ProBasketballTalk 2013-14 Preview: Milwaukee Bucks

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Last season: The Bucks went 38-44, reaching the playoffs despite a mid-season firing of Scott Skiles. Their high-scoring and high-shooting backcourt of Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis defined the team, but it was really as a team without a strong identity. Before the playoffs began, Jennings predicted the Bucks would beat the Heat in six games. Miami swept the series.

Signature highlight from last season: The terrible shot selection of Milwaukee’s starting backcourt finally paid off in the closing seconds of a February game in Houston. Brandon Jennings dribbled on the perimeter and off balance into a shot that even he realized was too bad to take. So, he passed to Monta Ellis, a bad-shot aficionado himself. Relying on all his bad-shot experience, Ellis delivered.

Key player changes: The Bucks were nothing if not busy this summer. Here’s the synopsis:

  • In: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nate Wolters, Carlos Delfino, O.J. Mayo, Gary Neal, Zaza Pachulia, Caron Butler, Brandon Knight, Khris Middleton, Viacheslav Kravtsov, Luke Ridnour
  • Out: Samuel Dalembert, Mike Dunleavy Jr., Monta Ellis, Brandon Jennings, Viacheslav Kravtsov, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, J.J. Redick, Ish Smith, Gustavo Ayon, Drew Gooden

Yes, Kravtsov appears on both lists. Milwaukee was just wheeling and dealing like that.

Keys to the Bucks’ season:

1) How good do the Bucks want to be/how good can their point guards let them be? Third-year point guard Brandon Knight frequently struggled with turnovers in Detroit the last two years, so extremely that it had a big negative effect on the Pistons’ offense. If Knight makes a jump in ability, the Bucks have no problem. Their top point guard will also be their point guard with the most potential, and that’s easy.

If not, Milwaukee must decide between Knight (the sometimes erratic point guard who needs experience to get better, but would mean more losses this season) and Luke Ridnour (the steady veteran who has nowhere to go but down, but will mean a little more short-term success). It could be a direction-defining decision.

2) Are any recently signed free agents underpaid? Why did the Bucks sign O.J. Mayo ($8 million per year), Zaza Pachulia ($5.2 million per year), Carlos Delfino ($3.25 million per year) and Gary Neal ($3.25 million per year)? I can’t pretend to know the exact answer to that question, because it doesn’t’ make the most sense, but I’m guessing Milwaukee didn’t want to pass on available value. Those four players might not generate a playoff berth, but if they’re underpaid, it’s easier for the Bucks to trade them or upgrade the team elsewhere next summer.

3) Can Larry Sanders be a good team’s best player? Second best? Sanders’ four-year, $44 million extension makes him, barring other moves, Milwaukee’s highest-paid player in 2014-15 and beyond. He’s a defensive force, but not quite in the discussion as one the NBA’s very best defenders. Offensively, he’s more limited. He’s a very nice player to have, and the Bucks definitely paid enough to ensure they have him. As he grows from his breakout season, we’ll get a better sense of just how good Sanders can be.

Why you should watch the Bucks: You won’t understand Larry Sanders’ value by looking at just his common statistics. Watch Milwaukee, and you’ll get a better sense of how he impacts the game defensively. Otherwise, this is a blah bad team, and I don’t have much here.

Prediction: Bucks in six. 33-49. The Bucks will be OK. Probably not OK enough to make the playoffs, but they have at least an outside chance. Probably not bad enough to land a premier draft pick, either, but they have at least an outside chance.

The Bucks are very different from last season. Yet, they’re very much the same.

76ers: Joel Embiid doubtful for Game 3 against Heat

AP Photo/Chris Szagola
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MIAMI (AP) — Joel Embiid remains listed as doubtful by Philadelphia for Game 3 of the 76ers’ Eastern Conference playoff series at Miami on Thursday night.

Embiid was on the floor with the 76ers for their morning shootaround practice, but coach Brett Brown says there’s no change in the All-Star center’s status.

Embiid has missed Philadelphia’s last 10 games while recovering from a concussion and surgery that repaired a fractural orbital bone around his left eye. He’s no longer in the NBA’s concussion protocol.

He took to social media after the 76ers lost Game 2 of this series to the Heat, saying he’s tired of being “babied.”

Embiid has averaged 22.9 points and 11 rebounds in 63 games for the 76ers during the regular season.

Rumor: Lakers, Kawhi Leonard share mutual interest

Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images
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The Spurs seem like they won’t trade Kawhi Leonard.

That won’t stop teams from trying.

There’s a clear disconnect between Leonard and San Antonio. Even the potential of a player as good as Leonard becoming available has teams salivating.

The Clippers are reportedly assembling a trade offer for the L.A. native. Los Angeles’ other team – the Lakers – are also apparently expected to factor prominently.

Sean Deveney of Sporting News:

“I think they go in hard for Leonard once the season is over and once the dust settles in San Antonio,” one executive told Sporting News. “(Leonard) wants to go to LA. There probably won’t be public demands on that, but he has leverage. He is going to be a free agent (in 2019). He’s an LA guy and he can just let teams know he won’t re-sign next year with anyone but the Lakers.”

But make no mistake, the Lakers are the favorite here.

“I would say that’s the most likely thing,” another general manager told Sporting News. “He’s going to be their target any way you look at it, this summer or next summer. There’s not many other ways to explain what’s been going on with that situation other than him trying to get out of San Antonio.”

Of course, every team wants Leonard. He’s an elite two-way player when healthy. But teams will go to differing lengths to pursue him. If the Lakers will “go hard for Leonard,” that means something beyond just desiring him.

Under Magic Johnson, the Lakers have made no secret of their plan to acquire stars. That has largely been centered on 2018 free agents, but with that well drying up, talk has turned to 2019 free agents. If the Lakers can get a top 2019 free agent – Leonard – sooner, why wouldn’t they?

One reason is the cost. Trading with San Antonio would require dealing at least some combination of Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma. Signing Leonard outright in 2019 would be simpler.

But a trade is the only surefire way of getting Leonard. If the Lakers don’t trade for him, another team could. With promising young players and cap space, the Lakers have the tools to make an intriguing offer for Leonard.

Or, more likely, the Spurs could keep him. Their relationship isn’t necessarily beyond repair, and they can offer him a super-max contract extension this summer.

They might not offer it. Even if they do, he might not take it. If he doesn’t, he could pledge to re-sign with only certain teams – like the Lakers – and steer trade talks that way. You can see how the thinking develops:

Leonard might be unhappy in San Antonio. He grew up in Southern California. Therefore, he’ll engineer his way to the Lakers?

Maybe, and maybe these anonymous executives know something to that effect. But this mostly sounds lazily speculative.

PBT Extra: Disciplined Celtics highlight bad habits of Milwaukee Bucks

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Giannis Antetokounmpo has been every bit the top five NBA player in the postseason — 32.5 points per game on 63.2 percent shooting, plus with 11 rebounds and 7.5 assists per game.

Yet the Bucks are down 0-2 to Boston.

The Celtics have had a strong series from Al Horford and Terry Rozier, but the real difference is in the discipline this team has shown all season — Boston knows who it is. Clearly, Milwaukee does not. They turn the ball over too much and make too many mistakes.

I get into all of that in this PBT Extra, and I wonder if that’s something the Bucks can really turn around mid-playoffs.

Ettore Messina to coach Spurs in Game 3 following death of Gregg Popovich’s wife

AP Photo/Eric Gay
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Spurs coach Gregg Popovich’s wife, Erin, died yesterday.

That sad news was felt throughout the NBA, and it obviously affects San Antonio most closely. That includes for tonight’s Game 3 against the Warriors.

Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News:

Ettore Messina was a longtime head coach in Europe. The Spurs lead assistant also took over for a few regular-season games Popovich missed. So, making – rather than advising – coaching decisions won’t be a brand new challenge to Messina.

But down 2-0 to defending-champion Golden State is a tough place to make an NBA playoff debut.

On the bright side, there will be no pressure. Not only has San Antonio been outclassed the first two games of the series, focus is rightly on the Popovich family. A win would be a pleasant surprise and help Messina – who’s up for the Hornets job – in his pursuit of a head-coaching position. A loss would be quickly forgotten with more important matters at hand.

To that end, hopefully the time away allows Popovich the space he needs to grieve. That matters far more than a basketball game.