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.

Jazz deny rumored promise to draft D.J. Wilson

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Michigan forward D.J. Wilson said he’d stay in the draft only if he’d go in the first round. Yet, despite not doing any on-court work at the combine, the borderline first-rounder remained in the draft beyond the withdrawal deadline.

What gives?

Rod Beard of The Detroit News:

Kyle Goon of The Salt Lake Tribune:

NBA teams sometimes promise to draft a player. They never reveal that before the draft. So, Utah’s denial doesn’t mean much – even if it’s true.

The Jazz were the last team to give Wilson a full work out before he injured himself in a Spurs workout. So, this rumor could be based on circumstantial evidence rather than leak of a Utah guarantee.

Wilson would make sense for the Jazz, who could see their payroll bloat if they re-sign Gordon Hayward and George Hill (and maybe even Joe Ingles). They could move Derrick Favors, an interior who doesn’t exactly fit with Rudy Gobert. Wilson would give Utah another option with Trey Lyles as developing stretch fours behind Boris Diaw. (Utah could even move Diaw and count on Lyles/Wilson to emerge sooner than later.)

Watch LeBron James’ top highlight from each of his postseason appearances (video)

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LeBron James and Tony Parker are the only players to play in the last dozen postseasons.

(If you’re wondering, Manu Ginobili missed the 2009 playoffs due to an ankle injury.)

It’s fair to say LeBron was a bit more spectacular than Parker in that span. As LeBron enters his seventh straight Finals, the NBA released this awesome video showing LeBron’s best playoff highlight from each year:

There’s no entry for this year. Here’s betting it comes against the Warriors in the NBA Finals.

David Stern: We thought we could re-work Chris Paul-to-Lakers trade until Mitch Kupchak ‘panicked’

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NBA commissioner David Stern – acting as New Orleans’ owner representative, he says – infamously vetoed a potential Chris Paul-to-Lakers trade in 2011.

But that didn’t close the possibility of Paul going to the Lakers.

The New Orleans Hornets (now the Pelicans and not be confused with the current Charlotte Hornets), Lakers and Rockets tried to rework the three-team trade that would’ve sent Paul to the Lakers, Pau Gasol to Houston and Lamar Odom, Kevin Martin, Luis Scola, Goran Dragic and a first-round pick to New Orleans. But talks fell apart around the time the Lakers dealt Odom to the Mavericks.

Stern on Nunyo & Company (hat tip: Harrison Feigen of Silver Screen & Roll):

In fact, in the course of the weekend, we thought we could re-do the deal. We really thought that Houston would be ready to part with Kevin Lowry, and we had a trade lined up for Odom that would have gotten us a good first-round draft pick – not we, but my basketball folks. But Mitch Kupchak at the time panicked and moved Odom to Dallas. So the piece wasn’t even there for us to play with at the time. So that was it — just about what was good for the then-New Orleans Hornets.

Remember, Stern – roundly criticized for his handling of this episode* – has blamed the Lakers and Rockets for the lingering perception. This could just be him again trying to shift responsibility.

*Somewhat fairly, somewhat not. Owners veto general manager-approved trades often enough, and Stern was acting as New Orleans’ owner after George Shinn sold the franchise back to the league. But Stern had an agenda as commissioner. He never should have assumed such a large conflict of interest. What he did with the Paul trade was reasonable for an acting owner, but because Stern was also commissioner, it’s fair to question how much New Orleans’ interests and how much the league’s interests factored into the decision-making.

But let’s take Stern at his word – that he and the Hornets thought they could re-do the trade and send Paul to the Lakers. That doesn’t mean they were right. Maybe the Lakers and Rockets (who had Kyle Lowry, not the “Kevin Lowry” Stern named) were never going to part with enough to get Stern’s approval.

And maybe New Orleans didn’t properly convey its interest in still completing a deal. Perhaps, Kupchak acted reasonably by trading Odom to Dallas – for a first-round pick, a deal Mark Cuban would ultimately regret – rather than wait around for the Hornets, who eventually sent Paul to the Clippers.

It’s easy to blame Kupchak, but he might tell a different story.

Isaiah Thomas makes it clear he wants to stay in Boston

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It’s been a long time since there was so much discussion about whether a team needs to trade or just let go of an All-NBA and All-Star player at his peak who is clear and away a fan favorite.

Yet that’s where the Boston Celtics and Isaiah Thomas find themselves. After landing the No. 1 pick in this year’s draft — where they will almost certainly take point guard Markelle Fultz — and with the Celtics looking a full couple steps behind the Cavaliers in the playoffs, the question about whether Thomas is part of the future in Boston has come up. He is a free agent in 2018 and are the Celtics willing to pay the big money it will take to keep him?

Know this, Thomas wants to remain a Celtic and win a Celtic. You can listen to his full comments above, but Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe has the money quote:

Outside of chasing Gordon Hayward, this summer the Celtics are going to focus on getter some frontcourt help, someone to help with rebounding and rim protection. They will look to get better, but Danny Ainge isn’t going to push all his chips into the middle of the table to make a gambit on immediate massive improvement. He will remain patient, building this team so that in three years and five years they will be a force in the East.

And the Thomas discussion likely gets put on hold for a year (unless there is a change of course and contract extension talks come up, but that’s only if Boston misses on Hayward and any other big targets).