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NBA AM: Was Bucks’ Success Real Or Mirage?

Just a year ago, the Milwaukee Bucks won only 15 games. Now, they are a team on the rise.

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Will the Bucks Continue to Improve or Was This Season an Outlier?

Not much was expected of the Milwaukee Bucks entering the 2014-15 campaign. In fact, you’d have to search long and hard to find a preseason playoff prediction for the franchise. After all, the team was coming off of a 15-win season and the roster was essentially the same heading into training camp.

But games aren’t played on stacks of loose leaf paper containing preseason predictions.

The Bucks won 41 games and entered the playoffs as a sixth seed in the Eastern Conference. The team managed to push the heavily favored Chicago Bulls to six games in the first round before being eliminated on Thursday.

As the Bucks stroll off into their offseason, many will wonder whether Milwaukee’s success this season was real and a sign of what’s to come or the product of Charlotte underachieving and Indiana playing the majority of the campaign without forward Paul George.

All signs point toward the Bucks being at the beginning stages of something special. With the right moves over the next year or two, Milwaukee could develop into a scary squad. Considering the events before the campaign began and the drama throughout the season, this team’s response to adversity was impressive.

Head coach Jason Kidd was accused of pursuing the Bucks job even though he was employed by the Brooklyn Nets and despite Larry Drew still being employed in the position he coveted. The Bucks ultimately hired Kidd and Drew landed as an assistant in Cleveland.

Secondly, the team’s lottery pick Jabari Parker (No. 2 overall) was lost for the season to a torn ACL after just 25 games in which he averaged 12.3 points and 5.5 rebounds on 49 percent shooting.

Next, the team parted ways with former franchise cornerstone Larry Sanders, who opted to take a buyout and walk away from the team instead of playing out the remaining portion of his $44 million contract.

Lastly, with the team playing at a high level, Milwaukee traded guard Brandon Knight in a three-team deal to acquire 2014 rookie of the year Michael Carter-Williams.

Despite all of those changes, which would derail most teams, the Bucks reached the playoffs and recorded a 26-win improvement over the prior season.

Heading into the draft, the Bucks will hold the No. 17 and No. 46 overall picks. In regards to financial flexibility, the team has a total of $43.8 million in guaranteed salary commitments for the 2015-16 campaign. Veteran forward Jared Dudley holds a player option worth $4.2 million for next season, which would increase the Bucks’ salary cap figure.

Milwaukee will also have to make a decision on free-agent-to-be Khris Middleton this summer. Middleton averaged 13.4 points, 4.4 rebounds and 2.3 assists on 41 percent shooting from three-point range. The Bucks will issue a qualifying offer to Middleton, which will make him a restricted free agent and give the team the ability to match any offers for his services.

The team can also look to work the trade market to gain more cap room or pick up additional assets. Veterans O.J. Mayo ($8 million), Zaza Pachulia ($5.2 million) and Jerryd Bayless ($3 million) are all solid assets and, most importantly, expiring contracts that could net a return if dealt.

To make additions this summer, the Bucks will need to find a first-round gem at No. 17 because the team doesn’t have much cap room for free agency, especially if Middleton gets a lucrative deal as expected. But the team could also look to leverage the trading block with multiple expiring contracts to dangle. Even if Milwaukee doesn’t make many changes, the Bucks could make progress next season due to internal development since seven of their players are 23 years old or younger.

In spite of all the turmoil, Kidd turned out to be the right hire. Next year, Parker should return at full strength and play at a high level once again. The team has a decent draft pick and expiring pieces to offer opposing general managers in trades. Finally, the young core’s best basketball is likely ahead of them.

The Bucks appear to be on the rise. But as we have learned in the past it’s not just about getting to this point, it’s also about successfully handling the success and remaining relevant in the process.

Damian Lillard Wants Max Deal from the Blazers

The Portland Trail Blazers have reached the playoffs the past two seasons, but the franchise has a pivotal offseason ahead. All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge is headed to free agency and the talented veteran will have a plethora of suitors lining up for his ear as soon as legally possible. Starting shooting Wesley Matthews, who is rehabbing a ruptured Achilles, is also expected to generate plenty of interest on the open market this summer. Other key pieces like Arron Afflalo and Robin Lopez can become unrestricted free agents as well.

The Blazers have little leverage in these negotiations since they will be unrestricted, but the team has another player who is looking for a new contract this summer as well.

Two-time All-Star guard Damian Lillard will become eligible to agree to terms on an early contract extension beginning on July 1, and all indications are that Lillard is looking to cash in on a deal that could hover around $90 million over five years.

Lillard will seek the designated player maximum contract – a full five-year deal – in a possible extension this upcoming offseason, according to RealGM’s league sources.

Lillard has been electric for the Blazers since he entered the league and has career averages of 20.2 points, 6.1 assists and 3.8 rebounds on 43 percent shooting from the floor.

Lang Greene is a senior NBA writer for Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA for the last 10 seasons

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