Milwaukee looks ready to make leap into NBA Finals, but is it?

Milwaukee NBA Finals
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images
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In NBA history, eight teams had a net rating of better than +10 — outscoring teams by 10 points per 100 possessions — over the course of an NBA season. Six of those teams won the NBA title, the only ones that didn’t both came in 2016, the Golden State Warriors that won 73 games but blew a 3-1 lead in the Finals, and the Spurs of that season.

The 2019-20 Milwaukee Bucks are the latest team to reach that mark, +10.7 through March 11 when the NBA was shut down.

Yet there are doubts around the league that these Bucks can win the title. It’s because we saw the Boston Celtics two years ago, and then the Toronto Raptors last playoffs, block off Giannis Antetokounmpo’s path to the rim, forcing the Bucks to go to a Plan B and their role players to step up. They didn’t. Those Milwaukee teams fell short of reaching the NBA Finals.

Are these Bucks different?

It feels like they are. This looks like a team ready to take the next step.

If not, an offseason of speculation about the future of Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee — he is eligible to sign a supermax extension this offseason and the Bucks will offer it — will begin.

MILWAUKEE’S DEPTH

Everything with the Bucks starts with Antetokounmpo — a man about to be a back-to-back MVP winner and likely will join Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon as the only players to win MVP and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season. Antetokounmpo averaged 29.6 points with ridiculous 60.8 percent true shooting while grabbing 13.7 rebounds and dishing out 5.8 assists per game. Every team has a game plan to stop him, nobody does.

The Bucks are far from a one-man show, however.

Milwaukee was +4.1 points per 100 this season when Antetokounmpo was off the court (which was a fair amount, the Greek Freak averaged fewer than 31 minutes a game). That rating would have been seventh-best in the NBA this season — a top 10 team even without the league’s MVP stepping on the court. While the Bucks were +3.1 a season ago when Antetokounmpo sat, this team has looked better without their leader despite the loss of Malcolm Brogdon in the offseason.

Khris Middleton is still playing at an All-Star — maybe All-NBA — level averaging 21.1 points a game and shooting 41.8% from three, while playing elite defense. Behind him was Eric Bledsoe at 15.4 points game, the player whose improved play this season largely covered up the loss of Brogdon. Critical to making it all work is Brook Lopez, who will get well deserved Defensive Player of the Year votes and scored 11 points a game (he seems to be past the shooting woes from three that plagued him during the season).

Beyond that core, Wesley Matthews has looked strong in the Bucks’ Orlando scrimmages, Donte DiVincenzo made huge strides and played well this season, and George Hill was critical in locking down the second unit. Then there is Pat Connaughton — reportedly recovered from the coronavirus and in Orlando quarantining — and sharpshooter Kyle Korver.

MILWAUKEE’S DEFENSE

What makes these Bucks different is their defense — best in the league by far with a defensive rating of 101.6. They lock teams down.

Milwaukee had the best defense in the NBA a season ago, too, but this campaign they are 3.3 points per 100 better than that team — a huge improvement.

The Bucks defensive strategy is straightforward: wall off the paint. The Bucks allowed the fewest shots at the rim in the league and the fewest points in the paint. Milwaukee takes away the easy buckets at the rim.

Milwaukee also is quick to contest corner threes and take those away — they can defend the paint and the corner because of the length and athleticism on the roster.

What Milwaukee gives up are midrange shots and threes above the break — the statistically least dangerous shots in the league. They will live with those.

It works, especially with the length and athleticism of the Bucks. The concern is that the best teams in the NBA — starting with the Celtics in the East, plus the teams likely to come out of the West — take and make those shots.

WHAT’S MILWAUKEE’S PLAN B

Milwaukee checks all the boxes of a team headed to the NBA Finals and a title contender: MVP player, depth and versatility, elite defense. This has been the best team in the NBA this season for good reason.

But come the Eastern Conference Finals and NBA Finals, when the other best teams in the league have the talent to limit what the Bucks have done all season to win games, will the role players be able to step up and execute Plan B.

Will coach Mike Budenholzer be willing to go to that plan, and maybe even play Antetokounmpo more than 40 minutes a game. Last season, in a six-game series with the Raptors, Antetokounmpo still averaged just 38.5 minutes a game — “If we can’t win with Giannis at 40, 40.5 (minutes), then Toronto deserves it,” Budenholzer said.

No. When you have the MVP, that series is when you lean on him. The Bucks didn’t do that enough.

This feels like the Bucks’ year. This year feels like the season Milwaukee is back in the NBA Finals.

If not, the offseason of Antetokounmpo speculation will begin.

Lakers reportedly ‘seriously considered’ Westbrook trade for Hield, Turner

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“If you make that trade, it has to be the right one, you have one shot to do it. So we’re being very thoughtful around the decisions on when and how to use draft capital in a way that will improve our roster.”

That was Lakers GM Rob Pelinka on media day talking about the possibility of the Lakers trading the only two first-round picks they control this decade — 2027 and 2029 — to upgrade this roster around LeBron. Pelinka was clear the Lakers were committed to building a winner around LeBron, “We have one of the great players in LeBron James to ever play the game, and he committed to us on a long-term contract, a three-year contract… He committed to our organization. That’s gotta be a bilateral commitment, and it’s there.”

But should that include a Russell Westbrook trade to Indiana for Buddy Hield and Myles Turner? Shams Charania of The Athletic updated and added to the extensive previous reporting on this trade, saying the Lakers kept the door open right up to the start of training camp but didn’t pull the trigger.

Vice president of basketball operations and general manager Rob Pelinka, owner Jeanie Buss and senior basketball adviser Kurt Rambis seriously considered sending Westbrook and unprotected first-round picks in 2027 and 2029 to the Pacers for center Myles Turner and guard Buddy Hield, sources said. They held a series of meetings in the days leading up to camp to analyze the possible Pacers deal from every angle, with the views of Ham and Lakers executives Joey and Jesse Buss also being strongly considered in the process. The organization even delayed the midweek news conference for Pelinka and Ham as the debate continued…

If they were going to gamble on a make-or-break move of this magnitude, the thinking went, then everyone had to have confidence in the same vision. But when that wasn’t the case, sources say, the choice was made by Pelinka to remain patient and see, yet again, if Westbrook might find a way to make this imperfect fit with the Lakers work.

Hield and Turner would absolutely improve the Lakers. Turner can play the five, is an elite shot blocker who could provide a strong defensive back line next to Anthony Davis, and is a respectable 3-point shooter who can space the floor. He’s a natural fit. Hield brings shooting that the Lakers have coveted for years and need more of now.

That trade would have moved the Lakers up the ladder to a solid playoff team in the West. Would that trade make the Lakers contenders? Probably not. It still would have come back to the bubble version of Davis and LeBron being ready for the final 16-game sprint to have a puncher’s chance (that may be the case regardless of other moves). Also, it would have messed with future free agency plans in Los Angeles — the Lakers can have around $30 million in cap space next summer to chase Kyrie Irving (although Shams reports that’s not in their plans) or other name players, Hield is owed $19.3 million next season and Turner will be a free agent the Lakers would need to re-sign. This deal would end the dream of a free agent taking a little less than the max to come to the Lakers (a dream not likely to come to reality anyway).

As Pelinka said, the Lakers have one shot with trading their two picks to upgrade the roster — they have to hit a home run, this can’t be a solid single. The Lakers were not convinced Hield and Turner could be that home run tandem.

So Los Angeles will go into the season with a starting five of Westbrook, Kendrick Nunn, LeBron, Davis, and Damian Jones, with a bench of Patrick Beverley, Thomas Bryant, Austin Reaves, and Dennis Schroder. The Lakers will see if it fits, how far it looks like this group can take them under new coach Darvin Ham, and watch the market to see what other stars could become available.

The Lakers aren’t done dealing, but it looks like a deal with Indiana is now in the rearview mirror.

PBT Podcast: Philadelphia 76ers 2022-23 season preview

2022-23 Philadelphia 76ers Media Day
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images
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The Philadelphia 76ers are title contenders — if James Harden and Joel Embiid can play up to their potential on the biggest of NBA stages. That hasn’t always happened before, particularly with Harden.

Those two are now set up well. Philadelphia learned its lessons from the playoff loss to Miami last season. GM Daryl Morey rounded out the roster with more toughness and two-way players in the form of P.J. Tucker, Danuel House and DeAnthony Melton. Add in the development of Tyrese Maxey and Matisse Thybulle and you have a deep roster of quality players — down to BBall Paul.

Noah Levick of NBC Sports Philadelphia joins me to discuss if Doc Rivers is ready to take this team to the next level, and if all the additions can come together when it matters. Can Harden shake his history of playoff reputation and lead a team to the Finals?

You can always listen to the entire podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google Play, or anywhere else you get your podcasts.

We want your questions for future podcasts, and your comments, so please feel free to email us at PBTpodcast@gmail.com.

When will LeBron James break Kareem’s all-time scoring record?

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LeBron James is trying not to think about it too much.

“The only time I’ve kind of like thought about it is when someone, you know, been posting on social and it went through my scroll, through my feed, and I’ve seen it,” LeBron said at Lakers’ media day. “And every single time I’m kind of in awe of it, like, wow.”

The wow is breaking Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time NBA scoring record.

It was a record thought almost untouchable at 38,387 points, but now LeBron sits just 1,326 points shy of breaking it — health willing, he should pass Kareem this season.

When? Well, that takes a little math and speculation.

LeBron scored 30.3 points a game last season, but the two seasons prior to that it was closer to 25 points a game. If we split the difference and land at 27.5 points per game, it would take 48-49 games. We have to assume that 37-year-old LeBron (turning 38 just before the New Year) will sit out at least a couple of those first games, pushing this back a few games.

Considering LeBron could slide back in scoring to close to 25 a game again, the smart bet is he breaks Kareem’s record in late January or early February. The Lakers have a five-game East Coast road trip that includes Boston and New York starting Jan. 28 and running through Feb. 4, and that’s about the window.

“To sit here and to know that I’m on the verge of breaking probably the most sought-after record in the NBA, something that people say will probably never be done, I think it’s just super like humbling, for myself,” LeBron said. “I think it’s super cool.

“And you know, obviously Kareem has had his differences, with some of my views and some of the things that I do. But listen, at the end of the day, to be able to be right in the same breath as a guy to wear the same [Lakers] uniform, a guy that was a staple of this franchise along with Magic and Big Game [James Worthy] over there for so many years, especially in the 80s, and a guy that does a lot off the floor as well. I think it’s just super duper dope for myself to be even in that conversation.”

Having been in the spotlight for as long as LeBron has — remember he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a high schooler — he can be very practiced, very polished with the media. His brand is smooth, as are his dealings with the press in general.

However, when talking about passing Abdul-Jabbar, it felt like LeBron’s guard was down. He was raw, more reflective and genuinely moved.

“You guys always see me use my hashtag #thekidfromakron and that those are the moments where I really think about that kid from Akron. Walking those streets and, you know, playing basketball when I had actually had a basketball and the hoop, or actually just walking around and air dribbling and shooting into it and invisible hoop you know, and counting 5…4…3…2…1 and, you know, making game-winning shots.

“I’m not going to put too much pressure on it throughout the season. But I think it’s a pretty historical moment when it gets here and you know, as long as my family and friends are all there that’s that’s the most important for me.”

LeBron’s family will undoubtedly be there, and the whole world will be watching. Longevity and LeBron’s ability to be great into age 38 (and beyond) is part of his GOAT argument — and there is no better cornerstone of that argument than being the game’s all-time leading scorer.

Suns fall to hot shooting Adelaide 36ers from Australia, 134-124

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The Adelaide 36ers may be from Australia’s National Basketball League, but they are professional players — leave them wide open and they will hit shots.

Phoenix treated Sunday like their first preseason game (it was) and the 36ers hit 24 3-pointers on their way to an upset of the Suns, 134-124. The 36ers were the aggressors all night long, playing team basketball and putting Phoenix on its heels.

It’s just preseason. One preseason game is not a bellwether for the season, there should be little more than raised eyebrows in Phoenix. However, with their last game being a crushing 33-point loss to Dallas which eliminated them from the playoffs a season ago, this was not the palate cleanser that Phoenix fans were hoping for.

Craig Randall — you may remember him from the University of Memphis and Tennessee-Martin — scored 35 points while Robert Franks added 32. The 3-point shot is the great equalizer in basketball and the 36ers were on fire.

 

The last NBA team to lose to an International squad before Sunday was the Thunder in 2016 to Real Madrid. The year before, Turkish power Fenerbahce beat Brooklyn in the preseason. It does happen.

Reserve point guard Cameron Payne led the Suns with 23 points, while Deandre Ayton looked solid and dropped 22, as did Mikal Bridges, who also had 22. Devin Booker had 13 points and Chris Paul dished out 12 dimes.

With the size of Ayton and the athletic slashing of Bridges, the Suns scored 64 points in the paint, more than doubling the 36ers. But math was not on the Suns’ side, as they traded twos for threes and kept falling behind.

This is great for the NBL and its efforts to grow the brand — the 36ers will now take on the Thunder later this week.

It’s a shrug and move on game for the Suns. Expect a more focused effort from the team next game.