Wesley Matthews

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Three Things to Know: Rings aren’t won in December but Bucks are best team right now

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Rings aren’t won in December, but Milwaukee is the best team in the NBA right now. The Lakers wanted this one. You could tell through their words — before the game coach Frank Vogel called the matchup of the two best records in the league a “measuring stick game” — but more through their actions. Specifically, letting Anthony Davis play despite still having pain in the ankle he tweaked on Sunday.

The Bucks were better.

Milwaukee held the Lakers to 17 points in the first quarter, forced turnovers on 19.6 percent of Laker possessions, led by as many as 21, held off every Laker run late, got 34 points from their MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo (who also shot 5-of-8 from three, plus had 11 rebounds), and generally handled the game.

The final score was 111-104 Milwaukee, but that makes it seem much closer a game than it actually was.

The Larry O’Brien trophy is not handed out in December, and both these teams will evolve between now and June (if both get that far).

However, right now, the Bucks are the best team in the NBA. And they proved it.

There are mitigating factors for the Lakers, no doubt: This was the last game of a road trip, Los Angeles was playing its fifth game in 10 days on the road, Kyle Kuzma was out, and Davis had his sprained ankle.

Not that the ankle slowed Davis much — he had 36 points, had to guard Antetokounmpo much of the night, and was arguably the best player on the court. Plus, he did this to the Greek Freak late in the game.

Yet, the concerns about the Lakers going into the season showed up on Thursday night. There is the depth concern — the Lakers got four points from their bench on the night. There were the questions about having enough shooting — take Danny Green (21 points) out of the equation and the Lakers shot 21.7 percent from three (including Davis going 0-of-6).

Meanwhile, the Bucks were the better team, a roster well built to match its star and in tune with how to play off him. Milwaukee players understand the angles, space the floor, and when the Lakers would close out aggressively at the arc the Bucks make smart cuts to the rim. There was balance. George Hill had 21, Khris Middleton 15, and Wesley Matthews had 13 plus a couple of clutch steals.

It’s just December. This game only counts for one game in the standings. Nothing is decided.

Right now, however, Milwaukee is the best team in the NBA — and they proved it.

2) We need a Rockets vs. Clippers playoff series. These teams can’t stand each other. There’s not a lot of venom in today’s NBA. That’s not to say guys don’t go hard at each other — they do — but after the final buzzer there is a “we’re all part of one fraternity” mindset among most players.

Which makes the Clippers and Rockets so much fun — they can’t stand each other. Like when Patrick Beverley fouled out Thursday night, Russell taunted him, waved goodbye, and picked up a technical for it.

Or, watch the normally-controlled Lou Williams lose it after a foul call and get tossed.

It was that kind of night and one where the Rockets were the better team. With the Clippers focused on making life difficult for James Harden — he still had 28 points, including nine in the final six minutes — Russell Westbrook went off for 40.

The Rockets got the win 122-117, a quality road victory for a team trying to prove it should be counted among the West’s elite.

We just need to see more of this matchup come the playoffs.

3) Likely top-3 pick next June James Wiseman leaves Memphis to prepare for NBA draft. The NBA world did not see this coming, there was genuine surprise among scouts and front office people at the G-League showcase event in Las Vegas. The Memphis Wildcats did not see this coming, either.

James Wiseman, the best big man in the coming NBA Draft and likely top-three pick (certainly top five), is leaving Memphis to prepare for the Draft.

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Today I formally withdrew from the University of Memphis and I will be preparing for the next chapter of my life. Ever since I was a little kid, it’s been a dream of mine to play in the NBA. Throughout this process, I’ve asked God to ordain my steps and lead me in the right direction. God is my lord and salvation, and throughout this process he has comforted me. This was not how I expected my freshman season to be, but I’m thankful for everyone who has supported my family and me throughout this process. I want to thank the coaches and staff for all their support and my teammates for pushing me everyday at practice. I feel blessed for the opportunity to be a Tiger and for having the honor to play with these special group of guys. I can’t wait to see what all they accomplish this season. The friends and fans of Tiger Nation will always hold a place in my heart. #GoTigersGo 🐯🔵🐯

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Wiseman had issues with the NCAA and was serving a 12-game suspension because Penny Hardaway — now the Memphis coach but at the time a local high school coach — gave $11,500 to Wiseman’s family so they could move from Nashville to Memphis. He was close to coming off that suspension when the surprise announcement came.

Wiseman is an elite prospect. He stands 7’1” with a 7’5” wingspan and has impressive athleticism. The potential is obvious. The biggest concern is that he wants to play like a modern, shot-creating big man — think Antetokounmpo or Kevin Durant — but right now his skill set is that of a more traditional NBA center. He’s got some developing to do.

The first thing scouts in Vegas said: This will not change his draft status much, if at all. They have seen enough, despite just three college games, although he does lose out on having the kind of season that could climb him up draft boards.

The other thing people at the G-League Showcase wondered:

Is this a trend? LaMelo Ball could start to wind it down early in Australia. What if Cole Anthony or Anthony Edwards decide to follow suit and shut it down early (or choose not to play in the conference or NCAA Tournament)? Not that they will, but if it’s not going to impact draft status then more guys in the future could go Wiseman’s route.

At least until the NBA does away with the one-and-done rule, or the NCAA finds a way to compensate athletes financially.

Giannis Antetokounmpo rains threes, Bucks overwhelm Lakers for statement win

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Midway through the fourth, the Lakers were trying to climb back in it. They were down 11 with the ball and ran their best play: a LeBron James/Anthony Davis pick-and-roll. It worked beautifully; both defenders slid with LeBron, Davis popped out to the top of the arc and was wide open, got the pass, set his feet… and the shot clanked off the back of the rim. Davis was 0-of-6 from three for the night.

Milwaukee got the rebound, Giannis Antetokounmpo brought the ball up, then drained a pull-up three over Davis.

The lead was back up to 14.

It went like that all night.

The Bucks held the Lakers to 17 first quarter points, led by as many as 21, and held off Los Angeles late for a 111-104 win, where the final score made it look closer than the game actually was.

The Bucks have now beaten the Lakers and Clippers this season, leaving no doubt they are the best team in the NBA at this point in the season and legitimate contenders for the crown.

The Lakers still have work to do.

Thursday night’s win was about team. The Lakers got huge nights from their stars — LeBron had a 21-12-11 triple-double, while Anthony Davis carried the team for stretches and finished with 36 points — but Los Angeles got just four bench points. The length and activity of the Bucks defense — things opposing coaches often talk about with the Lakers — threw off the Laker offense much of the night.

What the Bucks do on offense isn’t complex, but they execute it brilliantly. It starts with Antetokounmpo being a force of nature, He scored 34 points and shot 5-of-8 from three, plus had 11 rebounds.

What separated them from the Lakers is how in tune the rest of the Bucks offense was with their stars. Players understand the angles, space the floor, and when teams start to close out aggressively at the arc they make smart cuts to the rim. Everything worked for the Bucks, George Hill had 21, Khris Middleton 15, and Wesley Matthews had 13 plus a couple of clutch steals.

The rough night for Los Angeles started early, as they shot 6-of-21 in the first quarter. LeBron and Davis started the game 3-of-15 from the floor. Some of that can be chalked up to it being the final game of a road trip, but coach Frank Vogel had called this a measuring stick game. The Lakers got the significance.

Right now, it’s Antetokounmpo and Milwaukee’s league. Everyone else is trying to catch up.

Bucks easing into life after Malcolm Brogdon

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George Hill has become a trusted voice within the Bucks. The savvy veteran is in his 12th season. He began his career with the Spurs when they were still the gold-standard franchise, started for the championship-contending Pacers, helped the Jazz become a breakout team, played for the Kings, joined the Cavaliers as they made a run to the NBA Finals, stayed in Cleveland for the Cavs’ post-LeBron James freefall then came to Milwaukee. In other words, Hill has been (basketball) hell and back. He knows the game, knows the league.

Among his biggest talking points: role acceptance.

“I think that’s the difference between good teams and bad teams,” Hill said. “Good teams have guys that accept that role and excel in that role. That’s what good organizations do. And the bad teams have the ones that are just trying to chase their own stats.”

That sounds nice for someone where Hill is in his career. But what about young players still trying to establish themselves?

“You can make a lot of money being a great role guy,” Hill said. “You can last a lot longer in this league being a great role guy, a great teammate, a guy that everyone wants to play with and a guy that teams want you because they know you know how to win and you can fit with any type of style of play.”

A shining example of Hill’s worldview? Malcolm Brogdon.

Brogdon was mere months removed from winning Rookie of the Year when Milwaukee supplanted him at point guard – his preferred position – by trading for Eric Bledsoe. So, Brogdon shifted to shooting guard. He learned to keep the ball moving quickly rather than stunting the offense for his own looks. He sharpened his defense. He kept working hard.

The Pacers rewarded Brogdon with a four-year, $85 million contract and a leading role. Brogdon is flourishing in Indiana, building a case as an All-Star.

Meanwhile, the Bucks are trying to move on without him.

Milwaukee letting Brogdon leave in restricted free agency was the most consequential choice an NBA team made last summer. The Bucks are competing for a championship. They’re one season from Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s super-max decision. And they let a player as good as Brogdon depart?

There are reasons good (getting a first-rounder and second-rounder in a sign-and-trade with Indiana, maintaining flexibility without being tied to a long-term contract for someone with concerning injury issues, opening the door for cost-efficient replacements) and bad (avoiding the luxury tax) for the move. But it’s dangerous to willingly take a step back at such a critical juncture.

Except Milwaukee looks like it has hardly missed a beat.

The Bucks are 22-3. Their overall net rating season (+12.9) is higher than their net rating with Brogdon – who spent considerable time with other starters – on the floor last season (+10.7).

Maybe Milwaukee knew the guards – Wesley Matthews, Donte DiVincenzo, Pat Connaughton, Sterling Brown – that could be added/empowered without Brogdon justified letting Brogdon walk. After all, the Bucks also have Bledsoe, Hill, Khris Middleton and Kyle Korver to bolster the lineup.

“That collection of wings,” Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer said with a chuckle, “it’s really good. I don’t know how I can play them all.”

Matthews has replaced Brogdon in the starting lineup. Matthews brings a ruggedness that perfectly fits the Bucks’ NBA-best defense. Shooting 39% on 3-pointers, he also provides essential floor spacing.

It seems clear Brogdon’s exit ushered in Matthews’ entrance. Matthews signed a 1+1 minimum-salary contract last offseason, returning to the state where he grew up and played collegiately at Marquette.

“I’ve been eying Milwaukee for a couple years now,” Mathews said, “and it was just the timing was right, the fit, the style of play.”

Did Brogdon leaving and vacating a role factor?

“That’s part of saying the timing is right,” Matthews said. “They probably wouldn’t have called if Malcolm didn’t leave.”

What if they kept Brogdon and still called, wanting Matthews for depth?

“Fit was the key part,” Matthews said. “So, it probably would have been a different situation.”

The Bucks’ other notable minimum salary signing last summer, Kyle Korver, said Brogdon leaving a role open didn’t really factor into his decision.

Ditto for Hill, who re-signed for three years, $28,771,806 with $20 million guaranteed

“It was pretty much a no-brainer,” Hill said. “The camaraderie we have, from the top guy in Giannis all the way down to the bottom teammates, were amazing. The time that we had here, the success that we had, made it fun to be here.”

Brogdon’s departure also opened the door for a few incumbent players – DiVincenzo, Connaughton and Brown – to step up.

DiVincenzo has especially taken advantage. Though he was happy for Brogdon, DiVincenzo also recognized opportunity for himself after barely playing as a rookie.

“The Bucks drafted me for a reason,” said DiVincenzo, last year’s No. 17 pick. “I don’t think they drafted me just to sit on the bench. I think they drafted me to develop and put trust in me.”

DiVincenzo has already played more this season than last season, and he should be a Most Improved Player-ballot candidate. His defense has been tenacious. He’s growing into his role offensively as someone who can shoot, dribble and pass.

In the shuffle, Brown and Connaughton are actually receiving fewer minutes per game than last season. That can’t be easy in contract years. But they appear to be following Hill’s lead.

“It’s great!” Brown said of Milwaukee’s guard depth. “I love it. It’s competition all-around. Practices are great.”

For his part, Connaughton said he prides himself on always being ready regardless of his role. When he gave up professional baseball to play in the NBA, he made a conscious decision to enjoy every aspect of the process. So, sitting doesn’t bother him – especially with the Bucks winning. On all teams, it’s more difficult for anyone to gripe about playing time when winning.

Of course, it always comes back to Antetokounmpo. Without Brogdon’s playmaking, Antetokounmpo has taken on an even larger burden. Antetokounmpo is creating more of his own and his teammates’ shots, combining the differing skill sets he employed in previous years. That’s why he’s favored to win Most Valuable Player again.

Everything the Bucks are doing now is encouraging. The real tests will come in the playoffs and, relatedly, when Antetokounmpo has that super-max offer in front of him.

Antetokounmpo said he wanted Brogdon to remain Milwaukee. Kind words about a friend or a message to management? The answer will become clearer in the offseason.

First, the Bucks will look to build on last year’s run to the Eastern Conference finals. They’ll do it, for better or worse, without Brogdon.

“Yes, we wish we could have kept Malcolm,” Hill said. “It would have been great. But we know it’s a business, and we still thought that we have enough pieces to take a shot at it.”

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.”