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

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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.

Lillard poised to pass Drexler as Trail Blazers all-time leading scorer

2022-23 Portland Trail Blazers Media Day
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Damian Lillard could have done what a lot of NBA stars have done — what a lot of them told him to do while recruiting him — and has chosen to stay in Portland. He wants to be remembered as the greatest Trail Blazer ever.

One good way to do that: Become the franchise’s all-time leading scorer. Sometime around Thanksgiving or a little after, Lillard will do just that, passing Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler and his 18,040 points (Lillard is 531 back).

Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports spoke to Lillard about when he knew the record was within reach, during Trail Blazers training camp in Santa Barbara, California (go Gauchos!). It was when Lillard got to 10,000 points.

“I was like, ‘Damn, I got 10,000 already?’ ” Lillard told Yahoo Sports he recalled at the time. “It was my sixth season in the league. That’s when I started thinking, if I could be consistent, I could score into the high 20,000-point range. As a scorer, 20,000 points is always looked at as a special mark. From that moment, I knew it was possible, but it’s also when I first researched Clyde Drexler’s [scoring] record with the team.”

Drexler is good with being passed by Lillard.

“You and I know records are made to be broken, but I can’t think of a better player or person to break the record than Dame,” Drexler told Yahoo Sports. “He exemplifies being a team player and going about his business in a professional way. I have nothing but admiration and respect for him. When he comes close to getting the record, and if our schedules align, I would love to be there to help out in any way I can. That’s a nice milestone to achieve. I am looking forward to him accomplishing that.”

Lillard is on a lot of front office people’s watch list this season, as in “how long before he is unhappy and asks for a trade?” The thing is, Lillard has been on that list for years and he keeps choosing Portland — he isn’t looking to leave. Of course, the $120 million extension and a retooling of the roster around him helped with that decision, but Lillard always had other options if he wanted them (and at times it felt like he would take them).

The Trail Blazers brought in Jerami Grant, re-signed Anfrenee Simons, and will put them with a solid core of others such as (a finally healthy) Jusuf Nurkic, Josh Hart, Gary Payton II and others. It’s a good roster, the question is how good in a deep West?

There are a lot of questions about how this season shakes out in Portland, but the one seeming sure thing is Lillard becoming the Trail Blazers’ all-time leading scorer. And that seems fitting.

Suns update: Ayton blames Sarver for contract, Crowder conflict, Johnson to start

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Phoenix went to the NBA Finals two seasons ago and had the most wins in the NBA last season, yet dark clouds seem to be blocking out the Suns heading into this NBA season.

Here’s the latest on three situations with the Suns: Deandre Ayton‘s contract frustration, why Jae Crowder is asking out, and who starts at the four now.

• Ayton ended up signing a four-year, $132.9 max contract and will be back with the Suns to start this season, but the road to get there was rocky. The Suns would not offer Ayton a max five-year contract extension, his name kept coming up in Kevin Durant trade rumors, so Ayton went out and got a four-year max offer from the Pacers — which the Suns instantly matched. Phoenix saved $40 million and a guaranteed year, but the process left Ayton a little bitter.

Ayton blames outgoing owner Robert Sarver — a notorious penny pincher as an owner (among other, much worse things) — Marc Spears and Ramona Shelburne of ESPN discussed on NBA Today (hat tip Real GM).

“That is certainly something that caused the ire of him,” said Marc J. Spears. “I was told that it was Robert Sarver who didn’t want to give him that fifth year, who wanted to save the money.”

“My understanding from talking to people close to Deandre is that he thinks this was Robert Sarver’s decision as well. And Robert Sarver’s not going to be the owner anymore. So there is some healing that can happen there. But I know there were some hurt feelings over that contract and how that played out.

“If they were going to instantly match an offer sheet that he signed, why not just give him the max contract? Yes, it saved them a year and $40 million but as somebody close to Deandre told me ‘There’s a karma to this. Why do that to your No. 1 overall pick?'”

Shelburne hit the nail on the head — the NBA is a business, but it’s a business of relationships. Not only did the Suns sour theirs with Ayton, but you can also be sure every other agent around the league noticed how that was handled. It doesn’t help when recruiting players. The eventual new owner, whoever it ends up being, has a lot of work to change the franchise’s perception.

• Jae Crowder remains away from the Suns during training camp awaiting a trade (which reportedly will not be to Dallas). Crowder started 109 games for the Suns during the past two seasons and was a key part of their run to the NBA Finals, so how did things deteriorate so quickly? Marc Stein lays it out in his latest Substack newsletter.

Entering the final season of his current contract at $10.2 million, Jae Crowder let the Suns know that he was seeking a contract extension. League sources say that the Suns’ messaging, in response, was to let Crowder know that, at 32, he was no longer assured of starting or finishing games ahead of Cam Johnson. That gulf between the parties led Crowder to seek an exit from the desert that has landed him on indefinite mutual leave from the team until Phoenix can find a trade for him.

While Miami gets mentioned as a suitor a lot, it’s next to impossible to put together a trade that works for both sides right now (at the trade deadline, maybe, but Crowder isn’t going to be with the Suns that long). Cleveland is currently the hot name in league circles when talking Crowder trades, and Stein also mentions the Milwaukee Bucks, who have been looking for a P.J. Tucker-like replacement for P.J Tucker. But, do any of these teams want to extend Crowder at age 32?

• Suns coach Monty Williams confirmed what Crowder heard — Cameron Johnson will start at the four for the Suns this season.

Johnson brings better shooting to the table — 42.5% last season on 3-pointers — and is more athletic at this point, but Crowder brings better defense, toughness, and veteran savvy that can be trusted in the playoffs. The Suns may miss that when it matters, but Johnson will get the chance to prove us all wrong.

Blake Griffin agrees to join Boston Celtics on one-year deal

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According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Blake Griffin has agreed to join the Boston Celtics on a one-year contract which will be fully guaranteed.

The Celtics were desperate for frontcourt depth following injuries to Danilo Gallinari and Robert Williams, as Luke Kornet was even getting some run with the starting group at training camp.

You do have to wonder just how much the 33-year-old Griffin has left in the tank though. Last season with the Brooklyn Nets, Griffin only managed to play 17.1 minutes per game and his 3-point percentage dropped like a stone to 26%. He was also a major liability on defense, and the Celtics surely know that after Jaylen Brown drove by him with ease time and time again during the postseason.

Griffin was still an effective playmaker and that may make him a good fit with the second unit alongside the likes of Malcolm Brogdon, Derrick White and Grant Williams with all of these capable of handling the ball. Injuries and Father Time have zapped Griffin’s athleticism, but if anyone can squeeze the last bit of value out of him, I’d bet on Brad Stevens and the Celtics.

Highlights from Japan Game: Hachimura and Wiseman put on show, plus Suga and Curry

Golden State Warriors v Washington Wizards - NBA Japan Games
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The NBA preseason is officially here — and it started in Japan. The Golden State Warriors faced the Washington Wizards in front of a sold-out crowd at the Saitama Super Arena in Tokyo. In case you didn’t wake up at 6 am Eastern to watch a meaningless preseason NBA game (and if you did, we’re worried about you), here are a few highlights and notes from the night.

• The Wizards were there because they have the biggest Japanese star in the NBA, Rui Hachimura, and he was given a chance to shine. The crowd erupted when he did anything.

• The leading scorer on the night was the Warriors James Wiseman with 20 points on 8-of-11 shooting, plus nine boards.

• Dunk of the game goes to Kyle Kuzma.

Stephen Curry was doing Stephen Curry things.

• Stephen Curry also met Suga of BTS and gave him some game-worn kicks. This will win Twitter for the day.

• Oh, by the way, the Warriors won 96-87. As for the level of basketball, it looked like the first preseason game after a flight halfway around the world. The teams combined to shoot 11-of-47 in the first quarter (23.4%) and both were under 40% for the game.

Klay Thompson is sitting out both Warriors games in Japan.

TRIVIA TIME: Can you name the other two players currently in the NBA born in Japan?

Cam Thomas (Yokosuka) and Yuta Watanabe (Yokohama), both of the Brooklyn Nets (Watanabe is on a training camp deal and is not expected to make the roster). Both were raised much of their lives and went to high school and college in the United States.