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Mike Budenholzer bolsters Bucks

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The Bucks had a superstar. They had another borderline All-Star. They had a solid supporting cast.

And now they have a workable vision.

Milwaukee made the biggest coaching upgrade of the year, going from Jason Kidd/interim Joe Prunty to Mike Budenholzer. Add a couple complementary signings, and the Bucks are coming together.

The Celtics, Raptors and 76ers are in the Eastern Conference’ post-LeBron James first class. Milwaukee fits into the next tier with the Pacers, but an ascension to the top tier appears more likely than a drop lower.

Giannis Antetokounmpo is elite. Khris Middleton is underrated. The rest of the rotation is solid throughout.

The goal must be ending a 17-year playoff-series-victory drought, the NBA’s longest going.

Budenholzer should help. The Bucks got him with the Raptors in hot pursuit, a coup for small-market Milwaukee. (An aside: Would Budenholzer have picked Toronto if he knew Kawhi Leonard would be there?) Budenholzer is not the NBA’s best coach, but he needn’t be.

Whatever innovation Kidd’s switching defense brought, opponents had mostly solved it. His offensive philosophy was dated. And he’d worn out relationships with his players.

Budenholzer had a strong record of player development with the Hawks. His defenses have been sound. And his offense is modern.

To that end, the Bucks signed stretch bigs Ersan Ilyasova and Brook Lopez.

Ilyasova was surprisingly expensive. Milwaukee guaranteed him $7 million each of the next two seasons, and he has an early guarantee date (two days after the 2020 draft) for his $7 million salary the following year. But he just knows how to play. Ilyasova is a good shooter and heady defender who takes advantage of his keen understanding of positioning with a willingness to take charges.

Lopez was a bargain on a one-year, $3,382,000 contract. He might start at center. At minimum, he’s more dependable than Thon Maker. Lopez has quickly become one of the NBA’s better 3-point-shooting centers, and he’s a solid interior defender.

Budenholzer knows how to effectively spread the floor using bigs like Ilyasova and Lopez. And Milwaukee already had good backcourt shooters in Tony Snell and Malcolm Brogdon. It’s downright scary how much space Antetokounmpo will have, whether it’s attacking one-on-one or in pick-and-rolls with Eric Bledsoe.

Landing Ilyasova and Lopez came at a cost, though. The Bucks let Jabari Parker walk, a historically quick exit for the former No. 2 pick.

The failure to get nothing for him can’t be pinned solely on this offseason. Matching the Bulls’ $20 million salary for him wouldn’t have necessarily been wise. Considering Milwaukee’s obvious unwillingness to pay the luxury tax, it was untenable.

But how did the Bucks not see this coming? Why didn’t they move Parker before the trade deadline? And why did they allow him to become an unrestricted free agent in the latter stages of his free agency?

Parker’s two-year deal with Chicago wouldn’t have been possible as an offer sheet, which is required for restricted free agents. The contract contains a team option, and offer sheets must be for at least two years not counting options. If Milwaukee kept Parker restricted – even without an intention to match – the Bulls would have been forced to sign him to a different contract, one not as favorable to them or Parker. Chicago probably would have just made the second year unguaranteed – a small, but noteworthy, difference. But the Bulls never had to make that choice, because the Bucks let Parker become unrestricted.

Chicago isn’t close to challenging the Bucks. But Antetokounmpo is just 23. The Bulls could definitely become competitive during Antetokounmpo’s prime, and Milwaukee – out of kindness to Parker or fealty to his agent, Mark Bartelstein – made it easier for them to build.

The Bucks also drafted Donte DiVincenzo with the No. 17 and signed Pat Connaughton for slightly more than the minimum. I don’t expect either to contribute much this year.

Antetokounmpo gives Milwaukee a wide-open window. Middleton and Bledsoe are headed toward unrestricted free agency next summer, and the 2019 offseason will go a long way in shaping this team long-term.

But the Bucks have a serious chance this year to have their best season in a long time, and that matters.

They were always due to take a step forward next season. Their moves this summer just push them along a little more.

Offseason grade: B-

PBT Mailbag: How many games do you think Kawhi Leonard will play in Toronto?

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Submit your questions to the mailbag for next week by e-mailing pbtmailbag@gmail.com.

The great equalizer in the NBA is ego. Not culture. Not the draft. Not talent. Not luck. Not location.

Ego.

We’ve seen it all across the NBA in recent seasons, really since the league started to use the selling of superstars as its main base. Influential players have made it their mantra to use leverage to influence roster moves. Michael Jordan did it when he was in Chicago. Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal tried to use it against each other. LeBron James has done it his entire career.

The same can be said for former players, as well as executives and owners. The teams that continually end up in the bottom of the standings despite their best efforts often find their way there thanks to stubborn gatekeeping. You know the kind.

As executives, these former hardwood heroes sometimes baffle their fanbases. Against all logic (and probably their own professional scouts) they sign or draft a guy because a player seems like a pure scorer or a monster rebounder, devoid of advanced statistical analysis. It’s those same general managers, or perhaps owners, who hire former players to be head coaches with little experience. Jason Kidd and Earl Watson immediately come to mind.

There has been very little in the way of former stars succeeding outright when it comes to team building. Both current players and former, as we have seen, are often unable to divest their own ego from their position. With old school knowledge and bolstered confidence, many of these players wind up steering their teams in the wrong direction. Vlade Divacs and his menagerie of power forward, for example.

That is not to say that former stars can’t be successful executives and coaches. Steve Kerr won five championships as a player, and he had to go to the Phoenix Suns before he stopped off in Golden State. And in Phoenix, he failed. Kerr traded away much of the Suns’ core, including Shawn Marion, Boris Diaw, and Raja Bell. He eventually left the Phoenix front office in 2010, turning to the Golden State Warriors in a role as coach without explicit executive power.

Perhaps that is one of the main reasons Golden State remains atop the league. Not only is the team managed by smart basketball people who clearly know their role, the team is unaffected by the types of players who — at least to our outward knowledge — try to significantly impact roster moves. Sure, Warriors players banded together to attract Kevin Durant a couple of years ago, but that was a no-brainer. The front office wanted KD, too.

I’m not sure if it’s a humongous black mark on the legacies of guys like LeBron and MJ, either as players or as front office folks. But there is an invisible hand in the NBA, one where the human element of superstardom affects real choices that may not always be the best for the product on the basketball court.

Putting together a functional NBA roster, especially one that is championship ready, is already akin to wrangling cats. Having to deal with and impetuous owner, or a former player GM still stuck in the 80s, or a star player who wants to team up with his AAU buddies makes it that much more difficult.

Then again, in a league that decided to sell the smiling face of star players, ego was always going to be the sword that cut both ways. The Cavaliers knew that. The Lakers know that. Hell, even the San Antonio Spurs know that now.

Kobe would have been a Charlotte Hornet; Steve Francis would have been a Vancouver Grizzly; Jon Barry would have been a Boston Celtic, all if not for self-empowerment fueled by ego.

This isn’t to put the idea of “ego” as purely negative, either. Surely, Russell Westbrook won the MVP two seasons ago largely in part due to his ego and knowing that he could carry a team all alone. Ego is often the driving force for what makes a player successful, and compartmentalizing it as separate from the player himself does nobody any good.

Next time you are thinking about your favorite team’s roster, think hard about how much ego either at the player, executive, or owner level has affected the direction of that franchise. It might be better than you think! Or, you might be a Knicks fan.

Let’s get to your questions.

John Z.

What are the Knicks and Lakers best options for Joakim Noah and Luol Deng? Are the Knicks and Lakers better off simply waiting out the final two years of Noah and Deng’s contracts until they expire, waiving and stretching them in 2019, or sitting tight for this season and then try trading them as an expiring contracts next off-season. In my opinion, the third option would only happen if either offers a protected future 1st round pick, at minimum.

The question for both of these teams is what they see themselves doing in the future and how their current salary cap figures factor into those future plans. We all know that major teams are waiting for the summer of 2019 to sign a bevy of free agents that will become available. It’s clear that by their current signings this season around LeBron James, that the Los Angeles Lakers are aiming directly for 2019. New York is more of a mystery, especially because Kristaps Porzingis might miss this entire season and that could put a damper on the Knicks’ free agent pitch.

Stretching seems to be the option people are jonesing for in this scenario, especially because both players are sort of in the same situation. Deng has two years left on his contract at around $18 million a piece, and stretching him (over five years if done before Aug. 31) could save the Lakers around $7 million dollars in cap space over the next two seasons.

The only problem is that if LA decides to stretch Deng then they will also have that cap hit for many years to come, well through LeBron’s first contract with the Lakers. Whether Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka want to have $7 million dollars of Deng on the books through 2022-23 is another question.

The same can be said for Noah and the Knicks. Stretching Noah with two years left on his contract represents a similar amount of savings for New York, but he would be attached to their cap for many years to come. The Knicks already handed out a large contract to Tim Hardaway Jr., and Porzingis is due for an extension here soon. No doubt they will be wanting to put players around them.

Looking at projected salary figures for both teams in these scenarios — whether they stretch these players or not — it seems like they should have enough space to sign guys to build around their stars. But you can never have enough flexibility in the NBA, and I think bogging down cap space for half a decade to open up less than $10 million for next summer isn’t a gamble either are likely to make. The Lakers will be big players next season no matter what, whether via free agency or trade. Players will come to LA, as we have already seen. They don’t really need to have that extra boost in cap space thanks to the one-year deals they made everyone sign this summer.

New York’s build is on a slower path and two more seasons of Noah on the books isn’t that big of a deal. Then again, after Porzingis signs his extension it’s likely they will be toying with the luxury tax. Whether James Dolan wants to pay that for one year thanks largely to Noah’s contract is a big question.

Right now, it seems like they will likely just wait out both of those contracts.

Lamar

I saw LeBron KD and Draymond at Mastro’s in LA last night. Draymond seemed to be spending most of his time keeping an eye on KD and LeBron. Is he the Warriors’ official babysitter?
Sent from my iPad

This is why I started the mailbag feature: to break news about NBA players canoodling with each other over high-priced steaks. I also like that this is sort of a humblebrag about you being at Mastro’s yourself, Lamar. Kudos.

Even if we could verify this meeting actually happened, it probably wouldn’t mean anything. All NBA players hang out with each other all the time, usually in LA, over the summer. But if we wanted to make a big deal out of it, we could suppose that instead of Draymond keeping an eye on Kevin Durant, he is actually working together to try to figure out a way to end up on the Lakers with him in a couple of years.

Draymond’s contract is up after the 2019-20 season. And although the rumblings about Durant leaving Golden State are growing, there are smaller ones about how much Golden State will be willing to pay as their core ages. Perhaps Green decides that he wants to leave as well? It would be the ultimate heel turn for him to join up with LeBron in Los Angeles.

I’m not supposing this actually happens, by the way. I’m mostly just putting it out there for fun because your original question is sort of ridiculous. Draymond is a strong personality, but I don’t think anyone can influence directly what KD will do in the future. That’s solely up to Durant and the people who are mean to him on Instagram.

Michael

After a pretty good showing in Vegas … would it make sense for Portland to have Jake Layman start at the 3 and Al-Farouq Aminu at the 4 with Turner and Harkless in the second unit?

I realize that fans in Portland are hungry for any kind of championship after the Trail Blazers took home the 2018 NBA Las Vegas Summer League Title. I’m not going to take that away from you. But, we have to understand what the can take away realistically from Summer League, and it’s not much.

On a basketball floor, Summer League serves essentially two purposes. The first is to suss out who will be the 14th or 15th guy on your roster that you might be able to develop over the next three years into an end of the rotation player. More importantly, it’s to indoctrinate new draft picks into your offensive system and get them into game shape over the summer. It allows you first contact and basketball drill availability for top picks, who for many teams will play an important role in the upcoming season. If you draft a guy in the lottery and you need him to score for you each night during his rookie season, it’s best to get a head start.

Otherwise, the rest of it is for us basketball nerds. We go to hang out, network, and spy on 1990’s NBA stars losing $500 a hand at the blackjack table.

So back to your question: I’m not sure that we have seen Layman be aggressive enough to garner real minutes heading into the season. That’s not to say that it’s not a possibility given Pat Connaughton is gone, but from a readiness perspective I don’t see Layman taking that spot.

Frankly, I’m not sure exactly what GM Neil Olshey is up to. It seems like he is going to let Portland’s trade exception expire from the Allen Crabbe swap with the Brooklyn Nets, and that means their roster is likely going to be set lest they trade some of their bigger pieces.

What that probably means is that Portland is not going to rely on Layman more, but Moe Harkless. The wing rotation for Portland will probably be shorter, much like they do with their guards. Starters next season in Rip City likely won’t matter it because Aminu, Turner, and Harkless will all share that duty relatively equally as they swap across the rotation.

I don’t think that’s a good idea, but it’s in line with how Terry Stotts has managed his games before. Stotts likes a short rotation, and sliding laymen in there isn’t going to be his first priority.

Y’all got to come down. You won the Summer League Championship, go get a slice of pizza on Mississippi and chill. Layman isn’t your answer.

Then again, I (rightly) called Joel Freeland the worst backup big man in the NBA the year before he broke out and was super crucial for Portland in 2013-14. What the hell do I know? Maybe Slayman will average 14 points a night.

Casey

What’s the over/under on games played as a Raptor for Kawhi Leonard? Is it under 60?

This really depends on whether or not you think Leonard will be traded during the course of this upcoming season or if you think he will somehow re-sign with the Raptors.

Either seems possible because Leonard’s been super erratic over the course of the last year. His business management team seems like a bunch of goobers if you ask me. They were trying to angle him into Los Angeles, and instead saw him swap sunny, no-income-tax Texas for a distant, cold, high income tax city where he doesn’t want to play and that’s not even in America. No glitz and glam for him — instead he’ll need an international phone plan and a green card. Top notch work, if you ask me.

Anyway, I’m going to set the over/under for games Kawhi plays in Toronto at 30.

That’s the amount of games there or thereabouts that it takes to get to the 2019 NBA trade deadline. It’s also triple the number of games that Leonard played for the Spurs last year, and if he reaches that mark it shows that he’s not holding out due to “rehabilitation”.

I think the most annoying thing about Leonard being traded to the Raptors is that we are going to have to continue to talk about him and his mismanaged brand image for the rest of the year. Him holding out — or whatever he was doing — in San Antonio last year got to be too much to talk about week in and week out. It just got boring.

But hey, we will see. Maybe in three years time he will be a Laker and starring in “Space Jam 3: Porky’s Revenge” and it will have all worked out for him. But perhaps not.

John M.

Which team doomed by their own ownership would you rather be a fan of if you were forced to pick between them? The Kings, where they have a billionaire owner who seems to mean well but who also makes crazy suggestions like playing 4-on-5? Or the Knicks, where you are pretty sure (but not that sure) that owning the team is part of some kind of tax dodge or at the very least, a Ponzi scheme for James Dolan?

This is a pretty tough question. Do I have to have lived in one of these two places? Is that part of the requisite fanhood? Because to be honest, I don’t really want to have spent any time in either of those cities.

If I had to, I guess I would pick Sacramento. That area of California is sort of beautiful and reminds me of where I’m from. New York’s reputation seems so over-inflated that there’s no possible way that it lives up to the hype. Any time someone tells me about New York City they always say things like “You can get any food you want at 2 am!” as if:

  • I wasn’t already from Portland where that’s already a thing
  • I’m not also in my 30s and can’t even eat Goldfish crackers without getting heartburn

I don’t need to be out boozing and eating Cambodian food until the wee hours of the morning. That may have worked for me in my twenties, but in my thirties I just want to be able to fall asleep before the next day rolls over. My friend just went to New York this last winter and said it was basically uninhabitable. She did meet Michael Che within an hour of getting into the city. But is hanging out with Michael Che single every night really worth it to be a Knicks fan? Probably not.

My point is that being a Kings fan would be much better, perhaps because of the lack of expectation. Only Millennials yammer on about those early 2000s Sacramento teams anymore. And while it would be nice to recapture those Chris Webber and White Chocolate days, nobody is saying that the Kings franchise has taken dip past its historical reputation. That’s pompous anyways.

Plus, eventually it seems like Vivek Ranadive might actually hire somebody competent to run the team. Ranadive’s goal, even if he did hire Vlade Divac, is to win. At least I think. To your credit, it seems like James Dolan mostly owns the team because the games are over before open mic nights start in the city and because guys from the Bronx will buy any new sports equipment that says NEW YAWHK on it.

And while his billionaire ego might push Ranadive to eventually hire someone useful to set his team in the right direction, it’s that same ego that means Dolan will likely never sell the Knicks. He will continue to hire yes-men while Knicks fans watch Kristaps Porzingis leave in 2025 for the Clippers or something.

Also: shut up about Allan Houston already. Allan Houston is like if Steve Smith wasn’t quite as good.

Keenan

How is Zach Collins projecting as a defender? Sometimes he looks elite. But his fouls are so high.

We don’t really know the answer to this question and it’s a big gamble that the Blazers took over the offseason by failing to re-sign at Davis. Collins had a surprising rookie season, but it was easy to see how well he played while paired with Davis versus without him.

Now that Davis is a member of the Brooklyn Nets, Collins will be getting not only his own minutes from last season but much of Davis’s former workload. This time, he won’t have Davis to help him out when he blows rotations or ends up half a step slow. That’s not to say that he’s bad on D, it’s just that young big men take time to develop.

Portland is taking a lot of gambles this season already, especially given that they are set to let that trade exception expire. I’m not really sure if that’s the best choice, but they will have to rely on their young players in supporting roles like they’ve never done before.

I still think Blazer fans should be excited about Collins, and more interesting might be what he can provide on the offensive side of the floor when he plays more minutes. Jusuf Nurkic wasn’t the offensive player Portland was thinking he would turn into after his first half-season in Rip City. He didn’t shoot as many jumpers off the pick-and-roll as we thought, and his post moves, while sometimes effective, are plodding. Nurkic can’t really shoot with his left hand, and against top defensive big men he really struggled.

Portland needs players to space the floor, and Collins showed that he might be able to hit those LaMarcus Aldridge-type jumpers moving forward. He might be a player who can both dive and fade on the pick-and-roll, and that might make him more interesting offensively. It could be painful to watch the Blazers as they struggle for the playoffs this year, but they certainly should be interesting.

Luis

I am a huge Stephon Marbury fan and was curious, do you think he will get signed by an NBA team? I think he would be a great for for the Rockets and Spurs or even the Lakers. What are your thoughts? Will somebody sign him?

I think Stephon Marbury would be great on the Lakers. In fact, let’s add every weirdo NBA player that we think could still find five minutes off the bench for LA from the early 2000s.

Here’s the list I put together:

  • Vince Carter
  • Richard Jefferson
  • Jason Kidd
  • Antoine Walker
  • Latrell Sprewell
  • Gilbert Arenas
  • Robert Swift
  • Stromile Swift
  • Michael Redd
  • Bonzi Wells
  • Rashard Lewis
  • Stephen Jackson
  • Kenyon Martin

This question makes me think of the best tweet I saw from this past week. Here it is:

Marc

Why NBA referees are so unfair? Is there training camp for referees before the beginning of each season, like they do for the players?

I’m not going to clutch my pearls for the referees in the NBA. The fact is, it is true that some of their calls are inherently unfair. Bending the rules in the NBA is part of the game, and it takes an understanding of social context to know why some players get certain calls and why others don’t.

I think the real problem is how people still have a problem with that in 2018. The reality of the sport is that people want to see stars succeed. They want to see stars on their teams succeed, and in general NBA fans want to see stars they like succeed. It’s that ability to create cross fanbase allegiances that strengthens the bonds of the core NBA business.

Now, whether you think referees do a good job outside of “superstar calls” is another animal all together. The reality is that teams, whether they admit it or not, spend time teaching players how to account for the fact that there are only three referees on the floor at any given time.

Teams use the human element of NBA officiating to their advantage. It can be something as simple as a head kick or an over emphasized flail on a foul. In more complex examples, teams teach players to get away with certain things when they are positioned at specific spots on the floor thanks to blind spots.

There’s also a disparity of confidence created between officials and fans thanks in part to slow motion replay. We get to see every foul seven times over in 30 seconds, allowing us to judge each referee call nearly in real time. Referees don’t have that advantage, and it leads to people believing that they are bad at their jobs.

The reality is that referees are always going to be other human beings, and thus open to human error. The alternative is a game officiated by robots, and as much as I would like to see Doc Rivers scream until he’s red in the face at a floating drone while arguing a blocking foul, that doesn’t seem like the way to go either.

The NBA has some issues to clean up. The one that seems the most pressing when it comes to officiating is offensive players drawing fouls while illegally within a defender’s rightful place on the floor. They tried to get rid of the rip through move a couple of years ago, but the result was an impotent change toward making it a non-shooting foul. You shouldn’t be able to just throw your arms into the stationary arms of a defender. That should be an offensive foul, or perhaps a team technical foul.

But the Association isn’t the NFL, where you don’t know what a catch is and you’re not sure when a quarterback actually fumbles. In contrast, the NBA is doing okay and the problem is the rules are behind the physical ability of players and the data teams have gathered in order to use the officials to their advantage. They aren’t in a dire spot at the moment, so there’s no need to get worked up about them moving forward.

See y’all next week.

Submit your questions to the mailbag for next week by e-mailing pbtmailbag@gmail.com.

PBT Mailbag: Could Kawhi Leonard just sit out next season for Spurs?

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Submit your questions to the mailbag for next week by e-mailing pbtmailbag@gmail.com.

I haven’t been watching a lot of Summer League lately, but I have been watching all of you watch it via social media. Frankly, I just don’t get it. I went to Las Vegas last year for the event and I was not impressed. It was 100 degrees outside by breakfast, and the quality of play was, somehow, below college basketball level. I would have much preferred to stay home and watch on my couch where I have things like Doritos and a second bag of Doritos.

That’s not to say that I haven’t watched a few games here and there. I saw the Blazers beat the Jazz on Saturday, and most of the time I spent thinking about a very specific question. That is, which do you think would be longer?

  • The average running time of a Summer League Game OR
  • A video of every airball from all the NBA Summer League games combined into one long lowlight reel

Remember, Summer League rules include four 10-minute quarters, so there’s only a total of 40 minutes that we would have to fill with airballs from these games. I figure each airball highlight lasts something like four seconds, because you’d have to include the play leading up to it as well as the announcer reaction to the airball itself for it to be a worthwhile lowlight.

At four seconds apiece you’d have to have clips of 600 airballs sliced back-to-back to meet the 40 minute minimum. They played 67 games at LVSL last year, which means each game would need to average nine airballs. That’s only 4.5 per team, per game. I feel like I’ve seen at least that many this year. Maybe more, and that’s just from Trae Young.

In any case, it would be super close. The real question is, which would you rather be forced to watch: every LVSL game or every airball?

Some basketball writers don’t even get the choice, god bless them.

Let’s get to your questions.

Kate

Can Kawhi Leonard refuse to play/sit out for the Spurs next season? What ramifications could Kawhi Leonard face if he refuses to play for the Spurs next season? Can they enforce the CBA rule regarding the withholding services on him?

Kawhi Leonard has put the NBA in a tizzy, and nobody is sure whether he is trying to control his own destiny or if he’s simply gone crazy. Rumors are now swirling about whether Leonard needed to sit out for the majority of last season, and now we are talking about whether or not he would hold out for yet another if he remains in San Antonio.

The procedural answer here is that if Leonard was able to find a way to sit out and refused to play for the Spurs next season, that San Antonio would trigger the clause you are referencing in the CBA. Specifically, it means that Leonard would not satisfy the conditions of his contract and that he would not be able to become a free agent next season. Teams can also fine players for internal reasons, and no doubt the Spurs would likely move to that if they felt Leonard had drawn first blood.

However, there is very little precedent for this outside of the NBA Draft. Teams have been frustrated with players they have drafted before — Jon Barry refused to play for the Celtics in 1992 and they finally traded him halfway through his rookie season. Guys like Steve Francis have forced their way off of teams. And we all remember how Kobe Bryant was never going to play for the Charlotte Hornets, right? But that was all before those guys had ever seen an NBA court. Kawhi Leonard is a dang ol’ Finals MVP. It’s just … wild.

The real motivating factor to get Leonard on an NBA floor would be the damage he would do around the league to his reputation if he was still controlled by the Spurs and flat out refused to play for them. That kind of open, poisonous relationship with a franchise is not exactly enticing to other teams. That includes ones looking at him in free agency, especially if those same teams have major questions about whether he is actually healthy enough to be worth the big contract he’s shooting for.

Historically, teams have found a way to trade trouble players off of their franchise simply as way to get the miasma of their unhappiness out of their locker rooms. That’s the most likely case in this scenario, and I doubt we will get too far into the season with Leonard still refusing play for the Spurs. Then again, last season was completely insane when it came to Leonard and that whole dynamic, so I can’t rule it out.

Alex

Please, sir, tell me what will happen with my dear, sweet Michael Beasley. (And also what non-Celtics teams should be offering Marcus Smart.)

Look, Alex. We know you love your sweet little B-Easy. But sometimes you can’t always stay with your favorite players. Sometimes you need to let them be free, and send them to a farm upstate. In this case, that farm is located on a team in a lower-division Russian league. Not in the fun, tricycle-riding bear part of Russia, either. More like the waiting in line for black bread before you go back into the iron ore pit part of Russia.

Seriously though, it seems like we talk about Beasley being a reclamation project a lot and perhaps that’s because he’s still just 29 years old. However, not a lot of teams have cash to throw around and Beasley will be a minimum salary player. He’s going to end up on a team that doesn’t matter, or the Lakers.

Smart should get more looks from teams, although he’s not a likely candidate to end up anywhere but Boston and a few select places because of the cap crunch and because taking his qualifying offer isn’t the best choice. There are going to be so many guys on the market in 2019 and there are still some teams that can offer a Smart a deal now. Taking his qualifying offer and becoming a free agent next year is one route, and obviously there will be many suitors for him next summer. However, he’s not likely on the top of the priority list for many teams and more and more guys seem to be angling for 2019. He could end up in a flooded market, getting the same money next summer as he can right now but having played one year at a reduced salary.

The Kings do make a lot of sense but perhaps that’s because of their track record with wing players. Vlade and the boys seem to stockpile a bunch of guys who have one NBA talent they think they can transform into an elite skill. Smart is already an elite basketball player, and adding him to the Kings along with Marvin Bagley Jr. would help solidify them and make them more legit as they build for the future. It’s boring, but that’s the best answer.

Jeremy

Do you think Tony Parker wore puka shells in 2005?

Let’s do some quick back-of-the-napkin math. Parker was born in 1982, which makes him too old to have seen the first wave of puka shell popularity in the 70s. That means he would have had to get into them when they made a comeback in the late 90s and early 2000s.

Adam Sandler was wearing puka shells as Pip in Airheads, which filmed in 1993. Parker would have been 12 at the time Airheads came out in 1994, and he would have been in high school when the necklace hit peak popularity between 1998 and 2002. You also have to realize that Parker grew up in France, with a completely different fashion wave which might not have been tainted by puka shell culture. Looking at my own middle school yearbook, it’s obvious the U.S. was heavily influenced by BIG PUKA, but you have to guess those classy Frenchies probably ducked some of our American trends.

By 2005 Parker would have been 23, and no self-respecting young adult would be caught dead wearing puka shells. Plus, I feel like by 2005 things had really shifted.

The real question is: Did Tony Parker wear a trucker hat in 2005? You tell me, Jeremy. You tell me.

Nick

Does Jake Layman have a nickname? If not, it should definitely be “Jumpin’ Jake”

I honestly don’t understand the obsession about Jake Layman that Portland Trail Blazers fans have. I mean, I understand what it is, I’m just not allowed to type why they like him.

In any case, as nice a guy as Layman might be, I don’t think you can give a nickname to a player who doesn’t have an impact on the floor. The guy averaged exactly one point per game last season for the Blazers.

Yes, because Portland decided not to renew the contract of Pat Connaughton it’s possible that Layman takes up more minutes this year and we see more of what he can do. But in the meantime, I’m just not ready to give him a nickname just yet. At least not a positive one. Guys who come off the end of the bench usually have negative nicknames, which I’m not in the business of giving.

IF Layman actually produces this season for Portland, here are my top picks:

  1. Yung Kitzhaber
  2. Slayman
  3. Dunkin’ Douglas (middle name)
  4. Eric Judy
  5. Thrillard (nobody else has taken this one I think)
  6. King Jake
  7. Dr. Buckets, Esq.
  8. White Hot

John

Is Sean Marks a top 5 executive?

Considering what he had to work with after taking over from Billy King and formed a team foundation using only cap space or late picks, I think the Nets are closer to relevance than people realize. Agree?

Bob Myers, Daryl Morey, Danny Ainge, RC Buford, Dell Demps, Sam Hinkie (legacy).

So, probably not. Also, Marks just got hired in 2016 so he needs a longer body of work to really judge whether or not he’s a top five executive in the league. Brooklyn won eight more games last season than they did season before, which isn’t exactly a huge jump. Yes, the Nets have made a couple of good moves to build for the future. They snagged D'Angelo Russell, got rid of Timofey Mozgov, and bet big on Allen Crabbe (twice).

Next year seems like it will be a big test whether the Nets are headed in the right direction. They should have the added boost of not having LeBron in their conference, so it will be up to Kenny Atkinson to steer this team near the playoff race. Brooklyn has the ability to create a massive amount of cap space in the summer of 2019 if they renounce most of their cap holds, so whether Marks can convince players to head to New York City will be big. Until then, I’m withholding judgement.

Seriously though, go look at the list of current NBA GMs and tell me most of their fanbases don’t want to fire them out of a cannon toward a big parachute.

Alfredo

With Boogie in the Bay, the Warriors have become The Ultimate Warriors (or Team USA Warriors or Monstar Warriors). The growing fear is that the Dubs dynasty has reached Russell-Auerbach levels where they could possibly surpass a 3-peat. The only teams that want to do something about it are the Lakers and Celtics, but I have a problem with this because it paints the narrative of the two legacy teams being the only hope to save competitive basketball. In fact, the Lakers-Celtics rivalry was what gave the NBA its first taste of relevancy in the 1960s (mostly on the Laker side for their connections to Hollywood and entertainment); the rivalry once saved the league from bankruptcy and a bad image problem that would have made itself second fiddle to the NFL. It’s like saying, “If the Lakers and Celtics aren’t ruling the NBA where they’re the main draw in most of the Finals, then the NBA is ruined.” What are your thoughts on this hypocrisy between this current Warriors dynasty and the Lakers-Celtics rivalry dynasty? How do you think Warriors will fare vs. both legacy teams in the playoffs and Finals respectively? Will there never be parity in the NBA – and is that okay?

The idea that parity doesn’t exist in the NBA is just flat out wrong. Teams float to the top and fall into the bottom all the time. Parity isn’t about all 30 teams taking their turns winning the Larry O’Brien. It’s about whether teams have a field level enough to allow them to compete and complete that cycle of rising and falling.

Yes, if you look at the list of past NBA champions over the last 15 years or so, it really comes down to just a few teams. The Lakers, Spurs, Heat, Cavaliers, Warriors, and Mavericks just to name a few. But there have been seven different teams to finish atop the Eastern Conference since the 2010-11 season (four out West).

If you are using the number of teams that win championships as the measure of parity in the NBA, then perhaps you have an issue. But this talking point has only risen recently because of the seeming inevitability of the Warriors winning the championship for the next few years. While adding DeMarcus Cousins certainly seems to have an upside in the playoffs this year for Golden State, he will not be a member of that team next season, so I’m not making that the nail in the coffin for either side.

There’s no doubt that the league would prefer if the Warriors didn’t have a select few players on their roster, Kevin Durant in particular. The real issue Golden State might push into the light is players taking less than their market value to group together on one team. That may benefit some select owners, but several will likely bring up this issue during owners meetings if it continues.

If people feel exasperated because the Warriors are bound to win the championship every season, then they didn’t pay attention when LeBron James beat them just a couple years ago in the Finals. Weird stuff happens. Stars get hurt. Guys punch guys in the crotch. There’s still some variance you can expect.

Part of being a fan is being along for the ride when your team isn’t the best or doesn’t have a chance to win it all. You can learn all about how your young players will mesh together and where the future of the team is headed. Each season, 29 teams fail to win the championship. That will never change, and as long as that’s the way the season ends every year there’s no use giving up watching pro basketball. Get a grip, everybody.

You know what the best way to win a championship in the NBA is? Have someone who’s not a doofus buy your favorite team. Honestly. Knicks fans know what I’m talking about.

Abdoulaye

What about a trade of Moe Harkless and Meyers Leonard for Serge Ibaka? Damian Lillard and CJ Turner need a traditional frontcourt. Al-Farouq Aminu needs to play at the 3. A starting five of Lillard, CJ, Evan Turner, Ibaka, Jusuf Nurkic with a bench of Seth Curry, Wade Baldwin, Gary Trent, Aminu, Caleb Swanigan and Zach Collins looks decent.

Ibaka would also bring the best of Nurkic as he plays better with a traditional PF like he did with Noah Vonleh. Small ball is good if you only have one of Dame and CJ or if you don’t face a talented big.

I’m not sure this trade moves the needle for either team. Toronto is working on developing a young wing in OG Anunoby already, so Harkless would sort of clog that up. Leonard doesn’t seem to have a lot of additional value for the Raptors at this juncture.

Meanwhile Ibaka isn’t necessarily a valuable trade asset. He was a negative box plus-minus for a very good Raptors team last year, which sort of shows on paper what some people saw while watching him on the floor last year in Toronto.

I also think your overall assessment of the Blazers roster is a bit off. First, Portland doesn’t play small ball. Small ball is what the New Orleans Pelicans used to sweep Portland in the first round. If anything, they play too “big” for some of their Western Conference foes as it is.

Aminu is not a bench player, and he is best while playing the four position. That’s been the case for some time, and of course it is much better when the Blazers have a another 3-point shooter next to him like Harkless or Allen Crabbe. It also helps when the Aminu isn’t ice cold from 3-point range, but at this point he will be a constant yo-yo player from that spot on the floor.

I have been saying that the Blazers need to take a big swing in order to prove to Lillard that they are willing to compete in the West, but I’m not sure that Ibaka is that guy. The reality is the Portland Trail Blazers are stuck where they are until something comes available for Neil Olshey.

In the meantime, I’m excited to read 17 more clickbait articles about how the Blazers are going to trade Lillard to the Lakers. Love them clicks, boy.

See y’all next week.

Submit your questions to the mailbag for next week by e-mailing pbtmailbag@gmail.com.

Damian Lillard: ‘I’m not unhappy. I love where I live, I love where I am.’

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LAS VEGAS — Damian Lillard ended up in the middle of the NBA’s silly season, and he’s not exactly sure how.

He sent out a Tweet after Portland let Ed Davis walk to Brooklyn (one of Lillard’s good friends on the team). That spiraled into speculation he was unhappy with the Blazers because he wants to compete in the gauntlet that is the West and Portland has largely stood pat this summer. Combine that with another Tweet and somehow — in the minds of warped Laker fans/sports talk radio hosts looking for a shock — became “Lillard wants to play with LeBron James and the Lakers.”

Lillard shot all that down in Las Vegas.

“I’m not unhappy. I love where I live. I love the organization. I love our coaching staff. I love where I am,” Lillard said, holding court during Summer League.

Portland is one of the many teams cash-strapped this summer, and fans are pissed. Thanks to the foolish 2016 contracts of Evan Turner and Meyers Leonard (plus don’t forget the now-traded Allen Crabbe), the Blazers are flirting with the luxury tax line. Forget chasing big name free agents, they lost Davis and a couple other rotation players, Shabazz Napier and Pat Connaughton. They made a smart signing with Seth Curry (who can help if he is healthy) but are leaning on guys playing in Las Vegas this week,  Anfernee Simons and Gary Trent Jr., to handle rotation minutes.

Lillard was honest, he didn’t want Davis to go.

“Obviously, I loved Ed,’’ Lillard said. “He was one of my best friends in the league; one of my favorite teammates I’ve played with. We lose him – that’s a loss for our team. Bazz played big minutes for us, Pat played big minutes for us – so we lose three rotation players that gave us a lot and contributed to our season last year. But I guess now we look forward to who can come in and replace those minutes and give us that type of quality.’’

Does Lillard want to compete? Yes. He met with ownership last year to express that directly. But he wants to do it In Portland, where he has spent all of his six-year career.

“We got people out here going all out to try and make it happen, and I want us to do the same thing,” Lillard said. “And I feel like we are trying to do that.”

Where do Blazers, Neil Olshey, Terry Stotts go from here?

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The Portland Trail Blazers were a frustrating team to watch to start the season. They floundered early as players like Moe Harkless and Evan Turner failed to take the next step forward to help the team. The emergence of Zach Collins playing in tandem with a healthy Ed Davis was a good story, but not enough to overcome Portland’s fatal flaws. Most of the talk surrounding the Blazers remained about roster construction — as it has since GM Neil Olshey signed Turner to his massive 4-year, $70 million contract back in 2016.

Then things flipped.

Starting with a win over the Golden State Warriors on February 14, Portland rattled off 13 straight. Harkless was no longer moody, Damian Lillard was playing like a Top 5 MVP candidate, and CJ McCollum hummed right along with him. Al-Farouq Aminu was shooting well, Shabazz Napier was an important rotational piece, and even Turner’s midrange turnarounds felt like a simple change of pace rather than a glaring misfit. Roster talk died down because Portland looked unstoppable, and with a new defensive effort the team felt like a lock to beat whichever squad they faced in the first round.

But the Blazers found themselves outgunned, overmatched, and demoralized as they took on the New Orleans Pelicans after the conclusion of the regular season. Portland got swept, 4-0, in perhaps the most embarrassing playoff sweep in franchise history since their series with the San Antonio Spurs at the turn of the last century.

So here we are, with both the Blazers and fans in Portland back to wondering the same thing: just what can be done to fix this roster and maximize Lillard’s prime?

We have to start with the basic fact that Portland is not going to trade McCollum.

Part of the internal friction for the Blazers is that McCollum is the guy Olshey seems most emotionally attached to. Olshey was fully at the helm of the organization when McCollum was drafted in 2013, and thus McCollum is wholly an Olshey guy. Portland had scouted Lillard long before Olshey arrived 24 days prior to the 2012 NBA Draft. Not that Olshey values one over the other, but there’s an odd, unspoken understanding that Olshey wants to make McCollum work along with Lillard partly as a matter of pride.

So if we move away from the possibility of changing the overall theory of a roster built around those two guards, where does that leave the Blazers? The answer comes with a boggling number of variables.

The key that unlocked Portland’s potential to dismantle most of their opponents after Valentine’s Day was a happy Harkless, one who was dropping 3-pointers from the corners and dishing out assists rather than moping on the deepest part of the bench. That was the big variable that made the switch for the Blazers. But in the playoffs, Portland got a Harkless that was just coming off knee surgery, and he wasn’t as effective.

Harkless said in exit interviews on Sunday that team brass reiterated to him how important he’s going to be to them next season, and they aren’t blowing smoke. Harkless is young, cheap, and versatile. He’s a better passer and dribbler than Aminu, whose contract expires after next season, and he’s a better pure shooter from deep. The problem is relying on Harkless, who admits to being moody and letting that emotional variance affect him on the court.

This puts us back to the question of Turner. For as much as Olshey likes to talk as though he slow plays the league, it was an extreme reach not only to pay Turner his contract but to sell the public the logic behind it. After McCollum and Lillard were trapped to death in the playoffs a few years ago, Olshey grabbed Turner as a third ball handler, one who could let Lillard and McCollum run around screens off-ball to reduce turnovers. At least, that was the story.

It didn’t really work all that well given the symbiotic nature of the game of basketball. Last season, Aminu’s shooting dipped and opposing defenses simply helped off of him and onto Portland’s main dribblers. That made Harkless and Allen Crabbe invaluable as shooters, not only as scorers but as sources of gravity to open up passing lanes.

There was a similar issue this season as Aminu’s shooting percentages rose while Harkless sat on the bench in the middle of the year. Without Harkless or Crabbe to anchor the 3-point line, that left Portland with just one shooter outside of Lillard and McCollum in Aminu. Teams drifted toward Aminu, leaving Turner as the open shooter on the 3-point line. He shot 32 percent from deep, and Portland went from 8th in 3-point percentage to 16th in a year.

Turner adapted his game over the course of this season the best he could to compliment Portland’s system and needs. He’s just not useful enough at top clip. This explains the position the Blazers have been in the entirety of Turner’s contract — it’s going to be impossible to move him without attaching significant assets and in the process, delaying the progress of the team. No trade involving Turner will return the wing Portland needs. That’s just not how it works when you’ve got an albatross contract in 2018.

And so, after their sweep at the hands of the Pelicans, the conversation in Portland swiftly moved to speculation that coach Terry Stotts could be on the hot seat. The reality of Portland firing Stotts, if they are considering it, is of a major setback.

Stotts is beloved by his players, most of all Lillard, the franchise cornerstone. Stotts was a genuine Coach of the Year candidate this season for his role in developing guys like Napier and Pat Connaughton, who were useful at different parts of the season. Stotts pushed Nurkic to be more aggressive, a major factor in their late-season success. He rehabilitated Harkless. Reaching back even further, Stotts masterminded an offense that turned Mason Plumlee into the third creator on offense for Portland before the Nurkic trade last year. He’s been excellent, and firing him would be a colossal mistake.

I’ll put it this way: when Lillard had his “where is this going” conversation about the Blazers with owner Paul Allen, that talk wasn’t about Stotts. It was about Olshey’s roster construction.

The conversation about Stotts is a bit ridiculous, although it’s understandable given Olshey is both above him organizationally and a bit more financially annoying to fire after a recently-signed extension. But unlike Stotts, Olshey has not exceeded expectations in his position. Despite some clever draft day trades and the rumored rejection of a max contract bid offered by Chandler Parsons‘ camp two summers ago, the fact is Olshey is the one who has hampered the team, while Stotts has done the best with what he’s been given.

And so here we are, with the same questions about the Blazers roster nearly two years down the line and with an embarrassing playoff sweep in their possession. McCollum and Lillard are firmly cemented, perhaps more so thanks to their defensive improvement and the team’s win total. The Blazers can’t move their pieces thanks to poor fiscal management, and they’re in danger of losing valuable contributors like Davis, Napier, and eventually Aminu because of it.

It appears Portland’s only way forward is to do what they’ve always done, although it won’t be by their own volition, much as Olshey would like to spin it that way. Olshey, who said as much during exit interviews, will look for value in the draft and build a team that functions as a unit. I would assume that he’ll also need to ask owner Allen to tempt the repeater tax as he tries to re-sign Davis this year and Aminu the next. Olshey will need to hope Harkless is more consistent, and that he can find yet another shooter in the draft or via an exception signing or trade. All of these things are pretty big ifs, particularly in the light of Lillard’s public urgency and the results of Olshey’s bigger misfires.

The end to the season in Portland was disappointing, because of their sweep but also because they didn’t do enough to change our minds about their flaws and roster issues. That burden lies squarely with Olshey. Portland’s GM says he wants to stay measured in his approach, but moves like signing Turner, trading Crabbe for an exception, and swapping Plumlee for Nurkic were anything but. Those are big swings with mixed results.

Portland’s roster isn’t good enough to sustain large dips, and its plodding, “calculated” approach to roster management has put the Trail Blazers in a place similar to what you’d expect from a front office with a more flamboyant, laissez-faire style. Big contracts, an overpaid supporting cast, and an inconsistent bench rolled into a cap hit scraping $121 million.

The roster theory is understandable, but the execution in Portland is lacking. Eventually, the Blazers — and Olshey — are going to have to stop being measured and simply measure up.