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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 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-

David Griffin on possibility of keeping Anthony Davis: ‘We can be Oklahoma City with Paul George’

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New Pelicans lead executive David Griffin wants to sell Anthony Davis on staying in new Orleans.

Even with the Pelicans landing the No. 1 pick and ability to draft Zion Williamson, Davis reportedly still wants to be traded.

But New Orleans doesn’t have to acquiesce. No matter what Davis wants, he’s still under contract next season. The Pelicans can keep him and spend the season trying to convince him to re-sign in the summer of 2020.

Griffin, via Zach Lowe of ESPN:

“We can be Oklahoma City with Paul George,” he said. “We can hold onto [Davis] and let him see what we really are. [Winning the lottery] changes how quickly he can buy into it. It gets us closer. Every day, maybe he believes a little more. As much as elite talent likes to play with elite talent, I can’t imagine any elite player in his prime looking at our situation and saying to himself, ‘There’s a better grouping to play for’ than ours.”

George had his eyes on the Lakers when the Thunder traded for him in 2017. But he enjoyed his time in Oklahoma City and re-signed.

The big difference between George and Davis: Davis requested a trade from the team trying to keep him. George didn’t.

In fact, George didn’t even request a trade at all. George merely told the Pacers he wouldn’t re-sign the following year. Obviously, he knew that made them more likely to deal him. But he was content playing out the the final year of his contract in Indiana or anywhere else.

Davis told New Orleans he wanted out. He’s not coming to a new team, let alone with an open mind.

Still, the Pelicans have changed significantly since Davis’ trade request. Griffin and Williamson significantly improve the the franchise’s outlook. Depending what offers he receives for Davis, Griffin keeping the superstar and attempting to change his mind throughout the season could make sense. New Orleans can always deal Davis before the trade deadline if it’s not working, though trading him later likely lowers the return.

Of course, Griffin could have no intention of keeping an unhappy Davis. Saying he might only increases Griffin’s leverage in trade negotiations.

But if they truly want to keep Davis and pitch him throughout the season, the Pelicans are facing a much steeper hill than the Thunder had with George.

Report: Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers expected to sign super-max extension

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Damian Lillard and the Trail Blazers entered this postseason with an opportunity to prove themselves to each other. Portland had gotten swept in the first round the last two years, including a devastating sweep as the No. 3 seed last season. Lillard would be eligible this offseason for a super-max extension that projects to be worth $193 million over four years.

Everyone feels good now.

Lillard hit one of the biggest shots ever, and the Trail Blazers advanced to their first conference finals in 19 years. Both sides want to continue their partnership.

Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports:

Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers are expected to come to terms over the summer on a four-year, $191 million supermax contract extension, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

Lillard is under contract two more seasons. So, his extension would take effect in 2021, when it’s exact value would be determined. I project it at $193 million over four years.

As an All-NBA lock this year, Lillard will be eligible to sign a super-max extension this offseason or next. If he waits until 2020, he could sign a five-year extension. That deal would carry the same terms as the four-year extension for the first four years but would add a fifth year worth a projected $57 million – bringing the total projected value to $250 million. But there’s no guarantee Portland will offer the megadeal next year.

Already, this is a real risk for the Trail Blazers.

It’s probably one they must take. Lillard is an excellent player who does so much to set the team’s culture.

But paying someone projected salaries of $43 million, $46 million, $50 million and $53 million from ages 31-34? Nearly no player can assure he’ll warrant that. Build a winner around a single player earning so much is quite difficult. Portland’s ownership situation after the death of Paul Allen, who frequently paid the luxury tax, only adds to the uncertainty.

This could be a litmus test for the designated-veteran-player-extension rule altogether. If it doesn’t work with Damian Lillard – who exudes so many traits you want in a superstar – who will it work with?

Meyers Leonard delivers all-time out-of-nowhere playoff performance

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In 1967, Richie Guerin retired. The former Knicks star had been the St. Louis Hawks’ player-coach a few years, and he shifted fully into coaching. He even won Coach of the Year that season. As the Hawks moved to Atlanta the next year, he occasionally returned to the lineup, but played sparingly while focused on coaching. He played even less the following season, scoring just seven points in eight games.

But when the Hawks were facing injuries, inexperience and a 3-0 deficit to the Lakers 1970 Western Division finals, a 37-year-old Guerin stepped up on the court. He scored 31 points in Game 4, though Los Angeles completed the sweep.

Afterward, Hawks publicity director Tom McCollister called in the game’s stats to the league office:

”Guerin played 35 minutes,” reported McCollister, quietly, ”made 12 of 17 field goal attempts, 7 for 7 free throws, had 5 rebounds, 3 assists and 4 personal fouls. Thirty-one points.” Pause. ”They are burying him tomorrow morning at 10 o’clock.”

That was a rare time someone with a lower scoring average than Meyers Leonard scored 30 points in a playoff game.

Leonard – who averaged 5.9 points per game in the regular season – scored 30 points in the Trail Blazers’ Game 4 loss to the Warriors last night. He scored 25 in the first half!

This was the same Leonard who was in and out of the rotation all season, who had a DNP-CD in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, who had a previous career high of 24 points. That came in 2015, preceding a much-maligned four-year, $41 million contract.

But when Portland needed a more-mobile defender at center, Leonard started. He played well in Game 3, scoring 16 points and dishing four assists. That wad already an unexpectedly good night for him.

Yet, Leonard upped the ante yesterday. For a while, he was going shot-for-shot with Stephen Curry. Though he couldn’t keep up with Curry (37 points), Leonard went 12-of-16, including 5-of-8 on 3-pointers.

Here are the players to score 30 points in a playoff game with the lowest regular-season scoring averages:

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The only other player besides Guerin to drop 30 in a playoff game after scoring so little in the regular season was Daniel Gibson. Boobie averaged 4.6 points per game his rookie year then scored 31 points on 5-of-5 3-point shooting in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Pistons, helping send the Cavs to their first NBA Finals.

“If I’m dreaming, please don’t wake me up,” Gibson said. “This was perfect, to win it for Cleveland.”

The most recent player to crack the leaderboard was CJ McCollum, who averaged 6.8 points per game in 2014-15 then scored 33 in a season-ending Game 5 loss to the Grizzlies in the first round. McCollum won Most Improved Player the next year and has remained a near-star ever since.

Could Leonard make a similar jump for the Trail Blazers? Don’t count on it. McCollum was in only his second season. Leonard, who just finished his seventh season, has been in the league even longer than McCollum now.

But appreciate Leonard’s scoring binge for what it was – one heck of an outlier.

Giannis Antetokounmpo pays for basketball court in fire-ravaged Greece

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ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greek NBA star Giannis Antetokounmpo has agreed to fund the construction of an indoor basketball court in a fire-ravaged area outside Athens where at least 100 people were killed last year.

The mayor of the Rafina area where the fire occurred last July said on Monday the local authority accepted the offer from the Milwaukee Bucks player to build the court at a new recycling park that is being planned. The mayor, Vangelis Bournous, gave no details of the construction cost but said the venue would ready at the end of this summer.

The blaze gutted the seaside resort of Mati, east of Athens, and other coastal areas, destroying more than a thousand homes.

Antetokounmpo’s Bucks are leading in the NBA Eastern Conference finals 2-1 over the Toronto Raptors.