Mark’s Brewers Offseason Lens

Much of the pain from the Milwaukee Brewers’ season coming to a halt in Game 7 of the NLCS has subsided. Brewers fans should be able to find solace in the fact that their team likely would not have been able to extend the World Series beyond the 5 games the Dodgers managed. Luckily, baseball is punched in 24/7/365. Unlike the other major professional sports, there exists no lame duck period between end-of-season and offseason in Major League Baseball. The split second Manny Machado swung and missed at a slider in the dirt, baseball’s offseason had commenced, and we’ve already seen a few moves such as the Cardinals re-signing Adam Wainwright. It’s very evident some marked improvement needs to occur to result in the Brewers reaching the pinnacle, but the window is fortunately wide open. A high percentage of such improvement in the Crew’s deprived areas can come from in-house solutions, as I’ll note, but not all. As the Brewers’ hypothetical totalitarian personnel decision-maker, I map out my own realistic offseason scenario while remaining within the club’s economical parameters. First, however, is an examination of where exactly Milwaukee is coming up short.

PAIN POINTS

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Less strikeouts offensively
Although unlike the previous two seasons in which Milwaukee set new offensive strikeout records, the Brewers still whiffed more than the vast majority of the league, finishing 2018 with the sixth-worst strikeout rate in baseball. As I have previously pointed out on this marvelous website, fewer strikeouts and postseason success are strongly correlated. The 2018 Red Sox are the latest illustration. While the regular season is a marathon, the postseason is a sprint. Many will point to the obvious in the Game 7 loss, being the mere 2 innings from Jhoulys Chacin and the runs surrendered by Jeremy Jeffress, while the blame should rest on the lineup’s 1 run and 14 K’s. The Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich additions did make the Brewers offense more multi-dimensional throughout the season, and their disappearing acts at times during the playoffs are not things that easily can be prepared for. With some creative roster manipulation, both in-house and elsewhere, the Brewers can cheaply minimize the whiffs without sacrificing OPS, which is the driving force behind the majority of my suggested transactions. A perfect example would be the strict platooning at 1B of Travis Shaw (vs. RHP) and Jesus Aguilar (vs. LHP). Due to Eric Thames’ offensive meltdown, Jesus Aguilar was pressurized into everyday at-bats in the middle of the Brewers’ order. Aguilar’s ideal role as an everyday Major League is as an American League DH. He clearly eroded in the season’s 2nd half, with no signs of a second wind in the postseason having never played that number of games. This was particularly transparent in his uncompetitive at-bats against right-handed pitching. Shaw, after a glimmer of hope against lefties in 2017, reverted to habits that booted him out of Boston with at-bats that were likewise ugly and uncompetitive. The beauty of a strict positional timeshare is the ability to secretly replicate star-level production as the Los Angeles Dodgers did so masterfully across the diamond this past year. In a vacuum, based purely off extrapolated 2018 numbers, a Shaw/Aguilar platoon timeshare at first base would have looked as so, compared to how the Brewers’ first base position actually fared in relation to the rest of the league. The results are, dare I say, GAUDY.

2018 (MLB Rank) Shaw/Aguilar Platoon (MLB Rank)
OBP .343 (9th) .366 (6th)
SLG .526 (3rd) .535 (1st)
OPS .869 (4th) .901 (2nd)
BB% 10.5% (10th) 13.5% (2nd)
K% 25.7% (27th) 19.4% (6th)

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More strikeouts from starting staff
While avoiding K’s on one end, creating K’s on the other should be prioritized. Brewers starting pitchers in 2018 ranked just 20th in baseball in K/9 at 7.65. While I’ve been vocal since season’s end that starting pitching is not this organization’s chief preeminence, the Brewers may have an issue they can get out in front of before it ever flares up. Milwaukee starters pitched to an MLB-low .266 BABIP (batting average on balls in play), a number that can largely be attributed to baseball’s top overall defensive range by many metrics. Yet, this value is alarmingly low to not assume any convergence will take place in 2019. The most logical resolution would be to avoid allowing balls in play altogether. Corbin Burnes has long been viewed by those within the Brewers organization as not only the team’s future ace, but one of the best arms in the bigs. He, along with the hopeful return of 2017 workhorse Jimmy Nelson, ostensibly would ameliorate the situation, in addition to a raffle ticket I’ll highlight shortly.

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Right-handed power production
An arch nemesis of the Brewers lineup all season was left-handed pitching, which rose to a head against the lefty-dominant Dodgers starting rotation. Travis Shaw, though he homered off Alex Wood, was rendered almost useless for half the NLCS. Large-scale run creation from the right side of the plate came primarily courtesy of Jesus Aguilar, whose regular at-bats eventually became part of the problem.

TRADES

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1B/OF Eric Thames to NYY for SP Sonny Gray and Cash
This hypothetical swap would undoubtedly fall into the trades-that-make-complete-sense bucket. It’s a 1-for-1 lottery ticket exchange of players with a final year remaining before unrestricted free agency that not only would benefit from the change of scenery, but also would land themselves in ideal situations to capitalize on a contract year. Both Thames, after an abysmal stretch run, and Gray, being relegated to the bullpen, have fallen out of favor in their current homes, so much so that neither was named to their respective team’s postseason roster. Buzz has surrounded the Brewers’ linkage to Gray for upwards of a year now, mainly due to the presence of Derek Johnson. The Brewers’ pitching coach and Gray’s former college coach, already with a laundry list of reclamation projects on his resume in a mere three seasons on the job, could be the silver magic bullet for the former first round pick’s path to success. Gray was still able to pitch to an 8.5 K/9 in 2018, an aforementioned issue for Brewer starters. Additionally, his 4.17 FIP and the Yankees’ at-times sloppy infield defense indicate some misfortune on his part, which is nothing the Brewers, being DRS fiends, cannot solve. Gray is expected to earn approximately $9M in his final arbitration year, while Thames would find himself playing in a ballpark tailor made for his swing.

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3B Lucas Erceg and IF Dylan Moore to TEX for IF Jurickson Profar
Considering Profar should make in the neighborhood of $3M in 2019 and the fact that the acquisition of his services wouldn’t require an outlandish return, the decision to part ways with Mike Moustakas is unpretentious. Profar, based on 2018 numbers, is actually a slight OPS upgrade over Moustakas while prospectively costing $12M less. He’s been dangled by the Rangers in potential deals for seemingly 5 years now. At last putting together a fully healthy season, Profar, astonishingly still only 25, displayed vast progression at the plate this season that likely went unnoticed. His 9.1% BB% and 14.1% K% should particularly be attractive to Milwaukee. Another plus? He’s a switch hitter with indiscernible platoon splits, positional versatility, two years of club control, and plenty of room to grow.

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SP Chase Anderson to SD for RP Phil Maton and OF Buddy Reed
Chase Anderson had a really weird season. His .226 opponents’ BA doesn’t exactly coincide with a 3.93 ERA, mostly due to an NL-high 30 home runs allowed. All in all, not half bad, but several ERA estimators indicate he was one of the worst pitchers in baseball in 2018. Anderson was unable to maintain his velocity spike from 2017, tried implementing a cutter that became incredibly pervasive to his success, and his changeup’s effectiveness went by the wayside. Permitting the long ball was the biggest bugaboo for pre-breakout Chase, so it does not exactly indicate he and Miller Park will continue to mesh if old habits are dying hard. The San Diego Padres find themselves in an intriguing position. It’s a franchise crawling out of a deep rebuild, but the Padres’ scheme is very close to actualizing, and an Atlanta Braves-esque early arrival is not out of the question. The flyball-heavy Anderson would pitch well to Petco Park’s marine layer. In an extremely rough appraisal, eyeballing ballpark factor and HR/FB rates would put Anderson’s ERA at roughly 3.30 if half his games were played in San Diego.

FREE AGENT SIGNINGS

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SP Wade Miley – 2 years, $15.5M
These were the exact same parameters for Jhoulys Chacin’s deal last winter. I believe adding a second year would lock up a return to Milwaukee for Miley. After all, this is the organization the revived his career. Miley’s propensity to induce weak contact on the left side of the infield and avoid right field fly balls could be captivating for a team like the Yankees, which would naturally be bad news for the Brewers. However, my gut tells me Miley turns down the larger payday in favor of helping retain Milwaukee’s ever-unquantifiable culture.

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IF/OF Marwin Gonzalez – 3 years, $20M
My ideal heir at second base would be free-agent-to-be Jed Lowrie, but all signs point to a return to Oakland for him. Marwin Gonzalez, on the other hand, more conforms to the defensive maneuverability theme with his ability to play anywhere. His breakout bat in 2017 coerced himself into everyday at-bats, but the Houston Astros only had room in left field. It’s been forgotten that Gonzalez is a natural shortstop that has posted only one negative-dWAR season in his career. Either way, as we saw particularly in the second half of 2018, second base is a position the Brewers can successfully hide. Also, Gonzalez’s super utility capability could come in handy if a July arrival of Keston Hiura is in the cards.

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C Yasmani Grandal – 2 years, $18M
This likely comes to the chagrin of Brewer fans who don’t have all the facts. After Grandal’s atrocious NLCS, convincing the masses he suffered from a simple case of the yips is an uphill climb. Enter nerd power. Adjusted Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA Adj) is a holistic metric encapsulating how well a catcher frames pitches, blocks balls, and throws to bases. With a value of 16.3, Grandal, believe it or not, was the best defensive catcher in baseball during the 2018 regular season. In fact, he can be found among the top five of this category each of the past 4 seasons. In reality, separating the signal from the noise, Grandal is remarkably consistent behind the dish. If the Brewers brass is willing to look beyond this noise from recent weeks, his 121 OPS+ from such an offensively-dry position collectively across baseball would be indispensable.

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IF Jung Ho Kang – 1 year, $3.5M
Provided he is non-tendered by Pittsburgh, Kang is one of Major League Baseball’s ultimate fliers this winter, and I’d prefer to solely speak about what the 31 year old can provide on the diamond. His career .837 OPS has been consigned to oblivion by his South Korean jail detour. The pure-hitting Kang in Milwaukee can range anywhere from an infield insurance policy to a potential All-Star if thrust into an everyday role.

OTHER NOTES

  • It’s reasonable to expect some level of regression offensively from MVP candidate Lorenzo Cain. We’ll have to wait until 2019 to find out whether or not Cain, entering his age 33 season, actually turned over a new leaf with his plate discipline renaissance after his previous OBP career high was .363. While Christian Yelich, on the other hand, has never produced at the level he did in 2018, there’s reason to believe his post-ASB eruption is sustainable for the long haul. With a swing so conducive to creating backspin, Yelich, historically an exit velocity darling, learned to elevate the ball more often, resulting in a near-triple crown.
  • With a plethora of cheaper alternatives on the market, the Brewers have no reason to tender second baseman Jonathan Schoop, who is projected to earn $10M in his final year of arbitration. Aside from a 2017 All-Star campaign, streakiness has followed Schoop throughout his professional career, and Milwaukee unfortunately saw that up close and personal. The Brewers acquired the free-swinger in an unnecessary, un-Strearns-like rental deal. This would be nothing more than good-bye and good riddance.
  • Orlando Arcia saved his job with a spectacular October performance, but that does not mean his leash entering 2019 can’t be short. Sources connected to the Brewers organization say the team once felt Mauricio Dubon was the better overall option at shortstop, but a torn ACL has placed those sentiments on hold. Year-in-year-out production from Arcia comparable to his 2017 season would cement himself as a franchise cornerstone.
  • Middle relief is perhaps the most replaceable aspect of a baseball team. Joakim Soria for $10M is a no-go, chief. The $25M saved from Soria and Mike Moustakas to walking away from mutual options will be invested in the above free agents and the multitude of controlled players hitting arbitration.
  • Unfortunately for Stephen Vogt, whose career may in fact be over, and Erik Kratz, contracts were not tendered in this scenario. Both, of course, have been integral to Milwaukee’s clubhouse vibe, but the Brewers cannot reach their aspirations without lengthening their lineup. Kratz cannot offer that, and we’re still unsure if Vogt can throw a baseball.
  • There is likely not room for both Xavier Cedeno and Dan Jennings on the Brewers’ roster in 2019. Both lefty specialists are entering their final year of arbitration expecting to earn the same amount. Cedeno makes the cut here. Whichever doesn’t is probably as a result of a non-tender.
  • Matt Albers will be released. Gio Gonzalez and Curtis Granderson will not be re-signed.
  • Junior Guerra’s late-season success as a multi-inning reliever suggest that is where his future lies. He will be entering his first arbitration year.
  • In an alternate universe, Chase Anderson, Freddy Peralta, and Zach Davies are all retained at the big league level and the Brewers’ postseason pitching staff approach is fully implemented moving forward, with 8-9 “openers” appointed 3-4 innings of work an outing. Manager Craig Counsell, himself, has openly stated this is a possibility. The difficulty of maintaining such a philosophy for 162 games goes without being said. Davies may fall victim to a lack of available real estate, while Peralta’s command and third pitch need sculpting, landing both in AAA.
  • This scenario’s transactions are not the flashiest, but they will more consistently create runs. No singular needle-mover exists on the market at a reasonable cost for the Brewers this offseason. Milwaukee’s needle-mover lies within its own organization. Top 5 prospect Keston Hiura’s hit tool is about as advanced as they come for a player his age. The second baseman could be on track to arrive in late-June/early-July of 2019. Based on what we’ve seen from his plate approach and spray charts, Jose Altuve-type production at the big league level in the near future is a plausible expectation.

FINAL ROSTER PROGNOSIS

LINEUP PITCHING STAFF
CF Lorenzo Cain SP Jhoulys Chacin
RF Christian Yelich SP Wade Miley
LF Ryan Braun SP Corbin Burnes
1B Travis Shaw/Jesus Aguilar SP Sonny Gray
C Yasmani Grandal SP Jimmy Nelson
3B Jurickson Profar LRP Junior Guerra
2B Marwin Gonzalez MRP Jeremy Jeffress
SS Orlando Arcia MRP Xavier Cedeno
BENCH MRP Taylor Williams
C Manny Pina SU Josh Hader
1B Travis Shaw/Jesus Aguilar SU Brandon Woodruff
IF Jung Ho Kang CP Corey Knebel
IF/OF Hernan Perez
OF Domingo Santana
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Mid-Season Review: The Milwaukee Bucks

The Milwaukee Bucks will enter the “second half” of the season after the All-Star break Friday night with a 32-25 record, sitting 6th in the East with 25 games left to play. Given expectations before the season, only being 1 game out of the 4 seed and being on pace for 46 wins, an improvement from 42 last year, might lead someone to believe that the Bucks have been playing pretty good basketball.  However, this team has had to make a plethora of adjustments in season because of trades, injuries, and a coaching controversy that lingered over the franchise for much of the season. As a result, the Bucks are probably lucky to have the record that they have, as they have not played up to the talent they possess, which is shown by their efficiency differential (points scored per 100 possessions minus points allowed per 100 possessions).

Per cleaningtheglass.com (where all efficiency, lineup, on/off, and specific offense/defense stats in this article are from; Ben Falk does a great job on his site, go subscribe!), the Bucks have an efficiency differential of -.3 points/100 possessions, implying they have only played like a team that would have a 28-29 record, which would be on pace for 40 wins and most likely missing the playoffs. While this is cause for concern if the Bucks continue to play the way they have, it can also be promising if they start playing up to their potential and finish the season with more wins than they should have otherwise.

Trades

Now let’s dive a little deeper into the changes the Bucks have endured this season, starting with trades.  The big trade the Bucks made took place on November 7th when they unloaded Greg Monroe’s expiring contract, their 2018 protected first round pick, and their 2018 protected second round pick to the Suns for Eric Bledsoe. While there have been some growing pains incorporating another high usage player into the lineup, returns have been mostly positive in the 46 games Bledsoe has played with the Bucks this year.

After a poor 4-6 start to the season accompanied by a -3.8 efficiency differential, the Bucks have a positive efficiency differential of +.4 since the trade, which still implies the Bucks have still overperformed, but it is an improvement when compared to the full season metric. The Bucks are also +12.3 points/100 possessions better when Bledsoe is on the court compared to when he is off the court, which ranks in the 96th percentile among all players. While his three-point shooting has been inconsistent, only hitting 32.3% of his threes with the Bucks, and he is turnover prone, ranking only in the 43rd percentile among point guards in turnover percentage, his impact in transition and on defense is evident.

Bledsoe’s on/off court numbers for points added in transition/100 possessions and opponent’s effective field goal percentage (eFG%, which adjusts a player’s FG% to account for the extra point threes are worth) rank in the 94th and 91st percentiles, respectively. There are some other circumstances that we will touch on later that may be influencing these numbers, but overall it looks like that despite his flaws Bledsoe has had a positive impact on the Bucks.

The other trade the Bucks made this year was acquiring Tyler Zeller from the Nets for Rashad Vaughn and a second-round pick. While it is never ideal giving up a draft asset for short term piece who will have a minimal effect on the team this season, the Bucks have needed extra size inside after trading Monroe, Thon Maker’s underwhelming season, and with John Henson battling an injured right hamstring. Given that second round picks can be bought fairly easily, the Bucks must have felt that parting with one was worth gaining some depth inside, putting less of a burden on the few other bigs on the roster.

Injuries

Henson is just one minor example of the injuries that the Bucks have been plagued with all season. Matthew Dellavedova, Tony Snell, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Mirza Teletovic, Malcolm Brogdon, and Bledsoe are all key pieces of Milwaukee’s rotation to have missed some time this year. While most of those have been minor injuries, a couple have been longer term.

Teletovic has only played 10 games this season after suffering a knee injury early in the season, and then was diagnosed with a pulmonary emboli in both lungs and has been out indefinitely ever since. The Bucks have missed his floor spacing around Giannis, as the team was +8.3 points/100 possessions better last year when the two were on the court. There has not been an update on Teletovic since his diagnosis in mid-December, so it does not appear likely that he will return any time soon.

The other significant injury suffered this season was a partially torn left quad to Brogdon on February 1, facing a 6-8 week recovery and putting a potential return around mid to late March. Without the reigning Rookie of the Year, the Bucks are short on backcourt depth as Brogdon has played a key role off the bench ever since Milwaukee acquired Bledsoe.

The main piece of the Buck’s core to miss time this year though is Jabari Parker, who made his season debut on February 2 after sitting out the team’s first 50 games after tearing his left ACL last season, the second ACL tear in that knee in his short NBA career. While Parker is still being incorporated into the lineup as he has only played an average of 17.7 minutes of the bench in six games this year, he has look good physically, being his aggressive self on offense and even attempting to posterize Kyle O’Quinn in his first game back.

Jabari was putting up career numbers before the injury last year, averaging 20.1 PPG and 6.2 RPG while shooting 49% from the field and 36.5% from three. Although Jabari’s net rating was -4.8 points/100 possessions last year, the Bucks never had a chance to have their entire core on the court together as Jabari tore his ACL on the same day that Khris Middleton made his return from an injury that had kept him out all season previously. With such a small sample size this season, no conclusions can be drawn from his play so far but how the Bucks fair with Parker and at least two of Middleton, Antetokounmpo and Bledsoe all out on the court together will be something to watch going forward. Parker’s ability to stay healthy and produce on the court will have a big impact long term on the upside of this Bucks roster as currently constructed as well, especially if he can make strides to improve defensively where he has struggled thus far.

Coaching

The Jason Kidd tenure in Milwaukee was a roller coaster ride from day one, as his failed attempt to gain basketball operation control in Brooklyn led to the Bucks trading two second round picks to make him their coach. Everything was looking good that first season as the Bucks finished a surprising 41-41 only one year after having a league worst 15-67 record. The big reason for that improvement was a result of the Bucks having the fourth best defense in the league that year, giving up only 102.2 points/100 possessions. This was spearheaded by Kidd’s new defensive scheme, featuring the Bucks using their length and athleticism to blitz pick and rolls, trapping whenever they could, and forcing as many turnovers as possible, finishing first in opponent turnover percentage that year.

In the following years teams quickly figured out Kidd’s scheme. The system requires players to essentially execute perfectly every possession, seeing as a rotation being even a half second late can lead to a wide open three or dunk. The Bucks did just that in the following three years as the NBA moved towards positionless basketball, putting better athletes on the court and emphasizing ball movement and floor spacing. After that first season the Bucks continued to force turnovers at a high rate, but they fell from fourth to 13th in opponent’s FG% at the rim in the following two seasons and from fifth to 26th and 15th in opponent’s 3pt% respectively. As a result, in 15-16 and 16-17 the Bucks’ opponent eFG% had fallen from ninth to 19th and 21st, and subsequently their fourth best defense plummeted to 23rd and 20th respectively.

Things reached its boiling point this season, as the Bucks ranked 25th in defense while giving up the most shots in the league at the rim and allowing the second best 3pt% in the league. There were many other questions involving Kidd’s coaching ability as well. His rotations did not make sense much of the time, as he played DeAndre Liggins 14.9 MPG in 30 games before he was waived. Liggins ranked in the third percentile (not good) among wings in eFG% and the Bucks’ efficiency differential was -16.2 points/100 possessions when Liggins was on the court compared to off it. Coaching decisions such as playing the starters heavy minutes, intentionally fouling when up four, and having Middleton intentionally miss a free throw when up three, among many others, led to the creation of #FireKidd among Bucks Twitter. Every game was overly scrutinized, and there was a (deservedly) negative cloud surrounding any conversation involving the Bucks as they were playing poorly and the #FireKidd movement grew.

After losing four of five games and sitting at just 23-22 and the 8 seed in the East, Bucks fans finally got their wish as Jason Kidd was fired on January 22. Joe Prunty has taken over as the interim coach, and has led the Bucks to a 9-3 record with the third best defense and sixth best efficiency differential over that stretch. Granted, the strength of schedule over that stretch was fairly weak (in their 9 wins their opponents are a combined 146-259 while their 3 losses are all to above .500 teams), it is promising that they are putting away bad teams, something they were not doing consistently under Kidd. Prunty is employing a slightly less aggressive defensive scheme, and while the numbers are surely inflated due to poor competition, the Bucks appear to be in better shape going forward without questions always surrounding Kidd.

Giannis

While everything up to this point is important, the Bucks’ overall success ultimately lies with how far Giannis Antetokounmpo can carry them. The reason why it can be hard to interpret Bledsoe’s and other Bucks player’s numbers is because of how great Giannis’ impact is when he’s on the court. The 23-year-old two-time All-Star is averaging a career high 27.8 points and 10.4 rebounds per game to go along with 4.8 assists per game, making a legitimate case behind James Harden to finish in the top 2 of the MVP race. As ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz noted in his article about the MVP race (where he ranks Giannis #2 overall), “Since 1965, only five players have compiled a 25-10-5 baseline, and every one of them — Westbrook, Barkley, Bird, Abdul-Jabbar and Chamberlain — won the award.” While Giannis sports an eFG% of 55.6% that only ranks in the 53rd percentile among bigs, that number is largely driven by Giannis shooting 38% of his shots from the mid-range, where he is only shooting 36% from the field. However, he is still thriving at the rim, shooting 73% there.

Antetokounmpo’s impact can fully be seen when looking at how the Bucks perform when he is on the court compared to when he is off it. The Bucks are +14.7 points/100 possessions better when Giannis is on the court, ranking in the 97th percentile among all players. When Giannis is off the court the Bucks have an efficiency differential of -11.1, which would rank in the seventh percentile among all lineups that have played at least 100 possessions. Even when the other two of the Bucks’ “Big Three” in Bledsoe and Middleton are on the court, the Bucks still sport a -4.5 differential with Giannis off the court, which would rank in the 25th percentile. With Giannis it’s truly a “Big One” and then everyone else behind him. The Bucks will need to start playing better when he’s off the court for this team to take the next leap forward.

Playoff Hopes

The Bucks will now look to continue their hot start under Prunty as they push for playoff positioning. The East playoff race is tight this year, with the Bucks being only 1 game back of Washington for the 4 seed and 1.5 games ahead of Miami for the 8 seed. There is a little cushion (4 games) between them and Detroit for the 9 seed, so if they play .500 basketball the rest of the way they should make the playoffs. The schedule gets harder in the upcoming days, with 7 of their next 8 games coming against teams above .500, and the ninth game is vs Detroit. If the Bucks can endure this stretch the rest of the season gets a bit easier, as they will push for the 4 seed to get home court advantage for the first time since 2001 when the original Big Three of Ray Allen, Sam Cassell, and Glenn Robinson went to the Eastern Conference Finals. Getting out of the first round this year will be a good start to making it back to the conference finals and beyond.

Offseason Questions

Where the Bucks finish in the standing will also have an impact on their offseason. The first round pick the Bucks sent to Phoenix to acquire Bledsoe is protected 11-16 this season, so the Bucks will need to keep playing well to keep their pick. While this year’s draft is considered pretty weak outside the lottery, the Bucks won’t have any cap space going forward, making a young player on a cheap contract even more important.

The Bucks cap situation becomes even more interesting when considering that Jabari is a restricted free agent and will be looking for a long-term deal. After the summer of 2016 when so many big money, long-term contracts were signed that haven’t worked out (including the Bucks who gave significant money to Teletovic, Dellavedova, and Miles Plumlee), teams no longer have the cap space that was once so plentiful less than two years ago. With fewer teams with large amounts of cap space it’ll be interesting to see how the market for restricted free agency plays out, as players may be forced to resign to more team friendly deals or role the dice and bet on themselves by taking the qualifying offer to become an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2019.

After looking at this great graphic made by Frank Madden (@fmaddenNBA) the Bucks go into the offseason already over the salary cap and sit $15.4 million below the luxury tax. The Bucks will most likely want to avoid the tax, so they will have a tight window on how much they can offer Jabari barring a trade. Offloading one of their bad contracts would require them to attach an asset, so that seems unlikely. As Frank notes in that tweet, Teletovic’s $10.5 million contract will be entering its final season, so it may have some value as an expiring contract to be moved. Ultimately, I would guess that the Bucks pay Jabari what they feel is fair and what he is worth even if there are no other suitors given that he is such a high character individual. If he stays healthy and keeps progressing, somewhere around 4/$60 million seems like a realistic deal, fitting in right below the luxury tax, although I wouldn’t be surprised if they try to make some sort of move to gain some more breathing room.

The head coach of the Bucks going forward will also be a question this offseason, as GM Jon Horst did not commit to keeping Prunty as the head coach longer than the end of this season. While Prunty will most likely get an interview and be considered for the job, Milwaukee will surely open up its search to find the best option around the league. The position should be in high demand as the Bucks have one of the best young cores in the NBA led by Giannis who is on his way to becoming the best player in the league in the near future.

With so many questions still looming about the Bucks future, they still have a ways to go before they can make the jump to becoming a perennial title contender. As long as one of the future GOATs in Giannis is at the helm, however, this quote from THE GOAT says it all: “The ceiling is the roof.”

2017-18 OOWF Preseason College Basketball Top 25

Caroline

25. Nevada

G Lindsey Drew (Jr.)

G Kendall Stephens (Sr.)

F Cody Martin (Jr.)

F Jordan Caroline (Jr.)

F Elijah Foster (Sr.)

Bench: F Caleb Martin (Jr.), G Josh Hall (So.), G Hallice Cooke (Sr.), F Darien Williams (Sr.)

Head Coach Eric Musselman has swiftly established Nevada as the new transfer epicenter of college basketball, especially since Fred Hoiberg bolted for the professional ranks. The acquisitions of Marcus Marshall (Missouri State) and Jordan Caroline (Southern Illinois) last season were wildly successful. Caroline is still in Reno for another two years, and he is now flanked by five more high-major transfers. Naturally, transfers lowering their level of competition generally see an uptick in production. Kendall Stephens (Purdue) will have the greenest of lights on the wing. The Martin twins (NC State) combine with Caroline and Josh Hall to present Musselman with an embarrassment of riches in terms of versatility. Hallice Cooke (Iowa State) has escaped the doghouse in Ames to stabilize the second unit. The Wolf Pack fittingly bowed out in the first round at the hands of Iowa State in the 2017 NCAA Tournament, the school they are replacing as Transfer U. A sneaky good offensive squad last season should again go dancing and threaten to reach the Sweet 16.

ECMatthews

24. Rhode Island

G Jarvis Garrett (Sr.)

G Jared Terrell (Sr.)

G E.C. Matthews (Sr.)

F Cyril Langevine (So.)

F Andre Berry (Sr.)

Bench: G Jeff Dowtin (So.), G Stanford Robinson (Sr.), F Nicola Akele (Jr.), G Fatts Russell (Fr.), F Ryan Preston (Jr.)

The Rams hit their stride at exactly the right time in 2016-17, fulfilling their preseason promise and nearly extending the Pac-12’s Final Four drought after leading Oregon in the Round of 32 for 35 minutes. Dan Hurley will seek to replace the production of the departed Kuran Iverson and rim protector extraordinaire Hassan Martin, but may have found his answers in that narrow miss against the Ducks. Stanford Robinson and Cyril Langevine combined to go 14-16 from the field, scoring all 30 of Rhody’s bench points. They will certainly see an increase in minutes. At the end of the day, the senior-laden Rams have a similar makeup as last year and are the favorites in the A-10 next to St. Bonaventure.

MoBamba

23. Texas

G Matt Coleman (Fr.)

G Kerwin Roach (Jr.)

G Andrew Jones (So.)

F Dylan Osetkowski (Jr.)

C Mo Bamba (So.)

Bench: G Eric Davis, Jr. (Jr.), G Jacob Young (So.), F Jericho Sims (Fr.), G Jase Febres (Fr.), F Royce Hamm (Fr.)

Texas historically has been a destination for high-profile center recruits. Mo Bamba is next in line, and he by far owns the best physical gifts of any Texas big man stretching all the way back to LaMarcus Aldridge. A shoe-in for a top 10 pick next summer, Bamba will anchor Shaka Smart’s defense while also displaying a budding offensive skillset. That said, Bamba may not actually be Smart’s most essential addition to his team. The Longhorns last season were able to make games ugly with ease, partially due to their glaring lack of a point guard. Freshman Matt Coleman sets foot in Austin to solve Shaka’s big bugaboo, returning Texas from its brief hiatus from relevance.

CarsenEdwards

22. Purdue

G P.J. Thompson (Sr.)

G Carsen Edwards (So.)

G Dakota Mathias (Sr.)

F Vince Edwards (Sr.)

C Isaac Haas (Sr.)

Bench: G Ryan Cline (Jr.), F Nojel Eastern (Fr.), F Jacquil Taylor (Jr.), C Matt Haarms (Fr.)

The production of Caleb Swanigan is impossible to replicate. The First Team All-American was likely the nation’s most effective offensive player last season. Purdue, however, can still survive with their current roster. Dakota Mathias and Vince Edwards are as good of perimeter defenders as you’ll find in college basketball. Sophomore Carsen Edwards is a premier breakout candidate, and his unconsciousness will account for a good chunk of the scoring vacated by Swanigan. The success of the Boilermakers as a whole will hinge on minutes at the 5, particularly the ones Isaac Haas is (or isn’t) capable of providing. Throughout his career a high-usage player when on the floor, Haas has yet to resolve his foul trouble issues heading into year four. That can be assisted by better reading and passing out of double teams, which Swanigan was so deft at. That will help clean up the avoidable offensive fouls, and Haas really has no choice being surrounded by knockdown 3-point shooters.

26_5168994

21. Virginia

G Ty Jerome (So.)

G Kyle Guy (So.)

G Devon Hall (Sr.)

F Isaiah Wilkins (Sr.)

F Mamadi Diakite (So.)

Bench: G Nigel Johnson (Sr.), F De’Andre Hunter (Fr.), F Jay Huff (Fr.), C Jack Salt (Jr.)

The mundane Virginia Cavaliers. Tony Bennett is probably elated with finally being unranked in the AP Poll to begin the season. The new faces this season are in his starting backcourt. Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy in a couple years will be one of the best guard tandems in the nation. At the moment, they are entering their second season together. Last season each had his fair share of moments; Jerome against Villanova, Guy against North Carolina. Both are sharpshooters with polar opposite personalities, impeccably blended with the senior guidance of Devon Hall. Speaking of Hall, he and Malcolm Brogdon are prime examples of why few programs utilize the freshman redshirt year as well as Virginia. Redshirt freshmen De’Andre Hunter and Jay Huff were both consensus top 100 recruits in the 2016 class and spent last season incubating and adding weight. It might not exactly be business as usual for the Cavaliers, but still expect Tony Bennett’s team to land towards the top of the ACC again.

Davison

20. Wisconsin

G D’Mitrik Trice (So.)

G Brevin Pritzl (So.)

F Khalil Iverson (Jr.)

F Andy Van Vliet (Jr.)

F Ethan Happ (Jr.)

Bench: G Brad Davison (Fr.), G Kobe King (Fr.), F Aleem Ford (Fr.), F Charlie Thomas (Jr.), F Nate Reuvers (Fr.)

You all know me well enough, so this shouldn’t come as a surprise. It’s a stark contrast from last season’s collection of grizzled vets that led the nation in minutes continuity (86.6%), which without question is why the Badgers find themselves on the outside looking in at the consensus preseason polls. Similar to the 2013-14 Final Four team, Wisconsin’s foreign tour could not have come in preparation for a better season. Four new starters will hit the Kohl Center floor Friday, but the Badgers’ best players not named Ethan Happ will actually be the first men off the bench. Freshman guards Brad Davison and Kobe King will allow Wisconsin to have one of the best second units in all of college basketball, and it shouldn’t come as a shock if one, or both, slithers into the starting lineup at some point this season. Look for Greg Gard’s club to shatter the school record for 3-point attempts this season, whatever that may be. With the amount of double teams Ethan Happ will see on the low block and the willing passer that he is, open looks from distance won’t be too difficult to come by. Happ has proven his ability to look opposite and find the open man, leading Wisconsin in assists last year with countless more hockey assists. The true target year for this Wisconsin roster is 2019, but you’d be foolish to leave the Badgers out of your Big Ten top four as a bountiful amount of writers have done leading up to the 2017-18 tip-off.

Big 12 Basketball Tournament - First Round

19. TCU

G Alex Robinson (Jr.)

G Jaylen Fisher (So.)

G Kenrich Williams (Sr.)

F J.D. Miller (Jr.)

F Vladimir Brodziansky (Sr.)

Bench: G Desmond Bane (So.), F Ahmed Hamdy (Sr.), F Kouat Noi (Fr.), C Kevin Samuel (Fr.), G Shawn Olden (Jr.)

Jamie Dixon’s tenure at Pittsburgh was underscored by the inescapable lack of a Final Four, which is almost intolerable considering some of the teams he put together in the Big East. There still is no denying that Dixon is one of the best offensive minds out there, and his alma mater reaped the benefits almost immediately upon his arrival. He quickly transformed an anemic team on the offensive end of the floor to the 37th best in 2016-17. Some tough luck losses held the Horned Frogs out of the NCAA Tournament, but their Big 12 Tournament Second Round upset of Kansas and NIT title were indications of what will arrive this season, as Dixon returns almost all of his production and looks to return TCU to the dance for the first time since 1998.

Bruce

18. Miami (FL)

G Bruce Brown (So.)

G Ja’Quan Newton (Sr.)

G Lonnie Walker (Fr.)

F Anthony Lawrence (Jr.)

F Dewan Huell (So.)

Bench: G Dejan Vasiljevic (So.), C Ebuka Izundu (Jr.), G Chris Lykes (Fr.), F Sam Waardenburg (Fr.)

Jim Larranaga has assembled the undisputed most athletic, dynamic trio of guards in the country. Many expect Bruce Brown’s second year in South Beach to be his last, as he will likely be a first round pick next June. He, Ja’Quan Newton, and Lonnie Walker will be must-see television. Expect Dewan Huell, a former top 20 recruit, to emerge as well. The Hurricanes’ depth is what provides its shooting. Anthony Lawrence and redshirt freshman Sam Waardenburg both fit the stretch four mold and are ideal complements to the explosiveness in the Canes’ backcourt.

DengAdel

17. Louisville

G Quentin Snider (Sr.)

G V.J. King (So.)

F Deng Adel (Jr.)

F Ray Spalding (Jr.)

C Anas Mahmoud (Sr.)

Bench: C Malik Williams (Fr.), G Darius Perry (Fr.), F Dwayne Sutton (So.), F Jordan Nwora (Fr.)

Drowning the elephant in the room is obviously the biggest challenge for interim head coach David Padgett, and frankly the Cardinals would be higher if it weren’t for the distractions “unknowingly” provided by Rick Pitino over the past several years. It remains a vintage Pitino roster filled with length, but it is yet to be seen if the Cards can extend their streak of 7 consecutive seasons with a top 10 defense under Padgett. Shooting is also a serious question mark. Junior wing Deng Adel will be counted on from beyond the arc on a more consistent basis. Plenty of weight will be on his and V.J. King’s shoulders to bear the scoring brunt.

Trevon

16. Xavier

G Quentin Goodin (So.)

G J.P. Macura (Sr.)

F Trevon Bluiett (Sr.)

F Kaiser Gates (Jr.)

F Tyrique Jones (So.)

Bench: F Kerem Kanter (Sr.), F Sean O’Mara (Sr.), F Naji Marshall (Fr.), G Paul Scruggs (Fr.), G Elias Harden (Fr.)

Such an undervalued program Xavier is. The Musketeers have reached four Sweet 16’s since 2010 and have the makeup to accomplish that once again. Indubitably J.P. Macura and Trevon Bluiett provide on-court leadership, but Chris Mack has a horde of breakout candidates and could strike gold if he connects on all of them. Quentin Goodin has excellent size and athleticism for a lead guard, filling in admirable for an injured Edmond Sumner last season. Kaiser Gates should at last become the bona fide stretch four he was destined to be, allowing Tyrique Jones space on the interior to clean up the offensive glass. Mack, additionally, has filled out his bench with yet another rock solid recruiting class, who like Macura and Bluiett will all be four-year players. The beat goes on in Cincinnati.

BryantMcIntosh

15. Northwestern

G Bryant McIntosh (Sr.)

G Scottie Lindsey (Sr.)

F Vic Law (Jr.)

F Aaron Falzon (So.)

C Dererk Pardon (Jr.)

Bench: C Barret Benson (So.), F Gavin Skelly (Sr.), F Rapolas Ivanauskas (Fr.), G Isiah Brown (So.), G Anthony Gaines (Fr.)

Now that we got the feel-good story out of the way, it’s time to real talk Northwestern basketball. The majority of the media made the ’16-’17 Cats out to be a cute underdog narrative, which couldn’t be further from the truth. 2017-18 is the season that has been brewing ever since Vic Law joined a recruiting class already headlined by Bryant McIntosh and Scottie Lindsey. Going from an NCAA Tournament foreigner to Final Four contender in two years is unfathomable, but that’s exactly what Chris Collins has accomplished. Northwestern doesn’t want your applause or pats on the back. They want your respect. They learned how to win last year, and with that experience will become a force to be reckoned with.

LamontWest

14. West Virginia

G Jevon Carter (Sr.)

G Daxter Miles, Jr. (Sr.)

F Esa Ahmad (Jr.)

F Lamont West (So.)

F Sagaba Konate (So.)

Bench: G James Bolden (So.), F Wesley Harris (So.), F D’Angelo Hunter (Jr.), F Teddy Allen (Fr.), G Chase Harler (So.)

Bob Huggins’ squad ameliorated some of its traditional deficiencies last season. They fouled less, shot it better. It amounted to a Sweet 16 visit, but their season was derailed by perhaps one of the worst final possessions in the history of basketball. Half-court offense once again was the Mountaineers’ downfall, and that doesn’t appear to be changing with the personnel continuity in 2017-18. WVU, however, is built to be regular season menaces de novo and is playing something that more resembles an actual basketball schedule prior to Big 12 play. As far as the half-court offense troubles, more minutes from Lamont West should help. He’ll set up in the corner pocket and be utilized in pick-and-pop situations often to alleviate some of the pressure on Jevon Carter in late-clock quandaries.

Hamidou

13. Kentucky

G Quade Green (Fr.)

G Hamidou Diallo (Fr.)

F Kevin Knox (Fr.)

F P.J. Washington (Fr.)

C Nick Richards (Fr.)

Bench: F Wenyen Gabriel (So.), G Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (Fr.), F Jarred Vanderbilt (Fr.), F Sacha Killeya-Jones (So.), G Jemarl Baker (So.), F Tai Wynyard (So.)

As often as John Calipari turns over his roster in Lexington, he has, in fact, never entered an all-freshman starting five into the scorebook. Enter the 2017-18 Wildcats, where that will inevitably change. There should exist some legitimate concern over Kentucky’s lack of outside shooting, which is why I list the Wildcats lower than most. Jemarl Baker, likely the team’s top marksman, underwent knee surgery is out for the foreseeable future. Freshman phenom Jarred Vanderbilt will also begin the season on the shelf. Kentucky’s greatest strength will be its unquestionable defensive versatility. Keeping that in mind, these are freshmen that have to pick up defensive concepts on the move. All in all, Kentucky’s preseason top 5 love is rather unwarranted.

Rui

12. Gonzaga

G Josh Perkins (Jr.)

G Silas Melson (Sr.)

G Corey Kispert (Fr.)

F Rui Hachimura (So.)

F Johnathan Williams (Sr.)

Bench: G Zach Norvell (Fr.), F Killian Tillie (So.), C Jacob Larsen (Fr.), G Joel Ayayi (Fr.)

I was fully prepared to award Gonzaga my preseason #1 honor in January, but how quickly things change. Nigel Williams-Goss had no reason to stay after graduation, and Zach Collins developed into a lottery pick. Plenty of intrigue still surrounds the Bulldogs, however, and it comes in the form of Rui Hachimura. The sophomore, little-used as a freshman, erupted this summer at the FIBA U19 Championships, backpacking an undermanned Japan team. His athletic ability was known, but Hachimura showcased an array of first-round-pick-type skills, attacking the rim off the dribble, knocking down shots off the bounce with regularity, and displaying surprising court savvy. He is one of a handful of newbies to the rotation, but the Zags will be just fine. Zach Norvell and Jacob Larsen were former top 100 recruits, with Norvell, Corey Kispert, and Silas Melson easily filling Jordan Mathews’ shoes. While it appears St. Mary’s might finally supplant Gonzaga in the WCC, Mark Few begs to differ.

BINM

11. Minnesota

G Nate Mason (Sr.)

G Dupree McBrayer (Jr.)

F Amir Coffey (So.)

F Jordan Murphy (Jr.)

C Reggie Lynch (Sr.)

Bench: F Eric Curry (So.), G Isaiah Washington (Fr.), C Bakary Konate (Sr.), G Jamir Harris (Fr.), F Davonte Fitzgerald (Sr.)

At least one Pitino is still viewed in a somewhat positive light. Richard Jr. dug himself out of an 8-win hole in ’15-’16 and transfigured his hot seat into a cool throne. Just like his father’s teams, the defensive end of the floor is his club’s calling card. The Golden Gophers, who ended ’16-’17 with a six-man rotation, will additionally enjoy more depth this season, especially thanks to blue-chip freshman Isaiah Washington. Minnesota had little spot-up shooting last season, and it graduated. Amir Coffey should see a leap in his percentages, and Washington has the capabilities of being a dangerous shotmaker.

Berry

10. North Carolina

G Joel Berry (Sr.)

G Cameron Johnson (Jr.)

F Theo Pinson (Sr.)

F Garrison Brooks (Fr.)

F Luke Maye (Jr.)

Bench: G Kenny Williams (Jr.), G Seventh Woods (So.), G Jalek Felton (Fr.), G Andrew Platek (Fr.), F Sterling Manley (Fr.), C Brandon Huffman (Fr.)

The defending national champs cut down the nets in Phoenix via pace and the offensive glass, and while they have their work cut out for them in 2017-18, Roy Williams has similar roster constructs to years past. Mario Kart has sidelined Joel Berry to begin the season, but that may be a blessing in disguise, giving underclassmen Seventh Woods and Jalek Felton valuable experience running the show. Look forward to March hero Luke Maye and Pittsburgh grad transfer Cameron Johnson to have monster years. For whatever reason, Johnson wasn’t able to receive the minutes he deserved at Pitt before last season. The prototypical wing, Johnson will assuredly earn All-ACC honors. Maye (12.3% OReb Rate, 17.4% DReb Rate), on the other hand, doesn’t look the part, but he, along with a multitude of freshman bigs, is up to the task to duplicating the offensive rebounding dominance evacuated by Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks.

JacobEvans

9. Cincinnati

G Cane Broome (Jr.)

G Jarron Cumberland (So.)

G Jacob Evans (Jr.)

F Gary Clark (Sr.)

F Kyle Washington (Sr.)

Bench: G Justin Jenifer (Jr.), G Keith Williams (Fr.), F Mamadou Diarra (Fr.), F Eliel Nsoseme (Fr.), G Trevor Moore (Fr.)

Initially, the loss of true point guard Troy Caupain felt like a devastating blow to the Bearcats’ prospects for the 2017-18 season. Upon further review, although, Cincinnati and its 57.7 % assist rate last season was one of the most effective teams at sharing the sugar. New point guard Cane Broome is wired to score, but I’m sure Mick Cronin will make his desires clear to the Sacred Heart transfer. Broome has two outstanding wings to work with in Jarron Cumberland and Jacob Evans, the latter being a potential All-American at season’s end. Depth is Cincinnati’s lone roadblock to challenging Wichita State in the American Athletic Conference. Cronin will have to heavily rely on his incoming freshmen in that area, but he has never been one to dole out plenty of bench minutes anyway.

USC v SMU

8. USC

G Jordan McLaughlin (Jr.)

G De’Anthony Melton (So.)

G Elijah Stewart (Sr.)

F Bennie Boatwright (Jr.)

C Chimezie Metu (Jr.)

Bench: G Shaqquan Aaron (Jr.), G Charles O’Bannon, Jr. (Fr.), G Jonah Mathews (So.), F Nik Rakocevic (So.), F Jordan Usher (Fr.)

Andy Enfield’s squad will be eye candy for basketball fans everywhere. The former Florida Gulf Coast Dunk City architect has carried that brand with him to LA, but don’t let the showtime tag fool you. There is far more to this Trojan team than flash. Enfield is a bright dude, and his switch to a 2-3 zone in his team’s upset of SMU last March was a perfect example. USC has all the tools. In ’17-’18 it’s a matter of defending the 3-point line more consistently and completing the equation with defensive rebounds each possession. Their ceiling will be determined by attention to detail.

LandyShamet

7. Wichita State

G Landry Shamet (So.)

G Conner Frankamp (Sr.)

F Markis McDuffie (Jr.)

F Zach Brown (Sr.)

C Shaq Morris (Sr.)

Bench: F Darral Willis, Jr. (Sr.), G Samajae Haynes-Jones (Jr.), F Rashard Kelly (Sr.), C Rauno Nurger (Sr.), G Austin Reaves (So.)

Forever analytics favorites, Wichita State won’t have to leave their potential at-large candidacy up to their KenPom ranking. They now play in the AAC, travel to Baylor, match up with Oklahoma at home, are participating in the Maui Invitational, and have to battle a difficult College of Charleston team. The Shockers will lead the nation in minutes continuity this season. Landry Shamet must not only fend off a broken foot, but also serenades of preseason hype. Markis McDuffie is a possible NBA wing entering year three, and head coach Gregg Marshall has masterfully worked his rotation of bigs in the past, including Madison native Darral Willis.

Graham

6. Kansas

G Devonte Graham (Sr.)

G Malik Newman (So.)

G Lagerald Vick (Jr.)

G Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk (Sr.)

C Udoka Azubuike (So.)

Bench: F Billy Preston (Fr.), G Sam Cunliffe (So.), G Marcus Garrett (Fr.), F Mitch Lightfoot (So.)

Monday I declared Jayhawk point guard Devonte Graham my preseason Player of the Year selection. Small ball worshipers will have a field day whenever Kansas takes the floor. The 4-around-1 look Kansas will mobilize is everything about modern-day basketball and then some. The Jayhawks will be hard to guard, but the defensive end of the floor for them individually offers some challenges. This Kansas lineup is unlike Villanova’s, which is still able to win rebounding battles the majority of the time in spite of their size. Kansas has no choice but to attempt 30 threes per contest to counter the offensive rebounds they will surrender. For these reasons, don’t be surprised if Bill Self places Billy Preston in the starting lineup for good at some point this season.

KeVaughn

5. Florida

G Chris Chiozza (Sr.)

G KeVaughn Allen (Jr.)

G Egor Koulechov (Sr.)

G Jalen Hudson (Jr.)

F Kevarrius Hayes (Jr.)

Bench: C John Egbunu (Sr.), G DeAundrae Ballard (Fr.), F Keith Stone (So.), G Mike Okauru (Fr.)

Gainesville has been home to a top 15 defense for five consecutive seasons, but their net rating will receive a massive shot in the arm this year. A middle-of-the-pack 3-point shooting team last season, Florida adds a pair of transfers in Egor Koulechov (Rice) and Jalen Hudson (Virginia Tech) to make them national title contenders. They have an alpha dog in KeVaughn Allen, whom I still lose sleep over, and a waterbug floor general in Chris Chiozza, whom I still lose sanity over. The Gators also regain John Egbunu from injury, giving them a pair of legitimate rim protectors to supplement stingy perimeter defense. A top 10 offense and defense is not out of the question for Mike White’s team. As a matter of fact, it might actually be expected. Kentucky, I guarantee it, will not sit atop the SEC in 2017-18.

AllonzoTrier

4. Arizona

G Parker Jackson-Cartwright (Sr.)

G Allonzo Trier (Jr.)

G Rawle Alkins (So.)

F Dusan Ristic (Sr.)

C DeAndre Ayton (Fr.)

Bench: G Brandon Randolph (Fr.), F Emmanuel Akot (Fr.), G Alex Barcello (Fr.), F Keanu Pinder (Sr.), F Ira Lee (Fr.)

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Sean Miller has oozing talent in Tuscon. Miller has toys at his disposal that rival those of his teams of three and four years ago. Sean Miller doesn’t make Final Fours, but odds are Wisconsin won’t be standing in his way this time. The Wildcats have scary size up front with Dusan Ristic and DeAndre Ayton, a veteran backcourt, and a youthful bench.

Donte

3. Villanova

G Jalen Brunson (Jr.)

G Phil Booth (Jr.)

G Donte DiVincenzo (So.)

F Mikal Bridges (Jr.)

F Omari Spellman (Fr.)

Bench: F Eric Paschall (Jr.), G Collin Gillespie (Fr.), G Jermaine Samuels (Fr.)

The commonalities between Josh Hart’s game and Donte DiVincenzo’s are striking. The redshirt sophomore is primed to announce himself as college basketball’s ultimate glue guy, following the same career trajectory as Hart, now with the Los Angeles Lakers. Jay Wright’s small ball lineups are deceiving. The Wildcats play much bigger than gameday pamphlets indicate, but have all the positive qualities of modern-day death lineups on the offensive end. The nation’s most consistent program over the past four seasons will again knife through the Big East and contend for a one-seed and national title.

TrevonDuval

2. Duke

G Trevon Duval (Fr.)

G Gary Trent, Jr. (Fr.)

G Grayson Allen (Sr.)

F Marvin Bagley III (Fr.)

F Wendell Carter (Fr.)

Bench: C Marques Bolden (So.), F Javin DeLaurier (So.), G Jordan Goldwire (Fr.), G Alex O’Connell (Fr.), F Jordan Tucker (Fr.)

This is more of an end-season projection. At the moment the likes of Villanova and Arizona would beat Duke, but the Blue Devils have the most talented roster in college basketball, and where they stand in March will likely reflect that. For the first time since Tyus Jones, Coach K has a natural point guard, and a damn good one. Trevon Duval will make everything go for the Blue Devils. Grayson Allen should molt back into his healthy 2015-16 form. Marvin Bagley III, the nation’s top recruit, is already an elite defender and will only be asked to serve as the team’s third or fourth scoring option. It all begins and ends, though, with Duval, as he will be the primary reason Duke ascends the ladder in San Antonio if that were to happen.

NCAA Basketball: Oakland at Michigan State

  1. Michigan State

G Cassius Winston (So.)

G Josh Langford (So.)

F Miles Bridges (So.)

F Jaren Jackson (Fr.)

C Nick Ward (So.)

Bench: G Tum Tum Nairn (Sr.), G Matt McQuaid (Jr.), C Gavin Schilling (Sr.), F Kenny Goins (Jr.), F Xavier Tillman (Fr.), F Ben Carter (Sr.)

Year in and year out, grit and brotherhood define the Michigan State program. Miles Bridges isn’t the first Spartan to turn down guaranteed NBA money to remain in school for another year, but his gritty return to East Lansing has a greater impact than most before him. The entirety of Tom Izzo’s loaded 2016 recruiting class is back for more, and he adds McDonald’s All-American Jaren Jackson, as well. With its frontcourt depth and the ability to play Jackson at the 5, the Spartans can allow Nick Ward to play in the fashion he did last season: high-usage and living at the free throw line without worrying about fatigue. Cassius Winston will be more aggressive in year two, particularly finding others in transition. Readied to pace the nation in individual assist rate once again, Winston will reward bigs for running floor and make the correct play out of pick-and-rolls in the half-court. Miles Bridges attracts the attention, but the Spartans have the type of balance you see from championship-caliber teams. The Big Ten title drought very well could be coming to a close in 2018.

Also seriously considered: UCLA, Texas A&M, Seton Hall, St. Mary’s, Notre Dame, UT-Arlington, Oklahoma, Butler, Tennessee, Harvard, College of Charleston

OOWF Preseason Player of the Year: Devonte Graham

A rather anonymous award is the NCAA Men’s College Basketball Player of the Year. To this day, not one that is among those handed out (Naismith, Wooden, AP, etc.) has distinguished itself as the most prestigious. It’s awarded amidst the madness of March and early April, and by the time many have reason to care, we’ve moved onto the subsequent NBA Draft. Who’s staying? Who’s gone to the professional ranks? Are we going to top 1,000 Division I transfers this year?

College basketball’s highest, albeit unsung, individual honor still contains the game’s beauty, senior leadership. Fresh faces annually devour the attention as the season approaches, faces that almost never factor into the Player of the Year chase in the end. As a matter of fact, the past four recipients have been steady, monotonous seniors, marked by gradual progression. Doug McDermott, the coach’s son with the fluorescent green light, transformed from a second round evaluation following his junior year to a top 10 pick after a POY campaign. Frank Kaminsky, the gangly klutz that despised the paint, parked himself on the block more often, making him an indefensible superstar and a top 10 pick. Buddy Hield, the Bahamian gunslinger, became, you guessed it, a top 10 pick. Not one of us could have imagined the rise of Frank Mason, the undersized bulldog discovered in an auxiliary gym, in his last hoorah. Each of the preceding four entered school a three-star recruit, taking the avant-garde path to stardom. Devonte Graham, also a three-star, all but had his bags packed to play collegiate basketball at Appalachian State, and in an alternate universe he’s probably the Sun Belt’s Kay Felder. Instead, the late-blooming guard was reluctantly released by the university from his LOI following the contract expiration of head coach Jason Capel. He immediately became one of the hottest commodities on the market late in the recruiting process, eventually landing in Lawrence.

Conventional thought rightfully gives Michigan State’s Miles Bridges all of the Preseason Player of the Year love, but my mind still drifts to the “most valuable” conversation. No performance better illustrates Graham’s value to the Kansas program than one from his sophomore season involving a man in whose footsteps he attempts to follow. Buddy Hield exploded for 46 points in the Kansas-Oklahoma instant classic at Allen Fieldhouse in 2016. Hield was not Graham’s primary assignment the first go-round. The second meeting in Norman, however, saw Graham in Hield’s shadow for 40 minutes. The 2015-16 POY experienced fits he had not to that point in the season, going 5-15 and coughing it up four times. On the other end of the floor, Graham drilled six threes and led all scorers with 27 points. Graham, from that point forward, couldn’t possibly have been lost in the Jayhawks shuffle despite never being the primary option.

Of course, Graham has largely played off the ball his entire college career with the presence of Frank Mason. Resultantly, a heavy chunk of his production has come courtesy of catch-and-shoot opportunities. That all changes in 2017-18, as Graham, now a senior, is handed the keys to the Ferrari. The high school point guard as a prospect was most noteworthy for his offensive creativity, which is an element he hasn’t exactly had the chance to strut all too much as an off-ball guard in a spread-court offense. Graham owns shiftiness, quickness, straight-line speed, and explosiveness identical to his former backcourt mate, Mason. Bottom line, considering the ball will be in his control now, we should expect a lot more of this:

Graham

Graham will prove he is just as deadly off the bounce as he is off the catch, more deadly than Mason, as a matter of fact. He won’t attack the rim as often as Mason did for that reason, but Graham has everything in his back pocket to create space for his J: size-ups, hang-dribbles, stepbacks, and a cat-like ability to stop on a dime and spring upward. The shot distribution of the career 41% 3-point shooter has emphasized shots from distance further with each season (66% of FG attempts were threes last season), and it appears that trend might continue. In the Jayhawks’ first two exhibition games last week, 18 of Graham’s 20 attempts came from beyond the arc, including nailing 6 of 13 from deep against Missouri. But by no means is he one dimensional with his physical tools. This will be the same dribble-weave, drive-and-kick offense at Kansas we have seen in recent years as Bill Self is beginning to redefine “small ball” with plans to start Lagerald Vick, a natural point guard, at power forward. Cavernous driving lanes will be there for Graham, who will likely leave lingerie on the deck on plenty of occasions with defenders having to respect his range. Not to mention, Udoka Azubuike makes for an interesting PnR tandem. The system and surrounding personnel is catered to Graham having a Mason-type senior season. Yet, Graham’s aforementioned defense is what allows him to college basketball’s most valuable. The last freshman to be the consensus National Player of the Year was also the last to be recognized for his defensive impact. Anthony Davis blocked nearly 6 shots per 40 minutes, and his 58.3 individual net rating stands as the best of all time. Graham’s impact will not be that drastic, nor will it be reflected obviously in box scores, but his lockdown on Buddy Hield two seasons ago gives us a glimpse of the complete defender he is. A pest that knows how to defend without fouling (1.8 FC/40), his perimeter defense will at last come to the forefront of the national conversation. We generally think of two-way studs as wings, but Devonte Graham is here to debunk that myth.

Spearheading what is shaping up to be the nation’s most efficient offense 2017-18, the Devonte Graham/Malik Newman will have a similar dynamic to that of Graham and Mason. Once a program founded on traditional back-to-the-basket big men, Graham is next in the line of Kansas backcourt leaders this decade. Patiently waiting in the wings for three years, expect him to detonate in his final year in school.

The Astros’ World Series model, and how the Brewers are building a carbon copy

The names today are irrelevant.

They are the types of names that could send Cespedes Family BBQ into endless hysteria. It was Brian Bogusevic. Matt Dominguez. Lucas Harrell. Hence, it’s obvious the reason the Houston Astros endured three consecutive 100-loss seasons, culminating in an excruciating 111-loss campaign in 2013.

Fans today might hear the phrase “three true outcomes” and not really comprehend what that entails. Said outcomes are home run, walk, and strikeout, and as I explained last fall, that is the essentiality of Major League Baseball today. Why each end result of an at-bat is classified as “true” provides deeper meaning to professional baseball’s present-day aphorism, and it can be loosely attributed to one of baseball analytics’ defining metrics, Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+). A number that normalizes all hitters into a vacuum, wRC+ compares a player’s pure run creation proclivity in relation to the rest of the league, accounting for uncontrollable, extrinsic factors that can affect a player’s ability to create runs, such as ballparks or quality of opponent. It is perhaps the best measure of a hitter’s impact on a game at the plate, plus has to be at least partially responsible for the launch angle craze and a record-breaking year for the long ball (and for the K). The only way to guarantee a run be scored in an at-bat is to hit the ball over the fence. Thus, wRC+ has a slight built-in advantage for those feast-or-famine players, like Justin Maxwell or Chris Carter, two of the names from when Houston first embarked on their rebuild.

Tanking in baseball is misunderstood and frankly a myth, as intentionally losing and intentionally spending less money are entirely different. Much was made a few years back of the quirky factoid that an Alex Rodriguez corpse was cashing larger checks than the entire Astros team, whose salary amounted to a measly $24 million combined. But the cheapest way to construct a competitive Major League team is through wRC+ adoption. The Astros did so in order to buy some time for young talent acquisition and development. Of course, the product on the field in the interim constituted next to nothing, but we’re more focused on the design. There was a rhyme and reason to the names of the lowly Astros, and it was somewhat of a revolutionary rebuilding path. Now, the metrics, conceptions, and logic behind those three consecutive 100-loss seasons are the widespread blueprint for organizational development.

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, which enters September 21, 2015, into the annals of important dates of the Milwaukee Brewers franchise. David Stearns was younger than the franchise’s most recognizable player. He was a Harvard PoliSci grad. Above all, he was formerly an Astro executive, and as its assistant general manager played an integral role in Houston’s current placement among baseball’s elite. In his brief tenure as the Brewers’ head man, Stearns has already proved he may have outsmarted even his old club’s model. A more-than-necessary payroll slashing sent Doug Melvin’s spending habits spiraling to the ground along with his career, passing the torch to the (now) 32 year-old who thrives as a market bottomfeeder. However, using the Astros’ recent timeline as a barometer, Milwaukee is ahead of schedule beyond imagination. The Brewers can be found bringing up the rear in the MLB payroll department in 2017, just as the Astros of old. They found players that could fill Stearns’ analytical principles, such as an Eric Thames/Jesus Aguilar platoon at first base, or Keon Broxton garnering the majority of at-bats in center field. It was a cheap alternative assemblage of steep launch angles and an absence of two-strike approaches that won 86 baseball games, falling one game shy of an improbable postseason berth. The 2017 season was astonishing considering it required half a decade for Houston to climb out of the cellar using identical tactics. One of the few explanations must be the staff, specifically the keystone combo of manager Craig Counsell and pitching coach Derek Johnson. Jimmy Nelson’s unprecedented 14.1% improvement from 2016 to 2017 in K-BB% blew the rest of baseball out of the water, and such a leap doesn’t fall from the sky. The same can be said about Chase Anderson, who improved his wFA (Fastball Runs Above Average) by 12.0 and wCH (Changeup Runs Above Average) by 13.4, both Major League bests. Milwaukee might have lucked into a perfect storm season by the top half of their starting rotation. Or perchance these are simply late-blooming pitchers under excellent tutelage.

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Chase Anderson added 2 mph to all his pitches on average in 2017, allowing him to become one of the National League’s best starters.

Luck is inevitable and compulsory to reach baseball’s pinnacle. The Astros are no different, with the most noteworthy token of luck being the story of how Jose Altuve landed in the organization, which is told on seemingly every single Astros national broadcast. The 5’6” three-time batting champ, although, was long a heterogeneity from the general feel of the Astros’ lineup. Attacking early and often in each his plate appearances, Altuve could not care less about your fancy “true outcomes.” Altuve, the presumed AL MVP this year, is so damn good that the Houston organization not only let him be, but actually started to take after him. Until 2017, other Astro hitters lagged behind Altuve’s rebellion against the establishment.

Astros

As we can see, the Astros’ offensive eruption this season is probably strongly correlated to their lineup making A LOT more contact than in the previous five years. As recent as last season, Houston owned the fourth-highest strikeout rate in baseball. It plummeted to the lowest this season, and only two players (George Springer and Carlos Beltran) punched out in the triple digits on the year.

David Stearns, if it wasn’t clear enough already, is no dummy. He, and he only, served as the right-hand man to the forward-looking architect Jeff Luhnow in Houston. He helped draft Alex Bregman, had a front row seat for the development of Springer, Carlos Correa, and Lance McCullers. Just as he did not expect to be in an NL Central title chase as early as 2017, it likely wasn’t anticipated that the Astros would vault from 111 losses to the AL Wild Card in two short years. The simple explanation is the analytics at play. Yeah, the 2017 Brewers struck out in a quarter of their plate appearances (yikes), but that was balanced out by a .180 team ISO Power (11th) and .308 BABIP (6th) interacting with one another to form a quick strike offense. Stearns idealized this type of lineup in a supposed retooling year when he signed Thames, traded for Travis Shaw, and introduced Orlando Arcia to a new bat path. It’s safe to conclude this is now a verified formula for regular season success in Major League Baseball, since this season’s Brewers are now members of a growing handful of examples. The 2015 and ’16 Astros Stearns helped forge fielded competitive teams in the same fashion. But as I pointed out earlier, such success can only be sustained for so long, and the “three true outcomes” magic almost always evaporates in the October air.

Luhnow’s whippersnappers are now all in the big leagues and cutting down on the K’s. He signed a rookie 32 year-old first baseman from Cuba for $10 mil/year because of his level swing and outfield gap real estate, which is so unlike those nerds. The .282 team BA and .346 OBP put Luhnow in a position to go out and get one of this generation’s greatest starting pitchers, cementing his team’s elite status. Luhnow clearly wasn’t going to sit idly by while his team whiffed its windows of opportunity away, and neither will his former protégé.

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Keston Hiura and Lucas Erceg are part of the Brewers’ wave of young players who can solve their strikeout conundrum.

There is indeed light at the end of the tunnel. The Milwaukee Brewers won’t continue to break their own single-season strikeout record. The RISP struggles that effectively cost them their season will cease sooner rather than later. The Brewers’ current construct is temporary. It’s cheap, it’s a stopgap, and it produces wins to a respectable extent. With Stearns branching off from Luhnow directly, we can only expect the Brewers are in the midst of the same diabolical plan. There’s far more young talent on its way, and enough of a surplus for Milwaukee to maybe swing a deal of its own. Marcus Stroman is potentially on the market, as is Gerrit Cole, but at the end of the day it’s important to keep in mind the timeline. As gravitating as the 2017 Brewers were, several of its faces won’t be around when Milwaukee hoists the Commissioner’s Trophy. If the Houston Astros’ adjustment is any indication, that day will surely come for the Cream City.

NBA Offseason Grades: Southeast Division

Northwest Division

Atlantic Division

The Southeast Division in the upcoming season will be quite the adventure, and not due to an adventurous multitude of offseason transactions. The adventure more refers to what these respective teams’ fanbases will endure. I can definitively say only one of the following 5 teams legitimately improved this offseason (Charlotte). That said, it’s been difficult assigning any sort of expectations for any Southeast Division team. Let the roller coaster begin.

Atlanta Hawks: B+

Free Agency: Re-signed F/C Mike Muscala to a 2 yr/$10 mil deal. All-Star forward Paul Millsap departed to Denver, and guard Tim Hardaway, Jr. rode a contract year to a lucrative deal from the Knicks. Additionally saw Ersan Ilyasova, Mike Scott, Jose Calderon, and Thabo Sefolosha go elsewhere. Signed G Josh Magette to a two-way.

Trades: Shipped F Ryan Kelly to Houston for rising star Cash Considerations. Acquired a 2018 protected 1st rounder from the Clippers in the 3-team Danilo Gallinari deal, as well as Jamal Crawford, who was later bought out and free to sign with Minnesota, and Diamond Stone, who was later waived. The Hawks shipped a 2019 2nd rounder to the Nuggets in the deal. Sent C Dwight Howard to Charlotte for C Miles Plumlee, G Marco Belinelli, and the 41st pick (Tyler Dorsey).

Draft: F/C John Collins, G Tyler Dorsey, F/C Alpha Kaba

Other: Head Coach Mike Budenholzer resigned as the team’s president of basketball ops. He was replaced in that role by former Warriors assistant GM Travis Schlenk.

This rebuild could have been instigated after the drubbing Atlanta suffered at the hands of the Cavaliers in the 2015 Eastern Conference Finals. They rather maintained their core by resigning Paul Millsap, but all for naught as Jeff Teague and Al Horford were gone after the following season. Nevertheless, here the Hawks are, in the position they would inevitably find themselves in, but in the grand scheme of things, East Atlanta Santa won’t have to fret all too much. For a delayed rebuild, a baseline of John Collins, Dennis Schroeder, DeAndre Bembry, and Taurean Prince ain’t half bad. Dwight Howard was clearly an admitted mistake, but as the 19th pick, Collins, effectively in the same mold as a younger Howard sans the locker room contagion rep, can surely be one of the Hawks’ new faces. Yeah, the defensive IQ is atrocious enough that I was laughing out loud at him during Wake Forest’s First Four game against K-State. But Coach Bud has plenty of off-the-charts physical traits, a budding shooting touch, and a decently advanced back-to-the-basket game to work with. And speaking of Bud, he’s too good of a coach to make this rebuild easy, or more affectionately, a “process.” In spite of whatever talent shortcomings Atlanta may have, he’ll probably have them competing for a playoff spot at the end of the day and I’d be the least-surprised person if they slide into the 7 or 8 seed. The now deceased Utah Jazz, and the Indiana Pacers before them, were a refreshingly alternative way of constructing a team, building from within with late-lottery-to-late-first rounders. The Hawks appear to be on that path, making it safe to conclude I will get attached to them.

Music Choice GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Charlotte Hornets: B

Free Agency: Signed former Bucks Michael Carter-Williams and Johnny O’Bryant, the former using their Mid-Level Exception and the latter to a veteran’s minimum deal. Signed G Marcus Paige and C Mangok Mathiang to two-way contracts and gave G T.J. Williams and F Isaiah Hicks camp deals.

Trades: Completed the aforementioned deal with Atlanta to acquire C Dwight Howard. Traded 31st pick Frank Jackson to New Orleans for the 40th pick (Dwayne Bacon) and cash.

Draft: G Malik Monk, G Dwayne Bacon

Health, among all other things, is Charlotte’s chief necessity in order to regain their 2015-16 form, a season in which they owned a top 10 offense and defense. From a strictly personnel-interchange standpoint, the Hornets will benefit from being the lone team in the Southeast that actually improved their standing. Say what you will about Dwight Howard, but they have at last found a suitable PnR mate for point guard Kemba Walker. Shooting dipped in 2016-17, but that was partially ameliorated in the draft with Malik Monk and Dwayne Bacon. The Hornets, once again, have the makings of being net rating fiends, and in a weak division that could be ridden to an ever-so-meaningless division title, so shake it off, North Carolina.

Frank

Miami Heat: C+

Free Agency: Ready? James Johnson 4/60. Dion Waiters 4/52. Kelly Olynyk 4/50.

Laughing

Also (again) brought back Udonis Haslem on a veteran’s minimum, signed Luis Montero and Derrick Walton to two-ways, and gave former UCF sharpshooter Matt Williams a camp invite. Moreover they are now free from the clutches of Chris Bosh’s contract.

Trades: Obtained C A.J. Hammons from Dallas, who took Josh McRoberts off their hands.

Draft: C Bam Adebayo

Miami swung and missed on one of the biggest prizes of the 2017 free agency period. Gordon Hayward had rumored interest in playing in South Beach for about a year, but between the three finalists for the first-time All-Star, the Heat were the first to be eliminated from contention for his services, and thus eliminated from true Eastern Conference contention. In his stead, Miami doled out the $162 million they had stowed away to James Johnson, Dion Waiters, and Kelly Olynyk, one offseason after opening the checkbook for Tyler Johnson. Good news for the fleeting Miami Heat fanbase, last I checked, their team still plays in the Eastern Conference.

Spoelstra

As the East weakens by the day, maybe in 2017-18 we can make sense of the Heat, the NBA’s most perplexing team last year. If you split their 2016-17 down the middle, you have an 11-30 start and a 30-11 finish, which left Out of Write Field asking each other several times whether or not they were actually good, failing to pinpoint what exactly was transpiring that allowed this transformation to take place given Rodney McGruder started 65 basketball games. It, unpretentiously, came down to shot-making on the wing, whether it be McGruder, Waiters, Tyler Johnson, Wayne Ellington, or Luke Babbitt. One would figure with the roster being largely continuous that Miami would be able to carry second-half momentum into 2017-18, but it’s a make-or-miss game, and I’m not sure I can count on Dion Waiters shooting 40% from deep in a non-contract year. However, for now, we project the Heat as a playoff team in the East.

Orlando Magic: C+

Free Agency: Stole F Jonathon Simmons at 3 years, $20 mil. Signed G Shelvin Mack to a 2 yr/$12 mil deal. Gave veteran’s minimums to F/C Mo Buckets and G Arron Afflalo and a minimum deal to former NBA Draft early entry-turned-Euro League stud Khem Birch. In addition, Jeff Green left for Cleveland and Jodie Meeks for Washington.

Trades: N/A

Draft: F Jonathan Isaac, G/F Wesley Iwundu

Other: Hired former Raptors GM Jeff Weltman as President of Basketball Ops, who brought in his own staff, including ex-Bucks decision-maker John Hammond.

Hallelujah

More comically, the Magic have at last freed themselves from the Fran Vazquez saga, only twelve years after drafting the Spanish big man.

Orlando, starting with the 2017-18 season, will no longer be handcuffed by the Vazquez cap hold. The story is a long and winding road. Of course, first round picks are guaranteed NBA contracts, so until picks are signed, the team that owns the certain draftee’s rights endures a cap hold that approximates to the respective rookie wage slot. Needless to say, Vazquez never made the trek to the United States, opting for the path to becoming the Euro League’s all-time leading shot-blocker. With the salary cap’s recent skyrocket, the Vazquez $3.1 million cap hold especially didn’t make much of a difference, but the idea of the Magic clinging onto a player’s rights, putting a dent into its cap space in the meantime, is almost downright inconceivable and is a bit of a microcosm of the organization’s current state.

Rob Hennigan is mercifully gone, as is the dartboard of available NBA players that hung in his office, but he is replaced by a regime noteworthy for feeble attempts at an Eastern Conference 8-seed. So can we expect more of the same? An identity of defensive versatility and brick-laying was what John Hammond assembled in Milwaukee’s 2014-15 playoff season. In Orlando, brick-laying will be emphasized even more, as Henningan’s 2014 draft of Elfrid Payton and Aaron Gordon is entering the final year of its rookie agreement. In selecting Jon Isaac with the sixth pick at the end of June, we were assured that Hammond is making the final call. Isaac will have the defensive impact immediately entering the league that very few rookies can ever own, and in time will prove to be a lethal small-ball 5. Wesley Iwundu, the 33rd overall pick, Jonathon Simmons, and Khem Birch provide additional defensive interchangeability, as if that was needed. Despite having what I would consider a top 10 draft in 2017, Orlando remains next to Brooklyn as having the NBA’s worst roster, so Mo Bamba could be on the horizon.

Washington Wizards: C-

Free Agency: Re-signed F Otto Porter to a 4 year, $106 million max contract. Inked G Jodie Meeks to a 2 yr/$6.75 mil deal in an effort to replace Bojan Bogdanovic, who departed for Indiana. Gave F Mike Scott a minimum deal. Extended a camp invite to Villanova’s Kris Jenkins and two-way contracts to forwards Devin Robinson and Mike Young. Lastly, signed John Wall to a super-max extension (4 yr/$170 mil) that will kick in beginning in 2019-20.

Trades: Dealt only 2017 draft pick (52nd overall) to the Pelicans for guard Tim Frazier to shore up the bench

Draft: N/A

Oprah

In fairness, the Wizards truthfully had no choice but to match Brooklyn’s Otto Porter offer sheet. In turn, don’t expect the preposterous +/- disparity between Scott Brooks’ starters and his bench to change at all. Can a big three of Wall, Porter, and Bradley Beal survive? I guess Otto is only 24. The 3-and-D in 2016-17 was real. He possessed the NBA’s best turnover rate (4.7%) and nearly doubled his win shares from the previous season while lowering his usage. Yet, the Wizards still find themselves stuck spinning their wheels in… maybe not mud, because it’s really not that bad. Probably something more like a pile of dirty laundry. There doesn’t exist a whole ton of roster flexibility for the foreseeable future. The best Washington can hope for is Ian Mahinmi to discover his 2015-16 self again and Tim Frazier to stuff stat sheets in the way he has showed flashes of over the previous two seasons. Until then, the NBA’s worst bench resides in the nation’s capital.

NBA Offseason Grades: Northwest Division

This is my second installment of NBA Offseason Grades. To check out the first, click this link:

NBA Offseason Grades: Atlantic Division

The Northwest Division hasn’t had an NBA championship since the Seattle Supersonics won it in 1979, and haven’t been to the Finals since 1998 when the Jazz lost to Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls. It seems that this trend will continue this season, but there are some strong playoff contenders in the bunch that could cause problems for Golden State. Without further ado, the Northwest Division draft grades, plus related GIFS.

Denver Nuggets: B

Free Agency: Waived G Mike Miller, and re-signed F Darrell Arthur to a three-year deal.

Trades: Sent F Danilo Gallinari to the Clippers and signed F Paul Millsap to a three-year, $90 million deal. There are also picks involved in this sign-and-trade but those details aren’t clear at this time. On draft night Denver traded the No. 13 overall pick (SG Donovan Mitchell) to Utah for the No. 24 overall pick (PF Tyler Lydon) and F Trey Lyles. 

Draft: In order, PF Tyler Lydon, SF Vlatko Cancar, G Monte Morris

Other: Promoted Arturas Karnisovas to GM and Tim Connelly to president of basketball operations.

Analysis: Denver is one of the messier teams in the West right now, but they have a lot of potential. It’s unclear what new GM Arturas Karnisovas is looking to do just yet, but he’s going to have to drop some weight before the season starts depth-wise. The entrance of Millsap pushes PF Kenneth Faried out of his starting power forward spot. He could see some run at small forward as a mismatch opportunity, but I’m not sure he has the skill and I KNOW he doesn’t have the range to play the way most small forwards play today in the NBA (averaged 0.0-0.1 3pt-made vs 3pt attempted in 2016-17). In this respect Wilson Chandler will likely retain his position as the starting small forward. The only position without questions about playing time is in fact, the center position, in which C Nikola Jokic and C Mason Plumlee have very clear roles as starter and back-up. This being said, I predict that the backcourt will see the most shake-up this season, as there’s still not a clear answer as to who the starting point guard will be, Emmanuel Mudiay or Jamal Murray. Murray is still developing, and Emmanuel Mudiay is…well Emmanuel Mudiay. Poor guy. SG Gary Harris is steadily improving his game and is probably the strongest backcourt threat they have. SG Will Barton serves as a decent back-up for him and provides a nice spark off the bench. Denver has a good squad but it’s not likely they are a serious playoff contender in the stacked Western conference due to their weaknesses at the 1-spot comparatively. Hopefully they can resolve this point guard issue in the draft next year.

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Minnesota Timberwolves: A

Free Agency: Signed PG Jeff Teague to a three-year, $57 million deal, PF Taj Gibson to a two-year, $28 million deal, and G Jamal Crawford to a two-year, $8.9 million deal. Signed undrafted free agent PG Melo Trimble.

Trades: G Zach Lavine, PG Kris Dunn, and the No. 7 overall (PF Lauri Markannen) pick for Bulls’ SG Jimmy Butler and the No. 16 overall pick (C Justin Patton), and PG Ricky Rubio to the Jazz for a protected 2018 first-round pick from the Thunder.

Analysis: New logo, new swagger. The Timberwolves aren’t kidding around this year. Finally, they were able to move towards a win-now scenario on draft night when they traded for the Bulls’ lone All-Star, Jimmy Butler. They also traded away Rubio to the Jazz for a 2018 first round pick before picking up former All-Star Jeff Teague, and added a young center, Justin Patton with a lot of potential to play backup at both power forward and center positions alongside new pickup Taj Gibson. So now coach Tom Thibodeau’s Bulls..er…excuse me….Timberwolves starters will be: Teague, Butler, SG Andrew Wiggins, PF Gorgui Dieng (or Gibson), and KAT.  Not bad. The Wolves most recently addressed backcourt depth concerns caused by the Butler trade by picking up Crawford and Trimble in free agency, but they’ll need a couple more cheap (hopefully, shooters! — S/O to G Matt Janning) pick ups to finalize their roster. Despite these depth needs not yet totally met, the Wolves made serious moves this summer and are expected to contend for a playoff spot for the first time in 13 years. Winter is coming, Minnesotans. And it’s actually a GOOD thing.

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Oklahoma City Thunder: A

Free Agency: Re-signed G Andre Roberson to a three-year, $30 million deal and PF Nick Collison to a one-year, veteran’s minimum deal. Signed PG Raymond Felton to a one-year, $2.3 million deal, PF Patrick Patterson to a three-year, $16.4 million deal, and F Dakari Johnson to a two-year deal.

Trades: G Victor Oladipo and F Domantas Sabonis for F Paul George.

Draft: SG Terrance Ferguson

Analysis: The Thunder started off slowly but their offseason picked up very quickly when they traded with the Pacers for Paul George. (!!!) No longer will reigning-MVP PG Russell Westbrook need to do it all by himself. I personally think Westbrook will still be a nightly triple-double threat, but he’ll have to do it much more efficiently with George on the floor. Combine this with the free agent signings of Patterson and Felton, and the Thunder look a lot scarier than they did in 2016-17. Their starting five will now likely be Westbrook, Roberson, George, Patterson and C Steven Adams. Felton will add badly needed depth to the point guard position, and the Thunder are now fully committed to Roberson starting at shooting guard with Oladipo now in Indiana. It’s hard to say where the Thunder will end up in the stacked Western Conference, but my bet is they’ll move past the falling Clippers and Jazz to get the 4th or 5th seed in the playoffs. This also means we could potentially see a Thunder-Warriors series in 2018. So basically…GO CRUSH THAT SNAKE RUSSELL!!

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Portland Trail Blazers: C+

Free Agency: Nix. Although, dynamic duo Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum are rumored to be attempting to persuade Carmelo Anthony to join them.

Trades: G Allen Crabbe for Brooklyn Nets’ F Andrew Nicholson, and G Tim Quarterman to Houston for cash considerations.

Draft: In order, C Zach Collins, PF Caleb Swanigan

Analysis: The Trail Blazers didn’t make many moves this offseason. I mean…I get it I suppose. They trust in Lillard and McCollum, and they drafted well. Collins and Swanigan both are excellent additions to a front court that needed depth. Trading C Mason Plumlee for C Jusuf Nurkic ended up paying off well. Trading Tim Quarterman for cash was smart considering his irrelevance to the rotation, and made for a funny NBA meme. Trading Allen Crabbe for Andrew Nicholson seemed unnecessary, and I think actually weakened their roster. Crabbe shot 44% from deep in 2016-17. Why any team would give up an asset like that in today’s three-heavy NBA for Nicholson is absolutely beyond my comprehension. Unless the Trail Blazers do eventually end up with Carmelo Anthony somehow, this offseason has not done them many favors. With all the other Western teams trying to ante up to take down the Warriors, they are likely in for a bit of a fall, placing them just out of playoff contention.

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Utah Jazz: C-

Free Agency: Lost SF Gordon Hayward to the Celtics on a four-year, $128 million deal, and G George Hill to the Kings on a three-year, $57 million deal. Released C Boris Diaw. Signed F Royce O’Neale and F Eric Griffin. 

Trades: Future draft picks for Timberwolves’ PG Ricky Rubio. Traded away Trey Lyles and the No. 24 overall pick to the Nuggets for the No. 10 overall draft pick (Mitchell).

Draft: In order, SG Donovan Mitchell, PF/C Tony Bradley, & PG Nigel Williams-Goss

Analysis: I cringe for Jazz fans this offseason. They were so good, and had so much potential. The Jazz failed to keep their playoff contention hopes alive with the loss of free agent Gordon Hayward to the Celtics. They had counted on him to stay with them this season, and gave up a lot to try and convince him, including trading up for defensive-minded shooting guard Donovan Mitchell, and trading a future draft pick for assist-savant PG Ricky Rubio. In losing both Hill and Hayward in free agency, the Jazz lost their top-two scorers, and while they could potentially have the top defense in the league, they have no real consistently strong offensive-minded players.  I mean, I love the saying “defense wins championships” as much as the next bear but they really, really need scoring. The Jazz’s starting five looks something like this: Rubio, SG Joe Ingles, veteran SF Joe Johnson (could have been the answer to their scoring problem if he wasn’t 36), PF Derrick Favors, and C Rudy Gobert. I predict they’ll either be a low playoff seed or completely out until they can address this need and find someone who won’t tire out at small forward. Sometimes when it rains, it freakin’ pours. My apologies, Jazz fans.

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NBA OffSeason Grades: Atlantic Division

The NBA offseason always seems to be the most dramatic of all professional sports. Could it be that it’s the only sport making moves in the summer? Maybe it’s due to the lack of football for people to watch. In my spare time I’ve decided to prepare for the upcoming NBA season by grading teams’ offseason moves. I’ll start with the Atlantic Division, find some team-appropriate GIFs, and predict which teams will make the playoffs in 2018. Last year the Atlantic had two strong playoff contenders in the Celtics and the Raptors, however they also gave us three of the most discombobulated franchises ever to grace the NBA due to key injuries that just keep happening, bad past trade decisions, or just an outdated GM trying to win now without many strong young assets to back up his veterans. See the mess that was the 2016-17 Knicks if you want more information on that last one. Anyways, lets get started.

 

Boston Celtics: B+

Free Agency: Signed SF Gordon Hayward to a four-year, $128 million contract, German F Daniel Theis to a 2-year deal, and C Aron Baynes to a one-year, $4.3 million deal.
Lost PF Amir Johnson to Philadelphia on a one-year, $11 million deal, and F Kelly Olynyk to Miami on a four-year, $50 million+ deal with a player option in the fourth year.

Trades:  SG Avery Bradley to the Pistons for PF Marcus Morris and a 2019 2nd round pick.

Draft: In order, F Jayson Tatum, F Semi Ojeleye, G Kadeem Allen, and SG Jabari Bird

Analysis: GM Danny Ainge did it again. Somehow Boston landed offensive-star Gordon Hayward despite the Jazz making several moves in an attempt to entice him to stay. The Celtics drafted well too, picking up a lot of what I believe to be underrated prospects. Jayson Tatum had a fantastic Summer League performance and is pretty likely to make an impact off the bench right away. Boston didn’t need to make too many moves to bolster their roster due to the Tatum and the other young talent they picked up in the draft — not to mention the plethora of future first-round draft picks at their disposal. I personally am not a fan of the Bradley-Morris trade as he was a huge source of perimeter defense for them with 1.2 SPG, and although now-presumed starter G Marcus Smart is a decent, cheaper option, I thought keeping Bradley and dropping nearly anyone else would have given them the best chance to topple the Cavs without sacrificing their defensive identity. Either way, they are still the most likely candidates to come out on top in the Atlantic division.

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Brooklyn Nets: C
Free Agency: Nothing. Nothing at all.

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Trades: C Brook Lopez and the 27th overall draft pick for PG D’Angelo Russell and C Timofey Mozgov, and C Justin Hamilton for SF DeMarre Carroll and two 2018 draft picks.

Draft: In order, C Jarrett Allen, Aleksander Vezenkov

Analysis:  The poor, poor Nets. It seems this year they worked hard to put the disastrous 2013 trade that decimated their future for faulty win-now hopes, but it’s not going to improve overnight. Mozgov is slated as Brooklyn’s starting center while Allen will likely develop behind him. Russell will undoubtedly become their starting point guard and hopefully put his snitching days behind him. Carroll will take over the small forward starting spot, allowing second-year SF Caris Levert more time to develop. Vezenkov will add some front court depth. Overall, the Nets may win more games, but their long-term health is still in peril and they are almost certainly not making the playoffs. It’s almost smarter to look to next year, as they will have three draft picks, albeit once again will be unable to control their own destiny since two of them are the Raptors’ picks.

New York Knicks: C+
Free Agency: Re-signed G Ron Baker to a 1-year deal, and signed SG Tim Hardaway Jr. to a four-year, $71 million deal, and waived F Maurice Ndour in June. Lost SG Justin Holiday to the Bulls on a 2-year, $9 million deal.”Lost” PG Derrick Rose to Cleveland on a one-year, $2.1 million deal.

Trades: Nichts! (See what I did there, German speakers?) but lets be real — Carmelo’s days with the Knicks are numbered.

Draft: In order, PG Frank Ntilikina, SG Damyean Dotson, SG Ognjen Jaramaz

Other: Fired GM Phil Jackson, promoted Steve Mills to president, and named Scott Perry the new GM.

Analysis — Even if the they can somehow land PG Kyrie Irving in a trade, the Knicks are still a mess. It’s gotten to the point where I’m not sure if any of the Knicks actually enjoy playing for New York, other than, you know actually living in New York City. There’s reason for hope with the addition of Ntilikina, Dotson, Jaramaz, and a new GM not named Phil Jackson, but it’s still unclear what direction they are trying to go. Carmelo Anthony is likely to be traded before the offseason is over, and PF Kristaps Porzingis seems disappointed with his team. It didn’t inspire confidence when Hardaway Jr. was signed for a whopping, seemingly undeserved $71 million. Rose leaving for Cleveland was a good step, but there are several moves likely to be made by the Knicks before their roster is complete, and maybe years before they can make it back to the playoffs.

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Philadelphia 76ers
: A-

Free Agency: Signed SG J.J Reddick to a one-year, $23 million deal and PF Amir Johnson to a one-year $11 million deal.

Trades: Nada. C Jahlil Okafor continues to be a trade option for the 76ers if they want to make moves before the offseason is over.

Draft: In order, PG Markelle Fultz,Anzejs Pasecniks, SF Jonah Bolden, Matthias Lessort

Analysis: Drafting Fultz and trusting the process will only work if the 76ers can stop getting injured. Fultz was pulled from Summer League after spraining his ankle, but is expected to be okay. SF Ben Simmons (foot) has been cleared for contact, but was kept out of Summer League. C Joel Embiid (knee) played just 31 games in his debut season due to injury but was impressive and showed flashes of excellence. What would it look like if suddenly Philadelphia could put all of their pieces together? They now have a very solid deep threat that can stretch the floor in Reddick, and added to their power forward depth with veteran Amir Johnson. Their young talent is promising. As I said previously, a lot hinges on the 76ers getting their players healthy, but with the East weakening, they could have a shot at the playoffs with everyone intact. If they can’t? We very well could see another No. 1 pick by Philadelphia, for the third year in a row.

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Toronto Raptors: B-

Free Agency: Re-signed PG Kyle Lowry to a three-year, $100 million deal and PF Serge Ibaka to a three-year, $65 million deal. Signed F Alfonzo McKinnie to a multi-year deal.

Trades: PG Cory Joseph for SF C.J. Miles in a sign and trade agreement and SF DeMarre Carroll and two 2018 draft picks for C Justin Hamilton, who was waived immediately.

Draft:  SF OG Anunoby

Other: Promoted Bobby Webster to GM and Dan Tolzmann to Assistant GM.

Analysis: Toronto was able to keep both Lowry and Ibaka in free agency, which was big in keeping the team intact. The only change to their starting five is the addition of C.J. Miles in place of Carroll, who was traded in what was simply a salary dump. Drafting Anunoby was a bit of a risk due to his mid-season ACL tear with the Hoosiers, but he has high upside if he can get recover fully to his previous form, as he’s known for his extreme athleticism. G Delon Wright will now be backup point guard to Lowry, which will be interesting. The one thing I can’t get over is their trading away of two picks for a mediocre center they were just going to waive anyways. The real question is: Will Toronto have what it takes to make it past both Cleveland and Boston in the playoffs? Doubtful, but with much of their roster still there, they are definitely in the playoff mix.

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Playoff prediction: As a recap, the Celtics and the Raptors are shoe-ins for playoff spots in the East. The only other team with a legitimate chance in the Atlantic Division is the 76ers, but hey if you #TrustTheProcess, anything is possible.

Kings Stay Kings: Basketball in Sacramento might actually be on its way back

This is probably how it all went down.

Vivek Ranadive watched about ten minutes of an Oklahoma-Incarnate Word game two winters ago. Within that timeframe, eventual National Player of the Year Buddy Hield probably sank three or four transition 3’s. It was at that precise moment the Sacramento Kings’ primary owner and chairman decided the Oklahoma guard was Stephen Curry’s second-coming.

A story like this could be very much believable upon analyzing Ranadive’s track record of asininity since purchasing the franchise. From suggesting the full implementation of cherry-picking basketball, to firing head coach Mike Malone in 2014 due to a slower tempo than his liking and a strong defensive emphasis after what many across the league had considered a relatively promising start to the season for the Kings, Ranadive is the classic case of an excessively-meddling owner. Sports’ most consistent model franchises are highlighted by front office synergy, a Bill Belichick preaching of “do your job and I’ll do mine.” The Sacramento Kings for quite some time now have exhibited the antithesis of synergy, leaving the product on the floor in constant disarray and the organization standing aside the Washington Redskins as the most poorly-run in the four major sports. Vlade Divac, in the end, has perpetually been tasked to bridge the gap between what actually is best for the organization and the farcical demands of his boss. So when the New Orleans Pelicans visited Northern California this previous season, Ranadive’s comment to Hield of how “we’re still gonna get you” was bound to come to fruition. I have long been a vocal critic of Vivek Ranadive and the Sacramento Kings. The engineer/businessman is just a billionaire who happens to like basketball. Ranadive doesn’t actually know basketball. Thus, naturally, the billionaire ego felt mere fandom could translate into personnel decision-making. However, after many trials and tribulations, after the Rudy Gay’s and the Rajon Rondo’s, it appears Ranadive has turned over a new leaf, one marked with the meaning of a rebuild.

Fast forward to this February and an iconic Woj bomb, its subject being the polarizing figure that was slowly tearing the Sacramento Kings organization apart. Ranadive had long vouched for the retaining of DeMarcus Cousins, so much so that it booted George Karl to the curb. What caused the flip of the switch within the owner’s brain remains a mystery. Perhaps a serious talk with his more-informed executives? Maybe simply coming to one’s senses? Regardless, it was a trade emblematic of the beginning of greener pastures. The Kings needed to begin losing basketball games in order to preserve their own top 10 protected pick in the 2017 Draft, and added another in a deep draft in the process. Ranadive, at the end of the day, had to make a decision between his beloved face of the franchise he would have no choice but to resign in the summer while still undeniably crippling his team, or what was, indubitably, in the best interest of the organization. The sought-after commodity the owner swore to acquire was packaged, and an actual optimistic future was sealed in Sacramento for the first time in a long time. Current head coach Dave Joerger owns substantially similar philosophies to Mike Malone, the man he fired just three years prior over purely philosophical differences, another sign of Ranadive’s maturation as an owner. More importantly, the acquisition of Buddy Hield paid immediate dividends, which begs the question: Was he right?

Buddy Hield will never be what Stephen Curry is. He’ll never be able to dice up a ball screen. He’ll never be able to get to the basket off of much more than straight-line rack attacks or cuts. However, the potential remains for Hield to become an elite NBA scorer in the modern NBA, especially with his efficiency in stop-and-pop and shooting on the move, all thanks to a Curry-like quick release. With Hield, as he displayed throughout his final two college seasons and in his brief Kings career, there always lies the threat of the backbreaking quick-hitter three, the weapon the Golden State Warriors have made so lethal. 25 games won’t paint the whole picture, but 48/43/81 and 25 pts/48 minutes is pretty self-explanatory.

Buddy

We’ve seen how Warriors opponents have had to chase Steph off the 3-point line as a transition ballhandler, and it’s obviously a dangerous proposition having to pick up the ball defensively 35 feet from the basket while backpedaling. This brings Hield’s improved facilitation into play. Buddy, though, is far more of a hazard for defenses off the ball in transition. Hield owns an innate ability to sprint to open spots and gather himself in a flash. After fast forwarding another 4 months from the Twitter-rattling trade, Hield’s backcourt mate became a King with the 5th pick in last Thursday’s draft. More than just a backcourt mate, Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox is actually the ideal point man to pair with a 2-guard frequently hunting his shot in transition, perhaps the reason why he has been rumored to be Sacramento’s primary target for quite some time. Fox combined with Malik Monk, the 11th overall pick to Charlotte, to form a dynamic backcourt that will have nearly the exact same feel with Hield and make for appealing television. With the likes of Hield filling lanes and finding spots and bigs who love to run such as Willie Cauley-Stein, Fox appears to be a godsend point guard for this particular personnel grouping. His unparalleled speed and striking explosiveness have drawn John Wall comparisons, and his shot isn’t as broken as some have made it out to be. In fact, Fox made 9 of his 19 3-point attempts (47.4%) in the final 10 games of his Kentucky career and has plenty of opportunity to improve in that area. Like Wall, his mechanics are solid off the dribble but wane a bit in catch-and-shoot situations, which is why we often see size-ups and rhythm dribbles before his J’s.

Fox

The Fox/Wall physical tools comparisons are not wrong, however, and it’s safe to conclude Wall has done more than merely survive as a point guard with an inconsistent jumper. Fox owns similar quicks, straight-line speed, handles, and athleticism to do the same, along with a complementary floater game that will be put to good use in late-clock situations. The real scary characteristic Fox proposes, in the end, will be his destructiveness in transition, especially when WCS is almost always the first big down the floor.

But remember, this is the Sacramento Kings. How could they possibly follow up De’Aaron Fox with anything besides a headscratcher? With no clear desirable entity available at 10, the pick acquired in the Cousins trade, Sacramento took advantage of a Trail Blazers team whose cap situation created a dire need to relieve themselves of one of their three first-rounders. Portland, being an obvious trade partner, took the bait, and the Kings, with surprisingly no clear cap deficiencies, attained an additional pick in one of the deepest drafts in recent memory.

The Sacramento front office would be hard-pressed to top the Georgios Papagiannis/Malachi Richardson debacle of 2016. Fortunately, the Kings must’ve recognized it is Mount Rushmore season on Pardon My Take because they plucked one player from each of the Mount Rushmore college basketball programs. They pulled a stunning 180 by nabbing the best player available as noted baseline assassin Justin Jackson arrived next with the 15th overall pick. Jackson is the model for the updated NBA Draft early entry withdrawal deadline. He returned to North Carolina for his junior season following NBA scout/executive feedback and regained the knockdown shooter reputation he exited high school with. Jackson made no alterations to his stiff, straight-on release point, but obviously spent a summer filled with repetition as he improved from 29% from deep in his first two years in Chapel Hill to 37% in 2016-17. That catch-and-shoot proficiency was the only preventative measure for Jackson’s NBA prospects. As the shots continued to fall in conjunction with a deadly floater game, his name ascended draft boards with each passing week. That scoring versatility, with the added jump shot, is what makes Jackson a steal at 15 for Sacramento. Another wing that will religiously run with Fox in hopes for lead passes, Jackson has a willingness to heavily utilize his refreshingly old-school mid-range attack that is perfectly harmonious with Hield stretching the floor and Fox finding cutters off of his dribble penetration.

As a matter of fact, Jackson wasn’t even Vlade’s premier steal last Thursday. Going the upperclassman route once more, Sacramento found their second unit point guard for many years to come in reigning National Player of the Year Frank Mason. Size, at 6’0” in shoes, was always the issue with Mason’s professional candidacy, with many teams red-flagging that and ignoring his unsurprisingly stellar NBA Draft Combine performance. Buried into the second round by upside-laden big men, Mason will surely send reminders to those who passed on the top 20 prospect. Sneaky athleticism, efficient offense, and moxie are the keys to Mason’s bright future as an NBA point guard. An absurd 50% 2-point % for a sub-6-foot player is all attributable to his knack to shield the ball while absorbing contact and keeping his chin on the rim. This past season opener was a perfect example, where late in the 2nd half and in overtime it felt as though he converted an ah-wuh on every possession against Indiana.

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A Fox/Mason backcourt will be fun to mobilize and annoying to play against with their speed and ability to get under the skin of ballhandlers. Both add the toughness that Dave Joerger has lacked in Sacramento, another representation of the Kings’ coming of age as an organization. Fox, Jackson, and Mason all present a composition of safety and value longitudinally. Thus, sandwiched between Jackson and Mason was an affordable lottery ticket purchase at 20 with Duke’s Harry Giles. He falls under the same category as Skal Labissiere, a lottery ticket already showing promise, as a blue-chip recruit failing to find a niche in college. Giles is worth the gamble after cementing positive draft night. Last Thursday capped the first extensive series of best-interest personnel moves under the new regime. The Kings’ front office has amalgamated fit, instant contribution, and high ceiling with their new youth, proving the basketball minds are now in charge. Here’s to hoping it isn’t screwed up, because Sacramento is a darn good basketball town and Kings faithful have not deserved the decade-plus of suffering they’ve endured.

The Buck Doesn’t Stop Here

“Inside… Monroe… lot of traffic… on top Terry for the lead…

During the subsequent Raptor timeout, a waitress at Buffalo Wild Wings walked over to a table near the wall. I couldn’t hear what she said, but I did hear the response. “You guys make commercials about stuff like this.” It was a statement so naïve to its own profundity that it made me laugh a little. It communicated a working knowledge of the kind of blue collar, almost banal surrealism those commercials usually deal in. Pressed buttons that can dictate the course of a game miles away. Players transported through the TV from the field to a chair in front of the bar. Surrealism seeks to conflate dream and reality in a way that creates a reality that’s heightened. One that is transcendent. I think of melting clocks and their five o’clock shadow, totally unconcerned with the way time usually works, bereft of their youth, but trying their damndest to return to it. Kevin Harlan knew better than to insert of any of his own words after that three went through the net. I’m not sure what would have even felt sufficient. Because what I had just seen wasn’t part of any reality I was familiar with and I surely didn’t know what to say then and I don’t know if I even do now. It’s why I screamed, in a way that felt primal and cathartic. In a way that felt as close to approximating the inarticulable significance of the moment as possible. It was the kind of feeling they could never make commercials about because its lifespan is short and even reflecting on it now feels like I can only barely render it.

During the timeout, I texted my mom two words. “It’s happening.” It felt like several things were happening. Certainly, a historic comeback in Game 6 of a playoff series had just happened. But I think I was really talking about something else. Something that felt more in line with how monumental catharsis is supposed to be. I had said “this is the moment” so often throughout the series that it had probably already been canonized as cliché. Before Game 4. At halftime of Game 4. Before Game 5. At halftime of Game 5. I said it so much it seemed like I was trying to will it into existence. It represented something esoteric. Something that not everyone could understand. Like everyone can in some sense understand the phenomenology of a child growing up. What’s involved. How long the journey is. How cool it is when it finally happens. But unless it’s your child or your family, it can’t possibly resonate as much. Some of the nuances will assuredly be lost. It becomes something generalizable rather than something so specific that it consumes. So maybe it felt like a moment of transition for the franchise. To shed all the twenty first century mediocrity for something that indicated a push towards greatness. Until it wasn’t happening anymore. When Tony Snell threw away the inbounds pass with three seconds left, I sank to the ground. He put his hands on his head and eventually down over his face. I did the same.

We sat on a couch a few weeks before the 2013 NBA Draft. Phones in hand, we watched. What exactly, we weren’t quite sure yet. Fifteen seconds into the video was our first indication. “My name is uh… Giannis Antetokounmpo”. Honestly, watching the video now almost makes me blush. After he says his name, he then asserts that his aspiration is to be an NBA player. He says it with a thoughtfulness he still has and an innocence that makes me smile. He says it but doesn’t look directly into the camera when he does. Instead, he looks just off to the left, as if some part of him already knows that he should be looking towards a different world. He speaks with a kind of teenage uncertainty and vulnerability that is immediately juxtaposed next to an unmistakable, albeit somewhat muted confidence. Maybe it’s even closer to self-assuredness. There was an undeniable charm. Yet, it still didn’t seem like any part of him could have possibly anticipated what he would become. At the time, he was only 6’9” and still under 200 pounds. His stats were relatively unremarkable. Tools. Potential. Upside. Versatility. These were his listed strengths. They were words to gravitate towards. Words that often serve as early precursors to superstardom. But, admittedly at that point that is all they were. Words. Somewhat grainy footage of second division Greek basketball then started playing. It felt initially incomprehensible. It felt like we were in on some secret. Like it didn’t feel right that there was someone across the world, doing things I had never seen done on a basketball court before, being shown to me through what looked like a meticulously edited compilation of home video clips. Already he seemed impossible to conceptualize. His defining quality was his unknowability, his avoidance of intellectual reduction. There was no player comparison. There was no ability to project. And there certainly was no way to estimate the likelihood of success. He anticipated the Fraschillian “two years away from being two years away” moniker before it was an archetype. Yet, ultimately what he embodied was possibility. He represented a way forward. A symbol that might have the ability to one day literalize itself. And so, weeks later, we selected him fifteenth overall.

December 10, 2013. The first time I saw him in action. A cold December night against the Bulls at the UC. Giannis played 10 minutes that night and had one point. He turned it over twice and both were caused by stepping out of bounds on the catch. He was 19 and a rookie. He had still done very little to help me conceptualize what he was. Nights like that still endure in my mind, in a baby’s first steps kind of way. Nights like that are what makes it so impossible to consider his ascendancy. That was less than four years ago. He was a rookie that played less than 20 minutes on a team that won 15 games. But there was something even more crucial to be discerned from nights like that. A kernel of truth so often forced to acquiesce to his physical impossibility. There was an underlying sense of joy that permeated everything he did on the court. The way he carried himself. Even talking about joy feels too pithy, like I’m already not getting deep enough to capture his essence. But joy is so essential to personal and team success. And it’s not something that every team plays with. In a piece about the Clippers this week, Kevin Arnovitz affirmed, in an excerpt of a conversation with J.J. Redick that

“There’s a long-standing belief in the NBA, one that’s been popularized again with the emergence of the Warriors and the endurance of the Spurs: An NBA team must play with joy to win big. “I’ve always felt the best teams play with joy,” Redick sa[id]. “For some teams, joy is evident just by watching their faces. But it doesn’t always have to be outward, expressive joy in the form of laughing or smiling.”

And I think this begins to get at it. A joy that’s inward and below the surface. There is a level of carefreeness to his game. A distinct and unconditional love. A perpetual feeling, that if I can approximate vicariously, resembles an omnipresent awareness of how lucky he is to be doing what he’s doing. How much he’s embraced being the face of a franchise as a teenager with a humility and enthusiasm that belies his years and in fact, many of his predecessors in his profession. I don’t know, something about this team this year felt different, and difficult to put words to. There was a cohesiveness. A sense of shared vision. Maybe some of it was due to Jet. Maybe some of it was due to Beasus. There was a sense of veteran Dudley/Zaza-esque leadership residing in those guys that was now finally in accordance with the arrival of transcendent talent. But yet, Giannis was the catalyst for it all. On the court obviously. But also emotionally, in a way that was harder to elucidate but maybe more encompassing.

Undoubtedly, Thursday night was THE Giannis game. It was the defining moment of his career thus far. He played all but one minute in an elimination game. He was the driving force of the comeback. 34 points. 9 rebounds. It was a performance that served as the culmination of a season that had already signaled his full-fledged arrival. There are moments that are assuredly indelible. His step back buzzer beater at MSG. His dunk over Steph in the All-Star Game. But this was the night that he announced to the BC and to the world that he was a superstar. Giannis has always been a paragon of individuality, a player so unlike anyone that has come before him and quite possibly after him, that he exists in a sphere all his own. And because he is a player without comparison, it sometimes feels a little disingenuous to submit him to hierarchy. The skepticism latent beneath Bucks fandom often impels me to underestimate how good he is. There’s always an underlying this-is-why-we-can’t-have-nice-things emanating from somewhere deep inside. But now it feels like doubt finally has a worthy adversary. His pre- draft video presented a physiologically impossible teenager whose dream was to one day be a player in the NBA. Well, Giannis, I think I can safely say that you have achieved that. You are the second-best player in the Eastern Conference. A top five player in the league. A bona fide MVP candidate in any year, including this. A player with as much defensive potential as any that has ever entered the league. And the closest analogue the league has to LeBron. All of that feels weird to type. It feels like I just led myself down a path of hyperbole. But it’s all true. And it’s why Thursday night felt so important, even in a loss.

In the waning moments of Game 4 last weekend, we searched for consolation. For most of the game, the upper deck was home to very little of that, and a lot of inebriated confusion. The rally towels provided on the way in had since been set under chairs. But suddenly something happened. BUCKS IN SIX reverberated around the arena. Initially, and even upon reflection, some part of it felt genuinely inspirational. Like it maybe, at least ephemerally, had the power to eliminate any thoughts of here we go again and replace them with optimism. But eventually, it felt almost irritating. It continued to be shouted, louder and louder. Yet, it felt like the kind of thing you said at a high volume to convince yourself of its sincerity or its truthfulness. Its triteness precipitating its likelihood. I descended the steps to the fourth-floor concourse and couldn’t help but feel like I was being transported backwards. Fundamentally, the Bucks in Six chant felt anachronistic. Its origin was in an era in which the eighth seed was celebrated as success. An era steeped in mediocrity and one which the aforementioned chant was invoked as the mantra for a team that was little more than a cute underdog upstart. And thus because it was now invoked again, that’s how it felt like this team was going to be characterized. As a plucky, cute upstart. The thing about that though is that it just can’t be true anymore. This year was the last year for that kind of thinking. This team was the best Bucks team since the incarnation that was one win away from reaching the 2001 Finals. This series was right there for the taking. And yet, the liminality of this franchise is as compelling as it is scary as shit. Own the Future needs to become less of a hashtag and more of a direct course of action. Sure, Giannis is still only 22. But he is one of the best players in this league and at some point, the team around him and the extent of their achievement need to reflect that. This offseason is crucial. Questions abound. How much of this supporting cast is already maxed out? Surely this version of Tony Snell is invaluable in any team context and maybe more so in ours. A paradigm fulfilling 3 and D wing often tasked with guarding the other team’s best player while also being content to be the lowest usage player on the floor. But can we guarantee that this version of him will exist for years to come? I think so, but I better be 4 years, 48 million sure of it. In many ways, it seems like the league has passed Greg Monroe by, leaving behind a left handed emblematization of an era wholly unfamiliar with philosophical platitudes like pace and space and small ball. But the Greg Monroe we saw this year was exactly the player we were hoping to get. He anchored second units offensively with the kind of footwork and skill within fifteen feet that frankly not many other big men possess. But more importantly, his effort on defense was consistent and helped make up for some of his athletic deficiencies. He’s always had incredible hands. It’s what has allowed him to succeed defensively in the low post as somewhat of a lackluster rim protector. It’s what allows him to become a headache in pick and roll coverage when he blitzes and traps. But was the best case version of him this year? And while he can dictate whether or not he wants to come back next year, this particular incarnation of the Moose begs questions that are much more long term. His leadership and his willingness to be the resident enforcer are encouraging, even more so in the wake of his relegation to the bench. It’s hard to think his offense will go anywhere. But the sustainability of his defense revels in much greater uncertainty. And uncertainty is not the friend of a restructured or post 2017-18 4 years, 60 million decision.

Fortunately there are parts of the roster that do not pose as much of an existential threat. Khris Middleton is a top 30 player in the league. Period. His offensive versatility is almost paradoxically stunning because it’s so understated. He’s a forty percent three point shooter with a Joe Johnsonian propensity to take and make difficult shots in the mid range and in post ups. He’s a capable secondary ballhandler with the ability to create his own offense and is also deft at leveraging his athleticism with a knowledge of how to utilize angles, especially out of the PnR. Oh, and he’s in the conversation for the best defender on the team not named Giannis.

If Playoff Thon Maker is the Thon Maker we get to begin the year next year, then I feel like it is my public obligation to alert the rest of the league to watch out. Admittedly, I didn’t even expect him to play much this year. But he ultimately started almost the entire second half of the season and didn’t look at all out of place. He is (hopefully) our long term answer at center, a center that might shoot forty percent from three and be able to capably switch all five positions. The 23 point, 4 three, clutch catch and finish in transition, make Andre Drummond’s life miserable performance against the Pistons at the end of March will be etched into memory for a long time. Images from that game can constitute an early page in the scrapbook of his career. But maybe the most holy-shit-this-guy’s-gonna-be-fucking-awesome moment was a switch onto Kyle Lowry in Game 1 a couple weeks ago. A 1-5 PnR usually does not spell success for the defense if they try to switch. But Thon was forced to corral Kyle in an iso situation and almost ran him out of bounds. He’s 20 and he’s going to be really freaking good.

It made me happy that my probably unnoticed clamoring for Malcolm Brogdon before the draft last year was not completely lost in the wind. In many ways, he saved the team this year, which is somewhat scary, but probably more encouraging. He became the team’s starting point guard, and continually displayed the kind of situational maturity and fearlessness not usually endemic to NBA rookies. Obviously the Celtics game will always stand out. It was revelatory in ways both inspirational and concerning. That he was handed the keys down the stretch in that game. That Giannis and Khris willingly moved out of the way and allowed a rookie to shoulder the burden. And yet his steadiness and his negotiation of the sometimes difficult dichotomy between creating for himself and creating for others earned a late second victory over the highest seeded team in the conference. Whether or not he is the long term answer at point guard remains to be seen. But his importance to this team’s future does not.

But ultimately, Own the Future wasn’t supposed to be about any of these aforementioned guys. The background on my phone, the same since the summer of 2014, has but two players. One, already heavily talked about, with the number 34 on the front of his jersey. The other, with the number 12. The final destination of this franchise is not necessarily hard to conceptualize. There are certainly images that help the grander one materialize. The Larry O’Brien trophy. A championship banner. Giannis, showered in confetti, holding what recognizes him as Finals MVP. The journey towards that has started but the direction and the stops along the way are still mired in a philosophical haze of roster construction. And thus the biggest question that faces this franchise, is what exactly to do with Jabari Parker. After his rehabilitation from his second knee injury, there’s a chance he might be able to play the last month or so of next season. That’s one month of basketball, post second significant injury, before his rookie contract expires. There’s a pronounced uneasiness that accompanies the thought of having to pay him upwards of 20 million dollars a year. Maybe more. Maybe he seeks the max. And that decision will be heavily dictated by projection. By looking at the 20 point scorer from the first 50 games of the season and believing that he is the missing piece. That he is on the path towards anointment as an elite offensive player in this league. But there will almost assuredly be a voice avowing just as loudly that he will never be more than just an okay defender. That while he has already developed a Robersonian penchant for cutting off of Giannis’s penetration – unprecedentedly explosive at that – much of his offensive ability necessarily hinges on having the ball in his hands, creating for himself. He’s a capable passer but not a great one. He did shoot 37% from beyond the arc before his injury. That would seem like the key to his increasingly off-ball, second option future. I can’t help but think of Zach Lowe’s article from just before the season, in which he invoked Jabari’s figuration as a lump of clay.

“It still feels like we know nothing about this guy — what position he should play on offense, what position he defends, and what in the hell an allegedly Melo-style scorer is supposed to do while Point Giannis has the ball.”

So maybe he’s best utilized as the roll man on a PnR. Giannis had incredible success in that role this year. Maybe he can be put in Khris like situations in the mid-post that seek to actively exploit mismatches. Maybe his three pointer consistently hovers around 40% so that not only is his shot an undeniable weapon, but also his athleticism in attacking closeouts. Lowe goes on to say that

“Parker holds the promise of a multi-positional shape-shifter who could become really good at almost every offensive skill. That is a unicorn. Right now, he’s good at only one — and clueless at basically every part of defense.”

This was before the season. But it holds no less veracity now. Ever since his second year in the league, I felt like he would be best utilized as a second unit bludgeoner, someone how could effortless get 20 a night off the bench, while also being allowed the creative freedom to handle all of the non-Giannis, non-Khris playmaking. And while it would certainly be extremely difficult to construct a second unit defense around Jabari and Greg, the offensive virtuosity of both would be almost impossible to handle. But is that worth somewhere around 20 million? Probably not. If we could lock him at a Steph, my-ankle-is-like-glass type discount closer to 12-15 million then maybe. But frankly, his fit isn’t obvious and his developmental timeline is now behind the rest of the team. Blank slates are compelling, but not so much on a team that needs to take a step further on their journey to contention next season. There just isn’t as much time anymore to experiment, to figure it all out.

The future is now. It’s cliched, but it’s true. The buck surely doesn’t stop here.