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Milwaukee Bucks 2019-20 NBA Season Preview

The Milwaukee Bucks were impressive a season ago, but came up short in the postseason. Can the Bucks improve or will the weight of expectations come crashing down on one of the NBA’s most interesting teams? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Milwaukee Bucks in this 2019-20 NBA Season Preview.

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A new offense and a new MVP headlined the Milwaukee Bucks in 2018-19, one that resulted in 60 wins and their first conference finals appearance since 2001.

But a season that may look successful from the outside is deeply disappointing from the inside.

The Bucks were on top of the mountain, up 2-0 on the Toronto Raptors and appearing poised to represent the Eastern Conference on basketball’s biggest stage.

They proceeded to drop four in a row and watched from home as the eventual champion took advantage of a dynasty that became ravaged by injury. Now, back with virtually the same roster (save Malcolm Brogdon), the winningest team from a year ago looks to learn from last season’s mistakes and get to The Finals in the most wide-open NBA season of the past decade.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

Many things this writer predicted last season were wrong, but picking Mike Budenholzer as Coach of the Year was spot on. He unlocked even more out of Giannis Antetokounmpo as a playmaker, using player perimeter gravity as a formula to let the Greek Freak drive down the lane and take it from there. It’s either a pass to the corner, ferocious finish at the rim or a drawn foul nearly every time. While keeping Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez was absolutely necessary, it came at the price of losing Malcolm Brogdon to the Indiana Pacers. Jon Horst brought in Kyle Korver, Wesley Matthews and Dragan Bender, as well as Thanasis Antetokounmpo, as his offseason acquisitions. George Hill agreed to return in addition. The Bucks are still in the driver’s seat in the Eastern Conference. Let’s see if they take the next step to the NBA Finals in Year 2 under Coach Bud.

1st Place – Central Division

– Spencer Davies

The Bucks were two games away from reaching the NBA Finals. Unfortunately for them, they proceeded to lose four straight games to the Raptors. With Kawhi Leonard now in the West, the Bucks presumably should be the favorites to come out of the East. Giannis Antetokounmpo is only getting better, which is a scary thought considering how good he already is. The front office has done a solid job surrounding him with players that can all stretch the floor and shoot from distance. Kyle Korver and Wesley Matthews were big pickups. They’re going to miss some of the defensive edge that Malcolm Brogdon brought to the team, but they’re hoping Matthews can replicate some of that. A lot really hinges though on Antetokounmpo’s development. He’s the best player in the Eastern Conference and the one who Milwaukee’s Finals hopes depend on. With Kevin Durant injured, the Bucks are the clear cut favorite in the East, with only the Philadelphia 76ers coming close as a potential challenger. The Finals is the goal this season and anything less, barring any major injuries, would be a failure.

1st Place – Central Division

– David Yapkowitz

Even though the Bucks didn’t win the Eastern Conference last season, they will still have a huge target on their collective backs in 2019-20. They will be graded harshly this season if they don’t win the Eastern Conference – and I’m not sure they have the requisite depth to do so. But with Kawhi Leonard moving West, the Bucks are at least expected to find themselves in the Eastern Conference Finals.

While they mostly flew under the radar, the Bucks offseason was more detrimental than most assume – namely because they lost their clear third option from 2018-19 – Malcolm Brogdon – to the division-rival Indiana Pacers. Signing Wesley Matthews is a low-risk move that could partially mitigate the hurt from losing Brogdon, but he’s a different player than he once was and you can’t expect too much from him (at least he only costs $2.56 million). The Bucks also signed Robin Lopez to back up his brother, Brook. It’s not a home run move, but it adds much needed depth up front. However, that isn’t the only pair of siblings on the roster. They also continued to try to appease Giannis by signing his brother Thanasis Antetokounmpo – and as far as appeasements go, this isn’t a bad start toward resigning Antetokounmpo to a long-term contact. But ultimately the Bucks will have to prove they can win at a high level.

1st Place – Central Division

-Drew Maresca

Lump me in with the group of people who think the Bucks are going to miss Malcolm Brogdon more than the Bucks will publicly admit. I might feel differently if Eric Bledsoe didn’t struggle so mightily in the playoffs, but that has been an ongoing issue and it’s hard to say with any confidence that will change this upcoming season. While losing Brogdon will be an adjustment for the Bucks, they still have Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is still just 24 years old and improving seemingly every day. Milwaukee also did well in bringing back Brook Lopez and adding on his twin brother, Robin. The Bucks will need as much size and physicality as they can get with the Philadelphia 76ers adding Al Horford and now featuring a massive overall roster. I have been a believer in the Bucks for a long time and think the sky is the limit for this team this upcoming season. But I just think Milwaukee should have valued Brogdon more and done whatever was necessary to bring him back.

1st Place – Central Division

– Jesse Blancarte

Stop me if you have heard this before – “He is wired differently, he’d never leave,” or, “He’s too loyal, he loves this market.” These have to be the phrases that strike fear into the hearts of the Milwaukee Bucks’ front office. Pick a superstar in the NBA that is no longer with the team that drafted him, and those phrases were said about them at this point in their careers too. While it is true Giannis Antetokounmpo has operated differently than almost anyone not named Tim Duncan, there is a reality that Giannis has just scratched the surface of how good he could be, and he was the runaway MVP a season ago. Imagine what he’ll be when he reaches his prime? That’s why the Bucks had to go all-in on their free agents this summer and why they can’t allow the season to get off the rails this year. That’s a tremendous amount of pressure for a franchise, especially a franchise that doesn’t have extremely bright lights and glamor appeal. The Bucks have an impressive win-now roster, which should make them one of the favorites in the East, but it also means there won’t be a big margin for error either.

1st Place – Central Division

– Steve Kyler

FROM THE CAP GUY

The Bucks made a significant sacrifice this summer, choosing to sign and trade Malcolm Brogdon to the Indiana Pacers, instead of forcing the guard to play the restricted free agent game with an offer sheet. Instead, the team dropped under the salary cap to re-sign Brook Lopez. Milwaukee also made a sizable investment in paying Khris Middleton $177.5 million over five seasons.

Now the franchise is right under the luxury tax line of $132.6 million. They have no additional spending tools, outside of minimum contracts, but could venture over mid-season trade. Before November, the team needs to decide on options for D.J. Wilson and Donte DiVincenzo. Looming over the horizon is Giannis Antetokounmpo’s contract which ends after the 2020-21 season. The clear goal will be locking him down to a Supermax extension when eligible next summer.

– Eric Pincus

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Giannis Antetokounmpo

The reigning league MVP also continues his reign as Milwaukee’s best offensive player as we move into 2019-20. Antetokounmpo won the MVP on the back of a season that saw his traditional counting stat averages finish at 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game. Per Cleaning the Glass, Antetokounmpo’s effective field goal percentage was a ridiculous 60.2 percent, his on/off difference was in the 92nd percentile at plus-8.7, and he was in the 98th percentile in points per 100 shot attempts at 129.9.

Giannis also led the NBA in player efficiency rating, and with a roster built exclusively around him, the Bucks were fourth in offensive rating and second in both effective field goal and true shooting percentage, trailing only Golden State in the latter two.

He did all of this despite still shooting 25.6 percent from three, which remains his only glaring weakness. However, last season Giannis took and made more threes than he ever has. He appeared to find a certain level of comfort stepping into them from the extended elbows during the back-half of the season; if he can get to league average on three or four attempts per game, it will really be over for the rest of the NBA.

Top Defensive Player: Giannis Antetokounmpo

Surprise, surprise: Antetokounmpo is also Milwaukee’s best defensive player. He was second in Defensive Player of the Year voting last year, leading the Bucks to an NBA-best 104.9 defensive rating and finishing second in individual defensive rating and defensive box plus/minus.

He was also second in total rebounds and sixth in rebounds per game, the only non-Russell Westbrook perimeter player to finish in the top 15 in that category.

Antetokounmpo is the most physically gifted player in the league and uses his strength and size to switch across all five positions. You won’t find a more versatile defender, and this writer would bet on him beating out Rudy Gobert for a DPOY over the next few years.

Top Playmaker: Giannis Antetokounmpo

This may be getting repetitive, but with a player this good, it’s hard to look anywhere else.

As mentioned, Milwaukee filled out their roster specifically to enhance Antetokounmpo’s strengths. Head coach Mike Budenholzer spaced the floor around Giannis (a la the Cleveland Cavaliers in LeBron James’s first stint with the team) and gave him all the room to drive and kick out to shooters. This resulted in Antetokounmpo leading his team in total assists and assists per game, and assisting on 29.3 percent of his teammates made field goals – in the 98th percentile, according to Cleaning the Glass.

Empowering Giannis to play as the de facto point guard for long stretches allowed him to become one of the better playmakers in the league. Entering year two of Coach Bud’s offense, it’s fair to expect him to be even better.

Top Clutch Player: Giannis Antetokounmpo

This isn’t a referendum on the rest of the team, but a testament to just how good Giannis was as a 24-year-old MVP. According to NBA.com, during clutch time Antetokounmpo led the Bucks in scoring and shot 62.5 percent from the field while doing so. When the game is on the line, Milwaukee’s spread offense becomes even more pronounced, and they live and die by Giannis’s penetration and playmaking.

Their reliance on Giannis late in games was as evident as ever during Game 4 of the first round of the playoffs against Boston. Giannis scored 17 in the fourth quarter on his way to 39 points, 16 rebounds and four assists. He was everywhere in the fourth – scoring isolation on the block, driving and kicking to shooter, and attacking the offensive glass. He’s the Bucks’ best player, and their best clutch one, too.

The Unheralded Player: Brook Lopez

Brook Lopez was a revelation last season. After Los Angeles inexplicably let him walk, Lopez came to Milwaukee and fully transformed from post-up specialist to seven-foot spot-up shooter. Lopez hit from three at a 36.5 percent clip on 6.3 attempts per game, often the beneficiary of Giannis drives. Lopez even extended his range and regularly hitting from far beyond the line and thus giving Antetokounmpo even more room with which to work.

Lopez’s ability to shoot as a big was invaluable in Milwaukee’s offense, but he was effective when he posted up as well. He may well be the second most useful offensive player on the Bucks’ roster, and he too should see a bump in production and efficiency in his second year in the offense.

Best New Addition: Kyle Korver

We’ve talked a lot about Milwaukee’s offense, both stylistically and as a vehicle to augment Giannis’s gifts. Not many players fit this bill better than all-time great shooter Kyle Korver. Korver enters his 19th season fourth on the all-time three-pointers-made list and with a career three-point percentage of 42.9 percent. He will provide another floor spacer on the perimeter and will likely be a factor down the stretch of tight games.

– Drew Mays

WHO WE LIKE

1. Khris Middleton

After averaging 20.1 points, 5.2 rebounds and 4.0 assists in 2017-18, Middleton regressed a tad last season. But, he still put up a line of 18.3/6.0/4.3 and was named to his first All-Star game. Middleton is the clear-cut second option to Giannis and operates as the Bucks’ secondary playmaker. Expect Middleton to bounce back and push for another All-Star bid this year.

2. Ersan Ilyasova

In his second stint with Milwaukee, Ilyasova had a quiet 2018-19. He averaged just 6.8 points and 4.5 rebounds per game but continued to be reliable from three, shooting 36.3 percent. He’s been a dependable role player and has deep ties not only with the Bucks organization, but with Mike Budenholzer, and will remain a steady and trustworthy stretch big.

3. George Hill

Hill is another player who had a down 2018-19, playing his fewest minutes since he entered the league in 2008. His effective field goal percentage dropped below 50 percent to 49.3, and he shot 28 percent from three. So why is he a guy we like? Because Hill flipped a switch in the playoffs and became one of Milwaukee’s best players during their run.

In 15 games, Hill put up 11.5 points, 3.5 rebounds and 2.8 assists per contest on 53.4 percent from the field and 41.7 percent from three. He had a ridiculous effective field goal percentage of 61.9 percent and stepped in as a ball-handler when Eric Bledsoe performed his disappearing act.

Hill, like Ilyasova, is a seasoned veteran that can be counted on when the games matter. Last year was likely an aberration, and his play will level out again in 2019-20.

4. Sterling Brown

The full effect of Malcolm Brogdon’s departure has yet to be seen, but one place it will inevitably show up is in the form of opportunity for Sterling Brown. Brown played 58 games last season, starting seven and playing just under 18 minutes per game. He has a similar physical profile to Brogdon, and they have somewhat comparable per-36-minute averages. While Brown is certainly less efficient than Brogdon – who is sneakily one of the most efficient in the league – he should be able to fill some of the gaps left behind with his aggressiveness on both sides of the ball.

– Drew Mays

STRENGTHS

Milwaukee’s strengths from last season will be the same this season. They will lean heavily on Antetokounmpo and, to a much lesser extent, Middleton. They should hold their ground as a top-five team in both points per 100 possessions and effective field goal percentage offensively and defensively. Even in a stronger Eastern Conference, they will likely again push for 60 wins and the top overall seed in the playoffs.

– Drew Mays

WEAKNESSES

What were the Bucks’ strengths during the regular season became their weaknesses in the Eastern Conference Finals. During the four straight losses to Toronto, Giannis struggled (under his standards), and as a result, Milwaukee struggled mightily. The supporting cast was unable to pick up the slack. In a league where stars are doubling and tripling off for, the Bucks have only a fringe All-Star behind their MVP. When playoff defenses tighten up and force Giannis to shoot, can the role players do enough to get over the hump?

– Drew Mays

THE BURNING QUESTION

Will Milwaukee get to The Finals after last year’s disappointing Eastern Conference Finals exit?

The 2018-19 season was filled with stretches that showed us how good Milwaukee could be. They won 60 games, had a 2-0 lead in the Eastern Conference Finals and looked sure to move on to face the Warriors in the championship. And then, they collapsed. No matter how well they space the floor and shoot threes, no matter how much better Giannis is, the same issues will arise.

Even with Kawhi Leonard’s departure and Kevin Durant’s redshirt year in the East, the lack of star power outside the MVP probably hurt them again. Philadelphia looks more Finals-ready than the Bucks.

Unless, of course, Giannis starts hitting threes. If he does that, all bets are off; Milwaukee could be back in The Finals for the first time since 1974.

– Drew Mays

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The X-Factors: Dallas

Drew Maresca continues Basketball Insiders’ X-Factors series by taking a look at the Dallas Mavericks’ most important pieces when the NBA returns in late July.

Drew Maresca

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The NBA has zeroed in on a July 31st return – and it’s barely cracked the news.

Well, that’s an exaggeration. It’s just that the confluence of civil unrest and the COVID-19 pandemic has morphed into a supernova of stressors that seem virtually insurmountable — and together, they’ve swallowed up the entirety of the 24-hour news cycle. It’s important to note that the loss of basketball pales in comparison to the many hurdles African Americans face with varying – but almost certain – regularity. And with 80.7% of NBA players being people of color (according to a recent study by the University of Central Florida), it’s obviously an incredibly personal issue for many of us close to the game.

But back to the NBA’s return…

The NBA is set on a 22-team solution that includes returning for eight games with the added bonus of a possible play-in tournament. Further, Oct. 12 will be the latest date for a potential Game 7 of the 2020 NBA Finals. But not only is the NBA officially returning, we now know how and when.

We also know who — and the Dallas Mavericks are in that group of teams that will return to regular season play. They are currently the seventh seed in the Western Conference and they possess a 7-game lead over the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies. That means it’s highly unlikely that they’ll need to compete in the play-in tournament, and they’ll instead focus on regaining midseason form and identifying their first-round opponent. But lots of things must work in their favor if they hope to get past that step.

The Mavericks entered the season boasting the 2018-19 Rookie of the Year – Luka Doncic – and they were finally ready to add Kristaps Porzingis back into their lineup.  But no one knew how Porzingis would look upon his return from a 2018 knee injury; and while Doncic’s rookie season exceeded all expectations, his net effect was limited as far as team success was concerned (33-49).

But despite the doubt, Dallas has looked every bit the part of a playoff team. Doncic has put up MVP-caliber numbers and Porzingis acclimated nicely. But what must the Mavericks do to continue building momentum, and maybe even deliver a first-round upset?  Let’s examine the most pressing X-factors for Dallas in their pursuit of a return to contender status.

First of all, the most important thing the Mavericks need to make a postseason run is their health. The Mavericks haven’t been entirely healthy all year. Porzingis tweaked his right knee only a few short months after returning from left knee injury that sidelined him for more than a year and a half. As a result, he missed six straight games and sat out a total of 16 games in 2019-20.

While missing games was the primary concern, Porzingis’s real hurdle has been ramping up from his extended hiatus. Porzingis was clearly not his old self immediately upon his return – and that’s reflected in his averages. He averaged only 15.8 points per game in 13 games in November and only 17.2 points per game in 20 games between December and January. But he found his groove in February, posting 25.2 points and 10.6 rebounds per game. And he followed that up with 23.2 points, 11.2 rebounds and 3.6 blocks per game in five contests in March before the shutdown. Porzingis clearly figured out where he fits with the Mavericks; and if he continues playing like he did in March and April, the Mavericks should boast a mismatch up front on most nights.

But even at his best, Porzingis alone doesn’t elevate the Mavericks to contenders. The Mavericks need more from their role players, too. With free agency remaining closed until the conclusion of the season (although it may open before the draft this year), teams must work with what they have at their disposal. That means that any solution must already be on their roster. And while options are obviously limited, there is one player from whom they could expect a little more – Seth Curry.

Let’s start with the elephant in the room – Curry is simply not on his brother’s level in terms of talent, and he never will be. But considering just how special Stephen Curry is, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. What he lacks in ability (relative to his brother), Seth Curry makes up for with fearlessness. The younger Curry has carved out a real role in his second stint with the Mavericks, taking and making shots at an impressive rate; Curry is shooting a scorching 45.3% on three-point attempts over the entire season. And looking ahead, Dallas should unleash him even more. While Curry is averaging only 12.6 points in 24.5 minutes per game, his scoring average jumps to 20.5 points on 67.6% three-point shooting when given 30+ minutes. If the Mavericks hope to be competitive (and maybe even advance) in the 2020 NBA Playoffs, Curry may very well be the key.

Last, but definitely not least, is Doncic himself – specifically, how in-shape he is upon his return. The Mavericks need a physically fit Doncic to return in July. And he very well may do just that. Remember, it was only about a year ago that he committed himself to lifting weights and conditioning – and this season he’s the sixth-leading scorer in the league and a (long shot) MVP candidate. Mavericks’ owner Mark Cuban joked about Doncic’s conditioning last Summer.

“He came (in the summer of 2019) and he was working out with coach,” Cuban said. “I actually saw an ab, so it was a step in the right direction. There may have been two. But he’s definitely in better shape (than he was last season).”

And that worked out pretty well for Dallas.

Recently, rumors have surfaced about Doncic and his physique and/or conditioning. Specifically, rumors claim that Doncic looks “puffy”, but ESPN’s Tim MacMahon reported the contrary.

“Anytime Luka (Doncic) goes overseas and people don’t see him there’s going to be these rumors, ‘He’s beefing up again, he’s looking puffy,’” MacMahon said. “That rumor’s out there. I asked. I was told that he looks fine on their Zoom calls, he’s been working out and he’s actually been playing pickleball over Slovenia.”

Doncic is a major wild card in that no one knows what to expect. We’ll know more soon.

Ultimately, the Mavericks are going to have a challenging time advancing past the elite teams in the league. But if Porzingis, Curry and Doncic don’t all return ready to play the best basketball of their respective careers, an early elimination is a near certainty. If they can all reach new highs, they’ll have a chance.

And that’s all anyone can ask for.

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The X-Factors: Indiana

Matt John continues Basketball Insiders’ X-Factors series by taking a look at how certain aspects affect the Indiana Pacers’ chances.

Matt John

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There’s a lot going on right now. So much so that it’s overshadowed a positive string of news – the NBA is (hopefully) coming back. We don’t know when that is, and we don’t know how they’re going to approach the rest of the 2019-20 season, but at least we know that pro basketball is coming back.

If you’ve been keeping in touch with Basketball Insiders over the past week, we’ve been looking over X-Factors that can shape the chances of potential playoff teams. X-Factors like injuries, how teams figure out their rotation, getting past their internal issues, and so on and so forth. We’ve already gone over New Orleans, Portland, Brooklyn and Memphis. Today, we’re going over the Indiana Pacers.

Over the past three years, the Pacers have been unanimously crowned as one of the league’s more entertaining underdogs. Since they started their new era of basketball post-Paul George, their identity has centered around their scrappiness and effort. It’s what’s led to them having two consecutive 48-win seasons and being on pace to win 49 this season. If that’s not enough, they’ve done this while having their new face of the franchise Victor Oladipo fully healthy for only one season during that time.

There’s only one problem. In spite of them wildly exceeding expectations, it hasn’t led to much playoff success. In their defense, some of that came from factors that were out of their control, like having to face LeBron in the first round one year and losing Oladipo mid-season the next. This upcoming postseason is their chance to prove that there is more to them than being the little train that could.

For Indiana to take that next step, their chances start and end with how much of Victor Oladipo that we’ll get to see from Victor Oladipo.

First, let’s give props to the Pacers for being able to manage without ‘Dipo for the past year or so. Teams more often than not crash and burn after they lose their best player. Indiana can take pride knowing that they weren’t one of them. They’ve proven that they’re a good team without him – which definitely wasn’t the case his first year when he exploded. At this point though, good isn’t enough for them, which is why they still need him at full strength to achieve their full potential.

Alas, integrating an all-NBA caliber player following a devastating injury to a team that was playing fine without him is much easier said than done — the 2018-19 Boston Celtics can attest to that. It can really boggle down to two reasons why.

1. A star coming off a serious injury mid-season needs time to shake off the rust
2. Working him into a rotation that was doing fine without him is hard to maneuver

When Oladipo came back, neither he nor the Pacers could avoid those issues. Indiana went 7-6 and seemed to go hot and cold. After winning an overtime thriller against Chicago, they went on a five-game losing streak. They followed that with a six-game winning streak before losing to Boston in a close battle just as the NBA shut down. In that 13-game span, Oladipo averaged nearly 14 points on 39/30/78 splits along with three rebounds and three assists. Those numbers are to be expected knowing what’s happened to him, but not the ones you regularly want from your franchise player.

However, that last loss to Boston bred reason for optimism for Oladipo. He had his best game of the season by, scoring 27 points on 9-for-16 shooting including 5-for-7from three. Better yet, he single-handedly spurred a 9-2 run that helped the Pacers catch up to the Celtics late in the fourth quarter. He was the best player on the floor when it mattered, and he did his damage against a good team. He looked like Victor Oladipo again!

Unfortunately, his performance was like a show putting on its best episode just as it was about to go on hiatus. Because the NBA shortly put the season on hold afterward, we don’t know if it was all a fluke or if it was him trending upwards. We’ll get a better look when the season resumes.

If we get the Victor Oladipo that put the league on notice just two years ago, then the Pacers become one of the playoff sleepers with an ambiguous ceiling. Granted, Indiana has progressed enough as a team that they don’t have to rely on him as much as they did two years ago, but adding a two-way star to an already good team opens so many possibilities. It wouldn’t be the end of the world if they don’t get that version of Oladipo when the playoffs come around, but if they do, absolutely no one would want to face them in the playoffs.

If they believe that they can get the Oladipo of old, his presence would mean someone(s) else isn’t getting minutes. Playoff rotations always shorten because teams want their best guys out there. Jeremy Lamb’s awful season-ending knee injury does make things simpler in that regard, but Oladipo will have to absorb a lot of minutes if Indiana wants him to get his best form back, which means the back-end rotation guys in Indiana like TJ McConnell and the Holiday brothers might be riding the pine more than what they are used to.

Oladipo at full strength is obviously a lot better than those players, but as stated before, him coming back at full strength is not a guarantee. Giving him minutes at the expense of others who have been productive is a gamble especially now that it’s looking more and more likely that the NBA will start with the playoffs right off the bat.

Let’s be honest here: You probably already knew Indy’s playoff chances revolve around how Oladipo performs. You might be asking if there are other factors at play. There most certainly are for them. Although not nearly to the same proportion as Oladipo is.

A consistent subplot over these last three years has been the shaky pairing of Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner. Nate McMillan, whose coaching has been among the best in the league during that time, has tried his darndest to make the pairing work. The Pacers aren’t worse when they share the court together – they have a plus-2.1 net rating as a duo — but they clearly don’t make the team better together.

It’s clear that this team ain’t big enough for the two of ‘em, and this season, Sabonis has made it obvious that he is the better player of the two. Indiana should probably look into trading Turner this summer, but that’s not relevant for why this is all being brought up. The point is, if the Pacers want to go the distance, they have to mix and match those two to the best of their abilities.

In other words, they need to stop putting themselves on the court together for an extended period of time. It’s a shame because they are two of Indiana’s best players that just happen to play at their best at the same position. The playoffs are about playing the best lineups and exploiting the best matchups. In order to do that, they shouldn’t be playing at the same time.

Having two really good centers can be a positive though. It makes it so that the Pacers will always have at least one of them on the floor at all times. That can do wonders for them.

There are other factors at play here. TJ Warren will be getting his first taste of playoff action. He’s done an excellent job replacing Bojan Bogdanovic this season, but who knows if that is going to continue when the playoffs start? Aaron Holiday has a much bigger role than he had last year and did not get much playoff burn as a rookie. If the Pacers entrust him in the playoffs, is he going to fill in Cory Joseph’s shoes?

There’s also the playoff formatting that’s still very much in the air. If they do the standard formatting, Indiana will be facing Miami in the first round for what should be a very entertaining – not to mention nostalgic – playoff series. If they decide to do seeding based on league standings, they would face Denver, which would provide a fair amount of fun matchups. We may not even get that either.

Whatever the case is, Indiana can at least sleep well at night knowing that this go-round, they’ll have their best player back on the team to lead the fight.

The biggest question is how much of the said best player will be there when they do.

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The X-Factors: Memphis

David Yapkowitz continues Basketball Insiders’ “X-Factor” series by identifying potential difference-makers for the Memphis Grizzlies should the NBA return this July.

David Yapkowitz

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Developing news: the NBA is forging a path towards resuming the season, something that didn’t seem all that likely a couple of months ago. Now there are still quite a few things needed to be addressed before a resumption, but things have seemingly gained momentum within the past week or so.

Different scenarios have been floated around. But the ultimate question, should the season indeed resume, is how? Will the NBA opt to go only with the teams that were in a playoff spot before the shutdown, or will they include the bubble teams who had a fighting shot at the playoffs as well?

We’ve begun a new series here at Basketball Insiders in which, assuming those bubble teams have a legit shot, we take a look at not only the potential issues each team may face, but the x-factors that could swing their favor in their respective quests toward the postseason.

Today, we look at the Memphis Grizzlies, one of the regular season’s biggest surprises. Of course, nobody would blame you if you picked them to miss the postseason — they came into the season as an extremely young team with not a lot of experience. And they started the season about as you would have expected, 14 losses in their first 20 games. Come 2020, their record stood at 13-35 as they sat near the bottom of the Western Conference.

Then, on Jan. 4, something changed. A big 140-114 win on the road against the Los Angeles Clippers, a team many expected to represent the conference in the NBA Finals, set off a chain reaction. From there, the Grizzlies would go on to win seven straight as they cemented themselves a spot in the race for the conference’s last playoff spot. When the NBA suspended play on March 11, Memphis sat at 32-33 and 3.5 games ahead of the Portland Trail Blazers for the eighth spot in the conference.

So, what exactly could prove the Grizzlies x-factor should the season resume? First and foremost would be the health of budding star Jaren Jackson Jr.

After a pretty solid rookie season in 2018-19, Jackson appeared on an upward trajectory prior to his injury. The archetype of the modern big, he is an elite defender with a great range from beyond the arc. He may not shoot the prettiest ball, but it goes in nonetheless: the former Michigan State Spartan took 6.3 three-point attempts per game and knocked them down at a near 40 percent clip. He’s active around the basket and, given his size and potential in the pick-and-roll, Jackson is the perfect complement to the Grizzlies fellow phenom and future star, Ja Morant.

Prior to the league shutdown, Jackson had missed nine straight with a left knee injury. His absence was evident — Memphis went 4-5 in his absence after that aforementioned seven-game win-streak — and a potential return could give the Grizzlies the boost they need to solidify their position in the standings.

While Memphis would have almost certainly have preferred to have Jackson in the lineup, they may have stumbled upon another potential x-factor in his absence: Josh Jackson.

The former lottery pick had a humbling experience to start this season, as the team essentially told him not to show up to training camp and instead had him immediately assigned to their G-League team, the Memphis Hustle.

Down in the G-League, Jackson was given the opportunity to hone his craft, expand his repertoire and further build on the talent that made him the fourth pick back in 2017. Later in the year, the Grizzlies seemingly liked what they saw: recalled to the team in late January, Jackson proved a nice spark for the team off the bench as averaged 10.4 points, 1.7 assists 3.2 rebounds and a steal per game in 18 contests. In that time, Jackson also shot a career-high 43.9 percent from the field.

Of course, there was never any question about his talent — Jackson was a lottery pick for a reason — but in his short time with the Phoenix Suns, Jackson just couldn’t put it together. That said, he’s shown some serious improvement defensively and in terms of his shot selection and, still only 23-years-old, he could quickly become a major difference-maker for Memphis off the bench. In the short-term, his improvements should only serve to benefit the team’s postseason chances.

Their youth and inexperience, something that has often been regarded as their biggest weakness, could also serve as another wild card or x-factor for the Grizzlies. Only three players — Gorgui Deng, Jonas Valanciunas and Kyle Anderson — are over the age of 26, and the energy their young legs would bring to any potential tournament could serve as their ace in the hole.

Looking back toward the standings, the San Antonio Spurs and Portland Trail Blazers, two veteran-laden teams with significantly more experience than Memphis, loom large. Should the NBA give those teams on the bubble a real opportunity to reach the postseason, the Grizzlies’ youth will have to play a significant role. Of course, their inexperience may prove fatal, given the amount of time away from the game.

But, over the course of the season, Memphis proved a resilient bunch — there’s no reason to think that might change should the season resume.

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