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51 Questions: Will Giannis Antetokounmpo at point guard be as cool as we hope?

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We continue PBT’s 2016-17 NBA preview series, 51 Questions. Between now and the start of the NBA season we will tackle 51 questions we cannot wait to see answered during the upcoming NBA season. We will delve into one almost every day between now and the start of the season (we’re taking some weekends off). Today:

Will Giannis Antetokounmpo at point guard be as cool as we hope?

Yes.

Yes, he will be.

We will get into the details (like he’s a point forward), but there is an easy answer to this question because we’ve seen the results already — and they are impressive. In the final 20 games of the season (after Michael Carter-Williams went down injured and coach Jason Kidd went all in with Giannis Antetokounmpo at the point) he averaged 18.6 points, 7.8 rebounds, 7.2 assists, 1.9 blocks, and 1.4 steals per game. In that time he had a true shooting percentage of 57.2 (well above the league average), and he assisted on 32.4 percent of his teammate’s buckets when on the court.

And there were highlights. Check out his triple-double against the Rockets.

What you see in that game is what makes Antetokounmpo so dangerous and amazing as a point guard. Or point forward. Or as Kidd would say, a basketball player. He’s not a traditional point in that Antetokounmpo is not going to guard Chris Paul or Stephen Curry (except on the occasional switch), he is more like LeBron James (or peak Kobe Bryant) initiating the offense and being the primary playmaker, regardless of position.

What makes Antetokounmpo unfair as the guy with the ball in his hands is he’s 6’11” with a fantastic feel for the game — he can see over the top of most defenders and throw passes to cutters or guys open in the corner that other guards struggle to make.

Try to guard him with a smaller, quicker backcourt player (like the Rockets did in the video above with Ty Lawson) and the Bucks will just post Antetokounmpo up and let him go to work. Or he can overpower them in an isolation set from the wing. Use a bigger player, and Antetokounmpo has the handles and the long strides to blow by his defender and, if the rotation is late, just go the rim and finish. Antetokounmpo can’t shoot the three, but he has a respectable midrange game that is hard to take away. Expect to see a lot of tall wings (around 6’8”) be the defensive choice on him.

Where Antetokounmpo is most dangerous is transition — he can grab the rebound, lead the break, and either finish himself (knifing around a defender with an impressive Eurostep) or finding the open man. You could see the other Bucks adjusting by running to the arc or filling the lanes on the break — they knew if they ran they would be rewarded.

With Antetokounmpo at the point, but Bucks are going to be fun to watch — yes, this is going to be as cool as we think.

Will it mean wins and a return to the playoffs for the Bucks? That may be another question. Last March, with Antetokounmpo running the show, the Bucks were 6-9. Now their offense was about three points per 100 possessions better than it had been during the season, and their net rating said they should have been around a .500 team, but even with that the Antetokounmpo show was fun but not dominant.

The Bucks brought in Matthew Dellavedova this summer to be the new point guard, which should add some defense and feistiness to the backcourt. He can work well off the ball (the man played with LeBron, he knows how this point forward thing works).

Where the Bucks need to improve most is defense — that is the end of the court that got them to the playoffs two seasons ago and made them look so promising. Antetokounmpo is a big part of that — his freakish 7’3 wingspan lets him block shots and make steals that others could not get to. The Bucks need to lock down on that end, force turnovers, then use that to get Antetokounmpo the ball leading the break.

With Dellavedova at the one, Kris Middleton at the two, and Jabari Parker up front, and Antetokounmpo running the show, the Bucks have a solid lineup (especially once they figure out how to use, or trade, Greg Monroe). There is not a lot of depth, but this is a team that should be in the mix for one of the final few playoff slots in the East.

Of that group, they may just be the most fun to watch. Thanks to Antetokounmpo.

James Harden and Russell Westbrook forming unprecedented MVP backcourt

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By rejecting the Thunder’s sub-max contract-extension offer seven years ago, James Harden set two superstar careers in motion.

When last teammates, Russell Westbrook and Harden complemented each other fairly well. Westbrook was a young star, prone to wild play. Harden was a backup who provided steadiness. Both were very good. Neither was great. They leaned on each other.

Separated, both blossomed into Most Valuable Players.

Westbrook advanced through stardom then really took off when Kevin Durant left Oklahoma City. Westbrook became an all-around marvel, averaging a triple-double with excellent clutch play in 2016-17. He won MVP, edging Harden in the closest vote of the last dozen years.

After multiple runner-up finishes, Harden snagged the award the next year. He led the Rockets with one of the best offensive seasons in NBA history then topped himself last year.

Now, Harden and Westbrook reunite in Houston. Barring a sudden drop, they’ll become the first teammates in NBA history who are both in-their-prime former MVP guards. The pairing offers incredible upside – but plenty of potential pitfalls.

Harden and Westbrook will become just the fourth duo to play together within three years of already having won MVP, joining:

  • Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant (2017 Warriors)
  • Moses Malone and Julius Erving (1983 and 1984 76ers)
  • Bill Russell and Bob Cousy (1959 and 1960 Celtics)

Those other top-end twosomes had more positional balance. Curry is a guard, Durant a forward. Malone was a center, Erving a forward. Russell was a center, Cousy a guard.

Harden and Westbrook will be just the third set of former MVP guards ever to play together. The other two:

  • Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash (2013 and 2014 Lakers)
  • Oscar Robertson and Bob Cousy (1970 Cincinnati Royals)

By the time he got to Los Angeles, Nash was rapidly declining out of stardom. Bryant missed nearly all of their second season together due to injury. Nash was washed up by that point, anyway. After six years of retirement, Cousy – who was coaching the Royals – returned to play seven games mostly as a publicity stunt.

Harden, 29, is definitely still in his prime. Westbrook remained in his prime last season. Though there’s risk the 30-year-old reliant on his athleticism falls off quickly, Westbrook should remain pretty darn good next season.

That creates a tough question for the Rockets: How do they deploy both stars?

Star guards generally provide their value by handling the ball. That’s why super teams have rarely stocked up on multiple guards. The fit is especially tricky because both Harden and Westbrook are lead guards. Westbrook has spent his whole NBA career at point guard. Harden has become so good at point guard under Mike D’Antoni, there’s no going back now.

Harden is better than Westbrook. But Harden’s superior shooting also makes him a far better off-ball player than Westbrook. When Westbrook is away from the ball, defenses will sag off him and clog spacing.

Will the Rockets take the ball from their best player to give it to their second-best player? That doesn’t seem ideal.

Westbrook can attack scrambled defenses rotating back to him when he gets the ball from Harden. But closeouts won’t be coming hard at Westbrook.

One of the disappointing developments of Harden’s time with Chris Paul was Harden not developing his off-ball game. Harden just doesn’t seem into whizzing around screens, pressuring defenses without the ball.

Harden also hasn’t shown much pace in starting his moves in isolation. He often pounds the ball until the shot clock gets low, neutralizing his teammates. That was a problem when Harden played with Paul. It’ll be an even bigger issue with Westbrook.

Maybe Westbrook’s attacking style will spread to Harden. The duo could be dangerous if attacking quickly. But there are questions about whether an up-tempo system would wear down Harden before the end of a deep playoff run.

Harden and Westbrook can stagger their minutes as much as possible. That’ll allow each time to have the offense catered to him. But that will still leave significant time they must share the court.

And that’s only offensively. The defensive issues are far worse.

Harden is a lousy defender at everything other than guarding post-ups. Westbrook is sometimes active and often reckless defensively. His reliability on that end is low.

P.J. Tucker and Clint Capela can cover for some miscues in front of them. But that’s a big ask, especially with Eric Gordon playing in three-guard lineups.

D’Antoni has never looked especially interested in defense. It’s hard to see who will address the inevitable problems, if they’re even solvable.

But the Rockets get a major talent boost with Westbrook. He’s better and more durable than Paul. The upgrade is evident with the picks surrendered and extra year of salary absorbed by Houston.

That’s what the Rockets are betting on – MVP-level talent, no matter how it comes.

Report: After two-year, $21 million deal falls apart, Knicks signing Reggie Bullock for less than room exception

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Reggie Bullock agreed to a two-year, $21 million contract with the Knicks.

He’ll get far less.

A health issue became apparent before the original deal was finalized. So, New York used nearly all its remaining cap space on Marcus Morris, who got a one-year, $15 million contract.

That left only the $4,767,000 room exception available for Bullock.

And he won’t get even get all that.

Ian Begley of SNY:

Marc Berman of the New York Post:

That’s a tough turn for Bullock. Less than the room exception and a team option – man. I wonder how much more, if any, Bullock got than his minimum ($2,028,594).

But David Bauman sure sounds pleased with the process. If his agent isn’t slamming the Knicks, Bullock hopefully also feels treated fairly.

This significant drop in salary sure signals major health concerns.

Giannis Antetokounmpo has rough go of hitting baseball off tee with New York Yankees (video)

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NEW YORK (AP) In hoops, Giannis Antetokounmpo is court royalty. But in baseball, he’s a complete rookie.

In fact, the 24-year-old from Greece said he’d never even touched a baseball before he did so Monday night at Yankee Stadium.

The reigning NBA MVP was shocked.

“It was really heavy,” Antetokounmpo told The Associated Press. “I thought it would be lighter.”

The Milwaukee Bucks star went on to take a few swings in the batting cage beneath the stands before the Yankees faced the Tampa Bay Rays. The 6-foot-11 Antetokounmpo got some coaching, with limited results – he swung and missed once with the ball on a tee, and made light contact on two other tries.

“I would be a terrible baseball player,” he said.

The “Greek Freak” was in the Bronx with his three brothers to promote his new signature sneaker and signed a pair for a fan – Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia.

Antetokounmpo watched the Yankees take batting practice, which reinforced his notion that he wasn’t destined for the diamond.

“I saw Aaron Judge hitting the ball into the stands. That’s amazing. You’ve got to be really strong to do that,” he said.

More AP MLB: https://apnews.com/MLB and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

NBA 2K20 ratings released, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard earn 97s to lead way

NBA 2K20
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How do NBA players measure respect? There are a few ways, with the size of the paycheck being at the top of the list. Awards and accolades fit in there.

However, few things rile guys up like their NBA 2K rankings. Most play the game, and their ranking (out of 100) is seen as a measure of status among fellow players and fans.

2K Sports unveiled the top rankings for NBA 2K20 in a live-streamed show on Monday night, and LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard got the top honors. Here’s the top 20:

1. LeBron James 97
2. Kawhi Leonard 97
3. Giannis Antetokounmpo 96
4. Kevin Durant 96
5. James Harden 96
6. Stephen Curry 96
7. Anthony Davis 94
8. Paul George 93
9. Damian Lillard 92
10. Joel Embiid 91
11. Kyrie Irving 91
12. Nikola Jokic 90
13. Russell Westbrook 90
14. Klay Thompson 89
15. Karl-Anthony Towns 89
16. Jimmy Butler 88
17. Kemba Walker 88
18. Donovan Mitchell 88
19. Rudy Gobert 88
20. Blake Griffin 88

The highest-rated rookie: Of course it was Zion Williamson (81).

Anthony Davis is on the cover of NBA 2K20, which will be released on Sept. 6. Sorry, you’ve got to wait until then to play it, but here is an early teaser video.