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.

Kevin Durant reverses course on championship: ‘Every day I woke up, I just felt so good about myself, so good about life’

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Following his first NBA title, Kevin Durant said, “After winning that championship (last season), I learned that much hadn’t changed. I thought it would fill a certain [void]. It didn’t.”

How does Durant now reflect on that time with the Warriors?

Durant, via J.R. Moehringer of the Wall Street Journal:

“It’s very rare in our lives when we envision and picture something and it comes together the perfect way you envision it. [Winning a title] was the only time in my life that happened, and that summer was the most exhilarating time. Every day I woke up I just felt so good about myself, so good about life.… That was a defining moment in my life—not just my basketball life.”

It’s difficult to reconcile those two quotes. I’d love to hear Durant eventually explain.

I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t relish the championship aftermath as much he initially expected but, looking back, now realizes how much he actually enjoyed it. The end of his time with Golden State wasn’t totally pleasant. That might have provided perspective on the better times. Or maybe the difference is simply his mood on the day of each interview.

Durant is continuing to try to find himself while in the public eye. That isn’t easy, and it’ll lead to contradictions like this along the way. I appreciate his openness, even when he’s still difficult to understand.

Jerry Colangelo: Team USA would’ve won FIBA World Cup if not for injuries

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Team USA finished seventh in the 2019 FIBA World Cup – the Americans’ worst-ever finish in a major tournament.

Why did the U.S. fare so poorly?

USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo had sharp words for the many stars who withdrew. But that’s not his only explanation.

Kyle Kuzma suffered an ankle injury that kept him off the roster. Jayson Tatum missed the final six games with his own ankle injury. Marcus Smart was banged up and missed time throughout the event.

Colangelo, via Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated:

“I believe that if we didn’t have those injuries, we would have won,” said Colangelo. “The injuries were just too much to absorb.”

Maybe.

Those players – especially Tatum and Smart, who occupied a roster spots – would’ve helped. But even with those two, the Americans were vulnerable. Australia beat them in an exhibition, and Turkey nearly upset them in the first round. France and Serbia clearly outplayed them in the knockout phase. Team USA just lacked its usual talent.

Perhaps more top Americans will play in the 2020 Olympics. That will make the biggest difference.

If USA Basketball had attracted more stars for the World Cup, it likely could’ve withstood a few injuries. This roster allowed little margin for error.

Jarrett Culver enlivens Timberwolves’ otherwise-quiet offseason

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NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

The Timberwolves are the only team with two max-salary players under age 29. Heck, they’re the only team with two max-salary players under age 25.

But Minnesota isn’t set.

Far from it.

Though Karl-Anthony Towns (23) is already a star and sometimes looks like a budding superstar, Andrew Wiggins (24) has stagnated on his max extension. Add expensive contracts for Jeff Teague and Gorgui Dieng, and the Timberwolves have limited cap flexibility. With veterans too good to allow deep tanking, Minnesota also has limited means to upgrade through the draft.

New Timberwolves president Gersson Rosas was likely always bound to limit his impact this summer. Minnesota faced few clear pressing decisions. Any big moves would start the clock toward Rosas getting evaluated on his prestigious job. In one of his main decisions, Rosas retained head coach Ryan Saunders, an ownership favorite.

Yet, in this environment, Rosas still found a simple way to add a potential long-term difference maker.

The Timberwolves entered the draft with the No. 11 pick – right after a near-consensus top 10 would’ve been off the board. They left the draft with No. 6 pick Jarrett Culver.

All it took to trade up with the Suns was Dario Saric, who would’ve helped Minnesota this season but probably not enough to achieve meaningful success. He’ll become a free agent next summer and is in line for a raise the Timberwolves might not wanted to give.

Culver is not a lock to flourish in the NBA. But Minnesota had no business adding a prospect with so much potential. This was a coup.

Otherwise, the Timberwolves remained predictably quiet, tinkering on the fringe of the rotation. They added Jake Layman (three years, $11,283,255) in a sign-and-trade with the Trail Blazers. They took Shabazz Napier and Treveon Graham off the hands of the hard-capped Warriors, getting cash for their trouble. They signed Noah Vonleh (one year, $2 million) and Jordan Bell (one year, minimum). They claimed Tyrone Wallace off waivers.

With their own free agents getting bigger offers, Minnesota didn’t match Tyus Jones‘ offer sheet with the Grizzlies (three years, $26,451,429) and watched Derrick Rose walk to the Pistons (two years, $15 million). For where the Timberwolves are, the far-cheaper Napier should handle backup point guard just fine.

Minnesota is methodically gaining flexibility. Teague’s contract expires next summer, Dieng’s the summer after that. The big question is how to handle Wiggins, but that will wait.

With Towns locked in the next five years, Rosas has plenty of runway before he must take off. Nabbing Culver was a heck of a way to accelerate from the gate.

Offseason grade: B-

Report: Iman Shumpert rejects offer from Rockets, who’ll have several familiar names in minicamp

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Iman Shumpert is the best free agent available.

Why hasn’t he signed yet? Apparently because he spent the offseason negotiating with the Rockets, but those talks haven’t produced a deal.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Kelly Iko of The Athletic:

Alykhan Bijani of The Athletic:

I wonder whether Houston tried to sign Shumpert to a contract similar to Nene’s, creating another trade chip. The Rockets are close to the luxury tax and probably wouldn’t guarantee Shumpert much. It doesn’t take months to negotiate a simple minimum contract.

Shumpert (29) is a credible wing in a league starving for them. He played well for the Kings last season before getting traded to Houston, where he struggled. Other teams should be interested.

The Rockets have just nine players with guaranteed salaries. There’s plenty of room for some of these past-their-prime veterans to make the regular-season roster. It might mostly depend on which of Terrence Jones (27), Nick Young (34), Luc Mbah a Moute (33), Corey Brewer (33), Raymond Felton (35) and Thabo Sefolosha (35) are in the best shape at this stage.