John Henson

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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.”

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.”

Reports: Bucks trade for veteran George Hill, send Mathew Dellavedova back to Cavaliers

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The Milwaukee Bucks have Eric Bledsoe at the point, although let’s be real here, most of the time you want the ball in Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s hands. Still, there was a lack of depth the Bucks could trust at the point behind Bledsoe.

Enter veteran George Hill.

The Cavaliers and Bucks have agreed to a trade that sends George Hill to Milwaukee for Mathew Dellavedova, John Henson, and a couple of future picks, a trade broken by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

The Bucks save $18 million in salary next summer with this move (Hill is in the final year of his contract), which means they can pay Kris Middleton, keep Malcolm Brogdon, and still have roughly $20 million to make a splash in the free agent market. The Bucks want to contend, this move puts them in position to have the players around the Greek Freak to be a force in future seasons.

Plus, in the short term, the “win now” Bucks get a little better a solid veteran guard who can be part of their rotation, playing the one or the two.

The Wizards shave about $5 million off their tax bill as the third team.

What the Cavaliers do is take on long-term salary to get draft picks in 2021 — this is a team accepting it is in rebuilding mode and making smart moves to help that along (although those may not be good 2021 picks, the Bucks could be a force that season).

This trade is a win for the Bucks — they get better now and more flexible going forward.

For the Cavaliers, they may not have done much better and this trade fits with their long-term goals.

NBA Power Rankings: Milwaukee jumps into top spot as Golden State slides

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No team has really grabbed hold of the top spot in the power rankings, with everybody stumbling a little. Toronto had a short slide, the Clippers just lost to the Wizards, Golden State can’t get healthy, and in the absence of one dominant team the Milwaukee Bucks — the team with the best net rating in the NBA — move into the top spot. For now.

 
Bucks small icon 1. Bucks (12-4, last week No. 3). Thon Maker, this is opportunity knocking. With backup center John Henson out about three months following surgery on a ligament in his left wrist, the Bucks’ front line depth will be tested and Maker is going to get some run as the backup center. This is his opportunity to show he deserves to be on the court more (plus the Bucks need those minutes). Maker can space the floor some as a shooter (Brook Lopez-lite) but the real key is on the defensive end. The Bucks are 8-1 at home (the one loss because the Grizzlies got hot late) and have 7-of-10 at their new arena coming up. They can’t keep digging first quarter holes to climb out of, however.

 
Raptors small icon 2. Raptors (14-4, LW 1). Kawhi Leonard was brilliant against the Celtics in a game that had us hoping these teams meet in the playoffs because the matchups are fascinating and the teams evenly matched. One drop off from last season to this one: Toronto’s bench. Last season it was the best in the NBA but this season Fred VanVleet is scuffling shooting less than 40 percent on the season and not hitting threes, and the rest of the Raptors second unit is following suit. That depth is what can keep them on top of the East over the long grind of the season and they need to find it again.

 
Clippers small icon 3. Clippers (11-6, LW 5). Winners of five in a row until a second-half collapse in Washington (dead legs on a back-to-back), the Clippers may be the biggest positive surprise in the early NBA season. In two short seasons Los Angeles has transformed itself from the glamour of Lob City to a workmanlike team that is easy to get behind: Tobias Harris getting it done on the wing, Lou Williams (still coming off the bench) as the star and closer, Montrezl Harrell and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander as the hardworking young talent, Danilo Gallinari reminding everyone he can play when healthy, and of course everyone loves Boban Marjanovic. The Clippers are 2-1 on the road to start of stretch of 11-of-15 away from Staples Center.

 
Thunder small icon 4. Thunder (10-6, LW 6).. The Thunder have won 10-of-12, that despite Russell Westbrook having missed half of those games. While the offense has stayed afloat the real key is on the other end of the court, where the Thunder have the best defense in the league over the past dozen games, allowing 101.6 points per 100 possessions. Paul George and Steven Adams have stepped up their roles in this stretch, and with Westbrook back OKC should be rolling again. They need to close out November strong, because December gets tougher with a lot more time on the road.

 
Blazers small icon 5. Trail Blazers (12-5, LW 2). The Blazers remain on top of the West standings, and while we should keep talking about their improved bench and top-10 defense, let’s not forget to mention Damian Lillard is ridiculously good. He is fifth in the NBA in total points scored (454) and that works out to 26.7 a game, plus he is dishing out 6.2 assists a night (17th in the league), and he leads the league in win shares at 2.9. Portland is 2-2 so far through a six-game road trip with tough games against the Bucks and Warriors still ahead.

 
Pacers small icon 6. Pacers (11-6, LW 9). The Pacers have won three in a row, the last two essentially without Victor Oladipo, who aggravated a knee injury Saturday vs. Atlanta. This is a step forward for the Pacers, who were 0-7 when Oladipo sat last season. The difference is this season the Pacers have been playing much better defense of late, the best defense in the NBA over the last 10 games at 100.8 points per 100 possessions. That is making up for a sluggish offense, but the Pacers need to find better balance with 6-of-8 on the road against some good teams.

 
Sixers small icon 7. 76ers (12-7, LW 8). The Sixers are 3-1 since Jimmy Butler entered the lineup, and that includes three wins in a row. Against Charlotte, in overtime, you could see how much the Sixers need Butler at the end of games to create shots — he’s fearless at it, and when he missed at the end of regulation he stepped back up to take the big shot in overtime. Philadelphia is 9-0 at home, the final unbeaten team at home in the NBA — that’s relevant because 76ers play five of their next six in Philly.

 
Grizzlies small icon 8. Grizzlies (11-5, LW 12). Remember last summer when a lot of people (*raises hand*) called for Memphis to blow it up, trade Mike Conley and start the rebuild? Well… Memphis is currently the two seed in the West, having won four in a row and 6-of-7. During that stretch they have allowed less than a point per possession on defense — it’s that end of the floor that is carrying the Grizzlies, the offense is still stumbling. Rookie Jaren Jackson continues to impress and is averaging 12.8 points per game so far this season with a good 55.9 true shooting percentage and an 18.2 PER. The Grizzlies are on the road for their next 4-of-6.

 
Pelicans small icon 9. Pelicans (10-7, LW 17). Expect to hear the Pelicans come up in a lot of trade rumors over the few months — they know they have to win, that they are on the clock to keep Anthony Davis, and they need more talent on the roster. (Sorry New Orleans fans, it’s true, you don’t have to like it and maybe Davis decides to stay, but the pressure is on now.) New Orleans was in the Jimmy Butler talks, and already rumors of them going after Bradley Beal (unlikely) and Otto Porter (possible) are out there. That’s not going to stop. Elfrid Payton is going to miss a month or more after surgery on his hand, which really hurts the Pelicans’ depth at the point.

 
Nuggets small icon 10. Nuggets (10-7, LW 7).. The Nuggets have lost 6-of-7 (the only win in there was against the lowly Hawks) as the wheels continue to come off on the defensive end. Denver has allowed 110.4 points per 100 possessions over the last seven games, 27th in the league, and while the offense remains top 10 it can’t cover for everything. The biggest defensive issue is they just can’t stop fouling, but a lot of things need to be cleaned up on that end before they slide deeper into a crowded middle in the West.

 
Warriors small icon 11. Warriors (12-6, LW 4). Welcome to the “real NBA.” The Warriors went 0-3 on a road trip for the first time in the Steve Kerr era and have lost 5-of-7, with the second worst defense in the NBA during that stretch. It’s been ugly, but we also know why: The Warriors aren’t healthy with Draymond Green (toe) and Stephen Curry (groin) out for a stretch. Kevin Durant has tried to put the Green drama behind him, but the best way to do that is step up on the court and both he and Klay Thompson have not been the forces the Warriors need with their other two stars out.

 
Rockets small icon 12. Rockets (8-7, LW 18). Carmelo Anthony has been away from the Rockets for four games, Houston has gone 4-0 with the second best offense in the league during that stretch. It’s not that simple, there’s more to it than just addition by subtraction Eric Gordon returned, Chris Paul has averaged 20.3 points on 59 percent shooting with 6.3 assists a game in those four, and what matters more is James Harden is playing like an MVP again. Everything is falling into place. Probably. Starting Friday the Rockets have 7-of-9 on the road as a test for their newfound level of play.

 
Lakers small icon 13. Lakers (9-7, LW 16). LeBron James is so very, very good at basketball and he has decided to take over a couple of games recently, first scoring 44 in Portland, then dropping 51 on his old friends in Miami. In those two games the Lakers looked like a playoff threat, the kind of team Magic Joshson envisioned. In between there, LeBron had a pedestrian (for him) game of 22 points with some defensive lapses, and the Lakers lost to Orlando. When LeBron isn’t pushing this team defensively they slide, and the offense (even with LeBron) can’t cover that up.

 
Celtics small icon 14. Celtics (9-8, LW 11). Something is wrong in Boston, and it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what, in part because it’s just not one thing but a lot of little things. It’s a team with a lot of high usage players who want touches but there needs to be more of a pecking order (with Kyrie Irving on top), they need someone to attack the rim looking to score and not dish, they just need to knock down open looks at a higher clip, and they desperately need anyone to grab a rebound. The elite defense is keeping them in games, but the offense is stumbling, nobody more than Gordon Hayward. He just does not have that first step right now, and when he does drive it’s to dish not score. All of it is combining to hold this team back.

Pistons small icon 15. Pistons (8-6, 19). Detroit has won 4-of-5, and including in dramatic fashion in coach Dwane Casey’s return to Toronto. The wins have come during a soft part of the schedule (Orlando, Atlanta, Cleveland), and there are more of those to come after a home-and-home with Houston, but these are the games the Pistons need to win — they will struggle against the elite of the East most nights, but with Blake Griffin and good talent around him they need to feed on the weaker parts of the schedule.

 
Magic small icon 16. Magic (9-9, LW 22). They had won three in a row and 5-of-6 before Danny Green‘s game winner on Tuesday night. We went into the season focused on the potential of the Magic’s new front line — Mo Bamba, Jonathan Isaac, Aaron Gordon — but Nikola Vucevic had become a reliable 20-10 guy this season (averaging 20 points and 11.2 boards a game), including shooting 44.2 percent from three. He’s in the final year of his contract and could help some playoff teams, expect his name to come up in trade rumors. Plus next summer he will have a few suitors willing to pay the going rate a a center who can stretch the floor.

 
Hornets small icon 17. Hornets (8-8, LW 15). Kemba Walker has emerged as a fringe MVP candidate, a guy forcing his way into the conversation with things like the 60-point game against Philly and the 43 he dropped on Boston in the next game (note to the Celtics: trap/double him off a late pick, make someone else beat you, and don’t let Walker get a clean look over Al Horford or you will regret it). James Borego opened up and spaced out the offense (something easier to do with Dwight Howard not clogging the lane) and Walker is attacking into those spaces. Plus the man shoots as nice a three off the move as you will see outside the Bay Area.

 
Kings small icon 18. Kings (9-8, LW 13). And this is why they can’t have nice things in Sacramento. The Kings are off to a much faster start than anyone expected, De'Aaron Fox is having a breakout season, and someone in the organization leaks to the press that coach Dave Joerger’s job is in jeopardy because he’s playing 30-year-old Nemanja Bjelica over rookie Marvin Bagley Jr. Someone clearly invested in Bagley because they pushed to draft him (and maybe feeling the pressure because they took him in front of Luka Doncic, who is having a strong rookie campaign). There was no reason to take this public, but… Kings. I feel for their fans.

 
Spurs small icon 19. Spurs (8-8, LW 10). San Antonio has lost 6-of-8 and at the heart of the problem is LaMarcus Aldridge‘s shooting slump, he is hitting just 36.5 percent of his shots in those eight. It looked like he was going to break out hitting 10-of-16 against Golden State, but he turned around and shot 2-of-11 vs. New Orleans. The other problem is the Spurs are a bottom 10 defensive team right now, and that is where they miss DeJonte Murray.

 
Mavericks small icon 20. Mavericks (7-9, LW 23). This ranking may be too low for them. Dallas has the best point differential in the NBA over its last seven games, although the aberration blowout of the Jazz by 50 skews that number. Still, there wins over OKC and Golden State in a four-game win streak that ended Monday against Memphis. What has sparked this run is strong play from Harrison Barnes, who missed time with a hamstring issue but now seems to have his legs under him again and averaged 19 points a game in the four wins (he had just 10 against Memphis).

 
Jazz small icon 21. Jazz (8-9, LW 14). This is the team that most surprises and confuses me this season. How does a team lose to Dallas by 50 — 50! — then turn around a few days later and beat the Celtics? How does this team have a league average defense? The Jazz have lost 3-of-4 and can’t afford a long slide because it’s hard to climb back up in the deep West, where the conference is loaded with good teams. Starting Friday they have 5-of-6 on the road.

 
22. Timberwolves (7-10, LW 24). They are 3-1 since the Jimmy Butler trade and the thing you notice first is they are playing hard again — even Andrew Wiggins. We’ll see how long that lasts, but it’s refreshing to see. Same with Karl-Anthony Towns stepping up and looking like an All-NBA player again. Minnesota dug itself a hole to start the season but a soft part of the schedule comes up (after Denver Wednesday its the Nets, Bulls, Cavaliers, and Spurs) and it’s a chance for Minnesota to get back in the mix in the West.

 
Nets small icon 23. Nets (8-10, LW 20). The injury to Caris LeVert opened the door for D'Angelo Russell, who has stepped up and had 20 points, 9 boards, and 6 assists in a win at Miami Monday. Russell is playing for his next contract (which likely will not be in Brooklyn) and needs more nights like that. The Nets are struggling of late because they can’t get stops consistently, although they looked better doing that against the Heat. Now they just need to do it consistently.

 
Wizards small icon 24. Wizards (6-11, LW 26). The Wizards played their best half of basketball Tuesday night in a comeback win against the Clippers after being down 19 at the half. It’s notable because this team has been quick to fold its tents all season when faced with adversity. That half alone does not solve the problems, nor will it quiet all the trade rumors around this team. From what I hear from sources, most teams have interest in Bradley Beal but the price being asked is too steep, the guy most likely to be moved is Otto Porter.

 
Heat small icon 25. Heat (6-11, LW 21). Their Miami Vice-inspired City uniforms are the best of the city jerseys in the NBA (with the Nets and Timberwolves close behind). That’s something positive about the Heat, it’s hard to come up with much else. They have dropped 6-of-7 and their defense has been okay during that stretch but the Heat can’t score consistently. Josh Richardson is having a good season, but he’s not a No. 1 option, he just has to play that role in Miami.

 
Knicks small icon 26. Knicks (4-14, LW 27). They have lost six in a row and it’s hard to find any positives in there, but I have one: Tim Hardaway Jr. is playing well despite the losses. In the last three games he’s scored at least 30 points (32 twice), pulled down at least 5 rebounds, and is making plays all over the court. So there’s that. Coach David Fizdale has them playing hard and is trying to build a culture, but it all takes time. The problem is this roster and play will not help their free agent pursuits next summer.

 
Bulls small icon 27. Bulls (4-13, LW 25). It’s easy to like the way Zach LaVine is playing as a scorer (25.3 points per game) but he’s not the guy who should be a playmaker as often as he needs to be with this roster — he has as many turnovers as assists this season. This team needs a quality point guard. When good defensive teams hold LaVine in check — as Boston and Milwaukee just did — the Bulls don’t have anyone to turn to. At least until Lauri Markkanen returns and provides a little more hope (although we may be expecting too much from him).

 
Cavaliers small icon 28. Cavaliers (2-13, LW 29). They have dropped 7-of-8, J.R. Smith is not with the team until they can find a trade for him (not that simple, it could be a while for rosters to shake out), and Kevin Love says he will not be back until after the first of the year. But Wednesday night the Cavs are on national television and have a distraction — LeBron James is returning to town. This time there will be a video tribute and not the hatred of the last time this happened, because he brought Cleveland a title.

 
Suns small icon 29. Suns (3013, LW 30). Deandre Ayton is having a strong rookie season — 16.3 points and 10.5 rebounds a night, and shooting 60.3% — but Monday night Joel Embiid welcomed him to the NBA and showed the rookie what it will take to be an elite big in the NBA, nearly doubling Ayton up in both points and rebounds. Ayton’s defense has a ways to go, but he is showing promise. Despite that, the young Suns have dropped 6-of-7.

 
Hawks small icon 30. Hawks (3-14, LW 28). Losers of eight in a row and 12-of-13, but with John Collins back things should change around a little. Trae Young also is a distraction because he shows moments of real promise, but he also shows real moments of rookieness (sure, that’s a word). It’s a long process in Atlanta that’s just getting started but there are reasons for optimism despite the string of losses.

Report: Bucks’ John Henson out at least 12 weeks

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A year ago, John Henson and the Bucks were ready to move on from each other.

But Milwaukee kept him, and he started at center for last season’s playoff team. The Bucks signed Brook Lopez to start over him this year, but Henson has thrived as a backup. He has provided strong defense and even developed into a willing 3-point shooter to fit Mike Budenholzer’s system.

But, now Milwaukee will lose Henson for a while.

Bucks release:

Bucks center John Henson will be sidelined with a torn left wrist ligament. Henson initially aggravated his wrist at Portland on Nov. 6. He was able to play in the next three games before reporting additional discomfort in Wednesday night’s game vs. Memphis.

Yesterday, Henson was evaluated by Bucks orthopaedic surgeon Dr. Carole Vetter of the Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin health network. The evaluation confirmed the injury and surgery will be scheduled in the near future. His status will be updated following surgery.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

This is a significant blow for Milwaukee, which has started 10-4 and has the NBA’s best scoring margin by a considerable margin.

Thon Maker will likely slide into the rotation. Christian Wood could get a chance behind Lopez, too. Ersan Ilyasova might play more at center.

The Bucks have a decent number of options.

But for a team rolling, any disruption to the status quo is unwelcomed.