With Bucks hoping to take off, leaving behind Malcolm Brogdon a risky choice

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Next season is the Bucks’ time.

They shouldn’t wait.

They can’t wait.

Milwaukee is very good. Good enough to win a championship. There are no overwhelmingly dominant-looking teams this year. Most of the top contenders will beat up on each other out West. In the Eastern Conference, the 76ers must develop chemistry after a major roster makeover, and Kevin Durant‘s injury puts the Nets another year away from title contention. The Bucks got a necessary and hard-learned lesson in how to compete deep in the playoffs last season. They look primed now.

Giannis Antetokounmpo will also be eligible for a super-max contract extension next offseason. His willingness to re-up might depend on Milwaukee’s success this season. The Bucks remaining elite is totally predicated on keeping the 24-year-old MVP. His satisfaction with the team must be the priority.

With all that swirling, Milwaukee parted with restricted free agent Malcolm Brogdon.

A young talented guard the Bucks held matching rights on – gone. In return, they got absolutely nothing that will directly help them in the ultra-important upcoming season.

Maybe that was the right call. By signing-and-trading Brogdon to the Pacers, Milwaukee got a first-rounder and two second-rounders and avoided paying a red-flagged player $85 million over four years. There’s a case the Bucks got enough value and preserved enough flexibility to justify the move, even considering next season’s high stakes.

But this was also an essential decision for avoiding the luxury tax. That can’t be dismissed. If Milwaukee weakened its roster due to a refusal to pay the luxury tax this season of all seasons, that’d be incredibly disappointing.

This could be a choice that significantly shapes the Bucks for the next decade. I wish I had a better sense of their motivations.

At least Milwaukee got done the rest of its heavy lifting this summer and even rebounded nicely from the loss of Brogdon.

The Bucks re-signed Khris Middleton for less than the max (five years, $177.5 million). It was essential to keep Antetokounmpo’s lone supporting star.

Brook Lopez – with his 3-point shooting and interior defense – is even more important to Milwaukee’s identity. In a tricky situation due to holding only his Non-Bird Rights, the Bucks cleared enough cap space to re-sign him for four years, $52 million.

Milwaukee also had enough cap space to re-sign George Hill (three years, $28,771,806 with $20 million guaranteed). Hill played well in the playoffs. He’s also 33. It’s worth signing Hill to this deal. He can back up Eric Bledsoe, who struggled the last two postseasons, and help at shooting guard with Brogdon gone. But it’s far from certain Hill will live up to this contract.

The Bucks found surprising reinforcements at shooting guard with Wesley Matthews (1+1 minimum) and Kyle Korver (one-year minimum). Both are past their primes, but that’s tremendous value for those two. The big question: Would they have come to Milwaukee if Brogdon hadn’t left open so much playing time? That must be considered in the Brogdon evaluation, but again, it’s difficult to discern.

Robin Lopez signed for the room exception on 1+1. He’ll back up his twin brother. The Bucks could use Robin’s size at the position, especially with Joel Embiid and Philadelphia looking like the top threat in the East.

These are all good deals for Milwaukee. This offseason could have gone far worse for the Bucks given the steps they had to take to open cap space for Brook Lopez and Hill.

Milwaukee traded the overpaid but still helpful Tony Snell and No. 30 pick to the Pistons for Jon Leuer then waived Leuer, accepting a $3,169,348 over the next three years. That was a nasty set of transactions, but it was necessary. The Bucks also lost Nikola Mirotic, who returned to Europe.

After that, it was standard low-end roster moves. Adding Dragan Bender is intriguing. Adding Thanasis Antetokounmpo is the cost of doing business.

It just keeps coming back to Brogdon. How much will the Bucks miss him? How much did his departure improve their ability to lure Matthews and Korver? What will Milwaukee do with the draft picks acquired from Indiana?

That last one is a biggie. Trade those picks in the right deal, and the roster next could be even better than it would have been with Brogdon – especially if ownership is willing to enter the luxury tax.

I just have a hard time figuring out where the Bucks stand on that, and it makes me uneasy about their summer.

Offseason grade: C

Damian Lillard reportedly targeting Sunday for return from calf strain

Portland Trail Blazers v Cleveland Cavaliers
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How much the Portland Trail Blazers miss Damian Lillard was on clear display Tuesday night in maybe their ugliest loss of the season. The Trail Blazers led by 18 in the second half, Anfernee Simons was on his way to putting up 37, and they were facing a Clippers team without Kawhi Leonard or Paul George. Yet Portland came from ahead to lose. Their defense was bested by the unstoppable offensive weapon that is Nicholas Batum (32 points). Portland just let go of the rope in this one.

The Trail Blazers are now 1-4 with Lillard out with a strained calf (the second time this year). The good news for the Blazers is Lillard is targeting Sunday against the Pacers for a return, reports Chris Haynes of TNT.

Haynes is well connected with the Lillard camp, this is a report that can be trusted.

Portland is trying to keep its head above water and is now 11-10 on the season but has struggled this past week, with games at the Lakers and at the Jazz before Lillard’s targeted return.

Lillard is averaging 26.3 points and seven assists a game this season, showing the explosion we were used to seeing before he was slowed by an abdominal injury that required surgery.

Bulls extended coach Billy Donovan before season started

Denver Nuggets v Chicago Bulls
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Bulls’ fans are not thrilled with a 9-11 team sitting 11th in the East, outside the play-in.

Bulls’ management is not either, but they aren’t laying the blame at the feet of coach Billy Donovan — in fact, they extended him just before the season began, a story broken by Shams Charania of The Athletic and since confirmed by Bulls’ media relations staff to K.C. Johnson NBC Sports Chicago.

Why the extension? Because Donovan and head of basketball operations Artūras Karnišovas have a tight relationship, Johnson writes.

Karnišovas’ continued belief in Donovan centers on Donovan’s leadership and communication skills. The two men talk virtually daily and there’s never any misunderstanding in their shared, direct conversation — even when the subject matter becomes difficult.

And not everything has been or continues to be smooth sailing for the Bulls, who have played without Lonzo Ball since January and are off to a 9-11 start in a season with modest outside expectations.

No details about the length of the extension were made public.

This is a decision about stability. Donovan is a solid coach and the front office trusts him. That’s enough to get some extra years on your deal in Chicago.

The Bulls’ issues are not because of Donovan, it’s more a roster that has a “playoff team but not much more” ceiling — a ceiling that is lower this season due to injuries forcing constantly shifting rotations. The Bulls are especially hamstrung without the defense and transition play of Lonzo Ball (still out after another knee surgery). Chicago has defended well this season without Ball (10th in the league), but the offense is bottom 10 and misses the easy buckets Ball helps get with his passing and transition (plus he can knock down some 3s). Donovan has done a respectable job with the players he has.

That is good enough in Chicago to get a few more years.

Three things to know: Luka Doncic looks like an MVP, but can he keep this up?

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Three Things is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) Luka Doncic looks like an MVP, but can he keep this up?

Luka Doncic vs. Stephen Curry.

The schedule makers gave us a showdown of early-season MVP candidates but also two guys who have had to carry a massive load this season, waiting for their teams to come together around them. Curry has gotten more of that lately as Klay Thompson has started to find his legs and some rotation shifts have improved play off the bench.

Luka is still on a Brunson-sized island waiting for help. Tuesday night that island got smaller when Spencer Dinwiddie got ejected for an elbow to the face of the Warriors’ Jordan Poole.

That just meant more Doncic, and he reminded everyone why nobody wants to play the Mavericks in the playoffs with a 41-point triple-double (12 rebounds, 12 assists).

Doncic was a force of nature, although Curry had his chance in the final 10 seconds but got called for traveling (a call the Warriors disputed).

The Mavericks got the 116-113 win. Tim Hardaway Jr. pitched in 25 points, including five 3-pointers for Dallas, but this was the Luka Doncic show.

Doncic has been asked to carry a massive load for Dallas this season. He has a usage rate of 38 through the first quarter of the season, a number that would rank in the top-10 all time (right around 1987 Michael Jordan and 2006 Kobe Bryant).

How long can Doncic do this without starting to wear down? Without risking injury? Sure those other players like Jordan and Kobe got through the entire season, but they also didn’t make the kind of playoff runs Dallas is hoping for. Coming off EuroBasket, Doncic entered this season in the best shape he has ever been in to tip-off an NBA campaign, but there have already been stretches where he has started to look worn down. Then there are nights like Tuesday when he carries the Mavericks to a win and looks unstoppable.

Doncic is young, but asking him to carry this load also puts a ceiling on how good this team can be. Curry is getting that help. Giannis Antetokounmpo is also putting up historic usage percentage numbers this season, but Khris Middleton will return to the Bucks and take on some of that load. The Mavericks touted Christian Wood as an answer, but he is coming off the bench and his defense does not have him in Jason Kidd’s good graces. It’s a one-man show more than ever in Dallas.

If the Mavs want to win in the postseason, it can’t just be the Luka show. But during the regular season, some nights that is enough. At least until he wears down.

2) Damian Lillard to return Sunday, not soon enough for Trail Blazers

The Portland Trail Blazers miss Damian Lillard (calf strain, his second this season) — they are 1-4 in the current five-game stretch without him, playing their worst defense of the season. The latest of those losses — a come-from-ahead loss to a Clippers team without Kawhi Leonard or Paul George — was maybe the team’s worst loss of the season. Anfernee Simons put up 37, the Trail Blazers led by 18 in the second half, and yet they collapsed against a team whose best offensive weapon was Nicholas Batum (32 points).

The good news for the Blazers is Lillard is due back on Sunday, reports Chris Haynes of TNT.

If you didn’t watch the late game on TNT, you missed a battle of two teams trying to keep their heads above water while their star (or stars) sit out injured.

Portland is still 11-10 on the season but has struggled this past week. What was ugly about Tuesday’s loss was the team just let go of the rope. This was a winnable game, but when it got tight they let go.

Powell scored 22 points in the fourth quarter and took over to get the 13-9 Clippers another win.

Los Angeles has done it against a soft schedule, but they keep finding ways to win until their stars return. Nobody is sure how good this team ultimately can be, but Tyronn Lue has got his squad defending and finding ways to win until everyone does get right. It’s an impressive coaching job.

3) Karl-Anthony Towns out weeks with calf strain (likely more than a month)

The MRI is in and Timberwolves big man Karl-Anthony Towns is out for weeks with a right calf strain, the team announced. Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reports Towns likely will miss 4-6 weeks.

Not good, but it looked a lot worse when it happened.

Towns has averaged 21.4 points and 8.5 rebounds a game, and while his stats are down this season — just 32.8% on 3-pointers — the team has struggled at times without him, particularly lineups with Rudy Gobert and Anthony Edwards together, an -11.8 net rating (in non-garbage time minutes, via Cleaning the Glass).

The Timberwolves are not off to the start they thought they would be, and if they don’t figure out a way to win without Towns the next month this season could get sideways on them.

Watch Dinwiddie get ejected for elbow to Poole’s face; Mavericks still win behind Doncic’s 41 points

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Dallas has gotten in trouble this season because of a lack of secondary shot creation behind Luka Doncic, so when Spencer Dinwiddie got ejected for an elbow to the face of Golden State’s Jordan Poole, it seemed like the Mavericks might be in danger of falling to the Warriors.

Doncic had other plans — and a 41-point triple-double.

The ejection happened early in the fourth quarter, when Dinwiddie drove the lane on Poole and, bringing the ball up, elbowed Poole in the face.

That was reviewed by the referees who ruled it a Flagrant 2. The league has cracked down on blows to the face and head — intentional or not — the past couple of seasons.

Dinwiddie being out just meant more Luka — and that was bad news for the Warriors.

Despite Doncic and his triple-double, the Warriors had a couple of chances in the final seconds. First, Stephen Curry got called for a travel.

The Warriors argued that call but got nowhere with the referees. But they got one more chance on a Klay Thompson 3 to tie, but it was just not their night.

The Mavericks got the 116-113 win. Tim Hardaway Jr. pitched in 25 points, including five 3-pointers for Dallas. Curry led the Warriors with 32.