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

Rumor: Suns, Magic have inquired about Knicks’ Frank Ntilikina

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Where do the Knicks stand on Frank Ntilikina, the No. 8 overall pick in the 2017 NBA draft (taken ahead of Dennis Smith Jr. Zach Collins, and Donovan Mitchell)?

This should tell you all you need to know: The Denver Nuggets decided to cast Emmanuel Mudiay aside and the Knicks traded for him and instantly Mudiay jumped Ntilikina on the depth chart.

Ntilikina has played good defense but unimpressive offense for the Knicks this season and there is a thought from other teams around the league they may try to trade the young European.

A few teams are interested, according to Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News, but — shocker! — there may be a split in the front office about what to do between president Steve Mills and GM Scott Perry.

Despite the Knicks’ clear lack of confidence in Ntilikina, teams have inquired about the 20-year-old, with the Magic and Suns expressing interest, according to a source. And this is where it gets interesting. There seems to be a debate within the Knicks on whether to deal Ntilikina. He was drafted by Mills and has supporters in the front office. But, according to a source with knowledge of the situation, Perry, who took the job after Ntilikina was drafted, recently approached the Atlanta Hawks to gauge whether the team was interested in dealing for the guard (Hawks have Trae Young and weren’t interested).

The Suns and Magic both desperately need point guards. However, neither are offering much in trades knowing that come free agency next July there will be better, more established targets — D'Angelo Russell, Terry Rozier, among others.

Ntilikina is a good perimeter defender whose skills could be developed in the right situation into a rotation point guard. Probably. But because the offers will be lowball, the Knicks would essentially just be dumping the No. 8 pick of a season ago, a guy who is only 20 years old. That would be a mistake — if the Knicks can’t get decent value back, keep Ntilikina and try to develop him themselves. Point guards take longer to come around in the NBA, maybe Ntilikina will develop into a player the Knicks want to keep.

But the rumors are out there and it’s something to keep an eye on.

Markelle Fultz returns to Philadelphia to do shoulder rehab with team

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Markelle Fultz is back with the 76ers.

Not in uniform for games, but he is back from Los Angeles and in Philadelphia working out with the team to recover from thoracic outlet syndrome, according to multiple reports. Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN broke the story, then Noah Levick of NBC Sports Philadelphia confirmed it.

Fultz was in the arena for the Sixers game Saturday against the Thunder on national television (though not suited up to play).

There is no timetable for Fultz’s return, although his agent has said he expects Fultz to be back on the court this season. Whether that would be with the Sixers is another question, teams have called about the availability of the No. 1 pick from the 2017 NBA Draft, but the offers have been so lowball that none of them have been seriously considered by Philadelphia.

After consulting with a number of specialists just a few weeks into the season (and just after the Jimmy Butler trade), the 20-year-old Fultz was diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome, a pinching of the nerve through the collarbone area. Since December he has been in Los Angeles is doing physical therapy to relieve the issue.

Fultz has returned to Philadelphia and is continuing that therapy.

 

Report: Rockets trying to trade Carmelo Anthony, likely to waive Nunnally to create roster spot

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To bring in some front line depth in the form of Kenneth Faried Monday, the Houston Rockets first have to clear a roster spot.

That led to a lot of speculation it could be Carmelo Anthony who is let go, he remains on the roster but not with the team, in a kind of limbo while the Rockets and ‘Melo’s agent look for a landing spot. (He reportedly has several options and will choose one before the trade deadline, but if he really liked any of those options he would have already taken them rather than waiting for a better offer.)

The Rockets are “aggressively” trying to trade Anthony and find him a new home before Monday, Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reported. However, James Nunnally is the most likely guy out, he was just signed to a 10-day contract.

If the Rockets haven’t waived ‘Melo yet, they’re not going to do it now.

Houston GM Daryl Morey is also working the phone lines to find wing depth to add to the Rockets’ roster. While James Harden‘s historic streak has carried the Rockets back into the playoff picture in the West, this is not the same Houston team that was a threat to the Warriors a season ago. Morey’s off-season gambles — including Anthony — have not panned out, and he is now trying to correct them.

Pelicans’ Anthony Davis out 1-2 weeks with sprained finger

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This is bad.

The New Orleans Pelicans are 21-25 and four games back of the eight seed in the West having lost 3-of-4 on the current road trip. When Anthony Davis is not on the court, the Pelicans get outscored by 4.2 points per 100 possessions.

Davis is not going to be on the court for a week or two due to a sprained finger, the team announced Saturday morning.

Looking ahead at the schedule, Davis is likely to miss between three and seven games.

Davis has played at an MVP level this season, averaging 29.3 points per game on 50.8 percent shooting, plus grabs 13.3 rebounds and dishes out 4.4 assists a night. And that’s just on offense, defensively he is one of the best rim protecting bigs in the league, averaging 2.6 blocks per game. Davis leads the NBA in win shares (8.3) and PER at 30.9. He has been an absolute beast all season long.

Yet he hasn’t been able to lead the Pelicans to a winning record because of the roster around him (and injuries that have sapped what little depth New Orleans had to begin with).

Because of that, the intensely competitive Davis — who has talked about legacy mattering more to him than money — is expected to turn down a $239 million contract extension from the Pelicans next summer. At that point New Orleans will have to consider trading him and 29 teams will be lined up to talk deal (the Celtics and Lakers are expected to be at the front of that line).