Bucks make potentially fateful choice to let P.J. Tucker leave

Former Bucks forward P.J. Tucker
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NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

The Bucks would be better with P.J. Tucker on the roster.

That’s not really debatable.

Yes, re-signing Tucker – whom Milwaukee let leave for the Heat on a 1+1 contract with a $7 million starting salary – would have been expensive. Even without Tucker, the Bucks face a $42 million luxury-tax liability.

Tucker, 36, has also already shown signs of decline. His drop on 3-pointers, both volume and efficiency, really pinched Milwaukee’s spacing. His defense isn’t as sharp as it once was. He could slip further next season, maybe to the point he doesn’t warrant a spot in the playoff rotation.

But he was just a key contributor in the Bucks’ championship run. He made Milwaukee far more versatile defensively. Giannis Antetokounmpo (getting ahead in transition or slashing through crowds) and Khris Middleton (shooting off the dribble from mid-range) are particularly well-suited to overcome the spacing problems Tucker creates.

Importantly, the Bucks could have made all the same moves they actually made AND re-signed Tucker through Bird Rights. He definitely would’ve provided more optionality than whomever fills Milwaukee’s final roster spot.

To be fair, it’s not as if Bucks ownership went cheap. Milwaukee:

Portis is a bargain. The Bucks didn’t have to use their mid-level exception to keep him, getting him to take just the smaller Non-Bird Exception. However, Portis had three DNP-CDs in a second-round series against the Nets, who remain Milwaukee’s top challenger. Tucker played 31 minutes per game in all seven games against Brooklyn.

Hill underwhelmed with the 76ers last season. Maybe that’s because he’s 35. Maybe that’s because he was uncomfortable with Philadelphia’s system. If the latter, it bodes well Hill is just a season removed from playing very well for the Bucks.

Allen provides depth at shooting guard with Donte DiVincenzo injured and Bryn Forbes departed for the Spurs. With the Grizzlies in a roster crunch, Milwaukee got Allen for just a couple distant second-rounders.

In smaller moves, the Bucks signed Rodney Hood and Semi Ojeleye to one-year minimum contracts. Both are fine bets at that price but would have been overpaid at a dollar more. Hood was once a talented offensive player before injury derailed his career. Ojeleye brings strength as a defensive-minded forward, but he’s very limited offensively.

Curiously, Milwaukee gave Thanasis Antetokounmpo a 1+1 minimum contract. It’s no surprise Giannis’ brother is staying. But if they gave Thanasis two separate one-year minimum contracts, the Bucks would have saved money on both salary and luxury tax without changing Thanasis’ income. Given Giannis’ presence, would there have been any risk of Thanasis leaving if not for this more-player-friendly structure or any risk of Milwaukee not offering another minimum-salary deal next summer?

The Bucks also recouped some draft picks by trading the No. 31 pick for four second-rounders, including No. 54 pick Sandro Mamukelashvili and No. 60 pick Georgios Kalaitzakis. Milwaukee signed Kalaitzakis to a standard contract, rather than the two-way contract typical of that draft slot, because that allows further luxury-tax savings.

Really, the Bucks’ spending went multiple directions coming off their championship. They didn’t pay as much as possible to fortify their title defense. But they didn’t cut every corner, either.

Milwaukee gave Mike Budenholzer a three-year extension. Though Budenholzer – who entered the playoffs on the hot seat – didn’t answer every question about his postseason coaching, he earned this extension by guiding the Bucks to a championship. His playoff adjustments were at least good enough.

Tucker’s postseason production was also good enough. Yet, Milwaukee deemed him unessential. It’s a decision that could reverberate through the 2022 playoffs.

With roughly similar costs, it seems the Bucks could have either:

Portis, Hill and Allen

or

Tucker and one of Portis, Hill or Allen

It’s an interesting thought exercise, and I’m undecided on an answer. Even if choosing Tucker, I’m unsure whether I’d rather have Portis or Hill accompanying him.

But, again, Milwaukee didn’t have to choose. The Bucks could have Portis, Hill, Allen AND Tucker. This is the time – in the midst of championship contention – to pay whatever it takes.

Of course, it’s easy for me to spend someone else’s money.

Offseason grade: C-

Watch Donovan Mitchell drop 43, upstage LeBron return as Cavs top Lakers

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CLEVELAND (AP) — As a kid growing up in New York, Donovan Mitchell idolized LeBron James. On Tuesday night, he upstaged him.

Mitchell scored a season-high 43 points and Jarrett Allen returned from injury to add 24, leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to a 116-102 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers in James’ only visit home this season.

With Anthony Davis missing the final three quarters because of illness, the Cavs improved to an NBA-leading 11-1 on their floor, their best start at home since 2015-16, when James led them to a championship.

Mitchell, who has Cleveland fans dreaming of another title run, took over in the second half and scored 29 points with the kind of performance James had routinely during his 11 seasons for the Cavs.

“You always want to spoil the homecoming,” Mitchell said with a smile.

With Cleveland leading by 12 in the fourth, Mitchell buried a 3-pointer from the left wing to finish the Lakers. After dropping the shot, the All-Star guard strutted around the Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse floor nodding his head as James helplessly watched.

“He’s Mitchell,” James said. “He’s a special kid.”

Darius Garland added 21 points and 11 assists for Cleveland.

James finished with 21 points and 17 rebounds, losing for just the third time in 20 games against the Cavs.

Dennis Schroder and Russell Westbrook added 16 points apiece as Los Angeles had its four-game winning streak stopped.

Davis went out after eight minutes with flu-like symptoms. The eight-time All-Star had scored 99 points in his previous two games and had been playing as well as he has in several seasons after being plagued by injuries.

Davis didn’t attempt a field goal and scored just one point before leaving.

“It got progressively worse as the day went on,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “His temperature was 101 and some change. A-D wanted to try to play, but he felt too weak. He’s drained and dehydrated.

“That’s a huge loss, obviously, with the way he’s been playing lately.”

Without Davis clogging the middle, Allen, who missed the last five games with a bruised back, made his first 10 shots and helped the Cavs take a 57-49 halftime lead.

“Next man up,” James said when asked how he reacted to losing Davis. “That’s a tall task – literally and figuratively.”

The Cavs welcomed James back with a video tribute during an early timeout. After a montage of clips, including some from 2016, James waved to the crowd and then blew kisses to show his appreciation.

The warm scene was in contrast to what happened almost exactly 12 years ago, when he came back with the Miami Heat and was met with boos and worse on a night James has said he’ll never forget.

James said he was caught off guard by the tribute.

“It’s always love coming back here,” he said. “The memories I have here will never be forgotten.”

 

Ben Simmons targeting Friday vs. Hawks to return from calf strain

Toronto Raptors v Brooklyn Nets
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Ben Simmons has missed the Nets’ last three games with knee pain tied to a left calf strain, and he will be out Wednesday, too, when Brooklyn takes on Charlotte.

However, he plans to return on Friday (Dec. 9) against the Hawks.

Simmons was adjusting to a new role in Brooklyn. In Philadelphia he was a point-forward with the ball in his hands playing off Joel Embiid (at least at first), but in Brooklyn the ball needed to be in the hands of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in the halfcourt. Simmons is playing more small-ball five, and is asked to be aggressive and attack when he gets the ball — not shoot jumpers — and to push the rock in transition. It took a while for Simmons to settle into that space, but he seemed to in games against Philadelphia (11 points, 11 assists), Toronto (14 points, six assists) and Indiana (20 points). Then the injuries hit.

Brooklyn sits at 13-12, with a middle-of-the-pack offense and defense for the season. While there are doubts about the ceiling for this team, it has a talent level that should be better than this record, it’s just been beset by injuries, controversy causing Kyrie Irving to miss time, and a coaching change. The Nets have yet to hit their stride.

But they could have a clean injury report on Friday night, and maybe that can be the start of this team getting on a run.

Suns, Hawks reportedly show interest in Kuzma trade, Wizards see him as cornerstone

Washington Wizards v Brooklyn Nets
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Kyle Kuzma was the kind of quality, two-way role player the Lakers needed around LeBron James and Anthony Davis to win the 2020 NBA title (the type of player the Lakers wish they had now).

In Washington, his role has been elevated — he’s a 20-point-a-game scorer (20.6 points per game this season, to be precise) who is a key part of generating offense, not just playing off the stars of Bradley Beal and Kristaps Porzingis. As he told Shams Charania of The Athletic:

“As soon as I got traded, I was ready to be more,” Kuzma told The Athletic.

It’s been enough to draw the interest of a couple of teams looking for a trade, Charania adds. The Wizards are not necessarily interested in moving on, however.

Several teams, such as the Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns, have expressed trade interest in Kuzma, according to league sources. By the same token, the Wizards have shown interest in Hawks forward John Collins, and the sides seriously discussed a potential deal last offseason, league sources added…

However, the Wizards’ front office, led by general manager Tommy Sheppard, has made clear that it views Kuzma as a cornerstone moving forward as the franchise has seen him thrive since the mega-trade in the 2021 offseason. The Westbrook trade provided future flexibility and assets for the Wizards, who have been known to be aggressive and active in research across the league.

Kuzma has a $13 million player option for next season that he will unquestionably opt out of, making him a free agent in search of a healthy raise (north of $20 million a year, although expect something more in the ballpark of the four-year, $104 million Jalen Brunson contract). If the Wizards are willing to pay they likely can keep him (they have his Bird rights). But if Washington isn’t sure it wants to pay market value, or if management sees a shifting path for future seasons, it should consider trading Kuzma at the deadline.

If he becomes available, far more teams than the Hawks and Suns would be interested, quality two-way forwards are in demand around the league. Kuzma would have some leverage over where he gets sent because he can leave as a free agent (teams would offer up less if they believed Kuzma would only be a rental for this season).

Magic send Jonathan Isaac to G-League for practice, rehabilitation

2022-2023 Orlando Magic Media Day
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There was a time when it was thought Jonathan Isaac might be the Magic’s next big star.

However, he has not stepped on an NBA court since he was in the bubble (Feb. 8, 2020), then he tore his ACL in August of that year (which came on the heels of missing much of that season with an injury to the same knee). Last March he had a setback and another procedure, and at this point he has missed two full seasons plus the start of this one.

Isaac is still working toward recovery and the Magic have assigned him to the Lakeland Magic of the G-League to get in some practice.

Because NBA teams barely practice during the season — the schedule of games nearly every other day plus travel and recovery doesn’t permit more than film sessions and walk-throughs — these kinds of baseball-style minor league rehab assignments are more and more common.

The story from the Magic’s official website notes this will be the first time Isaac will play 5-on-5 with other players during his rehab, which is a significant step forward.

There is no timeline for his return, but the Magic have him under contract this season for $17.4 million and two more fully guaranteed years at the same price. There is no reason for the franchise to walk away, even if some around the league question if his knees will ever let him back on an NBA court again.

The Magic have found their next star in Paolo Banchero and have built a promising young core, something Isaac — an elite defender before his injuries — should fit in well with. If he can get healthy and back on the court.