Kawhi Leonard defends Giannis Antetokounmpo in a regular season game this season. Despite lofty expectations, the Clippers and Bucks fell way short. Photo courtesy of brewhoop.com.
LUKE VON ARX | STAFF REPORTER | firstname.lastname@example.org
Going into the 2019-20 NBA season, there were a couple of teams that experts saw as favorites to win the NBA championship. In that group of contenders were the Clippers and the Bucks, who ended up not even making the conference finals. Two of the most talented rosters in basketball get stunned by the Heat and the Nuggets, two teams that appear inferior on paper. Why did they lose so early in the playoffs?
Not only did the Heat beat the Bucks, they bullied them, ending the series in only five games. Giannis Antetokounmpo, who earned regular season MVP, did get hurt, but by the time he was injured, the series was already over.
Late in the game, they had no one to give the ball to. Whenever Antetokounmpo tried driving through the lane late in the game, the Heat collapsed on him, rendering it nigh-impossible for him to score. Other stars in the NBA can rise above a defender and shoot a three — not Antetokounmpo, though. Because he was forced to pass, the Bucks needed to hit outside shots; they didn’t.
Khris Middleton stepped up a couple of times, but only shot 41.7% from the field and 33.3% from 3-point range in their final series, which simply isn’t good enough for the “second star” on the team. Antetokounmpo needed a secondary star next to him who can take over the game when he gets double teamed — someone like Jimmy Butler or Damian Lillard to alleviate the pressure.
With Antetokounmpo choosing whether he wants to stay with the Bucks this summer, he should strongly consider leaving Milwaukee. If the Bucks don’t amass more talent around Antetokounmpo, then he will bolt in next summer’s free agency.
The Bucks can’t have a repeat of last season’s free agency to get Giannis to stay. They allowed Malcolm Brogdon to walk away, only to sign Brook Lopez and Eric Bledsoe. Lopez was seen as a three-point shooting center they couldn’t lose. Though his defense was normally stifling, he shot 43.5% from the field and 31.4% from 3-point range, below the 36% NBA average. Lopez made second-team all-defense this year, but in their final playoff series, Bam Adebayo dominated, averaging 17.2 points and 12.0 rebounds on 60% shooting from the field.
The Bucks considered Bledsoe to be a necessity, but in their final series he only averaged 11.8 points on 33.3% shooting from the field and 21.4% shooting from 3-point range. Bledsoe also made second team all-defense, but with three all-defense caliber defenders, why is Milwaukee letting the Heat score 113.4 points per game in the series? Meanwhile, they let Brogdon sign with the Pacers, one year after being one of only eight players in NBA history to join the 50-40-90 club.
Sure, in the regular season, the Bucks can get away with relying heavily on role players, but in the playoffs, where opposing defenses tighten up, the Bucks need more than two players to be dangerous.
“They’re surrounding Giannis with shooters, but Miami isn’t respecting those shooters,” Draymond Green said in an interview with TNT on Sept. 4. “They’re just going to continue to load up on Giannis. It’s trouble.”
The Bucks keep making bad decisions. Antetokounmpo is 25 years old; the average peak of an NBA player is 27. He can’t continue to waste his peak years. Portland is a landing spot where Damian Lillard would compliment him to a T.
The Clippers have the most talented roster in the NBA. Kawhi Leonard received the second Finals MVP of his career, the first player to have done so in two different conferences. Paul George is coming off a career-year in his prime, in which he was an MVP candidate.
Coming off the bench were Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams, both finalists for the sixth man of the year. Another spark was Marcus Morris, who averaged 20 points per game with New York. Patrick Beverley made the all-defensive second team.
With the amount of talent this team has, they should never be losing before the conference finals. But their play was nothing to write home about. Everyone thought they would turn it on for the playoffs, but they lost to Nuggets in the second round. So many things went wrong for this team. They went up three games to one over the Nuggets, and then everything fell apart.
Any time their lack of domination in the regular season was exposed in the regular season, they would point to load management; but in reality, there was a larger issue at hand.
In the final three games, Leonard and George shot 40.6% and 38.3% from the field, respectively. In the three most important games of the season, the two best players on the team shot 39.5% from the field.
A lot of the blame has been placed upon George, but the rest of the team stunk too. Leonard was almost as bad as George and hasn’t gotten any hate towards him. Lou Williams is supposed to be an offensive powerhouse, and he shot 14.8% from 3-point range in the series. “Sharpshooter” Landry Shamet shot 22.2% from 3-point range in the series, and I haven’t heard his name once.
Blame has to go to Doc Rivers as well. He is the first coach to lose multiple 3-1 leads. Rivers has now lost three 3-1 leads, and no other coach in NBA history has lost more than one. Rivers was fired two weeks after the season’s end, so it will be interesting to see if Rivers was the problem for the Clippers.
George asked the team to run it back next year with the same roster, and I understand where he is coming from, but if I were one of the players who played well and watched the “stars” play terribly, I would want to leave too.
It feels like there is a lot of drama surrounding the entire Clippers team and it feels like there has to be a change in some way. The Clippers had a tough time defending Nikola Jokic of the Nuggets because they don’t have a big man to defend the paint.
Harrell is an undersized big man who is better offensively than defensively, and Ivica Zubac looked lost whenever he had to guard Jokic. So maybe they should go after a big man who can defend another star big. Someone like Marc Gasol could help defend when they’re playing a star big.
The Clippers have many options this offseason, and I hope they don’t change up the team too much, but something does have to change. They struggled this year, but there is too much talent not to give it another chance.