Each week during the 2020-21 NBA season, we will take a deeper dive into three of the league’s biggest storylines in an attempt to determine whether the trends are based more in fact or fiction moving forward.
We are sleeping on the Milwaukee Bucks
During the NBA’s abbreviated offseason, Milwaukee was the hub of the league’s universe. With Giannis Antetokounmpo’s impending free agency looming over the organization, the Bucks moved heaven and earth to acquire one-time All-Star guard Jrue Holiday in a demonstration of their commitment to winning.
Bogdan Bogdanovic was going to join them in a sign-and-trade deal that would have cemented sweeping changes for a contender that had fallen short of its championship goal, only Bogdanovic and the NBA were not consulted on the handshake agreement. A number of teams proceeded to operate as if Antetokounmpo was not going to sign his supermax extension offer, and for a fleeting moment, it seemed like he might not.
Then, he did. It is what we all wanted, right? A superstar staying in his small market, trying to bring a title to the city that drafted him rather than seeking the next super-team in Miami, Los Angeles or New York. And all is quiet. Since opening week, Antetokounmpo and company have been on the league’s marquee TNT slate twice — against the Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Lakers. They were the headliner in neither game.
The Bucks are 13-8, second place in the East, owners of the NBA’s best offensive and net ratings, and you hear barely a whisper about them outside Milwaukee. By all accounts, they are a championship contender once again, led by a beloved superstar, and they barely register a blip in the national basketball discourse.
It is confirmation that Antetokounmpo has fallen into the no-man’s land that has entrapped many a legend-in-the-making before him: We have grown bored with his monster stat lines and are waiting for the playoffs, when either a title launches him into another stratosphere or failure keeps him from breathing rarefied air.
Is this what would have happened had LeBron James remained in Cleveland instead of taking his talents to South Beach? Would the Cavaliers have kept cycling through tertiary stars in search of someone who could help James get his ring, and until one should come we leave the back-to-back MVP on the back burner?
Aren’t most of us — media, fans and probably the majority of players — clamoring for an end to the super-team phenomenon and Ringz Culture? We want the hero we believe in, the one who chooses loyalty over convenience, the one who seeks the road less traveled. Antetokounmpo is him. He is Antetokounmpo, and yet his Bucks have nearly fallen off our NBA radar. We all have to do better chronicling his hero’s journey.
The 2021 All-Star Game is a terrible idea
On the heels of the nation’s deadliest month of the coronavirus pandemic, the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association reportedly agreed to host an All-Star Game in Atlanta on March 7.
Of course this is a terrible idea. You know it. I know it. LeBron James knows it.
“I have zero energy and zero excitement about an All-Star Game this year. I don’t even understand why we’re having an All-Star Game,” James told reporters on Thursday night. He called the decision to jam the event into a scheduled five-day break in the season “a slap in the face” and questioned the thought process behind hosting it in an “open” city during the pandemic. “I’ll be there physically, but not mentally.”
Well, that sure has us all pumped for the game!
The league has shown an ability to keep its players relatively safe to this point, save for potential longterm effects from COVID-19 we are yet to understand. Nobody tested positive in the latest round of diagnoses. But why risk further spread among players, coaches and personnel traveling for an exhibition game? That is the most basic question, one not immediately explained by financial incentives, but surely there are many.
“I think it’s kind of forced,” Houston Rockets star John Wall added in his postgame interview on Thursday, “but we all understand it’s a business and what they’re doing it for and what they’re trying to get out of it.”
This is a public relations nightmare for the NBA, and it could go well beyond players not wanting to participate. Bars and nightclubs in Atlanta are open, and patrons are not required by law to wear masks. The arena that will host the All-Star Game is currently open to a limited number of fans, one of whom had a maskless shouting match with James from her front-row seat during Monday’s Lakers-Hawks game.
The league can fine its players for venturing out in Atlanta and hold them out of the game for any violation — another potential diminishment of the exhibition — but it cannot make rules for family, friends and fans who might also converge on the city for a smaller-scale version of the annual All-Star weekend party.
Not only does an All-Star Game place players, coaches and league personnel at greater risk to COVID-19, but it has the chance to be a super-spreader event in a state that registered its highest seven-day number of coronavirus-related deaths this past week — one of the six highest death rates in the country right now.
What are we doing? There are any number of alternatives to hosting a meaningless game during a pandemic. Televise virtual 3-point and dunk contests from each participant’s individual location. Name the All-Stars. Have them play an “NBA 2K21” tournament on Twitch. Just don’t host an unnecessary All-Star Game.
Zach LaVine should be an All-Star
There is more intrigue about who will be named All-Stars this year than there is around the actual game, especially in an East that has seen an influx of star talent. That could put the squeeze on the conference’s history of fringe All-Stars — from Mo Williams and Devin Harris in 2009 to D’Angelo Russell a decade later.
Chicago Bulls guard Zach LaVine is one of several players about to feel that squeeze, even if he believes, as he told “Bulls Talk Podcast,” “Whenever I step on the court, I think I’m the best player on the court. That’s just me. Over the last couple years, I don’t think there are 12 players in the conference better than me.”
The 25-year-old is averaging 26.5 points, 5.3 rebounds and 5.2 assists per game on nearly 50/40/90 shooting splits. Those are All-Star averages if I ever saw them. No one who has hit those counting statistics for a full season has ever missed an All-Star Game, much less somebody who is scoring so efficiently.
But we need look no further than Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal last season for evidence that offensive production does not guarantee a selection. On the day All-Star voting ended last season, Beal was averaging 27.2 points, 6.3 assists and 4.5 rebounds for a 14-28 team placed 12th in the East. The Wizards were horrible defensively, and Beal’s indifference was a contributing factor. He was not selected.
LaVine is in a similar scenario. His porous defense has contributed to the league’s fourth-worst rating on that end. He is arguably the league’s sloppiest passer, and his 4.1 turnovers per game support the eye test. There is no actual evidence his prolific scoring contributes to winning basketball. The difference between Chicago’s offensive rating with or without LaVine is negligible, and the defense is 14.5 points per 100 possessions worse with him on the floor, according to Cleaning the Glass. His net rating is the Bulls’ worst.
On the other hand, Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young was averaging 29.2 points, 8.6 assists and 4.7 rebounds for a last-place team when voting ended a year ago and made his first All-Star appearance. More fan votes than anyone else in the East helped his cause, but he was just as bad defensively — if not worse.
If Thursday’s release of the first round of fan voting is any indication, LaVine will get little help from the fans, who account for 50% of the total vote (players and media each hold a 25% share). LaVine was fifth in voting among guards in his conference behind Beal, Kyrie Irving, James Harden and Jaylen Brown.
That leaves LaVine’s All-Star status in the hands of coaches who are well aware of his limitations beyond scoring. If the current voting holds, and there is a good chance it does, the East’s starters would be Beal, Irving, Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant and Joel Embiid. Only seven spots remain. Absent a shock, Harden is a likely lock, as should be Brown, Jayson Tatum, Jimmy Butler, Khris Middleton and Domantas Sabonis.
Do we think LaVine warrants the final spot in a group that also includes Young, Bam Adebayo, Ben Simmons, Gordon Hayward, Russell Westbrook, Julius Randle and a trio of Toronto Raptors candidates? As we learned last year, when coaches picked only players from the East’s top five teams, ties go to players who contribute to winning, which means LaVine — for all his scoring efficiency — will come up short.
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