Brook Lopez

Central Notes: Bucks, Middleton, Cavaliers, Donovan, Pistons

Bucks coach Doc Rivers responded to the team’s late-season swoon by holding a film session on Saturday, according to Eric Nehm and Shams Charania of The Athletic.

The meeting involved the team’s nine veteran rotation players — Giannis AntetokounmpoDamian LillardKhris MiddletonBrook Lopez, Malik Beasley, Bobby PortisPatrick Beverley, Pat Connaughton and Jae Crowder — and each of them was given the opportunity to share his perspective on the team’s recent slide and offer suggestions on how to address it.

“It’s only the start of these tough and necessary conversations,” a source told Nehm and Charania.

While the session may have cleared the air, it didn’t help Milwaukee end its slump as the Bucks fell to New York on Sunday while getting outscored 72-48 in the second half. Although they remain in second place in the Eastern Conference, the Bucks are now just one game ahead of the Magic and Knicks and a game-and-half up on the Cavaliers, as home court advantage in the first round is no longer a guarantee.

There’s more from the Central Division:

  • Middleton’s bad luck with injuries continued Sunday as he had to leave the game after being accidentally struck in the face by Donte DiVincenzo, Nehm and Charania add. Rivers said Middleton had to make an emergency trip to the dentist, which is why he didn’t return to the game. “You just feel bad for him. The guy can’t catch a break,” the Bucks‘ head coach said. “I mean, what are the odds you go into a game, ‘OK, tonight, it will be my tooth gets knocked out.’ He’s having one of those seasons right now, but that’s OK because it can all turn for him. I thought he came with great spirit tonight, too, so just tough luck.”
  • The Cavaliers had a disastrous end to their five-game Western swing as they let a 26-point lead slip away in Sunday’s loss to the Clippers, per Chris Fedor of Cleveland went 1-4 on the trip and returns home in fifth place in the East. “Just a very disappointing loss,” said Isaac Okoro, who was able to return after missing four games with pain in his big toe. “Think we all know right now we need wins. Wanted this one bad.”
  • Head coach Billy Donovan admits that the Bulls aren’t having the type of season he expected, according to Joe Cowley of The Chicago Sun-Times. Chicago is just a game ahead of Atlanta for ninth place in the battle to host next week’s play-in game between the two teams. “I certainly didn’t come here [when I was hired in 2020] to say, ‘Hey, listen, let’s be a play-in team,’” Donovan said. “When I sat down first with [executive vice president of basketball operations] Arturas [Karnisovas] and [general manager] Marc [Eversley] about this, it was to try and build something. I still feel like we’re building something, but I don’t think anyone is happy with where we’re at.’’
  • James L. Edwards of The Athletic ranks the Pistons‘ best assets heading into the offseason. Not surprisingly, Cade Cunningham tops the list, with this year’s first-round pick coming in second, followed by Ausar Thompson, Jalen Duren and Jaden Ivey.

Central Notes: Pistons, Giannis, Lopez, Craig, Phillips

The Pistons entered this season hoping to push for a spot in the postseason. They currently have the NBA’s second-worst record (12-53), so they’ll fall well short of that preseason goal. Still, they’ve won as many times (six) in their past 16 games as they did in their first 49 contests, and have shown real signs of growth as of late, according to Keith Langlois of and Omari Sankofa II of The Detroit Free Press.

During their past 16 games, the Pistons rank 20th in the NBA in net rating (-3.0) and 16th in defensive rating (113.0). Their pieces also seem to fit together in a way that they didn’t before their trade deadline overhaul, Langlois observes.

“We’re coming together as a team,” center Jalen Duren said, per Sankofa. “We’re all feeling good playing, I feel like everyone is catching their rhythm. You see (Marcus Sasser) coming in and doing his thing, Big Wise (James Wiseman) coming in and doing his thing. … Everyone’s contributing in their own way. That’s helping us.

“… We talk about running through the tape as a team and finishing the year strong, so that’s kinda been my mindset these last whatever games it’s been since All-Star break. Just running through the tape.”

Here’s more from around the Central:

  • In a conversation with Sam Amick of The Athletic, Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo offered some interesting thoughts on the integration of Damian Lillard, the team’s multiple recent coaching changes, and the MVP race, among other topics. Antetokounmpo admitted this might be “the hardest season” of his career due to the adjustments to the personnel and coaching changes, as well as the procedure he underwent on his knee last summer.
  • Bucks center Brook Lopez tells Mark Medina of Sportskeeda that he believes the ups and downs of the season have made the team more resilient, adding that Doc Rivers‘ impact on the club has been “incredibly noticeable” since he replaced Adrian Griffin. “He’s given us a great energy and a great confidence,” Lopez said. “Things have been simplified. We have a lot of people on the same page right now.”
  • Torrey Craig made his ninth start of the season on Thursday, replacing injured Bulls guard Coby White. As K.C. Johnson of NBC Sports Chicago details, Craig made a strong impression, knocking down four three-pointers and serving as the primary defender on Kawhi Leonard.
  • The Bulls announced today in a press release that rookie forward Julian Phillips has been diagnosed with a right foot sprain. The team didn’t offer any sort of recovery timeline for Phillips, simply stating that he’s wearing a walking boot and that his status will be updated as appropriate.

Southwest Notes: Sengun, Udoka, Rockets, Doncic, Pelicans

Alperen Sengun‘s breakout 2023/24 season almost didn’t happen, according to Jake Fischer of Yahoo Sports, who looks back at the Rockets‘ pursuit of Brook Lopez during 2023’s free agent period. Sengun would’ve still played an important role in Houston if the club had landed Lopez, but he likely wouldn’t have been in position to post the same type of numbers he has as the Rockets’ unquestioned starting center.

“You know, of course, when you’re hearing that sh-t, you’re getting nervous, of course,” Sengun said of last summer’s Lopez rumors. “You don’t want to lose your spot. But if (Lopez) was coming, I was ready for a fight.”

While Sengun has increased his offensive output significantly (21.3 points and 5.0 assists per game), he’s just as proud as the improvements he has shown defensively. He told Fischer that his focus on defense this season wasn’t a direct result of Houston’s interest in last season’s Defensive Player of the Year runner-up.

“I didn’t understand that as, ‘Brook was gonna come and I needed to (improve on defense).’ I just know I have to do a better job on defense. If you want to win, if you want to be a ‘winning player,’ you have to do everything on the court,” he said. “I mean, Brook Lopez is a really good player. A really good defensive player, you know? But, I mean, he’s a good shot blocker. I don’t think he’s as good one-on-one player (as me).

“We have different physical bodies. Like, he’s so tall. He’s big. He can block all the shots. I know I can’t block all the shots. I know that. I don’t have long arms. I’m not (that) tall. I just need to be where I have to be and just stay vertical. To jump straight up and just make their job harder.”

Here’s more from around the Southwest Division:

  • Speaking to Fischer, Sengun also had high praise for head coach Ime Udoka and the rest of the Rockets‘ coaching staff. “Ime’s a perfect coach. He’s the best coach I ever had, probably,” Sengun said. “But not just Ime. Our whole coaching staff is amazing. Everybody’s doing a great job. Everybody wants to win. I’ve never seen a coaching staff like this in my life. And when you see, you understand. They’re tough. They’re talking to us. They’re not scared of anything.”
  • Kelly Iko of The Athletic takes a look at the burgeoning relationship between young Rockets guards Jalen Green and Cam Whitmore, noting that the team – which ranks 24th in offensive rating – has an opportunity to experiment with the duo down the stretch now that a play-in spot is all but out of reach. “They complement each other well, being two wings that attack and are aggressive,” Udoka said. “When they’re both rolling on the wings and guarding at a higher clip, we like to see what they’re doing together. Two dynamic scorers, and we’ve taken a look at that.”
  • In leading the Mavericks to a win over Miami on Thursday, Luka Doncic helped the team snap a three-game losing streak and became the first player in NBA history to record 35-point triple-doubles in four straight contests. “You’re seeing something as rare as a Picasso,” head coach Jason Kidd said of his All-NBA guard, while recently acquired forward P.J. Washington called his new teammate’s play “insane,” per Tim MacMahon of ESPN. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” Washington said. “I mean, he’s one of the greatest players I’ve ever seen play and just to be on his team, I think it’s special. So just cherish every moment.”
  • After ranking 27th in Willie Green‘s first season with the team and 15th last season, the Pelicans are up to fifth in the NBA in three-point shooting (38.2%) in 2023/24. As Christian Clark of details, a combination of new additions – including rookie Jordan Hawkins – and internal improvements from players like Herbert Jones have made New Orleans a much more dangerous team from outside.

Seventeen More Players Become Trade-Eligible

Today is Monday, January 15, which means that a total of 17 players who signed free agent contracts meeting specific criteria this past offseason are now eligible to be traded.

Most offseason signees became trade-eligible on December 15, but players who met the following criteria were ineligible to be moved for an extra month:

  1. The player re-signed with his previous team.
  2. He got a raise of at least 20%.
  3. His salary is worth more than the minimum.
  4. His team was over the cap and used Bird or Early Bird rights to sign him.

The following players met that criteria and are eligible to be traded as of Monday:

(* Players marked with an asterisk have the ability to veto trades.)

Most of the players on NBA rosters are now eligible to be moved, though a small handful still can’t be dealt. That group includes Heat guard Dru Smith, who becomes trade-eligible on Monday, Hornets guard Ish Smith (trade-eligible on January 24), Lakers star Anthony Davis (trade-eligible on February 6), and Pistons forward Kevin Knox (trade-eligible on Feb. 8).

There are also several players who won’t become trade-eligible prior to this season’s February 8 deadline, including stars like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard, and Jaylen Brown. Players on 10-day contracts are also ineligible to be dealt.

Southwest Notes: Mavs, Luka, Cuban, Rockets, Lopez, Murphy, Smart

The Mavericks are starting to get a better idea of what their optimal lineup might look like, but they haven’t gotten a chance to take a longer look at it due to ongoing injury issues, writes Tim Cato of The Athletic.

As Cato details, the Mavericks like the idea of leaning more on lineups that feature Luka Doncic, Kyrie Irving, Dante Exum, and Dereck Lively. So far this season, Dallas has an eye-popping offensive rating of 145.5 to go along with a defensive rating of 97.0 when that quartet is on the court. However, the sample size is relatively tiny — the four players have shared the floor for just 31 total minutes across four games.

All four players have dealt with moderate or minor injuries at some point this season, which has limiteed the Mavs’ ability to play them more together. Irving has been active for the past three games after missing 12 consecutive contests due to a heel contusion, but Doncic (right ankle swelling), Exum (right heel contusion), and Lively (left ankle sprain) were all unavailable for Friday’s win over Portland.

The Mavs are hopeful that Doncic’s ankle ailment is just a day-to-day issue, writes Tim MacMahon of ESPN. In the team’s initial injury report for Sunday’s matchup with Minnesota, Doncic is listed as questionable, but Lively is doubtful and Exum has already been ruled out.

Here’s more from around the Southwest:

  • Longtime Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who recently sold his majority stake in the franchise, informed team employees this week that he’ll paying them bonuses that total approximately $35MM, as Tim MacMahon of ESPN relays (via Twitter).
  • Confirming offseason reports, Bucks center Brook Lopez said on Saturday that he seriously considered the possibility of signing with the Rockets as a free agent this past summer, per Jonathan Feigen of The Houston Chronicle (subscription required). “It was pretty close,” Lopez said. “There was a lot of mutual interest. Watching this season, they’ve obviously done some great things. I love what (head coach) Ime (Udoka) has been doing. Obviously, the group of guys they have here have done great stuff.”
  • After returning on Friday from a three-game absence due to left knee tendonitis, Pelicans sharpshooter Trey Murphy said his knee feels OK. However, he’ll be on a restriction of 20-to-25 minutes per game for now as the team manages some inflammation he has recently experienced in that knee, tweets Will Guillory of The Athletic. Murphy made just 1-of-9 shots in 17 minutes off the bench on Friday.
  • In a conversation with Marc J. Spears of Andscape, Grizzlies guard Marcus Smart spoke about his reaction to being traded last summer and how he’s adjusted to his new NBA home, as well as what it’s been like mentoring Ja Morant and his young teammates in Memphis.

Central Notes: Lopez, Ivey, LaVine, Cavaliers

Back in the system that he’s comfortable with, Brook Lopez looked like a Defensive Player of the Year candidate again Friday night, writes Eric Nehm of The Athletic. Protecting the rim in drop coverage, Lopez blocked eight shots as the Bucks held off the Knicks in their first in-season tournament game.

Lopez finished second in DPOY voting last season as he and Giannis Antetokounmpo presented huge obstacles for anyone trying to finish around the basket. However, new Milwaukee coach Adrian Griffin made a controversial change to the defense that called on players to cover more of the court in an effort to force turnovers.

In the wake of a slow start, Griffin met with some of his veteran players after Thursday’s practice and an agreement was reached to go back to the team’s traditional defensive scheme.

“Sometimes as coaches, we’re too smart for our own selves,” Griffin said, “and so a couple players came to me — I won’t disclose (them) — but they wanted Brook deeper in the drop and I was smart enough to listen to ‘em and it paid off tonight.”

There’s more from the Central Division:

  • Jaden Ivey needs to get better at the “non-negotiables” to increase his playing time, James L. Edwards III of the Athletic states in a mailbag column. Ivey is averaging 20.7 minutes per night in his first six games under new Pistons coach Monty Williams, which is about 10 minutes per game less than he saw as a rookie. Edwards explains that Williams is reluctant to play anyone who turns the ball over frequently, fouls opponents outside the paint, and messes up defensive assignments.
  • Zach LaVine‘s refusal to take responsibility for two defensive mistakes late in Friday’s loss to Brooklyn represents a huge problem for the Bulls, contends Darnell Mayberry of The Athletic. Mayberry argues that the team needs its leader to be accountable, but LaVine told reporters he felt like he made the right decision when he went for unsuccessful steal attempts that resulted in baskets.
  • The Cavaliers fell to 2-4 with Friday’s loss at Indiana, but they were encouraged by the return from injuries by center Jarrett Allen and point guard Darius Garland, according to Chris Fedor of (subscription required). It marked the first game of the season for Allen, who has been sidelined with a bruised ankle bone.

Central Notes: LaVine, Williams, Craig, Nesmith, Bucks

Bulls guard Zach LaVine refuted the idea that the team hosted a players-only meeting following last week’s season opener, as detailed by Yahoo Sports’ Vincent Goodwill. LaVine said the players didn’t have a team meeting, as suggested by head coach Billy Donovan, but instead had “a basketball conversation.”

We’re having conversations from top to bottom,” LaVine said. “If we don’t want the coaches in there while we are talking, that’s not a team meeting, it’s players talking amongst ourselves. I don’t know if coach got that misunderstood or not.

Goodwill writes the Bulls are at an inflection point. Notably, LaVine has been in trade rumors, Nikola Vucevic had a tense exchange with Donovan in the opener, and the team hasn’t been able to come to terms on an extension with DeMar DeRozan. On top of that, as Goodwill observes, Donovan has multiple years left following the extension he signed before last season and owner Jerry Reinsdorf hasn’t historically given up on long-term coaching contracts.

You know, we’re on our third year now, and I’ve been saying since training camp: It’s time to put pen to paper,” LaVine said. “If it don’t work, we understand the business of basketball. We have three All-Star players. We gotta make this work, from top to bottom. It’s not just the players. We gotta make this click.

We have more from the Central Division:

  • Donovan made a big change to the Bulls‘ starting lineup on Friday, substituting former No. 4 overall pick Patrick Williams out for Torrey Craig, who signed in the offseason. Williams is off to a disappointing start to the season, averaging 5.0 points and 3.5 rebounds while shooting a poor 33.3% from the floor in his first six games (five starts). According to NBC Sports Chicago’s Ryan Taylor, Williams took a mature approach to the move to the bench. “I was just going through a stretch there where I really couldn’t make a shot,” Williams said. “I wouldn’t say it’s difficult though [playing with the first group]. That’s a unit that has so much talent and can do so many different things on the court. It’s just more opportunity for whoever is playing in that second unit.
  • Following last season’s trade that sent Malcolm Brogdon to the Celtics from the Pacers, there was a sentiment on social media that Boston didn’t give anything of value in the swap, according to The Athletic’s Jared Weiss. Flash forward to now and Indiana forward Aaron Nesmith, who was part of the package, has become a crucial member in the Pacers’ rotation. Since arriving in Indiana, Nesmith is averaging 10.2 points per game and admitted he felt overlooked last summer. Now, he’s won over the coaching staff. “He’s been one of our best defensive players and obviously, we all know he can shoot the ball really well and he’s developed other parts of his game,” said head coach Rick Carlisle. “He drives it now, he’s making really good, simple reads and a very important part of what we’re doing here.
  • On Wednesday, the NBA’s then-league worst offense in the Raptors dropped 130 points on the contending Bucks. According to Eric Nehm of The Athletic, head coach Adrian Griffin spent the first few games of the season experimenting with defensive anchor Brook Lopez, putting him out on the perimeter more to help generate turnovers, though the Bucks wound up with the league’s second-worst defensive rating through their first four games. However, as detailed by Nehm in a separate piece, Griffin put Lopez back in drop coverage for Friday’s game against the Knicks, and New York mustered just 105 points against Milwaukee.

And-Ones: Extensions, Breakouts, B. Smith, Defenders

2023 set a record for rookie scale extensions, with 14 contracts signed before the October 23 deadline. Typically, rookie scale extensions go almost exclusively to stars or at least starters, but that wasn’t the case this year.

John Hollinger of The Athletic classifies it as a “middle-class revolution” with six players signing at or below the projected 2024/25 mid-level exception, and a couple others receiving slightly more than that. Several of those players come off the bench for their respective clubs.

As Hollinger writes, there are several reasons why both teams and players may have been motivated to reach new deals. For players, avoiding restricted free agency was surely a factor — Magic guard Cole Anthony and Hawks center Onyeka Okongwu recently said that was the case for them.

For teams, a salary cap that is projected to rise substantially in the coming years will help “water down” some of the contracts. Mid-sized contracts are also very useful for trade purposes, Hollinger observes, with free agency limitations likely a major consideration for the Celtics (Payton Pritchard) and Nuggets (Zeke Nnaji) due to their payrolls (both project to be over the second apron in ’24/25).

Here are a few more odds and ends from around the basketball world:

  • In another article for The Athletic, Hollinger lists 12 players he believes are primed for breakout seasons in 2023/24, with some fairly obvious choices and some under-the-radar picks as well. Nuggets guard Jamal Murray, Timberwolves guard Anthony Edwards, Warriors forward Jonathan Kuminga, Raptors forward Scottie Barnes and Hornets center Mark Williams are five of the players Hollinger thinks will see “big upticks in production.”
  • Former Cavaliers forward Bingo Smith has passed away at age 77, according to Tom Withers of The Associated Press. Smith played 10 season for Cleveland from 1970-80. Smith is still sixth in franchise history in points and fourth in games played, among other statistical marks. His No. 7 jersey hangs in the rafters as one of only seven players to have their number retired, Withers adds. “Bingo was always a giving teammate and one of the most fierce competitors I ever played with,” said former Cavs star and current broadcaster Austin Carr. “This is truly a sad moment in our franchise history and my heart goes out to his family.”
  • Jon Krawczynski and Josh Robbins of The Athletic ran an anonymous poll to see which players coaches identify as the best defenders in the NBA. Celtics guard Jrue Holiday was the only unanimous choice for first-team All-Defense, receiving all 12 votes. The remaining spots were filled by Jaren Jackson Jr. (forward), Brook Lopez (center), Alex Caruso (guard), OG Anunoby, and Draymond Green (the latter two tied for the second forward spot). Holiday was also third in the survey’s Defensive Player of the Year voting behind Jackson and Lopez, who finished first and second for the actual award last season. Evan Mobley, who was third in DPOY media voting last season and named first-team All-Defense, finished sixth in DPOY voting in The Athletic’s coaches poll and was second-team All-Defense.

Bucks Notes: Giannis, Lillard, Lopez, Middleton

Bucks superstar forward Giannis Antetokounmpo is already impressed with his new All-NBA teammate, point guard Damian Lillard, as Eric Nehm of The Athletic details.

“I feel like this is the first time in my career that I really don’t — I don’t want to say I don’t care because I care a lot — I don’t mind with my usage being [25%],” said Antetokounmpo, who had a career-high 38.8% usage rate last season. “I want him to be the primary point guard. He’s the point guard of this team.

“… So you got to give guys like him freedom, because he’s an artist, man,” Antetokounmpo continued. “He’s got to create art. And hopefully, when you’re next to him, you can also create your own art and then you create the art together.”

Neither Lillard nor Antetokounmpo is playing in Milwaukee’s ongoing preseason opener against the Bulls.

There’s more out of Milwaukee:

  • With All-Defensive guard Jrue Holiday now on the rival Celtics and longtime head coach Mike Budenholzer no longer with the club, Bucks center Brook Lopez is set to pilot the team on that side of the ball, writes Nehm in a separate piece. Lopez, who finished second in Defensive Player of the Year voting, is adjusting to new first-time head coach Adrian Griffin. “I think the biggest thing is just pressuring the ball,” Griffin said. “We want to pressure the ball, one through five, and that’s a little different for Brook, who has kind of been the quarterback in the paint, but that’s going to be situational where we’re going to ask him to pressure the ball, but there are times where he’s going to be back.”
  • Everyone on the Bucks, including Khris Middleton, suited up for a 5-on-5 practice Saturday, Griffin informed gathered journalists, per Nehm (Twitter link). That said, Middleton joined Antetokounmpo and Lillard on the Bucks’ bench Saturday, and did not partake in the team’s preseason opener.
  • In case you missed it, you can vote on whether or not the Bucks will best their projected 54.5-win over/under for the 2023/24 season.

Durant, Curry, LeBron, Other U.S. Stars Express Olympic Interest

The 2024 Olympics in Paris were a popular topic of discussion on media days around the NBA in Monday, with many of the league’s biggest American stars expressing interest in representing Team USA next summer.

Suns forward Kevin Durant, who won Olympic gold medals in 2012, 2016, and 2020, was adamant in addressing his 2024 plans, telling reporters, “I will play in the Olympics next year,” according to Tim Reynolds of The Associated Press.

Durant’s Suns teammate Devin Booker also indicated that he would accept an invite from USA Basketball, as Duane Rankin of The Arizona Republic writes, while KD’s former Warriors teammate Stephen Curry told reporters, “(I) definitely want to be on the team,” per Reynolds.

Lakers forward LeBron James, who was rumored last month to be recruiting his fellow U.S. stars to play at next year’s Olympics, confirmed his interest, tweets Jovan Buha of The Athletic. His teammate Anthony Davis wasn’t prepared to commit yet, telling reporters that it’s too early to say whether he’ll play (Twitter link via Buha).

Of course, one of the biggest question marks for Team USA is Joel Embiid, who has yet to take part in an international competition and has citizenship in France and the U.S. in addition to his native Cameroon.

As Tim Bontemps of ESPN relays (via Twitter), Embiid said today that he’d like to play in the Olympics but is still weighing his options. While the U.S. and France have already qualified, Cameroon will compete in a qualifying tournament next summer in the hopes of earning a spot in the 12-team Olympic field. Embiid, who was reportedly given an October 10 deadline by the French team, said he hopes to make his decision “in the next few days.”

“I love all three options,” Embiid said, per ESPN. “Cameroon, I’m born there, I’m from there and I always want to represent my country. But the goal is also to play in the Olympics. If we had a chance, or if we would qualify for the Olympics, that will be an easy decision. But that’s still up in the air. And I really do want to play in the Olympics.”

Here’s more on the potential Team USA roster, which can only accommodate 12 players: