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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.”

Kevin Durant reverses course on championship: ‘Every day I woke up, I just felt so good about myself, so good about life’

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Following his first NBA title, Kevin Durant said, “After winning that championship (last season), I learned that much hadn’t changed. I thought it would fill a certain [void]. It didn’t.”

How does Durant now reflect on that time with the Warriors?

Durant, via J.R. Moehringer of the Wall Street Journal:

“It’s very rare in our lives when we envision and picture something and it comes together the perfect way you envision it. [Winning a title] was the only time in my life that happened, and that summer was the most exhilarating time. Every day I woke up I just felt so good about myself, so good about life.… That was a defining moment in my life—not just my basketball life.”

It’s difficult to reconcile those two quotes. I’d love to hear Durant eventually explain.

I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t relish the championship aftermath as much he initially expected but, looking back, now realizes how much he actually enjoyed it. The end of his time with Golden State wasn’t totally pleasant. That might have provided perspective on the better times. Or maybe the difference is simply his mood on the day of each interview.

Durant is continuing to try to find himself while in the public eye. That isn’t easy, and it’ll lead to contradictions like this along the way. I appreciate his openness, even when he’s still difficult to understand.

Jerry Colangelo: Team USA would’ve won FIBA World Cup if not for injuries

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Team USA finished seventh in the 2019 FIBA World Cup – the Americans’ worst-ever finish in a major tournament.

Why did the U.S. fare so poorly?

USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo had sharp words for the many stars who withdrew. But that’s not his only explanation.

Kyle Kuzma suffered an ankle injury that kept him off the roster. Jayson Tatum missed the final six games with his own ankle injury. Marcus Smart was banged up and missed time throughout the event.

Colangelo, via Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated:

“I believe that if we didn’t have those injuries, we would have won,” said Colangelo. “The injuries were just too much to absorb.”

Maybe.

Those players – especially Tatum and Smart, who occupied a roster spots – would’ve helped. But even with those two, the Americans were vulnerable. Australia beat them in an exhibition, and Turkey nearly upset them in the first round. France and Serbia clearly outplayed them in the knockout phase. Team USA just lacked its usual talent.

Perhaps more top Americans will play in the 2020 Olympics. That will make the biggest difference.

If USA Basketball had attracted more stars for the World Cup, it likely could’ve withstood a few injuries. This roster allowed little margin for error.

Jarrett Culver enlivens Timberwolves’ otherwise-quiet offseason

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NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

The Timberwolves are the only team with two max-salary players under age 29. Heck, they’re the only team with two max-salary players under age 25.

But Minnesota isn’t set.

Far from it.

Though Karl-Anthony Towns (23) is already a star and sometimes looks like a budding superstar, Andrew Wiggins (24) has stagnated on his max extension. Add expensive contracts for Jeff Teague and Gorgui Dieng, and the Timberwolves have limited cap flexibility. With veterans too good to allow deep tanking, Minnesota also has limited means to upgrade through the draft.

New Timberwolves president Gersson Rosas was likely always bound to limit his impact this summer. Minnesota faced few clear pressing decisions. Any big moves would start the clock toward Rosas getting evaluated on his prestigious job. In one of his main decisions, Rosas retained head coach Ryan Saunders, an ownership favorite.

Yet, in this environment, Rosas still found a simple way to add a potential long-term difference maker.

The Timberwolves entered the draft with the No. 11 pick – right after a near-consensus top 10 would’ve been off the board. They left the draft with No. 6 pick Jarrett Culver.

All it took to trade up with the Suns was Dario Saric, who would’ve helped Minnesota this season but probably not enough to achieve meaningful success. He’ll become a free agent next summer and is in line for a raise the Timberwolves might not wanted to give.

Culver is not a lock to flourish in the NBA. But Minnesota had no business adding a prospect with so much potential. This was a coup.

Otherwise, the Timberwolves remained predictably quiet, tinkering on the fringe of the rotation. They added Jake Layman (three years, $11,283,255) in a sign-and-trade with the Trail Blazers. They took Shabazz Napier and Treveon Graham off the hands of the hard-capped Warriors, getting cash for their trouble. They signed Noah Vonleh (one year, $2 million) and Jordan Bell (one year, minimum). They claimed Tyrone Wallace off waivers.

With their own free agents getting bigger offers, Minnesota didn’t match Tyus Jones‘ offer sheet with the Grizzlies (three years, $26,451,429) and watched Derrick Rose walk to the Pistons (two years, $15 million). For where the Timberwolves are, the far-cheaper Napier should handle backup point guard just fine.

Minnesota is methodically gaining flexibility. Teague’s contract expires next summer, Dieng’s the summer after that. The big question is how to handle Wiggins, but that will wait.

With Towns locked in the next five years, Rosas has plenty of runway before he must take off. Nabbing Culver was a heck of a way to accelerate from the gate.

Offseason grade: B-

Report: Iman Shumpert rejects offer from Rockets, who’ll have several familiar names in minicamp

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Iman Shumpert is the best free agent available.

Why hasn’t he signed yet? Apparently because he spent the offseason negotiating with the Rockets, but those talks haven’t produced a deal.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Kelly Iko of The Athletic:

Alykhan Bijani of The Athletic:

I wonder whether Houston tried to sign Shumpert to a contract similar to Nene’s, creating another trade chip. The Rockets are close to the luxury tax and probably wouldn’t guarantee Shumpert much. It doesn’t take months to negotiate a simple minimum contract.

Shumpert (29) is a credible wing in a league starving for them. He played well for the Kings last season before getting traded to Houston, where he struggled. Other teams should be interested.

The Rockets have just nine players with guaranteed salaries. There’s plenty of room for some of these past-their-prime veterans to make the regular-season roster. It might mostly depend on which of Terrence Jones (27), Nick Young (34), Luc Mbah a Moute (33), Corey Brewer (33), Raymond Felton (35) and Thabo Sefolosha (35) are in the best shape at this stage.