NBA Preview: Charlotte Bobcats

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Last season: Worst. Team. Ever.

Literally, no team has ever finished with a worse winning percentage than the 7-59 Bobcats. That had to sting owner Michael Jordan. They were the least efficient team in the league on offense and defense (they both scored the fewest and allowed the most points per possession in the league). Yes, there were injuries on a team that had no margin for error, but they were destined to be terrible. Usually you try to find positives out of a season to build on, in this case just flush it. Flush it.

Key Departures: Can anyone from that last roster be called key? Anyway, Corey Maggette is gone, as is D.J. Augustin. But nobody they are actually going to moss.

Key Additions: With the No. 2 pick in the draft the Charlotte Bobcats selected Michael Kidd-Gillchrist, the high-energy wing out of Kentucky. A guy whose effort and defense stood out on a team loaded with future NBA players. In the one game Kidd-Gilchrist played in Summer League he looked good and now he’s got a reconstructed jump shot. He should be fun to watch.

They also added journeyman big Brendan Haywood, a reliable starting point guard in Ramon Sessions and they have Ben Gordon coming off the bench with a green light. (Might as well make it green, Gordon is going to shoot no matter the light’s color.) That’s not a playoff roster, but that’s not 12 wins, either.

Three keys to the Bobcats season:

1) Just how good is Michael Kidd-Gilchrist going to be? This is a one-year question but rather a multi-year process. He was certainly the right call with the second pick in the draft — he’s a long, pretty athletic wing who can defend and will out work you. The question is how much his jump shot develops (he has already reworked the form) and will his handles get to the point he can create his own shot. In college his athleticism could do that, but he’ll need better handles at this level.

New coach Mike Dunlap was brought in because he can develop players. Here is his first project. Kidd-Gilchrist is going to be a key part of the rebuilding in Charlotte. How key a part we’ll see by how much he develops. He could be a regular All-Star, a guy who can defend on the wing and get you some points. Could. We will see.

2) The Bobcats have to play better defense. And they should — just by adding Kidd-Gilchrist on the wing and Haywood on the paint they have better defensive personnel. Plus they have Bismack Biyombo, who should leap forward as a paint protecting force this season. And finally Dunlap has said he wants to bring in a defensive mindset as well.

The Bobcats can make faster gains with their team and record on the defensive side of the ball. The offense will come along, but get stops and they can win more games. The pieces are there to improve fairly dramatically on this end. Don’t expect a miracle. I don’t even expect them to be average. They just need to not be historically bad.

3) Where does the offense come from? They should be better this season, if only because they can’t really be worse. This is where picking up Ramon Sessions is key — is a solid to good, dependable point guard who can set the table. He played well in the regular season for the Lakers last year, but it was his first ever playoff experience and he seemed overwhelmed by that stage. Still, for the Bobcats he provides a steady presence.

Behind him at the point is Kemba Walker, and Bobcats fans should be rooting for him to take a leap forward with his game.

As he did last year, Gerald Henderson will rack up points (nice fantasy basketball tip). Kidd-Gilchrist will get them some points, but we’ll see how many. I’d like to say Tyrus Thomas will give them more than 14 a game, he has the talent, but I’m don betting on that horse. He just never developed the handle and mental side of his game to go with the skill set.

Plus there is Ben Gordon gunning off the bench. Which is what the Bobcats need.

What Bobcats fans should fear: After you have been to the seventh circle of hell, what could be worse? What is their left to fear? Really, the fear is that GM Rich Cho misses on picks and this team continues to stumble rather than build going forward. Personally, I believe in Cho, I think the organization is acting more professionally, and I think they are moving in the right direction. Slowly, but in the right direction. That said, the fear is that those are really just wheels spinning in the mud.

How it likely works out: The Bobcats are not going to be good. Not as bad as last year, but not good. Still, there are signs of hope — watch Kidd-Gilchrist bring new energy to the team and see his offensive game develop. See if Bismack Biyombo can become a defensive force. See if Kemba Walker can start to look like an NBA starter. Heck, you can hold out hope that the switch flips for Tyrus Thomas if you want. Find a reason to hope. And expect a better season than the last one.

Prediction: 21-62, which means once again a whole lot of lottery balls. They and the Magic may well be competing for the worst record in the NBA, and they are a few years away from the playoffs. But this is the first steps back from the lowest of lows. Don’t expect miracles and find reasons for hope. Find guys you can root for, Bobcats fans.

Milwaukee Bucks eager to build after strong finish to season

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ST. FRANCIS, Wis. (AP) — With the sting of their frantic but failed Game 6 comeback effort still fresh in their minds, the Milwaukee Bucks returned to their practice facility Friday morning to pack their things and head their separate ways.

The Bucks consider themselves a team on the rise in the Eastern Conference, a belief no doubt reinforced by a furious 14-4 run late in the season that propelled them to sixth place in the East and solidified by a strong, though inconsistent, effort against Toronto in the playoffs.

“We thought we were the better team,” forward Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “We thought we could beat the Raptors and go to the second round. We feel like we got the Raptors’ attention so hopefully next year … we can go deeper in the playoffs.”

To get to that next step, which includes gaining home-court advantage and winning a playoff series for the first time since 2001, a lot of work needs to be done. Milwaukee needs Antetokounmpo to continue his rapid development, but will be looking to young additions like Thon Maker and Malcolm Brogdon, the Bucks’ two picks in last year’s draft, to refine their bodies and their games this summer.

Maker was one of the biggest surprises in the league. The 15th overall pick was a relative unknown and figured, at the outset, to be a draft-and-develop pick. Instead, he made a strong impression on the coaching staff with his commitment to defense and made opposing teams panic with his ability to shoot the 3 and wound up starting all six playoff games.

“It was amazing,” Maker said. “Unexpected. I thought I was just going to be on `Project: Build Maker’ and build my body but that’s (what I’m doing) this summer now. I thought that’s what this year was going to be about but everything turned around. I worked hard and it turned out to be way more than I expected. I don’t like the end results – it could have been way better – but you live with the results and you learn.”

Brogdon might have been an even bigger surprise. He was Milwaukee’s second-round pick and began the season on the bench behind free agent acquisition Matthew Dellavedova. But he, too, put in the work and by season’s end, was not only the starting point guard but a key piece of the Bucks’ core.

“I think it’s strong,” Brogdon said of Milwaukee’s nucleus. “I think it’s going to be one of the strongest in the NBA, as long as we’re able to stay together and as long as we’re able to stay healthy. I think we’re going to be one of the best teams in the NBA.”

The Bucks have been in this position before. They were considered a team on the rise in 2010, when they forced the Hawks to seven games but stumbled the next season and didn’t return to the postseason until sneaking into the eighth spot in 2013.

Two years later, Milwaukee was thought to be a sleeper after the Bucks finished .500 in Kidd’s first season at the helm, but again they faltered the next season and missed the playoffs.

Maintaining the momentum will be a major focus as preparations begin for the next season.

“My first year we had seven or eight free agents, so we knew that wasn’t going to be the same team,” forward John Henson said. “(The) second year we had a new coach, more free agents.

My third year coach Kidd coming in, we knew there was going to be some stability. He’s had the same core guys and this is what happens; not have a letdown like we did the year before.”

Milwaukee should benefit with some roster stability. The team’s young core appears set in place with Antetokounmpo, Henson and Khris Middleton locked into long-term contracts, as are Dellavedova and Mirza Teletovic.

Tony Snell, who went on to start 80 games after being acquired late in training camp, is a restricted free agent. Greg Monroe, who became one of the league’s best sixth men, holds a player option for next season.

The Bucks will likely be open to bringing back veteran guard Jason Terry for a 19th season, too.

“I think that’s how you become a team that doesn’t regress next year – keeping some of the pieces together,” Henson said.

General manager John Hammond also faces a tough question with Jabari Parker, who will miss at least the first half of the 2017-18 season after tearing his ACL in February. The No. 2 overall pick in the 2014 draft is eligible for a contract extension this summer and was in line to earn something close to the $100 million Milwaukee gave Antetokounmpo last year.

Lonzo Ball, other top draft picks expected to skip NBA Combine

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The NBA Draft Combine invites started going out Saturday — about 60-70 players are expected to be invited to a gym in Chicago for a couple of days of measurements, interviews, and tests, with a little basketball thrown in. The idea is for teams to get an up-close look (and accurate measurements) with guys they are going to invest time and, in some cases, millions of dollars in over the next several years.

However, the guys at the top of the draft are not going to be in Chicago, as Shams Charania and Bobby Marks of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports noted.

This is the same as with the NFL combine, the top picks see only bad things that can happen by taking part, there’s no upside but their stock could fall, so they stay away.

That’s not about to change. Also, a lot of international players skip the combine. That opens up some slots for more fringe guys, players who may or may not get drafted in the second round, to come in and impress. (Check out Jonathan Givony’s Twitter timeline to get a sense of who got invited and who didn’t.)

Teams looking at drafting the top handful, the elite guys, have already had scouts watch every college and many high school games, not to mention seeing their AAU teams and catching them at things like the Nike Summit or Adidas Nations events. They’ve talked to the guy’s former coaches and others around him, they have a good sense of who he is and is not.

Well, as much as one can in any draft. It’s still a crap shoot. A player can have all the skills, all the physical gifts, be a good person, but what happens once they face real adversity? Or, have to deal with money and temptations? What would you have been like at age 20 with millions of dollars and all the hedonistic temptations of the NBA lifestyle thrown at you? Or, how do does a team know which young players with some very raw skills have the drive and passion for maximizing those talents? Predicting how a 19- or 20-year-old will mature is not an easy task.

Dwyane Wade says he wants to see plan for Bulls before deciding on player option

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I can think of $23.8 million reasons Dwyane Wade will be back with the Chicago Bulls next season. Sure, he’s made more than $175 million on the court and more in endorsements during his Hall of Fame career. Still, that’s a lot of money to walk away from and he has the player option. It’s Wade’s call.

When asked on Saturday, a day after the Bulls were eliminated from the playoffs by the Boston Celtics (a game in which Wade was 1-of-10 shooting and -27), whether he planned to return to Chicago or test the free agent market again this summer, Wade only said that he wanted to get a sense of what the Bulls were going to do this summer before he decided. Here are some Tweets from the Wade interview from Vincent Goodwill of CSNChicago.com and K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune.

Wade wants a clear plan and direction from Bulls management? That’s a long line. Like the line at an Apple Store the day the new iPhone comes out length. Wade is way at the back of it.

If the Bulls rebuild, they will trade Butler, if not they will run it back with Wade, Butler, and likely Rondo. Obviously, if they do keep this core together a lot of pieces around them need to change and start to fit some kind of cohesive system.

Wade also defended coach Fred Hoiberg in the wake of “fire Hoiberg” chants from Bulls fans at the end of the game.

This is the one wish Wade will get, after firing Tom Thibodeau and hand-picking Hoiberg out of the college ranks, no way GarPax is going to fire him this summer and admit its mistake.

Everything else with Wade is up in the air.

Cavaliers, Warriors sweeps mean time to rest, get mental breather

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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Kevin Durant can take some pressure off that tender left calf. LeBron James has extra time to recoup after barely leaving the floor in the first round.

Golden State coach Steve Kerr scheduled some medical appointments as he deals with debilitating symptoms still affecting him nearly two years after complications from a pair of back surgeries.

The two star-studded teams expected by many to face off once more in the NBA Finals each swept through their respective first-round playoff series in four games, leaving ample time for the Cavaliers and Warriors to rest up, heal up and prepare for the next opponent.

“It gives me a mental break. As far as physically, I am who I am,” James said. “I’ve played so many games over the years, the best break for me is probably when I’m done.”

Of course guys like James and Draymond Green are already eager to get back on the court.

Cleveland now knows its next opponent is Toronto, while the Warriors were still waiting out the Clippers-Jazz series.

“Definitely have gotten antsy to play,” Green said Friday. “But you see that break and you’re excited about it, just to get that time to rest and get everybody back as close to 100 (percent) as possible for the next round. At the same time you do get antsy to get back on the floor and back in the rhythm of things. I think it’s been a good week for us to sweep and get this time off.”

Durant, still receiving treatment on his left leg and knee, spent Thursday at a San Francisco Giants baseball game. Cavs coach Tyronn Lue threw a huge watch party Thursday night so players and members of the organization could see the Raptors close out the Bucks in six games.

Golden State scrimmaged Friday to stay sharp, while Cleveland players have competed in such ways as racing on cardiovascular machines in the weight room to stay fresh and motivated.

James led the league in minutes during the regular season then played nearly 44 per game in the first-round sweep of Indiana – familiar territory after the Cavs also swept Detroit in the first round last season, then followed by eliminating Atlanta in the minimum four games.

“I’m ready to get this thing going, but obviously I’m not going to rush the process,” James said. “… But, yeah, I don’t like the way I feel when we’re not playing.”

In 2015, when the Warriors captured their first championship in 40 years, Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving suffered a freak Game 1 injury when he fractured his left kneecap, and Kevin Love was already lost to a dislocated left shoulder.

Last June, Stephen Curry had returned from a knee injury but never fully got healthy and the thought was the Warriors wore down after chasing and breaking the Chicago Bulls’ regular-season wins record with 73 victories.

“If you could sweep every series that would be perfect,” Durant said, “because you just want to play well and then you’ll worry about the rest afterward. That’s the situation we’re in. We’ve got a lot of guys banged up, so it’s good to have a few days to get your bodies right and your mind right and just get back to the drawing board in terms of individual work, team work.”

In the Warriors’ case, it also has meant more time working with Mike Brown as acting head coach while Kerr is away. The reigning NBA Coach of the Year missed Games 3 and 4 at Portland because he was in such discomfort, having dealt with headaches, neck pain and nausea that recently became worse.

While Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is most known for sitting several star players at once without regard to anything but his team’s best interest, others have caught on and replicated the strategy of spelling players in order to pace for the long haul.

In March 2015, the Warriors lost at Denver with Curry watching – along with Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala and Andrew Bogut – in the first game of a back-to-back. Oh, did Kerr take heat for it, even personally answering a few emails. And the Warriors reached out to other upset fans and sent along care packages.

“As a coach your responsibility is to keep your players healthy and there are times when guys need a night off,” Kerr said.

In December, Cleveland caused an uproar by resting James, Love and Irving in a loss at Memphis. Lue then sat several starters for the final game of the regular season against Toronto, and the teams will meet again in the Eastern Conference semifinals starting Monday.

Now, the Cleveland coach insists, James can handle the heavy minutes when it matters most.

“His body can take it,” Lue said, “so I’m not worried about what outside people say.”

AP Sports Writer Tom Withers in Cleveland contributed to this report.