NBA Season Preview: Milwaukee Bucks

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Last season: Abort the mission! New plan! New plan!

The Bucks slammed on the parking brake, wrenched the wheel and Tokyo Drifted in a new direction last season, abandoning the “all defense all the time” team built around Andrew Bogut and giving up on the fleeting hope Bogut will ever, ever be healthy. They swapped him to Golden State for Monta Ellis and Ekpe Udoh, getting a promising young big man with great advanced metrics and, you know, Monta Ellis.

The results were mixed. They almost made it into the playoffs before their wheels exploded and flew off into the Wisconsin countryside, and while their defense didn’t capitulate with Ellis, their offense continued to run into the gutter.

They limped their way out of a playoff spot and entered the offseason with a huge number of questions about their head coach, front office, and the direction of the franchise.

Key Departures: The Bucks kind of surprisingly traded Jon Leuer, after he’d had a pretty solid year. They also traded Shaun Livingston, who, again, was pretty good last year. They let Carlos Delfino go after hemming and hawing over his contract for three months.

Key Additions: When the Bucks drafted John Henson, it was largely a perplexing move. Another athletic big man with questionable post skills? Really? Really? That’s what you thought you should pull off the pile?

But then Summer League came and Henson showed off a better mid-range jumper than expected and a good ability to flow in the offense. He has great court awareness to go with all that athleticism and could see significant playing time.

They elected to trade for Samuel Dalembert, pushing Udoh, who honestly needs the minutes, to the bench and giving them approximately all of the big men, ever. They added Joel Przybilla just in case the other 1,700 of them fail out, and-re-signed Ersan Ilyasova for the offensive repertoire.

Doron Lamb was quietly a very good second round pickup.

Three keys to the Bucks season:
1) Solving the riddle wrapped in a puzzle disguised as a mystery covered in subterfuge that is Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings. The two are just too similar. Ball-dominant, low-playmaking, moderate-efficiency volume scorers who didn’t develop an immediate chemistry. Sometimes these things can work themselves out, but in a lot of cases, it’s evident from the start if it’s going to work. If this thing doesn’t get solved and start to work by January, it might be time to start thinking about another move in another direction. The two were -1.9 on the floor together last year, giving up 107.7 points per 100 possessions. That is not good. They can’t just raise the 105 offensive rating, they have to get the defense sorted out. The Bucks could be looking at a situation not dissimilar to what the Knicks face with Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony.

2) Get the young guys to make some noise. Ekpe Udoh and John Henson need to become the Milwuakee version of Gibson and Asik. Or maybe the more athletic version of that. Either way, they need to make an impact, because the Bucks can’t look at their long-term build as involving Sam Dalembert. Doron Lamb needs to add some value as a shooter. Tobias Harris needs to come up. They need some big jumps from the project guys.

3) Avoid the Skiles Effect. When Skiles takes over a team, there’s a clock that starts. It’s a countdown to when the team tunes him out. It’s happened in his previous stops, and it very well could happen again. If Skiles can manage to massage, not render, the best out of this team, they could very well be a playoff team. But if he loses them, the season, the roster, his job and John Hammond’s will likely be over in Milwaukee.

How it likely works out: I want to belive in Milwaukee. They deserve it, honestly, they do. They’ve had more than their fair share of bad luck and still haven’t been horrible over the past decade. We blame luck on a lot of the awful franchises, but the Bucks have somehow managed to deal with Michael Redd and Andrew Bogut’s injuries and still float within range of the last playoff spot.

And this team has talent. And it’s got a lot of good efficient things going for it. But it needs so many players to make such huge jumps and for Jennings-Ellis to magically solve itself. That simply may not be possible.

I loathe this, but it really looks like another 9th spot in the East year for the Bucks.

Prediction: 40-42. Is there any better representation of “almost… but not quite?”

Jusuf Nurkic’s agent says big man wants to stay in Portland this summer

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Last season, after his trade from frustrated backup big in Denver to new starter in Portland, there was a honeymoon — the Blazers went 14-6, their defense was better, and Nurkic was a big man setting big picks for quick guards in Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum.

This season the honeymoon is over, things have been up and down, but far from time to say the marriage should end, as he is a free agent next summer. Nurkic is the only real starting center on the roster (even if coach Terry Stotts left him on the bench in the fourth quarter in favor of Ed Davis a few games back). Nurkic is averaging 14.6 points and 7.2 rebounds a game, and the Blazers’ defense is 1.5 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court. However, his effort level has been up and down, and his shot is off, with a true shooting percentage of just 49.4, and he is shooting just 56.6 percent in the restricted area.

Nurkic wants to stay in Portland, his agent told Ben Golliver in a story at Sports Illustrated (that story is worth the read for the Nurkic origin story, which is amazing).

“I feel like the Blazers are very happy with Jusuf and Jusuf is very happy there,” Tesch, the agent, told The Crossover by telephone this week. “We had some [extension] talks but we decided to play it out this year and engage in talks again in July. He has already proven that he can help the team. There is a fit for Jusuf in Portland and he’s looking to stay there long-term.”

The two sides talked extension before the season, but Portland understandably wanted to make sure there was more to this relationship than just a honeymoon. It gave Nurkic a chance to drive up his asking price.

Portland and Nurkic likely will find a long-term deal next summer because it just makes sense for both sides. There are not a lot of teams with max free agent money next summer (4-6, I was told by an insider), or a lot of money to spend in general, and both DeAndre Jordan and DeMarcus would be centers on the market who rank ahead of Nurkic. Portland will offer more than other free agent destinations, if not as much as Nurkic dreamed of, and they will find common ground.

But there is a lot of season to play out before then. The Blazers feel like a team that should be better than its record so far, and Nurkic is part of that untapped potential. If things change, that’s good for Nurkic — and the Blazers.

Celtics look to push win streak to 16 vs. Mavs

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DALLAS (AP) — The Boston Celtics aren’t yet halfway to the NBA record for consecutive victories, a mark the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers still hold, but at 15 in a row, they are in rare territory.

Since 1946-47, there have only been 35 instances of a 15-game win streak or longer. And of all the legendary Celtics teams, this squad already holds the franchise’s fifth-longest win streak. A victory Monday night against the Dallas Mavericks, who are an NBA-worst 3-14 overall and 2-8 at American Airlines Center, would tie the 1964-65 Boston team’s 16-game win streak.

If the Celtics (15-2) get the win, they would climb closer to the 1959-60 team’s 18-game win streak, and then comes the club mark of 19 in a row accomplished by the 2008-09 team.

This version of the Celtics has to be considered the most unexpected to string together so many wins. The team has a slew of new players, starting with guard Kyrie Irving, and Boston lost another prized newcomer, forward Gordon Hayward, in the season opener.

After starting 0-2, Boston hasn’t lost. Yet, it’s not exactly as if the Celtics are steamrolling the league. For the Mavericks, who are coming off snapping the Milwaukee Bucks’ four-game win streak Saturday, the fact that Boston has actually had to rally to get a handful of its wins must be seen as an opportunity to steal a decision.

In fact, four of the Celtics’ victories during the streak have come after Boston trailed by 16 points, including a 110-109 win against the Atlanta Hawks on Saturday.

“Most of us have never been on a winning streak like this,” Irving said following the win over Atlanta. “I don’t know if we even know how to pay attention to all the hoopla that goes on in terms of the excitement of it. I just think that every single game we take it as a challenge.”

Irving has been accepting that challenge with tremendous success after asking to be traded away from Cleveland, where he won one title with LeBron James and lost twice in the NBA Finals to the Golden State Warriors.

He closed out those same Warriors last week, scoring 11 of the last 15 points in the final 4:21. The clutch play has Irving already being talked about as an MVP candidate.

“He’s so good in those moments that you want to give him the appropriate amount of room,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens told the Boston Globe about Irving. “Maybe it’s finding a matchup. Maybe it’s creating a two-man game with Al (Horford).”

Irving will be a major test for Mavs rookie point guard Dennis Smith Jr., who has displayed some tremendous flashes while also showing he is a green 19-year-old with one season of college ball under his belt.

Dallas, one of the league’s lowest-scoring offensive teams, is relying heavily on Smith and Harrison Barnes to carry the load. Dirk Nowitzki, 39, has dropped off significantly, averaging just 10.3 points a game, his lowest output since his rookie season in 1998-99.

Unlike the Celtics, Dallas has lost its share of games by being unable to close out games late. On Saturday, the Mavericks won a rare game going away, blitzing the Bucks with a franchise-tying 19 3-pointers. Guard Wesley Matthews said he thinks all the hard work is starting to pay off.

The history-chasing Celtics will put that claim to test.

“We can actually see everything that we’ve been trying to do come together, and hopefully that just carries the momentum into the off day where everybody’s feeling good,” Matthews said after Dallas’ victory. “We’ve got another tough battle Monday against Boston, who is the hottest team in the league right now, but it’s another opportunity for us.”

Nuggets’ coach Mike Malone suspended one game for confronting referee

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Denver coach Mike Malone decided if he was going to get tossed and fined/suspended, he was going to get his money’s worth.

During the second quarter of the Nuggets’ Sunday loss to the Lakers, Malone ran onto the court during play to argue a no-call on a play by Nikola Jokic around the basket. Malone furiously confronted referee Rodney Mott, who swiftly ejected the coach. As he should. Malone was suspended one game for “entering the court, halting play and making contact with a game official,” the league announced. Malone will serve his suspension tonight when the Nuggets face the Kings in Sacramento.

Mott also tossed Jokic when he entered the argument Sunday night, but the NBA rescinded the ejection saying Jokic earned a technical but should not have been thrown out. A lot of good that does the Nuggets now, who had to go more than half the game without their best player and lost (not that he changes the outcome of the game, but a comeback is less likely without him).

 

 

Kevin Garnett: Thon Maker “is going to be the MVP of the league one day. Mark it down.”

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Not to get to inside baseball on NBA journalism, but one fundamental truth is player trainers pump up their guys. There usually is some truth in what they say, but it is in their interest to spin the player the best way possible. On and off the record it happens. It’s like asking a political campaign manager about his candidate, you will only get the positive.

Kevin Garnett worked out and helped the Bucks’ Thon Maker this summer.

In just his second season, Thon Maker has been in and out of the starting lineup for the Bucks at center, and he’s struggled this season with a true shooting percentage of 48 getting him 4.5 points a game, and PER of 9.3. (Bucks fans are understandably disappointed, but this is a second-year player, some patience is required).

Garnett had Makers’ back in a Q&A with Bleacher Report’s Jonathan Abrams.

Thon Maker reminds me a lot of myself. He loves the game. He’s a young, exuberant athlete who has a lot of tools—he has touch; he has agility; he has really, good feet. He has a really good shot from three-point all the way up to 19 to 21 feet. He has very good bones, as we say.

Thon is going to be the MVP of the league one day. Mark it down. He has the bones. He has the appetite to be able to chase something like that.”

Garnett may have the wrong young-stud Buck with an MVP in his future.

Maker has gotten KG comparisons for years, he’s a very mobile and athletic but thin big who can shoot from the wing… but the physical similarities are not enough. Maker is no KG. Not yet. Maker showed promise against the Raptors last playoffs but has not taken a step forward off that progress this season, looking far more prone to fouling than defending. The effort is there, but the maturity of game has a long way to go to catch up.

Garnett is right that Maker has the tools, and he is just in his second NBA season so patience is required, but there were concerns around the league before the draft if he had the makeup to put it all together and become a quality NBA player. That question is still out there, let’s get past it before we heap on accolades.