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NBA Daily: Milwaukee Bucks Face Unique Situation

Despite a successful season, Tristan Tucker looks at why the Milwaukee Bucks face uncertainty regarding their future.

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Despite beating the dominant Brooklyn Nets in seven games, the Milwaukee Bucks face more uncertainty about their future than any other team in the playoffs. Last season, the Bucks accrued a 56-17 record that was good for best in the league. However, the team disappointed and saw a second-round exit at the hands of the Miami HEAT.

After that disappointing finish to a season that many believed would lead to an NBA Championship, the Bucks faced many criticisms. In response, Milwaukee rushed to fix many of those issues. Eric Bledsoe and a boatload of first-round picks were traded to the New Orleans Pelicans in exchange for defensive stalwart Jrue Holiday. The team then swapped out its bench rotation, filling it out with players like P.J. Tucker, Bobby Portis and Bryn Forbes. The Bucks even got older rookies Sam Merrill and Mamadi Diakite to play quick spot minutes.

But Milwaukee’s biggest criticism was one that was left unresolved: the coaching situation. Head coach Mike Budenholzer is a two-time NBA Coach of the Year winner. Budenholzer first won the award after getting the Atlanta Hawks over 60 wins in 2014-15. Then, he did it again with the Bucks two years ago. Despite his metal, Budenholzer’s rotation decisions were met with criticism and confusion during the heartbreaking loss to Miami in 2020. Many fans around the league noticed that many stars were playing well over 40 minutes in big games and never played less than 36. Meanwhile, Milwaukee’s big names sat for extended periods of time.

For reference, Anthony Davis and LeBron James for the Los Angeles Lakers played over 36 minutes per game in the playoffs last season. Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo did the same for the HEAT. Both of those teams moved on to the Finals. On the other hand, Khris Middleton led the team with 35.5 minutes per game in the playoffs while Giannis Antetokounmpo played just 30.8 minutes a night.

Despite this, Milwaukee’s brain trust kept Budenholzer into the 2020-21 season. And so far, that seems like the right decision. The Bucks came back in a big way in the playoffs, being the only team to sweep another team, Miami, in the first round. Then, the Bucks battled back into the series against the Nets, evening the series twice after falling back the same number of times before eventually overcoming the then-title favorites. The team is now matched up with the scorching-hot Hawks and has gone down 1-0 in the series.

All seems to be going relatively well for the Bucks despite the current series. Budenholzer seems to have learned his lesson, his stars are all playing over 37 minutes per game. In fact, the whole rotation seems to be clicking.

Middleton in particular put together the best postseason performance of his career in Game 6 against the Nets. The former All-Star ended that contest with 38 points, 10 rebounds, 5 assists and 5 steals, missing just five of his 16 shots. This isn’t new for Middleton, who is the face of consistency in the league. Outside of an injury-marred 2016-17 season, Middleton has averaged around 20 points per game for almost six straight years.

In each of the last two seasons, Middleton came within inches of securing a 50/40/90 season. Both seasons have seen a respectable amount of attempts from deep and the charity stripe. Middleton even became the go-to guy on offense for the Bucks. Just watch his and his teammates’ confidence in him as he buried a four-point play to ice Game 6 against Brooklyn:

It isn’t just Middleton. Giannis Antetokounmpo is playing more aggressively as of late, securing 30 points on 20 field goal attempts in Game 6 against the Nets. “The Greek Freak” followed that performance up with a 40-point showing to clinch that series, officially avenging last year. In Milwaukee’s Game 1 loss to Atlanta, Antetokounmpo put up 34 points, 12 rebounds and 9 assists in 41 minutes.

Holiday hasn’t had the best playoff stint of his career, but there’s no denying how absurdly better the team’s perimeter defense is with Holiday substituting for Bledsoe and George Hill. The team’s faith in Holiday paid off with a 33-point, 10-assist showing that saw the middle Holiday brother connect on five 3-pointers.

Some of the most notable changes came from Milwaukee’s bench. Forbes and Portis in particular took the next step as players this year. Both players took one-year bets on themselves in the offseason that are sure to result in paydays this summer. Portis and Forbes ranked third and fourth in the regular season in three-point percentage, respectively. Forbes in particular became notorious for how he torched the HEAT in the first round from deep.

And yet, despite the positives, the Bucks still face one of the biggest crossroads of any team in the playoffs. And it all depends on how deep this team can go.

Despite beating the Nets, Budenholzer is still on the hot seat. While Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reported that the series win over Brooklyn will go a long way in determining Budenholzer’s future, the two-time Coach of the Year still hasn’t made the Finals as a head coach. If Budenholzer and the Bucks lose to the Hawks, who they are much better than on paper, it could have a ripple effect on the franchise. In fact, several reports indicate that the team is already looking at potential replacements if things go south.

It’s an odd turnaround for a team that is experiencing the high of knocking off the title favorites. Middleton had a poor Game 1, and the team likely doesn’t lose that game if he is clicking. But Budenholzer’s questionable rotation decisions still plagued the team, with seldom-used Jeff Teague seeing six critical minutes against Trae Young.

Firing a head coach especially one as successful as Budenholzer has been in the regular season is no small task. The move would likely come with several other staff and roster changes.

Despite how great Portis and Forbes have been for the team, it’s unlikely Milwaukee can afford either moving forward. Portis and Forbes both have player options for next season, Portis at $3.8 million and Forbes at $2.4 million. There’s no way either remains on the Bucks at that price with a weak free-agent class on the horizon. And unfortunately, the Bucks don’t have the money to re-sign either to a huge number.

That path would lead to the team being extremely aggressive with what money and assets it does have. The team reportedly agreed to trade Donte DiVincenzo — who is now out with injury — for Bogdan Bogdanovic in a sign-and-trade before Bogdanovic refused to be traded there. Other players like Brook Lopez and Pat Connaughton have tradeable salaries and could help bring in another impact player.

If the Bucks went the distance, Budenholzer would most likely stay and the franchise would avoid a culture reset. Forbes and Portis probably still depart, but other free agents like Tucker would likely be more inclined to re-sign for a smaller salary.

In that case, the team would be more inclined to sit back and watch internal growth. Players like Jordan Nwora, Merrill or Diakite could fill the holes left by potential Forbes or Portis departures. That isn’t to say the team wouldn’t be aggressive, but there isn’t a team left in the playoffs that would see such a huge change if they were eliminated. 

Monty Williams of the Phoenix Suns was a Coach of the Year finalist. The Suns have the assets for internal and external growth if eliminated. The Hawks vastly improved from the last season, and have a direct pathway to getting better through guys like De’Andre Hunter and Onyeka Okongwu. And the Los Angeles Clippers will likely retain Tyronn Lue and Kawhi Leonard this offseason, even if things go awry.

Unfortunately for Budenholzer, this is a unique situation. There haven’t been many do-or-die cases involving jobs this deep into the playoffs involving contenders. For Budenholzer, winning the title secures his job. If he fails to do so, it could spell the end of his Milwaukee tenure.

My name is Tristan Tucker and I am a basketball writer currently enrolled at North Carolina State University. I am the school paper's assistant sports editor and have written for SB Nation and Fansided. I joined Basketball Insiders in December of 2020.

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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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