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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.”

Playoffs statement? Boston builds 40-point lead, routs Toronto

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — The way the NBA standings look right now, there’s a reasonable chance that the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors could be slotted to see each other in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

And Celtics coach Brad Stevens is already making it clear — if that happens, a blowout win over the Raptors now won’t mean anything then.

Jaylen Brown scored 20 points, Jayson Tatum added 18 and the Celtics never trailed on the way to an emphatic 122-100 win over the Raptors on Friday night. Kemba Walker scored 17 points in 23 minutes for the Celtics, who led by 40 at one point and kept slim hope alive of catching the Raptors for the No. 2 spot in the East race.

“This game will mean nothing if we get that opportunity again,” Stevens said. “They’re a really good team. I thought they missed a lot of open looks and it just wasn’t their night. Our guys played well, but it won’t mean anything in a couple weeks.”

Boston also won the season series against Toronto, taking three of the four meetings. The Celtics also won back-to-back games for the first time in the bubble.

“We’re enjoying each other and building chemistry,” Tatum said.

Fred VanVleet scored 13 for Toronto, which got 11 from Kyle Lowry and 11 more from Pascal Siakam. The Raptors’ starters — VanVleet, Lowry, Siakam, Marc Gasol and OG Anunoby — combined to shoot 16 for 45 (36%) from the field, 3 for 19 (16%) from 3-point range.

“One thing about this team, we always bounce back and we always stick together,” Toronto’s Norman Powell said. “I’m not too worried.”

Toronto’s biggest deficit in its first three games in the bubble was six points against the Los Angeles Lakers. The Raptors trailed Miami by three, then didn’t trail Orlando at any point in their game on Wednesday.

But only five minutes into this one, the Raptors were down eight.

And it would only get worse from there for the reigning champions.

The biggest deficit Toronto had faced this season was a 30-point hole against Dallas on Dec. 22, a game where the Raptors rallied to win. The Celtics didn’t allow anything close to a rally on Friday — after the Raptors closed within 10 early in the third, Boston went on a 36-12 run over the final 9:39 of the quarter.

It was 91-57 entering the fourth, and the Raptors went with subs the rest of the way. Making the night even worse for Toronto: forward Serge Ibaka left early in the fourth after getting hit in the face on a drive by Boston’s Gordon Hayward.

“I hate to say it, but there’s nothing really I learned,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “The only thing I probably did learn is we’ve got to get a couple of our guys playing a little better.”

Nets, Magic lock up playoff spots in East; Grizzlies help own cause in West

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — The NBA playoff picture is getting a little clearer, and the Eastern Conference field of qualifiers is now set.

Brooklyn and Orlando clinched the last two remaining East spots Friday, meaning no play-in series — a new wrinkle added to the rules of the NBA’s season restart at Walt Disney World — will be needed on that half of the bracket.

Brooklyn secured its trip by defeating Sacramento 119-106. Orlando’s spot was clinched when Washington lost to New Orleans 118-107 later Friday, eliminating the Wizards from contention.

The Nets and Magic will be No. 7 and No. 8, in some order, in the East playoffs. The No. 8 seed will face the Milwaukee Bucks in the opening round of the playoffs, which begin Aug. 17. The No. 7 seed could meet the reigning NBA champion Toronto Raptors, who currently hold — but have not secured — the East’s No. 2 spot.

For the Nets, the clinching comes as something to savor in a topsy-turvy season.

Kevin Durant couldn’t play at all because of his recovery from Achilles surgery — yet still got a $1 million contract bonus because Brooklyn made the postseason. Kyrie Irving missed much of the year because of injury, the Nets had several regulars opt out of participating in the restart, changed coaches in March and have used 24 players so far this season.

“It’s great to punch our own ticket into the playoffs,” Nets coach Jacque Vaughn said. “I joked with the guys: I like my laundry being done, but nothing like doing your own laundry.”

Orlando could have clinched with a win Friday, but lost to Philadelphia 108-101. The Wizards lost about an hour later, falling to 0-5 in the bubble. Washington was one of nine teams from the East who qualified for the restart, but has since fallen behind Charlotte into 10th place in the conference.

Philadelphia’s win tightened the race for No. 4 in the East. The 76ers (42-27) are tied with Indiana for the fifth-best record in that conference, one game behind fourth-place Miami (43-26).

The race for the last unclaimed playoff spot in the Western Conference remains close, with teams vying to grab the No. 8 spot and play the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round. If the eighth- and ninth-place teams are within four games of one another when the seeding game schedule ends next week, there will be a two-game series to determine who gets the last playoff spot.

Should that series take place, the ninth-place team would have to go 2-0 in a best-of-two series to advance.

Memphis remained alone in eighth out West, after the Grizzlies snapped a four-game bubble losing streak by beating Oklahoma City on Friday 121-92. The Grizzlies are one game ahead of Portland in the West standings.

“We channeled what we’ve done all season long,” Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins said. “We played Grizzlies basketball. Grizzlies basketball equals Grizzlies wins, more often than not. We hadn’t done that in the first four games.”

San Antonio leaped idle Phoenix into 10th in the West by beating Utah 119-111, with the Spurs improving to 3-2 in the bubble. The Spurs (30-38) are one game behind Portland in the standings.

“At the end of the day, we can’t control what they’re doing,” Spurs center Jakob Poeltl said. “We can only control what we’re doing. We’re going to take every game as it comes. We’re going to try to win every game.”

Phoenix, Sacramento and New Orleans remain in the mix for a West play-in series spot. The Suns, who are 4-0 at Disney, play Miami on Saturday.

Training camps for “delete 8” reportedly might happen inside Orlando bubble

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Whether the eight teams not invited to the NBA restart will have training camps and get together for scrimmages depends on who you ask. There are some teams adamant they will be at a massive disadvantage if their young teams go nine months without playing competitive NBA basketball. The problem is bringing teams together creates coronavirus issues that are not easily eliminated.

Which led to an idea: Why not bring those eight teams into the Orlando bubble on the Walt Disney World Resort campus and let them practice/play there?

It’s being talked about as an option reports Sam Amick of The Athletic.

What if those eight teams joined the rest of their colleagues inside the Walt Disney World bubble for training after the eliminated teams departed? Sources say the NBA has been exploring that possibility for quite some time now, and that the idea was raised most recently on the aforementioned governors’ call. And in some ways, it makes perfect sense.

As NBPA executive director Michele Roberts has made clear all along, the union has been skeptical of any basketball setting that doesn’t match the Orlando approach in terms of precautions and protocol. But starting on Aug. 17, when six teams go home and the 16-team playoffs begin, space will be opening up inside this three-hotel, three-court, (seemingly) COVID-free community they have created.

More space will open up in the bubble as more teams are eliminated from the postseason, although some of those rooms were to be used by family of team staff still in the bubble. It’s a delicate balancing act for the league.

The eight teams in question are Golden State, Minnesota, Cleveland, Atlanta, Detroit, New York, Chicago, and Charlotte.

Putting together a second bubble for the “delete eight” was never likely to happen, it’s a logistical nightmare, and it’s expensive (but without the television money payoff of the actual bubble). There is some logic to inviting those eight teams to Orlando.

Whether it happens or not remains to be seen.

Memphis picks up first win since restart, beats Oklahoma City

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Dillon Brooks scored 22 points, and the Memphis Grizzlies claimed their first win since the restart with a 121-92 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday.

Jonas Valanciunas had 19 points and 11 rebounds and Ja Morant had 19 points and nine assists for the Grizzlies.

Memphis lost its first four restart games and would have fallen into a tie with Portland for eight place in the Western Conference standings with a loss.

“As a whole, we never doubted ourselves, doubted what we can accomplish as a team,” Morant said. “But like, we all was very confident in our team and feel like tonight, we just went out and played freely and we were able to come out with a win.”

Chris Paul scored 17 points and Luguentz Dort added 16 for the Thunder. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City’s leading scorer this season, finished with 10 points on 3 for 13 shooting.

The Thunder looked nothing like the team that rolled past the Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday. Oklahoma City missed a chance to move into a tie with the Houston Rockets for fourth place in the West.

Oklahoma City led by 18 in the first quarter, but the Grizzlies rallied to take the lead in the second. The Thunder made 7 of 13 3-pointers in the first quarter but 6 of 30 the rest of the way.

“I thought it was a little bit of fool’s gold in the first quarter,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said.

Memphis led by nine in the final seconds of the first half. Danilo Gallinari hit a 3 for the Thunder with 4.6 seconds left, then Paul got a steal and hit a corner 3 to cut the Grizzlies’ lead to 63-60 at halftime.

The Grizzlies outscored the Thunder 32-18 in the third quarter to go up 95-78 at the end of the period.

“They started making shots,” Paul said. “We never really made them feel us all game long. They were just so comfortable. They got a little bit of everything. They got floaters, they got the threes, they got to the free-throw line. Our defense was just bad today.”