Giannis Antetokounmpo drives through all Cavaliers for dunk (video)

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Giannis Antetokounmpo is undeniable.

Watch this video. He’s the only Bucks player in sight on the court. All five Cavaliers appear. Antetokounmpo dunks anyway.

He dribbles past Jordan Clarkson then through David Nwaba and Tristan Thompson. Nik Stauskas and Brandon Knight are shading close enough to narrow his potential path. None of it matters.

Antetokounmpo scores inside unlike anyone anyone we’ve ever seen.

Report: Rockets trading first-rounder to dump salary in three-way deal with Cavaliers and Kings

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Rockets owner Tillman Fertitta called the luxury tax a “horrible hindrance.”

So, Houston will do something about it.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

The Houston Rockets are acquiring guard Iman Shumpert in a three-way deal with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Sacramento Kings, league sources told ESPN.

The Rockets will send guard Brandon Knight, forward Marquese Chriss and a 2019 lottery protected first-round pick to the Cavaliers, league sources said.

The Cavaliers will send guard Alec Burks to the Kings, and guards Nik Stauskas and Wade Baldwin to the Rockets, league sources said.

Sacramento also got a second-round pick from Cleveland, according to James Ham of NBC Sports California. (Update: The pick will come from Houston.)

This trade puts the Rockets in line to save $7,780,376 – $6,417,710 in luxury tax and $1,362,666 salary – this season. The bigger savings come next season, when Knight – who hasn’t been good in years – is guaranteed $15,643,750. Everyone Houston got is on an expiring contract.

The Rockets are now just $4,290,472 over the tax line and could still try to dodge the tax altogether. But they will likely be active on the buyout market, which would only add to their payroll. Maybe Houston will try to flip Stauskas and/or Baldwin before tomorrow’s trade deadline to make an eventual post-buyout signing less costly. Escaping the tax entirely seems less likely.

At least this trade also helps the Rockets on the court, unlike their money-saving decisions last offseason. Knight and Chriss were non-factors. Shumpert isn’t great, but he’s a reasonable two-way wing with deep-playoff experience. Teams can’t get enough of those.

Still, Shumpert is a minor upgrade relative to what Houston could’ve gotten for a first-rounder if that pick weren’t doing the heavy lifting of unloading bad salary.

That pick is why Cleveland took Knight and Chriss. The Cavs aren’t going anywhere quickly, anyway. Better to stock up on long-term assets like draft picks in exchange for taking negative-value contracts now. Maybe even Chriss is worth a flier. He gets his desired trade. The first-rounder is the real prize, though.

Swapping Shumpert for Burks, who’s also on an expiring contract, seems like a parallel move for the Kings. Burks is an inch taller, and Sacramento needs a bigger wing. But Shumpert had done a nice job of competing at small forward. I’m not convinced Burks will match that. At least the second-round pick offers buffer. But in a season where the Kings could end a 12-year playoff drought, they should focus primarily on the players involved. Maybe they just like Burks.

Austin Rivers downplays tension with Chris Paul: ‘If we ever play in L.A., me and CP know all the tunnels’

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HOUSTON — Despite positive results from their first victory without guard Chris Paul, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey acted with haste in patching the hole on his roster that could undermine advancement toward securing a playoff bid in the competitive Western Conference.

The Rockets on Monday announced the signing of free agent guard Austin Rivers, recently released by the Phoenix Suns following a trade that sent Rivers westward from Washington. Rivers, in his seventh season, has averaged 9.3 points and 2.4 assists over 437 career games with New Orleans, the Los Angeles Clippers, and the Wizards. Rivers posted career-best marks in points (15.1), assists (4.0), rebounds (2.4), and steals (1.2) last season with the Clippers.

With Paul expected to be sidelined between 2-4 weeks with a Grade-2 left hamstring strain, the Rockets opted not to roll the dice by increasing the workload on guards James Harden and Eric Gordon. Guard Brandon Knight recently returned from a knee injury that cost him almost two full seasons, but in averaging 14.9 minutes over the previous two games, it became clear that Knight isn’t ready for such heavy minutes. That led Morey and the Rockets to Rivers.

“He can give us stuff, especially with Chris out, another ball handler, scorer,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “A guy that attacks, can play defense — he’s a good NBA player. It makes us deeper and it keeps us from having Eric to play too many minutes and different guys. Another good body. A lot of positive stuff.”

Rivers will play on Tuesday when the Rockets (17-15) host the Oklahoma City Thunder (21-11) at Toyota Center. Houston has produced the fourth-best offensive rating (112.1) in the league this month and improved to 7-4 in December with a 108-101 home victory over the San Antonio Spurs last Saturday, their first victory in six games this season with Paul sidelined.

Rivers and Paul were teammates for three seasons in Los Angeles, and rumors abounded about their supposedly frosty relationship. They were central in an altercation, highlighted by talk of secret tunnels, between the Rockets and Clippers last season.

Rivers was quick to dismiss those allegations prior to his first practice with the Rockets on Monday.

“I had no problems with Chris,” Rivers said. “Obviously if I had a problem with Chris I wouldn’t be here. Chris has a huge input on this team as he should; he’s a Hall of Fame point guard. Obviously, if that was that serious I wouldn’t be here. That just goes to show you that it’s not real.

“That’ll be quickly put to bed.”

Rivers, via Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle:

“For better or worse, right?” Rivers said of his history against the Rockets. “If we ever play in L.A., me and CP (Chris Paul) know all the tunnels. We’ll be all right there. It’s funny. This is a team I always admired and wanted to play for with (Mike) D’Antoni and the way they play, getting up and down. It’s a very fitting place.”

Stability and success have been companions for the Thunder, winners of 9 of 13 with two of those four losses coming by just two points. In the second game of a back-to-back, the Thunder fell 114-112 to the Minnesota Timberwolves at home on Sunday. Still, third-seeded Oklahoma City possesses the best point differential (6.4) and net rating (6.1) of all teams in the West.

Those margins have been built but the league’s second-best defense (102.0 rating) and by prowess on the glass. Oklahoma City ranks fourth in rebounding percentage (52.0) and, especially concerning for the Rockets, first overall in offensive rebounding rate (31.4). Houston is 29th in defensive rebounding percentage (69.4) this season, ahead of only the Wizards.

“That’s the game,” Harden said. “Obviously, we know how really good they are defensively but rebounding (will be decisive).”

Chris Paul diagnosed with Grade 2 hamstring strain, will be re-evaluated in two weeks

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Just as the Rockets were getting on a roll, having won five in a row, the basketball gods struck down Chris Paul — he limped to the locker room in Miami Thursday night with what was later described to be a strained hamstring. Houston is 0-5 in games Paul has sat this season, and that’s not counting Thursday night when Miami took the lead on a 17-4 run third-quarter run with CP3 out, and the Heat held on to win.

How long will Paul be out? An MRI was done Friday and the team announced it is a Grade 2 strain and Paul will be re-evaluated in two weeks. He could miss a little more time, hamstrings are slow to heal and tricky because players think they are 100 percent and want back out but the muscle is not yet ready for explosive movements.

The report from the team fell in line with what Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN had reported earlier.

The Rockets stumbled out of the gate 4-7, in part due to injuries and suspensions (including Paul being suspended for two games after a scuffle with the Lakers in an early season game after Rajon Rondo spit on him). All season long it has been two steps up and one step back with no real traction. The Rockets’ defense has been terrible and the offense inconsistent. That changed somewhat during the five-game win streak, when James Harden played at an MVP level again lifting the offense, while the defense improved to average.

Now we could see another step back for the Rockets. Houston will have to lean more on Michael Carter-Williams and Brandon Knight, options that should make Rockets’ fans nervous. The Rockets have been looking at wings on the trade market, would GM Daryl Morey consider a move for a stop-gap point guard?

It may depend on how long Paul is out. If it really is just a few weeks, the Rockets will try to weather the storm.

How will Bucks answer their $67 million question next summer?

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The Bucks are one of the NBA’s biggest feel-good stories.

They’re 21-9, on pace for their best record in more than three decades. They have the NBA’s best net rating (+8.5 points per 100 possessions). Expectations are growing they’ll get their first playoff-series win in 18 years.

They’re talented and well-coached. They play hard and together. And they’re fairly young.

But a threat to their ascent lurks beneath the surface. Four of their starters – Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, Brook Lopez and Malcolm Brogdon – can become free agents next summer.

Will Milwaukee pay to keep all four? Will all four even want to return to a small market that was, until recently, the go-to butt of undesirable-location jokes?

Those questions loom over the Bucks’ ability to build a big winner over the coming years.

But Milwaukee superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo – the lone Bucks starter already locked up for next season – wants to put half the concerns to rest.

“All of them want to re-sign next summer,” Antetokounmpo said. “Personally, I’m not going to put our conversations out there. … I always talk to them every day and want them to be back.

“We can make a dynasty in the East. As long as we play together and as long as we grow together as players, I think the sky is the limit for this team.”

But other limits exist – namely payroll.

Milwaukee projects to have about $67 million below the luxury-tax line next season before accounting for those impending free agents. That’s a tight squeeze.

All four of Middleton, Bledsoe, Lopez and Brogdon are currently on contracts that could easily leave them hungry to get paid next summer.

Middleton re-signed with the Bucks on a five-year, $70.3 million contract in 2015 that was so team-friendly, it was used as evidence his agent had too close of a relationship with Milwaukee. “When I got there, they took care of me,” said Middleton, who went from the Pistons to the Bucks in a 2013 trade initially headlined by Brandon Knight and Brandon Jennings. “They were honest with me about playing time. My situation, my contract, they gave me a chance. And second, I thought the future was bright here. I think it still is.” Middleton has a $13 million player option for next season he’ll surely decline. Milwaukee will reportedly do everything it can to keep him.

Bledsoe spent most of the 2014 offseason engaged in a bitter contract negotiation with the Suns, who held his restricted rights. He said he even signed his qualifying offer. But he never actually submitted it. Shortly before training camp, Bledsoe and Phoenix agreed on a five-year, $68,760,870 contract. The next month, the NBA announced new national TV deals that sent the salary cap skyrocketing and rendered old-money contracts like Bledsoe’s relatively cheap. He had a falling out with Phoenix, which traded him to Milwaukee last year.

Lopez signed a max deal with the Nets in 2012 and re-signed for an even higher salary in 2015, finishing that second deal with the Lakers last season. It seemed, as both a big and a floor spacer, he’d fit well with LeBron James in Los Angeles. But in free agency last summer – which he called an “interesting experience” – Lopez got just the $3,382,000 room exception from the Bucks. Lopez said he prioritized a one-year contract so he could prove himself.

Brogdon signed a three-year contract after Milwaukee drafted him No. 36 in 2016. In exchange for granting Milwaukee such great team control, Brogdon received just $381,529 above the minimum. And this was at a time second-rounders had tremendous leverage. Brogdon became the first second-rounder to win Rookie of the Year since the NBA-ABA merger. But he couldn’t capitalize.

Until next summer.

All four players will have a chance to cash in – because they’re each playing so well.

Middleton remains a borderline All-Star. Maybe he’ll finally make it this season. He’s a 3-and-D wing in a league that craves those, and he has shifted many of his long 2s beyond the arc. He’s the best player of the four.

Lopez might be the most valuable, though. Even in an era of stretch centers, Lopez is pushing the limit even further. He’s attempting 8.9 3-pointers per game, the most ever by a center and far and away the most by any center this season. The 7-footer is drilling 36.6% of those triples. More importantly, he’s pulling opposing bigs out of the paint. That’s deadly with a rim attacker like Antetokounmpo. The Bucks score 115.6 points per 100 possessions with Lopez on the floor. Only a few rotation regulars (Raptors Danny Green, Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka and Pascal Siakam) see their team score so well while on the court.

Bledsoe has also taken advantage of Milwaukee’s floor-spacing. The lightning-quick point guard slices to the rim regularly and is finishing a blistering 73.2% there. He’s also a solid outside shooter and defender.

Brogdon, who was starting at point guard when the Bucks traded for Bledsoe and was initially concerned about his future with the team, has shifted nicely to shooting guard. He has become more decisive and comfortable off the ball. He’s shooting 47.2% on 3-pointers, keeping the ball moving and playing solid defense. His all-around game impresses.

While each player is playing well, the real beauty is they’re all playing well. Contract years lend themselves to selfishness, but there have been no signs of that in Milwaukee. Each of the four players expresses similar themes.

Middleton: “Winning takes care of everything. So, we don’t have to go out there and worry about our futures, worry about how much money we make. We have a great team here, a great situation here. So, as long as we do our job, there’s nothing else we should be thinking about.”

Bledsoe: “We’ve just got a great bunch of guys in here that’s in a great space. That’s all I can tell you. We don’t have no type of selfish players on this team.”

Lopez: “We don’t play for ourselves, regardless. We’ve got a lot of unselfish players and we’re out there just trying to help the team win in any way possible. We know, if the team is winning, that’ll make everyone, all the parts look good.”

Brogdon: “The objective is to win. Winning cures all. If we win, everybody will get paid. So, we don’t have to worry about it.”

Will the Bucks be the team to pay all four, though?

Milwaukee will hold full Bird Rights on Middleton, Bledsoe and Brogdon. Re-signing Lopez could be trickier. The Bucks can give him a starting salary up to $4,058,400 through the Non-Bird Exception. Paying him any more would require cap space (unlikely) or the mid-level exception, which projects to land at about $9 million.

But just because they can pay Middleton, Bledsoe and Brogdon any amount up to their max salaries doesn’t mean the Bucks have an unlimited budget. They’ve paid the luxury tax only once, the first year it was assessed, 2003.

Maybe an NBA Finals run this season convinces the Bucks to pay the luxury tax next season. But it’s hard to see. It’s logical to treat the tax line as a likely limit for Milwaukee.

The George Hill trade – which sent Matthew Dellavedova‘s and John Henson‘s multi-year contracts to the Cavaliers – adds flexibility. But the exact amount of breathing room below the tax won’t be known for a while.

The salary cap and luxury-tax line won’t be set until next summer, though I used the NBA’s latest projection. I anticipated Mirza Teletovic’s salary getting excluded and Milwaukee waiving and stretching Hill (who has just $1 million of his $18 million salary guaranteed next season). I counted the Bucks’ first-round pick based on Basketball-Reference’s odds. I also left Milwaukee’s roster at 14 players.

The result: $67 million below the luxury-tax line.

I’m not sure that’s enough, but maybe it could look something like this:

  • Middleton: $30 million
  • Bledsoe: $17 million
  • Brogdon: $11 million
  • Lopez: $9 million

But to a degree, that’s a problem for later. The Bucks are having an awesome season. Their chemistry looks excellent. Everything is clicking. This should be enjoyed.

Still, this could be just the start.

“The ability to move forward with this group and continue to build, that’s where we think we’re going to get better,” Budenholzer said. “And part of that is keeping our group together.”