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.

At least one team is off Khris Middleton’s free agency list already (VIDEO)

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Milwaukee Bucks star Khris Middleton has a player option next season that allows him to become a free agent this summer. Milwaukee, currently the best team in the Eastern Conference, would no doubt like to keep one of their top players.

But several suitors will come calling for Middleton, who would like to secure his long-term future at age 27. The Bucks will have some serious thinking to do, especially because their cap situation gets a little less fluid if bidding gets high on Middleton. How much do they really want to go near the luxury tax to keep him around?

In any case, Middleton is starting to gather a list of places he wants to play next year. That’ll include Milwaukee, but Middleton will listen to offers from other suitors. The way teams have paid to add second or third stars to their roster, the Bucks guard could get expensive.

One place Middleton isn’t looking to go? The Cleveland Cavaliers.

Speaking with Kristine Leahy, Middleton said that he wasn’t likely looking at Northeast Ohio this summer.

Then again, whether Middleton returns to Milwaukee is a real question. The Bucks have some cap space to spare, but need to decide what to do with Eric Bledsoe and Nikola Mirotic. They also have just $1 million guaranteed to George Hill, so flexibility is there if they want it.

At this moment, Milwaukee’s ownership appears positioned to try and come in a bit low on Middleton. In a feature published by Zach Lowe on Thursday, owner Marc Lasry said that it’s unlikely Middleton gives the Bucks a discount to stay.

The Bucks know they might have to pay $30 million per season to keep Middleton. “Does he love Milwaukee enough to re-sign?” Lasry asks. “Yes. Enough to give us a real discount? No.”

Milwaukee is a popular choice to make it out of the Eastern Conference right now, which is interesting in and of itself. But things could get even more curious come summer.

Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday will play reduced minutes rest of season

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The Anthony Davis Saga with the New Orleans Pelicans has been one of the oddest, most missed managed trade request in recent NBA history. And that’s including whatever happened with Kawhi Leonard last season with the San Antonio Spurs.

Davis made himself one of the focal points of NBA All-Star Weekend in Charlotte after leaving at halftime of the final Pelicans game before the break. Davis has issued several statements since then, including a bit of a meltdown at Saturday practice availability in North Carolina.

Of course it’s just a matter of time before Davis plays for another team, but we will have to wait until summer for that to happen. In the meantime, both sides are at sort of an impasse with Davis clearly not wanting to play in New Orleans anymore. The Pelicans, naturally, don’t want their asset to become injured and therefore reduced in value.

But Davis is going to play, and according to the team and interim general manager Danny Ferry, both Davis and Jrue Holiday‘s minutes will be reduced from here on out.

Via Twitter:

This makes sense sort of no matter what. New Orleans is no longer a playoff bubble team, and so a reduction in minutes for their top stars this season makes sense anyway.

Hopefully we don’t have to hear much about this moving forward. If we can get through the rest of the year without dealing with more weird Anthony Davis talk, I think we will be better for it.

Meanwhile, let the Boston Celtics and New York Knicks try to gather up their best offers to snake him away from the Los Angeles Lakers. No doubt something crazy will happen this summer with Davis just given how it’s already gone so far.

Paul George says he talked to Nike about his shoes after Zion Williamson injury (VIDEO)

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The basketball community lost its collective mind on Wednesday night when Duke Blue Devils star Zion Williamson was injured after blowing out a pair of Nike basketball shoes in a rivalry game against the University of North Carolina.

Williamson’s injury was such that shares of Nike actually fell come Thursday. Meanwhile, the debate about whether Williamson should continue to play for free in the NCAA raged on all day.

Of course Williamson was wearing Paul George‘s signature shoe when he experienced the blowout, which apparently prompted the Oklahoma City Thunder star to contact Nike about it.

Via Twitter:

George’s shoes are very popular across basketball, and he told reporters that this had never happened to his knowledge.

I do wonder if players will be more reticent to wear one of the more popular shoes in the NBA. Then again, Williamson is a freak of nature in of himself so it’s not likely that the forces created by his power would be exerted by a normal player in the league.

Zion Williamson’s sprained knee became bad day for Nike

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When presumptive No. 1 pick Zion Williamson went to the ground, his knee twisting, early in Duke’s game against North Carolina Wednesday night, the basketball world collectively gasped.

Former President Barack Obama was there and quickly recognized the problem:

It did, unquestionably. The  6-foot-7, 284 pound Williamson was wearing the  PG 2.5 PEs (the Paul George signature line of Nikes), and when he made a hard cut the shoe gave out and Williamson went to the ground in a heap. The television cameras closed in on the busted Nike.

That’s not good press.

Fortunately, Williams suffered only a mild, Grade 1 knee sprain, and is day-to-day.

Nike released a statement to multiple media outlets that said, “We are obviously concerned and want to wish Zion a speedy recovery. The quality and performance of our products are of utmost importance. While this is an isolated occurrence, we are working to identify the issue.”

Nike stock dropped one percent on Thursday, although that level of fluctuation is not serious.

Bottom line, if this remains an isolated incident, Nike’s reputation — and position as the dominant force in basketball shoes — is not in danger. Fans and players will forgive one random incident. Have it happen again to a high-profile player and… Nike doesn’t want to find out.