AP

What narrative must Giannis Antetokounmpo concoct to repeat as NBA MVP?

2 Comments

The Eastern Conference is as wide open as the Western Conference. Although the Raptors are still slated to be a playoff contender, they are not strong suitors to take home the Larry O’Brien trophy for the second year in a row. That opens up things for Giannis Antetokounmpo in the Milwaukee Bucks, who met an early end to their season at the hands of Kawhi Leonard in the Eastern Conference Finals. The 2019 NBA MVP was no match for the more well-rounded team and the more determined superstar forward. Meanwhile, separate from Milwaukee’s championship hopes are those for a repeat MVP run from Antetokounmpo.

Well… sort of.

The NBA’s MVP race is all about narrative, and last season it was one that finally came to fruition for the young Bucks superstar. Every year it seemed we had heard about how Antetokounmpo was going to take the leap; how he grown taller; how he’d added additional muscle, and that it was going to be his time to shine. The 2018-19 NBA season was all of that, and more. Antetokounmpo was a revelation, the most important player on both sides of the ball for any one team. And yes, that included James Harden with the Houston Rockets.

But just as Antetokounmpo was the thing that kept Milwaukee going, so too was he partially responsible for their downfall in the playoffs. Teams were able to game plan for Antetokounmpo’s inefficiencies — most notably 3-point shooting — and rely on a dip in performance by his Bucks supporting cast.

Milwaukee lost to Toronto in six games this past May. By the time the Eastern Conference Finals were over, everyone had agreed: Antetokounmpo was the most valuable player in the regular season. But the best player in the playoffs? That alone belonged to Leonard.

It’s not just that Antetokounmpo has to battle the fact that he’s already won an MVP — this is a league that doesn’t hand out a second, consecutive crown unless that player’s team wins the championship (LeBron James, 2013) or is a revolutionary player attaining new heights on a championship-hopeful team (Steve Nash from 2004-06, LeBron from 2008-10, Stephen Curry in 2016).

Coupled with this historical context, there’s also the idea of narrative. Before last season even began, Antetokounmpo was the leader in that department. We enter 2019 with no player at that helm. In fact, Antetokounmpo deficiencies may be the thing that could turn the narrative against him.

There’s no denying that defenses in the playoffs operated differently against the Bucks because they knew that Antetokounmpo could not shoot the three. It’s the one thing missing from his game, and it’s missing by such a disproportionate amount. Antetokounmpo shot 25.6% from beyond the arc last season, elevating to 32.7% for the postseason. That just wasn’t good enough, particularly compared to some of his more envelope-pushing contemporaries.

Antetokounmpo will be one of the most electrifying players in the NBA this season. He has another year of experience under his belt, and time spent figuring out exactly what teams did to him in the playoffs should help him next spring. But even in a league that defined by each player being their own brand, Antetokounmpo cannot stop the groundswell that will burble up underneath of him this season if he can’t shoot reliably.

If Antetokounmpo can’t at least find his way to league average in 2019-20, Twitter, opinion columnists, and folks around the water cooler will lament the idea that a modern, game-changing forward can do so much that we’ve never seen before… but can’t keep up with trends in 3-point shooting. Eventually, that narrative could turn against him and be what keeps him from repeating as MVP.

This takes us back to where we started. Despite the Raptors no longer being the favorites to return to the Finals, the East will be quite difficult to traverse for Milwaukee. The Philadelphia Sixers strengthened themselves this season with the signing of Al Horford. In Boston, the Celtics will have a full year of a healthy Gordon Hayward along with freshly-minted Kemba Walker. The king it may be out of the East, but usurping the throne won’t be easy for Antetokounmpo.

As a team, the Bucks were middle of the pack in terms of 3-point shooting last season. It helps that guys like Brook Lopez have stretched opposing defenses in ways that have made up for Antetokounmpo’s efficiencies. But this year, if Milwaukee wants to make a true championship run they will need Antetokounmpo to find a way to shoot the three-ball. Ironically enough, that’s also same thing that could propel him to a second straight MVP.

Jerami Grant: Not leaning toward taking $9,346,153 player option with Nuggets

Nuggets forward Jerami Grant
Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images
Leave a comment

The Nuggets have their starting point guard (Jamal Murray), shooting guard (Gary Harris), small forward (Will Barton) and center (Nikola Jokic) locked up a combined 11 more seasons.

The big question comes at power forward.

Paul Millsap will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason. Michael Porter Jr. has shown promise. And Jerami Grant holds a $9,346,153 player option for next season.

Jerami Grant on “Posted Up with Chris Haynes,” via Quenton S. Albertie of Nugg Love:

I’m definitely not leaning towards picking up the player option.

Grant appeared bound for a raise. He’s a good finisher who active seeks opportunities at the basket and has improved his 3-point shooting. His versatile defense is valuable in any system. And he has the track record of hard work that should make teams comfortable investing in the 26-year-old.

But the NBA’s coronavirus-caused revenue decline presents a major variable. We’ll have to see where the salary cap lands. If the wrong teams have space, Grant could be stuck with just the mid-level exception, which – depending on the cap – could be less than $9,346,153.

In any cap environment, Denver has optionality. Millsap is still solid, though at 35, it’s unclear how many more good years he has left. Porter is exciting, though he’s still raw, and health remains a concern. Another impending unrestricted free agent, Mason Plumlee plays in plenty of two-center lineups with Jokic.

The Nuggets – who just traded a first-rounder for him – surely want to keep Grant. But they have other options, which gives them leverage.

Grant’s leverage comes with declining his player option and exploring unrestricted free agency. He’s setting that stage now.

Report: One last push for NBA to return with all 30 teams

Thunder owner Clay Bennett
Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images
Leave a comment

The NBA has 30 teams.

Some teams don’t want that forgotten as the league heads toward resuming with just 22 teams.

Adrian Wojnarowski and Zach Lowe of ESPN:

Near the end of the NBA’s Board of Governors call on Friday, Oklahoma City Thunder owner Clay Bennett delivered an impassioned soliloquy on why the league and owners needed to consider the competitive and financial plights of smaller market teams that could be left out of the season’s summer resumption in Orlando — and the potential symbolic power of all 30 teams gathering there to play as one united association.

As the NBA moves toward a plan of inviting 22 teams re-start a truncated season in late July, sources told ESPN, Bennett spoke of exhausting ways to accommodate non-playoff teams still wanting to play. He wondered: was there a way to safely bring all 30 teams?

The inequities facing smaller markets had to shape the league’s thinking, Bennett suggested. Nine months without games – March to December — could have an impact on developing players, cultivating sponsorships and selling tickets in markets where franchises struggle to gain a hold.

For those teams left out of the playoffs, there has already been dialogue on the possibility of mandatory summer training camps and regional fall leagues of four-to-five teams that could bridge the lengthy gap between seasons, sources told ESPN. Those are ideas many teams consider vital, and there’s an expectation that the NBA will raise possible scenarios such as these with the Players Association, sources said.

The financial elements of the plan are significant for the league too — with the 22-team format worth several hundred million dollars more in revenue than 16-team straight-to-playoffs plan would, sources said.

The irony: Bennett moved the Thunder to small-market Oklahoma City from larger-market Seattle.

Get past that, and he has a point: Ideally, all 30 teams would finish their seasons. That’s how the season was originally designed. It’d be nice if it could be completed that way.

But it’s also important not to become consumed by that goal in the face of other – sometimes competing – concerns.

The more teams playing, the higher the risk of coronavirus spreading. It’s that simple. In the NBA’s setup, maybe there’s negligible safety difference between 16 teams and 22 teams and 30 teams. That’s worth exploring. But increasing the number of teams increases the risk.

Of course, increasing number of teams also increases revenue. Just as 22 teams will draw more money than 16 teams, 30 teams would draw more money than 22 teams (if safe). That can’t be ignored.

It’s not as if this is a huge departure from normal, though. At this point in the season, many teams begin several months without meaningful games. Fix the tanking issue in normal times. Especially now, it seems absurd to recall teams just for games the organization prefers to lose.

This also isn’t simply a market-size issue. The Knicks, Warriors and Bulls are among the teams outside the top 22. Sure, there’s room for consideration for teams that aren’t resuming. But it’s not as if they’re just small-market teams left to wallow.

Plus, an extended period without basketball is an all-too-convenient concern all of a sudden. Where was that rallying cry while owners held lockouts? Owners canceled games to serve their greater objectives then. It’s a reasonable consideration now, too.

Mandatory summer training camps won’t help eliminated teams sell sponsorships and tickets. Those camps might not even have much value in team building. With contracts generally shorter now, so many players are heading into free agency. For impending free agents on finished teams, protecting their health is most important – not practicing with a team they won’t necessarily stay with.

There are no perfect answers here. NBA commissioner Adam Silver must decide on the least-bad option. It’s perfectly fine if that doesn’t include all 30 teams.

How many teams will make 2020 NBA Playoffs?

Spurs guard DeMar DeRozan vs. Kings
Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images
Leave a comment

The NBA could resume with 16, 20, 22 or 30 teams. The league is weighing playing more regular-season games, jumping straight to the playoffs, holding a play-in tournament and even drawing for a group stage. The most important thing is finding the proper format for this unprecedented season interrupted by coronavirus.

But that still leaves a question: How will playoff inclusion be determined?

Importantly, that affects which teams participate in the lottery. The whole point is to give every non-playoff team and only non-playoff teams a shot at the top picks in the draft.

A few notable streaks are also on the line:

San Antonio and Sacramento are in that tightly grouped 9th-12th range in the Western Conference (with the Pelicans and Trail Blazers). Phoenix has the league’s 21st-best record.

The postseason could simply include just the normal 16 teams. But the alternative formats open other possibilities.

It appears most likely 22 teams will resume, though it could be 20. Either scenario could include a play-in tournament – with an unspecified number of teams. Maybe four, maybe six, maybe some other number. Though the name – “play-in” – suggests those teams wouldn’t be considered playoff teams unless advancing, that’s not an official designation. The first NCAA Tournament games each year are commonly called play-ins. But teams that lose those games are considered to have made the NCAA Tournament. The NCAA has formally called that round “Opening Round,” “First Round” or “First Four.” The NBA could do something similar.

Though momentum has appeared to stall for a group phase, that format posed the most uncertainty about which teams would be deemed in the playoffs. Would all 20 participating teams? Just eight teams would advance to a tournament (the equivalent of the second round of a normal playoffs). Would only those eight be considered playoff teams? Would the league designate the third- and fourth-place finisher in each group as playoff teams after the fact to reach 16 postseason teams? It’d be weird to “make the playoffs” only after getting eliminated.

But the NBA has had plenty of variance on this throughout its history.

We’ve grown accustomed to 16 teams making the playoffs, the system in place since 1984. But in 1984, there were just 23 teams. So, nearly 70% of the league made the playoffs.

The league has since expanded to 30 teams. So, just 53% of teams make the playoffs now.

Only two periods have seen a lower proportion of the league make the playoffs. From 1971-1974, just 47% of teams (8/17) reached the postseason. From 1981-1983, just 52% of teams (12/23) reached the postseason.

It wouldn’t be ahistorical for the NBA to include more than 16 teams in this year’s playoffs.

Here’s a history of the percentage of teams that have made the playoffs each year (blue). The orange lines represent how that would compare to various scenarios this season – 8, 16, 20 and 22 postseason teams:

Obviously, eight playoff teams would be a major outlier. But having 20 or even 22 playoff teams wouldn’t.

Like with many issues right now, the NBA had latitude and must just decide where to draw the line.

NBA coaches’ union: ‘We have the power and platform to affect change, and we will use it’

Leave a comment

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and Warriors coach Steve Kerr often speak loudly on political issues.

Now, in the wake of George Floyd’s death and the ensuing protests around the country, the entire NBA Coaches Association is speaking out.

NBA Coaches Association:

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

In describing recent events of “police brutality, racial profiling and the weaponization of racism” as “shameful, inhumane and intolerable,” the National Basketball Coaches Association has established a committee on racial injustice and reform to pursue solutions within NBA cities.

[Hawks coach Lloyd] Pierce played a leadership role in the NBCA’s weekend dialogue and has shown a determination to encourage the entire roster of coaches — not just those traditionally speaking on issues of race and equality — to be part of a movement of voice and action within the profession’s ranks.

Floyd’s death was a tragedy that has shaken the entire country. It has compelled many – including within the NBA – to speak out and act.

It is wonderful that people are standing up to injustice.

Coaches also ought to carefully consider how to use their union as a tool in that fight.

Per the union’s website:

THE NBA COACHES ASSOCIATION WAS ESTABLISHED TO ACHIEVE THE FOLLOWING GOALS:
  • To promote the profession of NBA Basketball Coach
  • To assist in securing for its members maximum salary opportunities, disability and retirement benefits and individual and group marketing opportunities
  • To act as a liaison between the NBA and its body of coaches
  • To organize regular meetings for its members where information and ideas concerning the sport of basketball and coaching may be exchanged
  • To create opportunities for coaches in radio, television, the internet, publishing, and other related activities, and for opportunities in international coaching clinics and international basketball
  • To maintain contact with and support coaches between assignments
  • To take advantage of current technology as it applies to the game of basketball
  • Provide a forum for the betterment of the NBA coaches profession

There might be a narrow way for the union to take action while fitting its mission. But as its letter says, the National Basketball Coaches Association has a “diverse group” of members. The union should be careful not to collect dues from members to spend outside its purview.

NBA coaches are people, not just coaches. I applaud each of them who choose to speak out. They do have the platform and power to affect change.

I hope they find the right way to do that.