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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.

Vote on NBA restart format expected next Thursday, here are four plans on the table

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver
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The NBA is almost guaranteed to return to action in July, with the games taking place in Orlando.

What format the return takes is undecided, but the owners are expected to vote on that next Thursday, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

On Friday’s conference call with owners, Adam Silver reportedly laid out four options for them, something Shams Charania of The Athletic reported.

There was no consensus behind any one option, teams are all lobbying for what they want to see. Come next Thursday, Adam Silver is going to have to make a recommendation and get everyone to line up behind it, something the owners and players will do. This is Silver’s call.

Let’s break those options down.

• 16 teams going directly into playoffs. This is the cleanest, most straightforward option, and it has support from a number of owners. This keeps the number of people in the bubble relatively small, making it easier to maintain the safety of players, coaches, staff, and everyone involved. The league likely would keep the conference format rather than go to 1-16 seeding (many owners from the Eastern Conference and coastal cities reportedly are not fans of 1-16 and fear if they do it once, even in this unique season, it would become a regular thing).

One downside is players have asked for some regular season games — or games with meaning — before the playoffs to get their legs under them, this does not provide any (increasing the risk of injury). The other downside is this takes almost half the NBA’s markets and tells them “you’re done, no games from March until Christmas (the expected date for the tip-off of next season, or maybe a week or two earlier). That’s a long time without games and can hurt momentum for those franchises.

• 20 teams, group play for the first round. This is the World Cup soccer idea, with four groups of five teams each and the top two teams in each group advancing to the playoffs. Some fans and teams backed this idea because it provided a bit of randomness to the mix — soccer sees a lot of upsets in this format. On the flip side, the top teams were not fans of this plan for the same reason.

The buzz around the league is this format is basically dead to the owners.

• 22 teams with regular season games to determine seeding, followed by a play-in tournament to the 16-team playoffs. This idea, in a couple of different forms (one with just 20 teams, some with 24) has some momentum. The idea is the 22 teams — all teams within six games off the last playoff spot in each conference, which is the Wizards in the East and the Trail Blazers, Pelicans, Kings, Spurs, and Suns in the West — would play eight regular season games, then standings at the end of those games would set up the play-in tournament for the eighth seed. After that, the playoffs would start. This gets more markets involved, gets some regular season games (helping some regional sports networks), and still has a full playoffs.

There are downsides. It brings more people into the bubble and is that risk worth the reward? There are going to be some meaningless regular season games here, both by teams eliminated and teams locked into their playoff spots (the Lakers and Bucks will treat these games like exhibitions). It also adds a couple of weeks to the season and pushes the end-date back deeper into September and maybe October.

• 30 teams, a regular season to get to 72 games, then a play-in tournament followed by the playoffs. This is the idea to “finish” the regular season. We’re not going to waste time on it because my sources, and those of other reporters, have called this one dead on arrival.

Silver is going to get lobbied all week by different factions backing different plans, but by next Thursday he has to pick a one he can sell to owners and to players. There are no good options, he has to choose the least bad one.

From there, players will get called back to market for workouts and the clock will start.

So long as the league can keep everyone safe.

Bradley Beal: Contract extension gives Wizards opportunity, me flexibility

Wizards guard Bradley Beal
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Bradley Beal, through word and action, has shown an incredibly strong commitment to the Wizards.

But is there an opening to pry him from Washington?

Beal on his contract extension, via “All The Smoke“:

It was definitely tough. I came down to damn near the deadline on my decision, because I kind of play devil’s advocate. The whole year, I’m weighing pros and cons of staying or leaving, signing and not signing. Do I wait and try to sign this summer? Or do I wait and try to get traded? Or do I wait and play my contract out? So, I had a bunch of options.

I secured two more years. I have two more years here. Well, three. And, so for me, it was like that puts me – to me, I don’t think I’m going to hit my prime until I’m – what? – 29, 28, 29, 30? And so I feel like – at the end of this extension, it puts me right there. And it so kind of puts me in the prime time of my basketball. And so it still gives me the flexibility with also giving my respects and loyalty to the organization that drafted me. So, I’m still giving you all an opportunity here to make it with work with John, to make it work with everybody. So, here we go. We’ve got a couple more years. And granted, I think my extension is the length of John’s contract, as well. So, this is the time we’ve got. We’re going to see what we can do, and we’re going to make it work.

Beal on the Nets being interested in trading for him, via Jackie MacMullan of ESPN:

“It’s not the first time I’ve heard this kind of talk,” Beal told ESPN. “It’s interesting. To me, I look at it as a sign of respect, that I’ve been doing good things and guys want to play with me.

“That’s an unbelievable feeling. When you hear that Kyrie [Irving] and KD [Kevin Durant] want you, s—, that’s amazing. At the same time, you don’t know how much there is to it, or how easy it would be to do. And I’ve put down roots in D.C. I’ve dedicated myself to this town, this community. I love it here, and it would feel great to know I could grind out winning here instead of jumping to another team.

“But I’d be naive to say that I don’t think about it when these stories come up.”

Beal, 26, is locked up two more seasons. Both he and John Wall have player options for 2022-23. Beal’s agent, Mark Bartelstein, declared: “There are no Beal Sweepstakes.”

Everything Beal has said and done about staying in Washington is far more concrete than anything he has indicated about leaving.

But…

It’s interesting how close he came to not signing his extension. It’s interesting he publicly admitted to thinking about trade interest from other teams.

To me, Beal sounds like Anthony Davis – after years of stating loyalty to the Pelicans – subtly hinting he was dissatisfied in New Orleans. The key: Davis requested a trade only after the Pelicans kept struggling to build around him.

Beal is giving the Wizards an opportunity. Maybe they can assemble a winner around him. But even if Wall gets healthy, that’s a tough job.

If Washington becomes successful in the next couple years, great. That’s easy. Beal seems to be looking for reasons to stay.

But if the Wizards keep losing the next couple years, other teams will definitely line up to acquire the star shooting guard. Many players in that situation have greased the wheels of their exit by saying they won’t re-sign or even outright requesting a trade.

We’ll see how Washington does. We’ll see what Beal does at that point.

Considering Beal previously said he’d finish his career with the Wizards if he can control it, these recent interviews leave the door cracked slightly – only slightly – more ajar for Beal to depart.

Report: NBA targeting July 31 to resume games

Raptors guard Kyle Lowry and Nets center Jarrett Allen
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Only one key question about the NBA’s resumption – Where? (Disney World) – had a fairly clear answer.

Who? Why? How?

Those all remain up in the air.

But we can now pinpoint: When?

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

July 31 is a Friday. So, that could begin a fun weekend of basketball.

But remember: Coronavirus can upend the best-laid plans. So, while feels like the resolution we’ve all been craving, it’s only a goal.

Still, it’s nice to have a date to look forward to.

Coronavirus exposes NBA’s late-season tanking wasteland

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The Knicks won one game – one game! – in all of March 2019. So, they certainly proved their losing bona fides entering an April Fool’s Day matchup with the Bulls. But Chicago had a perfect counter: A starting lineup of Walt Lemon, Wayne Selden, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and Robin Lopez. The Bulls fell behind by 20 in the first quarter. Though New York gave 41 minutes to Damyean Dotson and used just three reserves (including Lance Thomas playing 31 minutes), it was too late.

The Knicks had been out-tanked.

***

These types of all-too-common ugly games are the subtext to the NBA’s coronavirus-crisis plans.

The league could resume by jumping straight into the playoffs or some enhanced postseason – either a play-in tournament or group stage – with 20-24 teams. All 30 teams returning has been discussed only as a cash grab. Continuing the regular season at all has been favored only as a ramp up to the playoffs.

But everyone finishing the regular season because it actually matters?

That’s a non-starter.

***

Sam Hinkie – who oversaw “The Process” with the 76ers – has become the face of tanking in the NBA. He took Philadelphia through an ambitious multi-year plan to lose a lot and reap the rewards.

In response, the NBA reformed its lottery. Now, there’s less incentive to finish with the league’s very-worst record.

But a team setting out to tank multiple seasons was incredibly rare.

The far more pervasive problem: Teams that enter a season trying to win, fail then pivot into tanking.

At that point, what is there to lose by, um, losing? Once out of the playoff race, the lure of a high draft pick is just too tempting. Even minor improvements in lottery odds come with the upside of a young franchise-changer. Additional wins carry minimal tangible value.

***

The NBA has spent more effort fighting discussion of tanking than tanking itself.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver defines tanking by its most narrow terms – players and coaches actively trying to lose games. But tanking manifests in other ways.

General managers trade away quality players. Teams become beyond cautious with injuries. Raw young players get more playing time. Coaches experiment with odd lineups. A general malaise sets in as everyone sees the true goal.

That’s why I define tanking as anything a team does intended, at least in part, to improve draft position by losing.

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when each team begins tanking. But official elimination from the playoff race is a generous starting point. Most tanking teams adopt the approach even earlier.

***

When the season was halted, 259 regular-season games remained. Far too few of those will be missed.

From the same point last year through the end of the season, 47% of games included a team already eliminated from the playoff race.

It was even worse the prior season. In the same time frame, 50% of games included a team already eliminated from the playoff race.

At best, eliminated teams have already traded their draft picks and have no incentive to lose. Even then, those teams have shown minimal desire to win.

At worst, teams are aggressively chasing better draft position. In 2018, an owner reportedly berated his coach for winning. George Karl said he had a similar experience while coaching. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has repeatedly trumpeted tanking. Travis Schlenk acknowledged the Warriors tanked to get Harrison Barnes. Bryan Colangelo admitted the Raptors tanked under his watch.

Fans – wisely – feel let down when their already-lousy team wins to hurt it’s draft position.

That’s an awful setup.

***

Every so often, the NBA is forced to confront its annual tanking epidemic.

After the Pelicans denied Anthony Davis‘ trade request and kept him past the trade 2019 deadline, they had a standoff. Davis wanted to play. The Pelicans wanted to sit him. They preferred to tank for a better draft pick and protect their superstar asset in a lost season. Eventually, the NBA threatened to fine New Orleans, and the sides struck an imperfect compromise.

The year before, the NBA warned the Bulls to stop resting healthy players.

But coronavirus has shined a much brighter spotlight on the problem

It’d be practically criminal to force bad teams to quarantine, live in an isolated environment, risk injury after a long layoff, risk contracting and spreading coronavirus… just for games they want to lose, anyway. Damian Lillard put voice to the issue, saying he wouldn’t play if the Trail Blazers can’t make the postseason this year. The already-eliminated Warriors have made clear they prefer just to be done.

It’s obviously far more tolerable to play these games in normal times.

But the NBA ought to reconsider a system that creates so many games of awful product.

***

I still believe a draft that rewards losing teams is good for the NBA. It’s important to engage every fan base. If fans of a bad team can’t enjoy wins, at least they’ll have hope.

But the league should strike a better balance.

I’ve advocated for a system that improves draft position with early losses and late wins. Most teams enter a season trying to win, and those that fail would get draft help. But teams – from the top down – would also be incentivized to remain competitive throughout the season. Intentionally losing early then winning late would be a nearly impossible needle to thread.

There’s plenty to sort out – how to value early losses vs. late wins, when to flip the switch, etc. I’m even open to including a Silver favorite – a play-in tournament (that also boosts draft position for teams that win).

But, please: Do something to reduce the large number of late-season tank games.

This situation shows how frivolous they are.