Wesley Matthews

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Bucks All-Star Khris Middleton to miss 3-4 weeks with thigh contusion

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Khris Middleton, coming off a summer with Team USA, has quietly continued his All-Star level play this season — an efficient 18.5 points per game, shooting 39.3 percent from three but also finishing well at the rim, and the Bucks offense is 3.3 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court.

However, he’s not going to be on the court for a few weeks due to a deep thigh bruise, a story broken by Shams Charania of The Athletic.

In the third quarter of the Bucks win over the Thunder Sunday, Middleton suffered the thigh bruise, which sent him to the locker room. While he returned to the bench, he did not return to the game. Afterward, in the locker room, Middleton didn’t seem to think it was that serious.

It turned out to be a little more than that, it has to be a deep bruise to have him out for up to a month.

Kyle Korver would be next in line to get those minutes, but he sat out Sunday with a “head contusion.” Behind him look for smaller lineups with Pat Connaughton, Donte DiVincenzo, Sterling Brown, and Wesley Matthews to get more minutes, plus maybe a little Thanasis Antetokounmpo.

Enriched and entrusted, Malcolm Brogdon proving his worth with Pacers

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DETROIT – Pistons guard Tim Frazier is older than Malcolm Brogdon. Frazier has more years of NBA experience than Brogdon. Frazier has played more NBA games than Brogdon.

Yet, Frazier – Brogdon’s teammate on the Bucks last season – still speaks of Brogdon with an incredible reverence.

“He’s just somebody that I even kind of look up to,” Frazier said, “to try to follow his footsteps.”

“He’s a great person. He does everything by the book, tries to do everything the right things, man. Cares for others. It’s huge.”

Brogdon – nicknamed “The President” – has earned a sterling reputation thanks to his stellar play, strong work ethic and powerful voice. Now with the Pacers, Brogdon is spreading his influence even further.

Last offseason, Brogdon was part of one of the league’s most controversial moves. Holding matching rights on Brogdon, Milwaukee signed-and-traded him to Indiana for a first-rounder and two-second rounders. The Bucks cleared playing time that might have appealed to newly signed Wesley Matthews and Kyle Korver and, perhaps more importantly, stayed under the luxury-tax line. We’ll see how Milwaukee uses those picks, but that was quite the choice with Giannis Antetokounmpo headed toward his super-max decision.

Brogdon says he’s not dwelling on the Bucks’ decision. His four-year, $85 million contract certainly helps.

“It’s just surreal,” said Brogdon, the No. 36 pick in the 2016 draft. “To get paid that much, that’s what everybody dreams about.”

Most of his draft classmates must keep dreaming. The Collective Bargaining Agreement specifies four-year contracts for first-round picks. But second rounders can negotiate shorter deals. Brogdon signed a three-year contract with Milwaukee. Though he looked like a huge bargain while winning Rookie of the Year and starting deep in the playoffs, Brogdon hit free agency a year earlier than his peers.

Brogdon’s $20 million salary this season is the second-highest ever for someone in his first four seasons. Only Nikola Jokic, who earned a max salary last season, got more.

Here are the highest salaries by players in their first four seasons:

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“There’s pressure whenever somebody gets paid,” Brogdon said. “A team pays you, because they are giving you more responsibility. They’re showing you that they like you and that they think you should play at a certain level.”

Brogdon is answering that call.

Shifted to shooting guard in Milwaukee to accommodate Eric Bledsoe, Brogdon filled his role dutifully. But he wanted to be a point guard, and the Pacers have made him their starting point guard.

“It’s been amazing,” Brogdon said. “It’s definitely a lot of responsibility, but it’s something I’m ready for and something I welcome gladly.”

He’s averaging 20.8 points and 8.9 assists per game – third in the NBA, behind LeBron James (11.0 assists per game) and Luka Doncic (9.1 assists per game).

Brogdon was once viewed as having a limited ceiling. He entered the NBA after four years at Virginia, had long-term health concerns and played a complementary style. He focused on defending, spotting up for 3-pointers and attacking closeouts

Now, Brogdon drives Indiana’s above-average offense. The ball runs through him, and he creates for himself and teammates. His increased role shows throughout his numbers (last season → this season):

  • Usage percentage: 20.7 → 27.1
  • Assist percentage: 16.2 → 39.7
  • Free-throw rate: .203 → .294
  • Plays per game finished as pick-and-roll ball-handler: 2.7 → 8.9
  • 3-pointers per game off multiple dribbles: 0.8 →2.6

Even while doing so much more, Brogdon has kept his turnovers low (though up slightly from his Milwaukee days). His true shooting percentage also remains above league average, because he’s showing nice burst to the basket and drawing fouls. An all-time great from the line, Brogdon has made 46-of-47 free throws this season (98%).

Brogdon must eventually adjust once Victor Oladipo returns. Though he’ll remain starting point guard, Brogdon will share ball-handling duties with the talented Oladipo.

That’s an issue for another day. For now, Brogdon just seems happy.

“Having the opportunity to have the ball in my hands, to make decisions, to lead a team,” Brogdon said, “this is what I wanted.”

Does the East have a better chance of winning the Finals with crowded, deep West?

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The Golden State Warriors will be hampered without Klay Thompson to start the season. The sharpshooting guard is a crucial part of what the Warriors bring to the table sans Kevin Durant, who is now with the Brooklyn Nets. Even with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George with the Los Angeles Clippers, many have considered the Western Conference to be more open for the taking this season. It’s been thought that this makes it more likely the Eastern Conference can field a second consecutive NBA champion.

Leonard’s decampment from the Toronto Raptors has made way for the Philadelphia 76ers, Boston Celtics, and Milwaukee Bucks to ascend into the Finals to take on the Western Conference’s best. All of these teams have tried to add pieces with this idea of a wide-open NBA table in mind: The Sixers now have Al Horford, the Celtics Kemba Walker, and Milwaukee a cavalcade of veteran talent including Kyle Korver.

And indeed, the more proven championship-caliber teams are out east. Philadelphia, for all its growing pains and issues arising around Joel Embiid‘s conditioning, added the one player in Horford who was able to put a stop to them. Well, save for Leonard, who put in a bouncing jumper to end the Sixers’ season last year.

That again, Philadelphia is missing two key pieces from last year that we don’t know how they will make up for. JJ Redick is now with the New Orleans Pelicans, and his shooting presence will be missed. Redick made 240 threes last year for the Sixers. Landry Shamet was second on the team with 99. Jimmy Butler is now with the Miami Heat, and his dynamism on the wing will be difficult to replace.

The Celtics and the Bucks have similar issues when looking at their championship resumes. Boston has a glut of wings, although it’s not clear how good any of them are outside of Marcus Smart. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are dueling for future contract extensions. Gordon Hayward didn’t look great last season, and although there is hope he will be his old self this year, we’ll have to wait and actually see it to feel comfortable. That’s before mentioning that Horford is no longer anchoring the paint for the Celtics.

Milwaukee found a hard stop last year when it came to its playoff readiness. The Bucks were not particularly steady in the postseason, and teams were able to plan around Giannis Antetokounmpo and his lack of 3-point shooting. Last season’s MVP has said that his goal is to get better from beyond the arc, and any improvement in 2019-20 would be acceptable. Even despite the team adding Kyle Korver, they will be relying on Wesley Matthews, George Hill, and Pat Connaughton to flesh out the wing. Gone is Malcolm Brogdon to the Indiana Pacers, perhaps their most reliable player in the playoffs.

Put together, all three championship contenders in the Eastern Conference have their issues. But so to do the newly-minted challengers out west. There’s a thought that both of the Clippers and the Los Angeles Lakers — who now have Anthony Davis — will show some weakness to start the year. The Clippers will need to use load management on both Leonard and George, the latter of which is still recovering from double shoulder surgery. And although the Clippers were one of the best teams in terms of depth last season, how adding two new stars changes that dynamic is not yet known.

On the other side of the hallway in Los Angeles stands the Lakers, who outside of Davis, LeBron, and Danny Green don’t have much to show for all the bluster around their title hopes. The Lakers roster is flat-out bad, and despite tons of optimism around media types, I’m just not buying that they are a championship-level squad yet. The Lakers have real injury concerns, and until they make it all the way through to the Western Conference Finals, those will always be top-of-mind.

The second-tier in the west is plucky, but not necessarily ready for overt dominance. The Houston Rockets, Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets, and Portland Trail Blazers, and San Antonio Spurs will all be in the running for the middle of the pack next year. Do any have championship rosters? Some of these teams are top-heavy, including Houston with James Harden and Russell Westbrook. Others, like the Nuggets and Jazz, will rely on their depth. Harden and Nikola Jokic could be legitimate MVP candidates, and that’s a problem in a league where it’s difficult to make it to the Finals without one.

That puts us in a difficult position in terms of “counting out” the Warriors. Thompson has said that he is going to take his time coming back from his ACL injury, but he should be a part of a Warriors playoff run in the spring of 2020. Without Durant, both Stephen Curry and Draymond Green will be extra motivated to prove themselves as the core pieces to the team that dominated the NBA long before Durant came to the Bay Area.

Health will be another concern for Golden State, particularly with Curry and his ankles. Weight, if you can call it a health concern in context of the NBA, is what most will be raising questions about when it comes to Green. He entered the season last year a bit slower, and burned off 20 pounds at the All-Star break to make a playoff run. They will need the former Defensive Player of the Year to come into the preseason already able to do what he did last year: Disrupt opposing offenses and pressure the defense with his pace-pushing offensive style.

For now, at the precipice of the season, it seems clear that the Eastern Conference is the odds-on favorite to repeat as champions. At least, as a group. This isn’t a Tiger vs. the field situation for the Clippers. They just aren’t that strong, and in this case the safer bet would be on one of the Eastern Conference powerhouses instead of just L.A. It’s possible that the Clippers are will be as dominant as projected. In that case, it would be a bitter irony for the East to be subjected to yet another super team on the West Coast just as one appears to have a chink in its armor.

New teams coming together — particularly super teams — have not always had the best track record. Will the Clippers be LeBron James with the Miami Heat in 2008? Or will they be Durant with the Warriors in 2017? Consistency and familiarity cannot be ruled out as a function of success in the NBA. It would be smart for teams in the East to continue to build on their core as long as the teams out west are starting to form theirs. They may only have a short window with which to strike before the Warriors, Clippers, or some other team takes control of the league.

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

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Next season is the Bucks’ time.

They shouldn’t wait.

They can’t wait.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Offseason grade: C

Pacers deconstruct playoff team to build similar-level playoff team

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NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

The 2018-19 Pacers built a strong identity.

They were balanced and persistent despite relying on numerous players with expiring contracts. Indiana won 48 games, showing no signs of internal strife while deal with Victor Oladipo‘s injury. In a situation where many players would’ve turned toward individual goals, the Pacers stuck together.

But Indiana came undone this summer.

The Pacers lost four playoff starters: Thaddeus Young (signed with Bulls), Bojan Bogdanovic (signed with Jazz), Wesley Matthews (signed with Bucks) and Darren Collison (retired). Cory Joseph (signed with Kings) and Tyreke Evans (banned) also departed.

This is only the second time in since 1985 (as far back as Basketball-Reference tracks postseason starts) a team lost four players who started every playoff game the prior season.

In 1999, the Magic signed-and-traded Penny Hardaway to the Suns, traded Nick Anderson to the Kings, traded Horace Grant to the SuperSonics and traded Isaac Austin to the Wizards. Orlando was clearing salary for 2000 free agency and eventually landed Tracy McGrady and Grant Hill. Between, the Magic even went a surprisingly strong 41-41 in 1999-00 behind scrappy additions John Amaechi, Ben Wallace and Chucky Atkins and rookie coach Doc Rivers.

Indiana is making no such willing step back.

The Pacers added several helpful players this summer: Malcolm Brogdon, T.J. Warren, Jeremy Lamb, Justin Holiday and T.J. McConnell. The goal is clearly to build on consecutive 48-win seasons.

Indiana got much younger in all the roster turnover.

The big prize was Brogdon, but he came at a substantial cost. The Pacers guaranteed the 26-year-old with a history foot trouble $85 million over four years. They also sent the Bucks a first-rounder and two second-rounders in the sign-and-trade for the restricted free agent. Brogdon is a good player, but that’s a lot.

Warren arrived via trade from the Suns in a much easier call. Phoenix sent Indiana the No. 32 pick just to take the 25-year-old forward. With $35.25 million and three years left on his contract, Warren is probably slightly overpaid. But he might not be. The high second-rounder (which the Pacers flipped to the Heat for three future second-rounders) more than covers the difference.

Signing Lamb to a three-year, $31.5 million contract looks like good value. A 27-year-old wing with his offensive talent is usually much more expensive.

Another helpful wing, Holiday came even cheaper. He settled for the room exception after the market dried up.

McConnell ($3.5 million guaranteed next season, $1 million of $3.5 million guaranteed the following season) will fill a role in the backcourt. The size will depend on second-year Aaron Holiday‘s readiness for the rotation and Oladipo’s return from injury.

A healthier Oladipo was always bound to make the Pacers better. The new younger talent – including No. 18 pick Goga Bitadze – gives Indiana a chance to create something for the long haul.

Still, the Pacers had a winning formula the last couple years. They’ve disrupted it. That’s uneasy, even as there’s no guarantee the departed veterans would’ve maintained their production as they aged.

I’m also not convinced the new lineup has staying power. Indiana plans to start Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis, both players who should primarily play center. Those two work together fine for now, but they’re better off apart.

That said, the big-man pairing can also help the Pacers maintain their culture of toughness and defense. Coach Nate McMillan and work with this group.

Only Indiana’s roster has changed. The reasonable expectation for this team hasn’t.

Offseason grade: C+