineups as he’s able to shift to power forward at times. He will make them that much more dangerous come playoff time as he gives the opposing team’s defense yet another scorer to have to game plan for. It’s all a big if, however, as the list of players to make such a recovery is pretty much non-existent. But if he can do it, watch out for the Bucks come playoff time.

-David Yapkowitz

WHO WE LIKE

1. Khris Middleton

Possibly one of the most overlooked players in the NBA, Middleton has quietly risen to become one of the top wing scorers in the league. He’s a knockdown outside shooter, he shot a career-high 43.3 percent from the three-point line this past season. He also moves incredibly well off the ball, constantly freeing himself for open jumpers by coming off multiple screens. Should Parker not be able to make a full recovery from his injuries, Middleton stands to be a great compliment to Antetokounmpo. While not as freakishly athletic as the Greek Freak is, Middleton still has great length for a wing and is a big reason why the Bucks are a good defensive team. He’s really the ultimate 3 and D guy. The Raptors defense eventually started giving him fits when they took his open looks away, but in the beginning of the series, he was a big reason why the Bucks went up 2-1. If the Bucks do end up making some postseason noise, he’ll be a big reason why.

2. Greg Monroe

Two seasons ago, after being the prized acquisition of the Bucks in the summer of 2015, Monroe found himself yanked in and out of the starting lineup, hearing his name in trade rumors, and looked like a bust of a signing. A year later, all of that changed. Kidd introduced him to a sixth man role this past season and it made a huge difference. Monroe anchored the second unit, providing scoring and rebounding to a group that desperately needed it. He picked it up in the playoffs when the Raptors second unit was unable to handle him. His playoff numbers looked a lot more in line with his career averages from his Detroit days than they had at any time he’d been in a Bucks uniform. His numbers as the series went on evened out a little bit, but the fact remains that he proved himself to still be a formidable player that the Bucks need.

3. Tony Snell

Sometimes all a player needs is a change of scenery. That sure seemed to be the case for Snell. When the Bucks traded for him for Michael Carter-Williams, it was a minor move. Snell, however, ended being quite a major player for the Bucks. He was inserted into the starting lineup in Milwaukee right away and he responded well. He turned in his best season as a pro with career-highs in points (8.5), field goal percentage (45.5 percent), and three-point percentage (40.6 percent). For a team that already had a definitive 3&D guy in Middleton, Snell gave them yet another welcome addition in that regard. He took his game to another level in the playoffs averaging 10 points per game on 50 percent shooting from the field, and 51.6 percent from three-point range. He also provided the team with a versatile perimeter defender. The Bucks were able to keep him on a relatively fair contract, if a bit steep, but he became a big part of what the Bucks do on both the offensive and defensive end of the floor.

4. Rashad Vaughn

Entering his third year in the league, Vaughn has shown very little in terms of being a meaningful impact player. This may be the year that he finally gets his opportunity. With Parker still sidelined for a good chunk of the first half of the season, and both Snell and Middleton in the starting lineup, backup wing minutes appear to be there for the taking for Vaughn. Last season, most of the backup shooting guard minutes went to Jason Terry. Terry still remains unsigned and the Bucks still have one open roster spot left. But if nothing should materialize, this is Vaughn’s chance to prove he belongs in the NBA. He had a very strong summer league during which he displayed an ability to score by attacking the basket and by knocking down outside shots. Of course, summer league is not much of an indication of how a player may perform during the regular season, but it was a welcome sign nonetheless. He has all the tools to be yet another wing defender who can shoot the three ball, and the Bucks are going to need some perimeter scoring from their bench.

-David Yapkowitz

SALARY CAP 101

The Bucks are well over the NBA’s $99.1 million salary cap, escaping luxury tax by stretching out the salary of Spencer Hawes over the next three seasons. Milwaukee still has most of their Mid-Level Exception ($7.6 million) and all of their Bi-Annual Exception ($3.3 million) but they may be unlikely to spend over the league’s $119.3 million tax threshold.

Bigger decisions loom, specifically on Jabari Parker, who is eligible for an extension before the start of the season. The Bucks also need to decide on 2018-19 options for Thon Maker and Rashad Vaughn prior to November. Next season, Milwaukee does not project to be below the NBA’s salary cap.

-Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

The Bucks were a very tough defensive team last season. That should continue this year. They have so many solid perimeter defenders with length that it can be a nightmare trying to score on them, just ask the Raptors. Antetokounmpo, Middleton, and Snell are all above average to elite defensive players who can guard multiple positions. Brogdon is also a tough defender who can slide over and guard shooting guards if need be. Round out that lineup with Maker who is an emerging interior defensive force, and they appear capable of locking down nearly anyone. It’s not only imperative that teams be able to score, especially from beyond the arc, in order to have success, but they need to play defense as well. The Bucks are able to do just that.

-David Yapkowitz

WEAKNESSES

The Bucks bench looks a little bit thin as the start of the season approaches. Part of what got them in trouble against the Raptors in the playoffs was erratic bench play. The starters would be hanging tough with Toronto, and then the bench came in and often gave the lead away or got down bigger. Monroe was the only real consistent guy off the bench. Dellavedova was hot and cold. Same with Michael Beasley. Mirza Teletovic rarely gave them anything. John Henson has been glued to the bench seemingly forever. Monroe will do his part to anchor the second unit this upcoming season, but he’s going to need some help. Terry provided a little of that, but he’s remains unsigned. Obviously when Parker returns this will be alleviated somewhat as somebody in the starting lineup will likely move to the bench and help bolster it. But that’s going to be a little ways off and the Bucks will need some production in the interim. Much will depend on if Vaughn is truly ready to contribute. If not, the starters are going to find themselves playing a lot of minutes.

-David Yapkowitz

THE BURNING QUESTION:

Can the Bucks take the leap into becoming one of the elite teams in the NBA?

Simply making the playoffs was the Bucks goal last season. They got a taste of it and even managed to put a little scare into the higher seeded Raptors. With a blossoming franchise superstar in Antetokounmpo and some solid role players around him, the goal should be a little higher. Now it’s time to win a round and see how deep in the playoffs this team can go. They have all the tools to be an elite defensive team, and their starting lineup has enough firepower to score with anyone in the Eastern Conference. Overall, the Bucks have the best chance out of anyone to truly competing with, and eventually challenging Cleveland. Not Boston, not Toronto, not Washington, but Milwaukee. Antetokounmpo still has several levels he can reach, and he was recently issued a challenge over Twitter by Kobe Bryant to win the MVP Award. Building off of last season’s playoff run, the Bucks will finish with a top 4 seed in the East and home court advantage in the first round. They will beat their first round opponent, and they will put a scare into whoever they face in the second round.

-David Yapkowitz

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NBA Daily: Examining Michael Porter Jr.’s Ascension

Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. is averaging over 25 points per game and looks like a future All-NBA player. Bobby Krivitsky examines Porter’s ascent and the questions that come with it.

Bobby Krivitsky

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Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. has taken his game to new heights.

In the wake of Murray’s ACL tear in mid-April, Porter’s playing time has gone from 30.6 minutes per contest to 35.7, while his shots per game have risen from 12.6 per game to 16.5. The increased responsibility has fueled his ascent. He’s knocking down 56.3 percent of those attempts. He’s taking 8.2 threes per game and making a blistering 50 percent of them. As a result, Porter’s gone from averaging 17.5 points per game to 25.1. He’s also grabbing 6.1 rebounds and blocking almost one shot per contest.

At the time of Murray’s injury, the Denver Nuggets were in fourth place in the Western Conference. They remain there now, 9-4 in his absence, and they boast the eighth-highest net rating in the NBA.

The only way for the Nuggets to fall from fourth would be if they lost their four remaining games and the Dallas Mavericks won their final five contests because the Mavericks have the tiebreaker since they won the season series. On the more realistic end of the spectrum, Denver sits just 1.5 games back of the Los Angeles Clippers, who occupy the third seed in the West. The Nuggets won their season series against the Clippers, meaning they’d finish in third if the two teams ended the regular season with the same record.

There’s a bevy of questions surrounding Porter’s recent play that need to be asked but cannot get answered at the moment. That starts with whether this is anything more than a hot streak. While it’s impossible to say definitively, it’s reasonable to believe Porter can consistently and efficiently produce about 25 points per game. He was the second-ranked high school prospect in 2017 and entered his freshman year at Missouri firmly in the mix for the top pick in the 2018 NBA draft. That was thanks in large part to his offensive prowess as a 6-10 wing with a smooth shot that’s nearly impossible to block because of the elevation he gets when he shoots. 

A back injury cost him all but 53 minutes of his collegiate career and caused him to fall to the 14th pick in the draft. He ended up in an ideal landing spot, going to a well-run organization that’s also well aware of its barren track record luring star players looking to change teams, making it vital for the Nuggets to hit on their draft picks. 

Porter’s first year in the NBA was exclusively dedicated to the rehab process and doing everything possible to ensure he can have a long, healthy and productive career. Last season, finally getting a chance to play, he showed off the tantalizing talent that made him a top prospect but only took seven shots per game while trying to fit in alongside Nikola Jokic, Murray, Paul Millsap and Jerami Grant.

More experience, including battling against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, an offseason, albeit a truncated one, to prepare for a more substantial role with Grant joining the Detroit Pistons and Millsap turning 36 this year, helped propel Porter. 

But for the Nuggets, before Murray’s injury, the perception was that even though they weren’t the favorites to come out of the Western Conference, they were a legitimate title contender. How far can they go if Porter’s consistently contributing about 25 points and over six rebounds per game while effectively playing the role of a second star alongside Jokic? 

It seems fair to cross Denver off the list of title contenders. But, if Porter continues to capably play the role of a second star alongside Jokic when doing so becomes more challenging in the postseason, the Nuggets can advance past a team like the Mavericks or Portland Trail Blazers. And at a minimum, they’d have the ability to make life difficult for whoever they had to face in the second round of the playoffs.

Unfortunately, the timing of Murray’s ACL tear, which happened in mid-April, means there’s a legitimate possibility he misses all of next season. Denver’s increased reliance on Porter is already allowing a young player with All-NBA potential to take on a role that’s closer to the one he’s assumed his whole life before making it to the sport’s highest level. If the Nuggets are counting on him to be the second-best player on a highly competitive team in the Western Conference next season, it’ll be fascinating to see what heights he reaches and how far they’re able to go as a team.

Theoretically, Porter’s growth could make it difficult for Denver to reacclimate Murray. But given Jokic’s unselfish style of play, there’s room for both of them to be satisfied by the volume of shots they’re getting. Unfortunately, the Nuggets have to wait, potentially another season, but Jokic is 26-years-old, Murray 24, Porter 22. When Denver has their Big Three back together, they could be far more potent while still being able to enjoy a lengthy run as legitimate title contenders.

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NBA Daily: D’Angelo Russell Back on Track

D’Angelo Russell lost much of the 2020-21 season to injury. Drew Maresca explains why his return will surprise people around the league.

Drew Maresca

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D’Angelo Russell was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves last February, just before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the entire season. But we’ve yet to see what Russell can really do in Minnesota.

The Timberwolves acquired Russell in late February in exchange for a future first-round pick – which transitions this season if they pick later than third – a 2021 second-round pick and Andrew Wiggins.

Sidenote: For those keeping score at home, the Timberwolves currently have the third-worst record in the league with five games remaining. It would behoove Minnesota to lose as many of their remaining games as possible to keep their 2021 pick. If the pick does not transition this season, it becomes unrestricted in 2020.

Trying to turn an owed pick into an unprotected future first is usually the wrong move; but in this instance, it’s better to keep the high first-rounder this year with an understanding that your 2022 pick will probably fall in or around the middle of the lottery.

The thinking around the deal was that Minnesota could qualify for the playoffs as soon as this season by swapping Wiggins’ contract for a young, talented lead guard in Russell. It has not played out as planned.

COVID resulted in a play stoppage shortly after the deal, robbing Russell of the opportunity to ramp up with his new team. When the NBA returned to finish the 2019-20 season, the Timberwolves failed to qualify for bubble play – and considering the US was still battling a global pandemic, Russell couldn’t easily practice with his new teammates and/or coaches.

The 2020-21 season began weirdly, too. The NBA proceeded with an abbreviated training camp and preseason. And while this impacted all teams, Russell was additionally hindered by the decision.

Ready or not, the season began. In 2020-21, Russell is averaging a near-career low in minutes per game (28.2) across just 36 games. He’s tallying 19.1 points per game on 43.6% shooting and a career-best 38.8% on three-point attempts. He’s also he’s posting a near career-best assist-to-turnover ratio (5.7 to 2.8).

Despite Russell’s contributions, the Timberwolves have failed to meet expectations. Far from the playoff squad they hoped to be, Minnesota is in contention for the top pick in this year’s draft. So what has gone wrong in Minneapolis?

Russell’s setbacks are fairly obvious. In addition to the lack of preparation with his teammates and coaches, Russell was diagnosed with a “loose body” in his knee, requiring arthroscopic knee surgery in February. As a result, he missed 27 consecutive games. Russell returned on April 5, but head coach Chris Finch revealed that he’d been on a minutes restriction until just recently.

Minnesota is clearly being cautious with Russell. Upon closer review, Russell has been restricted to under 30 minutes per game in all of his first 10 games back. Since then, Russell is averaging 31 minutes per game including an encouraging 37 minutes on May 5 in a four-point loss to Memphis.

Since returning from knee surgery, Russell is averaging 27 minutes per game across 16 games. Despite starting 19 of the team’s first 20 games, he hadn’t started in any game since returning – until Wednesday.

On the whole, Russell’s impact is about the same as it was prior to the injury, which should be encouraging to Timberwolves’ fans. He’s scoring slightly less (18.8 points since returning vs. 19.3 prior), shooting better from the field (44.9% since returning vs 42.6%% prior) and has been just slightly worse from three-point range (37.4% since vs. 39.9 prior). He’s dishing out more assists per game (6.5 since vs. 5.1 prior), too, and he posted three double-digit assist games in his last five contents – a feat achieved only once all season prior to his last five games.

Despite playing more and dropping more dimes, there’s still room to improve. Looking back to his career-bests, Russell averaged 23.1 points per game in 2019-20 in 33 games with Golden State (23.6) and 12 games with Minnesota (21.7).

But his most impactful season came in 2018-19 with the Brooklyn Nets. That season, Russell averaged 21.1 points and 7.0 assists per game, leading the Nets to the playoffs and earning his first trip to the All-Star game. He looked incredibly comfortable, playing with supreme confidence and flashing the ability to lead a playoff team.

At his best, Russell is a dynamic playmaker. The beauty of Russell is that he can also play off the ball. He has a quick release on his jumper and impressive range. His game is not predicated on athleticism, meaning he should stay at his peak for longer than guys like De’Aaron Fox and Ja Morant.

And while he’s been in the league for what feels like ever (six seasons), Russell just turned 25 approximately two months ago. Granted, comparing anyone to Steph Curry is unwise, but Curry wasn’t Steph Curry yet at 25. Former MVP Steve Nash hadn’t yet averaged double-digits (points) at 25. Twenty-five is also an inflection point for Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook. And the list goes on.

To be fair, Russell was drafted at 19 so he’s more acclimated to the league at this age than most, but his game will continue expanding nonetheless. He’ll develop trickier moves, become stronger and grow his shooting range. And a good deal of that growth should be evident as soon as next season since he’ll be fully healed from knee surgery and have a full offseason and training camp to finally work with teammates and coaches.

So while Minnesota’s 2020-21 season was incredibly bleak, their future is quite bright – and much of it has to do with the presence of Russell.

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NBA AM: Is This It for Indiana?

Following their major drop-off, Matt John explains why the Pacers trying to get back to where they were may not be the best decision.

Matt John

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Remember when, following the maligned trade of Paul George, the sky was the limit for the Indiana Pacers? The 2017-18 Pacers were one of the best stories in the NBA that season because they made their opponents work for their victories, and they put on a spectacle every night.

It’s hard to believe that all transpired three whole years ago. When Cleveland eliminated Indiana in a very tight first-round series, I asked if having the exciting season that they did – when many thought it would turn out the opposite – was going to benefit them in the long run. Three years later, this happens.

We were getting plenty of smoke about the Pacers’ drama behind-the-scenes beforehand, and now, we have seen the fire firsthand. More and more reports indicate that the crap has hit the fan. Indiana has seemingly already had enough of Nate Bjorkgren in only his first year as his coach. When you see the results they’ve had this season compared to the last three, it’s not hard to see why.

The Pacers have routinely found themselves in the 4-5 playoff matchup for the last three years. Sadly, despite their fight – and, to be fair, they had pretty awful injury luck the past two postseasons – they haven’t been able to get over the hump in the first round. They may not have been in the elite tier, but they weren’t slouches either. So, seeing them not only fail to take the next step but look more and more likely for the play-in is as discouraging as it gets. Especially after they started the season 6-2.

If these reports about the tensions between the players and Bjorkgren are real, then this has already become a lost season for the Pacers. It’s too late in the season to make any major personnel changes. At this point, their best route is just to cut their losses and wait until this summer to think over what the next move is.

In that case, let’s take a deep breath. This has been a weird season for everyone. Every aspect minus the playoffs has been shorter than usual since last October. Everything was shortened from the offseason to the regular season. Oh, and COVID-19 has played a role as the season has turned out, although COVID-19 has probably been the least of Indy’s problems. Let’s think about what next season would look like for Indiana.

TJ Warren comes back with a clean bill of health. Caris Levert gets more acquainted with the team and how they run. Who knows? Maybe they finally resolve the Myles Turner-Domantas Sabonis situation once and for all. A new coach can come aboard to steady the ship, and it already looks like they have an idea for who that’s going to be

Should they run it back, there’s a solid chance they can get back to where they were before. But that’s sort of the problem to begin with. Even if this recent Pacers’ season turns out to be just a negative outlier, their ceiling isn’t all too high anyway. A team that consists of Warren, Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon, and Caris Levert as their core four is a solid playoff team. Having Turner, Doug McDermott, TJ McConnell, Jeremy Lamb, and the Holiday brothers rounds out a solid playoff team. Anyone who takes a good look at this roster knows that this roster is a good one. It’s not great though.

Just to be clear, Indiana has plenty of ingredients for a championship team. They just don’t have the main one: The franchise player. Once upon a time, it looked like that may have been Oladipo, but a cruel twist of fate took that all away. This isn’t a shot at any of the quality players they have on their roster, but think of it this way.

For the next couple of years, they’re going to go up against Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving. All of whom are on the same team. For potentially even longer, they’ll be going up against the likes of Giannis Antetoukounmpo, Joel Embiid, and Jayson Tatum. With the roster they have, they could make a series interesting against any one of those teams. However, it’s a rule of thumb in the NBA that the team with the best player usually wins the series. Not to mention, they’d have to beat most of the teams those players play for to go on a substantial playoff run. That’s a pretty tall order.

There’s no joy in talking about the Pacers like this because they have built this overachieving underdog from nothing more than shrewd executive work. They turned a disgruntled and expiring Paul George into Oladipo and Sabonis. Both of whom have since become two-time all-stars (and counting). They then managed to turn an expiring and hobbled Oladipo – who had no plans to return to Indiana – into the electric Levert. They also pretty much stole Brogdon and Warren away while paying very little for either of them.

That is fantastic work. The only hangup is that, as of now, it just doesn’t seem like it will be enough. But, doubt and skepticism are things Indiana’s had thrown their way consistently since 2017. Many thought their approach to trading Paul George would blow up in their face, and since then, they’ve done everything in their power to make everyone eat their words.

Kevin Pritchard’s got his work cut out for him this summer. This season will hopefully turn out to be nothing more than performance ruined by both the wrong coaching hire and an unusual season that produced negatively skewed results. But at this point, Pritchard’s upcoming course of action this summer shouldn’t be about getting his team back to where they were, but deciding whether he can get them a step or two further than that by adding more to what they have or starting over completely.

Indiana’s had a rough go of it in this COVID-shortened season, but their disappointing play may have little to no bearing on where they go from here.

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