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NBA Daily: How To Evaluate The Milwaukee Bucks

Does the Milwaukee Bucks’ dominant 2019-20 foreshadow postseason success, or does last year’s collapse still leave too many questions unanswered? Quinn Davis takes a look.

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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.

Quinn Davis is a contributor for Basketball Insiders. He is a former collegiate track runner who currently resides in Philadelphia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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