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

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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 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:

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.

Buddy Hield fuels 76ers trade rumor

Kings guard Buddy Hield vs. 76ers
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A rumor emerged about the Kings trading Buddy Hield to the 76ers. It didn’t seem particularly credible.

But then Hield himself liked this Instagram post promoting a potential trade and apparently made a pro-Philadelphia comment on Instagram:

Hield previously laid the groundwork for an offseason trade request. He seemed unhappy at times in Sacramento this season, losing his starting job and even riding the bench when the Kings needed a 3-pointer.

The 76ers could use more shooting – especially if they hire Mike D’Antoni. Hield would definitely add value. A lineup where Hield and Josh Richardson defend guards and Ben Simmons plays point guard offensively and defends a frontcourt player is intriguing.

Hield is set to earn $24,931,817 next season in the first year of a four-year extension. That’s in the range of Tobias Harris ($34,358,850) and Al Horford ($27,500,000).

However, Horford’s trade value is at rock bottom. Tobias Harris would add only so much value to Sacramento, which already has Harrison Barnes.

Kings fans can hope for Ben Simmons ($28,750,000) or Joel Embiid ($29,542,010). But those stars are FAR more valuable than Hield. Besides, the 76ers said they wouldn’t trade Simmons or Embiid (though it’s unclear who exactly is running the show in Philadelphia).

Regardless of whether the Kings and 76ers could connect on a trade, Hield making these public gestures is an issue in Sacramento. It’s on new Kings general manager Monte McNair to manage this. After years of supporting Daryl Morey with the Rockets, this is a new challenge – being in charge while a player makes waves – for McNair.

Relatedly, McNair must also handle Bogdan Bogdanovic‘s impending restricted free agency. These look like warning shots from Hield as Sacramento determines its priorities at shooting guard.

Report: Philadelphia ownership wants Mike D’Antoni as next coach

Mike D'Antoni 76ers
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Philadelphia 76ers ownership (led by Josh Harris) reportedly has been very hands-on in picking the team’s new coach — even if that means a new direction for the roster. That hands-on style reportedly why ownership likes Elton Brand as GM and may balk at bringing in a big-name president of basketball operations — that person would want total control of basketball decisions. Right now, ownership is pulling a lot of those levers.

And ownership wants Mike D’Antoni as the next head coach in Philadelphia, reports Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Sources have been saying since last week that the job is D’Antoni’s to turn down. They say he’s the guy the ownership group wants. One source even said the 69-year-old would have to bomb his interview with the Sixers owners not to be offered the job.

The problem is that Brand is supposed to have a huge input on the hire. The ownership is only supposed to approve or deny Brand’s suggestion. Now, word is leaking out that Brand is pushing hard for the Sixers to hire D’Antoni and that Joel Embiid gave his blessing. In addition, there are reports that the Sixers will make trades if D’Antoni is hired. The expectation is that he’ll have a say in picking players for his freewheeling style of play.

With Billy Donovan taking over in Chicago, the list of top candidates for the Philadelphia job seems down to two: Tyronn Lue and Mike D’Antoni. Lue would be the conventional choice, a guy who would try to make it work with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons together, along with Tobias Harris, Josh Richardson, and Al Horford. Roster tweaks would be coming, but with Lue the idea would be making better use of the roster and style the 76ers have already built.

D’Antoni would be a radical change of direction — he is coming from a team that just started 6’7″ Robert Covington at center. The current 76ers roster would need changes to fit with D’Antoni’s freewheeling ways, and even then the coach would need to adapt what he wants to do. (No contract is untradeable, but moving the four-years, $147.2 million left on Harris’ deal, or the three years and $81 million on Horford’s contract, would require Philly to throw in a lot of sweeteners.)

D’Antoni would mean another change of direction in Philly, but that seems to be what ownership wants.

Bam Adebayo on injury: “I’m good,” expects to play in Game 5 Friday

Bam Adebayo injury
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In the final minutes of Miami’s Game 4 win, while Tyler Hero was knocking down shots and Jimmy Butler was getting to the line, Miami‘s Bam Adebayo was dealing with an injury, walking around holding his wrist, his arm dragging. He had gotten tangled up with Daniel Theis under the basket and clearly injured something.

The questions raised post game were about what happened, how serious it was, and could Adebayo be out for Game 5 on Friday? There was nothing official from the team but it looks like he will play, according to Tim Reynolds of the Associated Press and Ira Winderman of the Sun-Sentinel.

Adebayo had 20 points and 12 rebounds in Game 4, and his play is critical to Miami’s game plan against Boston. His ability to protect the rim at one end, then come out high to set screens and pull Theis out of the paint on the other end, is at the heart of what the Heat want to do in this series. If he is even slowed in Game 5 it is an advantage for Boston.

This time of year, and with the Heat one game away from the NBA Finals, no chance he sits if he can at all play.

LeBron James: Neighbor’s walls, not Breonna Taylor, got justice

Lakers star LeBron James
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Louisville police officers were not charged with killing Breonna Taylor. However, former officer Brett Hankison was charged with first-degree wanton endangerment for allegedly firing firing recklessly into nearby apartments during the incident.

That outcome left NBA players unsatisfied.

LeBron James:

The emotions LeBron – and many others – are feeling are completely understandable. This was a tragedy. Faced with an obvious injustice, it’s easy to demand the harshest-imaginable punishment. That didn’t come.

But it is not too late to address the injustices – which were always far larger than the officers at the scene returning fire – at play in Taylor’s death.