George Hill

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Report: Bucks trading Tony Snell, No. 30 pick to Pistons

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For a team only lukewarm on paying the luxury tax, the Bucks are in a payroll crunch. Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, Malcolm Brogdon and Nikola Mirotic will be free agents this summer.

That’s why Milwaukee was trying to unload Tony Snell or Ersan Ilyasova.

But if they re-sign their key free agents to multi-year deals, the Bucks could face more payroll/tax concerns in 2020-21.

That’s why Milwaukee is willing to deal Snell and its first-round pick for Jon Leuer‘s burdensome contract – which carries a slightly lower salary than Snell’s next season ($9,508,043 vs. $11,592,857) and, more importantly, ends one year before Snell’s ($12,378,571 player option for 2020-21),

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

This trade lowers Milwaukee’s team salary by about $4 million next season and $14 million the following season.

The Bucks could stretch Leuer and reduce team salary by an extra $6,338,695 next season. But that’d also lock in a cap hit of $3,169,348 each of the next three years.

Milwaukee can make that decision later in the summer. It’ll depend what other free agents – especially Lopez, who has only Non-Bird Rights (technically a form of Bird Rights – command. Clearing extra money this offseason could be useful in multiple scenarios.

If Lopez signs for the non-taxpayer mid-level exception (which projects to start at about $9 million), the Bucks could maintain Bird Rights for Middleton, Brogdon and Mirotic then exceed the cap to re-sign those three. But Milwaukee would be hard-capped at a projected $138 million. Stretching Leuer could help the Bucks stay under that line.

If re-signing Lopez requires more than the mid-level exception, Milwaukee could open about $14 million in cap space by waiving George Hill and renouncing all its free agents besides Middleton and Brogdon. Stretching Leuer would open even more cap room to spend on Lopez.

If Lopez leaves, the same math applies to an outside free agent who could get the mid-level exception or cap room.

This extra maneuverability comes at a cost, though a reasonable one.

Snell, who fell from the Bucks’ rotation, could be the Pistons’ starting small forward next season. Detroit was desperate for wing depth. Though Snell isn’t the biggest wing, he adds size to a group comprised of Luke Kennard, Bruce Brown and Langston Galloway.

The No. 30 pick is a helpful piece to the Pistons, who also have the No. 15 pick in tomorrow’s draft. But this is a weak-looking draft that thins considerably before the end of the first round.

Milwaukee also had to take Leuer, who has been ineffective for years.

Detroit gets helps now with Snell and potentially later with the No. 30 pick. In between, that extra year of Snell’s contract looks burdensome.

The Bucks are just happy to have it not be theirs.

Raptors bench play key reason Toronto on cusp of first trip to NBA Finals

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There are multiple reasons the Toronto Raptors have beaten the Milwaukee Bucks three times in a row and now are one win away from the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals.

Kawhi Leonard and his play — particularly his defense on Giannis Antetokounmpo — is a huge one. So is the Raptors incredible halfcourt defense, which has held the Bucks to an 84.3 net rating on halfcourt possessions in this series. When the Raptors have been able to slow the game down (which they have done very well the last two games, with possession totals in the mid-90s) they win.

Just don’t forget about the Raptors bench.

Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka, and Norman Powell — the three guys coach Nick Nurse leans on in his regular rotations — have been critical for the Raptors, and if they are again on Saturday night in Toronto it will lift the franchise to a place it has never been before.

Toronto’s starting lineup is -23 in this series. That fivesome — Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Leonard, Pascal Siakam, and Marc Gasol — was -10 in Game 5, struggling against an impressive Milwaukee starting lineup.

On Thursday night, it was the Raptors’ bench that sparked the comeback after the Bucks’ fast start. It has been that way all series. Lineups that have at least one of those core three Raptors bench guys on the floor are +30 this series. Lineups with all three of them on the court together are +12.

Different guys are stepping up each game. In Game 5 it was VanVleet’s turn. After a rough few games in this series, he got to Milwaukee late after being with his wife for the birth of their son, then proceeded to knock down 7-of-9 threes in Toronto’s come-from-behind win.

“He oozes the confidence that spreads to the other guys,” Toronto coach Nick Nurse said of VanVleet. “Again, he just stepped into the shots that were there tonight, and he was probably due to get hot in these playoffs. It’s been probably a long time coming. Great game by him.”

In the first two games of the Eastern Conference Finals, it was the Milwaukee bench led by Malcolm Brogdon and George Hill that played better and propelled their side to wins. That has flipped in the last three games, it’s been all Raptors after the starters.

Toronto’s bench — and Leonard — are key reasons that this team responded to adversity, going down 0-2 in the series and bouncing back. It’s the experience of having been there before, having dealt with the pressure before, learning about themselves because they have been tested like this in previous years. Leonard and Green have rings from San Antonio, Gasol has been to conference finals in Memphis, Lowry has been there through all the Raptors struggles in recent playoffs. On the bench, Ibaka has seen plenty, and these guys have not been fazed by the moment.

It’s the test the Bucks are facing now — this group had never been challenged like this. Their athleticism and Antetokounmpo’s MVP-level season propelled this team to the best record in the NBA, then they swept through the first two rounds of the playoffs with an 8-1 record. After that, they beat the Raptors the first two games of this series.

However, now they have lost three in a row for the first time all season and they are learning about their weaknesses. The Bucks entire offense is based around the idea that nobody can slow Antetokounmpo one-on-one — except Leonard has done just that. The Greek Freak has shot 35.5 percent this series (11-of-31, via Second Spectrum data) when Leonard has been his primary defender. Antetokounmpo also hasn’t found shooters and those guys have not hit the passes he does make, particularly in the halfcourt. Toronto has controlled the tempo the past few games, and when Antetokounmpo isn’t getting easy buckets in transition the Milwaukee offense stumbles. Toronto also has taken care of the ball and hit shots, with Leonard getting to his spots on the floor, which has limited the Bucks transition chances.

The Bucks need to make adjustments — finding ways to get Antetokounmpo the ball with better matchups, not having him attack from the top of the key every time and giving him some picks to force switches — and they need another ball handler, such as Eric Bledsoe or George Hill, to have a monster game. Khris Middleton and Malcolm Brogdon can and should do a little more shot creation.

And Milwaukee has to contain that Raptors bench and not get beat so badly when they are on the floor.

If not, the Bucks will be on vacation in Cabo next week while the Raptors are still playing.

Toronto vs. Milwaukee: Five things to watch in the Eastern Conference Finals

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Last offseason, both the Toronto Raptors and Milwaukee Bucks each made one big move — and that’s why they are here, ready to face off in the Eastern Conference Finals starting Wednesday night.

The Milwaukee Bucks fired coach Jason Kidd — now an assistant with the Lakers — to hire Mike Budenholzer and asked him to bring the team into the modern era. He got buy-in from Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton then did just that — the result was Bucks finished with the best defense and fourth best offense in the league in the regular season. The Bucks are long and rotate quickly on defense, with an emphasis on protecting the paint. On offense, they space the floor with shooters and let Antetokounmpo go to work. The result is a title contender.

The Toronto Raptors traded fan favorite and franchise icon DeMar DeRozan and brought back Kawhi Leonard with the idea he was the guy who could get them over the hump in the playoffs. Leonard was impressive in the regular season, but come the playoffs has been everything the Raptors hoped — he has been the best player in the East. Leonard has been methodical in getting to his spots and hitting his shots on offense, while reminding everyone he is the best perimeter defender in the game. If you have any doubts about how he’s playing, go ask Philadelphia.

Which move pays off with the trip to the Finals? How will the outcome of this series impact the summer free agencies of Leonard and Middleton? Those questions will be answered starting Wednesday night in Milwaukee, here are five things to watch during this series.

1) Can the Bucks slow Kawhi Leonard? Can the Raptors slow Giannis Antetokounmpo? Both Leonard and the Greek Freak are going to get their points. They are too good not to. The question is simply, can they be slowed, made a little less efficient? Doing so would be a big step toward winning the series.

Don’t expect to see Antetokounmpo and Leonard matched up on each other much, except during crunch time late in a close game. They matched up little when these teams met in the regular season, and that makes sense on a few levels, starting with the physical toll of running the offense then defending an elite player on the other end. It would just wear guys out.

In the regular season meetings between these teams, the Bucks had some success on Leonard. Middleton was the primary defender and Leonard shot just 40.7 percent against him (using NBA tracking data). However, the Raptors’ offense was still close to its average efficiency because of free throws and other guys stepping up. The Bucks have been a better defensive team in the playoffs than the regular season (where they were the best in the NBA), the role players may struggle to find space to shoot, Leonard needs to get them rolling and be more of a playmaker than just pure scorer. But he needs to get buckets, too.

Toronto struggled to slow Antetokounmpo. Pascal Siakam got the assignment most of the time, but the Greek Freak averaged 27 points per game in the meetings with a 66 true shooting percentage, plus he grabbed 15.3 rebounds a game. Numbers right at his season averages. Leonard did do a good job getting Antetokounmpo to give the ball up when he was on him in limited minutes, something the Raptors could try for key stretches late.

2) Which team’s “others” will step up and make plays? The stars are going to get theirs, but which one of them will get the most help?

Antetokounmpo got plenty of help in the second round — five other Bucks averaged double-digit points. Middleton averaged 19.2, but the big boost was George Hill giving the team 14.2 points per game off the bench. Another huge key is that Middleton and Hill both shot a little better than 47 percent from three — the Bucks offense is about transition and spacing, but to make that work the threes have to fall. They did against Boston.

One Buck who could have a bigger impact this series is Malcolm Brogdon, who returned from a plantar fascia issue midway through the Boston series. He was a critical starter for them in the regular season, he will open this series coming off the bench (Nikola Mirotic will still start) but should play a significant role.

The bigger question is will Leonard get help? He did not consistently against a good Sixers defense — in Game 7 Leonard took 39 shots because he was the only one willing to consistently pull the trigger.

That can’t happen this series, a hesitant Toronto shooter will find a long Milwaukee defender in his face fast. The Bucks had the best defense in the NBA this season and have allowed 6.7 fewer points per 100 possessions in the playoffs. The Bucks have shut down teams that tried to isolate against them these playoffs, something Leonard and the Raptors like to do. Toronto needs to find a varied offense.

All season — led by Marc Gasol and Kyle Lowry — the Raptors have been unselfish and have passed up good shots to try to get great ones. Do that against the quick and long Bucks and that shooting window goes away. The Bucks defensive scheme leaves Brook Lopez and Antetokounmpo back more to protect the paint, and with that they give up a lot of above-the-break threes — Gasol has to take those when he gets them. And hit them. Same with Lowry. And Danny Green. And every other Raptor. The windows to shoot will be small and the Raptors need to take them, hesitate and all will be lost.

It appears OG Anunoby will be out for most if not all of this series as he recovers from an appendectomy. That’s a blow, he’s the kind of “3&D” wing Toronto could really use.

3) Watch the pace: Faster is better for Milwaukee. In Game 1 of their second-round matchup, Boston was able to grind Milwaukee down. The game had 99 possessions, and the bottled-up Bucks scored just 90 points on their way to a 22-point loss (pace stats via Cleaning the Glass).

The rest of the series was played at an almost 106 possessions per game pace and the Bucks swept them all.

Milwaukee thrives in transition. When Antetokounmpo gets up a head of steam any defender is helpless. The Greek Freak is averaging 7.4 fast break points per game these playoffs, the most of any player. Toronto can play with some pace (they were 15th in pace during the season, middle of the pack, but very efficient in their transition offense) however, they have been five possessions a game slower in the playoffs and that needs to continue. In this series, the Raptors need to slow the game down and grind it out. Toronto just showed it can win that kind of series beating Philadelphia, and Leonard is at his best in the halfcourt.

That means Toronto needs to make its shots more often, not turn the ball over, and get back in transition defense. Slow the game down, take away the easy buckets. Sounds easy enough, but go ask the Celtics how easy it is to execute against the Bucks.

4) Kyle Lowry vs. Eric Bledsoe. This may be the bellwether matchup and tell us about how the “others” are performing. These two players are the spark plug point guards who can help set the tone for their teams on both ends of the floor. Both teams need their top three to outperform the other’s top three, and this is the head-to-head matchup in that group.

Based on the regular season, that could be good for Milwaukee. Lowry shot 23.3 percent and was 1-of-20 from three against the Bucks this past season, plus he sat out the one meeting between the sides where Toronto won. Bledsoe, in particular, was a good defender on Lowry and held him scoreless when matched up this season.

Lowry simply has to do better or this series will be short.

5) Does experience on this stage matter? The Bucks have not shown any signs of the playoffs being too big a stage for them yet, but now the pressure mounts. Will it show?

The Raptors hope so.

The experienced Raptors — with Leonard, Gasol, Lowry — have players who have taken part in 116 Conference Finals games. They know what this level feels like, how to handle the pressure and execute.

The only Buck to go this far is George Hill, from his time with the Spurs and Pacers. That’s it. This is all new to Milwaukee.

The question is, will it matter?

Nick Nurse makes it sound like OG Anunoby is out for most or all of series vs. Bucks

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There’s a lot of fans about to say “who?” but this is a more significant blow to Toronto than people realize:

It sounds like Raptors’ swingman OG Anunoby is out for the series against the Bucks. Or at least most of it.

Anunoby is recovering from an emergency appendectomy and does not sound close to returning, based on what coach Nick Nurse said at practice Tuesday. Via Blake Murphy of The Athletic.

Basically, in a week we will get another update on just how far away Anunoby is, and by that point we will be four games into the Eastern Conference Finals. I’d be surprised if he returns this series.

Anunoby is a long, versatile wing who can defend multiple positions off the bench, can get a few buckets and has to be respected from three. By the end of the last series Nurse trusted Serge Ibaka off the Raptors bench — he was the team’s second best player in Game 7 and they don’t win without him — and that’s it. Norman Powell and Fred VanVleet got a few minutes just so the starters didn’t collapse in exhaustion, but they both struggled.

The Bucks will bring Malcolm Brogdon, George Hill (who was phenomenal last series), Pat Connaughton, and Ersan Ilyasova off the bench. That depth gives Mike Budenholzer options.

That’s why Nurse will miss Anunoby off the bench.

 

Playoff Edition Three Things to Know: Without Durant for Game 6 Warriors face biggest test

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The NBA playoffs are in crunch time and there can be a lot to unpack in a series of intense games, to help out we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Warriors three-peat dreams now depend on how Warriors respond to Kevin Durant injury. Golden State came into these playoffs with the most feared starting lineup in the league. Now, 40 percent of it is out injured. DeMarcus Cousins tore his left quadriceps muscle in the second game of the playoffs, then late in a critical Game 5 Wednesday night Kevin Durant pulled up with a non-contact injury that looked ominous.

Warriors coach Steve Kerr said after the game it was not Durant’s Achilles but that KD would not play in Game 6. An MRI on Thursday will give us more details (for the sake of watching the best player in the game today, let’s hope it’s not as serious as it looked).

How the Warriors respond to this will determine their 2019 title hopes.

The Warriors hung on to win Game 5 at home, in part because Stephen Curry stepped up. Once again Houston went at him when it had the ball and that seemed to transfer over and wear on Curry, slowing him on offense. He was 4-of-14 overall and 1-of-8 from three before Durant’s injury. After Durant went to the locker room, Curry shot 5-of-9 for 16 points including going 2-of-3 from deep. He answered the call.

The Warriors got the 104-99 victory that gives them a 3-2 series lead — meaning two cracks to eliminate the Rockets, at least one of those without Durant. Game 6 is Friday night in Houston.

Game 5 was not without its controversial ending — did Klay Thompson step out of bounds with the ball with about 11 seconds left and the Warriors up three?

A frozen screenshot makes it look like Thompson stepped out with the ball, before making a poor pass that the Warriors were fortunate to ultimately recover. I would argue Chris Paul or James Harden could or should have been called for bumping Thompson out of bounds on that sequence, but we’d need better camera angles than the ones we got to see to be definitive. The Last Two Minute Report for this ending will be interesting.

That report is ultimately moot. The bigger question is Game 6.

Steve Kerr said postgame Durant will not play, I’d be shocked if he’s even on the plane to Houston (whatever the injury is he suffered, better to stay and get treatment). Harden — who had 31 points on 10-of-16 shooting in Game 5 — and company will come out with an appropriate level of desperation on their home court. This is a prideful Rockets team that believes it would win the series, Durant or no Durant playing.

The question is how the Warriors respond. Golden State needs MVP-level Stephen Curry and big nights from Klay Thompson on offense and Draymond Green on defense. Can Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston and the rest of the role players step up for a night. Do the Warriors have one 2015-style, pre-Durant night in them?

The team has leaned heavily on KD these playoffs, how they respond without him will define their 2019 title chances.

2) Boston’s disappointing season ends appropriately at hands of improving, impressive Milwaukee. Too much of the aftermath of Game 5 in Milwaukee has focused on the Celtics — their poor play, their sad effort, their obvious lack of cohesion and trust as teammates that has gone on all season, and what the future now hold for Kyrie Irving and that Boston roster. With good reason, it’s compelling.

However, let’s stop a minute to praise the Milwaukee Bucks.

One year ago, a Celtics team without its two star players eliminated the Bucks in seven games in the first round. Milwaukee took those lessons and adapted — Jason Kidd was out as coach, Mike Budenholzer was in (note to the Lakers… that’s how you run a coaching search). GM Jon Horst knew Coach Bud’s style and went and got him shooting in the form of Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova. The Bucks changed their systems on both ends of the court, evolved and grew up, and became the best regular season team in the league this year.

Plenty of fans and pundits questioned if the Bucks style could translate to the postseason (*meekly raises his own hand*) but they have been dominant. On both ends. It has translated just fine.

In a closeout Game 5 Wednesday, the Bucks held the Celtics to an offensive rating of 82.7 and 31.2 percent shooting for the game. Milwaukee contested shots in the paint — the Celtics shot 6-of-19 in the paint for the first half — and chased Celtics off the arc. Boston played right into Milwaukee’s hands with Irving and his desire to play hero ball. Irving shot 5-of-16 with zero assists in the first half and finished the game 6-of-21 from the floor for 15 points.

Milwaukee had a balanced attack. As expected, Antetokounmpo led the way with 20 points, 8 rebounds, and 8 assists.

However, the Greek Freak had only had 6 points on 2-of-6 shooting in the first half, the Bucks won this game because Milwaukee played team basketball. Khris Middleton had 19 points and 8 rebounds for the game, Eric Bledsoe had 18 points, and George Hill had another impressive night off the bench with 16 points.

Milwaukee looks like contenders, they deserve all the praise for that.

We’ve got all summer to watch what Boston does next.

3) Tyronn Lue moves on from the Lakers, which says all you need to know about the Lakers right now. Coaching LeBron James is hard. It’s not that he does not want to be pushed and coached, but he is as high IQ a player as we have seen in the game, and a coach has to earn his trust. It’s not just given. Tyronn Lue has that trust and respect. He can get in LeBron’s face and call him out — and have LeBron come back at him — and their relationship is not damaged.

Which is why Lue as the Lakers’ coach made sense — the man is one of six coaches alive today who have won an NBA title. He may not have been an ideal choice for Lakers fans, but he can coach LeBron and was eager to do it again — and win again.

Rob Pelinka and the Lakers treated Lue like a first-year coach in negotiations. The Lakers would offer no more than three years on the contract — lining it up with LeBron’s deal — while Lue demanded five years. Also, the Lakers were pushing assistant coaches on him, and every experienced coach wants to pick his assistants. Frank Vogel was not someone Lue knows well, but that fit made some sense. Then Pelinka tried to push Jason Kidd as well — no coach with options is going to let a GM put his potential replacement right next to him on the bench and create a power struggle (and Kidd loves a good power struggle).

Pelinka didn’t think Lue had another option, there were no other offers on the table.

Lue did have an option — walk away. Do another season of NBA TV, spend more time with family and friends. Live his life.

Lue wanted the Lakers job but he didn’t need the Lakers job. Pelinka — and Kurt Rambis, and Jeanie Buss, and the entire Laker management team — misread the room and made a mistake.

Now the Lakers are reportedly looking at Frank Vogel, Lionel Holins, and Mike Woodson. Good luck with that.

All that with Kurt Rambis gaining power within the Laker front office. That would be the Rambis who was 32-132 as a coach in Minnesota, and was equally unimpressive as the interim coach in New York (granted, that was a tough situation, but he talked about playing Kristaps Porzingis at the three). Rambis has his skeletons. However, owner Jeanie Buss trusts him, and his wife Linda and Buss go back a long way and she is a trusted advisor.

Buss has stuck within her comfort zone as owner. She has gone with the people she knows, she trusts, people within the Laker family who do things the “Lakers way.” Except, that way has missed the playoff six years in a row and looked a mess the past couple of years. That way had the Lakers mishandle the very public Anthony Davis trade negotiations where they not only didn’t get their man but also fractured their locker room in the process. Meanwhile, the Lakers’ co-tenant at Staples Center looking like the much better run organization, the one that elite free agents are seriously considering this summer (the Clippers are the first choice before the Lakers for a number of them).

The smart play here is for Buss to realize what is not working, step back, and make a major change to the organization. Go hire a top-flight president of basketball operations, give him the power, let him choose the coach and, more importantly, round out the roster around LeBron and said coach. (Tim Connelly in Denver reportedly is making only $2 million a season in that role, well below market value, and is considering a leap to Washington… and notice the Nuggets are young and still playing.)

The Laker organization needs a shake up. If not, the kind of success that Buss wants — and Lakers fans expect — will remain elusive, the victories fleeting. The Lakers need an organizational identity, right now they are just a brand.