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NBA’s best-performing team this season, by far, getting little love entering playoffs

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About a month ago, Sam Amick of The Athletic named his sleeper pick for the 2019 NBA championship.

His choice: The league’s most dominant team.

The Bucks went an NBA-best 60-22. They ranked first in defensive rating, fourth in offensive rating and first in net rating. They have the likely Most Valuable Player in Giannis Antetokounmpo and likely Coach of the Year in Mike Budenholzer. Antetokounmpo could also contend for Defensive Player of the Year.

Why the heck are we classifying Milwaukee as a sleeper?

Oh, right. The Warriors.

Golden State is heavily favored to win its third straight title and fourth in five years. The Warriors coasted through the regular season, but they’re loaded and experienced. Nobody can match their talent: Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, DeMarcus Cousins, Andre Iguodala.

Still, it seems the Bucks are getting overlooked. They’ve been the best team throughout the season. That ought to inspire more confidence.

Milwaukee outscored teams by 8.6 points per 100 possessions, per Basketball-Reference. That was 2.2 points per 100 possession ahead of everyone else.

Of the 23 prior teams to have a net-rating advantage of at least 2.0 over the rest of the field, 17 won the title. Six of the last seven won.

The only recent exception: The 2001 Spurs, whose net rating topped every other team’s by at least 2.6. They lost to the eventual-champion Lakers, who lagged 5.0 points behind in the regular season. Those Lakers are maybe the classic case of a team that cruised through the regular season then cranked up the intensity in the playoffs.

The Warriors could certainly do the same. Heck, they’re so good, they might not even need to.

But Milwaukee should be viewed as a formidable threat.

Here’s every team with a net-rating advantage of at least 2.0 over every other team in a season:

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The Bucks are commonly compared to the 2015 Hawks, another Budenholzer-coached team that won 60 games. Atlanta scraped through the first two rounds then got swept by the Cavaliers in the conference finals.

But the Hawks had the point difference typical of a 56-win team. They ranked just fourth in net rating, only 1.0 ahead of Cleveland. Milwaukee had the point difference typical of a 61-win team.

Sure, regular-season performance far from perfectly predicts playoff results. But Atlanta wasn’t nearly as impressive in the regular season as the Bucks.

And Milwaukee rated even better before resting players late in the season with the No. 1 seed already clinched. (Though, to be fair, that effect was also felt with prior top teams.)

On paper, this seems like 2015 in some ways. The Warriors demonstrated themselves as the clear top team, but few felt confident in them entering the playoffs. Now, we look back on that title as if were inevitable.

Maybe we’ll do the same with the Bucks after this postseason. They’ve looked the most like a championship team throughout this season. If I had any guts, I’d pick them to win the title.

But, like nearly everyone else, I just can’t bet on a team other than Golden State.

Report: Jonathan Kuminga, top prospect for 2021 NBA Draft, to earn $500K in NBA minor league

Jonathan Kuminga
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Jonathan Kuminga didn’t crack our list of the top 50 players in five years last summer, but he drew consideration and rated as the top prospect in the 2021 high school class.

Now, he’s fast-tracking his ascent – turning pro by signing with the NBA’s minor league and positioning himself for the 2021 NBA Draft.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Kuminga will join Jalen Green, Isaiah Todd and Daishen Nix in this professional-pathway program.

We’ll see how well this setup, run by Brian Shaw, prepares young players for the NBA. But the money is nice. Kuminga ($500,000), Green ($500,000), Todd ($250,000) and Nix ($300,000) have approximate salaries that wouldn’t be allowed by the NCAA cartel system.

Hopefully, the competition forces college basketball to treat its players more fairly.

Washington Mystics: We planned all along to pay Elena Delle Donne

Washington Mystics star Elena Delle Donne
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Washington Mystics star Elena Delle Donne – per a panel of doctors chosen by the WNBA and its union – doesn’t face elevated risk of severe symptoms if she contracts coronavirus. That meant the Mystics wouldn’t have to pay her if she sits out this season. Delle Donne has publicly argued her Lyme disease should have medically excused her from the WNBA season, allowing her to collect her full salary.

Like many people amid the pandemic, Delle Donne faced a hard decision: Work and risk exposure to coronavirus or miss out on money and stay safer.

The Mystics have solved her dilemma – agreeing to pay her while she remains away from the team.

Mystics general manager/coach Mike Thibault, via Tyler Byrum of NBC Sports Washington:

“She is being paid and is continuing to rehab from her offseason back surgery. If at some point later in the season, we are all comfortable – I mean all comfortable – enough with both her physical progress and the safety of joining the team in Florida, then we will make those arrangements. If we don’t feel that she will continue to do the workouts in D.C., and get herself ready for the following season.”

“We can do anything we want,” Thibault said. “We have intended to [pay her] from the start. She’s a major part of our team and she’s making every effort to do the rehab that she needs to do.”

“I have told her that there is not going to be pressure put on her to hurry back, I don’t want — I’m in this and she’s in this for the long haul,” Thibault said.

If the Mystics truly planned all along to pay Delle Donne, her public-relations campaign the last couple days seems excessive.

But it’s also possible the public pressure she raised contributed to this decision.

As reigning WNBA MVP, Delle Donne had leverage that other players don’t. That’s why I’m surprised this was up to the Mystics. Other WNBA teams don’t want to face increasing pressure to pay any players who want to sit out. That’s why the panel of doctors existed in the first place.

Perhaps, Delle Donne’s back injury gave Washington a workaround. That’s a reasonable excuse for Delle Donne not reporting while still getting paid. Is the WNBA really going to investigate the Mystics’ assessment of their own player’s physical health when the player agrees?

This is a good outcome for Delle Donne. She made herself so valuable to her employer that it’ll pay her not to work. That’s a heck of an accomplishment by her.

We’ll see how much, if any, of a precedent it sets.

Sacramento’s De’Aaron Fox out at least 7-10 days with sprained ankle

De'Aaron Fox sprained ankle
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For a Sacramento team with playoff dreams, this is a punch to the gut: De'Aaron Fox is going to be sidelined until around the start of seeding games — 7-10 days at least — with a sprained ankle.

The Kings’ announced that their point guard sprained his left ankle in practice Wednesday. While he will be re-evaluated in 7-10 days, he could be out longer. This is the same ankle Fox sprained in November that caused him to miss 17 games.

The Kings’ first game is 16 days away against San Antonio.

Fox, arguably the fastest player in the league with the ball in his hands, averaged 20.4 points, and 6.8 assists this season, playing at a near All-star level once he came back from the sprained ankle. Fox is the engine of the Sacramento offense, it is 5.2 points per 100 possessions worse when he is off the court.

Sacramento comes into the restart in a virtual tie with Portland and New Orleans for the ninth seed in the West, 3.5 games back of Memphis. However, the Kings have not been able to get their stars on the court together: Harrison Barnes and Alex Len and remain in Sacramento, quarantining after testing positive for the coronavirus. Richaun Holmes is in quarantine on his Walt Disney World hotel room after leaving the confines of the NBA bubble to pick up a food delivery.

All of which combine to make it an even longer shot the Kings end their 14-year playoff drought this season. The sprained ankle for De’Aaron Fox, if it slows him at all, would be a serious blow to those chances.

 

Spurs: Trey Lyles out rest of season (appendectomy)

Spurs forward Trey Lyles
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The Spurs lost their top big in LaMarcus Aldridge.

Now, they’ll lose Trey Lyles, who often started at power forward next to Aldridge and also played behind Aldridge at center.

Spurs release:

Spurs forward Trey Lyles underwent an appendectomy earlier today in Orlando, Fla.

Lyles will miss the remainder of the 2019-20 season.

San Antonio’s last seeding game is scheduled for Aug. 13 – nearly a month away. Theoretically, Lyles could have tried to return by then.

The NBA dodges a complication with the Spurs ruling him out for the rest of the season.

Lyles left the NBA’s campus for his surgery. (Disney World is in Lake Buena Vista. He underwent surgery in Orlando.) That means he faced exposure in Florida, where coronavirus cases are surging. It would have been tricky bringing him back into the bubble safely while not punishing him for requiring medical attention.

The NBA will probably face this conundrum with someone else later. But the league avoids that situation for now.

San Antonio’s problems are more pressing.

Jakob Poeltl is now the Spurs’ top center, but he fits poorly with DeMar DeRozan because they’re both non-shooters from 3-point range. Rudy Gay should see plenty of time at power forward.

Behind them, options – newly signed Tyler Zeller, Drew Eubanks, Chimezie Metu and Luka Samanic – are uninspiring.

Gregg Popovich truly must muster some magic for San Antonio to extend its record playoff streak.