The way the Lakers season has imploded, you can’t exactly blame Magic Johnson if he looks out at the Milwaukee Bucks tonight in Staples Center and says to himself, “man, I wish I were in charge of that team.”
The Bucks have the favorite to win the MVP award, have nothing close to the drama we’ve seen in L.A. in LeBron James’ first season and have a very good chance of beating out the Warriors for the best regular-season record.
Year I of LeBron has been a disaster for the best player in the sport. Whether it was Paul George, Kawhi Leonard or Anthony Davis, he never got the second star he needs. For the first time in his career, the NBA’s one indestructible player finally got KO’d for nearly a quarter of the season with an injury. When he tried a few weeks back to get Luke Walton fired, owner Jeanie Buss would have none of it. After eight straight trips to the Finals, he’s looking at his first lottery finish since 2005. Next season he turns 35.
At least he’s living year-round in L.A., which is why he wanted to join the Lakers on a max-salary deal in the first place. So it hasn’t been a total loss, with his many off-court endeavors including HBO’s The Shop.
While LA’s playoff chances are dimming with every loss, and LeBron’s defensive no-shows and bad body language go viral, the Bucks arrive with the best record in basketball, the top young talent in Giannis Antetokounmpo and not the kind of team-wrecking nonsense that LeBron’s agency, Klutch Sports, has put the Lakers through. As Magic has discovered, this is all part of the James Experience.
Unlike James and the Lakers, Antetokounmpo didn’t try to send half his team to the New Orleans Pelicans at the trade deadline for a member of Klutch’s growing stable of stars, Anthony Davis. He doesn’t roll that way. He’s all about what happens on the court and finally getting out of the first round of the playoffs this spring.
The great untold story of the Bucks’ success this season is that Antetokounmpo shares the floor with four other starters who all could be gone this summer via free agency. But you’d never know it by how the Bucks have shown the kind of chemistry so lacking with the Lakers and also a few other contenders, starting with the Boston Celtics, a team recently described by their veteran forward, Marcus Morris, as “a bunch of individuals.’’
“The thing I preach is, you check your ego at the door,” said George Hill, the veteran guard who went to the Finals with James and the Cavs last June and has been a playoff regular since his days starting out in San Antonio. “I tell the guys, “no matter who scores, the only thing we need to focus on is winning the game. When you become winners, everyone gets paid.”’
Make no mistake, the Lakers did not give LeBron a max deal last July to finish in the lottery for a sixth straight season. On Christmas Day. the Lakers were in fourth place in the West and LeBron was in the MVP discussion. Then James suffered his first major injury and it’s been a nightmare ever since, even as the best of the Lakers’ young players, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kouzma, have recovered from the prospect of being shipped to one of the NBA’s least-attractive markets, New Orleans, and have done their best to keep the Lakers in the hunt. It’s mostly the players who came in last summer with James’ blessing/approval, on one-year deals, who are not delivering, with the team 5-10 in its last 15 games, now in 10th place in the West.
Ingram, Kouzma and everybody else mentioned in trade talks for Davis knew that Johnson was desperately trying to move them, having struck out on George and Leonard last summer. But in what has to be an first for an NBA team, the guy sitting in the same locker room, still regarded as the game’s top player, was also trying to get them out of town. And now they’re supposed to respond to his leadership?
Once Klutch failed to strong-arm the Pelicans into trading Davis, he went public with his preferred destinations. His wish list included the Bucks, much to the joy of Milwaukee’s co-owner Marc Lasry. He told Forbes.com that he saw Davis’ comments and went on to talk about how his franchise, with its new $524-million Fiserv Forum, is now being viewed as a place by the league’s stars where they can win big. His comments wound up costing him $25,000 in a tampering fine from the NBA, but that’s known as a money well spent.
The Bucks don’t do soap operas, they just roll along winning games behind their 24-year old stud, who would be the franchise’s first MVP in 45 years. In Boston, Kyrie Irving’s impending free agency, the lack of acceptance of roles by some young players, and a Finals-or-best expectations have seemingly been too much for everyone’s coaching darling, Brad Stevens, So Davis might like the peace and tranquility offered by the Bucks locker room. Of course, he really does want to be a Laker and still might end up there this summer. But if he gets to Hollywood, he’ll enter LeBron World, a foreboding place where there is only king and everybody else is along for the ride, bumpy as it always is. Just ask Kyrie.
“With Boston, the focus is the future and not on the present,’’ former Sixers and Nets GM Billly King told Sirius XM NBA. “The Celtics are always talking about their lack of chemistry and having no fun. You should do that internally. Right now, “the Celtics’ are not important to those guys. Each individual player is what’s more important.”
So while the Bucks should have a layup in the first round, the Celtics are looking at the Sixers, with their top player, Joel Embiid, currently sidelined by an injury to the same left knee that required surgery two years ago. They’ve always got to deal with Attila the Hun, aka Jimmy Butler, in the locker room. No. 2 Toronto has also had some internal issues, mostly centered around how some players think rookie coach Nick Nurse bends over backwards to accommodate Kawhi Leonard. The ex-Spur apparently plays when he wants (he’s already sat out 17 games) and is viewed by more than a few teammates as being good as gone to the Clippers when we hit July 1.
Meanwhile, the Bucks haven’t lost two straight games and are on pace to win 63, something they have not done since 1972. Unlike Stevens, first-year coach Mike Budenholzer, previously with Atlanta and before that Gregg Popovich’s right-hand man for almost two decades in San Antonio, had the Bucks buying into their roles from the start of training camp.
“’Bud’ got them to realize that the “Greek Freak’ is the guy and nobody is trying to take the mantle from him,’’ King observed. “They all realize, as he goes, we all go. We’re the supporting cast. So you don’t see any animosity.’’
Just a rising force to be reckoned with when the playoffs start. Now that’s the kind of team Magic Johnson would love to have.
Listen to Mitch Lawrence on SiriusXM NBA Radio on The Starting Lineup, No Look Pass, NBA Today and NBA Weekend. Follow him on Twitter: @Mitch_Lawrence.
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