NBA Season Preview: The Milwaukee Bucks

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andrew_bogut_milwaukee_bucks.jpgLast season: The Bucks flew through the home stretch to finish with a 46-36 record, but the train carrying deer to be feared was derailed by a season-ending injury to Andrew Bogut.

Head Coach: Scott Skiles, who lived up to his reputation as an excellent defensive coach by making the Bucks’ D the second best in the league last season. He also lived up to his offensive reputation by having his team hoist up a ton of mid-range jumpers, but hey, he is who he is, and his teams are who they are.

Key Departures: Luke Ridnour, Kurt Thomas, Jerry Stackhouse, Dan Gadzuric, Charlie Bell, and any illusion that Michael Redd will play for them this year.

Key Additions:
Corey Maggette, Drew Gooden, Larry Sanders, Keyon Dooling, Jon Brockman, Chris Douglas-Roberts, and plenty of fans jumping on the bandwagon.

Best case scenario:
The Bucks again manage to surprise, this time by leaping from mid-tier playoff certainty to out-and-out contender.

For that to happen: Milwaukee will need to combine what they did well last season (defense, taking care of the ball) with what their new personnel suggest they should do well this season (scoring, getting to the line, offensive rebounding). Skiles will need to walk the fine line between relying on the players that got him this far without neglecting Maggette, Gooden, and the new Bucks.

There’s a pretty delicate balance here. Worst-case, the Bucks should be about as good as they were last season. However, should Skiles manage to find that perfect balance between offense/defense, this team has the potential to be remarkable. Milwaukee may not have a name for the marquee, but they have a real star in Andrew Bogut, a talented young point in Brandon Jennings, and now a cast of both useful defenders and skilled scorers.

On paper, Milwaukee has the personnel to make for a fantastically balanced team. For every Drew Gooden, they have a Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. For every Corey Maggette, they have a Carlos Delfino. I’m not sure any NBA roster boasts a more interesting yin and yang of talented players, but I am sure that Skiles will face plenty of pressure to make everything fit just so.

More likely the Bucks will: Show notable improvement, but not enough for them to storm the East’s top tier. They’re good. No doubt about that. Still, it’s hard to put Milwaukee into the same class as Miami, Orlando, and Boston just yet, especially considering how awkward this mix of players could be initially.

Skiles can be trusted to figure things out, and given the players he has to work with, it’s hard to imagine things going too badly. That said, the far more likely outcome is the moderate one, in which the Bucks get better, but still have room to grow. There’s not necessarily an issue of player maturity, but roster maturity. This is the type of roster that needs time to cultivate, and they’ll get better and better as the season goes on.

The Bucks have made moves to directly resolve their weaknesses, but now its time to see if that approach still allows Milwaukee to function as a cohesive — and now comprehensive — whole.

Prediction: 53 wins and a tough out in the playoffs. I see the Bucks as the early favorites for the fourth seed in the East, but a lot of that depends on the health of the top three and the specifics of what’s sure to be an interesting race between Milwaukee, Chicago, and Atlanta for home court advantage and a chance to survive the first round.

Whether or not the Bucks can end up in either the 4th or 5th seed will clearly impact their playoff lifespan. If they can dodge the East’s elite in the first round, they give themselves a shot to lock down a more fitting opponent and make it to the conference semifinals. If not, they’ll fight for their lives against a more talented club, and make things as difficult as possible on their way out.

Derrick White didn’t lose teeth, passes concussion test after nasty fall in USA loss

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There were plenty of ugly things for Team USA in its loss to Australia on Saturday — most of them on the defensive end — but later in the day on Saturday there was some good news.

It sounds like point guard Derrick White will be fine after his nasty fall and face plant during the game, reports Tom Osborne of the San Antonio Express-News.

In the middle of the fourth quarter, White was pushing the ball upcourt after an Australia miss and either got clipped from behind — there was a foul called — or stumbled over his own feet. I lean clipped, but the video is not conclusive.

White fell and faceplanted, with his head bouncing off the court. If he got away with just stitches, that’s good news for Team USA. If White had a concussion it is possible he would have missed the start of the World Cup, and the USA is not deep at the point guard spot on this roster (Kemba Walker and White are the only true point guards, a couple of players such as Marcus Smart can play a few minutes there but aren’t really suited to the position).

Team USA has one more exhibition game against Canada, then opens World Cup play on Sept. 1 in China against the Czech Republic.

Grizzlies officially waive Dwight Howard, first step on his path to Lakers

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Lakers fans are uncomfortable with it, but the Lakers did a good job hedging their bet with a non-guaranteed contract: Dwight Howard is coming to the Lakers.

That process started on Saturday with the Grizzlies officially waiving Howard.

In theory, any team could claim Howard off waivers. In practice, no team is picking up his full $5.6 million salary.

Howard gave back $2.6 million in his buyout with the Grizzlies, which is exactly how much his veteran minimum contract with the Lakers will pay him.

Howard and JaVale McGee will have to tag team to play all the minutes at the five the Lakers need. Anthony Davis is their best center (and it’s not close, he’s arguably the best center in the NBA) but he wants to play the four most of the game, so for 30 minutes a night the Lakers need another big body at the five.

Howard has the potential to fill that role. For three seasons, from 2015-16 to 2017-18, Howard averaged 13+ points and 12 rebounds a night, was a big body on defense, and played at least 71 games in averaging 30 minutes a night. Exactly the kind of player the Lakers could use. The problem was Howard was never happy those years just playing that defense/set-a-pick-and-roll/rebound role. He wanted more touches and particularly in the post, which led to disruptions as he pushed for a larger role. It’s why he bounced around. Then last season he played just nine games due to more back and hamstring issues.

Howard is saying all the right things about accepting that role, and he convinced the Lakers to a degree, but that non-guaranteed contract shows the Lakers go into this eyes wide open. If Howard is up to his old antics, the Lakers can cut bait and move on.

It’s among the many things to watch in what should be an entertaining Lakers’ training camp this year.

On Mamba Day (8/24), former Lakers’ trainer Gary Vitti talks about what made Kobe great

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Kobe Bryant’s work ethic is legend.

It takes talent to become an MVP, 15-time All-NBA, 18-time All-Star, and lock future Hall of Famer. However, it was how Kobe got the most out of his talent that separated him from his peers. Long-time Lakers trainer Gary Vitti retired a couple of years ago and will soon publish an autobiography, “32 Years of Titles and Tears from the Best Seat in the House: What I Learned about Happiness, Greatness, Leadership and the Evolution of Sports Science.”

Vitti joined Hall of Fame photographer Andrew D. Bernstein this week on an episode of Legends of Sport to discuss his upcoming book, and he talked about Kobe (hat tip to CNBC).

“He was talented, but what if I told you he wasn’t the most talented guy out there? I’m telling you, and I’ve had them all, there’s nothing really special about Kobe. I mean he’s a big guy, but he’s not that big. He was quick, but he’s not that quick. He’s fast, he wasn’t that fast. He was powerful, but he wasn’t that powerful. I mean, there were other players that had more talent than he did, so what was there about him that more talented players had zero rings and he ended up with five?…

“He was tough in the sense that he took ‘can’t’ and ‘won’t’ out of his lexicon and he just believed that he could do it. Kobe taught me that talent is the most overrated thing in life; it’s what you do with your talent.”

Nobody in NBA history did as much with the talent they had as Kobe.

On Mamba Day, enjoy his ultimate mixtape highlights above and remember what it took for Kobe to get there.

 

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander: ‘I am not Russell Westbrook. I’m just going to try to be myself.’

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Thunder fans are going to love Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

The Clippers did not want to give him up in the Paul George trade but had no real choice — Gilgeous-Alexander was a prize get for OKC. As a rookie last season he started 73 games, averaging 10.8 points and 3.3 assists per game for a 48-win playoff team. Playing the most difficult position to learn in the NBA. Gilgeous-Alexander grew as the season wore on and has a promising future.

But he is taking over for Russell Westbrook as the point guard for the Thunder, so the comparisons are inevitable. Even though they have radically different games. Gilgeous-Alexander handled the question well when asked, as reported by Erik Horne at The Oklahoman.

Gilgeous-Alexander smiled and said he could compete with Westbrook’s fashion sense. He also deflected any notion of pressure to live up to the legacy of the 2016-17 Most Valuable Player. “He set the bar pretty high,” Gilgeous-Alexander said…

“I am not Russell Westbrook,” Gilgeous-Alexander said with no malice. “I do not have the same name, same body type, stuff like that. So, I’m just going to try to be myself and be the best me and everything else will take care of itself.

“I’m just a basketball player. Regardless of the situation, I’m going to continue to work hard and play my game. I know that eventually it will come out. I don’t worry about starting. I’m not worried about accolades or things like that. I just work hard, keep my head down and (stay) true to who I am.”

That attitude is part of why Thunder fans will love him. Gilgeous-Alexander is confident but not cocky, and he knows his game.

That game is more traditional point guard, more game manager, than the dynamic and explosive Westbrook. Gilgeous-Alexander learned for a season under a smart, player-friendly coach in Doc Rivers, who built his point guard’s confidence up as the season wore on. Rivers showed the rookie how to be a professional, how to prepare, and most of all trusted Gilgeous-Alexander — and that trust included being matched up on Stephen Curry in a playoff series. Through it all, Gilgeous-Alexander showed real promise.

Whatever is next in Oklahoma City — and there is a lot of rebuilding to do with that roster, a lot of picks to be made still — Gilgeous-Alexander can help lead it. He will be at the heart of what is next for the Thunder.

Just don’t expect him to be Westbrook. There is only one of those.