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Can Mike Budenholzer lift Milwaukee to top of East?

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This is the latest of NBC’s NBA season preview stories, and we will post at least one a day on these pages until Oct. 16, when the NBA season kicks off. We will look at teams and topics around the NBA throughout the series, with today the Bucks and their new coach in the spotlight.

Jason Kidd was enshrined in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame just more than a week ago, and with that came the flood of memories (and videos) of what a legendary player he was at his peak, leading the New Jersey Nets to the Finals in the early 2000s.

Unfortunately for the Milwaukee Bucks, coach Jason Kidd’s offensive and defensive philosophies seemed stuck in that same era. The Bucks’ corner offense was run at a slow pace and lacked much strong-to-weak ball movement or shooting that would have created space for stars to operate. Kidd’s defense was ultra aggressive to the point teams turned that against the Bucks with a couple of passes, which led to quality shots. In spite of that Milwaukee kept winning because of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, and the talent on the roster, but talk to other teams around the league and they did not fear the Bucks. What they feared was the day the Bucks started using that talent in a modern way.

Enter Mike Budenholzer.

The former right-hand man to Gregg Popovich who went on to coach the Hawks to a 60-win season was brought in as an Xs and Os guru who would simplify the defense, then put Antetokounmpo and other Milwaukee players in a faster offense that worked to get their stars better looks.

How much can a coach and a system lift a team? Milwaukee is going to find out, and they are betting it’s a lot.

The Bucks don’t want to waste seasons of a top-10 player, a potential MVP such as Antetokounmpo (plus they are moving into a new arena in the heart of the city, this is win-now time in Milwaukee). Budenholzer has never had a talent like this on his roster as a head coach, and one of the first things he did was have a breakfast with the Greek Freak and talk about how together they would get him to take the next step.

“There’s a lot of reasons to be excited about coming to Milwaukee, but there’s no doubt that Giannis is one of them,” Budenholzer said at his introductory press conference this summer. “He’s so important to our success, I think he embraces his leadership role and how he needs to grow, improve and get better along with all the rest of us. So the excitement is through the roof, and how we can use and implement him defensively and offensively, it started some at breakfast and it will continue into the weight room today, tomorrow and the next day.

“And those are conversations I look forward to having with Giannis, and listening to Giannis too. I think he’s a smart player at 23, and he has an IQ and an understanding of the game. Together, I think he and I will push each other, but I look forward to pushing him. He believes it and I believe it, but he’s going to get a lot better as we watch him over the years.”

“A lot better” Antetokounmpo should scare the rest of the league.

Budenholzer’s offensive philosophy and motion offense fit better with the Bucks’ talent. He wants to run and get the ball out in transition, then use pace, misdirection, and side-to-side ball movement to create space for their stars to work in the half court. Then there’s the floor spacing, the Bucks were 25th in the league in percentage of shots from three, but a new philosophy and adding Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova this offseason should help change that. The Bucks are going to shoot threes and that should open up lanes for Antetokounmpo and Bledsoe to get to the rim. This should look like a different Bucks team.

However, the bigger changes and improvements need come on the other side of the ball. Despite the dated style under Kidd, the Bucks still had an offensive rating in the top half of the league. The defensive side, however, was the Bucks’ biggest weakness.

“The thing that probably stands out to me first is the potential on the defensive side of the ball,” Budenholzer said. “I would say that’s been always something that’s prioritized. We want to be great on both sides of the ball, and whether it be the last five years in Atlanta as a head coach or San Antonio at the end of the day has always been great defensively.”

Budenholzer has talked about simplifying the system and reads on defense, something that should be welcomed in the Bucks’ locker room. The team has good defenders on it, just put them in better positions and understanding the system should improve the Bucks on that end of the court.

Can Budenholzer make the Bucks a threat to Boston this season? Unlikely. But if everything comes together in a new system, how good can this Bucks’ team be, if Antetokounmpo looks like an MVP candidate again and the defense is improved. Philadelphia and Toronto may want to look over their shoulder and keep an eye on the Bucks.

This team might finally start living up to its potential.

NBA G League cancels remainder of season

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The NBA G League shut down play in mid-March, at the same time the NBA did after the positive coronavirus test of Rudy Gobert. However, without a big television contract or much gate revenue, there wasn’t the motivation to restart the G League season, as the NBA is doing.

Thursday the G League made the expected official, canceling the remainder of its season. It will finish without crowning a champion.

“While canceling the remainder of our season weighs heavily on us, we recognize that it is the most appropriate action to take for our league,” G League President Shareef Abdur-Rahim said in a statement. “I extend my sincere gratitude to NBA G League players and coaches for giving their all to their teams and fans this season.  And to our fans, I thank you and look forward to resuming play for the 2020-21 season.”

The Wisconsin Herd (33-10) and Salt Lake City Stars (30-12) finished the season with the best records.

The G League did take care of its players, which was the right thing to do.

With the NBA starting next season in December, the G-League will follow that schedule, with games through the winter and spring. There is a real possibility of expanded NBA rosters next season due to coronavirus fears, which will impact G League rosters as well, but there are a lot of details still to be determined.

Goodbye NBA regular season, hello NBA ‘seeding games’

Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo
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The NBA regular season is over.

The league’s statement on its plan to resume the season made that abundantly clear.

The 22 continuing teams will play exhibitions, eight “seeding games” (not regular-season games) and maybe play-in games.

NBA release:

Each returning team would play eight seeding games, as selected from its remaining regular-season matchups.  At the conclusion of the seeding games, the seven teams in each conference with the best combined records across regular-season games and seeding games would qualify for the playoffs.

The 14 NBA Lottery teams would be the eight teams that do not participate in the restart and the six teams that participate in the restart but do not qualify for the playoffs.  These teams would be seeded in the lottery and assigned odds based on their records through games of March 11.  The 16 playoff teams would draft in inverse order of their combined records across regular-season games and seeding games.

Tim Reynolds of the Associated Press:

So, the lottery odds are set for the Warriors, Cavaliers, Timberwolves, Hawks, Pistons, Knicks, Bulls and Hornets. The Wizards can’t tank their way past Charlotte and Chicago.

That’s a good setup, which raises a question: Why doesn’t the NBA freeze records for the lottery with a month left in normal seasons? By not doing so, the league creates conditions for an annual tanking wasteland.

Calling these “seeding games” also positions the league to hold award voting soon. The NBA’s major awards – Most Valuable Player, Defensive Player of the Year, Rookie of the Year, Most Improved Player, Sixth Man of the Year, All-NBA, All-Defense, All-Rookie, Coach of the Year – are regular-season awards. If the regular season is over, those can be picked now. That could be a good way to fill time and attract attention before play resumes.

This is probably mostly semantics.* The term “seeding games” allows the NBA to differentiate these games for the lottery and awards.

*It could also allow the league to cancel more regular-season games and expand force majeure. But owners would still have to negotiate with players on how to pay them for these new “seeding games.” So, that’s probably a wash.

The term also makes enough sense. The 22 continuing teams are playing for seeding.

But what happens if two teams clinch certain seeds before their scheduled seeding game? Would that game still be played?

I’m confident the answer would be yes, even if “seeding game” would no longer be accurate.

“Tune-up games to generate more revenue” just isn’t as catchy.

Report: NBA sets dates for draft (Oct. 15), free agency (Oct. 18), next season (Dec. 1)

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NBA owners have decided to finish the season by holding games between July 31 and Oct. 12.

Now, the surrounding key NBA dates for training camps, free agency, NBA draft and the start of next season are filling in.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

The NBA’s reported tentative plan to open next season on Christmas? It was apparently pretty tentative.

A Dec. 1 start to next season would mean an incredibly short break for teams that advance deep in the playoffs. But the NBA is already spending a lot of time not playing games and making money. There’s an urgency to getting revenue flowing.

There will also be a massive disparity in time off between the eight done teams and continuing teams for the key NBA Dates. Who knows how that will affect next season? This is an unprecedented situation.

Which is a good reminder: Coronavirus can disrupt the best-laid plans.

NBA owners approve 22-team format for resuming season with only Trail Blazers opposing

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We already knew many key details of the NBA return format plan for the season:

  • Only the top 22 teams will continue.
  • Games will be held at Disney World in Orlando.
  • Each team will play eight more games (maybe with this schedule).
  • If the ninth-place team is within four games of the eighth-place team after those eight games, there will be a play-in series between the eighth- and ninth-place teams. To advance, the ninth-place team must win two games before the eighth-place team wins one.

Now, that plan is one step closer to becoming reality.

Per Shams Charania of The Athletic, the NBA approved a 22-team playoff format:

It’s shocking the Trail Blazers, owned by Jody Allen, cast the protest vote. Portland – currently outside playoff position – will resume with a real chance to make the playoffs. What more did the Trail Blazers want?

Players must still approve the NBA return format plan. National Basketball Players Association executive director Michele Roberts said they wouldn’t necessarily vote on it. Union leadership has worked closely with NBA commissioner Adam Silver, certainly agreeing on the system before having owners vote on it.

However, given the NBPA’s haphazard methods for polling the larger membership, I’m not sure how widespread support is. There is room for significant disagreement on how players – continuing vs. non-continuing – will have their salaries affected.

Still, I expect players approve the plan, maybe tomorrow.

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

Everything is just too far down the road to turn back now. The financial incentives are too high not to keep trying to play. Silver has successfully rallied nearly everyone toward uniting.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Most of the remaining issues are minor details… like codifying a plan for health and safety.

Tim Reynolds of the Associated Press: