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How will Bucks answer their $67 million question next summer?

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The Bucks are one of the NBA’s biggest feel-good stories.

They’re 21-9, on pace for their best record in more than three decades. They have the NBA’s best net rating (+8.5 points per 100 possessions). Expectations are growing they’ll get their first playoff-series win in 18 years.

They’re talented and well-coached. They play hard and together. And they’re fairly young.

But a threat to their ascent lurks beneath the surface. Four of their starters – Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, Brook Lopez and Malcolm Brogdon – can become free agents next summer.

Will Milwaukee pay to keep all four? Will all four even want to return to a small market that was, until recently, the go-to butt of undesirable-location jokes?

Those questions loom over the Bucks’ ability to build a big winner over the coming years.

But Milwaukee superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo – the lone Bucks starter already locked up for next season – wants to put half the concerns to rest.

“All of them want to re-sign next summer,” Antetokounmpo said. “Personally, I’m not going to put our conversations out there. … I always talk to them every day and want them to be back.

“We can make a dynasty in the East. As long as we play together and as long as we grow together as players, I think the sky is the limit for this team.”

But other limits exist – namely payroll.

Milwaukee projects to have about $67 million below the luxury-tax line next season before accounting for those impending free agents. That’s a tight squeeze.

All four of Middleton, Bledsoe, Lopez and Brogdon are currently on contracts that could easily leave them hungry to get paid next summer.

Middleton re-signed with the Bucks on a five-year, $70.3 million contract in 2015 that was so team-friendly, it was used as evidence his agent had too close of a relationship with Milwaukee. “When I got there, they took care of me,” said Middleton, who went from the Pistons to the Bucks in a 2013 trade initially headlined by Brandon Knight and Brandon Jennings. “They were honest with me about playing time. My situation, my contract, they gave me a chance. And second, I thought the future was bright here. I think it still is.” Middleton has a $13 million player option for next season he’ll surely decline. Milwaukee will reportedly do everything it can to keep him.

Bledsoe spent most of the 2014 offseason engaged in a bitter contract negotiation with the Suns, who held his restricted rights. He said he even signed his qualifying offer. But he never actually submitted it. Shortly before training camp, Bledsoe and Phoenix agreed on a five-year, $68,760,870 contract. The next month, the NBA announced new national TV deals that sent the salary cap skyrocketing and rendered old-money contracts like Bledsoe’s relatively cheap. He had a falling out with Phoenix, which traded him to Milwaukee last year.

Lopez signed a max deal with the Nets in 2012 and re-signed for an even higher salary in 2015, finishing that second deal with the Lakers last season. It seemed, as both a big and a floor spacer, he’d fit well with LeBron James in Los Angeles. But in free agency last summer – which he called an “interesting experience” – Lopez got just the $3,382,000 room exception from the Bucks. Lopez said he prioritized a one-year contract so he could prove himself.

Brogdon signed a three-year contract after Milwaukee drafted him No. 36 in 2016. In exchange for granting Milwaukee such great team control, Brogdon received just $381,529 above the minimum. And this was at a time second-rounders had tremendous leverage. Brogdon became the first second-rounder to win Rookie of the Year since the NBA-ABA merger. But he couldn’t capitalize.

Until next summer.

All four players will have a chance to cash in – because they’re each playing so well.

Middleton remains a borderline All-Star. Maybe he’ll finally make it this season. He’s a 3-and-D wing in a league that craves those, and he has shifted many of his long 2s beyond the arc. He’s the best player of the four.

Lopez might be the most valuable, though. Even in an era of stretch centers, Lopez is pushing the limit even further. He’s attempting 8.9 3-pointers per game, the most ever by a center and far and away the most by any center this season. The 7-footer is drilling 36.6% of those triples. More importantly, he’s pulling opposing bigs out of the paint. That’s deadly with a rim attacker like Antetokounmpo. The Bucks score 115.6 points per 100 possessions with Lopez on the floor. Only a few rotation regulars (Raptors Danny Green, Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka and Pascal Siakam) see their team score so well while on the court.

Bledsoe has also taken advantage of Milwaukee’s floor-spacing. The lightning-quick point guard slices to the rim regularly and is finishing a blistering 73.2% there. He’s also a solid outside shooter and defender.

Brogdon, who was starting at point guard when the Bucks traded for Bledsoe and was initially concerned about his future with the team, has shifted nicely to shooting guard. He has become more decisive and comfortable off the ball. He’s shooting 47.2% on 3-pointers, keeping the ball moving and playing solid defense. His all-around game impresses.

While each player is playing well, the real beauty is they’re all playing well. Contract years lend themselves to selfishness, but there have been no signs of that in Milwaukee. Each of the four players expresses similar themes.

Middleton: “Winning takes care of everything. So, we don’t have to go out there and worry about our futures, worry about how much money we make. We have a great team here, a great situation here. So, as long as we do our job, there’s nothing else we should be thinking about.”

Bledsoe: “We’ve just got a great bunch of guys in here that’s in a great space. That’s all I can tell you. We don’t have no type of selfish players on this team.”

Lopez: “We don’t play for ourselves, regardless. We’ve got a lot of unselfish players and we’re out there just trying to help the team win in any way possible. We know, if the team is winning, that’ll make everyone, all the parts look good.”

Brogdon: “The objective is to win. Winning cures all. If we win, everybody will get paid. So, we don’t have to worry about it.”

Will the Bucks be the team to pay all four, though?

Milwaukee will hold full Bird Rights on Middleton, Bledsoe and Brogdon. Re-signing Lopez could be trickier. The Bucks can give him a starting salary up to $4,058,400 through the Non-Bird Exception. Paying him any more would require cap space (unlikely) or the mid-level exception, which projects to land at about $9 million.

But just because they can pay Middleton, Bledsoe and Brogdon any amount up to their max salaries doesn’t mean the Bucks have an unlimited budget. They’ve paid the luxury tax only once, the first year it was assessed, 2003.

Maybe an NBA Finals run this season convinces the Bucks to pay the luxury tax next season. But it’s hard to see. It’s logical to treat the tax line as a likely limit for Milwaukee.

The George Hill trade – which sent Matthew Dellavedova‘s and John Henson‘s multi-year contracts to the Cavaliers – adds flexibility. But the exact amount of breathing room below the tax won’t be known for a while.

The salary cap and luxury-tax line won’t be set until next summer, though I used the NBA’s latest projection. I anticipated Mirza Teletovic’s salary getting excluded and Milwaukee waiving and stretching Hill (who has just $1 million of his $18 million salary guaranteed next season). I counted the Bucks’ first-round pick based on Basketball-Reference’s odds. I also left Milwaukee’s roster at 14 players.

The result: $67 million below the luxury-tax line.

I’m not sure that’s enough, but maybe it could look something like this:

  • Middleton: $30 million
  • Bledsoe: $17 million
  • Brogdon: $11 million
  • Lopez: $9 million

But to a degree, that’s a problem for later. The Bucks are having an awesome season. Their chemistry looks excellent. Everything is clicking. This should be enjoyed.

Still, this could be just the start.

“The ability to move forward with this group and continue to build, that’s where we think we’re going to get better,” Budenholzer said. “And part of that is keeping our group together.”

Chris Paul says players don’t really talk about money in locker room

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Locker room banter flies all over the conversational map: Clubs/restaurants to first cars to rappers to Fortnite to why Player X never has any lotion and always has to borrow someone else’s.

What doesn’t come up? Money.

That according to Chris Paul, who should know after 14 years in the league and now serving as the players’ union president. He was talking about his campaign to help players become more financially aware and said this to Clevis Murray of The Athletic.

“I think the reason why I’m so passionate about this is because I’m finishing up my 14th year in the NBA, and I’ve been around long enough to realize that guys in our league, we talk about everything in the locker room except for finance, except for money,” he said. “Nobody talks about money, because it’s one of those uncomfortable things.”

It’s a strange dynamic in an NBA locker room because everybody knows what everybody else makes, it’s very public, and that provides a certain measuring stick of worth.

Yet how does one player tell another “man, your entourage is too big, you’re blowing your money.” Players finally making money understandably want to take care of family and close friends, but other people come into their life and things can spiral fast. CP3 says he gets it, and he is working with Joe Smith — who made $60 million in NBA earnings and lost all of it — to help prepare rookies.

The stories of NBA players blowing through their money absolutely happen, but they also are not the majority, and the numbers are shrinking. More and more players are learning to be smarter with their money and set themselves up on some level for life after basketball. Not all, but guys who stick in the league a few years tend to learn. If Paul and the union can come up with ways to reach players at an earlier age and prepare them for what is to come, all the better.

Bobby Portis says watch out for underrated Knicks, they could make playoffs

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You don’t want a player on your team that heads into the season thinking, “we suck, I just hope we can get to 20 wins and not be embarrassed every night.” Even if that might be the reality for that roster.

Enter Bobby Portis of the New York Knicks. The Wizards let him walk to save money and he has ended up on a Knicks team with a lot of guys who see themselves as underrated: Elfrid Payton, Marcus Morris, and Julius Randle. Plus New York has young players with a lot to prove — especially after Summer League — in Kevin Knox, R.J. Barrett, and Mitchell Robinson.

Portis likes this underdog team, he told Alex Kennedy of Hoopshype.

I love being underrated, man. I’m an underdog. I say that every day. We’re the team that’s being counted out right now. People are looking past us. They’re talking about stars going to new teams and this and that, and that’s okay. Everybody on this team has a huge chip on their shoulder. We’re the guys who are always picked second. I think that’s going to make us close. Our practices are going to be top-notch; we’re all going to be competing and that’s going to make us better. We have a lot of dogs on this team, which will help us out as well. Collectively, we all have a chip on our shoulder – a log on our shoulder – so we’re going to go out there and play with an edge. I think that’s great for us.

So… playoffs?

Yeah, for sure, for sure. The naysayers, the haters, the people who are doubting us will say that we’re crazy as hell for saying that. But we have a bunch of guys who are coming in each and every day with that log on their shoulder and that’s going to push us to become a great team. We have a lot of pieces who can play. I think we’re loaded at every position; there are two-to-three players who could start at every position. When you have that much talent, that rises the competitiveness and improves the team as a whole.

That is exactly the attitude you want to see heading into the season.

The Knicks are going to struggle this year, talent wins out in the NBA and the Knicks don’t have enough of it. However, if the goal is to build a culture of gritty players who go play all out and are tough to play against — the cultures the Nets and Clippers developed that drew stars to them — the Knicks are on a decent road. New York didn’t pull a classic Knicks this year and overspend on a couple of second-tier stars when they struck out on the big guns, they went out and got decent players on short contracts. Stay flexible, build a culture.

We’ll see if Portis will be part of that going forward, but he has the right attitude.

Report: Lakers claim Kostas Antetokounmpo off waivers

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Giannis Antetokounmpo is a 24-year-old MVP playing in Milwaukee and heading toward a super-max decision that could have him hit 2021 unrestricted free agency.

Big-market teams are licking their chops.

That probably has something to do with the Lakers adding his brother, Kostas Antetokounmpo.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Kostas Antetokounmpo was the last pick in last year’s draft. He spent the season on a two-way contract with the Mavericks, who just waived him. He’ll remain on a two-way deal with the Lakers. The 21-year-old was alright in the NBA’s minor league, but he’s not a tantalizing prospect.

Except for his connection to Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Giannis Antetokounmpo said he could never see himself playing for Los Angeles. But maybe he’d change his mind if someone close to him has a positive experience there. That must be the Lakers’ hope, at least.

It’s worth a shot, and the Lakers aren’t the only team trying this angle. The Bucks also signed Thanasis Antetokounmpo this summer.

Harden on fit with Westbrook: ‘When you have talent like that, it works itself out’

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It was the question everybody asked about 30 seconds after they heard Russell Westbrook had been traded to the Houston Rockets for Chris Paul (after the initial shock of the deal wore off):

Do Westbrook and Harden, two of the most ball-dominant, isolation heavy players in the NBA, actually fit together?

Harden says yes. Of course, what else is he going to say, but he was earnest about it in comments to Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle at the Adidas and James Harden ProCamp event last Friday.

“When you have talent like that, it works itself out. You communicate. You go out there and compete possession by possession. You figure things out. Throughout the course of the season, you figure things out. That’s just what it is. When you have talent, you have guys with IQ, you have guys willing to sacrifice, it always works itself out.”…

“It works,” Harden said. “It’s that trust factor. I trust him; he trusts me. And with the group that we already have and the things we already accomplished, it should be an easy transition for him to be incorporated right in and things are going to go.”

That is essentially is what Mike D’Antoni said, and what Rockets GM Daryl Morey is betting on.

Will Westbrook, and to a lesser degree Harden, be willing to make sacrifices and adjust their games? It is the question that will define the Rockets’ season.

My prediction: The duo works it out on offense and becomes one of the hardest teams to stop in the NBA. They will work it out. However, having to play Harden and Westbrook together on defense for extended stretches will cost Houston in the playoffs earlier than they planned.