John Henson

The Extra Pass: Bucks are bad, and that’s good; plus Wednesday’s recaps

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By D.J. Foster

All over the league, we’ve seen young teams fighting against the tank.

If the playoffs started today, the Boston Celtics and Phoenix Suns would be in the playoffs. This was unfathomable a few months ago. It wasn’t just about their rosters being bad – they were supposed to be bad.

The Milwaukee Bucks, meanwhile, are never supposed to be bad. Here’s what Bucks owner Herb Kohl told Howard Beck before the season:

“In our organization, there is this competitive need to be as good as we can every year,” Bucks owner Herb Kohl told Bleacher Report. “It’s an instinct. Even though one might argue that mathematically you’re better off going the other way.”

“I’m not speaking for what other teams do,” Kohl said. “We just every year do the very best we can, to put together the best team we can. That’s our M.O. That’s what we do.”

What Milwaukee does, in reality, is openly embrace mediocrity. It’s been 13 years since the Bucks have advanced past the first round of the playoffs. They’ve had one top-5 pick in that timeframe. They’ve never had more than 46 wins in any of those seasons. If it weren’t for such a rich tradition, the Bucks would be completely and totally irrelevant.

On Wednesday night, the Bucks hosted a San Antonio Spurs team that actually embodies the principle Kohl mistakenly thinks his franchise does.

The Spurs compete. They are the best they can be every year. But guess what?

Even the inscrutable Spurs tanked once in 1997, and they haven’t had to since.

On Wednesday night, that Spurs team that tanked 16 years ago to get Tim Duncan held a 38-point lead in the third quarter. Duncan had 21 points and 16 rebounds in 24 minutes.

O.J. Mayo, Milwaukee’s $24 million dollar life preserver, was one made three-pointer away from putting up a “22 trillion” – 22 minutes with zero meaningful stats across the board.

The Bucks, obviously, ended up losing the game. Plenty of words sprang to mind to describe the performance. Embarrassing. Depressing. Ugly.

But you know what else it was? Productive.

The 2014 draft class is projected to be one of the best we’ve seen in years. Sure, there are no guarantees in the lottery, but Milwaukee has to give themselves a chance to be great. Pretending the system doesn’t work the way it does is more than stubborn. It’s stupid.

There are pieces here. John Henson is a future star. Giannis Antetokounmpo has the kind of natural ability you dream on. Nate Wolters looks like a nice player. Make no mistakes, though: the Bucks are begging for direction.

32 point losses at home aren’t fun. Neither is the trip to the cellar of the Eastern Conference. But realistically, is it any worse than the last 13 years of Milwaukee Bucks basketball?

The Bucks have attempted to sell their fanbase on a somewhat competitive team for long enough. It’s time to sell them some hope for once.

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Orlando 92, Charlotte 83: The Magic got a balanced attack that saw seven different players finish in double figures scoring, and out-rebounded the Bobcats by 11 to help in securing this victory. Charlotte shot just 36.9 percent from the field as a team, and Gerald Henderson led the Bobcats in scoring with 12 points, but did do shooting a miserable 3-of-14 from the field in just over 30 minutes of action. — BP

Clippers 96, Celtics 88: Doc Rivers had an emotional first return to Boston as head coach of the Clippers, and by his own admission emotions got the better of him throughout the game’s first half. That may explain L.A.’s slow start in this one, but the Clips scored 57 second half points to be able to get the win. Chris Paul finished with a near triple-double line of 22 points, seven rebounds and nine assists. –BP

Thunder 116, Grizzlies 100: No Marc Gasol and no Tony Allen for Memphis in this one, so the easy double-digit victory for OKC in this one was somewhat expected. Russell Westbrook did the damage with a monster of a game, and finished with 27 points on 12 shots, to go along with six rebounds and nine assists. — BP

Spurs 109, Bucks 77: Take one of the best, most efficient teams in the league in the Spurs and face them against one of the league’s worst teams in Milwaukee, and this is the end result. This game was over by halftime, when the Spurs led by 23 points and Tim Duncan had already registered 16 points and 11 rebounds in just over 16 minutes. Someone named Miroslav Raduljica tallied 10 points and seven rebounds in less than 23 minutes for the Bucks, proving just how out of hand this game truly was. — BP

Timberwolves 106, Sixers 99: Philadelphia started off strong by getting out to a 19-point first quarter lead, but Minnesota slowly crawled back into it and outscored the Sixers by 20 in the second half to come away with the victory. The Timberwolves won despite shooting a far lower percentage than their opponent — just 38.5 percent to Philly’s 52.7 percent — but that was due to Minnesota gaining 22 more field goal attempts thanks to 12 more offensive rebounds and the Sixers turning the ball over 26 times. — BP

Pelicans 111, Pistons 106 (OT): Detroit came back from nine down in the fourth to force the extra session, after neither team could score in the final 1:19 of regulation. Ryan Anderson scored eight points in overtime to help his team win, while huge efforts from Greg Monroe (28 points, 10 rebounds) and Brandon Jennings (25 points, five rebounds, four assists, six steals) were wasted in the losing effort. — BP

Knicks 83, Bulls 78: The Knicks need wins, they’ll take them no matter how ugly they are. And this one was ugly. Carmelo Anthony did his part with 30 points and 10 rebounds, and Amar’e Stoudemire stepped up with 10 points during a key 19-0 Knicks run in the second quarter. New York led by 23 but the scrappy Bulls battled back to tie it at 74-74. You can thank Mike Dunleavy Jr. who had 20 points and 8 dimes. But Stoudemire hit a key jumper and Anthony had 9 points in the fourth. It’s a win, Mike Woodson will take it right now. — KH

Jazz 122, Kings 101: Sacramento didn’t dress Rudy Gay or anyone else from the trade (they couldn’t play because Greivis Vasquez has yet to pass his physical in Canada) but that wouldn’t have helped them here. Utah was just clicking on offense — they shot 53.9 percent overall, hit 13-of-23 from three and had an offensive rating of 133.2 points per 100 possessions. Individually Richard Jefferson was 7-of-9 shooting, Derrick Favors 6-of-9, Alec Burke 7-of-11 and that will get it done. After the way this season has gone for them, the Jazz could use an easy win. — KH

Warriors 95, Mavericks 93: Dallas had a, 18-point lead in the first half, a 10 point lead with 8 minutes to go, but against the Warriors in Oracle Arena that is like a 2 point lead anywhere else. Stephen Curry had 16 of his 33 points in the fourth quarter — including the game winner, which was part of a 9-1 Golden State run to close out the game and get the win. Monta Ellis and Dirk Nowitzki each had 21 for Dallas. — KH

LeBron James on surpassing Michael Jordan: “It’s a personal goal”

CLEVELAND, OH - SEPTEMBER 26: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers during media day at Cleveland Clinic Courts on September 26, 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. Mandatory copyright notice. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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Since he was a teenager, LeBron James has been compared to Michael Jordan. That comparison has usually been used as a way to cut him down or explain why he’s not in the same class, but that’s changed since he won his third championship, and first in Cleveland, in June. Now, LeBron has started to be a lot more open about his desire to eventually surpass Jordan. He said so in an interview with the AP’s Tom Withers after practice on Tuesday:

Now that LeBron James has won a championship for the ages, he’s set a loftier goal:

Catching Michael Jordan.

Long flattered to be mentioned in the same company with Jordan and other NBA legends, James has been hesitant to publicly acknowledge that he wants to be remembered as the greatest in league history.

It’s time now.

“It’s a personal goal,” James told The Associated Press on Monday. “I just never brought it up. It’s my own personal goal to be able to be greater than great. I think that should be everybody’s personal goal.”

Now that James has indisputably cemented his legacy as one of the handful of greatest players ever to play the game, he has a lot less to lose by openly talking about these things. Five years ago, he would have gotten killed for bringing it up. Now? It just seems plausible more than anything else.

Kevin Durant says Nike didn’t influence his free-agency decision

OAKLAND, CA - SEPTEMBER 26:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Golden State Warriors poses for NBA team photographer Noah Graham during the Golden State Warriors Media Day at the Warriors Practice Facility on September 26, 2016 in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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Many different factors went into Kevin Durant‘s decision this summer to leave the Oklahoma City Thunder for the Golden State Warriors — basketball fit, location, his friendships with Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green, and more. But one thing he wants to make sure you know didn’t influence him is Nike. Durant told reporters this week that the shoe company, which he endorses, didn’t steer him one way or another in free agency, and they didn’t even know his plans beforehand.

It’s a little hard to believe that Nike had zero advance knowledge of Durant’s plans — if not a hard answer, at least a strong indication of which way he was leaning. Durant was one of the most popular players in the league in Oklahoma City, so Nike would have been fine either way. But his presence in Golden State, a much bigger market and the dominant story in the NBA this season, will only help them. It doesn’t hurt, either, that they now have one of their biggest athletes in the same market as Stephen Curry, who had been taking advantage of all the attention on the Warriors to raise Under Armour’s profile. Now, Nike can get some of that spotlight back in the Bay Area.

Barnes, Bogut highlight latest round of changes for Mavs

CLEVELAND, OH - JUNE 08:  Harrison Barnes #40 of the Golden State Warriors reacts in Game 3 of the 2016 NBA Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena on June 8, 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 Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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DALLAS (AP) Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut are in, Chandler Parsons and Zaza Pachulia are out and Dallas coach Rick Carlisle has a retooled roster for the sixth consecutive time since winning a championship.

“Well, we love it,” Carlisle said at media day this week as someone chuckled. “What’s more exciting than getting seven new guys? New blood. It’s fresh every year.

“Really, that wasn’t meant to be a joke,” he added. “If you view it as a negative, there’s a pretty good chance it’s going to be a negative. I don’t look at it that way.”

The Mavericks have made the playoffs all but one season since the constant turnover started after owner Mark Cuban chose salary cap flexibility over keeping a few key players when a new labor agreement was reached six months after his team won the title in 2011.

But Dallas still hasn’t won a postseason series since beating Miami in six games in those NBA Finals.

Repeated efforts to land big names in free agency failed, which this year led to the additions of Barnes and Bogut from 2015 champion Golden State after the Warriors lured Kevin Durant from Oklahoma City and had to unload both starters to make cap room for the four-time NBA scoring champion.

Barnes headlines the group of newcomers because he’ll be a top option on offense after signing a four-year, $94 million max contract. Over his four seasons with the Warriors, he was always a role player behind Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.

“It’s going to be bigger expectations and I’m going to have a larger role on this team,” Barnes said. “I feel like we have a lot of pieces this year, either coming back off injury, guys who are motivated, have a lot to prove. So hopefully we can all come together and do something special.”

There’s actually some stability in the starting five because point guard Deron Williams is back for a second season with his hometown team.

Nowitzki, going into his 19th season at age 38, says Williams was the best player on the team at times last season, and the Mavericks missed him in their five-game loss to Oklahoma City. He was limited by a sports hernia injury that required offseason surgery.

Parsons signed a max deal with Memphis, and Pachulia went to the Warriors after the trade that landed Dallas the 7-footer Bogut, who should be a much stronger shot-blocking presence than his predecessor.

The changes fit the formula of at least two new starters each season going back to the title year.

“There are similarities to other years,” Carlisle said. “The ability to add Bogut and Barnes was huge for us. We caught some good luck on that.”

The other notable newcomer is Curry’s younger brother, Seth Curry, who is on his fifth team in his fourth season but finally had a more prominent role last season in Sacramento. Former Baylor standout Quincy Acy is in Dallas after bouncing around his first four years.

The Mavericks are deep at guard with holders J.J. Barea and Devin Harris behind Williams and Wes Matthews, in his second season as the shooting guard and now more than a year removed from tearing an Achilles tendon his final season in Portland.

Also returning are athletic young forwards Justin Anderson and Dwight Powell along with 7-2 Tunisian center Salah Mejri, a surprising shot-blocking presence last season as a 30-year-old rookie.

“They’re definitely athletes and we should be able to have a great defensive lineup once I’m out,” said Nowitzki, poking fun at his defensive skills. “I think we have a (backup) lineup out there that could be really, really good, and obviously youth and athleticism is a big part.”

Barnes wanted to be a part of it even though the Mavericks appear further from championship contention than other Western Conference teams.

“I think when you look at what this franchise has done year in, year out, stable on their ship,” Barnes said. “And be able to learn from a guy named Dirk who’s done it year in, year out. He’s pretty much built this place through his work ethic.”

And now Nowitzki is getting used to another new collection of teammates.

Follow Schuyler Dixon on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apschuyler

Jazz’s Dante Exum says his knee is completely healed from 2015 ACL tear

MIAMI, FL - DECEMBER 17:  Dante Exum #11 of the Utah Jazz drives to the lane during a game against the Miami Heat at American Airlines Arena on December 17, 2014 in Miami, Florida. 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. Mandatory copyright notice:  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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After a promising rookie season, Dante Exum missed all of 2015-16 rehabbing a torn left ACL he suffered during an exhibition game with the Australian national team in summer 2015. As the Jazz kick off training camp, Exum says he’s fully recovered after his year off and he’s ready to go.

Via Jody Gennessy of the Deseret News:

“I was just excited to get back out there,” Exum said after the first of two practices Tuesday. “I was feeling good. … I was just ready to come out there, talk when I can and run between every drill.”

Both his attitude and his body were at 100 percent as he returned from a yearlong rehab that followed his September 2015 surgery on his left knee that had been injured in a friendly international game with the Australian team.

With the Jazz’s trade for George Hill over the summer, Exum won’t have to be the starting point guard, which will take some pressure off of him to get back to full strength right away. A torn ACL is something that usually takes time to return from, and having guard depth to ease his workload will help with the transition. If the Jazz get good production out of Exum, it will be a bonus for what looks to be one of the most exciting young teams in the Western Conference.