NBA Season Preview: Milwaukee Bucks

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Last season: Abort the mission! New plan! New plan!

The Bucks slammed on the parking brake, wrenched the wheel and Tokyo Drifted in a new direction last season, abandoning the “all defense all the time” team built around Andrew Bogut and giving up on the fleeting hope Bogut will ever, ever be healthy. They swapped him to Golden State for Monta Ellis and Ekpe Udoh, getting a promising young big man with great advanced metrics and, you know, Monta Ellis.

The results were mixed. They almost made it into the playoffs before their wheels exploded and flew off into the Wisconsin countryside, and while their defense didn’t capitulate with Ellis, their offense continued to run into the gutter.

They limped their way out of a playoff spot and entered the offseason with a huge number of questions about their head coach, front office, and the direction of the franchise.

Key Departures: The Bucks kind of surprisingly traded Jon Leuer, after he’d had a pretty solid year. They also traded Shaun Livingston, who, again, was pretty good last year. They let Carlos Delfino go after hemming and hawing over his contract for three months.

Key Additions: When the Bucks drafted John Henson, it was largely a perplexing move. Another athletic big man with questionable post skills? Really? Really? That’s what you thought you should pull off the pile?

But then Summer League came and Henson showed off a better mid-range jumper than expected and a good ability to flow in the offense. He has great court awareness to go with all that athleticism and could see significant playing time.

They elected to trade for Samuel Dalembert, pushing Udoh, who honestly needs the minutes, to the bench and giving them approximately all of the big men, ever. They added Joel Przybilla just in case the other 1,700 of them fail out, and-re-signed Ersan Ilyasova for the offensive repertoire.

Doron Lamb was quietly a very good second round pickup.

Three keys to the Bucks season:
1) Solving the riddle wrapped in a puzzle disguised as a mystery covered in subterfuge that is Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings. The two are just too similar. Ball-dominant, low-playmaking, moderate-efficiency volume scorers who didn’t develop an immediate chemistry. Sometimes these things can work themselves out, but in a lot of cases, it’s evident from the start if it’s going to work. If this thing doesn’t get solved and start to work by January, it might be time to start thinking about another move in another direction. The two were -1.9 on the floor together last year, giving up 107.7 points per 100 possessions. That is not good. They can’t just raise the 105 offensive rating, they have to get the defense sorted out. The Bucks could be looking at a situation not dissimilar to what the Knicks face with Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony.

2) Get the young guys to make some noise. Ekpe Udoh and John Henson need to become the Milwuakee version of Gibson and Asik. Or maybe the more athletic version of that. Either way, they need to make an impact, because the Bucks can’t look at their long-term build as involving Sam Dalembert. Doron Lamb needs to add some value as a shooter. Tobias Harris needs to come up. They need some big jumps from the project guys.

3) Avoid the Skiles Effect. When Skiles takes over a team, there’s a clock that starts. It’s a countdown to when the team tunes him out. It’s happened in his previous stops, and it very well could happen again. If Skiles can manage to massage, not render, the best out of this team, they could very well be a playoff team. But if he loses them, the season, the roster, his job and John Hammond’s will likely be over in Milwaukee.

How it likely works out: I want to belive in Milwaukee. They deserve it, honestly, they do. They’ve had more than their fair share of bad luck and still haven’t been horrible over the past decade. We blame luck on a lot of the awful franchises, but the Bucks have somehow managed to deal with Michael Redd and Andrew Bogut’s injuries and still float within range of the last playoff spot.

And this team has talent. And it’s got a lot of good efficient things going for it. But it needs so many players to make such huge jumps and for Jennings-Ellis to magically solve itself. That simply may not be possible.

I loathe this, but it really looks like another 9th spot in the East year for the Bucks.

Prediction: 40-42. Is there any better representation of “almost… but not quite?”

Alex Abrines says Russell Westbrook stood by him through mental health issues

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Alex Abrines is a big fan of Russell Westbrook the person.

Westbrook takes some hits as a selfish teammate from some quarters of NBA fandom, but Abrines had to leave the Thunder due to personal, mental health issues and said Westbrook stood by him. This is from an interview with Basket en Movistar+, via Eurohoops.

“He’s a very nice guy. He helped me a lot especially in the first year. In most of our trips we did something together, watch a movie, have dinner. When I went through all this and did not travel with the team, he kept in touch. He asked me to meet him for dinner. He cared for the person beyond the player. He calmly told me what I should do noting that he would support me if I decided to leave.”

“Athletes are normal people, but are pressured above average. Medication helps, but at the end of the day you must seek professional aid, discuss with friends and family, move forward with their support” adds Abrines on his illness, “It is a different kind of pain. Physical pain is something you can see and feel. Mental pain can not be observed and can not be treated like an injured knee for example. If you don’t go through something similar, you can’t realize it. In the end of the day, money is not above everything. Until it happens, you don’t realize that you don’t give a shit about money.”

Abrines signed with FC Barcelona, but could not travel with the team to all its games last season. He’s still on his path to wellness, and hopefully he gets there.

We tend to think of professional athletes in two dimensions, focusing on how they entertain us or help our fantasy teams. However, as Abrines notes, they are ordinary people with families and challenges, including mental health issues. More and more players are willing to speak out about that, but having friends — not just teammates, but real supporters like Westbrook was here — is also a big help.

Andre Drummond focused on conditioning heading into contract season

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Andre Drummond can be a free agent next summer. That would mean walking away from a $28.8 million player option for that season, so he’s not going to do it unless he thinks he can land an even bigger payday (a max contract) or he decides he wants some security long term. Drummond has said he’s excited to be a free agent (then quickly tried to walk that back).

How Drummond plays this coming season will play a big role in what kind of offers he will get. What is Drummond doing to prepare for this contract year? Improving his conditioning, reports coach Dwane Casey to Pistons.com.

“One, his overall conditioning. He’s in the best shape since I’ve been around him, the year and a half that I’ve seen. His body is slim and trim, his body fat is down, he’s been in Vegas working with Coach Gerg (Tim Grgurich) and Sean Sweeney all summer religiously, two and three times a day. That in itself is going to pay great dividends. Watching him in pickup games, he’s running like a deer. His decision making, I think the 3-point shooting experiment, we kind of put that on hold in the second part of the year last year but still, catching the ball on pick and roll, making decisions, he’s doing a great job of that – a much better job than he did last year. That’s something he’s worked on this summer, making the right read, the right decision.”

This time of year, right before training camp, reports of players being in “the best shape of their life” is worth as much as tickets from the Fyre Festival. It’s good to hear this about Drummond, but we’ll want to see it before we believe it.

Can Drummond punish teams that go small against him? Can he find a way to get easy buckets in transition and space the floor a little more? Do that, with his rebounding, and he may get the payday he wants. But he’s going to have to show it all season long.

 

Report: Kawhi Leonard talked to Paul George — and PG asked for trade — before free agency opened

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This story is a perfect example of why small and middle-market owners were pissed off (to put it mildly) after this summer’s free agency. It’s why the league did an investigation. It’s why there are new rules, new talk of enforcement, and preaching a “culture of compliance” around tampering in the NBA.

None of that may have mattered in this case, either. The anti-tampering crackdown sounds good, but how much will it slow down how the real recruiting gets done: player-to-player? From Draymond Green texting Kevin Durant just after the Warriors 2016 Finals loss to this summer, it’s the game’s best players recruiting their peers that really bothers some teams.

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, on his latest podcast, talks about just that and uses Kawhi Leonard‘s recruitment of Paul George as an example — and in the process blows up Doc Rivers idea that Leonard made his choice in a meeting when presented with a list.

“The idea that Kawhi Leonard first introduced the idea of trading for Paul George in his meeting with the Clippers, from a list, we know that days before free agency started, well days before, Kawhi and Paul George were talking. Paul George’s agent went to Oklahoma City prior to the start of free agency and said Paul would like to be traded to the Clippers. He wants to play with Kawhi. But, at that point, Kawhi wasn’t allowed to be talking with the Clippers. They couldn’t officially have contact with him until after June 30, 6 p.m.

“But among small markets, the player-to-player [tampering] is the issue. As a GM said to me recently, the teams are often the last to know in these instances. The star player goes out and starts working a guy, then says ‘I want this guy.'”

If you don’t think that is true, think back to the Brooklyn Nets saying Kevin Durant chose them without there even being a pitch meeting. It may not have been a total shock to Brooklyn Durant was coming, but they were not in the loop on decision-making process (except via Nets point guard Spencer Dinwiddie, who was recruiting Irving).

The problem comes back to enforcement: How exactly is the league going to stop players who work out together in the summer, who go to dinner with each other, who may share agents (LeBron James and Anthony Davis, for example), from talking and recruiting each other? When Leonard spoke to George, he was about to be a free agent — he could talk to anyone he wanted. Leonard may have orchestrated all of this. How much the Clippers were in the loop is certainly up for debate, but this was Leonard’s power play.

Tampering may be less of an issue next summer with a soft free-agent class, but just wait for 2021 when potentially Kawhi and George, LeBron, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and more hit the market. Those players will be talking, the league will be hard-pressed to stop it, and it all could lead to impressive fireworks.

Klay Thompson: ‘That is the plan. I would love to be on the Olympic team.’

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Stephen Curry wants to go to Tokyo and play for Team USA next summer. So does Draymond Green.

How about three Warriors?

If Klay Thompson is healthy, he wants to play in the Olympics next summer he told Marcus Thompson II of The Athletic.

“I would love to play (for) Team USA,” Thompson said. “That is the plan. I would love to be on the Olympic team.”

The biggest question for Thompson’s candidacy will be health. He is expected to be out until at least after the All-Star break recovering from the ACL he tore during the Finals last season. He could miss all of next season. That said, if he is healthy he would be a perfect fit for the international game — he is a dangerous three-point shooter, can handle the ball when needed, and is an outstanding perimeter defender. Team USA could use guys like that.

It won’t just be the big-name Warriors players who will want to step up next summer.

After USA Basketball finished seventh at this summer’s World Cup in China — due mostly to numerous top players choosing not to play for their nation this summer — it was expected that a wave of elite players will sign up for the 2020 Tokyo Games.

Players are doing this less because revenge or re-establishing the USA’s basketball dominance — although expect that to be the narrative they pitch — and more about timing. FIBA, in its “infinite wisdom,” decided to move the World Cup from its usual spot, which would have been 2018, to 2019. Playing for USA Basketball is a 6-8 week summer commitment, and now the World Cup and Olympics are in back-to-back years. That left a lot of elite NBA players — and not just for Team USA — looking at the calendar and feeling they had to choose one or the other. And for American players, the Olympics will almost always win that fight.

USA Basketball president Jerry Colangelo said he is going to remember who was willing to make the sacrifice to come this summer when it comes time to choosing an Olympic team. That may happen with a couple of roster spots, but he’s not turning elite talent away, either.

And all three of those Warriors would be the kind of elite players Team USA will want in Tokyo. If Thompson is healthy enough to go, expect him to pack his bags for Tokyo.