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Six Things to Know About the Milwaukee Bucks

You wouldn’t think that the worst team in the league would be particularly interesting, but the Milwaukee Bucks have more going for them (and more decisions to make) than people realize.

Joel Brigham

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You wouldn’t think that the worst team in the league would be particularly interesting, but the Milwaukee Bucks have more going for them (and more decisions to make) than people realize. Here’s a quick look at some of the biggest issues facing the Bucks about halfway through the season:

#1 – Herb Kohl is going to have to change his expectations for this team.

At this point in the year it’s easy to look at Milwaukee’s list of offseason additions and say to ourselves, “Of course this is a bad team,” but by the end of the summer most media were pretty much in agreement that Caron Butler, O.J. Mayo, Luke Ridnour, Zaza Pachulia, Gary Neal and Brandon Knight were all just good enough to keep Milwaukee competitive for a playoff spot in the less-than-impressive Eastern Conference. Nobody expected them to win anything once they got there, but maybe they could sneak in there. Just maybe.

For those familiar with former U.S. Senator Herb Kohl, the long-time owner of the Milwaukee Bucks, that shouldn’t have come as too big a surprise since, at 78 years old, he’s sort of made it clear that for as long as he’s alive he wants to see his team be competitive and make the playoffs every stinkin’ year.

The bad news for Kohl is that the Bucks have (and have earned) the worst record in the NBA this season. With only seven victories, they’re the only team in the league not to have hit double-digits in the win column. Head Coach Larry Drew has taken to playing his younger players in what is clearly a lost season at this point, and Kohl is starting to wrap his head around returning to the NBA lottery this summer. It might be a few years before Milwaukee gets back into the postseason, but with some promising young players and a good draft pick on the way, a full rebuild really is the most reasonable way to go. One hopes that Kohl learns to accept this, because it absolutely is what’s coming.

#2 – Milwaukee is going to end up with a franchise-altering rookie.

Softening the blow of those seven lonely wins is the fact that the Bucks are currently leading the pack for the best shot at the #1 pick in this highly-touted 2014 NBA draft class, and that means a potentially franchise-altering rookie is likely on his way. Even if they completely bomb out of the lottery and end up with the 4th pick in the draft, they’ll still have Joel Embiid, Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, and Julius Randle from which to choose, with Dante Exum and Marcus Smart likely worthy of consideration in that range, as well. Any one of those guys has the potential to completely alter the fortunes of a struggling franchise like Milwaukee.

As for who would be the best fit, it’s a bit of a tough call since so many of those guys are primarily post players and that’s just about the only place where the Bucks are loaded with talent. Looking at it that way, Wiggins or Exum fill more holes than the other guys, but it would be hard to pass up on Embiid the way he’s come on this NCAA season. No matter who the Bucks end up with, it will be somebody very, very good assuming they stay on their current course of worse team in the league.

» In Related: The latest 2014 NBA Mock Draft

#3 – Giannis is still growing (in more ways than one).

While they did pick outside of the lottery last year, the Bucks ended up with the extremely gifted Giannis Antetokounmpo, a player that already looks like a star in the making. Since Drew turned the team over to the youngsters and injected Antetokounmpo into the starting lineup, he’s shown real flashes of brilliance despite being the league’s youngest player. Even more interesting is that he’s actually grown over an inch since being drafted back in late June. That puts him at 6’10”, which is Kevin-Durant size for a small forward, making him potentially very dangerous somewhere down the road. Physically he’s one of the most gifted young players in the league, and he’s about as untouchable as it gets for the Bucks at this upcoming trade deadline.

He’s not a star yet, but it’s easy to see something interesting brewing with this kid. If he grows another inch, he’ll be a swingman knocking on the door of seven-feet. Add a little muscle, and he’s going to be a force to be reckoned with for a really long time.

#4 – Larry Sanders is here to stay, despite this awful season.

Sanders, meanwhile, has been just as disappointing as Antetokounmpo has been promising. Not only did he miss a huge chunk of the season’s first half because he injured his hand in a bar fight, but he’s also been an anti-leader in the locker room (he and Gary Neal have had their issues) and on the court (he’s already got two ejections in 2014). Statistically, his averages are down across the board, from points (9.8 PPG last year to 6.5 PPG this year) to rebounds (9.5 RPG last year to 6.6 RPG this year) to field goal percentage (.506 last year to .427 this year) to blocks (2.8 BPG to 1.9 BPG this year).

And the best part: his 4-year, $44 million extension doesn’t even kick in until next year, so Milwaukee has four-and-a-half more years of this nonsense to look forward to.

They could trade him, but he’s in a poison pill year that makes a move pretty much impossible. That’s working under the assumption that a team exists that’s willing to pay the kid that much without knowing if the headaches will continue in new environs. In other words, the Bucks are going to have to move forward with Sanders and hope that he not only gets his groove back, but matures a whole lot very quickly. Otherwise, that contract is going to look like one of the worst under the new CBA.

» In Related: The Milwaukee Bucks salary cap page

#5 – O.J. Mayo isn’t the scorer the Bucks hoped he’d be.

There have been times in O.J. Mayo’s career that we’ve seen the flashes of an elite scorer. When he’s confident and firing on all cylinders, it’s not too hard to see why teams viewed him as a top-three talent back in the 2008 draft.

But since becoming a Buck, Mayo has been really hard to watch. His numbers are down across the board, and while very few of them are career-lows, all of them are at least very close to being career-lows. Milwaukee’s front office talked so glowingly of Mayo before the season that it was easy to buy into him as the team’s primary scorer, but so far he’s been comically far off of that mark.

Milwaukee made a couple of reasonable financial gambles with Mayo and Sanders, but neither of them has even come close to working out. No wonder they’ve got only seven wins.

#6 – Brandon Knight might not be the point guard of the future.

One gamble that hasn’t been an embarrassment was the Brandon Jennings trade with Detroit, which sent out their old disgruntled point guard for a younger, more coachable one with a potentially brighter future.

While he spent a good chunk of the season’s early portions staving off injuries, Knight has since come on as the team’s most consistent scorer. Knight poured in games of 36 and 37 points back in December, and he’s averaging 20 PPG over his last ten games. He’s still young, and he turns the ball over a lot, but to say he’s not promising wouldn’t be fair to one of the few bright spots Milwaukee actually has experienced this year.

The problem with Knight is still the fact that he’s not a true point guard. He’s always been more of a score-first combo guard, and his assist numbers reflect that. That being what it is, it should come as no surprise that Milwaukee’s front office is at least perusing the market for other young point guard prospects. It’s not likely they deal for one, but whatever Knight’s role on this team is moving forward, it might not be starting point guard.

The rest of 2013-2014 isn’t going to offer a particularly smooth ride, but after horrible seasons come great draft picks, and if there was ever a year to be awful, this would be the one. Hopefully there are better things on deck for this struggling organization.

Joel Brigham is a senior writer for Basketball Insiders, covering the Central Division and fantasy basketball.

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NBA AM: Is This It for Indiana?

Following their major drop-off, Matt John explains why the Pacers trying to get back to where they were may not be the best decision.

Matt John

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Remember when, following the maligned trade of Paul George, the sky was the limit for the Indiana Pacers? The 2017-18 Pacers were one of the best stories in the NBA that season because they made their opponents work for their victories, and they put on a spectacle every night.

It’s hard to believe that all transpired three whole years ago. When Cleveland eliminated Indiana in a very tight first-round series, I asked if having the exciting season that they did – when many thought it would turn out the opposite – was going to benefit them in the long run. Three years later, this happens.

We were getting plenty of smoke about the Pacers’ drama behind-the-scenes beforehand, and now, we have seen the fire firsthand. More and more reports indicate that the crap has hit the fan. Indiana has seemingly already had enough of Nate Bjorkgren in only his first year as his coach. When you see the results they’ve had this season compared to the last three, it’s not hard to see why.

The Pacers have routinely found themselves in the 4-5 playoff matchup for the last three years. Sadly, despite their fight – and, to be fair, they had pretty awful injury luck the past two postseasons – they haven’t been able to get over the hump in the first round. They may not have been in the elite tier, but they weren’t slouches either. So, seeing them not only fail to take the next step but look more and more likely for the play-in is as discouraging as it gets. Especially after they started the season 6-2.

If these reports about the tensions between the players and Bjorkgren are real, then this has already become a lost season for the Pacers. It’s too late in the season to make any major personnel changes. At this point, their best route is just to cut their losses and wait until this summer to think over what the next move is.

In that case, let’s take a deep breath. This has been a weird season for everyone. Every aspect minus the playoffs has been shorter than usual since last October. Everything was shortened from the offseason to the regular season. Oh, and COVID-19 has played a role as the season has turned out, although COVID-19 has probably been the least of Indy’s problems. Let’s think about what next season would look like for Indiana.

TJ Warren comes back with a clean bill of health. Caris Levert gets more acquainted with the team and how they run. Who knows? Maybe they finally resolve the Myles Turner-Domantas Sabonis situation once and for all. A new coach can come aboard to steady the ship, and it already looks like they have an idea for who that’s going to be

Should they run it back, there’s a solid chance they can get back to where they were before. But that’s sort of the problem to begin with. Even if this recent Pacers’ season turns out to be just a negative outlier, their ceiling isn’t all too high anyway. A team that consists of Warren, Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon, and Caris Levert as their core four is a solid playoff team. Having Turner, Doug McDermott, TJ McConnell, Jeremy Lamb, and the Holiday brothers rounds out a solid playoff team. Anyone who takes a good look at this roster knows that this roster is a good one. It’s not great though.

Just to be clear, Indiana has plenty of ingredients for a championship team. They just don’t have the main one: The franchise player. Once upon a time, it looked like that may have been Oladipo, but a cruel twist of fate took that all away. This isn’t a shot at any of the quality players they have on their roster, but think of it this way.

For the next couple of years, they’re going to go up against Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving. All of whom are on the same team. For potentially even longer, they’ll be going up against the likes of Giannis Antetoukounmpo, Joel Embiid, and Jayson Tatum. With the roster they have, they could make a series interesting against any one of those teams. However, it’s a rule of thumb in the NBA that the team with the best player usually wins the series. Not to mention, they’d have to beat most of the teams those players play for to go on a substantial playoff run. That’s a pretty tall order.

There’s no joy in talking about the Pacers like this because they have built this overachieving underdog from nothing more than shrewd executive work. They turned a disgruntled and expiring Paul George into Oladipo and Sabonis. Both of whom have since become two-time all-stars (and counting). They then managed to turn an expiring and hobbled Oladipo – who had no plans to return to Indiana – into the electric Levert. They also pretty much stole Brogdon and Warren away while paying very little for either of them.

That is fantastic work. The only hangup is that, as of now, it just doesn’t seem like it will be enough. But, doubt and skepticism are things Indiana’s had thrown their way consistently since 2017. Many thought their approach to trading Paul George would blow up in their face, and since then, they’ve done everything in their power to make everyone eat their words.

Kevin Pritchard’s got his work cut out for him this summer. This season will hopefully turn out to be nothing more than performance ruined by both the wrong coaching hire and an unusual season that produced negatively skewed results. But at this point, Pritchard’s upcoming course of action this summer shouldn’t be about getting his team back to where they were, but deciding whether he can get them a step or two further than that by adding more to what they have or starting over completely.

Indiana’s had a rough go of it in this COVID-shortened season, but their disappointing play may have little to no bearing on where they go from here.

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NBA Rookie of the Year Watch – May 6

With the regular season winding down, Tristan Tucker offers his latest Rookie of the Year ladder, with three outstanding freshman performances leading the pack.

Tristan Tucker

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With the NBA season winding down, there is limited left time for rookies to make their cases for the Rookie of the Year award. In all, three rookies are leading the charge and will likely be named the top three rookies of the season. Without further ado, let’s take a look at how the race has changed over the last few weeks.

1. Anthony Edwards, Minnesota Timberwolves (Previous: 1)

Rookies shouldn’t be able to do what Anthony Edwards can do. Edwards is still just a teenager, but he possesses some of the best natural talent the NBA has seen. Furthermore, there aren’t many rookies that have quite seen the game-by-game improvement that Edwards has shown.

On the year, Edwards is averaging 18.9 points, 4.7 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game while shooting 41 percent from the floor and 32.8 percent from three. But to take a look at his improvement, Edwards’ numbers before and after the All-Star break paint the picture.

Before the All-Star break, Edwards averaged 14.9 points and 2.5 assists per game while shooting 37.1 percent from the floor and 30.2 percent from deep in 36 games. In the 30 games since then, Edwards is shooting a much better line of 44.7/35.2/75.2 and is averaging 23.7 points and 3.2 assists per game.

In his most recent 42-point outburst, which tied his career-high, Edwards broke the franchise record for most threes made in a game by a rookie. There’s a consensus in Minnesota that this won’t be the last record the rookie breaks.

2. LaMelo Ball, Charlotte Hornets (Previous: Not Ranked)

Ball’s previous “not ranked” placement wasn’t a dig at him but instead an unfortunate testament to when the league thought he was out for the season with an injury. And then, miraculously, Ball returned just in time for a likely Charlotte postseason appearance. Because of his return and ensuing excellent play, Ball is penciled into one of the top two slots to end the year.

Although he likely missed too much time to be named Rookie of the Year, Ball’s first season is something to behold. On the year, Ball is averaging 15.9 points, 5.9 rebounds, 6.1 assists and 1.6 steals and is a team leader for an exciting Hornets squad. Furthermore, Ball proved to be a much better three-point shooter than most thought he would be, connecting at 37.3 percent.

Ball is still over 100 days from turning 20-years-old and he’s already one of Charlotte’s best players. 

3. Tyrese Haliburton, Sacramento Kings (Previous: 2)

The timing of Haliburton’s injury is unfortunate, as it quickly followed the loss of De’Aaron Fox that all but sealed Sacramento’s postseason hopes. However, Haliburton showed that the franchise has much to look forward to with his explosive and competent play.

While Haliburton had some up-and-down moments and didn’t get the starting opportunities of Ball and Edwards, he still had a fantastic year. Since his injury will likely take him out for the remainder of the regular season, Haliburton finished the year averaging 13 points per game. To go along with his fantastic scoring, Haliburton blossomed as a polished playmaker, averaging 5.3 assists per night.

In the five games he started at point guard without Fox in the rotation, Haliburton averaged a fantastic 17 points, 8.2 assists and 1.6 steals per game. Once they reach their respective peaks, Fox and Haliburton have the talent to hang with the best of the backcourts in the NBA.

If that wasn’t impressive enough, Haliburton showed a great shooting form with fantastic results. The guard out of Iowa State shot 47.2 percent from the floor to go along with a 40.9 percent clip from three on over five attempts per game. While Haliburton isn’t likely to come away with the award, he certainly showed that several teams made mistakes in passing on him.

4. Saddiq Bey, Detroit Pistons (Previous: 3)

Bey won’t end up in the top three of voting for the Rookie of the Year award, but he still set his name in the record books. Bey’s been a historically good three-point shooter, currently connecting at a 37.9 percent clip from deep on 6.4 attempts per game.

The rookie out Villanova currently sits at 11th all-time for three-pointers made as a rookie, tied with Edwards, with 155. However, Bey needs just 14 more threes to jump all the way up to third all-time. With six games remaining in Detroit’s schedule, there’s even more opportunity for Bey to make history.

5. Jae’Sean Tate, Houston Rockets (Previous: 4)

While there weren’t many bright spots for a Rockets season filled with turmoil, the team’s rookies and sophomores looked impressive. From Kevin Porter Jr. to Kenyon Martin Jr. to Tate, this team boasts some of the most underrated young talent in the league.

Tate in particular had an outstanding rookie season that is now likely over due to his entry into the health and safety protocols. If this truly is the end of the year for Tate, he wrapped up the year averaging 11.2 points, 5.4 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.3 steals per game while shooting 51.3 percent from the field.

Since Basketball Insiders’ last rookie ladder, Tate averaged 12.9 points and upped his offensive production to 3.9 assists per game.

Tate is the ultimate hustle player and is a glue guy that championship contenders need to take it to the next level. Look for the Rockets to be much more competitive next season under a good coach in Stephen Silas and a potential top pick to join a talented young corps.

6. Immanuel Quickley, New York Knicks (Previous: NR)

Like Bey, Quickley quickly became one of the best shooters in the draft class, but also offered promising guard play for a competitive Knicks squad. Because of stellar performances up and down the roster, the Knicks look likely to return to the postseason for the first time since 2012-13.

While Quickley stagnated a bit toward the middle and end of his rookie season, he still held down the backup guard spot for New York. On the year, Quickley is averaging 11.7 points and 2.1 assists per game while shooting 39.7 percent from downtown.

Ultimately, the Rookie of the Year race is going to come down to the wire between Edwards and Ball. For a 2020 rookie class that originally looked bleak, these rookies have vastly altered that perspective. Even though much is left to be determined for the eventual award winner, one thing is certain: the league is in good hands.

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NBA Daily: Torrey Craig Relishing Role in Phoenix

The NBA trade deadline was busy as a number of high-profile players were moved. One name that went under the radar was Torrey Craig, who is making a major impact in his new home as the Phoenix Suns battle for the best record in the league.

Chad Smith

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The last time the Phoenix Suns played in a playoff game, Deandre Ayton was 11 years old. Not only is Phoenix back in the postseason, but they will also be one of the top seeds in the loaded Western Conference.

The emergence of the Suns as a championship contender may have started in the Orlando bubble last season. Chris Paul saw something he liked and has mentioned that numerous times as to why he wanted to play in Phoenix. His arrival solidified their aspirations, but this team is much more than just the future Hall-of-Fame point guard.

The pieces in Phoenix fit like a puzzle. Devin Booker is still the key player that opposing teams have at the top of their scouting report. Ayton has continued his development, which has been aided by Paul’s tutelage. Mikal Bridges has exploded onto the scene as one of the best young, two-way players in the league. Like every championship-contending team, there are valuable role players that fill out the roster.

Dario Saric and Frank Kaminsky have been excellent additions throughout the season. Cameron Johnson continues to play a solid role and reclamation projects like Cameron Payne and Jevon Carter have given this team a much-needed boost of energy off the bench. They have made it difficult for Monty Williams to even find minutes for solid veterans such as E’Twaun Moore and Langston Galloway.

Jae Crowder has been one of the best offseason acquisitions in the league. He has missed the last eight games with a sprained right ankle, which has opened the door of opportunity for others. Torrey Craig has taken this opportunity and flourished.

Crowder has always played for winning teams over the course of his career, and Craig appears to be following suit. After going undrafted out of USC Upstate, he signed a two-way contract with the Denver Nuggets in the summer of 2017. That turned into a multi-year contract before he joined the Milwaukee Bucks as a free agent this past offseason. On March 18, the Bucks traded Craig to the Suns in exchange for cash and a trade exception.

Denver’s defense suffered when Craig left and for whatever reason, he did not see the floor much in Milwaukee. Given ample opportunity, he seemed like he would be a perfect fit in their system. Even after battling through a groin injury and a broken nose, it just didn’t work out in Milwaukee.

Since joining the Suns, Craig is getting plenty of minutes and making the most of them. In April, he averaged more than 18 minutes per game and shot the ball with high efficiency. Not known as a great shooter, he hit 39 percent of his three-pointers and shot 51 percent overall from the floor. Against the Brooklyn Nets, he scored 20 points and grabbed 14 rebounds. On Sunday against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Craig poured in 18 points, 10 rebounds and 2 blocks in a starting role where he went 8-10 from the floor.

Craig’s greatest strength is his defense, and he is well aware of that. One thing Phoenix has been lacking is the wing player that can defend the premier players in the league. It takes a special skill set to defend the likes of LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Luka Doncic, etc. He has the size, athleticism and the little things that can’t be taught. With Crowder out and Bridges still needing to add more muscle, Craig’s role is crystal clear.

It often takes players time to get acclimated to new situations. They have new teammates and learning the ins and outs of the system can be a tough task. Meeting the demands of leaders like Paul can be tantalizing as well. To his credit, Craig has fit like a glove, doing everything asked of him and doing it well. This seemingly small transaction at the trade deadline could pay major dividends for the Suns.

Six regular-season games remain for Phoenix, who will have one of the top two seeds in the Western Conference. Playoff basketball is much different than the regular season, as the defensive temperature goes up a few notches. Game planning and defensive schemes play a large role in the outcome of playoff games, which makes Craig even more valuable.

While the Suns are capable of scoring with anyone, it is their defense that makes them elite. They currently have the second-best net rating in the league, the sixth-best defensive rating and are seventh in opponents scoring. Their team defense is incredible but individually, they have sensational defenders at every position. Phoenix currently has four players in the top 30 of Defensive RPM with Ayton and Paul both inside the top ten.

Another thing this Suns team lacks is playoff experience. Aside from Paul and Crowder, none of the players on this roster have many postseason games under their belt. Craig has played in 33 postseason games in his career and brings valuable experience to this young team. With his improved shooting, he is another weapon that Monty Williams can use in these high-pressure games.

Craig wasn’t drafted when he finished his college career. He played overseas for three years, waiting on his next opportunity. He joined the G-League and finally got called up to help the Nuggets. In his first career game, Denver put him on Jrue Holiday in the closing seconds of the game. Craig blocked his potential game-winning shot and Denver won the game in overtime.

Sometimes it takes people more time to notice the blessings they have been given. Phoenix is fully cognizant of the player they have in Craig. Monty knows, Paul and Booker know and, soon, the rest of the league will realize just how good he is.

It’s been a long journey for Craig, but he could reach the top of the mountain very soon. The Suns have some big plans, and he is a key part of them.

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