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Report: Bucks’ willingness to pay luxury tax next season depends on this year’s playoffs

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The Bucks have been the NBA’s best team throughout the season.

They won 60 games in the regular season. They swept the Pistons in the first round. They just won four straight to beat the Celtics, 4-1.

But money threatens to prevent Milwaukee from rolling this momentum into next year.

Four key Bucks – Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, Malcolm Brogdon and Nikola Mirotic – will be free agents this summer. Keeping all four could push Milwaukee into the luxury tax, a rare expenditure for the small-market franchise. The Bucks have paid the tax only once, the first year it was assessed, 2003.

Would Milwaukee really pay the tax to keep this team intact?

Tim Bontemps of ESPN:

That is something ownership is willing to do, sources say, depending on how far the team goes this season.

This is a misguided outlook. The Bucks’ willingness to pay the tax next season should be based only on whether that extra spending would produce sufficient rewards next season.

Of course, the best indication of Milwaukee’s ceiling next season is probably this postseason. It’s just important to assess with a forward-looking, not backward-looking, approach.

And maybe the Bucks are. Their internal process could easily get twisted as it leaks to the public.

The important thing is their willingness to pay the tax. A conference finals appearance certainly bodes well in that regard.

Milwaukee projects to be about $54 million below the tax line before considering those four starter-level free agents. It’s unlikely the Bucks can keep all four for that little. Middleton, an All-Star this year, could get more than $30 million himself.

With full Bird Rights for Middleton, Brogdon and Mirotic, Milwaukee can re-sign them for any amount up to the max. The only cost is real dollars, which would be multiplied as the team enters the tax.

But it gets tricky with Lopez. To give him a starting salary above $4,058,400, the Bucks would have to clear cap space (highly unlikely) or use a mid-level exception. The non-taxpayer mid-level exception projects to be about $9 million, and the taxpayer mid-level exception projects to be about $6 million. However, using the higher mid-level exception would hard cap Milwaukee at a projected team salary of about $138 million.

Based on their current roster, a $30 million salary for Middleton, a $12 million salary for Brogdon (whose market could be depressed by his restricted status), a $9 million salary for Mirotic and the non-taxpayer mid-level exception would put the Bucks right near the hard cap. And those salaries are conservative estimates.

At least salary-cap rules won’t stop Milwaukee from paying Middleton, Brogdon and Mirotic more. Lopez comes with different constraints.

There’s no guarantee Lopez would settle for a starting salary of just $9 million. He has been so valuable as a stretch five and paint protector. He could get far bigger offers, though maybe not a better fit.

The Bucks could also unload Tony Snell ($11,592,857) and Ersan Ilyasova ($7 million) to create more flexibility. However, Milwaukee already has two outgoing future first-round picks and will be limited trading another.

It’s incumbent on the Bucks to solve these dilemmas, not just to maintain an excellent team but to keep Giannis Antetokounmpo happy as he approaches his super-max-extension decision. Paying the luxury tax could go a long way.

Rockets reportedly have made “no decision” on rest games for Harden, Westbrook

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James Harden played 78 games last season and does not believe in taking games off to rest.

Russell Westbrook has missed just 14 of his last 328 potential games.

Does that change this season? Houston believes it is a title contender and both stars are entering their 30s.

That decision has yet to be made, sources told NBC Sports’ Tom Haberstroh.

Last month, Houston GM Daryl Morey made headlines when he responded to a question about load management on “The Dan Patrick Show,” saying the team will have “a very put together plan by our staff throughout the season to have our guys peak in April.” But sources told NBC Sports that no decision has been made to rest James Harden and Russell Westbrook entire games. Neither Westbrook or Harden have gone that route before, but it must be noted that Harden will enter his 30s, joining the 31-year-old Westbrook, later this month.

(Haberstroh’s story is about a new app that can help alert fans when a player is likely to get a DNP-Rest so said fans don’t head to the arena expecting one thing only to get another. It’s worth a read.)

The Rockets need to have both stars fresh and healthy for the postseason to have a chance (Harden has seemed to run out of gas in the playoffs in the past). That one-two punch of isolation players should prove tough to stop in the postseason, especially if the Rockets can have enough shooting around them.

How well Houston can defend with Harden and Westbrook on the court together will be the biggest factor in determining how long the team’s postseason will last.

Giannis Antetokounmpo put on a show against Italy in World Cup tune-up (VIDEO)

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NBA defenses cannot stop MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.

So imagine what happens in an international game against lesser athletes and defenders.

Actually, you don’t have to imagine. Here are some highlights.

Antetokounmpo scored 18 points and pulled down eight rebounds 19 minutes of play, and Greece cruised to an 83-63 win. (Danilo Gallinari did not suit up for Italy in this one but will be on their World Cup roster.)

USA vs. Spain notebook: Celtics fans should like what they see

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ANAHEIM, Calif. — After listening to how defections had left Team USA weak and vulnerable, the Americans came out with a chip on their shoulder Friday night, played strong defense, showed they have plenty of athleticism and skill, and handled Spain 90-81 in a game that was not really that close.

Here are some other notes from Friday night’s exhibition game at the Honda Center (usually the home of the NHL’s Ducks)

Donovan Mitchell, who led Team USA with 13 points, summed up the feelings of the guys who did make a commitment to USA Basketball this summer:

“Me, I’m 22, some guys are older and got to rest their bodies and I understand that… For me, I’ve never been part of USA Basketball and I’m honored to be here, I’m honored to have this privilege to go out and compete.”

Marcus Smart was in street clothes and did not play on Friday night. Thursday at team practice he took part in some shooting drills but not the scrimmages or anything with contact. He continues to try to come back from a calf injury and make the World Cup roster.

• Smart said during the broadcast Friday that he is “100 percent confident” he will be back on the court with the team.

• Good news for Celtics fans: Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown both played well within the team concept, cutting off the ball and attacking when they had the chance. There was a comfort level and confidence with their games that was good to see again.

Tatum, in particular, made good decisions with the ball all night long, found teammates as cutters when defenders came to him, and seemed to do an improved job playing through contact (something he worked on this summer, and if FIBA ball they let more contact go so he needs it).

Kemba Walker‘s hesitation moves are just unfair.

• The USA’s starters were Harrison Barnes, Khris Middleton, Donovan Mitchell, Mason Plumlee, Kemba Walker.

• To start the second half, Myles Turner got the nod over Plumlee at center. Just a hunch on my part, but Turner is going to have some breakout games for the USA in China.

• Speaking of Myles Turner, this was the Tweet of the night.

• Of the three centers on the roster, Brook Lopez got the fewest minutes by a considerable margin. Lopez is considered a lock to make the roster, this may have been coach Gregg Popovich and staff wanting to get a longer look at Plumlee and Turner in game action (especially against NBA bigs on the Spanish side in Marc Gasol and Juancho Hernangomez). Not sure all three USA centers make the final roster cut.

• Middleton was the best player on Team USA Friday night. He always seems to make the right decision with the ball in his hands.

• This is Southern California, and the Laker fans were out in force. The Honda Center echoed with “Kuuuz” chants every time Lakers’ forward Kyle Kuzma touched the ball.

• Kuzma is considered one of the guys on the bubble to make the team, but he had a strong game on the boards and finished with seven points and five rebounds.

• In the third quarter, the USA rebounder passed ahead to Kuzma in transition, who pushed it up the wing but pulled up and went to the corner because Marc Gasol was back in the paint. As he pulled it out Kuzma found Derrick White as a trailer on break and threw him a pass, White got into the lane and hit an easy floater. When that happened, Popovich stood up and pointed at Kuzma and then Pop pointed at his head, acknowledging and loving the smart play by the Laker.

That was a sign of a maturing of Kuzma’s game, something the Lakers will need this season — and why playing for Popovich this summer is so good for him.

• You can see why Daryl Morey and the Rockets like Serio Llull — the 2017 EuroLeague MVP just knows how to play the game and is well rounded. Houston has Llull’s rights and have tried to lure him to the NBA, but he’s been happy playing for Real Madrid and so far has decided to stay in Spain.

DeMar DeRozan — a gold medalist with Team USA in the Rio Olympics — was in the arena with his children watching the action. Remember he plays for Popovich and the Spurs now (and is a SoCal native).

• In the final minute of a decided game, Team USA had a sloppy offensive possession then lost guys in transition leading to a Marc Gasol three. Popovich called a timeout with 53.4 seconds left to let his team hear about it. There was no chill.

Andrew Wiggins reportedly had shoes, luggage burglarized in Los Angeles

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Like many NBA players, Andrew Wiggins is in Los Angeles this summer working out, practicing against other elite talent, and generally enjoying the summer in the unofficial off-season destination for NBA players.

Wiggins, however, got burglarized — including having his rented SUV stolen. TMZ had the story.

Former No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins was burglarized in Los Angeles … and TMZ Sports has learned the thieves made off with the NBA star’s shoes and luggage…

But, we’re told cops described the scene as “amateur hour” … because the burglars left jewelry and other valuables in the heist, and only took about $1,000 worth of the stuff instead.

We’re told the thieves stole a pair of Wiggins’ casual Nikes and his luggage — and also made off with his rental SUV Escalade. But, we’re told authorities were able to locate the vehicle a short time later.

While the car was found, his shoes and luggage have not been, and there have yet to be any arrests. As anyone who has been burglarized can tell you (*raises hand*) the items stolen are rarely recovered and returned, that stuff tends to be in the wind.

With Jimmy Butler gone, Minnesota heads into this season trying to highlight Karl-Anthony Towns and find a second star to go next to him (they went hard after D'Angelo Russell this summer but did not get him). Wiggins has not been that guy as the Timberwolves had hoped, but with his massive max contract that still has four years remaining Wiggins is nearly impossible to trade. That leaves Ryan Saunders with the task of finding out how to get as much as he can out of Wiggins nightly.