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.”

Report: All-Star fourth quarter featured more than 15 minutes of gameplay

Leave a comment

One overlooked feature of the NBA’s new All-Star game format: It seemed designed to shorten the game.

Sure, the league wanted to add an interesting wrinkle to a game that had grown stale. The exact details were tweaked to honor Kobe Bryant.

But – in the era of load management – shaving a few minutes off the exhibition game should be taken as a feature, not a bug.

This year’s game ended when a team scored 24 more points than the leading team had entering the fourth quarter. The last time a team had scored 24 or fewer in All-Star quarter: 2010, when the East scored just 23 in the fourth quarter.  In the decade since – including the first three quarters Sunday – All-Star teams averaged 24 points every seven minutes.

But Sunday’s fourth quarter took a while longer than the standard 12 minutes for LeBron James‘ team to outscore Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s team, 33-22.

Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today:

Defenses really turned up in the fourth quarter. Here’s how the teams’ shooting percentages changed from the first three quarters to the fourth quarter:

  • 2-pointers: 73% to 46%
  • 3-pointers: 34% to 23%

More shots being contested also led to more fouls. After attempting just 13 free throws in the first three quarters, the teams took 26 free throws in the fourth quarter.

In The Basketball Tournament, which first introduced the Elam Ending, the target score is eight more points than the leading team has at the first whistle inside four minutes. By turning off the game clock later, there’s less room for variance in gameplay length.

I suspect the NBA would have also turned off the clock later if not using the target score to honor Bryant. Because Bryant wore No. 24 last, the league has generally used that – not his other number, No. 8 – in tributes, including the All-Star jerseys.

With All-Star MVP now named for Bryant – a perfectly fitting lasting tribute – the league can alter the ending format next year.

The concept is sound. The exact execution just needs tweaking.

Bulls’ starting point guard Kris Dunn may be out for season with knee injury

Mike Stobe/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Bulls starting point guard Kris Dunn missed the last four games before the All-Star break with a sprained knee.

He could miss a lot more — like the rest of the season.

From K.C. Johnson of NBC Sports Chicago:

But sources said there’s a growing belief that Dunn will miss the remainder of the season with the injury, which occurred when Thaddeus Young took a charge and inadvertently crashed into Dunn’s knee on the first possession of a Jan. 31 road game against the Nets. When Dunn suffered a similar injury last season, he missed 23 games…

“Dunn still has some swelling in that knee,” coach Jim Boylen said before the Bulls lost to the Wizards on Feb. 11 in Washington, their final game before the break. “Once his swelling goes down, he will get re-scanned and re-evaluated.  But he had a lot of swelling.”

That’s less than ideal for Dunn as he heads into restricted free agency. He has averaged 7.3 points and  3.6 rebounds per game, however, his most significant contribution has been quality defense for Chicago this season.

This is the latest in a string of injuries for the Bulls. Otto Porter has only played nine games due to a broken foot. Big men Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. are currently sidelined due to injuries, although Carter could return after the All-Star break and Markkanen by early next month. Now Dunn.

Rui Hachimura gets destroyed by kid in Pop-A-Shot-like game (video)

Wizards rookie Rui Hachimura
Jeff Haynes/NBAE via Getty Images
Leave a comment

Rui Hachimura got kicked so hard in the groin by a teammate, the Wizards rookie needed surgery.

That’s pretty awful. Yet, there’s still a new contender for the worst moment of Hachimura’s season.

At All-Star Weekend in Chicago for Rising Stars, Hachimura faced a kid in a Pop-A-Shot-like game. It didn’t go well for Hachimura.

Kristian Winfield of the New York Daily News:

An NBA player losing to a kid is bad enough. Twice, we’re entering troubling territory.

But claiming the game is cheating, demanding to switch sides and still getting routed?

That’s a ROUGH look.

Orlando Magic to build new practice/health facility

AP Photo/John Raoux
Leave a comment

Last week, before the NBA world headed off to Chicago for the 2020 NBA All-Star Weekend, the Orlando City Council voted to approve the sale of a plot of land to the Orlando Magic.

That land, located between the Amway Center (home of the Magic) and Exploria Stadium (home of Major League Soccer’s Orlando City Soccer Club) will become the site of the Magic’s new practice facility. The building will also house a community health center an orthopedic center. The Magic hope to have the facility ready in time for the 2021-22 NBA season.

When the Magic moved into the Amway Center in 2010, it was a state-of-the-art building. Not only is the Amway Center the home of the Magic for games, it’s the center of their entire basketball operation. The backside of the building is entirely dedicated to the Magic practice facility, including weight room, therapy and training space, and offices for the basketball staff.

The challenge with this setup is that there is little to no room to expand. For example, there is just one full court, as was seen during the Orlando Summer League, which ran from the building’s opening through 2017. In addition, there are two shorter courts, which run horizontally across the main court.

Magic CEO Alex Martins said the Magic and AdventHealth (who will run the community health center and orthopedic center) “will build a world-class practice and health facility”. Martins and Magic President of Basketball Operations, Jeff Weltman, have toured other facilities around the NBA to gain insights and ideas in what Orlando should be looking for in a new facility.

The new building is expected to include at least two full courts, and likely additional baskets for drills and shooting work. In addition, as NBA teams invest more in health and physical science, the new facility will have space for equipment related to those advances as well. That type of addition to a facility allows a team to keep all of it basketball training and medical rehabilitation all under one roof.

When Kevin Durant signed with the Brooklyn Nets, he commented that one reason was the Nets practice and training facility. Multiple players have commented that Brooklyn went all out when building the facility and regularly uses it as a recruitment tool in free agency. While facing a lengthy rehab from a torn Achilles’, Durant is able to work out and get treatment in the same building as his active teammates. In recent years, the Philadelphia 76ers, Indiana Pacers, Milwaukee Bucks, and others have upgraded their facilities.

NBA players desire simplicity when off the court. By keeping medical and practice facilities in the same building, it allows for them to go to one location. Where the Magic will build their new facility is right around the corner from the Amway Center, which allows players to commute to the same general vicinity as they do today.

The Orlando Magic already have some built in advantages when it comes to recruiting players. Central Florida has beautiful weather year-round, there is no state income tax, plus there are major players in the entertainment business and a growing technology sector in the Orlando area.

The Magic have used those benefits in the past to lure free agents like Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady. Adding a shiny new practice facility to the list, just as a banner crop of free agents hits the market, is something Orlando hopes can get it back in the superstar mix once again.