Associated Press

Three questions the Milwaukee Bucks must answer this season

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The NBC/ProBasketballTalk season previews will ask the questions each of the 30 NBA teams must answer this season to make their season a success. We are looking at one team a day until the start of the season, and it begins with a look back at the team’s offseason moves.

Last season: 42-40, lost to Toronto in first round of playoffs

I know what you did last summer:
The Bucks mostly chilled on the beach last summer and did nothing. They let Michael Beasley go and waived Spencer Hawes. They brought in Gerald Green, Sterling Brown, and D.J. Wilson. Milwaukee basically returns with the same core roster as last season.

THREE QUESTIONS THE BUCKS MUST ANSWER:

1) Can Giannis Antetokounmpo make the leap from star to MVP level, transcendent talent? Last season the Greek Freak made the leap from nice player to star, maybe superstar level. He led the Bucks and had career highs in points (22.9), rebounds (8.8), assists (5.4), steals (1.6), and blocks (1.9). He got to the rim (dunking almost 200 times last season, some of them genuinely spectacular) and with that shot 52.1 percent overall. Combine that with him being a good “free safety” style of defender and you have a guy who deserved to be an All-Star and second team All-NBA.

The Bucks this season are banking on continuity and internal improvements to take the next step forward, and Antetokounmpo is at the top of the list.

Amazingly, there is so much room for Antetokounmpo to improve, and if he does he can live up to Kobe Bryant’s challenge to win MVP. The most discussed thing is his shooting, he hit just 27.2 percent from three last season and is not much better on long twos beyond 16 feet. This seems to be less a mechanics thing and more a confidence thing — Antetokounmpo knows he can almost always get to the rim and so he trusts that over his jumper. He needs to just fire away at times. Also, part of it is on Jason Kidd and the coaching staff, who coach a little bit of an old school system, and while the Bucks improved last season they were 24th in the league in threes attempted.

Beyond that, Antetokounmpo can be better reading the floor and making plays coming off the pick-and-roll, he can be better in post-ups, he can be better in isolation — he gets his buckets and assists by just taking what the defense gives him and then getting to the rim. He can start to force his will on the defense even more so, and when he does there is not much of a chance to stop him.

2) Can Thon Maker and Malcolm Brogdon take steps forward? As noted above, the Bucks did not make big moves last offseason, nor do they have the space to do it next offseason, this is a team looking for it’s core to improve to help them up the ladder. Having a healthy Kris Middleton all season as the glue guy on this team is huge and will help. So will getting Jabari Parker back from another ACL injury, but that will be late in the season (and he likely will take a bit to be his old self).

The two guys the Bucks really need to take a step forward are Thon Maker and Malcolm Brogdon. By the end of the playoff series against the Raptors last season both these guys were starting — and Milwaukee outscored Toronto when they were on the court together. Neither of these guys project to be future All-Stars, not even the Rookie of the Year Brogdon, but if both can be quality, consistent starters the Bucks will have something.

Maker, in particular, can be a real threat as a mobile 7-footer who can shoot the three (and reportedly he worked on his shot this off-season). He’s never going to be a strong, physical post player (the Bucks have Greg Monroe for that, and he’s solid in that role) but he can be a modern NBA big, he just needs to be more consistent as a playmaker and not just a shooter. The Bucks need more firepower and shot creation, especially with Jabari Parker out

3) Can the Bucks become a good defensive team? More than anything, this is the biggest question for Milwaukee if it is going to take a step forward. The Bucks were 19th in the NBA defensively last season, allowing 106.4 points per 100 possessions. For a team with a roster full of quality individual defenders, guys who are long and athletic, that is not good enough.

This is about Jason Kidd as the coach. He has his guys playing an aggressive, gambling system that opens up good shots for teams that can move the ball, particularly corner threes (and most teams want corner threes and have guys who can knock them down). The Bucks double just about everyone in the post, then they don’t get there fast enough in rotations. All of this played out against Toronto in the playoffs. In the first three games, the Raptors — who are isolation heavy with Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan — played a style that allowed the Bucks aggressive tendencies to work. But once the Raptors adjusted, moved the ball better out of doubles, the Bucks had no answers.

The Bucks should be aggressive — they should use that athleticism to create turnovers, but there needs to be a more disciplined, smarter underpinning that doesn’t leave the team exposed when the ball moves a little.

If the Bucks are top 10 in the NBA in defense — and they have the talent to do it — then they will take a step forward. If not, they will not, and Kidd will have questions to answer from a new front office (remember there seemed to be a movement against him from part of ownership last season, his job is not completely stable).

Phoenix Suns perfect 4-0 in bubble, growing, thinking playoffs

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — The last time Devin Booker walked off the court as a winner in four consecutive games, these were the opponents: Hampton, Cincinnati, West Virginia and Notre Dame.

That is, until now.

Booker and the Phoenix Suns – the team that came to the NBA restart at Walt Disney World with the worst record in the Western Conference and the second-worst record of the 22 teams in the field – are perhaps the best story of the bubble.

They’re 4-0 at Disney, breathing real life into playoff hopes that basically were nonexistent when the season was suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic on March 11. It’s the team’s first four-game winning streak since December 2018; Booker missed one of those games, so it’s his first run of four wins in a row since helping Kentucky make its Final Four run in 2015.

“It definitely feels like a tournament, a big AAU tournament, the March Madness tournament,” Phoenix’s Cameron Payne said Friday. “That’s something I never even got a chance to be in, but hey, I’ll take this.”

The Suns started their bubble run with a win over Washington and followed that with victories against three playoff-bound teams – first Dallas, then the Los Angeles Clippers (both of those games being 117-115 finals, the win over the Clippers sealed by a Booker buzzer-beater) and next a 114-99 victory Thursday over Indiana.

A team that had a stretch of four wins in 20 games during November and December, then a run of four wins in 15 games during January and February, got to the bubble and are now 4-for-4.

The Suns are riding a 10-year playoff drought, the second-longest current one in the NBA, but now they’re thinking big and for good reason.

“Well, you know, this is in the fledgling stages, for sure,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “We’ve got a lot more work to do. And there’s a process that we’ve kind of gotten ourselves involved in and we’re going to stick to that. So, fun? I don’t have time to have fun right now. It’s always good to win, but I’m working right now. And I want guys to understand, it’s fun when you win – but then you’ve got to turn the page and get right back to work.”

Williams understands the reality for the Suns right now. They entered Friday 1-1/2 games out of ninth place and the play-in series that will decide the last postseason berth in the West. And while the 4-0 start has been noteworthy, even an 8-0 mark in the seeding games wouldn’t guarantee the Suns a trip to that play-in round.

The Suns play Miami on Saturday, then finish the regular season against Oklahoma City, Philadelphia and Dallas.

“I’ve been in five years now and haven’t had that much success,” Booker said. “But, you know, I’m working hard every day to turn that narrative and change that narrative. We have a good bunch in here to do it. A lot of young players mixed with some veteran presence and it’s a good look for us. So, we’re going to keep our head down, keep working.

“I don’t think anybody here is worried about 4-0. We still have plans and goals for this team to reach and 4-0 wasn’t it.”

Booker is averaging 28 points in the four games. Deandre Ayton, another big piece of the young Suns’ core, is averaging 18.3 points and 9.3 rebounds. There are six players averaging double figures in all, including Payne, who is shooting 53% from 3-point range in his first four games with the Suns.

“We definitely feel good,” Payne said. “We’re not here for no reason.”

 

Rumor: Indiana coach Nate McMillan is on hot seat

Indiana coach hot seat
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Last season, Indiana’s Nate McMillan finished fourth in Coach of the Year voting, taking a team that lost star Victor Oladipo after just 36 games and still got them into the playoffs. McMillan is going to get COY votes again this year for much the same reason — his teams play good defense and overachieve.

Indiana coach Nate McMillan is also on the hot seat.

It’s surprising, and it’s just a rumor, but ESPN’s Jeff Van Gundy and Zach Lowe had this conversation on a recent episode of The Lowe Post podcast (hat tip PacersTalk.net).

Van Gundy: “I had two people come up to me since I’ve been here [in the NBA restart bubble] and say, ‘Nate McMillan’s in trouble.’”

Lowe: “It’s been the hottest rumor all season… What you’ve heard in Orlando’s been going around all season…

“Let me be clear: It’s just a rumor. I don’t know if it’s true. When you talk to people around the Pacers, they say, ‘It’s not true’ or ‘Where you’d hear that from?’”

Maybe management wants a more modern offense, the Pacers are bottom eight in both three pointers attempted and pace. Overall, Indiana’s offense is middle of the pack (18th in the league), which is not bad considering it was without Oladipo for most of the season (and he was playing his way into shape when he returned and was not at an All-NBA level).

It’s hard to imagine that the Pacers would make a change this offseason, which will be short and give a new coach less time to ramp up a program. Plus, does owner Herb Simon want to pay two coaches? The finances of the league are helping other coaches keep their jobs.

More than all that, McMillan doesn’t deserve to be fired.

Not that “deserved” has had much to do with NBA coaches keeping their jobs in the past.

 

Report: NBA players bypassing ‘snitch’ hotline to call Adam Silver directly

NBA commissioner Adam Silver
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No NBA players have been diagnosed with coronavirus in the bubble. And they want to keep it that way. A championship and a lot of money are on the line.

That means preventing players from having close contact with anyone outside the bubble. And, in case someone contracts coronavirus, wearing masks (intact masks) to prevent a wider outbreak.

The NBA set up a hotline – quickly dubbed the “snitch” hotline – for players to report violations.

Chris Haynes of TNT:

Players have been circumventing that process. Sources informed me that multiple players are personally calling commissioner Adam Silver to issue their complaints with things they’re seeing in the bubble.

Adam Silver is accessible to players – particularly the president of the union.

I’m not sure about tattling straight to the top boss when there are other protocols in place. Are hotline calls not resulting in changed behavior?

Either way, it’s important for the NBA to keep players safe – both for their health and the league’s revenue (about half of which goes to players in salary). So, cut Chris Paul anyone calling Silver a break. They’re at least trying to help. And so far, violations inside the bubble have led to reminders, not harsher discipline.

Zion Williamson sitting out Pelicans-Wizards (rest)

Pelicans big Zion Williamson
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The Pelicans have been one of the NBA’s most disappointing teams in the bubble. New Orleans has gone 1-3 at Disney World and fallen to 13th in the Western Conference.

Still (barely) hanging in the race to make the play-in, the Pelicans must face the Wizards without Zion Williamson.

Pelicans:

The Pelicans are treating Williamson carefully – and they should. He’s their 20-year-old franchise player with major health concerns.

But New Orleans still has its highest ceiling now with Williamson on the floor. He’s an offensive force. His interior scoring and gravity create efficient looks for himself and teammates.

Williamson has been woeful defensively, and the Pelicans have bigs – Derrick Favors and Jaxson Hayes – to take Williamson’s minutes. New Orleans can go small, too.

The Pelicans should still beat Washington, even without Williamson. Ideally, this will have Williamson ready for a closing stretch against the Spurs, Kings and Magic without sacrificing today’s game.

Yet, this is really just proof New Orleans isn’t as ready to launch as it appears during Williamson’s most exciting moments. His availability remains murky. His team has run hot and cold. I wouldn’t assume a win over the Wizards – though it’s a game the Pelicans need to preserve their fading playoff hopes.