Bucks took shortcut to contention around Giannis Antetokounmpo and came up short

Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo
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Giannis Antetokounmpo led the Milwaukee Bucks to their best season in seven years and won Most Improved Player in 2017. He began the following season absolutely dominating.

But Milwaukee started just 4-5.

That type of backslide had become the norm for the Bucks. They hadn’t made the playoffs in consecutive seasons in 14 years. They’d gone even longer since winning a postseason series. Milwaukee had become defined by unsustained moderate success.

The Bucks were determined to break the trend, though. Antetokounmpo was special and deserved a commensurate supporting cast.

Less than a year later, Milwaukee had a championship contender.

That sudden emergence is an incredible success story. It also raised expectations – making this year’s second-round loss to the Heat a bitter disappointment – and creates long-term complications as the Bucks approach Antetokounmpo’s super-max decision.

How did Milwaukee get here?

Adding proven contributors around mainstays Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, who both continued to improve. The Bucks traded for Eric Bledsoe, hired Mike Budenholzer, signed Brook Lopez, traded for George Hill and signed Wesley Matthews to form the rest of the main playoff rotation.

The catch with proven contributors: They cost.

Milwaukee surrendered first-round picks in trading for Bledsoe and Hill. The Bucks got Lopez cheap after a down year, but only because they offered the one-year contract he desired. Lopez rebuilt his stock and cashed in. Hill also got a lucrative contract in re-signing last summer. Bledsoe previously signed a big extension while his value his high.

Matthews got a minimum contract, but only because he’s older without untapped upside. In that regard, he’s not an outlier.

Ages of Antetokounmpo’s supporting cast:

  • Middleton 29
  • Lopez 32
  • Bledsoe 30
  • Matthews 33
  • Hill 34

Milwaukee’s seventh man, Marvin Williams, already retired!

Antetokounmpo’s supporting cast had an average age* of 30.5 this season. Assuming Antetokounmpo wins Most Valuable player, that’d be the fourth-oldest supporting cast for an MVP in NBA history:

*Using a player’s age on Feb. 1, weighted for playing time in the playoffs (or, in the case of 1976 MVP Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, whose Lakers missed the playoffs, regular season)

This group wasn’t good enough this season, and it’s only getting older.

Does Antetokounmpo really want to commit the next six years of his career to this team?

Antetokounmpo sounds determined to win in Milwaukee.

Next year, at least.

His contract is set to expire in 2021. He could sign a five-year super-max extension this offseason, but the economic downturn caused by coronavirus adds uncertainty. Antetokounmpo could wait until 2021 free agency, when the same contract terms will be available to him with the Bucks (and other teams can offer deals).

That’d also buy him more time evaluate this supporting cast.

It should include more players in Antetokounmpo’s age range. But Milwaukee committed so many errors in the ideal window to build around him.

The Bucks were awful Antetokounmpo’s rookie year. That got them the No. 2 pick, which they used on Jabari Parker. Then, they slowly let Parker’s value bottom out. Other subsequent picks – Rashad Vaughn (No. 17 in 2015) and Thon Maker (No. 10 in 2016) – busted.

Milwaukee’s own draft pick will never land near that high again as long as they have Antetokounmpo.

Key trades backfired, too. The Bucks found a team will to deal a coveted future Lakers first-rounder (which became Mikal Bridges) for Brandon Knight and instead opted for Michael Carter-Williams in a three-way trade. Milwaukee dealt a first-rounder (which became OG Anunoby) and a second-rounder (which became Norman Powell) for Greivis Vasquez.

And then there are the contracts.

Between 2015 and 2017, Milwaukee gave out some gnarly deals:

  • Greg Monroe (three years, max)
  • John Henson (four years, $44 million)
  • Matthew Dellavedova (four years, $38.5 million)
  • Mirza Teletovic (three years, $31.5 million)
  • Miles Plumlee (four years, $52 million)
  • Tony Snell (four years, $44 million)

At best, those contracts served as roadblocks. But Milwaukee also surrendered a first-rounder to dump Henson and Dellavedova (and acquire Hill) and another first-rounder to dump Snell.

Every team has misses. Few teams have done as well to recover from theirs as the Bucks.

But those lost opportunities still loom large as the stakes rise.

Even a hit casts a shadow in this high-pressure situation.

Milwaukee drafted Malcolm Brogdon in the 2016 second round. He won Rookie of the Year and steadily developed into a quality starter.

But when it came time to pay him last summer, the Bucks balked. They signed-and-traded him to the Pacers for a future first-round pick.

The decision was understandable. Brogdon was expensive and had worrying health issues. Milwaukee replaced him remarkably well.

Yet, it’s impossible to watch Brogdon flourish in Indiana without wondering whether the Bucks should have kept him. It can’t be lost that letting Brogdon leave helped Milwaukee avoid the luxury tax.

Especially because the Bucks never flipped the Indiana first-round pick for a player this season.

Maybe Brogdon or someone acquired for the pick wouldn’t have put Milwaukee over the top against Miami. But a player would’ve helped. A future draft pick provided no value in that second-round series.

The Bucks will get the pick, No. 24, this year. It’s a key arrow in the quiver as they try to upgrade Antetokounmpo’s older supporting cast. Milwaukee also has Donte DiVincenzo, a 23-year-old who took a major step forward this year and could continue to improve.

Really, it might not take much. The Bucks are already very good, and the heartache of deep-playoff setbacks is a necessary perquisite to a championship. Antetokounmpo himself can play better, and he’s young enough to significantly refine his game.

It’s a tribute to Milwaukee management that the window is open around Antetokounmpo.

But it might not stay open long.

He’ll have to decide whether he wants that to be his problem or one he leaves behind.

Report: Price tag on Phoenix Suns could be more than $3 billion

Phoenix Suns v Los Angeles Clippers - Game Six
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In 2004, Robert Sarver bought the Phoenix Suns for a then-record $401 million.

When Sarver sells the team now — pushed to do so following the backlash prompted by an NBA report that found an 18-year pattern of bigotry, misogyny, and a toxic workplace — he is going to make a massive profit.

The value of the Suns now is at $3 billion or higher, reports Ramona Shelburne and Baxter Holmes of ESPN.

There will be no shortage of bidders for the team, with league sources predicting a franchise valuation of more than $3 billion now that revenue has rebounded following the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and with a new television rights deal and CBA on the horizon. Sarver purchased the team for just over $400 million in 2004.

Saver currently owns 35% of the Suns (the largest share), but reports say his role as managing partner allows him to sell the entire team (the minority owners have to comply, although they would make a healthy profit, too). Sarver also decides who to sell the team to, not the NBA or other owners.

Early rumors of buyers have included Larry Ellison (founder of Oracle), Bob Iger (former Disney CEO), Laurene Powell Jobs (widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, she has a 20% share of the Washington Wizards), and others. There have been no reports of talks yet, and Sarver does not need to be on a rushed timeline.

Meanwhile, a contending Suns team tries to focus on the season despite the owner selling the team, Jae Crowder not being in training camp and pushing for a trade, and Deandre Ayton does not sound happy to be back with the Suns.

Steve Nash on his relationship with Kevin Durant: ‘We’re good’

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In an effort to gain leverage for a trade this offseason, Kevin Durant threw down a “either the coach and GM are gone or I am” ultimatum.

Now coach Steve Nash (and GM Sean Marks) are back in Brooklyn, on the same team and trying to build a contender together. Awkward? Not if you ask Nash, which is what Nick Friedell of ESPN did.

“We’re fine,” Nash said after the Nets’ first official practice of the season on Tuesday. “We’re good. Ever since we talked, it’s been like nothing’s changed. I have a long history with Kevin. I love the guy. Families have issues. We had a moment and it’s behind us. That’s what happens. It’s a common situation in the league.

“We all were hurting, seething, to go through what we went through last year, not being able to overcome all that adversity. Sometimes you lose perspective because you expect to win, but the reality is we were able to talk and discuss what we can improve on from last year. And also keep perspective. We went through a ton of stuff.”

First off, what else was Nash going to say? He knows the power dynamic in the NBA, and Durant has far more leverage than he does — not enough to get Nash fired this summer, but still more than the coach.

Second, Nash could be telling the truth from his perspective. NBA players and coaches understand better than anyone this is a business and things are rarely personal. Grudges are not held like fans think they are (most of the time). Nash saw Durant’s move for what it was — an effort to create pressure — and can intellectually shrug it off, reach out to KD and talk about the future.

What this brings into question was one of the Nets’ biggest issues last season — mental toughness and togetherness. Do the Nets have the will to fight through adversity and win as a team? Individually Durant, Kyrie Irving, Nash and others have shown that toughness in the past, but as a team it was not that hard to break the will of the Nets last season. Are their relationships strong enough, is their will strong enough this season?

It feels like we will find out early. If the wheels come off the Nets’ season, it feels like it will happen early and by Christmas things could be a full-on dumpster fire. Or maybe Nash is right and they are stronger than we think.

Billy Donovan to choose Bulls’ starting PG during training camp

2021 Las Vegas Summer League - Chicago Bulls v Minnesota Timberwolves
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Speaking at Chicago’s media day, Bulls head coach Billy Donovan said he will choose his starting point guard over the course of training camp. Lonzo Ball was expected to reprise his role as the starter, but he recently underwent arthroscopic surgery on his troublesome knee and raised some eyebrows at media day when he said he couldn’t run or jump. Simply put, there is no guarantee we even see him at all this season.

Donovan is fortunate that he has a plethora of options though, as Goran Dragic, Alex Caruso, Ayo Dosunmu and Coby White will all battle it out. “We’ll have to see how these guys gel and mesh once training camp starts and we start practicing,” Donovan said. “But I think we have enough back there that we can get the job done from that standpoint.”

Dragic is the most “seasoned option” to use Donovan’s own words and would be the safe pick, but at 36 years old, he doesn’t exactly raise Chicago’s ceiling. Plus, Donovan already hinted at managing his minutes throughout the season.

Alex Caruso is Chicago’s best defender and is going to play a massive role whether he starts or comes off the bench, although the latter seems more likely since he’s not a natural point guard.

Coby White showed improvement as a shooter last season, hitting 38% of his triples. However, it’s no secret that his name has been in the rumor mill and the Bulls hardly mentioned him at media day.

With that said, I think Ayo is the dark horse to start after showing some serious promise during his rookie season. In 40 starts, Ayo put up 10.9 points, 5.4 assists, 3.6 rebounds, 1.1 triples and 1.1 steals and was one of the best perimeter defenders on the team. Zach LaVine went out of his way to hype up Dosunmu at media day as well, so you have to love his chances of running away with the job.

Anthony Davis says his goal is to play in all 82 games

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Anthony Davis played 40 games last season, and 36 the season before that. Charles Barkley has nicknamed him “street clothes.”

In a critical season for him and the Lakers, the biggest question with Anthony Davis is not his skill set and if he can be elite, but how much can the Lakers trust him to be on the court? Davis said on media day his goal is to play all 82 games (speaking to Spectrum Sportsnet, the Lakers station in Los Angeles).

A full 82 may be optimistic, but Davis saw last season as a fluke.

“Last season, I had two injuries that you can’t really control. I mean, a guy fell into my knee, landed on the foot,” Davis said earlier at media day. “And the good thing for me is that the doctors after they looked at us, they could have been, like 10 times worse.”

Davis talked about his workout regimen, getting his body both rested and stronger for this long season, knowing more will be asked of him. New coach Darvin Ham wants to run more of the offense through Davis, but all the Lakers’ plans are moot if Davis and LeBron James are not healthy and on the court for at least 65 games this season.

“The focus of my game is being available…” LeBron said Monday. “Availability is the most important thing in his league and to be able to be available on the floor.”

Ham has to walk a line of pushing this team to defend better, show a toughness it lacked last season, and make the playoffs in a deep West while keeping his stars’ minutes under control. In a league all about recovery, the Lakers need to prioritize that, too.

“Just being efficient with how we practice, how we manage shootarounds, how we manage their minutes,” Ham said Monday. “I don’t need ‘Bron or Ad playing playoff minutes in October, November, December.”

It’s the first days of training camp, everyone is feeling good, everyone is rested, and everyone is optimistic. The real tests for the Lakers and Davis start in a few weeks — and just how much will the Lakers’ stars play.