Troy’s Top Ten

Giannis Antetokounmpo, NBA, NBA Playoffs

1.The Milwaukee Bucks and Giannis Antetokounmpo are in dire straits. A difficult match-up with a determined star and Hall of Fame coach, an expert at navigating the playoffs, has set the organization and its soon to be two-time MVP up for disaster. Milwaukee’s blistering regular seasons the past two years have positioned them as championship contenders, an identifier they don’t seem ready for. Coach Mike Budenholzer has proved this year and last, along with his stint in Atlanta, that, for as savvy as he is with X’s and O’s, he’s deficient at making needed adjustments in the playoffs. Giannis is a free agent after next year; he’s eligible to sign a super max contract extension after this one. If the Bucks cannot find a way out of this series and into the NBA Finals, the rumors of a Giannis exodus from Milwaukee becomes a tidal wave this off-season.

2. Game 1 screamed ineptitude from Milwaukee’s bench. Khris Middleton continued getting scorched, possession after possession, guarding Jimmy Butler in the fourth quarter. Yet Giannis, the Defensive Player of the Year, or even Wes Matthews, guarded Miami’s star. Giannis played dumb after, asserting he only followed coach’s orders. True, Budenholzer should have ordered the switch. Antetokounmpo has a responsibility as a leader, however. If he envisions himself a champion, he has to take the challenge to terminate an opponent flaming his team in the fourth quarter of a playoff game. Especially considering his struggles on offense. The Bucks stagnated on that end too. No ball or player movement, Budenholzer staples, ground the Bucks to a halt. Middleton hucked up prayers, and Giannis tried dribbling into a sea of Miami defenders, turning the ball over and taking ill-advised shots early in the shot clock, rushing to beat the Heat before their defense settled. When Milwaukee ran pick and roll, regardless of the ball handler, with Giannis as the screener, they created looks for him and open 3’s for his teammates. They ignored it too often, however, and are staring at an opponent who doesn’t fear them. Trouble.

3. In the closing minutes of both fourth quarters, the Bucks strained to get points. Giannis and Middleton cannot get points on their own. Their teammates are standing and watching. This was the number 1 offense in the league? Minus George Hill, no one on the roster has played consistent, tough playoff minutes. Milwaukee is being outworked. Erik Spoelstra is embarrassing Mike Budenholzer. Giannis has played only 36 minutes in each game. MVPs cannot sit that long during the playoffs. The Bucks aren’t playing hard, or smart. And take a glance at these rosters. Who is the favorite again?

4. Though Miami figured to rain threes on the Bucks’ defenders in Game 1, Goran Dragic and Butler attacked. Without Eric Bledsoe, Milwaukee’s perimeter defenders could not keep the Heat ball handlers in front of them, forcing Giannis and Brook Lopez into foul trouble early, and tentativeness late. Miami is liquid on offense, however, and flooded Milwaukee with 3’s in Game 2. Whatever Milwaukee tries on defense, the Heat has an answer. And they give a rip. Butler is a bona fide dog, a playoff closer in the truest sense. For all his shooting troubles, Butler feels the moment and delivers when his team needs him. Dragic has scored his entire career. He’s tricky with the ball and can score on all levels. Both are masters in the pick and roll, and using Bam Adebayo as a rim runner makes the top-rated Bucks defense look slow and unsure in the half court. The Heat are ready for their moment and have the only validated playoff closer in the series on their roster. Good luck, Milwaukee.

5. While the Raptors earned their playoff experience with a title last year, not having Kawhi Leonard to settle half court possessions is causing problems. The Celtics have the best go to scorer in the series (Jayson Tatum), and Boston’s superb transition defense stymied Toronto’s speed in Games 1 and 2. The Raps’ offense gums up. While Serge Ibaka has been great, shooting the 3 ball at 50% and providing length defensively, the rest of the squad is AWOL. Pascal Siakam needs to find more than 16 shots. He’s struggling to get easy buckets against Boston’s length. Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet have to work Kemba Walker early and often, the weak link in Boston’s athletic, rangy defense. Whoever Walker is guarding has to attack him and force Boston’s defense into rotation. They tried this in Game 2 with success, yet didn’t remain disciplined enough to stay with the strategy. Boston is too good in transition for the Raptors to count on offense from the break. They have to get the Celtics moving on defense in the half-court, then knock down shots. They’re only shooting 32% from behind the arc in the series. That should change, but it starts with attacking Kemba.

More Kemba in the pick and roll, Toronto

6. Time to add Boston to the collection of title contenders. Only the Clippers can match their length on defense. Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Kemba Walker are the best scoring trio in the league. Marcus Smart is maddening, a hate watch for anyone other than Celtic fans. He’s one of the best wing defenders in the league, however, gets every loose ball, and makes 3-4 plays per game that affect wins and losses. And once every couple of weeks he gets hot from deep and wins a game with his shooting. They’re size deficient, and Giannis could give them problems in the next round, as would the Lakers. The answer to whether they’re a true contender falls on Tatum. He’s been a superstar to this point, but will he keep it up? Tatum made it to the line 14 times in Game 2, a huge positive for Boston. He’s struggled early in his career with passivity. An aggressive Tatum is a must if the Celtics hope to challenge for the title. After this round, he’ll see either Giannis or Jimmy Butler, then Kawhi and Paul George or LeBron and AD. Is he ready to stand firm against the league’s elite?

7. Jamal Murray vs. Donovan Mitchell was the best show put on in the bubble. Why watch basketball, if not to see the ball go through the rim, and from deep? Murray shot 53% from 3, Mitchell 51%. Bad defenses? Yes. But these young’ns, questioned in the early stages of their careers (both are 23) whether they could lead teams, carried their rosters throughout this seven-game series. A “Can you top this!?” gunning contest erupted, and each showed an ability to meet the moment. The Nuggets are over matched against the Clippers, and Murray will struggle often with Patrick Beverley, Paul George, and Kawhi Leonard in his jock. So what? Can they win titles? Are they perennial All-Stars? Do they deserve their max contracts? Forget the blather. Enjoy these two for what they are. Worry later about what they can be.

Murray’s shot making to end Game 6 is just………

8. Game 7 pressure showed itself in the Denver and Utah 80-78 final score, an enormous drop over the first six games, in which the teams averaged 234 points combined. If Denver hopes to compete with the Clips, however, they better hope they found some plus defensive lineups. Torrey Craig, Jerami Grant, and Monte Morris all looked strong in Game 7, but the return of Gary Harris for the Nuggets was key. Harris hounded Donovan Mitchell in the closing minutes, forcing bad shots and swiping the ball away on Utah’s penultimate possession. Harris was, and is, a complete disaster on offense, however. 1-9 on Tuesday, he launched ill-advised shots early in the shot clock and looks uncomfortable putting the ball on the floor. Offense comes and goes for Denver’s defensive stalwarts, but they must be on the floor if the Nuggets have a chance at slowing L.A. on offense. For a competitive series, these guys must knock down open shots, relieving a bit of the scoring pressure off of Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic.

9. Just because the bubble is protecting players from COVID-19 doesn’t mean they can’t pick up something else. Marcus Morris seems to have contracted a case of Draymond Green disorder. He swung down on Luka Doncic in Game 6 of their first round series, earning an ejection and $35,000 fine. The league should have suspended him for at least another game. He targeted Doncic throughout the series, calling him a racially insensitive remark, stepping on his ankle, and waylaying the Dallas star with hard fouls. Morris claims he’s not dirty, yet continues with the non-basketball stuff. He’s taken on the role of enforcer, and regardless of whether he’ll cop to it, seems more interested in picking fights than playing basketball. If his antics continue against Denver, the league needs to take more drastic action.

10. James Harden saved himself with a game saving block on Lou Dort’s 3, allowing the Rockets to escape into the second round. Game 7’s typically turn sloppy, and Harden is still uncomfortable in win or go home situations. 17 points on 4-15 shooting provide another example of Harden’s timidity during legacy altering games. He becomes unsure of himself, taking bad shots and making questionable decisions on drives to the rim. The lack of success in the past has crept into his present mindset. The Rockets should push the Lakers in the next round. They match up well. L.A. has no answer defensively for Harden or Russell Westbrook. Anthony Davis will dominate, but can any of the ancillary Lakers punish the Rockets for going small? The Lakers can’t shoot and the Rockets will attempt to bludgeon them from 3. The Houston small ball experiment is on the ballot in round 2. But this is James Harden vs. LeBron James. The greatest thinker, maybe in league history, versus an unsure superstar in crunch time? An entertaining series, sure, but the result is obvious.

 

NBA Re-Preview

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, NBA, NBA Bubble, Zion

Can the NBA get this right? 2020 is standing on its head, desperate for attention and getting it. But can basketball steal the focus away and deliver a two-month playoff run unlike anything we’ve seen? The star power in the NBA is strong; no league markets its talent better. LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, Joel Embiid, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis and the rest have an opportunity unlike any other. They will transfix eyes on Orlando, to see if they can pull off a health and safety nightmare, and to see the stars. Will LeBron lead a rickety roster to his 4th title? Can Kawhi go back-to-back? Is Giannis ready to snag ownership of the league away from his older brethren? Can James Harden and Russell Westbrook conquer their playoff demons? What will this look like without fans?


Three teams can win the title. While others will provide interest, only the Lakers, Clippers, and Bucks feel like contenders. Forget the notion of a tainted title because of the circumstances. In fact, the 2020 champ will have endured more adversity than almost any other in history. The rings won in October, after the nonsense this year has given us, will be iconic. So who will wear them?

Los Angeles Lakers


Why they’ll win the title: Not rocket science here. LeBron James and Anthony Davis. They’re the best duo in the league. James will finish second in the MVP race; Davis fifth or sixth. Davis will also make either first or second team All Defense. While Davis’ defensive numbers are good, not stellar, what he does for LeBron on that end is unquantifiable. Davis protects the rim, hedges pick and rolls, and closes on 3 ball shooters at a doctorate level. He allows James do to what he does best: roam. LeBron’s defensive numbers are the best since he left Miami. Poor defenders in Cleveland, along with his blasé regular season attitude, created a fair narrative that his skills had slipped. AD’s length covers his teammates’ rear ends and allows LeBron to use his athleticism and smarts to read opposing offenses and react. A team bereft of top line defenders, Davis almost single-handedly vaulted the Lakers to the third ranking defense in the league.


But I have buried the lead. If the Lakers win the title, it’ll come down to one play, LeBron-Davis pick and rolls. The best passer and finisher in the league, the smartest player in the league, the most battled tested player in the league, controlling the offense and dishing to the most devastating finisher in the NBA. When the games slow down in the playoffs, buckets get tough. But LeBron manipulates defenses like few players in history. He’s methodical. He’s surgical. He’ll wait an extra tick before whipping a pass to Danny Green in the corner for an open 3. He’ll push the pace off defensive rebounds if he sees an advantage. He moves his teammates around at will, searching for preferable match-ups and court spacing. James will create good shots for either himself or his teammates when possessions become essential. That ability, to score points in the tightest situations, separates champions. No player is more prepared to play in the bubble and all the challenges it will bring than LeBron James. The playoffs reveal fear every year. There is none in 23.

Look at the options off this pick and roll. Davis dunk or Green 3?

Why they’ll lose: After 1 and 2, this roster is hot garbage. Avery Bradley opted out of the bubble, and his absence hurts, especially on defense. While Danny Green is a powerful wing defender, Bradley is quicker and more capable of guarding opposing point guards. With the injury to Rajon Rondo keeping him out for most of the playoffs, Bradley gave L.A. another ball handler other than LeBron. Now who handles the rock when LBJ sits? Quinn Cook? Troy Daniels? J. R. Smith? Dion Waiters? Have fun with that ragtag mix of misfits. Alex Caruso must step up for the Lakers in the bubble. Solid all season, he and LeBron are the best 2 man combo on the team, at plus 20.9 per 100 possessions. At 18 minutes per game, he’s averaged 5 points and 1.8 assists, however. Is he ready for big minutes handling the rock for a title contender?

Is anyone on this roster? Davis has playoff experience, but none as a title favorite and LeBron sidekick. The pressure on him will be immense. Kyle Kuzma was unsteady in the regular season. Give me Danny Green in crunch time. The rest of the Dwight Howards and Jared Dudleys are all yours.

Los Angeles Clippers


Why they’ll win the title: Kawhi Leonard. He established himself as one of the five best players in the league, with an argument for the one spot, with an epic title run with the Raptors that showcased every talent he possesses. After his switch on Giannis Antetokounmpo in the Eastern Conference Finals, Giannis wilted, along with the Bucks. He carried the offensive load on a team made up of third options, averaging 30.5, 9 rebounds, 4 assists and almost 2 steals per. Now he’s head of perhaps the best talent in the league. Montrezl Harrell is the likely sixth man of the year, Lou Williams has won the award multiple times and is a walking bucket off the bench, and Patrick Beverley is the dog every team needs in the playoffs that will outwork the opposition while barking at them throughout a series. Then there’s Paul George. Injuries are an issue, but the layoff should find him healthy. An MVP candidate throughout much of last year, George only bows to his teammate Leonard as the best two-way player in the league. If the James-Davis pick and roll is the ultimate weapon, George and Leonard provide the best opportunity to neutralize it. Those match-ups in crunch time of a Western Conference Finals will be epic.

Landry Shamet provides shooting off the bench, Ivica Zubac has played sneaky well in the starting lineup, and Marcus Morris is a prototypical body to steal minutes for George and Leonard on defense against LeBron. And Morris shot 41% from 3 on the season. No roster in the league has the combination of talent and experience that the other L.A. team possesses.

Why they’ll lose: Some in-fighting occurred between the holdovers from last year’s spunky Clippers team and the recent additions. Did the layoff allow them to re-focus on what’s important? How will Paul George fare? Early in his career, his playoff battles with LeBron pushed those Heat teams to the brink. Can George sit behind Leonard, or will he disappear at crucial moments? PG13’s so-so ball handling skills rear their head at inopportune times, so he needs to knock down open jumpers and eliminate crunch time turnovers. And can they handle size? Anthony Davis, Nikola Jokic, and even Steven Adams could give them fits in a 7 game series. Harrell will see 4th quarter minutes at center, yet he’s only 6’8”. Zubac has been good, but does Doc Rivers trust the unathletic big man in high-pressure situations? Will Paul George or Kawhi Leonard have to guard skilled opposing big men? An interesting sub-plot to watch as the playoffs progress.

Milwaukee Bucks

Why they’ll win the title: They’re the number 1 offense in the league. Their defensive rating per 100 possessions also leads the league by 3.3 points. Giannis is the unquestioned MVP. LeBron was excellent in leading his Laker team, but perhaps it’s Giannis’ league now. 29.6 points, 13.7 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 1 steal, 1 block, in only 31 minutes per game. He dominates opponents in the paint with deft footwork and power. He glides in the open floor, the most devastating fast break in basketball. And the defense. He stretches from baseline to baseline, a rim protector, on ball stopper, and rotation expert rolled into one. Bucks GM Jon Horst stacked the roster with excellent defenders (Brook Lopez deserves an All Defense nod, and Eric Bledsoe strong consideration), but Antetokounmpo is on another level. He cares, and it shows by his hustle and desire to gut opponents. Giannis didn’t come to make friends, and a title is the only acceptable outcome for Milwaukee. If the Clippers don’t have the best roster in the league, the Bucks do. George Hill, Khris Middleton, and Kyle Korver all shoot over 40% from 3. Ersan Ilyasova and Wes Matthews are over 36%, devastating shooting to arrange around Giannis. And that number 1 defense? They do things differently that most. Milwaukee has allowed the most 3s made and taken against them in the league, yet they stifle the paint, only allowing teams to shoot 41% against them on the season. They rarely foul; teams shoot the sixth lowest amount of free throws in the league against them. They must keep LeBron and Kawhi off the line in any Finals matchup.

Why they’ll lose: Can they afford to give 3s to Toronto, Boston, or either of the L.A. teams? Mike Budenholzer has been outstanding in Milwaukee, but refuses to budge from what they do in a seven-game series. Being who you are is great, but small tweaks make the difference. The Bucks must adjust their defensive philosophy according to their opponent. If a second round match-up against the Heat, the best shooting 3 ball team in the league, occurs, Milwaukee must adapt. Miami lines up well with them, and a few games of hot outside shooting may put them on the ropes.

Will Eric Bledsoe show this postseason? Describing Bledsoe’s performance in last year’s playoffs as a train wreak would be too kind. He was unplayable against Toronto’s Lowry/VanVleet backcourt, benched in favor of George Hill. Malcolm Brogdon was Milwaukee’s best guard last postseason, but he’s now in Indiana. Bledsoe has rebounded, averaging 15 on 35% 3 shooting and 5.4 assists per game while playing defense at an All NBA level. He has to produce this year, or the Bucks won’t win the title. His defense is too important to be on the bench during crunch time if he becomes a human turnover and brick layer on offense. As he goes, the Bucks will go.

The Rest


Houston Rockets

What will James Harden look like with a four-month rest leading into the playoffs? Perennially gassed by May from the load placed on his shoulders in the regular season, is Harden a playoff choker, or just overused in the regular season? We’ll find out in the bubble. Throw in a rejuvenated Russell Westbrook, and the Rockets are the league’s biggest conundrum. A title would surprise, but any other result would not. First round loss? Sure. Western Conference Finals? Maybe. A roster built to run opponents off the floor and hoist 3’s from everywhere, they’ve once again redefined what small ball means. They start no one over 6’8”, and while Tyson Chandler (7’0”) may see sporadic minutes, look for the Rockets to run opposing bigs off the floor. While Harden and Westbrook will draw the spotlight, the key to Houston’s success will be P. J. Tucker and Robert Covington. Both need to guard above their weight class on defense and punish power forwards and centers on defense by dragging them out of the paint and knocking down 3s. If Tucker and Covington succeed, the Rockets will surprise in the West.

Houston’s starting lineup

Toronto Raptors

The defending champs have mastered carrying a chip on their shoulder. Overlooked as the champs, the fans and players in Toronto are tired of being scoffed at, and they should be. Perhaps the best fit roster in the league, the Raps have length and shooting at every position. Pascal Siakam made MVP noise over the first two months of the season before injuries slowed his ascend to superstar. He’s a perennial All-Star, however, and Kyle Lowry’s clutch Game 6 in last year’s Finals removed the playoff choker tag from his career. Lowry is battle tested and tough. The second best defense in the league, try to find a weak spot. Marc Gasol, Lowry, Siakam, Serge Ibaka, and OG Anunoby are smart, long defenders who lock up opponents. While they lack the firepower to beat Milwaukee, a second round series against Boston could be a classic.

New Orleans Pelicans

Zion Williamson, who else? While my Lonzo Ball love is well documented, and he and Zion are glorious together, Pels games are must watch because of the rookie. Now in shape, the future of the league is here. Though New Orleans’ goal will be to play their way into the 8-9 Western Conference play-in game, the groundwork for their future will begin construction in Orlando. Are Lonzo, Brandon Ingram, Derrick Favors, and Jrue Holiday the correct pieces around the phenom? Can they make a push for the Western Conference Finals as soon as next year? Williamson is that good, but are his teammates? GM David Griffin can’t afford to waste one off-season in New Orleans. Every game played by New Orleans in the bubble will be an evaluation for how high their expectations will be next year.

Boston Celtics

Jayson Tatum made the leap in February. 30 points and 8 rebounds on 49% shooting, 48% from 3, the numbers, and his on-court confidence, screamed superstar. Thrust into championship contender talk, Boston seems to be a smidge short. But what if February Tatum makes his way to Orlando? Jaylen Brown has some believing he’s the better of the two players. Kemba Walker makes big shots in big moments, and Marcus Smart wins games. Giannis is a tough match-up on a smallish Boston team, however. Their lack of size, less of an issue against Toronto, will prove costly in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Philadelphia 76ers

We should consider them with the title contenders. What happened? Philly posted the best home record in the league, yet the 20th best road mark. What does that mean in Orlando? Confused? Welcome to the 2019-2020 76ers. Joel Embiid is engaged, sometimes. What kind of shape will he be in? He and Ben Simmons are a janky fit. Brett Brown moved Shake Milton into the starting lineup during bubble scrimmages to allow Simmons to play more power forward. But is taking the ball out of his hands, and deadening his passing abilities, the right move? And why has Al Horford been such a poor fit? His offense and shooting has suffered with less space provided to him by his Philly teammates, and another year on his body has made him 5% less effective on defense. Listen, the Sixers have the talent to make a Finals push. But the questions only continued to pile up throughout the season. How many are too many?

It feels like the Lakers. The Bron-Davis duo is too good on both ends of the floor, and James has stared down more adversity in his career than perhaps any player in history. He was built for this moment, and at 35 his title chances are dwindling. The Bucks and Clippers are deeper, and probably better teams. But when buckets in the closing minutes get tough, I know I can rely on that James-Davis pick and roll. One of the greatest to ever do it gets his fourth ring.

All stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com

 

Ahead of Schedule?

Cleveland Cavaliers, Darius Garland, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Love, Kevin Porter Jr., NBA, Trae Young, Tristan Thompson, Uncategorized

When a young NBA team expected to lose begins stacking wins together, their confidence level rises. It’s happening right now with the Cavaliers. Regardless of the competition (the Wizards and Knicks are bad) back-to-back road wins by a team supposed to be one of the worst in the league breeds assurance that the system is working, and the effort is worth it.


John Beilein is an excellent coach. This was never in doubt. The questions related to his hiring focused on his age and his ability to sell established NBA players on his “old school” principles. Koby Altman nailed his first coaching hire. Beilein is a master at player development and getting the max out of his roster.


His most important sell, and the reason for the Cavs’ early success, was getting Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love on board. The two title holdovers have grabbed leadership rolls and are taking pride in guiding the young players through the trials of an NBA season. On the court, throughout games, both are teaching, pointing out defensive mistakes to guards Darius Garland and Collin Sexton, while also praising them when they succeed. Coming into the season, each was a prime target for a trade. Trades may still happen, and both are becoming more valuable as they continue to play well, but the organization is in a great position. Their worth to the young players is clear. The opportunity to bounce ideas off ring owners, players who battled with LeBron and Kyrie against one of the greatest teams of all time, is priceless. The rebuild will be less painful with Thompson and Love embracing the situation.


If the front office wants to trade them, however, the price is increasing. Since the Cavs need not trade either, they can afford to hold teams’ feet to the fire. If, say, Portland or Boston get desperate, Cleveland can extract a high price from someone for their playoff tested vets.


Beilein’s best work has been the rookies’ development. Garland and Kevin Porter Jr. are improving. Small changes are paying big dividends. The most obvious is the aggression of the rookies. Both tentative early, they’re finding their footing while gaining confidence. Garland’s playmaking skills are showing; he tallied 12 assists in two games over the weekend, while also scoring 27. He’s started making shots, which has given him the confidence to attack. On those drives, he’s having success throwing lobs to Thompson or shooting floaters over the defense. Though the 3 ball isn’t falling, with his mechanics and quick release, it’s a matter of time.


Porter Jr. is a herky jerky, “No! No! Yes!” type of shooter, who, if he figures out the league, will be a dynamic scorer. He has size, quickness, ball handling skills, and the shooting touch to average 20 a game. Can he harness his bad habits? This will be Beilein’s greatest test. If he turns Porter into the player he has the talent to be, the Cavs’ rebuild will shorten.

Porter Jr. can score at the rim when the mood strikes


Want a stat that illustrates why the Cavaliers have surprised? Cleveland’s starting five man lineup is outscoring opponents by 16 points per 100 possessions. Only Denver’s is better.


Now the bad.


Kevin Love is the Cavs best player, and the offense must run through him to function well. Love needs to cut out the dribbling, however. When he catches in the post, takes 1-2 dribbles and either shoots or passes, he’s fine. When he pounds and pounds the basketball he gets in trouble. The Celtics guarded him with Marcus Smart and, trying to take advantage of the height mismatch, Love took bad shots while allowing Smart to take the ball from him on multiple occasions. Same on Sunday against the Knicks. Taj Gibson and Marcus Morris pestered him into turnovers when he over dribbled. Love’s a better passer than he’s given credit for. He needs to keep the ball moving after he’s drawn the defense’s attention.


If Matthew Dellavedova plays another minute, it’s too many. He isn’t bringing anything of value to the court. He can’t shoot, is turning the ball over, and gets smoked on defense. At least Brandon Knight can knock a 3 down.


An improved defense has resulted from the team trying harder on that end than last year. While Sexton is better and Thompson has been stronger defending the rim, there aren’t enough natural defenders on the roster for them to be an above average unit. Altman’s next challenge will be to draft long, athletic wings capable of guarding multiple positions to mask the deficiencies of the smaller guards. John Henson’s return will help the bench unit tremendously.


Although he’s a dynamic scorer, Jordan Clarkson’s game is a nuisance. Too often he doesn’t have it, yet is firing away. He’s bringing nothing else to the table, so when his shot isn’t falling Clarkson becomes a burden. Maybe Beilein can get him to look for his teammates more often, but there’s been no sign he’s willing to share the rock. On nights when he’s cold early, the Cavs would be better off with him sitting next to Dean Wade during second halves.

 

What’s What Around the League

1. In Utah, Giannis showed the grit and determination that made him an MVP. Two time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert locked him down in the first half, holding Antetokounmpo to 2 points on 0-7 shooting, with a disrespectful rejection at the rim thrown in for good measure. Giannis awoke in the second half, however, dragging the Bucks back from a 20 point deficit by draining 3’s and re-establishing his dominant paint presence. His 28 in the second half was only overcome by a Bojan Bogdanovic 3 at the horn to give Utah the W. While Milwaukee’s roster remains thin, the Bucks will have the best player on the floor in any playoff series in the Eastern Conference. Is Giannis good enough to topple better rosters in Philly and Boston?

2. With a collection of young talent and a bona fide superstar in Jimmy Butler, the Heat are feisty in the East. Though his shooting numbers are poor, 38% from the field and 25% from 3, the playmaking of Justice Winslow is superb. Despite the lack of shooting, his ability to get to the rim draws defenses’ attention in the pick and roll, allowing him to thread pocket pass after pocket pass to the roller. When the weak side defense sags toward the lane to cut that action off, he’ll whip a cross-court pass to an open shooter. An enigma for much of his early career because of injuries and position confusion, Winslow is establishing himself as a top of the rotation player for a dangerous team.

3. The rules of basketball are hard.

4. Orlando has disappointed, and it’s time to throw more responsibility Jonathan Isaac’s way. The Magic offense is a slog; they’re worst in the league in 3 point percentage and 26th in points per game. Isaac owns Orlando’s best shooting numbers, hitting 36% from deep and 58% on twos while only taking 9 shots per game, fifth on the team. More of the offense needs to flow through him. Long and athletic, Isaac possesses the ideal NBA body type, giving him the versatility to guard anyone on the court and score from anywhere on the floor. His stat line against Dallas, 13 points, 10 rebounds, 5 assists, 4 steals, and 5 blocks, is an example of the adaptability of his game. Though Orlando is 3-6, he’s 7th in the league in plus/minus rating. His 92.8 defensive rating is fourth. If the Magic are to rebound, realizing who their best player is needs to occur soon.

5. The trade to New Orleans has been a godsend for Brandon Ingram. Out of the L.A. spotlight, where he never seemed comfortable, Ingram has become one of the better scorers in the league. His 25.9 points per game rank 11th in the league on 53% shooting. A career 34% shooter from 3, he’s shooting 47% from deep to this point. Though the Pelicans aren’t winning, just 2-7, Ingram is becoming more consistent. New Orleans’ future will hinge on Ingram and Zion meshing on the court.

6. If you’re a big in the NBA, do your best not to get switched onto Trae Young.

7. Through the injuries and Boston’s drama of last year, it’s been easy to forget about Gordon Hayward. The best player on the East’s best team to this point, Hayward has re-established himself as the All Star he was in Utah. The league overlooks his size and strength. It allows him to find his comfort zones on the floor where he can shoot over his defender or probe closer to the basket. His mid-range shooting touch is elite. The Celtics were dealt a tough break Saturday, however, when Hayward fractured his left hand, putting him out of the lineup indefinitely. Boston may find their way into Finals contention, but they’ll need Hayward to return from this injury at the level he’s played so far.

8. If you could have made a bet before the season started on which NBA player would eat an edible on the team plane and have a panic attack, Dion Waiters would have been the 1:5 favorite, right? Who else is even on the board? JaVale McGee would make for a good exacta wager, I suppose.

9. While the trade for Mike Conley garnered the headlines, the Jazz signing of Bojan Bogdanovic was as important to the team’s title chances. With Giannis leading a Bucks second half comeback Friday, Bogdanovic shouldered the offensive load, scoring 13 straight for the Jazz and drilling a three at the buzzer to seal the win. Though Conley can take some playmaking pressure away from Donovan Mitchell, Bogdanovic’s clutch shooting is as important. The spacing he’ll provide those two in tight playoff games will be key for Utah to score enough to keep up with Houston and the L.A. teams.

10. Pascal Siakam may have won Most Improved Player last year, but how many expected him to develop into an MVP candidate? The Eastern Conference Player of the Week, Siakam is averaging 27, 9, and 3.7 while shooting 50% from the field and 37% from 3. His Raptors are 7-2, and play like this from him gives them a shot at the Eastern Finals. Though most expected a drop off and consequent tear down of the roster, the Raptors’ organization is proving once again that culture matters. Toronto is taking its title defense seriously.

All stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com

 

Eastern Conference Preview

Cleveland Cavaliers, Collin Sexton, Darius Garland, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Love, NBA, Trae Young

Western Conference Preview is here.

1. Milwaukee Bucks 61-21
When young teams take the leap from scrappy playoff out to title contender, they label the year a success. Considering the MVP, Coach of the Year, and Executive of the Year awards went to Bucks, 2019 was a gigantic leap forward in Milwaukee. Playoff loses have a way of redefining progress, however. After leading the league with 60 wins and racing to a 2-0 series lead in the Eastern Conference Finals, Milwaukee was within arm’s reach of a championship. They wouldn’t win another game.


Playoff disappointments aside, last season was a breakthrough for the organization. Winning a playoff series for the first time in Giannis’ career, the Bucks now must deal with expectations and pressure. Anything less than a Finals appearance is a failure. Antetokounmpo is the favorite to win back-to-back MVPs, and the East figures to be a two team race. Questions abound, however. Eric Bledsoe signed a 4 year, $70 million extension before the end of the season, then gagged all over himself in the playoffs, rendered unplayable. Malcolm Brogdon, the Milwaukee guard who came through in crunch time, was deemed too expensive by Bucks management and signed with the Pacers. Still, Giannis is one of the top three players in the league. He is a force on both ends of the floor, finishing second in Defensive Player of the Year voting a season ago. He is unguardable without a three-point shot. If he improves his shooting, game over.


To win the title, the Bucks will need contributions from oft injured Wes Matthews, Pat Connaughton, and growth from Donte DiVincenzo. George Hill, excellent in last years’ playoffs, must continue his stellar play in high leverage minutes. What can they get out of Sterling Brown?


The clock is ticking. Antetokounmpo’s contract is up in two years. If the Bucks struggle or do not make the Finals, the questions will start if they haven’t already. Will Giannis bolt or sign the mega extension only the Bucks can offer? A high leverage season in Milwaukee.

2. Philadelphia 76ers 60-22
The Sixers dealt with their own playoff nightmare this off-season, reliving Kawhi Leonard’s three that bounced, bounced, bounced, and bounced on the rim before dropping in Game 7 of the conference semis, sending Philly home. Closer to the title than many gave them credit for, the Sixers retooled, trading Jimmy Butler, per his demands, to Miami in exchange for Josh Richardson, a long defender and excellent three ball shooter. They will need his outside touch to replace some of what they lost after J. J. Redick departed. The signing of Al Horford away from Boston, however, was the biggest splash made during the summer. A Hall of Fame defender, Horford’s experience, defense, and outside shooting boosts Philly, while giving them a fail-safe to replace Joel Embiid when he’s injured or on the bench.


With Jimmy Butler gone, who will handle the ball during crunch time? It’s time for Ben Simmons to step into this role. If the 76ers are to win the title, Simmons needs to be successful with the ball in his hands at the end of games. He is a devastating slasher and pinpoint passer. Can he knock down enough jumpers to keep defenses honest?


If Embiid can stay healthy and is in as good of shape as claimed in training camp, he’s MVP worthy. Stout defensively, his arsenal of offensive moves are unparalleled. The Sixers are title contenders if Simmons and Embiid take the next steps in their development. With Butler gone, both need to replace the scoring and toughness he brought. The starting five may be the strongest in the league. The bench is short, however. Will it stop them from winning a title?

3. Boston Celtics 52-30
Will the swap of Kemba Walker for Kyrie Irving work as well as those in Boston envision? Walker is a smidge worse at just about everything than Irving, yet Celtics fans hope the attitude adjustment Kemba brings will make up for the lost talent. One subtraction they have not replaced is Al Horford. His defense, offensive adaptability, and leadership loss will hurt come playoff time.


For this team to reach the potential its brass has been crooning about since the Brooklyn heist, the Celtics need Jayson Tatum to become their best player. Ultra talented, they seldom saw the Tatum who flashed in the playoffs in 2018 last year. He disappeared too easily on offense, taking an alarming amount of long twos and rarely attacked the basket. An All-Star exists there; will he shrug off his poor sophomore year?


Brad Stevens struggled last year, unable to balance the talent and egos of a team predicted by everyone to make the Finals. As one of the NBA’s best coaches, Stevens needs to prove he can win when he’s expected to. He must massage the Gordon Hayward/Jaylen Brown situation. One needs to come off the bench. Will either accept a lesser role with free agency a possibility for both next summer?

4. Brooklyn Nets 47-35
The Nets made the biggest splash of the off-season, yet they won’t be whole until Kevin Durant returns. In the meantime, it will be up to Kyrie Irving to prove that, now that he’s in the place of his choosing, the moodiness and drama are past him. One of the most talented players in the league, Kyrie is the leader of this young Nets squad while his partner rehabs.

Nets fans have to wait a year before seeing this duo in action.


Irving and Durant aside, the Nets amassed one of the best collections of young talent in the league, mostly without the benefit of first round picks. Jarrett Allen is a bouncy shot blocker and rim runner. Joe Harris is lethal from three. Caris LeVert, if he can kick the injury bug, may be one of the best young players in the league. Spencer Dinwiddie has shown he can score, either starting or off the bench, and run an offense. This team will be fun. In a muddled Eastern Conference, the Nets will attempt to lay a foundation this year for a title run when Durant returns in 2020.

5. Orlando Magic 46-36
One of the better defensive teams in the league a year ago, the Magic surged over their final 31 games, posting a 22-9 record and forcing themselves into the playoffs. Another jump is in store this year if they can solidify the point guard position. While D. J. Augustin shoots the 3 well and is reliable with the ball, the hope is for Markelle Fultz to regain the form which made him the number one pick in the 2017 draft. An enigmatic career to this point, Fultz has fought injury and self-confidence. A change of scenery from Philly should help.


Can Jonathan Isaac become a reliable starter, and can Aaron Gordon become an All-Star? Brimming with talent, Steve Clifford began to unleash the skill of these two. If they both make another leap, Orlando will as well.

6. Toronto Raptors 46-36
Rarely are the champs relegated to such a low seed the year after a title, yet the circumstances here are unprecedented. NBA Finals MVPs don’t leave in free agency. Kawhi is gone however, and the Raptors won a title. All sides won.

Does anyone remember the Raptors are the champs?


The Toronto front office has a decision to make. Keep the team together and stay respectable, or trade off parts for assets to hasten the rebuild? Kyle Lowry signed a one year, 31 million extension, yet it may make him easier to trade. Marc Gasol will be sought after again at the trade deadline. Serge Ibaka could draw interest. It may be difficult to dismantle a title team, but the returns could be too good to pass up.


The future of the Raptors lies with Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby. While Anunoby was injured during the title run, Siakam became a household name. A star in the making, he’s a future All-Star who’s too good to let Toronto tank. Trade the vets and build around Siakam, Anunoby, and VanVleet.

7. Miami Heat 44-38
Jimmy Butler may be the third best player in the Eastern Conference. A bulldog, he’s the type players yearn to go to war with. Outstanding defensively when he wants to be, Butler can take control of a game in the fourth quarter and will a team to victory. Very few in the league can do that.


The problem with the Heat is the rest of the roster. Goran Dragic, while still capable of scoring, has begun his regression. Dion Waiters is a thrill to watch ball; no one knows what will happen next, and it’s impossible to look away. Justise Winslow has always been intriguing and remains so, especially at point guard, but is inconsistent.


Bam Adebayo is the exception. Athletic and springy, Adebayo will take over the center minutes with Hassan Whiteside gone. Already a force defensively, he averaged 2.5 blocks and steals combined last year in only 23 minutes per game. The Butler-Adebayo pick and roll should be a headache for opposing defenses.

Bam Adebayo could become one of the best rollers in the league


The Heat seem to have a trade in them. While they sniffed around Chris Paul, the asking price was too high. Though they’re low on future assets, Pat Riley is looking to make one more run before he retires. If a big name asks for a trade, Miami will be lurking.

8. Indiana Pacers 42-40
If Victor Oladipo’s return from injury wasn’t up in the air, the Pacers would be higher. No timetable yet, rumors are he’ll return in December, yet may take longer to return to full strength. While the team held their own without him a year ago, Oladipo gives them a higher ceiling.


Once he returns, Oladipo will form an outstanding young backcourt with Malcolm Brogdon. Underrated by the Bucks, Brogdon provides the perfect complement to Oladipo. A high stakes player, Brogdon joins another free agent signee, T. J. Warren, adding offensive punch to a stagnant unit.


The team must decide if Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner can play in the same frontcourt. Both possess mid-range jumpers, while Turner is an excellent shot blocker and Sabonis a dominant rebounder. With Sabonis due to become a free agent and earn a higher paycheck, the Pacers need to find out if there’s space for both on the floor.

9. Detroit Pistons 40-42
Another season in Detroit, another rotation on the hamster wheel. The Pistons are perpetually in the 7-10 range in the Eastern Conference. Blake Griffin makes them somewhat interesting, a forgotten superstar who posted one of his best seasons last year. Averaging a career high 24.5 points per, he drained 36% of his 3s while taking 7 a game. Injured in the playoffs, however, Griffin can be counted on to miss 20 games a year.


Andre Drummond was a monster in the paint as usual, averaging 17 and 15, destroying teams in the paint who dared to go small. The fit of Detroit’s two best players remains clunky and places a ceiling on their expectations.


Could the Pistons be in the market for a point guard if one becomes available(Kyle Lowry)? The Reggie Jackson/Langston Galloway/Tim Frazier trio inspires eye rolls.


Luke Kennard can shoot. Derrick Rose and Markieff Morris will provide some veteran stability. Sekou Doumbouya is an intriguing young prospect from France, athletic and skilled offensively. He isn’t 19 yet, however. The Pistons will again play meaningful basketball in April, attempting to make the playoffs while most of the league is preparing for the postseason.

10. Chicago Bulls 39-43
A rebuild that is turning the corner, the Bulls will exit the tanking dregs in favor of the borderline playoff class this season.


A breathtaking scorer, Zach LaVine getting buckets is fun to watch. An effortless jumper and athlete, he may have another step to take in his development.


The future of the Bulls and the key to success this season, however, is the frontcourt combination of Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. Markkanen has established himself in the league, a 7 footer who can score from anywhere on the floor. Carter seems to be the perfect fit alongside him, a gifted passer and rebounder who can set screens and allow Markkanen to stretch the floor.


By trading for Otto Porter Jr last year and signing Thaddeus Young and underrated point guard Tomas Satoransky as free agents, Chicago has added strong veterans to their young core. A playoff berth isn’t out of the question if the Carter/Markkanen combo blossoms.

11. Atlanta Hawks 37-45
An intriguing outfit, the Hawks are too young to be a playoff contender just yet. After struggling early, Trae Young popped as the season progressed, averaging 19 points and 8 assists. His elite level shooting and playmaking abilities should have Atlanta fans salivating. Though his size will never allow him to be a good defender, Young’s offense will make him an All-Star lock for years to come.

Can Trae Young make an All-Star team in his 2nd year?


Nailing the draft last year, GM Travis Schlenk has set the table for a quick rebuild in Atlanta. Kevin Huerter flashed as a shooter and passer in his rookie year, while John Collins showed tremendous finishing ability and rebounding.


Will this year’s rookies produce as well? De’Andre Hunter is expected to shoot the 3 and defend. Cam Reddish’s draft stock fell because of a so-so freshman year at Duke, yet has the size, athleticism, and shooting ability to be the steal of the draft. The floor is the ceiling for the Hawks.


There’s too much Alex Len/Jabari Parker/Chandler Parsons/Evan Turner on the roster for Atlanta to make a playoff push this year. This collection of veterans is a garbage dump of NBA what ifs. Never mind them, however. The young Hawks will be a fun watch.

12. New York Knicks 30-52
Spurned by the Kevin Durant/Kyrie Irving duo, the Knicks spent their cap money on a collection of decent NBA players who will at least make the Knicks watchable. Julius Randle is a high motor, point forward/bulldozer, a clunky shooter who does a myriad of things well, but nothing great.


For the Knicks to become the free agent destination they think of themselves as, the youth must grow in Madison Square Garden. R.J. Barrett has superstar potential. Excellent size, quickness, and scoring ability, Barrett can turn this morbid franchise around.


Can the other young Knicks make jumps in their development? Frank Ntilikina and Mitchell Robinson are good defenders. Kevin Knox showed little in his rookie year. Dennis Smith Jr. is an elite athlete who lacks shooting touch but can get to the rim and has shown some playmaking ability. If the Knicks hope to lure a free agent to New York in 2021, these four must join with Barrett to convince a superstar this aimless, punch drunk franchise has turned a corner.

The Last 20 years of Knicks basketball

13. Cleveland Cavaliers 26-56
Another long season is in store for the Cavs as they try to teach three rookies the NBA game while experimenting with a small but offensively gifted backcourt in Darius Garland and Collin Sexton. Can they trade Kevin Love for picks and/or young players? Read my extended Cavs preview here.

14. Washington Wizards 24-58
One early season question was perhaps answered last week when the Wizards signed Bradley Beal to a contract extension. Coveted by many a contender throughout the league, if Washington wished to entertain offers, trading Beal would return a king’s ransom. His complete offensive game would fit with any team striving for the title. For now, however, he’s stuck in our nation’s capital, leading a team of no names and misfits. Is Thomas Bryant his best teammate? Unless Isaiah Thomas is about to throw it back to 2017, the Wizards may want to cash in their Beal ticket and begin the rebuild that is staring them in the face.

Brad Beal, or James Harden?

15. Charlotte Hornets 21-61
What can be said about this mish mash of players? Malik Monk is entertaining, I guess.

How many times will Jordan smack Malik Monk upside the head this year?

The Hornets signing Terry Rozier to a three year, 56 million dollar contract. They also have 70.5 million tied up in Nicolas Batum, Bismack Biyombo, Marvin Williams, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, according to basketball-reference.com. Oof.