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Mike Budenholzer bolsters Bucks

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The Bucks had a superstar. They had another borderline All-Star. They had a solid supporting cast.

And now they have a workable vision.

Milwaukee made the biggest coaching upgrade of the year, going from Jason Kidd/interim Joe Prunty to Mike Budenholzer. Add a couple complementary signings, and the Bucks are coming together.

The Celtics, Raptors and 76ers are in the Eastern Conference’ post-LeBron James first class. Milwaukee fits into the next tier with the Pacers, but an ascension to the top tier appears more likely than a drop lower.

Giannis Antetokounmpo is elite. Khris Middleton is underrated. The rest of the rotation is solid throughout.

The goal must be ending a 17-year playoff-series-victory drought, the NBA’s longest going.

Budenholzer should help. The Bucks got him with the Raptors in hot pursuit, a coup for small-market Milwaukee. (An aside: Would Budenholzer have picked Toronto if he knew Kawhi Leonard would be there?) Budenholzer is not the NBA’s best coach, but he needn’t be.

Whatever innovation Kidd’s switching defense brought, opponents had mostly solved it. His offensive philosophy was dated. And he’d worn out relationships with his players.

Budenholzer had a strong record of player development with the Hawks. His defenses have been sound. And his offense is modern.

To that end, the Bucks signed stretch bigs Ersan Ilyasova and Brook Lopez.

Ilyasova was surprisingly expensive. Milwaukee guaranteed him $7 million each of the next two seasons, and he has an early guarantee date (two days after the 2020 draft) for his $7 million salary the following year. But he just knows how to play. Ilyasova is a good shooter and heady defender who takes advantage of his keen understanding of positioning with a willingness to take charges.

Lopez was a bargain on a one-year, $3,382,000 contract. He might start at center. At minimum, he’s more dependable than Thon Maker. Lopez has quickly become one of the NBA’s better 3-point-shooting centers, and he’s a solid interior defender.

Budenholzer knows how to effectively spread the floor using bigs like Ilyasova and Lopez. And Milwaukee already had good backcourt shooters in Tony Snell and Malcolm Brogdon. It’s downright scary how much space Antetokounmpo will have, whether it’s attacking one-on-one or in pick-and-rolls with Eric Bledsoe.

Landing Ilyasova and Lopez came at a cost, though. The Bucks let Jabari Parker walk, a historically quick exit for the former No. 2 pick.

The failure to get nothing for him can’t be pinned solely on this offseason. Matching the Bulls’ $20 million salary for him wouldn’t have necessarily been wise. Considering Milwaukee’s obvious unwillingness to pay the luxury tax, it was untenable.

But how did the Bucks not see this coming? Why didn’t they move Parker before the trade deadline? And why did they allow him to become an unrestricted free agent in the latter stages of his free agency?

Parker’s two-year deal with Chicago wouldn’t have been possible as an offer sheet, which is required for restricted free agents. The contract contains a team option, and offer sheets must be for at least two years not counting options. If Milwaukee kept Parker restricted – even without an intention to match – the Bulls would have been forced to sign him to a different contract, one not as favorable to them or Parker. Chicago probably would have just made the second year unguaranteed – a small, but noteworthy, difference. But the Bulls never had to make that choice, because the Bucks let Parker become unrestricted.

Chicago isn’t close to challenging the Bucks. But Antetokounmpo is just 23. The Bulls could definitely become competitive during Antetokounmpo’s prime, and Milwaukee – out of kindness to Parker or fealty to his agent, Mark Bartelstein – made it easier for them to build.

The Bucks also drafted Donte DiVincenzo with the No. 17 pick and signed Pat Connaughton for slightly more than the minimum. I don’t expect either to contribute much this year.

Antetokounmpo gives Milwaukee a wide-open window. Middleton and Bledsoe are headed toward unrestricted free agency next summer, and the 2019 offseason will go a long way in shaping this team long-term.

But the Bucks have a serious chance this year to have their best season in a long time, and that matters.

They were always due to take a step forward next season. Their moves this summer just push them along a little more.

Offseason grade: B-

Royce O’Neale agrees to four-year, $36 million contract extension to stay in Utah

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Royce O'Neale is a name casual NBA fans may not recognize.

However, GMs around the league recognize him is the kind of role player teams need to win. O’Neale is asked to guard the opposing team’s best wing player nightly, while on the other end of the court he’s shooting 44.3 percent from three. He’s become a critical part of Utah’s rotation.

So the Jazz have locked him up with a contract extension, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

The Jazz — who have won 16-of-18 — just got Mike Conley back in the rotation, and have jumped up to a top-four seed in the West (as of this writing). Things are looking up, and also they have set themselves up well financially for the future.

Bigger bills are coming in Utah, in the summer of 2021 the Jazz will need to max out Donovan Mitchell with an extension plus re-sign Rudy Gobert. Which is why locking in a quality role player like O’Neale at a fair price now is a smart move.

Marcus Smart’s Celtics record 11 threes still not enough to beat Suns

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BOSTON — Devin Booker had 39 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists and the Phoenix Suns overcame a franchise-record 11 3-pointers by Boston’s Marcus Smart and beat the Celtics 123-119 on Saturday night.

Smart shot 11 for 22 from 3-point range and finished with a career-best 37 points. His performance marked the first time in NBA history that a player made 11 or more 3-points in a losing effort, according to Stats.

Deandre Ayton had 26 points and 15 rebounds and Mikal Bridges added a career-best 26 points for the Suns, who have won four of their last five games.

Jayson Tatum scored 26 points and Gordon Hayward added 22 for Boston, which has lost three straight and six of eight.

Three years ago, Booker scored 70 points in a loss to the Celtics in TD Garden. He finished an assist shy of his first career triple-double.

The Celtics were missing two of their top three leading scorers – Kemba Walker (team-best 22.1 per game), out with left knee soreness, and Jaylen Brown (20.0), sidelined for the second straight game with a sprained right thumb.

Boston cut its deficit to 90-85 early in the fourth, but Dario Saric and Bridges answered with consecutive 3s. The Celtics had it down to 114-111 on Daniel Theis‘ breakaway dunk with about a minute left, but Bridges hit a jumper in the lane with 37 seconds to play.

Booker’s two free throws sealed it with 4.8 seconds left.

The Suns led 60-51 at halftime and answered – mainly behind Booker and Ayton – any surge by Boston. The lead never fell below seven in the quarter, with Booker scoring nine points and Ayton getting eight.

The loss of two key players showed for the Celtics in the first quarter when the Suns broke in front 26-10 before Boston’s bench helped spark a 15-0 run.

LeBron James gets ‘M-V-P’ chants in Houston

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Laker fans are everywhere.

Decades of stars and success — from Magic Johnson through Kobe Bryant — turned the Lakers into the biggest franchise brand in the NBA, the only thing that might rival it is LeBron James‘ brand. Combine those two and there seem to be loud, at points obnoxious, Lakers fans in every arena.

Case in point: LeBron James got “M-V-P” chants in Houston while the Lakers beat the Rockets.

LeBron called it humbling.

LeBron’s play this season — 25.5 points and a career-high 10.9 assists a game, playing his best defense in years and leading the Lakers to a West best 34-8 record — has him in the hunt for a fifth MVP award (although he’s not who we would vote for right now).

Expect to hear these chants in a lot more buildings this season.

Check out Stephen Curry the sideline reporter (VIDEO)

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Stephen Curry, the most overpaid sideline reporter in the NBA.”

That’s how Curry was introduced on the Warriors broadcast Saturday night as he took over some sideline reporting duties while still out after fracturing his hand four games into the season. What else has he got to do?

Above you can see the best of Curry’s reactions, or check out his walk-off interview with Eric Paschall:

I’d say he shouldn’t quit his day job, but that job also pays a little better.

By the way, the Warriors ended their losing streak with a 109-95 victory over Orlando. D'Angelo Russell led the way with 26 points.