NEW YORK -- Are the Milwaukee Bucks, the team with the NBA's best record -- and best net rating! -- being shortchanged? Do we, the collective basketball-watching public, owe them more respect? I keep hearing this, and not just from Bucks fans. Here is the esteemed Kevin Pelton of ESPN, asserting that they deserve to be seen as the clear favorites in the East:
I think it's overdue to acknowledge the Bucks as the favorites in the Eastern Conference. They've got the best record, the best point differential by a mile and have now gone 5-2 (3-1 on the road) against the other top three East contenders.— Kevin Pelton (@kpelton) February 1, 2019
And here is the venerable Eric Koreen of The Athletic, suggesting that we should revere them the way we did the 2015 Atlanta Hawks:
We should be talking about the Bucks with the same reverence we talked about the 60-win Hawks. They’re KILLING teams. I know those Hawks were beloved because they didn’t have a superstar, but what the Bucks are doing is amazing.— (((Eric Koreen))) (@ekoreen) February 5, 2019
These comments came before Milwaukee added Nikola Mirotic at the trade deadline, more firepower for a team that scored 50 points in a quarter last week. They also came before the Philadelphia 76ers traded for Tobias Harris and revamped their bench, and before the Toronto Raptors traded for Marc Gasol and signed Jeremy Lin. Nonetheless, the ideas are worth examining, especially in light of Saturday's effusive feature in the Washington Post by Ben Golliver, in which the Bucks are described as a "juggernaut cruising along in plain sight and relative silence."
I get a kick out of the Bucks. They have been set up to maximize the gifts of Giannis Antetokounmpo, a player who combines grace and power in a way that is entirely his own. Everything Milwaukee does revolves around making the game easy for him. Brook Lopez is redefining what it means to be a stretch 5, Khris Middleton is finally an All-Star, Eric Bledsoe gets it and I almost don't want to mention Malcolm Brogdon's 50-40-90 season in fear of a jinx. When the Bucks visited Barclays Center last week, several media members agreed it was the type of game they'd pay to see.
Unfortunately for those who bought tickets, it wasn't competitive. Milwaukee bludgeoned the shorthanded Brooklyn Nets and left with a 113-94 win. If there was entertainment to be found, it was in the Bucks' relentless attack. They might be spiritual successors to coach Mike Budenholzer's 2015 Hawks, but they resemble that team more in theory than practice. While spacing and unselfishness are the foundation of their halfcourt offense, they beat teams with playmaking and athleticism. Form follows function.
Antetokounmpo allows the Bucks to marry system basketball and a star-driven approach. They can do this in transition:
… and do this in the halfcourt:
Unlike other Eastern Conference contenders, there is no confusion about how they want to play, no uncertainty about role definition. They took to Budenholzer's system quickly, winning their first preseason game by 34 points and starting the regular season on a seven-game winning streak. Like those Hawks, they have found that rare rhythm where they're not worried about who they're playing, not worried about cold stretches and completely comfortable making audacious plays like this within Budenholzer's structure:
Beyond the numbers, this is why some people see Milwaukee going to the NBA Finals. It is why the team has drawn comparisons to another 2015 powerhouse, the Golden State Warriors in their first year under Steve Kerr. A new coach has transformed the Bucks, the pieces all fit and their confidence keeps growing. At their best, they toy with opponents.
In terms of style, though, I hesitate to call anyone out for not loving this Milwaukee team. The heart wants what it wants, and, while the Bucks have several characteristics of a League Past favorite -- a fast pace, an affinity for 3-pointers, a goofy center and a highlight-machine star -- their constant onslaught of drive-and-kicks might not connect with you. And as for the Bucks' playoff chances, well, we have to talk about the Lopez problem.
Early in the season, keen observers noted that Lopez was dropping deep in the paint on pick-and-rolls, as Budenholzer appeared willing to surrender tons of 3s. Lopez has done a wonderful job around the basket, and the Bucks are holding opponents to 29.7 percent shooting at the rim this season, per Cleaning The Glass, leading the league by a significant margin. They also have the top defensive rating.
The issue is that Milwaukee ranks first in 3-point attempts allowed. Lopez presents all sorts of problems with his shooting, but he is vulnerable when teams spread the floor the same way the Bucks do. After beating the Nets, he laughed when pondering what he'd do if he had to guard himself.
"I don't know," Lopez told CBS Sports. "It'd probably be a team situation. I don't want to talk myself up too much."
Lopez acknowledged that Budenholzer wants him near the basket, and when teams station shooters around the perimeter, dealing with it is a "complete team thing," he said. Help defense only goes so far, though, and Milwaukee knows playoff opponents will try to make life difficult for him.
"We certainly want to leave him on the court and play to our strengths and play to our rotations as often as possible," Budenholzer said. "They still have to deal with him. They still have to find him. Hopefully we have the best of both worlds. But Brook is getting better in transition, finding shooters, doing different things in pick-and-rolls where maybe he can stay near the basket, things like that. But it's a challenge."
In last season's playoffs, coaches benched 7-footers left and right. A frenzy of switching stalled offenses that looked pretty in the regular season, giving way to mismatch hunting. The Bucks can play that way, with Mirotic or D.J. Wilson in place of Lopez, but they would prefer not to. While the Sixers and Raptors also have decisions to make about their large centers, neither team allows nearly as many 3s as Milwaukee.
There is something to be said, though, for the Bucks' obvious chemistry. It is hard to bet against a team that is clicking like this, even if Budenholzer himself likes to downplay their success and stress that they need to be ready for the playoffs. If anyone on their roster has a Marcus Morris-like venting session about the lack of fun they're having between now and the end of the season, I will eat my hat. While I am not going to declare that they are the favorites, that is much more about the strength of their competition than about them.
Monte Morris a draft steal for Nuggets
The Denver Nuggets have the second-best record in the West partially because of a point guard who was picked No. 51 in the 2017 draft and played 25 minutes in his rookie season. Two weeks ago, Monte Morris had 20 assists, seven rebounds, seven assists and no turnovers in 40 minutes in a win at New Orleans. He followed that up with 18 points, eight assists, six rebounds, two steals and one turnover in a win against Houston. These kind of numbers make it hard to comprehend what happened on draft night, but Morris has some ideas.
"I was a senior," Morris told CBS Sports. "I went to Iowa State, we don't get a lot of respect. I mean, I only took like two or three 3 attempts a game."
Morris went on: "I'm not the tallest, I'm not the strongest, the widest." At the combine, he measured 6-foot-2 1/2 in shoes with a 6-4 wingspan, weighing in at 175 pounds. He had been making up for this his whole life, though, and didn't need crazy athleticism to lead an extremely efficient, NBA-style offense.
"I'm smart," Morris said. "And I try to use that to my advantage every night."
In a weird way, Morris' intelligence and feel for the game might have worked against him as a prospect. He led the NCAA in assist-to-turnover ratio for most of his time in college, but this was not always considered a good thing. The NBA has mostly shifted away from game-manager types, and Morris thinks there was a perception that he was too conservative.
It is not as if Morris steps on the court thinking about limiting his turnovers. He just wants to "play basketball, make the right play and keep it simple," he said. Sometimes, that means making a crisp pass to an open shooter. Other times, it means lofting a floater over a big man.
"I got that label," Morris said. "Because of the assist-to-turnover tag, people didn't realize how good I actually was and that I could score the ball. Coming out of college, it was always, 'Can he score? Can he make a shot at this level?' I heard it all. I just lace up and prove people wrong every night. That's my motivation."
On a two-way contract, Morris' first season was split between collecting DNPs with the Nuggets and starring for the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. In Denver, he paid attention to opposing guards' tendencies, locked in on the bench as if he was a part of the regular rotation. He did not joke around, and he believes this approach has paid off. Last summer, the Nuggets converted his contract to a three-year, $4.8 million deal which has become one of the league's biggest bargains.
"Whether he's playing 20 minutes off the bench or 25 as a starter, he is so thankful and appreciative of the opportunity he's been given," Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. "And he's doing that while remaining very hungry and not being satisfied."
In the preseason, I interviewed Denver guard Will Barton, who said that people were sleeping on the Nuggets' bench and Morris was poised to be a big contributor. "I was killing training camp," Morris confirmed, and his preseason production led to a regular-season role. When healthy, Jamal Murray and Gary Harris are entrenched as starters, but Morris has forced Malone to play him more than a typical backup.
"I had to have everybody locked in and focused," Morris said. "That's why our second unit is so good, 'cause they trust me, I know where they're going to be at and they make shots for me."
Morris knew that this season would be different, and as soon as he got his chance, "I just ran with it," he said. He knows people are surprised that he's consistently scoring -- he has averaged 16.4 points while shooting 60.8 percent and 46.2 percent from 3-point range in the seven games before Wednesday's meeting with the Kings, a truly ridiculous stretch -- but pointed out that those per-game numbers aren't that different from what he did with the Cyclones and the Vipers.
It is unclear how Malone's rotation will change with Isaiah Thomas -- another point guard overlooked on draft night -- back from injury, but Morris has proven that he deserves his spot. Despite all those teams passing up on him, he always knew what type of talent he was.
"The draft is all a gamble, man," Morris said. "Some teams get lucky. Some people get steals. I'm just happy to be in Denver."
In 'NBA players are people' news …
I'm not going to scold anyone for coming up with fake trades earlier this month -- we all do it -- but it's worth remembering that the deadline is one of the most stressful times of the year for players. This doesn't just apply to those who are rumored to be on the block, either.
"Everybody likes to always tell us that it's a business," Raptors guard Fred VanVleet told CBS Sports. "But, for us, it's not."
VanVleet said that players are professionals, and they know they have jobs to do, regardless of whatever is happening between executives. They spend every day with their teammates, though, and, even when they've seen a few trades go down, it is not easy to say goodbye to them, knowing it means uprooting their lives. Last Thursday, Toronto acquired Marc Gasol for Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright and C.J. Miles, three players VanVleet considered family.
"It's tough, man," VanVleet said. "You go through it. Obviously, a little part of you is just relieved that you made it through the trade deadline, and then you start to feel for your brothers. Delon probably was not so much, just because I'm sure he wanted more opportunity to play. Coming in for a contract year, he can go out there and showcase his skills and get paid. But all three of those guys, we're close."
VanVleet said all this right after singing the praises of Gasol, who gives the Raptors a new dimension and makes his teammates better. When the trade happened, though, he couldn't process it in strictly basketball terms.
"You're excited that Marc's coming and you can't wait to play with him and obviously you hope that the trade makes the team stronger," VanVleet said. "But at the same time, it's always hard to see your guys go."
There is a natural tension between the idea that trades are just a normal part of the business and the idea that teams are supposed to be brotherhoods, where players care about and sacrifice for each other. If you choose not to have an every-man-for-himself attitude, then you must make yourself accept both of these incompatible ideas, simultaneously feeling for your ex-teammates and being all-in with your new ones. This kind of nuance is lost when Magic Johnson equates wondering about how trade rumors can affect a locker room with treating players like "babies." I contend that it is merely treating them like people.
Checking in on … the Pacers
The Indiana Pacers will not die. I didn't even mention them at the top of this column when discussing the contenders in the East because of Victor Oladipo's season-ending injury, but they're still in third place and were on a six-game winning streak before losing to the first-place Bucks on Wednesday.
Through Monday's game against the Hornets, the Pacers had the exact same net rating (plus-5.2) with and without Oladipo on the court. This is amazing, especially because they were plus-6.0 with him and minus-8.2 (!) without him last season. Indiana's young bigs, Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis, have improved, and so has the roster, with Doug McDermott, Tyreke Evans, Aaron Holiday and, now, Wesley Matthews in the fold.
There is a little bit of San Antonio in the Pacers: they take more mid-range shots and fewer 3s than most teams, but they shoot well from both areas. Unlike the Spurs, though, they are one of the league's most aggressive defensive teams, and they are dangerous in transition. Indiana does not have a reputation as being fast, as it is 26th in pace, but it is second in forcing turnovers and second in pace-adjusted steals. Oladipo's absence has not affected the Pacers' approach.
If you don't live in Indiana, you probably want this team to fall out of the top four so you can see Milwaukee, Toronto, Philadelphia and Boston in the second round. That might still be the most likely scenario, but the Pacers are making this interesting. They've been a tough, hard-playing team for the past couple of seasons, and it doesn't seem like that is going to change.
Hmmmm: Davis says Pelicans were not 'interested in playing'
The New Orleans Pelicans trailed 36-9 in the first quarter at home against the Orlando Magic on Tuesday, and it didn't get much better from there. The Pelicans lost 118-88, their sixth loss in seven games, and Anthony Davis played perhaps the worst game of his career, scoring three points on 1-for-9 shooting.
"We sucked,". "Nobody was interested in playing."
I wonder why that might be. Could it have something to do with the fact that Davis doesn't want to be in New Orleans, but is playing out the string anyway because of the misguided notion that sitting him would be bad for the league? Hmmmm!
Davis is right that the Pelicans, back in action on Thursday against the Thunder (8 p.m. ET -- watch on fuboTV), were uninterested, but it's ridiculous to act like this was just an off-night or an example of running into a team that is particularly motivated to make the playoffs. New Orleans is in a strange and awkward situation, and it is hard to see how this farce, as The Advocate's Scott Kushner called it, is better for the NBA than simply sending Davis home.
10 more stray thoughts: Bruno! … I can't stop looking at Boban making Al Horford look like he's my height … Markieff Morris is easily the most fascinating buyout guy … Alex Abrines' exit went under the radar, and I hope he's OK … Another story that got lost in deadline mania: Boylen's coming back, baby …Joakim Noah is "at peace in my life," he says … Toronto is getting Jeremy Lin at the perfect time, and I can't help but think the Sixers could have used him … Speaking of the Sixers, Brett Brown talking about not having the chance to really coach Markelle Fultz was sad … Absolutely savage stuff from Dennis Smith Jr. … Look at Swaggy P.
All statistics accurate as of games played on Feb. 12.