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Damian Lillard: ‘It’s almost like I’m not willing to sell myself out [for winning a championship]’

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Anthony Davis is frustrated not winning enough and competing for a ring (not even close) and is forcing his way out of New Orleans. He follows a long list of guys who bolted to chase a title/better situation (to them): LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

It’s also not for everyone.

Damian Lillard was just in Portland for the NBA All-Star Game, he’s reached some impressive highs in Portland, but the Trail Blazers are not title contenders in the West. And likely will not be soon.

Speaking to Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports for the Posted Up Podcast while in Charlotte last weekend, Lillard said he is not going to force his way out of Portland to go chase a ring.

Portland fans, this is why you should feel lucky. Most All-Star level players handle things differently. I don’t believe he meant this as a shot at guys who did move on, he just feels differently about things.

Could Lillard don another jersey at some future date because he wants a better shot at a title? Never say never, but he’s seven years into his career and under contract for two more. It’s not happening soon, if ever. My guess is if he does ever leave, it will be with more of a mutual understanding and a far less messy situation than we have seen as recently as this last trade deadline.

 

 

Orlando Magic’s big conundrum

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DETROIT – Magic second-year player Jonathan Isaac said he’s not sure whether he’ll develop into more of a small forward or power forward long-term. At times, he prefers small forward. At other times, he prefers power forward. But some think Isaac – who’s listed at 6-foot-10 and probably already taller than that and still growing – will eventually slide to center as he fills out.

“Become a center? I’m not sure,” Isaac said. “I don’t think I’d want to be a center.

“I’m too used to being out on the perimeter and shooting 3s and coming off the dribble.”

That’s when Orlando rookie center Mohamed Bamba piped in from a few lockers over.

“You can shoot 3s,” Bamba offered.

The Magic are in the early stages of identifying how good their most-valuable players actually are, which of them can play together and in which roles. Orlando certainly hasn’t made it easy on itself.

The Magic’s best player is a center (Nikola Vucevic). Their highly drafted rookie is a center (Bamba). Their highly drafted 2017 first-rounder is a big forward/maybe eventual center (Isaac). Their highest-paid player is a big forward (Aaron Gordon).

A big-man crowd like that is unsustainable in the modern NBA. But how Orlando moves on is tricky.

Vucevic looked like a prime trade candidate entering the season. He’s earning $12.75 million on an expiring contract, and at 28, he might be too old to fit the Magic’s rebuild. They had also just drafted Bamba No. 6.

But Vucevic is in the midst of a career year and was just named Orlando’s first All-Star since Dwight Howard. The Magic (22-31) are also just three games and three teams out of playoff position in the lousy Eastern Conference.

With Vucevic earning name recognition and Orlando at least plausibly in contention to end a six-season postseason drought, the optics of moving him could be tough for the Magic to stomach.

If they keep Vucevic, what then, though? Re-sign him to a hefty salary that keeps the logjam intact? Let him leave in free agency for no return?

Vucevic said Orlando drafting Bamba didn’t faze him, that he wants to mentor the young center. Likewise, Bamba said he appreciates Vucevic’s lessons on the finer points of the NBA.

Yet, Bamba also craves a bigger role. He said he feels as if he’s competing with Vucevic for playing time and wants to prove Magic can depend on him with Vucevic’s contract ending in a few months.

“The way everything was kind of put in place was kind of perfect for me down here,” Bamba said. “Just have got to earn it.”

In the meantime, Vucevic appears essential for making the Gordon-Isaac combo work.

Gordon is a good NBA player and just 23. Isaac is solid, only 21 and also trending in the right direction.

But there’s probably too much overlap between the forwards. They collectively don’t provide enough outside shooting, ball-handling and passing. Gordon is more polished in those areas, but he shines far more at power forward than the small forward he has played most of this season. Even defensively, as mobile and athletic as Gordon and Isaac are for their size, forcing one of them to defend to defend a more wing-y small forward can be an exploitable mismatch.

Yet, the pairing works fine with Vucevic at center. Vucevic is so skilled offensively, he draws defensive attention inside and outside. He can put the ball on the floor, shoot from multiple spots including beyond the arc and distribute. Vucevic is talented enough to mask deficiencies of playing Gordon and Isaac together.

Here are, per NBA Wowy, Orlando’s offensive/defensive/net ratings with Gordon and Isaac on and…

  • Vucevic on: 113.0/107.9/+5.1
  • Vucevic off: 92.7/138.2/-45.5

Gordon and Isaac have played just 29 minutes together without Vucevic, most of those coming with Bamba on the floor. So, the sample size is too small to be completely reliable. But that’s also likely no accident. Magic coach Steve Clifford can see how important Vucevic is to making Gordon and Isaac work together.

Eventually, Orlando should determine how Gordon, Isaac and Bamba fare as a frontcourt. That trio possesses so much size, length, athleticism and defensive potential.

Offense remains worrisome, though. Bamba has theoretical 3-point ability, but he (understandably) lags way behind Vucevic in ball skills. At 20, Bamba is so raw.

So, there’d be value in retaining Vucevic. He’d help provide a structure more conducive to Gordon and Isaac producing.

That’s particularly important with Gordon, who’s on the first year of a four-year, $76 million contract that contains deescalating annual salaries. His trade value should only increase as his salary falls.

It could hinder Isaac, though. He’s often the overlooked player in the Magic’s starting frontcourt. His usage percentage (15.6) lags well behind Vucevic’s (28.0) and Gordon’s (21.5).

“He’s developing at a really good pace,” Clifford said of Isaac. “It’s just hard for me to find ways to give him opportunities to iso, to play one-on-one, with the makeup of our team. So, people will see it here eventually, but that’s the part that I have to figure out better, too.”

Isaac’s and Bamba’s development could be especially important to Orlando important because they’re the only two of the four primary bigs acquired by Magic president. Weltman inherited Vucevic and Gordon. Re-signing Gordon was widely seen as a prelude to trading him. I’m not even convinced Weltman particularly coveted Bamba, either. Bamba might have just been the best prospect available when Orlando drafted.

But the Magic have all four big now. They must figure out where to go from here.

Giannis Antetokounmpo is next

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DETROIT – Giannis Antetokounmpo said the Bucks presented him with two choices for his rookie-scale contract extension in 2016:

  • A four-year, $100 million extension
  • A five-year extension that, by rule, would provide a max starting salary with max raises

Antetokounmpo took the shorter deal.

“I was 21 years old,” Antetokounmpo said. “My agent told me that was the best deal we could get and eventually you’re going to make more on the back end, but right now, that’s the best choice for you. And I trusted him.”

With that decision, Antetokounmpo set the timer.

In the likely event he makes an All-NBA team this season or next, Antetokounmpo will be eligible for a super-max extension during the 2020 offseason. If he doesn’t sign an extension, he’ll become an unrestricted free agent in 2021.

As superstars approach their first unrestricted free agency, those inflections points test their commitment to their current team. And everyone knows it. Other teams position themselves to poach the player. Reporters dig up details about the player’s and teams’ plans. Fans and media speculate. Every development feeds the every-expanding news cycle.

Anthony Davis is in the midst of it right now. Before him, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Dwight Howard, Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard had their turns.

Antetokounmpo is next in line.

Right now, his existence in Milwaukee appears happy. The Bucks’ record (38-13) and net rating (+9.6) lead the league. Antetokounmpo is an MVP candidate.

But how will he feel in a year or two?

In 2015, Antetokounmpo wrote, “Right now I feel like I want to play for the Milwaukee Bucks forever.” That quote has drawn plenty of attention since. Often forgotten is the perspective Antetokounmpo showed in that same 2015 blog post: “You never know how life turns out. … I don’t know how I’ll be feeling and thinking in 2, 3 or more years.”

So, a few years later, how does Antetokounmpo feel about playing for the Bucks forever?

“I still feel the same,” Antetokounmpo said. “As long as me and the Bucks are on the same page and we build an organization that’s all about winning and nothing more than that, I want to be here.”

Milwaukee obviously wants him there, too. Which warrants revisiting his 2016 contract extension.

At the time, it seemed the Bucks did well to secure Antetokounmpo for less than the max. C.J. McCollum had just signed a four-year, $106,633,450 extension with the Trail Blazers. Getting Antetokounmpo for only $100 million looked like a coup.

There was some consideration Milwaukee should’ve pushed him onto a five-year extension. Though such extensions required a max starting salary with max raises, locking up Antetokounmpo for an extra year held value, too. But he hadn’t even made an All-Star team at that point. The consensus was the savings during the four-year extension made it the right call for the Bucks.

In hindsight, it was a mistake. A five-year extension would have meant paying Antetokounmpo about an extra $4 million total* over the first four years in exchange for paying him about $30 million in the fifth year (2021-22). Now, Antetokounmpo projects to have a max salary of about $44 million in 2021-22.**

*That’s based on the max raises (7.5%) and max-salary calculation required by the previous Collective Bargaining Agreement, which was in effect when Antetokounmpo signed the extension. Had he signed a five-year extension, it’s possible the owners and players would have negotiated special rules for Antetokounmpo’s extension, which went into effect under the current CBA. The current CBA mandates a higher raise (8%) and uses a different max-salary calculation (resulting in a higher amount) for such extensions. Russell Westbrook and James Harden had special rules written for them due to the CBA change. When the previous CBA took effect between him signing an extension and it taking effect, Kevin Durant had his contract terms altered to reflect new CBA terms. Without special dispensation, Antetokounmpo could have wound up earning less during the first four years of his “max” extension than McCollum did on his extension.

If every ruling had gone in his favor, Antetokounmpo would have earned an extra $10,984,160 during the first for seasons of a five-year extension and had a $32,700,690 salary in the fifth year. It still would have behooved Milwaukee to have him on that contract.

**Based on the salary cap rising the same amount in 2021-22 as projected between 2019-20 and 2020-21 and if he makes an All-NBA team this season or next. Without either honor, his projected max in 2021-22 drops to $38 million – still far more than what his final-year salary would have been in a five-year extension.

Escaping that rabbit hole and returning to reality, Antetokounmpo is on the four-year extension. That is Milwaukee’s timeline to please him.

Right now, it looks great. But the future is filled with potential pitfalls.

Four Bucks starters – Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, Brook Lopez and Malcolm Brogdon – can become free agents after the season. Re-signing all four could be difficult, especially if Milwaukee is unwilling to pay the luxury tax. The Bucks have paid the tax only once, the first year it was assessed, 2003.

Even if they re-sign all four, will that be enough? Middleton is 27. Bledsoe is 29. Lopez is 30. How much better will they get?

Milwaukee is also out two future first-round picks. One got sent to the Suns for Bledsoe. The other got traded to the Cavaliers to unload salary and acquire George Hill.

That’s one lingering cost of recent bad signings. The Bucks overpaid John Henson and Matthew Dellavedova then had to surrender that first-rounder to dump them. Larry Sanders’ stretched salary remains on the books through 2022. Milwaukee somehow turned Miles Plumlee‘s toxic contract into smaller pieces, but one of those pieces – Spencer Hawes – still has stretched salary counting through next season. At least the Bucks  dodged a bullet with Greg Monroe taking a three-year max contract in 2015, when he could’ve gotten a four-year max deal that ran through this season.

Still, Milwaukee also squandered the value of the No. 2 pick in the 2014 draft, as Jabari Parker provided little on the court then left in free agency. No. 17 pick Rashad Vaughn was a bust the next year. The No. 10 pick the following year, Thon Maker, barely plays and wants to be traded.

But, in the NBA landscape, these are first-world problems. Milwaukee is an elite team trying to take the next step. So many teams struggle to reach this level.

The Bucks already look championship-caliber. They might be unfortunate to exist at the same time as the super-charged Warriors. But if Kevin Durant and DeMarcus Cousins leave Golden State, Milwaukee could have a better title chance next year.

Yet, it’s impossible to overlook how high the stakes are with Antetokounmpo on the roster. All this success is possible only because of him. Any misstep that threatens his commitment to the franchise could undermine the operation.

But the Bucks keep getting everything right. Even a move some thought would sow unease with Antetokounmpo has done the opposite.

When Milwaukee’s mangled process for hiring a general manager in 2017 sparked talk about Antetokounmpo eventually leaving, he tweeted:

It helps that Bucks general manager Jon Horst, a compromise choice among ownership, has performed so well in his new job. Though he was supposed to signal Milwaukee’s discord, he has fostered stability. Horst helped attract Coach of the Year-favorite Mike Budenholzer and signed players, like Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova, who fit Budenholzer’s system. The Bucks look especially aligned.

It also helps that Antetokounmpo makes so few waves. He even said he could never see himself playing for Los Angeles – music to everyone’s ears in Milwaukee.

Yet, Antetokounmpo also expressed more-nuanced views on loyalty while explaining Durant’s move from the Thunder to the Warriors. A plugged-in former general manager reportedly said, “There’s no way in hell Giannis is going to stay in Milwaukee. I would bet everything that he leaves the Bucks.”

It’s simply impossible for Antetokounmpo to end speculation about his future. As he elevates into superstardom and heads closer to free agency, chatter will only increase.

“He has been incredibly loyal,” Budenholzer said. “I think that’s something that’s important to him. So, he’s a gift, for sure.”

Of course, Budenholzer isn’t taking anything for granted. He obviously always wants to win, but he knows that’s particularly important for the franchise right now.

“Most teams feel that pressure,” Budenholzer said. “Having Giannis does maybe heighten it, but it’s a great part. It’s great to be in Milwaukee with Giannis.”

More importantly, Antetokounmpo thinks it’s great to be in Milwaukee, too.

“It’s not about small market, big market,” Antetokounmpo said. “I don’t think about that. I don’t think about lifestyle. I just think about organization that has treated me well, my family well. And it’s all about winning.

“If the organization main goal is winning, I don’t care about the rest. I feel like my family is getting used to Milwaukee. I’m used to Milwaukee. So, it’s a great place to be.”

Three Things to Know: Kawhi Leonard preps for return to San Antonio by dropping 45 on Utah

Associated Press
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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Kawhi Leonard prepares for return to San Antonio by dropping career-best 45 on Jazz. Utah has been back to playing good defense of late: For the 10 games prior to New Year’s Day, the Jazz had allowed less than a point per possession. They have started to look more and more like the Utah team that made a run the second half of last season (even if they are not stringing together wins yet).

Kawhi Leonard didn’t care.

Leonard scored a career-best 45 points on 22 shot attempts (all without hitting a three). He got to the rim seemingly whenever he wanted and was 7-of-9 from the midrange, doing much of his damage in isolation sets.

It wasn’t just Leonard for the Raptors, Pascal Siakam also had a career-high with 28 points.

The Raptors have been battling through some injuries — they have been without either Leonard or Kyle Lowry for each of the last 11 games (and Lowry got an injection for his back Tuesday, he likely misses a little more time), plus Jonas Valanciunas has been out. Still, the Raptors are 7-4 in those games and while it hasn’t always been pretty — they have a middle-of-the-pack offense and defense in those 11 games and a 0.4 net rating — they keep finding ways to win. Which is what great teams do.

However, San Antonio will be up for Thursday’s showdown.

2) Giannis Antetokounmpo demolishes Pistons’ Jon Leuer with a thunderous dunk. This is just nasty. Credit to Detroit’s Jon Leuer for trying but…

Just a reminder, Antetokounmpo is on pace to demolish more than just the rims, he’s on pace to set the NBA record for dunks in a season. Dwight Howard holds the record at 266, but the Greek Freak is on pace to top that by about 80 dunks.

3) Ben Simmons just embarrasses the Clippers for a game-sealing dunk. Philadelphia was in control and probably going to win the game anyway, up four (117-113) with 15.9 seconds remaining. This play just sealed it… and gave Doc Rivers an ulcer.

The Sixers were inbounding the ball, the Clippers were looking for a steal and, short of that, a quick foul. Sindarius Thornwell was brought in to guard Ben Simmons, who was inbounding the ball, but that didn’t go so well.

Let that be a lesson to you young basketball players out there, do not turn your back on the inbounder (especially if he’s a smart player).

This game got chippy.

And eventually, Jimmy Butler and Avery Bradley — who were in each other’s face a couple of times — were both thrown out.

Giannis Antetokounmpo detonates massive dunk on poor Jon Leuer (VIDEO)

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Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo is on pace to destroy the NBA record for dunks in a season. Dwight Howard holds the record at 266, but the Greek Freak is on pace to top that by about 80 dunks.

Some of those dunks will be more memorable than others. This posterization of the Pistons’ Jon Leuer will be impossible to forget.

That’s not fair.