Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Giannis Antetokounmpo going inside to lift Bucks higher

Leave a comment

DETROIT – Giannis Antetokounmpo expected to be a 3-and-D player when he came to the NBA. Though outside shooting is now known as his weakness, he attempted 28% of his shots from beyond the arc as a rookie.

Then, the Bucks hired Jason Kidd.

“Coach Kidd came and told me to not shoot,” Antetokounmpo said. “He did. He told me to not shoot. ‘If you shoot, I’ll take you out.'”

In his first season under Kidd, Antetokounmpo had his 3-point rate plummet under 6%. Forced to contribute other ways, Antetokounmpo started going inside more. The next year, he became a more involved passer. In his fourth season, he won Most Improved Player.

Now, Antetokounmpo is bursting out (again) with a game unlike anything we’ve ever seen.

Antetokounmpo is the poster child for futuristic position-less basketball. Basketball-Reference lists his position as “Shooting Guard and Power Forward and Point Guard and Small Forward.” The only traditional position missing: center.

Yet – despite being listed at 6-foot-11, 222 pounds – the slender Antetokounmpo is scoring inside like an old-school center. He’s averaging 19.6 points in the paint per game. Here’s the leaderboard for points in the paint since 1997 (as far back as NBA.com records go):

image

Antetokounmpo is a terror in transition – quick with long strides. He gets to the rim faster than Shaq ever did, but the Milwaukee star still spends more than his fair share of time bumping with behemoths inside. His footwork has advanced, and his length is a weapon for getting off shots from atypical angles.

“He goes and gets to his strength no matter what his opponent is trying to do,” Kidd said. “He understands what he has to do. And he’s been the one that has hit first.”

Antetokounmpo didn’t realize how physically taxing this style would be, but as usual, he’s listening to his coach.

“It’s hard,” Antetokounmpo said. “It gets harder every night, because every night, they bump you, they hit you. But that’s what I do. I’ve got to keep doing it.”

Burlier players Dwight Howard, Karl-Anthony Towns, Al Jefferson and Amar’e Stoudemire are the only others besides Shaq to record more than even 14 points per game in the paint over a full season. (LeBron James and Anthony Davis are also on pace this season).

Antetokounmpo separates himself with his passing ability. Double-team him, and he has the vision to swing the ball to an open teammate. The Bucks have become accustomed to making the next play – not just an open jumper, but a drive or pass – against a scrambled defense.

Now, they just traded for Eric Bledsoe, who should only help – both when Antetokounmpo plays and when he rests. Milwaukee plays at a 43-win pace with Antetokounmpo on the floor and an 8-win pace without him. If Bledsoe boosts that latter mark, it’d go a long way toward the Bucks (4-5) making the playoffs and Antetokounmpo winning MVP.

Antetokounmpo has put himself firmly in the conversation. His 31.0 points per game lead the league, and his 9.9 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.4 blocks are eye-popping. His combination of load (34.1% usage) and efficiency (64.3% true shooting) is unprecedented.

He might even be the MVP front-runner. If he maintains these incredible marks – not to be assumed, given we’re dealing with a small sample size early – he might just need the Bucks to win enough to claim the award.

Antetokounmpo is also in the running for another honor: Most Improved Player.

Even after winning last year, Antetokounmpo has vaulted his play to another level. Though his all-around game deserves plaudits, many postseason honors become one-dimensional – and Antetokounmpo has that dimension covered. His scoring average has increased by 8.1 (from 22.9 to 31.0), one of the biggest improvements in the league:

image

Most Improved Player winners have never placed higher than 12th in a future season (1990 winner Rony Seikaly in 1997 with a single vote). Though he’s a longshot to win with Kristaps Porzingis looking like the early favorite, Antetokounmpo has a chance to best Seikaly’s finish.

That’d be nice recognition for someone who has put in so much work to get stronger, smarter and more skilled. Though still thin, Antetokounmpo never could’ve handled playing in the paint so much as the beanpole who entered the NBA. His ability to read defenses has taken his passing ability from a nice tool to a feared weapon. He has also improved his free-throw and jump shooting, keeping defenses honest.

Yes, his hands are huge. Yes, his strides are unbelievably long. Yes, his natural fluidity is downright unfair.

But his nickname – Greek Freak – sells him short. Antetokounmpo earned this.

Of course, any implied slight, intentional or not, from his nickname doesn’t bother him. He shakes it off like a defender in the paint.

“A lot of it could be called freakish, the things I do on the court. I might take a dribble from the halfcourt and finish and stuff like that,” Antetokounmpo said. “But, at the end of the day, I know I’m a smart player.”

Warriors owner Joe Lacob: We won’t tank

Former Warriors forward Harrison Barnes
Jack Arent/NBAE via Getty Images
Leave a comment

The Warriors are an NBA-worst 12-43. Stephen Curry will eventually get healthy. Klay Thompson will eventually get healthy.

This is Golden State’s best opportunity to secure a prime draft pick.

Warriors owner Joe Lacob, via Mark Medina of USA Today:

By the way, we’ll try to win every game. I’m not really about, ‘Let’s lose every game so we can get the best pick.’ You try to do that, you’re messing with the basketball gods. So we don’t believe in that.

Former Warriors executive Travis Schlenk (now Hawks general manager) admitted to tanking in 2012. Golden State had to convey its first-round pick if it didn’t land in the top seven. So, the Warriors traded their consensus top player, Monta Ellis, for an injured Andrew Bogut. Golden State lost 17 of its last 20 games, kept its pick and drafted Harrison Barnes.

The basketball gods were so mad, the Warriors went to the playoffs the next seven seasons and won three championships and two other conference titles.

Of course, Golden State will tank, which I define as any decision made – at least in part – to improve draft position through losing.

Management won’t instruct players not to give full effort. But tanking will show up in numerous other ways. The Warriors will be cautious with Curry’s and Thompson’s returns. Young players will get more minutes. If necessary, Steve Kerr might “experiment” with odd lineups not conducive to winning. Players often see these approaches, realize where the team is headed and lose focus late in lost seasons. That leads to even more losing.

Don’t get mad at Golden State for tanking. Hate the system that rewards it.

Though feel free to send a little animosity toward the Warriors for acting holier than though while tanking like everyone else does in a similar position.

Report: Kyrie Irving likely to miss an ‘extended period’ after shoulder procedure

Kyrie Irving
Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images
Leave a comment

Kyrie Irving injured his shoulder earlier this season, opted against surgery, missed 26 games, returned, injured his knee then aggravated his shoulder.

It might be time for that shoulder surgery.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

I wouldn’t be surprised if this ends Irving’s season. The Nets are looking forward to pairing Irving and injured Kevin Durant next season.

This latest setback raises questions about Irving’s ability to stay healthy and productive. We shouldn’t assume Durant will ever return to his elite form, either. But at least Brooklyn has major upside with such talented players.

Even they don’t get an opportunity to take advantage this season, the Nets (25-28) will likely still make the playoffs. Spencer Dinwiddie will take charge at point guard, just as he did with Irving previously sidelined.

Brooklyn will visit Boston on March 3. Celtics fans were salty about Irving missing the Nets’ previous trip to Boston. I doubt that changes if Irving doesn’t face his former team in a couple weeks.

But Irving and Brooklyn are looking at the bigger picture after a significant injury like this.

Is Brandon Ingram worth a max contract? Will he get one?

Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Brandon Ingram has made the leap to become an All-Star player this season. His jumper has become a weapon — another success story for Pelicans’ assistant coach Fred Vinson — and his ability to get to the bucket was never in question. Now he’s averaging 24.9 points per game and is shooting 40 percent from three (up from 33 percent the first three years of his career).

Will that get him a max contract this summer? Does he deserve one?

It depends on who you ask. From Tim Bontemps of ESPN:

Most executives believe Ingram isn’t worth a max contract, which makes his future difficult to predict.

“I wonder if [Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin] will hardball [Ingram] and say, ‘Get an offer,'” one executive asked. “Where is he getting it from?”

Another exec went the other way, suggesting Griffin could offer Ingram a full max to ensure he couldn’t take a short-term deal elsewhere, cementing him as the No. 2 option alongside Zion Williamson.

“Securing the extra year and not allowing him to sign a two-plus-one with someone is worth it,” the executive said. “Is the few million less you might save really worth the extra year?”

There are a number of struggling teams in need of talent that could step in and try to poach Ingram with a two-year max offer this summer: The Hawks, Hornets, Knicks, and Pistons all have the cap space and a fit.

Whether they will make that offer — possibly tying their hands in the 2021 free agent market — remains to be seen. Ingram is an All-Star averaging an efficient 24.9 points per game this season, he has real value, but max contract value? I’ve had sources this season tell me they expect he’d get the max but he wasn’t quite on that level.

Do the Pelicans see him as a max player?

They didn’t last summer. After the trade from the Lakers (which sent Anthony Davis to L.A.), Ingram didn’t get a max contract extension offer from New Orleans and told NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman he would “absolutely not” have signed for less. The Pelicans were hesitant to extend Ingram because he was coming off a season-ending injury — blood clots in his arm — that could linger, plus how well would he pair with Zion Williamson. Ingram had no hard feelings about it.

“I understood everything that went on with the contract and everything, because they wanted to know if I was going to be extremely healthy, if something was going to come back,” Ingram told NBC Sports. “Once I figured out the reason why they didn’t want to do the extension, we didn’t go any further with it. I knew it was not going to be the number we wanted.”

Ingram has stayed healthy, and the Pelicans are +7.3 points per 100 possessions when Ingram and Williamson are on the court together (small sample size alert). Ingram has more value to the up-and-coming Pelicans than he does any team trying to sign him away, meaning the Pelicans likely match any offer.

The question remains, will that offer be a max? Ingram expects it to be, but the rest of the league is undecided.

Nikola Jokic says he dropped 20-25 pounds during this season

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Leave a comment

For November, Nikola Jokic averaged 15.8 points per game, with a below-league-average 51 true shooting percentage and hitting 23.6 percent from three.

In February, Jokic is averaging 27 points a game with a 66.3 true shooting percentage and is knocking down 35.3 percent of his shots from three.

The difference? He admitted he dropped 20-25 pounds during this season, thanks in large part to an improved diet. Look at what Jokic said to ESPN over the All-Star break.

“I think I didn’t shoot it that well in the first [part of the season], my shots were always off and short and I was a little bit overweight.”

He then went on to say he has dropped 20-25 pounds.

It was pretty obvious to observers that, despite playing for Serbia at the World Cup (where his team beat Team USA), he had shown up to Nuggets training camp heavy. Jokic is so skilled that even heavy he was a good player, but he was not the elite center the Nuggets need to be a threat.

He is back to being that Jokic now, looking like an All-NBA player who deserves some MVP ballot consideration — and the Nuggets need that version of him.

Denver comes out of the All-Star break as the two seed in the West, but only 3.5 games separate seeds 2-5. Denver has a tougher remaining schedule the rest of the way than any of the other teams in that mix, slip up a few games and the Nuggets could start the playoffs on the road.