On May 19th of 2019, the Milwaukee Bucks entered Canadian territory to face the Toronto Raptors for Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals. The Bucks held a 2-0 series lead after a pair of relatively comfortable wins at home. Led by reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Bucks controlled the paint just as they did throughout their stellar regular season.
After losing Game 3 in double overtime, and missing a chance to all but clinch the series, it all fell apart for the Bucks. The Raptors took the next three games to win the series and went on to win the championship.
A year later, the Bucks have put together an absurdly dominant regular season. Despite this dominance, skepticism lingers as that four-game collapse is still fresh in many fans’ minds.
Teams without championship pedigree that come off four straight playoff losses will always garner doubt the following season, no matter their regular season play. The Bucks have tested that sentiment to its absolute limits with this campaign, boasting a robust net rating of 10.7.
Further impressively, the Bucks led the league in net rating by 3.6 points and this puts them in rare company. The only two teams in modern NBA history with a larger lead on the field were the 2016-17 Golden State Warriors and the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls. Both were crowned champions after cruising through the playoffs.
Moreover, both of those teams had been through the gauntlet before. The Bulls featured the greatest player ever and had won three championships with the same key pieces; while the Warriors won a title in 2015, won 73 games in 2016 and then added Kevin Durant for their 2016-17 stroll to the finals.
Two other teams that come to mind when looking for comparisons are the 2014-15 Warriors and the 2008-09 Cavaliers. These units also featured league MVPs and led the league comfortably in net rating, although not quite as comfortably as the Bucks this season.
The Warriors capped off their season with a championship, but they did feature a new coach in Steve Kerr that season – so it wasn’t the same team returning from playoff failure. The Cavaliers were coming off a semi-finals loss in 2008 to the eventual champion Boston Celtics, but they did benefit from a Kevin Garnett injury and a very weak conference en route to 66 wins. That team lost in the Eastern Conference Finals to Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic.
It’s safe to say the Bucks are in unchartered territory. The big question from here is this: Does this dominance supersede the lack of past success when trying to predict the future? The 2018-19 Bucks were a great regular season team in their own right, but has there been enough discernible change to say that this group will fare better in the postseason? To put it simply: Will the Bucks dominate the post-season as those great Bulls and Warriors teams did, or will they fail to get over the hump like the Cavaliers?
The first question is a little more abstract, so the second will kick things off. The Bucks are quite obviously a bettered regular-season team for a myriad of reasons.
Internal improvement has been at the forefront for the Bucks this season. Giannis Antetokounmpo has somehow found another gear from last season, taking a leap reminiscent of Stephen Curry’s in 2015-16 when he followed an MVP season with one of the best of offensive seasons ever.
But Antetokounmpo’s leap has been mostly seen defensively. He has become a snarling monster on that end, shutting off entire sides of the court on a nightly basis. When Giannis plays, the Bucks hold opponents to a ridiculous 51.7 percent shooting at the rim, compared to a still-low-but-not-terrifying 58.9 percent shooting in that area when he sits, per Cleaning the Glass. He is the leading Defensive Player of the Year candidate for a reason and will likely be the third player ever to win that and the MVP in the same season.
Starting center Brook Lopez has been no slouch on that end either. His consistent rim protection has thrust the veteran into the defensive awards conversation and deservedly so.
Elsewhere, Khris Middleton has had his best season as a professional, which is almost hard to believe. The uber-efficient shooting and smooth wing play from Middleton beautifully complimented the bulldozing style of Giannis throughout the season. Donte DiVincenzo has become a nice 3-and-D player in his second year while also flashing ball-handling ability. Eric Bledsoe and George Hill have each had stellar campaigns and more than made up for the loss of Malcolm Brogdon.
The new faces have proven to be smart additions as well. Kyle Korver has provided his usual 40 percent three-point shooting. Wesley Matthews has started every game thanks to his veteran defense and consistent stroke. Marvin Williams, acquired midseason, gives the Bucks another consummate professional on the wing.
However, the most important new teammate has been the other half of the Lopez set. Robin Lopez has helped shore up the defense of a bench unit that struggled a tad when both Antetokounmpo and his brother sat in 2018-19.
Looking past the statistics, the Bucks seem to play with a different edge this season. NBA players are known for being online; the playoff loss and subsequent doubting from fans and media did not fall on deaf ears. It’s rare that a team this good still has something prove.
With these improvements in mind, the question of whether this regular season or last year’s postseason should be key when evaluating the Bucks can be revisited.
The four postseason losses did highlight one weakness and the Bucks’ defensive trade of opponent three-point attempts in exchange for a closed paint often left them susceptible to streaky shooting. The Bucks were willing to allow threes from the Raptors role players, and in the end, it was their demise. Marc Gasol, Fred VanVleet and Norman Powell drained dagger after dagger.
Of their 12 losses this season, eight came when the opposition hit 16 or more threes. For reference, the Houston Rockets lead the league with 15 made threes per game. Three additional losses came while playing without Giannis. Their only full-strength loss to a team that shot below their average from deep came at the hands of LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Bucks have stuck to their guns on defense and rightly so. Their defense has been historically good this season. Sure, they can be beaten by a barrage of three-pointers, but those are few and far between and could happen to any team. Just because one team got hot for three straight games should not dissuade a team from their bread and butter.
It would, of course, be unfair to the Raptors to chalk up a series win to a statistical anomaly. They locked down on defense as well, keeping the Bucks out of the paint and their stars in check.
This season, Giannis has quietly improved his three-point shooting. He has taken about a quarter of his total shots from deep, up from a sixth last season. He has hit about 30 percent of those attempts compared to about 25 percent a season ago. Teams are sure to take a page from the Raptors’ playbook this postseason, so his continued willingness to shoot will be key in the Bucks’ quest for a championship.
The other, and perhaps most concerning and hard-to-predict cause for the Bucks 2019 downfall, is the decline of the role players in that series. Bledsoe’s shooting fell off a cliff as he furthered his reputation as a postseason underperformer. Brogdon and Nikola Mirotic, two players no longer on this roster, also suffered through ugly shooting slumps.
Some of that is expected: Role players tend to regress as defenses tighten and scouting becomes more detailed. Players like Bledsoe, Matthews, Williams and Korver will need to maintain some semblance of their regular season shooting prowess to keep the Bucks offense humming.
While the Raptors did unveil a few weaknesses, the Bucks addressed the most glaring ones by simply continuing to assemble talent on the fringes. Rather than make large-scale adjustments and overcompensate for playoff heartbreak, the Bucks doubled-down on their approach to become the dominant team they are today.
All of this is further complicated by the current situation. For any aliens reading human literature for the first time, the NBA is currently playing the remainder of their season in a bubble in Walt Disney World due to a global pandemic. This bubble scenario renders the homecourt advantage earned by the Bucks null, as there are no more home and road games for now. Also, it is still unknown how a four-month midseason layoff will affect the players.
In normal times, the Bucks should be considered a heavy favorite. They more closely resemble teams that rampaged through the playoffs than they do teams that fell short. Times are not normal though, so it would be unwise to make any bold predictions.
To answer the third and final question – it’s true, the Bucks seem to resemble those great Bulls and Warriors teams more than they do the 2009 Cavaliers. Whether it will play out that way remains to be seen.
NBA Daily: Rajon Rondo Brings Leadership, Playmaking to Clippers
The Los Angeles Clippers made a big trade deadline move last month when they shipped out locker room favorite and perennial Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams to the Atlanta Hawks in exchange for Rajon Rondo.
The Los Angeles Clippers made a big trade deadline move last month when they shipped out locker room favorite and perennial Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams to the Atlanta Hawks in exchange for Rajon Rondo.
The Clippers have had one of the most efficient offenses in the NBA this season, but even so, they have had times where the offense seemingly stalls and they can’t seem to generate easing scoring opportunities especially late in games.
The calls for a true point guard only got louder after those games and the team finally gave in and rolled the dice on one of the league’s better playmakers, especially come playoff time. Williams has been a good playmaker himself throughout his career and he was averaging 3.4 assists per game prior to the trade.
But in Rondo, the Clippers get a premier playmaker and floor leader who has won two championships and whom the Lakers often closed games with last year in the postseason. Rondo made his Clippers debut on Easter Sunday in the team’s win over the Los Angeles Lakers and although his numbers didn’t jump off the stat sheet (2 points, 1 rebound, 3 assists and 4 turnovers in 12 minutes of play), he played with a lot of energy and pushed the pace well, something the Clippers haven’t always been so good at this season.
After the game, Rondo summed up what his role on the team is going to be quite simply.
“Just go out there and try and lead by example,” Rondo said. “I don’t like to talk as much without showing out on the court for my teammates.”
Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue was a little more effusive in his thoughts on how Rondo will fit in on the team and how much better they will be with his addition. The Clippers have spoken all season long about needing to push the ball in transition and try and generate easy scoring opportunities on the break and that’s something Lue noticed right away with Rondo.
“You could just tell his pace brings a different something to our team and offensively he’s getting the outlet close to half court before the first pass is made. That generates pace for us and we need that,” Lue said. “As slow as we run sometimes, it’s probably going to have to be something that we adjust to, but I think he makes the game easier. When you get out and run in transition, a lot of teams can’t get back and get a match so we will get open shots. With him generating the pace, that’s going to be good for us.”
One area in particular that the team is hoping Rondo can help with is taking some of the ball-handling pressure off of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Both players have really stepped up in transitioning to primary ball-handling roles, something they haven’t had to do thus far in their careers.
They’re both averaging career-highs in assists at 5.0 and 5.4 respectively and have done well moving the ball around and getting good shots throughout the game for themselves and their teammates. But there have been times when the ball stagnates a bit and both Leonard and George end up taking tough contested shots late in the game.
With Rondo on board, the Clippers have a player that will keep the ball moving and can help get both of them easy looks down the stretch, something he did to perfection last year with LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
“Just trying to get our two main guys the ball in easier spots as far as them having to work so hard to get the ball against a set defense,” Rondo said. “If we are able to create stops to get on the break, my job is to advance the ball and let those guys attack one-on-one before the defense is set.”
In his first game playing alongside Rondo, George immediately saw the benefits and how Rondo will take pressure off of both him and Leonard.
“You just see his intangibles, you see he just sees plays happening,” George said. “I thought it just made the game easier getting it up to him, letting him push the ball, letting him initiate instead of a lot of times myself and Kawhi doing it. We got a guy that can do it, it’s just going to make the game easier for us.”
A team’s point guard is often an extension of the head coach on the court and Rondo certainly has been that throughout his career. He’s been a vocal leader on the court and in the locker room and his stint with the Dallas Mavericks notwithstanding, he’s been a very positive influence wherever he’s been.
He’s looking forward to working alongside Lue and doing his best to implement Lue’s schemes on the court both offensively and defensively.
“Just try to be on the same page as my coach. Not too much as me trying to outsmart my opponents, which at all times I want to be two steps ahead of,” Rondo said. “I want to stay afloat with my teammates as well and be on the same page as them and be an extension of [Tyronn Lue] on the court.”
NBA Western Conference Bright Future Watch
The Western Conference is loaded with talent this year, but who will be the teams that dominate it in the future? Zach Dupont takes a look at which teams have the brightest future in the Western Conference.
It’s easy to get swept up in the excitement of the current season as we head towards the climax of a great race for the Western Conference title. But there are already reasons to look past this year and get excited about the teams who could dominate the Western Conference past 2020-21.
Who are the teams that could strike next year? And who has set themselves up to have a bright future in the Western Conference?
The Denver Nuggets are primed to become a force in the Western Conference for years to come and could easily be the favorites heading into next year. The Nuggets’ four best players, Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr. and Aaron Gordon, are all under contract for next season, and all of them are younger than 26-years-old. Jokic has proved himself to be one of the best players in the NBA over the past few seasons and has emerged as a favorite for the MVP award this year. In 2020-21, Jokic is averaging 26.3 points, 10.9 rebounds and 8.8 assists per game while shooting 57 percent from the field and 42.9 percent from three. Jokic’s wingman Murray is no slouch either, posting the best numbers of his career with 21.3 points per game on 48 percent shooting and 41.2 percent shooting from three. Combine Jokic’s MVP play and Murray’s high-end scoring ability with the shooting and potential of Porter Jr., and the defensive ability of Gordon and the Nuggets emerge as a clear threat in the Western Conference.
The Nuggets also won’t be lacking for depth next year like many of their rivals. Monte Morris is locked up for the next few seasons, and Will Barton and JaMychal Green have player options for next season that they could easily accept. The Nuggets can also keep Facundo Campazzo and P.J. Dozier for next season, as both are on non-guaranteed contracts. There are also younger players on the roster who have shown some promise and could be a factor next season. Zeke Nnaji showed potential as a stretch four in limited showings this year, and Bol Bol is still an exciting talent. Denver will even have some money to play with in free agency this offseason, although the looming extension they will owe Porter Jr. will make options limited. Paul Millsap will no longer be on the books at near $15 million a year, and if either Barton or Green decided to decline their player options, that would give the Nuggets more cap flexibility.
The Nuggets have the most intriguing mix of high-end talent and youth in the west, and while they’re already a threat this season, next season, they may be the favorites.
The Grizzlies may not be where Denver is as a team now, but long-term, they are equally as exciting. The Grizzlies are loaded with young talent up and down the roster, and they already have one of their stars of the future. Ja Morant has been a sensation since entering the league last season, and with another year of experience under his belt, the league should be worried about the Grizzlies’ potential. Morant is averaging 18.8 points and 7.4 assists per game in his sophomore campaign. Morant is joined by fellow youngster Jaren Jackson Jr., a two-way big with loads of potential. Jackson has yet to see the floor this year, but he showed the ability to protect the rim like an elite defender and knock down a high volume of three-pointers in his first two seasons of action.
The Grizzlies core may be focused around Morant and Jackson, but what makes Memphis more exciting than other teams out west is the roster’s pure volume of prospects. Brandon Clarke was a steal in the 2019 NBA Draft and has already shown to be a great center who can impact the game on both offense and defense, De’Anthony Melton is one of the league’s most underappreciated defensive players at just 22-years-old and Desmond Bane is already knocking down over 45 percent of his three-point attempts in his rookie season. From top to bottom, Memphis has exciting young talent. Together with their established talent like Dillon Brooks and Jonas Valanciunas, you’ve got a team primed to compete in the Western Conference in 2021-22.
Memphis may not be a title favorite next year, but their ability to acquire talented youth will only make them better and better every season.
New Orleans Pelicans
The Pelicans have some major decisions to make this offseason, but they are a team to watch out west next year no matter what they do. New Orleans has maybe the most exciting young talent in the NBA in Zion Williamson, who has emerged as one of the most efficient and dangerous scorers in the league this season. Williamson is putting up 26.3 points per game this season on an absurd 62 percent shooting and 66 percent true shooting. At just 20-years-old Williamson is already an All-Star, and he will inevitably improve over the next few seasons with his ceiling being as high as anyone’s in the NBA. New Orleans has managed to pair Williamson with another All-Star level player in Brandon Ingram, who has averaged nearly 24 points per game in each of the past two seasons. The Pelicans’ big decision this offseason will be what to do with their point guard, Lonzo Ball. Ball has always been a talented distributor and defender since entering the league, but this year he has taken a step forward as a scorer, averaging a career-best 14.5 points per game and 38.4 percent shooting from three. Ball is set to be a restricted free agent this offseason, and it’s not a given that he will be back next year.
New Orleans already has a core to build around, and they have young depth pieces to add to the already exciting potential of the roster. Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Kira Lewis are a pair of young point guards who have shown a lot of potential and could fill in nicely for Ball if he departs this summer. Alexander-Walker is putting up more than 10 points per game in his sophomore campaign, and he has shown glimpses of being a defender and shooter in the same mold as Ball. Lewis is a speedy rookie out of Alabama who has found playing time hard to come by, but if either Ball or Eric Bledsoe find themselves not in New Orleans next year, he has showcased skills that could put him in the conversation for major minutes.
If Zion takes another step next year, and the whole team cleans it up defensively, the Pelicans could become serious players in the Western Conference.
Los Angeles Lakers
The Los Angeles Lakers may not be full of young players with high-end potential like other teams on this list, but they still represent the West’s most dangerous threat when healthy. Every season the question “when will he finally slow down” is asked about LeBron James, and every season LeBron shows he is still one of the most dominant players in the NBA. LeBron Is 36-years-old, and this season he has put up 25.4 points, 7.9 rebounds and 7.9 assists per game and, before getting injured a few weeks ago, was one of the favorites for the MVP award. LeBron’s running mate, Anthony Davis, is equally dangerous and could be considered the NBA’s best two-way player. The Lakers have both Davis and LeBron locked in for next season, and the presence of those two players alone makes them a title threat in the west regardless of the team put around them.
One benefit of having superstars like LeBron and Davis is that it becomes much easier to sign role players. The Lakers will already have the services of Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Marc Gasol next season, and Montrezl Harrell has a $9.7 million player option for next season. But the draw of potentially winning a championship will bring the Lakers role players on cheaper contracts than they would have signed elsewhere, as evident by Gasol, Andre Drummond and Wesley Matthews’ contracts.
The Lakers may not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of bright futures, but LeBron and Davis will keep the Lakers’ future bright for as long as they remain in LA.
NBA Coach of the Year Watch – April 14
With the final quarter of the NBA season here, a few names have emerged as the favorites for Coach of the Year; who are they? And what are their chances of winning the award come the end of the season?
The NBA season is hitting its final stretch, and teams are gearing up to make a run at the postseason. With the season nearing its conclusion, who is in the running for the NBA end-of-season awards are becoming clearer and clearer.
Today, Basketball Insiders will take a look at the four candidates that have become clear favorites for Coach of the Year and break down why they’re in the running.
The Utah Jazz’s Quin Snyder currently appears to be the favorite for the Coach of the Year award. Snyder has led the Jazz to the best record in the Western Conference and the NBA at an astounding 40-14. Snyder has become a favorite because he is doing this with nearly the same roster as last season, a team that went 44-28 and was the six seed in the Western Conference.
The Jazz have emerged as dominant on both offense and defense, holding the fourth-best defensive ranking and second-best offensive rating in the NBA. Snyder has been instrumental in the improvement of the young players on his roster. Donovan Mitchell is having the best season of his career, averaging 26.3 points and 5.3 assists per game and Rudy Gobert himself is one of the favorites to win the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year award. He’s also managed to get top-tier production from Jordan Clarkson, who seems like a runaway favorite for Sixth Man of the Year, putting up 17.2 points per game in 51 bench appearances.
While there are other coaches with solid resumes, at this point, it’s Snyder’s award to lose. If the Jazz keep the foot to the throttle for the last quarter of the season and remain at the top of the NBA, it’s hard to see Snyder losing to anyone.
The other person who has a good shot at winning the award is the coach of the NBA’s second-best team, Monty Williams. Williams – the coach of the Phoenix Suns – has had an equally impressive season as Snyder, leading the Suns to a 38-15 record, good for second in both the Western Conference and the NBA. Williams gains points because he is coaching an exceptionally young team; Devin Booker and Mikal Bridges are 24-years-old and Deandre Ayton is just 22. That’s a lot of wins for a team starting three players under 25 nearly every game.
Williams loses some points, however, due to the Suns just not having as impressive a statistical team. The Suns are behind the Jazz in both offensive and defensive rating, seventh in offense and fifth in defense. Both excellent marks, but not at the same level of excellence as Snyder’s Jazz. Williams also gets docked some points because, unlike the Jazz, the Suns made a major offseason pickup, grabbing veteran point guard Chris Paul from the Thunder. Paul’s presence has been a game-changer for Phoenix, and his play has elevated the games of all of his young teammates.
Williams has a real shot at winning Coach of the Year, but as of now, Snyder marginally has the edge. But there is still plenty of time left in the season, and Williams could snatch the award from Snyder if the Suns make a late push or the Jazz find themselves faltering.
Steve Nash deserves a lot of credit for what he’s done in his first year as the Brooklyn Nets head coach. Nash has helped keep the Nets not only competitive but elite despite all three of James Harden, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving missing significant time this year. The Nets are second in the Eastern Conference with a record of 36-17 and are considered one of the favorites to win the NBA Championship, if healthy.
Despite Nash’s great work as a first-year head coach, he is a bit less of a favorite than both Williams and Snyder. The trio of Durant, Harden and Irving has a combined 27 All-Star appearances, 18 All-NBA appearances and two MVPs; excellence was the expectation for this group. Nash has done a great job keeping the Nets afloat despite injuries and many, many off-court dramas, but his roster alone compared to those of Williams and Snyder, makes it a touch more difficult for him to win the award. Nash is also at the helm of one of the worst defenses in the NBA, with the Nets clocking in at 25th in the league in defensive rating. While the Nets offense could very well be the best in the league, it’ll be difficult to win the award with a defense performing that poorly.
Nash is still a contender even if he isn’t at the same level as those listed above. Nash just needs things out of his control to happen to get him back in the running. If both the Jazz and Suns struggle down the stretch, and the Nets thrive, Nash could find himself winning Coach of the Year in his rookie season.
It’s been a hell of a renaissance for Philadelphia 76ers’ head coach Doc Rivers. Rivers had a tough stint with the Los Angeles Clippers, ending his seven-year run there with an embarrassing second-round playoff loss to the Denver Nuggets. Now in Philadelphia, Rivers has coached the 76ers to the best record in the Eastern Conference at 37-17. Rivers has turned the 76ers into a defensive juggernaut, rocking the second-best defensive rating in the NBA, a 107.2. Their defense is anchored by MVP candidate Joel Embiid and three-time All-Star Ben Simmons. Rivers has also gotten major contributions from Tobias Harris – who looked lost in his past few seasons in Philly – and former Dallas Maverick Seth Curry.
Rivers has done a great job helping turn around a team that looked like a mess just at the end of last season, but like Nash, he too falls a bit short of Snyder and Williams. Working against Rivers is the 76ers offense, which just hasn’t produced at the same level as both the Jazz and Suns. The 76ers have the 14th best offensive rating in the NBA of 112.2, while not bad, it’s also not good. Rivers also has a disadvantage through no fault of his own, having already won the award before and being an established name in the league for over a decade now, voters are just more likely to vote for the fresher names.
Rivers isn’t out of the race yet, and with a good push – and some help from other teams – Rivers could end up as the Coach of the Year come May. But, the 76ers will have to take a step forward on offense, or that will never become a reality.