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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.”

Did JaVale McGee feign injury to set up open dunk? (video)

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I’m extremely reluctant to accuse anyone of faking an injury, but…

1. It’s JaVale McGee, who has a history of antics.

2. There’s no obvious cause of an injury.

3. McGee recovered incredibly quickly.

If he weren’t actually hurt, this was an illegal play by McGee. Healthy offensive players can’t run off the court like that. The penalty is loss of ball, but I don’t envy officials who had to determine whether the injury was real.

It’s also inconclusive whether McGee established himself in-bounds before catching the pass it. It’s close.

Another debatable point if McGee did this deliberately: Did he waste a clever play in the preseason? Even a sharp defender, Draymond Green, understandably lost track of McGee once McGee limped off. Or was the preseason the only time to have fun like this?

What is clear: The Lakers had another nifty play in their exhibition win over the Warriors last night. LeBron James switched hands mid-air to throw a kickout pass to a wide-open Danny Green:

Rookie of the Year predictions: Can anyone beat out Zion Williamson?

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With the start of the NBA season just more than a week away — it’s predictions time. We’ll be covering most of the postseason awards between now and the opening tip of the NBA season.

As a disclaimer, we get it: making NBA preseason awards predictions is like nailing Jell-O to a tree. We’ll be wrong. But it’s fun, so the NBA staff here at NBC is making our picks. Today…

ROOKIE OF THE YEAR

Kurt Helin Zion Williamson (New Orleans Pelicans). This is the obvious pick, but it’s also the only logical one. The guy scored 55 points on 71 percent shooting across two preseason games already, and defenses aren’t sure how to stop him. Williamson is an incredibly gifted athlete who will put together a lengthy highlight reel of dunks this season (with Lonzo Ball throwing him some insane alley-oops), but he can do much more than that and will show it as the season wears on. Plus, he has a strong team around him, which makes him even more of a lock for this award. What will be interesting is to see who else is on the ballot at the end of the season (voters have to rank three guys). Ja Morant is going to have the ball in his hands and plenty of opportunities in Memphis. RJ Barrett will get touches in New York. Will Tyler Herro‘s impressive play this preseason carry over. Can Coby White in Chicago or Rui Hachimura in Washington force their way into the conversation? The race for second may be far more interesting than who wins.

Dan Feldman: Zion Williamson (New Orleans Pelicans).  Unlike most preseason award picks, I’m not just taking Williamson as the single most likely winner. I’ll take him over the field. He enters the race with the most hype, and he has the talent to back it up. He’s far more than just a dunker. At Duke, he showed he could translate his athleticism to production. That should continue with the Pelicans

Dane Delgado: Zion Williamson (New Orleans Pelicans). Anyone picking against Zion Williamson must be hoping for some kind of catastrophic injury to befall the New Orleans Pelicans star. And he is already a star, by the way. Preseason statistics aside, Williamson is an electrifying player who will have the kind of narrative and media coverage necessary to make a successful and relatively easy Rookie of the Year campaign happen in 2020. He may not be a shooter just yet, but Williamson will buck the trend in NBA stars having to have a 3-point shot to garner serious attention. It’s already here, and there’s nothing Ja Morant or RJ Barrett can do about it. New Orleans won’t have to make the playoffs in order for Williamson to win the ROY, and if they’re a postseason entrant there’s no chance for anyone else.

Bradley Beal signing two-year, $71,764,428 contract extension (player option) with Wizards

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Good thing the Wizards didn’t trade Bradley Beal, as some moron suggested they should have.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Washington Wizards All-Star guard Bradley Beal has agreed to extend his deal for two years on a $72 million maximum contract, agent Mark Bartelstein of Priority Sports told ESPN on Thursday morning.

Beal’s extension, which begins with the 2021-22 season, includes a player option for 2022-23

Beal’s contract terms (extension terms bolded):

  • 2019-20: $27,093,018
  • 2020-21: $28,751,774
  • 2021-22: $34,502,129
  • 2022-23: $37,262,299 (player option)

What Beal loses with this extension:

  • A chance to hit 2021 free agency, when his projected max starting salary would’ve been $38 million
  • A chance to trigger super-max eligibility by making an All-NBA team this season or next, which would’ve increased his max salary in 2021-22 to $44 million
  • The ability to get traded this season

What Beal gains with this extension:

  • A guaranteed $71,764,428

That security obviously mattered greatly to Beal. I’m genuinely shocked he’s signing this extension. He’s an excellent 26-year-old wing who has stayed healthy the last few years. Bigger offers likely awaited if he played out his current contract. But an extension now was the only way to lock in major money.

Beal certainly plans to opt out in 2022. His $37,262,299 player option is just a hedge against something going wrong. If he opts out, his max in 2022 projects to be about about $47 million.

Projecting max salaries that far out is difficult. Consider that a rough estimate.

What’s clear: In 2022, Beal will have 10 years of experience and therefore qualify for the highest max tier (35% of the salary cap). The super max is also for 35% of the salary cap (for players with eight or nine years of experience, who can typically receive just 30% of the salary cap).

So, Beal is positioning himself to sign for a 35%-max contract on his next deal – just as he would’ve been without this extension.

The big differences: He’ll have no chance of getting the 35% max a year earlier through the super max, and he’ll be aiming to sign it at age 29 rather than age 27 or 28. The older he is, the less likely someone gives Beal a huge long-term deal.

For the Wizards, this is a coup. They secure their best player at less than his likely market value. It’s for only one more year, but they need all the time they can get to build a winner around him.

Washington remains in rough shape, yet another reason Beal signing this extension is so surprising. But he has touted his loyalty to the Wizards. He’s putting his money where his mouth is.

Of course, this doesn’t get Washington out of the woods. Beal alone can’t lift the team from the cellar. The clock is now ticking toward 2022 free agency.

But this gives the Wizards more runway. They have three years to build an appealing supporting cast. Heck, if it comes to it, they could even trade Beal as soon as this offseason. He’ll hold much more value with two years, rather than one year, remaining on his contract.

Washington ought to be thrilled with this extension. If Beal is also happy with it, good for him.

With fantasy basketball season about to start, time to get Rotoworld Draft Guide

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Winning is far more fun than losing.

In the case of fantasy sports, it’s also far more profitable. Plus you get bragging rights, which is almost as good as the cash. Almost.

When the NBA tips off next Tuesday, so does fantasy basketball season. If you want to dominate your league, or be ready for daily fantasy leagues, or you’re just a hoops junkie happy to read lengthy breakdowns of players, then you need the Rotoworld Draft Guide. Or, better yet, the entire season pass.

Right now, you can get all of that at a discount.

It’s an investment that will have you ready for fantasy basketball season.

If you’re looking for a way to brush up on top picks during your commute or time on the elliptical at the gym, check out the PBT Podcast below where Tommy Beer joins me to talk top picks, sleepers, and guys to avoid.