Michael Facci is a contributor at TheFiveBy5.com.
There is essentially two and a half months’ (or 30 NBA games) left to be played by each team this season and still many questions left to be answered. Will Golden State win their third championship in four seasons? Does LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers have what it takes to save their season? While Golden State may seem to be all but a sure thing to represent the West in the NBA Finals (sorry Rockets), there is one “surprise” team that may stand in Cleveland’s way.
If you guessed the Boston Celtics, you are incorrect. While Boston has led the Eastern Conference since virtually the second week of the NBA season (thanks to a sixteen-game winning streak), they have looked far more like mere mortals over the past month (6-5 since January 1st).
Another likely candidate to dethrone the Cleveland Cavaliers are the Toronto Raptors. However, how many times have you seen the Raptors look fantastic during the regular season, just to once again underperform in the playoffs? The answer, too many times. DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry’s struggles in the playoffs have been well documented as their playoff shooting percentages are about as terrifying as the idea of Kid Rock running for mayor of Detroit.
With that being said, the team that I believe will give the Cleveland Cavaliers the biggest scare in the Eastern Conference has ironically not won a playoff series since the 2000-2001 NBA season. This Playoff drought currently stands as the longest streak in the NBA. The team that I realistically believe has a chance to overtake the Eastern Conference is, the Milwaukee Bucks.
While this team may not be labeled as a “surprise”, they would be an unlikely favorite to overcome Boston, Toronto and Cleveland. The Bucks are led by none other than, the number two scorer in the NBA, MVP candidate, Giannis Antetokounmpo (aka The Greek Freak). Alongside Antetokounmp is six-year veteran, Khris Middleton. Middleton is one of the best bargains in the league with career highs across the board (20.4 ppg, 5.3 rpg and 4.3 apg). They also have the NBA’s reigning rookie of the year Malcolm Brogdon. Brogdon has shown steady progression from year one to year two by increasing his points per game and rebounds per game. (We don’t know the length of Malcolm’s injury that he suffered Thursday evening, but are monitoring the status of this injury as it will play a significant factor in what Milwaukee does with their backcourt.)
Looking to add a starting point-guard to the backcourt, Milwaukee made a mid-season trade for Suns’ guard Eric Bledsoe, in exchange for center Greg Monroe. Bledsoe has had his ups and downs, but it takes awhile to get accumulated with a new roster.
Last season, Milwaukee finished as the 6th overall seed in the Eastern Conference. At this moment, the Milwaukee Bucks are the 7th best team in the Eastern Conference. Looking to change things up, the Bucks fired head coach Jason Kidd, on January 22, 2018. Failing to reach expectations, the Bucks front office had no other choice then to let Kidd go. So, with Kidd out, the reigns have been given to Joe Prunty.
Joe Prunty got his start at the University of San Diego High School, where he coached none other than current Los Angeles Laker head coach, Luke Walton. Prunty then went on to win three championships as an assistant coach to future hall of famer, Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs. Joe is no stranger to the sidelines, bringing 18 years of coaching experience to the Bucks and has Milwaukee at 4-1 since taking over as head coach. The Bucks have looked very pedestrian on both sides of the ball ranking 17th in scoring (with 105.2 points per game) and are 19th in the league in defensive efficiency (106.7) What really tips the scale for Milwaukee, is ranking dead-last in rebounds per game with an average of 38.7.
While the Bucks have played below average this season, they are winners of four of their last five games. Milwaukee will likely be in the trade market to add depth to their front-court, but the biggest addition they could receive is the return of starting power-forward, Jabari Parker. The former Blue Devil is coming off his second ACL tear in his right knee in the last three seasons, raising questions of just how effective he can be this season as he enters restricted free agency this summer. Parker is set to make his season debut (on a minutes’ restriction) against the New York Knicks, Friday, February 2nd.
The glaring hole on this team is at the center position. For the time being John Henson and second year, former top 10 draft pick, Thon Maker have shouldered the load. While both men are long by NBA standards, they are outmatched on most nights by opposing teams’ centers. However, their weaknesses are overshadowed by the brilliance of the “do it all” sensation, Giannis Anteokounmpo.
The “Greek Freak” became just the 5th player in NBA history to lead his team in all 5 major statistical categories and once again leads the Bucks in points, rebounds, and assists per game. Recent trade rumors have the Bucks actively looking to get their hands on a big man, and the two most common names that have been thrown around are none other than the reigning NBA rebound leader Hassan Whiteside of the Miami Heat, and the NBA’s five-time defending field goal percentage leader, Deandre Jordan of the Los Angeles Clippers.
Neither man will come cheap, but if we learned anything from the recent Blake Griffin trade, unloading a lengthy contract with a high dollar amount benefits your teams’ cap space for the future. In the summer of 2016, Hassan Whiteside signed the largest per year contract in Miami Heat history. The contract was 4 years and just over 98 million dollars total (equating to an average of over $24.6 million per year). Hassan Whiteside has fallen a bit out of favor with Heat coaches as his playing time is down nearly seven minutes per game compared to last season. This is an organization that is still paying Chris Bosh $52 million through the 2019-2020 season and could use some cap relief and young talent.
One trade I like for both Milwaukee and Miami is Center Hassan Whiteside and Power Forward Okaro White, in exchange for (soon to be restricted free agent) Power Forward Jabari Parker, Power Forward/Center John Henson, and Shooting Guard, Rashad Vaughn. It is possible that a future first round pick could be included down the road, but if Miami is looking to shed a massive amount of salary and still be able to be in the thick of things in the East, this is a move they may want to execute (with or without a draft pick in exchange).
Milwaukee has a $5 million trade exception that expires this month from last year’s Roy Hibbert trade to Denver. So, I expect them to use that to bolster their roster depth in any deal. The previous trade mentioned would allow Miami to escape the remaining $52.5 million left on Whiteside’s contract and bring in the former #2 overall draft pick, Jabari Parker to Miami. Parker has improved in each of his three seasons and holds a career 49% shooting percentage. Henson is still due just over $20 million total through the 2019-2020 season, but this move allows Miami to move Henson back to his natural position of power forward and open minutes up for their first-round draft pick, Bam Adebayo.
Deandre Jordan is someone that may be a bit tougher to acquire considering Los Angeles will be looking for a combination of draft picks and cap relief as they look to continue to clear the books moving into the summer of 2018. Jordan has a player option of just over $24 million for next season and may not fit into Los Angeles’ plans in the near future. With Lou Williams also being rumored to be on the trading block, the Clippers are expected to be active before the deadline. I see a very similar trade of Jabari Parker and John Henson for Deandre Jordan. This move would allow Los Angeles to pair Parker with recently acquired Tobias Harris and with the money saved by ridding themselves of Jordan, they will have the proper funds to match any offer that Jabari may receive this summer as he becomes a restricted free agent.
Los Angeles will have quite the bidding war taking place as they field offers for Jordan, but with the threat of Jordan being able to opt out of his contract this summer, the Clippers may want to strike while the iron is hot and take the best possible offer for Deandre rather than let things play out. While Jordan’s offensive numbers such as scoring and free throw attempts per game are down a bit after the departure of Chris Paul, the seven-footer could step in immediately to fix the Bucks rebounding issue as he has finished in the top three in rebounds per game for each of the last five seasons and currently sits at second in the NBA pulling down 14.9 rebounds per game.
If Milwaukee can pull off one of these two moves at the deadline, I expect them to not only make a jump from the 7th seed, but potentially possess home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs as a top four seed. If they can land a home court advantage in the first round, not only do I see them winning a first round matchup against the likes of a Washington, Miami, or Indiana, I see this team giving Boston or Toronto some serious trouble in the second round. Unless Cleveland can make a serious move within the next seven days by the NBA trade deadline, the East is about as wide open as a 7/11 in the middle of the night. With news dropping left and right as we approach the trade deadline, stay tuned to see how an already exciting NBA season unfolds.
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