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Nikola Jokic’s All-NBA first-team selection shows his meteoric rise

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Just four years ago, Nikola Jokic was a second-round pick still playing in the Adriatic League. Just three years ago, he was battling a struggling Jusuf Nurkic to be the Nuggets’ main center.

Yesterday, Jokic made the All-NBA first team.

Jokic has risen incredibly quickly. Before this season, he had never even been an All-Star.

That makes Jokic the first non-rookie in NBA history to make an All-NBA first team without a prior All-Star season (including ABA All-Stars).

The No. 41 pick in the 2014 draft, Jokic is just the fourth second-rounder to make an All-NBA first team since the NBA-ABA merger. The others: DeAndre Jordan, Marc Gasol and Marc Price.

For most players not immediately deemed to hold first-round talent, it takes a while to build stature in the NBA. Jokic made the All-NBA first team in just his fourth season. That’s way sooner than Gasol (seventh season), Price (seventh season) and Jordan (eighth season):

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The Nuggets didn’t wait for this honor to make Jokic their franchise player. They gave him a near-max contract last summer, and by leading them into the second round of the playoffs, he triggered incentives to reach a max salary.

Denver has built a young supporting cast – mainly Jamal Murray and Gary Harris – to grow with Jokic. The Nuggets also signed veteran Paul Millsap, whose defense complements Jokic’s offensive-minded game.

So much is coming together so quickly for Denver, and Jokic’s honor is just the latest example.

Eight players/teams, hundreds of millions of dollars and one high-stakes All-NBA vote

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NBA award votes were cast at least 40 days ago. The regular season being judged ended even before that. After rounds of high-level playoff basketball, it’s easy to lose interest in these honors.

But All-NBA selections – which the league plans to release this week – can’t be overlooked.

They could determine the fates of several players and franchises.

In 2011, the NBA began allowing a higher max salary for certain young players. The Collective Bargaining Agreement got updated in 2017 to allow certain veterans to earn super-max salaries. The most common route to eligibility: Making an All-NBA team.

Here are eight players and teams with a lot riding on these results:

Kemba Walker, Hornets

The Hornets haven’t given Kemba Walker a playoff-series victory. They haven’t given him an All-Star teammate. They didn’t even give him Marc Gasol before the trade deadline.

But they can potentially give him a super-max contract.

It might be a necessary tool to retain the greatest player in franchise history.

A year-and-a-half ago, Walker said he’d be “devastated” if Charlotte traded him. A couple months ago, a rumor emerged Walker was likely to leave in free agency. This has gone south quickly.

Yet, don’t rule out Walker re-signing – especially if the Hornets can offer him a super-max contract projected to be worth $221 million over five years. That’s far larger than Walker’s projected max if leaving, $140 million over four years.

Heck, if he doesn’t make an All-NBA team, Walker might even return for his regular max, projected to be $190 million over five years.

That begs the question: How badly do the Hornets want Walker back? Their outlook is bleak either way.

Keeping Walker would make them far more competitive in the short term but carry serious downside risk with the 29-year-old point guard. Maxing out, let alone super-maxing out, Walker would also force Charlotte to clear salary unless Michael Jordan is willing to make an unprecedented trip into the luxury tax. So, a lackluster roster would get even further depleted.

Walker leaving would invite other problems, namely the loss of the team’s best player. The capped-out Hornets would have no mechanism to adequately replace him. They’d be heading into a year of purgatory then rebuilding from near rock bottom.

It’s hard to see Walker settling for the regular max if he’s eligible for the super max. But if Walker misses All-NBA and constrains Charlotte’s offer, the regular max could be enough.

Walker seems to take pride in representing the Hornets and living in Charlotte. He also appears fed up with the franchise’s losing.

These opposing forces will pull at him this summer.

A giant bag could soothe everything. Or its absence could be the final straw.

Karl-Anthony Towns, Timberwolves

Karl-Anthony Towns signed a five-year contract extension last fall that projected to be worth $158 million or $190 million.

Why the $32 million difference? It depends whether Towns makes All-NBA this season.

Eventually, he pushed to trigger that extra money.

Towns averaged 28-13-4 after the All-Star break, up from 23-12-3 prior. Minnesota didn’t suddenly start winning more. But Towns posted shiny numbers.

The Timberwolves would love if Towns maintained that urgency. For all his talent, he has too often failed to assert himself on the court.

But they also might quietly like if he misses All-NBA this season. With Andrew Wiggins already on a max contract, paying Towns an extra $6 million or so per year would further squeeze flexibility.

Towns still looks like he’d be worth the super-max over the next five years. But he could be a bargain at the regular max.

Klay Thompson, Warriors

The near-consistent expectation since the season began: Golden State will sign Klay Thompson to a max contract this summer. If the Warriors offer any less, he’d take it as a sign of disrespect and explore the market.

That implies Thompson will demand the super-max if eligible for the projected five-year, $221 million contract (up from a projected $190 million over five years with the regular max). The difference could be quite costly for Golden State.

If they re-sign Kevin Durant, waive and stretch Shaun Livingston and fill their roster with minimum players, the Warriors’ projected luxury tax depending on Thompson’s contract type:

  • Regular max: $128 million
  • Super max: $161 million

Considering Thompson’s salary, this All-NBA vote could cost Golden State an additional $38 million next season alone.

Of course, Durant might not stay. If he leaves, the Warriors could even avoid the dreaded repeater tax altogether.

But the issue looms next year, when Draymond Green will be up for a big raise. There’s no easy way maintain a championship contender without it getting very expensive.

Thompson’s All-NBA status will go a long way toward determining just how much it costs Golden State to remain elite.

Bradley Beal, Wizards

Washington knows the danger of offering the super-max to someone who has made only one All-NBA team and won’t hit free agency for another two years. John Wall is the poster child for the super-max gone wrong. His extension hasn’t even taken effect yet, and his contract is arguably the NBA’s worst.

You think Bradley Beal is willing to let that become his problem?

Beal stepped up while Wall was injured and earned serious All-NBA consideration. Beal is extolling his loyalty to the Wizards. Even as he says he wouldn’t rush to sign the super-max if offered, Beal sounds ready to get paid.

Washington should be reluctant. A projected $193 million over four years is a lot of money for a player of his caliber, and it could doom the franchise for years. A super-max extension would also prohibit the Wizards from trading Beal for one year, taking him off the market while his value remains high. Plus, with Wall already on the books, Washington has less margin for error.

I can’t imagine it’d go over well with Beal if the Wizards spurned him because Wall got overpaid first – especially considering the history of friction between those two.

Yet, it’d be incredibly risky for Washington to commit so much to Beal now. There’d be only a narrow path for Beal to lead the downtrodden team to meaningful winning next season. All the while, he’d be ineligible to be traded. Longer term is hazier, which is treacherous uncertainty when someone could get paid so much.

If Beal makes All-NBA, there’s a good case the Wizards shouldn’t offer him a super-max extension. If they don’t offer him the super-max extension, there’s a good chance he’ll resent it.

Where this all leads: If Beal makes All-NBA, that could prompt Washington to trade him.

That wouldn’t be just an unintended consequence of the super-max. It’d be the exact opposite of the super-max’s intended design.

Maybe Beal won’t make All-NBA, which would create its own set of complications. Beal would be just two years from unrestricted free agency, and a non-super-max extension seems unlikely. But at least doors would be open.

If he makes All-NBA, suddenly there’d be a lot of pressure on the Wizards to commit one way or the other on him. Not an ideal situation, especially for a team without a general manager.

Anthony Davis, Pelicans

Anthony Davis made a trade request.

David Griffin has indicated he might not honor it.

That’s probably a combination of hope and bluff. Griffin obviously wants Davis in New Orleans, but if Davis remains intent on leaving, it’s tough to keep him. However, by announcing a plan to sell Davis on the Pelicans over the next year, Griffin improves his trade leverage.

Of course, Griffin might actually follow through and keep Davis into 2020 free agency. That plan becomes much more tenable (or improves the viability of Griffin’s bluff) if Davis makes an All-NBA team this year.

The Pelicans can already offer Davis a super-max extension this offseason. But if Davis makes All-NBA this season or next, they could also re-sign him to a super-max contract in 2020 free agency. The extension or fresh contract would have the same terms – projected to be five years, $235 million.

That’s a lot more than Davis’ projected max with other teams in 2020 ($156 million over four years).

If Davis misses All-NBA this season and next, New Orleans would still have a financial advantage in its 2020 offer for Davis (projected max of $202 million over five years). Davis could still qualify for the super max with the Pelicans in 2020 free agency by making All-NBA next season.

But that’s obviously a smaller guaranteed edge without him clinching super-max eligibility this season. It’d be incredibly risky for the Pelicans to keep him into 2020 free agency without knowing they’d have the bigger upper hand.

It’s probably too risky to keep him, anyway.

Davis has said the extra money won’t sway him. His trade request affirms that.

But people change their minds.

More money only helps.

Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers

Lillard will make an All-NBA team, but the playoffs would always go a long way toward answering questions that remained.

Would Portland commit now to paying Lillard a projected $193 million from ages 31-34? Would Lillard lock into team control for six more years?

After the Trail Blazers’ run to the Western Conference finals, the answer is clear: Yes.

This is the designated-veteran-player extension everyone should be watching. If it doesn’t work with Lillard – an excellent player and even better leader – it could prompt changes in the next CBA.

Nikola Vucevic, Magic

I see six centers as legitimate All-NBA candidates: Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, Rudy Gobert, Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Davis and Nikola Vucevic. Vucevic’s case is surprisingly strong.

Among those six, Vucevic ranks second in real-plus-minus-based wins, third in PER-based estimated wins added, fourth in win shares and fourth in value over replacement player.

Plus, there are the factors that shouldn’t matter, but often do. Vucevic has the narrative of working his way into first being an All-Star in his eighth season and ending Orlando’s six-year playoff drought. There will definitely be no voter fatigue with him.

I don’t expect Vucevic to make All-NBA, but I also wouldn’t be shocked if, as voters researched their picks, he holds up well. If he gets on some ballots and many voters are divided on other candidates, it’s possible for Vucevic to sneak onto the third team.

Even if that happened, though, is it possible he’d actually get a super-max contract?

It’s hard to see the Magic – whose front office inherited, rather an acquired, Vucevic – paying him that much. He’s 28 and has made the All-Star team only once. Orlando barely snuck into the playoffs in the East with him. He had a very fine season, but that doesn’t mean his long-term trajectory has completed changed.

I’d be quite surprised if the Magic gave him a regular-max contract (projected to be $190 million over five years). A super-max contract (projected to be $221 million over five years)? That’s barely even imaginable.

[Correction: Newly signed designated-veteran-player contracts, as opposed to extensions, must cover precisely five seasons.]

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks

Giannis Antetokounmpo seems happy in Milwaukee.

The Bucks can secure him in 2020.

Antetokounmpo is too inexperienced to sign a veteran-super-max extension this offseason. But because he made All-NBA last year and will certainly make it again this year, he’ll already clinch eligibility to next year sign a super-max extension projected to be worth $250 million over five years.

A lot can change in year, including Antetokounmpo’s desire to stay in Milwaukee. But the Bucks can do their part to keep Antetokounmpo happy between now and then. That starts with advancing from the Eastern Conference finals, where Milwaukee is tied 2-2 with the Raptors. The Bucks can also pay the luxury tax to keep their strong supporting cast intact next season. Follow that with another deep playoff run next year, and Antetokounmpo seems highly likely to stay.

Still, the only certainty once Antetokounmpo makes All-NBA this year, will be in his eligibility for a super-max extension next year. His and Milwaukee’s views on it once it can actually be signed can’t be known until then.f

Raptors’ halfcourt defense, big games from Gasol, Lowry evens series with Bucks

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Slow your roll on “these Bucks can challenge Warriors” takes…

They are going to have to get out of the East, first. And that is proving to be more difficult than it looked after two games.

Back home in Toronto, the Raptors slowed the game’s pace down and used an impressive halfcourt defense — the Bucks scored less than a point per possession when transition was taken away — to control this game. Giannis Antetokounmpo had 25 points and 10 rebounds, and Khris Middleton added 30 points, but outside those two the Bucks shot 35.4 percent and had just 13 fast break points. It all kept the Bucks offense relatively in check.

Relatively is good enough when everyone is hitting their shots.

Kawhi Leonard had a quiet 19 points, although he did have the dunk of the playoffs all over Antetokounmpo.

Leonard didn’t have to carry the team because everyone in white seemed to be knocking down their shots. Kyle Lowry had 25 points on 11 shots, Marc Gasol had 17 (and his aggressive offense the last two games has stressed the Bucks defense), Norman Powell had 18, Serge Ibaka 17 points and 13 rebounds, and Fred VanVleet had 13 points on six shots. The Raptors bench scored 48 points. Leonard (or Lowry) would draw attention on drives, but when the ball was kicked out and swung around, the open man didn’t hesitate and rarely missed.

All that led to a 120-102 Raptors win where Toronto was in control most of the way.

The series is now tied 2-2 and heads back to Milwaukee where the best-of-three left starts.

The Raptors continue to defend well in the halfcourt, with the Bucks scoring less than a point per possession (0.93) this game. In three of the four games, the Bucks have scored less than a point per possession in the halfcourt, but that only really matters if they can keep Milwaukee out of transition. The Raptors did that at home in a game with just 96 possessions, the fewest in this series (stats via Cleaning the Glass).

Individually, Milwaukee and Mike Budenholzer have leaned on Nikola Mirotic more in recent games, and the Raptors are now attacking him when they have the ball.

Combine that with an aggressive Gasol — he has started taking the shots from three that he hesitated on in the first two games — and his 3-of-6 from deep has become a big problem for Toronto.

Toronto had this in hand much of the second half, so much so that Drake was helping Nick Nurse relax on the sidelines.

The Bucks will need their other players — Eric Bledsoe, who had 5 points on 7 shots, and Brook Lopez, who had 8 points — to step up in the final games if they are going to advance.

The Raptors have found a formula that works, it’s on the Bucks now to adjust.

Bucks take 2-0 lead over Raptors after Game 2 blowout

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The Milwaukee Bucks are who we thought they were.

The No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, who operated in fits and starts throughout the playoffs despite cruising through two initial series, are now in firm command of the Toronto Raptors. Giannis Antetkounmpo and the Bucks beat Kawhi Leonard and his Raptors, 125-103, to take a 2-0 lead on Friday.

Milwaukee jumped out of the gate, scoring 35 points in the first quarter and limiting Toronto to just 21. On a night in which Antetkounmpo was announced as finalist for both the NBA MVP and the Defensive Player of the Year awards, the Bucks’ defense slowly took hold. The Raptors scored just 18 in the second quarter, ending the first half with a 15-point deficit.

For the Raptors, it was a night of hyperbole. Often criticized for being a squad not up to the snuff of their star, Toronto gave its haters fodder in Game 2. Leonard, who finished with 31 points, eight rebounds, and two assists, was the only productive offensive player. Kyle Lowry added 15 points on 4-of-13 shooting, and much of Toronto’s contributing cast could hardly be seen. Marc Gasol had a particularly difficult night, scoring two points on 1-of-9 shooting.

The Bucks were quite the opposite, with three bench players scoring in double-digits. It was a more concerted team effort by Milwaukee, who ended the night +8 in assists and +13 in rebounding differential. Antetkounmpo’s squad also finished with just seven turnovers compared to Toronto’s 13.

Antetkounmpo was the star of the night, scoring 30 points to go with 17 rebounds, five assists, two blocks and a steal on 50 percent shooting. The leading MVP candidate was everywhere, and it appeared Toronto was in trouble right from the get-go. On the first possession of the game, Antetkounmpo bullied Pascal Siakam down low, missing his shot high off the backboard but immediately grabbing his own miss for a putback dunk.

The rest of the Bucks cast cruised off Antetkounmpo’s excellent play, but no one was more surprising that Ersan Ilyasova. The Milwaukee reserve scored 17 points on 7-of-11 shooting, grabbing three rebounds to go with two assists and two steals. It was his best playoff game this season, and the first time Ilyasova scored more than 17 points since Oct. 29 against… the Raptors.

Folks at the Air Canada Centre will be rowdy and raucous on Sunday for Game 3, but Friday night was a statement for Antetkounmpo and the Bucks. They’re the best team in the East, and with a commanding 2-0 lead heading back to Ontario, it’ll be time for Leonard and his understaffed crew to prove the Raptors are worthy of knocking the Greek Freak off his throne.

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?