51 Q: Will loss of veterans hurt Bucks?

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The Milwaukee Bucks’ one-year turnaround last season was remarkable and not at all expected. After winning a league-low 15 games in 2013-14, they finished sixth in the East last year and gave the Bulls, a popular preseason title pick, an actual series in the first round of the playoffs. This despite losing future franchise centerpiece Jabari Parker to a torn ACL in January and trading their best outside shooter (Brandon Knight) midseason for a point guard who can’t shoot whatsoever. It’s a testament to Jason Kidd’s growth as a head coach and his fit with this roster, and also to major developmental strides made by the likes of Khris Middleton, John Henson and Giannis Antetokounmpo, that the Bucks managed to go from laughingstock to respectable so quickly.

Most of the attention this summer has been on what the Bucks did right, re-signing Middleton to a below-market deal and signing Greg Monroe to shore up their offense up front. It’s tempting to make them a lock for another playoff run (and I’m inclined to do the same, honestly). But it’s not as much of a sure thing as it seems, in large part because of the loss of two veterans who were important rotation players last season. The Bucks gave away Jared Dudley to the Wizards, Zaza Pachulia to the Mavericks and Ersan Ilyasova to the Pistons, and they leave a void that might be harder to fill than anticipated.

Monroe is a massive upgrade over Pachulia on the offensive end, giving the Bucks a legitimate first option inside. Pachulia wasn’t much of a shot-blocker, but he was perfectly adept at doing the dirty work on defense and being in the right spots. With Monroe in the fold and Antetokounmpo and Parker expecting to see some time at power forward, the Bucks have depth and versatility up front. Maybe Henson makes another leap, or Miles Plumlee (who didn’t play much after coming over from Phoenix at the deadline) cracks the rotation. But Pachulia’s presence will be missed.

That goes double for Dudley, who rebounded from a disastrous year with the Clippers to become an important rotation player for the Bucks. He found his niche as a small-ball power forward and was one of Milwaukee’s most reliable outside shooters, hitting 38.5 percent of his threes. He’s exactly the kind of versatile defender the Bucks enter training camp needing, and they gave him away.

Ilyasova’s value is a little harder to pin down. He’s not the defender Pachulia and Dudley are, but he was a reliable outside shooter on a team with so little offense. His loss should be mitigated somewhat by the return of Parker, if he’s even close to full strength.

Overall, this Bucks team is an improved squad from the one that surprised last season, but calling them a contender in the east is premature. A lot has to go right for them to reach that level. A full recovery from Parker is a start. Carter-Williams becoming an even passable shooter is another thing. Monroe’s defensive deficiencies should be able to be masked by the Bucks’ other bigs, but without Pachulia’s steady presence, there’s a risk of some regression there. If the Bucks can maintain at least something close to what they were on defense last year, an improved offense should be enough to make them a surefire playoff team at the very least, with the potential to be even more if enough breaks right.

C.J.McCollum, Eric Gordon both withdraw from USA Basketball for World Cup

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First Anthony Davis. Then James Harden.

Now add C.J. McCollum and Eric Gordon to the list, as reported by Shams Charania of The Athletic and Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports.

Don’t be surprised if a couple of new players are added to the USA roster for training camp.

The loss of those four stars strips the Team USA of some international experience. As pointed out by John Schuhmann of NBA.com, now only four members invited to USA camp have played in the World Cup or Olympics: Harrison Barnes, Andre Drummond, Kevin Love, and Kyle Lowry — and Lowry just had thumb surgery and is questionable for the playing in China.

USA Basketball can still roll out this starting five:

Damian Lillard
Bradley Beal
Khris Middleton
Tobias Harris
Andre Drummond

Then off the bench have Kemba Walker, Donovan Mitchell, Kyle Lowry, Jayson Tatum, P.J. Tucker, Kevin Love, Brook Lopez.

That’s still enough talent, coached by Gregg Popovich, to win the World Cup. The USA remains the heavy favorites for a reason.

USA Basketball is scheduled to begin its pre-World Cup camp in Las Vegas Aug. 5, with an intrasquad exhibition game at the T-Mobile Arena on Aug. 9. Then the team heads to Southern California for more training followed by an exhibition against Spain on Aug. 16 at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif. Then the team heads overseas for the World Cup, which begins in China on Aug. 31.

James Harden reiterates it was ‘false talk’ he and Chris Paul were at odds

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The Houston Rockets — not in an anonymous way, but in a “we are putting our names on this, quote me” kind of way — have pushed back hard on the narrative that there was tension between Chris Paul and James Harden that led to the Rockets trading CP3 for Russell Westbrook this offseason. Rockets GM Daryl Morey has denied it, team leader P.J. Tucker called it fake news, and Paul himself has pushed back.

Harden has done that again, speaking at his camp on Saturday.

The counter-argument to this: Chris Paul is in Oklahoma City right now.

People will believe what they want to believe, but the Rockets guys have all gone on the record about this. Nothing leaked and anonymous.

From the Rockets’ perspective, they made a trade for Westbrook that is a roster upgrade. Houston has a dynamic duo that can compete with the Los Angeles teams and the other contenders around the league, and whatever questions fans and the media may have about the ultimate fit of Harden and Westbrook the talent level is not in question.

Do the Rockets make that trade if everything is great between Harden and Paul? Probably, if they saw CP3 as in decline and Westbrook as a talent upgrade (which they did). The Rockets can be a cold, business-like organization in terms of their pursuit of a title.

We will see next season if that calculation paid off. Whether or not Harden and CP3 got along.

Report: Kyle Korver reaches one-year deal to join Milwaukee Bucks

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The Bucks can never have enough shooting around a driving Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Enter Kyle Korver. The veteran sharpshooter will be headed to Milwaukee on a one-year contract, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

This is a quality pickup at the minimum (it is a veteran minimum contract). Korver averaged 8.6 points per game last season, taking 72 percent of his shots from beyond the arc and knocking down 39.7 percent of them. The man has gravity and pulls a defender because even at age 38 defenders cannot leave him. Shooting is a skill always in demand.

The Bucks will start Wesley Matthews at the two and have Sterling Brown behind him. They have Khris Middleton and Pat Connaughton at the three. Now they have some reliable veteran depth at those spots and a guy who can hit the big shot for them.

James Harden buys piece of MLS Houston Dynamo

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NBA players being minority owners in a soccer team is not new, LeBron James owns a small piece of Champions’ League winner Liverpool, for example.

James Harden is keeping it closer to home — he bought a share of the Dynamo, Houston’s MLS franchise.

“I’m very excited about the opportunity to join the ownership group of the Houston Dynamo and Houston Dash and proud to be a part of a club with tremendous history and a great future,” Harden said in a statement. “Houston is my home now, and I saw this as a way to invest in my city and expand my business interests at the same time. Soccer in general, and especially MLS, have exploded in this country throughout my lifetime. I’ve been a fan of the game for several years, and I know that Houston has a massive soccer fanbase, so it was an easy decision for me when this opportunity arose.”

Harden reportedly purchased a five percent stake in the team.

The Dynamo — a former MLS cup champion and a franchise that has consistently been strong — is primarily owned by Gabriel Brener, and it has boxing legend Oscar De La Hoya as one of its minority owners.

Harden has earned more than $141 million in NBA salary in his 10 NBA seasons and has four years left on the $228 million contract extension he signed with the team in 2017. In addition, he has a large shoe contract with Adidas and other endorsements.