Eric Bledsoe

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Hardened by last playoff run, Bucks ready for championship chase

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This story is part of our NBCSports.com’s 2019-20 NBA season preview coverage. Every day between now and when the season opens Oct. 22 we will have at least one story focused on the upcoming season and the biggest questions heading into it. In addition, there will be podcasts, video and more. Come back every day and get ready for a wide-open NBA season.

Giannis Antetokounmpo looked exasperated.

By the Raptors’ smothering defense. By four straight losses. By growing speculation around his future.

Antetokounmpo tried to explain how the Bucks blew a 2-0 lead in the Eastern Conference finals. He tipped his cap to Kawhi Leonard. He vowed to come back better next season. He also didn’t even stay until the end of his postgame press conference following Milwaukee’s Game 6 elimination. Antetokounmpo fielded one last question then stood up, grabbed his water bottle and left without answering.

It was the frustrating end to a promising year.

Maybe it was exactly what Antetokounmpo and the Bucks needed.

Milwaukee was good last season. Really good. The Bucks won 60 games and their first postseason series in 18 years.

But they lacked deep-playoff experience. They thought first-round exits the previous couple years had readied them. It wasn’t enough. They ran into a Toronto team that was more prepared to rise to the occasion, even after Milwaukee took a 2-0 series lead.

Most of the NBA makes the first round. Some first-round teams are mediocre. Their opponents don’t need to hit top gear. Attention is divided between 16 teams and eight series. The first round is bigger than the regular season, though only so much.

In the second round, it gets real. Practically every team is good. With only four series, each comes under a national microscope. Pressure increases exponentially. It’s difficult, nearing impossible, to duplicate the experience of playing that deep into the playoffs. Players just must go through it, usually losing the first time.

The NBA adopted a 16-team postseason in 1984. In every year since then, the NBA champion has had significant prior experience beyond the first round.

Of the 35 NBA champions in this era, 33 gave at least 82% of their postseason minutes to players who’d already played beyond the first round in a prior year.

The two exceptions – 2003 Spurs and 2008 Celtics – clocked in at a still fairly high 69%. San Antonio gave significant roles to Stephen Jackson and rookie Manu Ginobili, but still had experienced stalwarts like Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Bruce Bowen and David Robinson. Boston started youngsters Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins, but obviously Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen were the core of that team.

The percentage of the Bucks’ 2019 postseason minutes given to players with prior experience beyond the first round? Just 47%.

Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez had never advanced that far. Eric Bledsoe did it only as a second-year reserve with the Clippers in 2012.

Deep-playoff experience doesn’t guarantee a championship. But it’s a near-mandatory perquisite. It’s just too difficult to understand the intensity, focus and skill necessary to succeed un that level without experiencing it first.

Antetokounmpo was particularly flummoxed. Leonard led a defense that keyed on him. Without a reliable jumper, Antetokounmpo just didn’t have enough counters to fight back. The burden was mentally and physically exhausting – even for the regular-season MVP.

Perhaps coincidentally, the question Antetokounmpo didn’t answer was about the value of playoff experience.

He and the Bucks have it now, and that gives them a real chance at a championship this season.

Giannis Antetokounmpo continues to work on his jump shot with Kyle Korver

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When the Bucks first signed veteran sharpshooter Kyle Korver this summer, Giannis Antetokounmpo wasted no time in working out with him and getting some shooting tips. It was a summer workout, so by NBA edict there had to be video that was posted to social media.

The Bucks have opened training camp and Antetokounmpo is still working with Korver, with the Greek Freak trying to improve his jumper (he shot just 30.2 percent overall on jump shots last season). Here is what Antetokounmpo said to Eric Woodyard of ESPN.

“It’s really important [that] I always try to talk to him a little bit,” Antetokounmpo said of Korver after the Bucks’ first day of training camp at the University of Wisconsin on Tuesday. “And he’s a great guy. He’s not trying to get in your head or overstep and talk too much to you. Whenever he gives me tips, I always try to listen … one of the best shooters to ever play the game.

“He’s definitely going to help this team, but he’s definitely going to help a lot of players develop their shooting ability.”

Antetokounmpo’s jump shot — particularly from three — was already improving. Last season, after the All-Star break, he shot 31.5 percent from three (up from 22.3 before the ASG) and in the playoffs he knocked down a respectable 32.7 percent. Most of his makes were off the dribble, he shot 33.8 percent on those after the All-Star Game, but struggled on catch-and-shoot threes in those final 19 games shooting just 16.7 percent. Last season Antetokounmpo didn’t take many long twos, but when he did he shot 41 percent on them.

If those numbers go up, the Bucks become that much more dangerous. Milwaukee will need more out of Antetokounmpo this season, as well as point guard Eric Bledsoe, now that Malcolm Brogdon is gone as a secondary shot creator. The Bucks believe they are contenders, but they have questions to answer to get there.

Antetokounmpo making jumpers would answer a few of them.

With Bucks hoping to take off, leaving behind Malcolm Brogdon a risky choice

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Next season is the Bucks’ time.

They shouldn’t wait.

They can’t wait.

Milwaukee is very good. Good enough to win a championship. There are no overwhelmingly dominant-looking teams this year. Most of the top contenders will beat up on each other out West. In the Eastern Conference, the 76ers must develop chemistry after a major roster makeover, and Kevin Durant‘s injury puts the Nets another year away from title contention. The Bucks got a necessary and hard-learned lesson in how to compete deep in the playoffs last season. They look primed now.

Giannis Antetokounmpo will also be eligible for a super-max contract extension next offseason. His willingness to re-up might depend on Milwaukee’s success this season. The Bucks remaining elite is totally predicated on keeping the 24-year-old MVP. His satisfaction with the team must be the priority.

With all that swirling, Milwaukee parted with restricted free agent Malcolm Brogdon.

A young talented guard the Bucks held matching rights on – gone. In return, they got absolutely nothing that will directly help them in the ultra-important upcoming season.

Maybe that was the right call. By signing-and-trading Brogdon to the Pacers, Milwaukee got a first-rounder and two second-rounders and avoided paying a red-flagged player $85 million over four years. There’s a case the Bucks got enough value and preserved enough flexibility to justify the move, even considering next season’s high stakes.

But this was also an essential decision for avoiding the luxury tax. That can’t be dismissed. If Milwaukee weakened its roster due to a refusal to pay the luxury tax this season of all seasons, that’d be incredibly disappointing.

This could be a choice that significantly shapes the Bucks for the next decade. I wish I had a better sense of their motivations.

At least Milwaukee got done the rest of its heavy lifting this summer and even rebounded nicely from the loss of Brogdon.

The Bucks re-signed Khris Middleton for less than the max (five years, $177.5 million). It was essential to keep Antetokounmpo’s lone supporting star.

Brook Lopez – with his 3-point shooting and interior defense – is even more important to Milwaukee’s identity. In a tricky situation due to holding only his Non-Bird Rights, the Bucks cleared enough cap space to re-sign him for four years, $52 million.

Milwaukee also had enough cap space to re-sign George Hill (three years, $28,771,806 with $20 million guaranteed). Hill played well in the playoffs. He’s also 33. It’s worth signing Hill to this deal. He can back up Eric Bledsoe, who struggled the last two postseasons, and help at shooting guard with Brogdon gone. But it’s far from certain Hill will live up to this contract.

The Bucks found surprising reinforcements at shooting guard with Wesley Matthews (1+1 minimum) and Kyle Korver (one-year minimum). Both are past their primes, but that’s tremendous value for those two. The big question: Would they have come to Milwaukee if Brogdon hadn’t left open so much playing time? That must be considered in the Brogdon evaluation, but again, it’s difficult to discern.

Robin Lopez signed for the room exception on 1+1. He’ll back up his twin brother. The Bucks could use Robin’s size at the position, especially with Joel Embiid and Philadelphia looking like the top threat in the East.

These are all good deals for Milwaukee. This offseason could have gone far worse for the Bucks given the steps they had to take to open cap space for Brook Lopez and Hill.

Milwaukee traded the overpaid but still helpful Tony Snell and No. 30 pick to the Pistons for Jon Leuer then waived Leuer, accepting a $3,169,348 over the next three years. That was a nasty set of transactions, but it was necessary. The Bucks also lost Nikola Mirotic, who returned to Europe.

After that, it was standard low-end roster moves. Adding Dragan Bender is intriguing. Adding Thanasis Antetokounmpo is the cost of doing business.

It just keeps coming back to Brogdon. How much will the Bucks miss him? How much did his departure improve their ability to lure Matthews and Korver? What will Milwaukee do with the draft picks acquired from Indiana?

That last one is a biggie. Trade those picks in the right deal, and the roster next could be even than it would have been with Brogdon – especially if ownership is willing to enter the luxury tax.

I just have a hard time figuring out where the Bucks stand on that, and it makes me uneasy about their summer.

Offseason grade: C

Ten 2019 free agency moves/trades that changed face of NBA

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It seems like we say this every off-season, but this time we really, REALLY mean it:

That was the wildest NBA off-season ever.

Superstars shifted teams — and teamed up — and with that contenders for the crown rose and fell (including the team with the crown). It was a summer where elite players, the ones who have true power, flexed that muscle and forced their way to where they wanted to go — in the middle of a contract or not, to a team that had cap space or not. It was an offseason of drama that has the NBA reconsidering its free agent negotiation rules. It was everything fans have wanted.

It was a lot to digest, but here are our 10 biggest moments of the NBA offseason.

1) Kawhi Leonard chooses to join Clippers, gets Paul George to join him

That Kawhi Leonard ultimately chose the Clippers was not a total shock (at least not to anyone paying attention). The Clippers had all but stalked Leonard during last season, to the frustration of the Toronto Raptors, and sources had told me (and other reporters) all season long this was a two-team race between the Clippers and Raptors. In the days leading up to Leonard’s decision, there was tremendous confidence coming out of the Lakers’ camp —they thought LeBron James and Magic Johnson making separate pitches that they thought went incredibly well, and besides who had ever chosen the Clippers? — and they felt a little blindsided by the move. But in the end, Leonard wanted to come home to Southern California, something the Raptors simply could not compete against even though they did everything right, and Leonard did not prefer to play with LeBron on the Lakers.

The shocker was Paul George being recruited by Leonard then forcing a trade play for the Clippers. That came together fast. Leonard wielded his superstar power and tried to recruit several stars to join him — Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving got calls — but George listened, liked what he heard, and demanded a trade. Nothing leaked because critical parts of the Clipper front office, starting with GM Michael Winger, came out of Oklahoma City and knew their GM Sam Presti.

Then suddenly the bombshell landed: The Clippers got Leonard as a free agent and George in a sign-and-trade (which sent a massive package of players and picks back to Oklahoma City).

No other move this summer changed the NBA landscape like this one. The Clippers are now legit title contenders, and maybe the favorites to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy. The Lakers were left scrambling to fill out their roster. Oklahoma City got a massive haul of picks and players and is now embarking on a rebuild that likely will include the trade of Russell Westbrook at some point (they hope before the season, but it’s a complicated deal to pull off). And Toronto, when it sobers up from its title celebrations, has some tough decisions to make about what’s next, but they fall out of title contention in the East.

2) Anthony Davis traded to Los Angeles Lakers

At the trade deadline in February, this is what Davis and his agent Rich Paul had pushed for, and what the highest levels of Pelicans ownership had pushed back against — Davis being traded to the Lakers to team up with LeBron. When David Griffin came in as the new VP of basketball operations with the Pelicans he brought in a new mindset: If the Lakers put the best offer on the table, we have to take it. It’s about what’s best for New Orleans, not spite. Kyrie Irving leaving Boston meant the Celtics would not put out the offer the Pelicans most wanted, so the Lakers became the best deal available. The Pelicans got a great haul of players and picks to jump-start the rebuild — around Zion Williamson, winning the Draft Lottery cushioned the Davis blow in the Big Easy — and the Lakers got their star.

The Lakers have two of the top seven players in the NBA, pus Kyle Kuzma, Danny Green, DeMarcus Cousins and an interesting assortment of veteran role players. The Lakers may not be a great regular season team in the deep West (four seed?), but if LeBron and Davis are healthy this team is incredibly dangerous in a playoff series.

3) Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving team up in Brooklyn. Or, will, eventually.

Four years ago, Sean Marks took over as the GM of the Brooklyn Nets and the toughest rebuild job in the NBA. The previous regime had traded away draft picks and left the cupboard bare. Marks made smart decision after smart decision — finding Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie, trading for D’Angelo Russell and giving him the room to become an All-Star — and built a strong cultural organization with coach Kenny Atkinson. They got to the playoffs in the East last season without a true No. 1 option on the roster.

All that impressed Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant enough to come be the elite stars Brooklyn craved. The pair had decided to team up as free agents even before the NBA season started — certainly long before Durant tore his Achilles in the NBA Finals — and while the Knicks had been the rumored destination all season, when the pair surveyed the landscape they realized the Nets were the better choice right now. They took it. Brooklyn is now a contender… or should be in a year when Durant returns from his injury. This season it’s Irving leading a young team again, which could get interesting.

4) Jimmy Butler chooses Miami, forces sign-and-trade there

Philadelphia wanted to keep Jimmy Butler for obvious reasons — at the end of playoff games last season it was Butler with the ball in his hands as the playmaker for the team, while Ben Simmons was floating around in the dunker’s spot. Butler, a wandering soul trying to find the right home for himself the past couple of years (we can safely say it was not Minnesota), decided he wanted to be in Miami. And the Heat wanted him — Pat Riley and Eric Spoelstra are grinders of the top order, and there was a great cultural fit.

The problem: Miami was capped out. This had to be a sign and trade and it became a complex four-team one that at its core sent Hassan Whiteside to the Trail Blazers, Josh Richardson to the Sixers, Maurice Harkless and a future first-round pick to the Clippers, and Meyers Leonard to the Heat with Butler. Butler signed a max contract in Miami, and the Heat are a dangerous team again (and one on the hunt for another star to join Butler).

Philly comes out of this well because…

5) Al Horford chooses to join Philadelphia

The Sixers lost Butler, but they may just have gotten better this summer. In part because Josh Richardson is a very good player — he was asked to be a No. 1 in Miami last season and he’s not that, but ask him to play a role and he will do it at a very high level, plus he’s a good wing defender — and in part because that freed up the cap space to get Al Horford.

Horford is the ultimate glue guy who can do everything well — shoots threes (36 percent last season), can score in the post, protect the rim, play a stretch four next to Joel Embiid, play the five when Embiid is resting, and be a bit of a playmaker from the elbow. He gives them versatility, as does the re-signing of Tobias Harris. This is going to be a contending team in Philly, one with a great defense, but one that has to answer a few questions over the course of the season. The big one: One minute left in a close game, who has the ball in their hands has a shot creator?

6) Kemba Walker signs in Boston

Charlotte confused the NBA. Again. They let Kemba Walker walk for nothing. If they were not going to re-sign him at or near the max, then they needed to trade him last summer or at the trade deadline (despite the All-Star Game coming to Charlotte). Or, pull a Clippers/Blake Griffin and re-sign him to the max then trade him in six months. But to get nothing for him? Confusing.

It is Boston’s gain. Walker was a Third Team All-NBA guard last season who carried the Hornets averaging 25.6 points and 5.9 assists per game, he can take over, but he’s also a smart facilitator with the right players around him — and he has that now with Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. He’s a better fit culturally for Boston than Irving because Kemba is the “come on guys, you’re with me, let’s do this together” kind of leader they need. Walker is going to have a strong year in Boston and some fans are going to realize just how good he is. (The Celtics are going to miss Horford more than Irving.)

7) Warriors get D’Angelo Russell back from Brooklyn in sign-and-trade

Golden State didn’t want Durant to leave and get nothing back, and they worked out a sign-and-trade that worked for both sides. The Warriors get an All-Star point guard in Russell who can soak up a lot of minutes this season while Klay Thompson is rehabbing his ACL. While a lot of observers are not sure about the Russell/Stephen Curry fit (*raises hand*) the Warriors are committed to try to make this thing work, and they dream of a three-guard lineup where Thompson can slide down the three (he can guard that spot). If it doesn’t work, they trade Russell at the deadline or next season, but for now he keeps them competitive in the deep West.

8) Utah trades for Mike Conley, lands Bojan Bogdanovic in free agency

Utah is perpetually overlooked, and this may be too low on these rankings for the summer they had. The Jazz front office had coveted Conley for a while and now they were able to trade for him, providing a massive upgrade over Ricky Rubio and giving the Jazz a much-needed second shot creator next to Donovan Mitchell. Then, Utah went out and got Bojan Bogdanovic in free agency to play the four — he can defend, shoots threes, is 6’8″ and is one of those guys fans don’t know but front offices love. Bogdanovic averaged more than 20 points per game in Indiana last season after Victor Oladipo went down.

Utah may be the second-best team in the West going into next season, they have an elite defense and now have added offense. They are unquestionably contenders, whether fans realize they are or not.

9) Malcolm Brogdon leaves Bucks for Pacers

Indiana wanted an upgrade at point guard and another shot creator next to Victor Oladipo (when he returns, which looks to be around Christmas or after). They got it in Brogdon, who averaged 15.6 points per game and shot 42.5 percent from three for the Bucks last season. Brogdon can play on or off the ball and has the versatility that will fit well with the Pacers, making them better. The Pacers had to pay big to get the restricted free agent, but it was a smart move (especially considering the slim free agent class next year).

Just as importantly, losing Brogdon is a blow to the contending Bucks. They leaned on Brogdon for secondary shot creation in key moments. Milwaukee kept Khris Middleton as a free agent, have Eric Bledsoe (who needs to have a good playoffs now), and of course there is the MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. But losing Brogdon will hurt a little.

10) Knicks strike out with big free agents… then don’t do so bad

Expectations were high among Knicks fans (fueled in part by radio comments from owner James Dolan), and when Durant and Irving chose Brooklyn, and New York couldn’t get a meeting with Kawhi Leonard, Knicks fans did not take it well. At all. To the point team president Steve Mills had to put out a “relax, we’re still working on building this thing up” message to fans.

Thing is, he’s right. The Knicks were not getting the top free agents because the Nets and Clippers had built better cores, better stockpiles of young players that made up playoff teams even without a true alpha dog. Free agents liked those teams’ cultures, they liked they could step in and win now. The Knicks are not there. But the Knicks also didn’t do what the Knicks of a decade ago would have done and thrown good money after bad to sign any star free agent to save face. They kept their powder dry. They made a nice signing with Julius Randle and from there did a bunch of short deals that keep them flexible to chase the next star that comes available (they are not in the Westbrook hunt, nor should they be). That’s how to build a team the right way. The Knicks may finally be getting there, but more patience is required (not usually a strong suit of New Yorkers).

Report: Bucks signing-and-trading Malcolm Brogdon to Pacers on four-year, $85M contract

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The Bucks took care of business with Khris Middleton and Malcolm Brogdon.

Milwaukee will let its other starting free agent – Malcolm Brogdon – get away, but only after leveraging his restricted rights into a return.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

David Aldridge of The Athletic:

This could work well for Brogdon and Pacers.

Brogdon has sounded like he’d prefer to play point guard, the position he’ll seemingly play in Indiana. In Milwaukee, Brogdon primarily played shooting guard next to Eric Bledsoe. This is also a lot of money for the former second-round pick who spent his first few seasons earning near the minimum.

Indiana will get the 26-year-old Brogdon through his prime. He can shoot, handle the ball and defend. He should fit well with Victor Oladipo in the backcourt.

But that’s still a lot of money for Brogdon considering his long-term health concerns.

So, on a value basis, it could be reasonable for the Bucks to prefer the picks to Brogdon (depending on pick protection). But Milwaukee should be aiming to contend around Giannis Antetokounmpo right now. Future picks can’t help with that. Perhaps, those picks will eventually get flipped for an actual player who helps the Bucks compete this season.

It’s impossible to overlook the luxury-tax ramifications of this move. This is the cheap route. Milwaukee might have ulterior motives other than building the strongest roster.

That’s risky as Antetokounmpo approaches his super-max decision.

The Bucks now need a starting guard. Maybe they’ll re-sign George Hill. The mid-level exception is available. But it’s still unknown just how much ownership is willing to spend.