Cavs top (really bad) Bucks in preseason opener

October 9, 2013

This is Mike Brown’s basketball team. That’s the most important takeaway from Cleveland’s 99-87 win over Milwaukee tonight at The Q, a game that was even more lopsided than the score suggests. Cleveland displayed a defensive intensity from the jump I don’t think we’ve seen since MB 1.0 ended in 2010.

The Cavs forced 23 turnovers — but had 26 of their own — and held Milwaukee to 37.7% from the field and 22.2% from distance. MB’s defense closed well on shooters across the floor, protected the rim and won the rebounding battle 50-38 minus two rotation bigs in Andrew Bynum and Tyler Zeller.  The Bucks managed just 38 points in the first half, and their starters combined for 27 points in 90 minutes, led by O.J. Mayo’s 7 on 3-10 from the field.

Let’s compare this to Cleveland’s 2012-13 D under Byron Scott:

  1. The Cavs allowed opponents 101.2 points per game (No. 25 in NBA).
  2. Cleveland opponents shot 47.6% from the field (No. 30).
  3. Cleveland opponents shot 37.2% from 3 (No. 25).

I’m not saying it’s all peaches and roses, or that the Cavs’ D is suddenly good again. Keep in mind this is a Bucks team without a real offensive threat, outside shooter, except for Caron Butler in the corner, or offensive identity. I’m just saying I like the progress and MB’s attention to detail — he must have called five timeouts tonight after missed assignments handed Milwaukee open shots.

All right, on to five quick observations:

* Dion Waiters impressed on both ends. He abused O.J. Mayo head-to-head. Waiters finished with 12 points on 4-11 shooting in 24 minutes and a game-high +/- of +23; Mayo’s +/- was a game-worst -24 in only 19 minutes. Dion’s shooting form looks much improved, and I loved his willingness to attack the cup. Twice he was rejected by LARRY SANDERS! only for Tristan Thompson to clean up the mess.

** The second unit is in good hands with Jarrett Jack and C.J. Miles. I tweeted during the game the closest thing the reserves had to glue last year was Luke Walton, perhaps the reason why Cleveland lost so many games in the second quarter. Jack’s a superb facilitator — he dished out a game-high 5 assists in 16 minutes — and can score in bunches, as he proved for Golden State in last year’s playoffs.

And C.J. is arguably the team’s fourth-best wing scorer, behind the obvious Kyrie Irving, Waiters and Jack. He drilled two from distance tonight and tallied an efficient 12 points on 4-7 in 19 minutes. Of the three vying for that starting SF spot — Alonzo Gee, Earl Clark and Miles — I think C.J. has the slimmest chance but may be most important to this year’s success. Gee and Clark bring athleticism and length, but C.J.’s the far superior scorer of the three, and this team needs his instant offense when Kyrie and Dion sit.

*** Like Saturday’s Wine & Gold scrimmage, No. 1 overall pick Anthony Bennett started slow. Bennett’s still struggling with his jumper, especially from deep, where he finished 0-3 tonight. Bennett air-balled two 3-point attempts Saturday, air-balled a third tonight and hit nothing but backboard on a fourth. Similar to Saturday, Austin Carr commented he’s fading rather than jumping straight up, much like Dion in his rookie campaign. This guy shot 53% from the field and 38% from 3 last year at UNLV, so I trust he’ll figure it out.

Despite his 2-12 showing, Bennett impressed me inside. He was blocked on his first few interior attempts, but then started attacking his defender. He attempted eight foul shots in 23 minutes; unfortunately, he missed five of them — another issue he’ll need to correct with the coaching staff. Bennett also tied Anderson Varejao with a game-high 10 rebounds, four of which came on the offensive end. The aggressiveness is clearly there; the confidence just has to follow.

**** Of the mop-up guys, Kenny Kadji looked the most NBA-ready … and may very well be playing himself onto this roster. Henry Sims was inserted before Kadji in the first quarter, but Kadji ultimately tallied more minutes, 12; more points, 15; and more rebounds, 5. Kadji almost had a nice chase-down block, too, but was whistled for a first-half foul.

Kadji has a nice inside-out game, can move up and down the floor, is a strong interior presence and possesses a nice frame — 6’10”, 242 pounds. If he doesn’t make it in Cleveland, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s on a 15-man roster in another city by the end of November. (And if that doesn’t work out, he can always go to work for his family at Kadji Beer, the Budweiser of Cameroon!)

***** The Bucks are bad. Like really bad. I put out a Twitter message asking Bucks fans to chime in on their team’s offensive identity and/or who’s their primary option. One response read: “Hopefully [Andrew] Wiggins.”

LARRY SANDERS! is LARRY SANDERS! Milwaukee probably has something in Greece’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, who finished with 14 points, but the Kevin Durant comparisons need to stop. O.J. Mayo’s an overpaid volume shooter at $8 million per year on a team where he’s probably the No. 1 late-game option. And Brandon Knight’s done nothing to prove he’s a starting-caliber PG at this level.

MVP OF THE GAME

This award goes to Tristan Thompson, who finished with 17 points and 8 rebounds, 5 offensive, in 25 minutes. Thompson was a vacuum around the hoop; between he, Varejao and Clark, I see no reason why Cleveland can’t lead the league in both offensive rebounds and second-chance points. Thompson’s right-handed foul shot also looked good; he finished 3-4 from the line.

ON TO THE NEXT ONE

Cleveland’s in Orlando at 7 p.m. EST on Friday night. The game’s on NBA TV. A good chance to see Orlando’s young wing talent, particularly Victor Oladipo, who had some, um, not-so-nice words for Cleveland a month ago, and Tobias Harris. I’ll be at a hockey game, but try to catch a replay and blog some observations over the weekend.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.

RELATED: KYRIE IRVING SHINES IN CAVS’ WINE & GOLD SCRIMMAGE


30 in 30: MILWAUKEE BUCKS

February 19, 2013

It’s hard to imagine a playoff team less sexy than the Milwaukee Bucks. At 26-25 coming out of the All Star break, Milwaukee seems locked into the Eastern Conference’s No. 8 playoff seed — a borderline .500 team both at home, 14-12, and on the road, 12-13. They’re the only likely playoff team in the East that has a negative points differential, scoring a 13th-ranked 97.5 points per game, but surrendering a 17th-ranked 98.5 to opponents. Add in a coaching change — the Bucks and Scott Skiles ‘parted ways‘ in early January — and you’d be surprised this is a playoff team.

Milwaukee’s problems begin in their backcourt. On paper, Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis are the team’s two top scorers, at 18.5 and 18.4 points per game, respectively; the duo has started in all 51 of the team’s games, playing around 37 minutes each. Jennings, 6.1, and Ellis, 5.5, each average respectable assists, though their assist-to-turnover ratios (2.3 for Jennings, 1.8 for Ellis) are lower than backup 1-guard and NBA journeyman Beno Udrih. Jennings, to his credit, is averaging a career-high in assists, but also a career-high in turnovers.

RELATED: 30 IN 30 — MIAMI HEAT

Jennings, 39.5%, and Ellis, 40.1%, could be more aggressive players offensively, often settling for outside jumpers (hence the low field goal percentages) when they’re both capable slashers; Jennings is shooting the ball 16.8 times per game, Ellis 17.4. Ellis is frequently playing off the ball, so it’s not much of a surprise that his assist numbers are his lowest since the 2009-10 season, yet his FG percentage is also the lowest of his career. (In 2007-08, he shot 53.1% from the field.) Even worse, Jennings is a 36.4% shooter from distance, and Ellis 23.2%.

Ellis has an $11 million player option in 2013-14, and my best guess is he picks it up, knowing full well his services, and diminished numbers, will not fetch those kind of dollars. (Rumors, though, are swirling he very well could reject that option and enter free agency.) Jennings, on the other hand, is a restricted free agent, who’s apparently seeking a max contract. Jennings has made no bones about his desire to play in a bigger market for years now, and he’s even speculated that the fact he plays in Milwaukee is what cost him an All Star appearance. If point guards like Ty Lawson, Stephen Curry and All Star Jrue Holiday are fetching deals in the $11-12 million dollar range, all of whom are probably ahead of Jennings, Brandon’s probably not getting max dough.

RELATED: 30 IN 30 — MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES

Like Paul George and Danny Granger in Indiana, Jennings and Ellis, at least in my eyes, are too much of the same player (for different reasons). Both are streaky scorers capable of lighting you up for 35 one night and going 3-18 the next. Both are not true 1-guards in the sense they have limited distribution skills and see themselves, not their teammates, as the primary offensive option. Oh, and both are weak defensively.

On a positive note, Larry Sanders’ play has impressed me thus far this season, as he’s emerged as Milwaukee’s most impactful player. His 18.4 player-efficiency rating is the most of any Bucks’ player to appear in at least 45 games, and in only 25.4 minutes a night, he’s averaging 8.5 points and 8.5 rebounds. In only his 3rd year out of VCU, Sanders’ stats have more than doubled across the board over 2011-12, when he played only about 12 minutes a night. He’s now a blossoming presence around the rim on both ends — his 3.16 blocks per game lead the NBA — and with a deadly defensive duo of he and Samuel Dalembert, a 20.4 PER in 31 games, Milwaukee’s capable of making up for a lot of Jennings’ and Ellis’ apathy on the defensive end.

RELATED: 30 IN 30 — LOS ANGELES LAKERS

Offensively, Milwaukee sometimes has trouble finding help for Jennings and Ellis. Mike Dunleavy and Ersan Ilyasova each average 11.2 points per game and are Milwaukee’s only two consistent 3-point shooters. (The Bucks are tied for 20th in 3-point percentage and 26th in FG percentage.) Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, now in his 5th year out of UCLA, has yet to develop into the player everyone thought he might be — his 7.8 points per game is a career-high, but he’s averaging career lows in FG percentage, FT percentage, rebounds and blocks, and his 10.49 PER ranks 275th in the NBA, a spot behind Jamaal Tinsley. (Yeah, I didn’t know he still playing either.) Luckily for Mbah a Moute, Marquis Daniels, who’s started 17 games for the Bucks, has an even-lower 9.7 PER.

Interim coach Jim Boylan’s squad could have something in 22-year-old rookie John Henson, 5.9 points and 4.3 rebounds in 12.8 minutes, who’s shown flashes in limited time. Henson’s 16.93 PER is respectable, almost 2 points ahead of the 15.0 league average, and he’s shown flashes as a finisher around the rim at 6’11”. Tobias Harris, 20 and a second-year pro, is averaging 4.9 points in only 11.6 minutes and has shown flashes of scoring from the 3-spot.

RELATED: 30 IN 30 — LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS

4 games up on No. 9-seed Philadelphia, Milwaukee’s a good bet to earn a postseason berth, barring a major breakup, which, to be fair, is very well likely, with expiring contracts in Jennings (a restricted free agent with a $4.33 million qualifying offer), Dalembert ($6.7 million), Ellis ($11 million) and Udrih ($7.8 million) that could return a prized asset, or at least a few high draft picks. Jennings, Dalembert and Ellis are frequently mentioned names on the rumor mill, with Josh Smith’s expiring deal even circulated as a potential target.

Barring a minor miracle that prompts Jennings and the Bucks to mutually commit long term, Milwaukee needs to find a face to its franchise, either via free agency or a home-run in the draft. Once that piece, preferably a scoring 2-guard, is brought in, pieces like Sanders, Ilyasova and Henson can grow as a unit. If Ellis and Jennings do not return, Milwaukee will only have about $30 million on the books heading into next season, though that includes $6.7 million per to Drew Gooden, who’s played less than 120 minutes this season, through 2014-15.

RELATED: 30 IN 30 — HOUSTON ROCKETS

Bottom line: there’s reason for optimism in Wisconsin, but probably after a long rebuild.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.

FULL COVERAGE: ARMCHAIR 3’S 30 IN 30 SERIES


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