NBA Season Preview: The Milwaukee Bucks

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andrew_bogut_milwaukee_bucks.jpgLast season: The Bucks flew through the home stretch to finish with a 46-36 record, but the train carrying deer to be feared was derailed by a season-ending injury to Andrew Bogut.

Head Coach: Scott Skiles, who lived up to his reputation as an excellent defensive coach by making the Bucks’ D the second best in the league last season. He also lived up to his offensive reputation by having his team hoist up a ton of mid-range jumpers, but hey, he is who he is, and his teams are who they are.

Key Departures: Luke Ridnour, Kurt Thomas, Jerry Stackhouse, Dan Gadzuric, Charlie Bell, and any illusion that Michael Redd will play for them this year.

Key Additions:
Corey Maggette, Drew Gooden, Larry Sanders, Keyon Dooling, Jon Brockman, Chris Douglas-Roberts, and plenty of fans jumping on the bandwagon.

Best case scenario:
The Bucks again manage to surprise, this time by leaping from mid-tier playoff certainty to out-and-out contender.

For that to happen: Milwaukee will need to combine what they did well last season (defense, taking care of the ball) with what their new personnel suggest they should do well this season (scoring, getting to the line, offensive rebounding). Skiles will need to walk the fine line between relying on the players that got him this far without neglecting Maggette, Gooden, and the new Bucks.

There’s a pretty delicate balance here. Worst-case, the Bucks should be about as good as they were last season. However, should Skiles manage to find that perfect balance between offense/defense, this team has the potential to be remarkable. Milwaukee may not have a name for the marquee, but they have a real star in Andrew Bogut, a talented young point in Brandon Jennings, and now a cast of both useful defenders and skilled scorers.

On paper, Milwaukee has the personnel to make for a fantastically balanced team. For every Drew Gooden, they have a Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. For every Corey Maggette, they have a Carlos Delfino. I’m not sure any NBA roster boasts a more interesting yin and yang of talented players, but I am sure that Skiles will face plenty of pressure to make everything fit just so.

More likely the Bucks will: Show notable improvement, but not enough for them to storm the East’s top tier. They’re good. No doubt about that. Still, it’s hard to put Milwaukee into the same class as Miami, Orlando, and Boston just yet, especially considering how awkward this mix of players could be initially.

Skiles can be trusted to figure things out, and given the players he has to work with, it’s hard to imagine things going too badly. That said, the far more likely outcome is the moderate one, in which the Bucks get better, but still have room to grow. There’s not necessarily an issue of player maturity, but roster maturity. This is the type of roster that needs time to cultivate, and they’ll get better and better as the season goes on.

The Bucks have made moves to directly resolve their weaknesses, but now its time to see if that approach still allows Milwaukee to function as a cohesive — and now comprehensive — whole.

Prediction: 53 wins and a tough out in the playoffs. I see the Bucks as the early favorites for the fourth seed in the East, but a lot of that depends on the health of the top three and the specifics of what’s sure to be an interesting race between Milwaukee, Chicago, and Atlanta for home court advantage and a chance to survive the first round.

Whether or not the Bucks can end up in either the 4th or 5th seed will clearly impact their playoff lifespan. If they can dodge the East’s elite in the first round, they give themselves a shot to lock down a more fitting opponent and make it to the conference semifinals. If not, they’ll fight for their lives against a more talented club, and make things as difficult as possible on their way out.

Report: Rockets to interview Mike D’Antoni, Frank Vogel for coaching vacancy

LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 28: Head coach Mike D'Antoni of the Los Angeles Lakers gestures during the game against the Sacramento Kings at Staples Center on February 28, 2014 in Los Angeles, California.  The Lakers won 126-122.   NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
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The Houston Rockets aren’t in any rush to hire a new head coach, preferring to interview a wide range of candidates to find the right one. Jeff Van Gundy has been widely believed to be at the top of their list, now that Tom Thibodeau and Scott Brooks are off the market, but ESPN.com’s Marc Stein is reporting another name that has entered the mix: Mike D’Antoni, who last held a head coaching job from 2012 to 2014 with the Lakers and currently serves as the Sixers’ lead assistant.

The Pacers, meanwhile, haven’t made a final decision on Frank Vogel’s future with the team, but all signs seem to point to him getting let go in the next few days. And if that happens, Stein reports that Vogel will also be on Houston’s list of candidates.

Given the Rockets’ massive drop-off on the defensive end this season, Vogel would seem to be a better fit than D’Antoni. But it sounds like the Rockets aren’t close to finding a replacement for J.B. Bickerstaff, although it would make sense to have a new coach in place by next month’s draft.

Cavs set single-game three-point record in blowout win over Hawks

CLEVELAND, OH - MAY 4: J.R. Smith #5 of the Cleveland Cavaliers shoots a three point jump shot over Kyle Korver #26 of the Atlanta Hawks during the first half of the NBA Eastern Conference semifinals at Quicken Loans Arena on May 4, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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On Monday, the Hawks played the Cavaliers close and even led in the fourth quarter, leading plenty of optimism that Game 2 would be equally competitive, that the Hawks had something to build on.

Nope.

The Cavs dominated from the start on Wednesday, with a 123-98 final score that was far closer than the game actually was — the Cavs led 74-36 at the half and led by as much as 38 at one point in the second half.

The Cavs also hit 25 three-pointers, which is the all-time record for a single game — regular season or playoffs. J.R. Smith hit seven of them, along with four each from LeBron James and Kyrie Irving and three for Kevin Love.

18 of Cleveland’s threes came in the first half, also a playoff record, and this was all Atlanta could do:

That’s the kind of night it was for the Hawks, who now trail 2-0 in the series as it heads back to Atlanta.

LeBron James whips one-handed pass, leads to open Kevin Love three (VIDEO)

CLEVELAND, OH - MAY 2: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers fights for a loose ball against Al Horford #15 and Kyle Korver #26 of the Atlanta Hawks during the second half of the NBA Eastern Conference semifinals at Quicken Loans Arena on May 2, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Cavaliers defeated the Hawks 104-93. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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LeBron James has always been an incredible passer. In the midst of the Cavs’ Game 2 beatdown of the Hawks, he zipped this one-handed beauty into the paint to Kyrie Irving, who kicked it out to Kevin Love for a corner three:

The three was just one of the 18 Cleveland hit in the first half, which set an NBA playoff record.

Report: J.B. Bickerstaff withdraws himself from consideration for Rockets’ coaching job

HOUSTON, TX - APRIL 24: Head Coach J.B. Bickerstaff of the Houston Rockets encourages his team in the seconf half against the Golden State Warriors at Toyota Center on April 24, 2016 in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by dowloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
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The Houston Rockets are still searching for a head coach — with Jeff Van Gundy believed to be their top target — but it won’t be J.B. Bickerstaff, who has served as the team’s interim coach since they fired Kevin McHale in November. According to The Vertical‘s Adrian Wojnarowski, Bickerstaff has informed Rockets management that he’s no longer in consideration for the job:

After a meeting with ownership and the front office on Tuesday, Houston Rockets interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff has informed team officials that he’s no longer a candidate for the head-coaching job, league sources told The Vertical.

Other NBA teams have started reaching out to Bickerstaff about lead assistant coaching positions, and that’s where he’s transitioned his focus, league sources said.

After the Rockets’ disappointing season and disastrous playoff performance — where they lost in five not-very-competitive games to a Stephen Curry-less Warriors —it makes sense that Bickerstaff would rather get a fresh start as an assistant somewhere else, where he could build up his credentials and be a more highly sought-after head coaching candidate in the future. He isn’t a big name, so he likely wouldn’t be able to command as much money as the Rockets’ head coach as a more established figure would be. Given the Rockets’ uncertain future with Dwight Howard almost certain to opt out and not a lot of long-term pieces around James Harden, it’s not the most stable job in the world.