Associated Press

Three questions the Milwaukee Bucks must answer this season

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The NBC/ProBasketballTalk season previews will ask the questions each of the 30 NBA teams must answer this season to make their season a success. We are looking at one team a day until the start of the season, and it begins with a look back at the team’s offseason moves.

Last season: 42-40, lost to Toronto in first round of playoffs

I know what you did last summer:
The Bucks mostly chilled on the beach last summer and did nothing. They let Michael Beasley go and waived Spencer Hawes. They brought in Gerald Green, Sterling Brown, and D.J. Wilson. Milwaukee basically returns with the same core roster as last season.

THREE QUESTIONS THE BUCKS MUST ANSWER:

1) Can Giannis Antetokounmpo make the leap from star to MVP level, transcendent talent? Last season the Greek Freak made the leap from nice player to star, maybe superstar level. He led the Bucks and had career highs in points (22.9), rebounds (8.8), assists (5.4), steals (1.6), and blocks (1.9). He got to the rim (dunking almost 200 times last season, some of them genuinely spectacular) and with that shot 52.1 percent overall. Combine that with him being a good “free safety” style of defender and you have a guy who deserved to be an All-Star and second team All-NBA.

The Bucks this season are banking on continuity and internal improvements to take the next step forward, and Antetokounmpo is at the top of the list.

Amazingly, there is so much room for Antetokounmpo to improve, and if he does he can live up to Kobe Bryant’s challenge to win MVP. The most discussed thing is his shooting, he hit just 27.2 percent from three last season and is not much better on long twos beyond 16 feet. This seems to be less a mechanics thing and more a confidence thing — Antetokounmpo knows he can almost always get to the rim and so he trusts that over his jumper. He needs to just fire away at times. Also, part of it is on Jason Kidd and the coaching staff, who coach a little bit of an old school system, and while the Bucks improved last season they were 24th in the league in threes attempted.

Beyond that, Antetokounmpo can be better reading the floor and making plays coming off the pick-and-roll, he can be better in post-ups, he can be better in isolation — he gets his buckets and assists by just taking what the defense gives him and then getting to the rim. He can start to force his will on the defense even more so, and when he does there is not much of a chance to stop him.

2) Can Thon Maker and Malcolm Brogdon take steps forward? As noted above, the Bucks did not make big moves last offseason, nor do they have the space to do it next offseason, this is a team looking for it’s core to improve to help them up the ladder. Having a healthy Kris Middleton all season as the glue guy on this team is huge and will help. So will getting Jabari Parker back from another ACL injury, but that will be late in the season (and he likely will take a bit to be his old self).

The two guys the Bucks really need to take a step forward are Thon Maker and Malcolm Brogdon. By the end of the playoff series against the Raptors last season both these guys were starting — and Milwaukee outscored Toronto when they were on the court together. Neither of these guys project to be future All-Stars, not even the Rookie of the Year Brogdon, but if both can be quality, consistent starters the Bucks will have something.

Maker, in particular, can be a real threat as a mobile 7-footer who can shoot the three (and reportedly he worked on his shot this off-season). He’s never going to be a strong, physical post player (the Bucks have Greg Monroe for that, and he’s solid in that role) but he can be a modern NBA big, he just needs to be more consistent as a playmaker and not just a shooter. The Bucks need more firepower and shot creation, especially with Jabari Parker out

3) Can the Bucks become a good defensive team? More than anything, this is the biggest question for Milwaukee if it is going to take a step forward. The Bucks were 19th in the NBA defensively last season, allowing 106.4 points per 100 possessions. For a team with a roster full of quality individual defenders, guys who are long and athletic, that is not good enough.

This is about Jason Kidd as the coach. He has his guys playing an aggressive, gambling system that opens up good shots for teams that can move the ball, particularly corner threes (and most teams want corner threes and have guys who can knock them down). The Bucks double just about everyone in the post, then they don’t get there fast enough in rotations. All of this played out against Toronto in the playoffs. In the first three games, the Raptors — who are isolation heavy with Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan — played a style that allowed the Bucks aggressive tendencies to work. But once the Raptors adjusted, moved the ball better out of doubles, the Bucks had no answers.

The Bucks should be aggressive — they should use that athleticism to create turnovers, but there needs to be a more disciplined, smarter underpinning that doesn’t leave the team exposed when the ball moves a little.

If the Bucks are top 10 in the NBA in defense — and they have the talent to do it — then they will take a step forward. If not, they will not, and Kidd will have questions to answer from a new front office (remember there seemed to be a movement against him from part of ownership last season, his job is not completely stable).

LeBron James on talk with Lonzo Ball: “Some things could be held private”

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LeBron James was caught on a hot mic this week speaking with Los Angeles Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball. The conversation came after the Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Lakers in Ohio, 121-112.

In their talk, LeBron told Ball that he needed to stay in his zone and be aggressive. Pretty generic stuff, to be honest.

Meanwhile, LeBron was asked about whether he thought having microphones record those types of conversations between players was good for the league. He was less than enthused.

Via Cleveland.com (response is at 0:50 in the video above):

Some things could be held private. Like my conversation with Lonzo. Everything doesn’t need to be said. Should be some type of privacy. I’m OK with it.

It does raise an interesting question in terms of player privacy and separation between media, fans, and players. On one hand, you could see how what they say on the floor, in a public arena meant for spectators, could be deemed public and therefore fair game.

But it’s also common for media not to publish — or for TV not to broadcast — the things players say during the game. We don’t hear trash talking, even if we see it, and if you’ve ever sat near the floor at an NBA game you hear a lot more colorful language than you do watching the game on TV.

However you come down player privacy on the court, it doesn’t seem like LeBron needed to speak with Ball in front of media like that. He could have spoken to him in the tunnels below the Q, or got his phone number and texted him. He could have sent him a DM on Twitter and it would have been more private.

It feels like there was a performative aspect to this, like LeBron wanted to create a mystery around his conversation with Lonzo but it got turned on its head. It’s just too bad what was said between them wasn’t actually that interesting.

LeBron James on possibly winning fifth MVP this season: “it would mean a lot”

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LeBron James is destroying the NBA’s traditional aging curve. Over the years and looking at thousands of players, we know that at certain ages and years in the league, guys start to decline. Look at the guys still in the league from the 2003 NBA draft: players still in the league, such as Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony, are seeing their games deteriorate in their 15th NBA season. As expected.

Not LeBron.

About to turn 33 and having played more regular season games than Michael Jordan did, LeBron is averaging 28.1 points, 9.3 assists and 8.1 rebounds a game, with a true shooting percentage of 65.9 that would be a career high, and a PER of 31.5 that is right at his career high for a season (31.7). LeBron has not lost a step.

LeBron is in the middle of the too-early MVP conversation, where he and Houston’s James Harden have separated from the field a third of the way into the season. At shootaround Saturday LeBron said winning the NBA MVP for a fifth time would matter to him, but what he really likes doing is opening the door to future NBA players to blow up the aging curve. Via Nick Friedell of ESPN.

“Team success is always the number one, but along the way if you’re able to accomplish some individual awards, individual achievements, it would mean a lot,” James said after Saturday’s practice. “I feel good. This is my 15th year, but this is one of the best years I’ve had as far as how I feel and I want to continue that. I want to kind of try to break the mold for the next generation. So just take the narrative out of ‘OK, you’re past your prime when you get [to] 31, or you’re past your prime in your 12th year in the league, or whatever the case may be.’ Hopefully I can break the mold so when the next guy comes, he can still get 200 or 300 million and be 33 years old. I’m serious. You guys are laughing, I’m serious. This is the mold I’m trying to break.”

He’s broken it.

Part of it is that today’s players know more about nutrition and training than past generations. They tend to take better care of their bodies, there are improved medical treatments, and much better diets — and nobody takes all that more seriously than LeBron.

Also, he is a physical freak of nature. Always has been.

It’s too early to have a serious MVP conversation, we have two-thirds of the season remaining, but as of now LeBron and Harden are the front runners (with guys such as Giannis Antetokounmpo, Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving, Anthony Davis and others on the next tier). If LeBron can keep up this level of play, and continues to carry the Cavaliers to a top two record in the East, he will be one of the top vote-getters. No question.

And that would break a mold, too, and put him in a conversation with Michael Jordan again (Jordan won five MVPs, the oldest at age 35).

Kevin Hart plays Shaq, Saturday Night Live takes on Inside The NBA

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Notoriously undersized actor — and NBA All-Star Weekend Celebrity Game MVP — Kevin Hart playing the notoriously oversized Shaquille O’Neal is brilliant.

That was at the heart of it when Saturday Night Live took on Inside the NBA on its Christmas show Saturday night. Hart was into it poking fun at Shaq’s penchant for going off with his own word salad during the show.

Charles Barkley and Shaq are rich satire targets, and SNL went right at them. Well done.

James Harden, Chris Paul lead Rockets to 13th straight victory

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HOUSTON (AP) — Nursing a sore knee, James Harden said he came close to not playing Saturday night.

When team doctors warned him that it would be painful, but he could play through it, he said, “Let’s go.”

Harden scored 31 points and Chris Paul had 25 and the Rockets beat the Milwaukee Bucks 115-111 for their 13th straight victory.

The winning streak is the Rockets’ longest since a franchise-best 22 straight in 2007-08.

Harden hit a step-back 3-pointer over Malcolm Brogdon and was fouled, giving Houston an 11-point lead with less than six minutes remaining. In the last two minutes, Paul hit back-to-back mid-range jumpers on consecutive possessions to put the game out of reach.

“Mentally, this was a big win for us,” Paul said. “We never let go of the rope. Every time they made a little push, we stayed right there down the stretch. James was out there, basically, on one leg. The mental toughness we showed as a team is what we take from this game.”

Giannis Antetokounmpo had 28 points, nine rebounds, five assists and four steals for Milwaukee. Khris Middleton had 23 points, and Brogdon added 20. Milwaukee has lost three in a row after winning six of seven.

“Harden made some tough shots and Chris Paul made some big shots down the stretch as well,” Bucks coach Jason Kidd said. “We gave ourselves a chance, but we just came up short.”

The Rockets grinded through frustrations, 15 turnovers and a below-average shooting night. Paul had a technical foul, Harden had a delay of game warning, and the Rockets faced serious adversity for the first time in weeks. Entering Saturday, Houston had dominated teams in its streak, winning all but two games by double figures with an average margin of victory of 16.9 points.

“We just didn’t have our best stuff tonight,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “But we found a way. It was one of those typical grind games where you’ve just got to find a way somehow.”

Paul scored 23 of his 25 points in the second half, overcoming a rocky first half where he missed all five shots he attempted and turned the ball over five times.

“I had never coached him in a back-to-back, but I’m thinking he’s kind of dead,” D’Antoni said. “Then, all of a sudden, he comes out in the third quarter and turns into Superman.”

Paul made 7 of 8 shots in the second half, including 3 of 4 from beyond the arc, also making all eight free throws in the game.

Harden scored 20 points or more for the 29th straight game, matching Houston’s franchise record set by Moses Malone.

Both Harden and Clint Capela (left heel contusion) were game-time decisions after suffering injuries on different collision plays in Friday night’s win over San Antonio. Capela sat out the game, and P.J. Tucker started in his place, getting 10 points and 10 rebounds in 38 minutes.

Behind Tucker, Nene scored a season-high 16 points, largely on thunderous one-handed dunks. The Rockets were outscored by the Bucks 44-40 in the paint and outrebounded 40-38.

Milwaukee and Houston traded blows in the first half, with the Rockets leading by three at the end of the first quarter. They were tied at 55 at the half. The Rockets haven’t trailed at the half since Nov. 25 in a 117-102 win over the Knicks.

The Rockets took an 84-79 lead into the fourth quarter.

At 24-4, the Rockets are tied for their best 28-game start in franchise history, matching the 1993-94 season when they won their first championship.