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Areas Of Concern: Central Division

With October in the rearview mirror, Spencer Davies kicks off Basketball Insiders’ “Areas Of Concern” series, starting with the Central Division.

Spencer Davies

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It’s the first Monday of November and the NBA is starting to get out of the opening portion of the season and into full swing. Teams are starting to jell, players are getting back into a rhythm and the standings are already beginning to take shape.

With October in the rearview mirror and the winter months around the corner, Basketball Insiders will begin an “Areas Of Concern” series, analyzing the issues happening within each division as it stands currently.

To kick things off, we’ll dive into the Central.

Injury Bug In Chi-Town

Dysfunction is usually a big part of the reason why Chicago has been a bottom dweller in the league, but it’s been more of the contagious injury bug that’s had a sharp bite on the team.

We learned before the preseason started that Lauri Markkanen sprained his elbow and would miss the first six-to-eight weeks. Denzel Valentine hurt his ankle around the same time and still hasn’t returned as of yet. Kris Dunn will be sidelined for a while longer after spraining his MCL on a layup attempt in Dallas. Most recently against the Hornets, Bobby Portis suffered almost the same exact injury as Dunn in the other knee.

The Bulls aren’t supposed to “wow” anybody this season, but they’ve definitely been dealt a bad hand to kick off their 2018-19 campaign.

Motor City Shooting Woes

While Blake Griffin is producing MVP-worthy numbers and putting the squad on his back is an awesome story that deserves praise, there is an underlying theme of this ball club so far that is being masked.

The Pistons don’t make threes. Whether it’s the construction of the roster or just a poor start to the season, the numbers are baffling. According to NBA.com, Detroit is a top ten team in wide-open three-point attempts per game, yet it converts only 26.7 percent of those looks.

Losing Luke Kennard to a shoulder injury doesn’t make matters any easier, but there are only two regular rotational Pistons who are shooting above a 40 percent clip from deep other than him—Griffin and Ish Smith. The player taking the most threes per game is Reggie Jackson, and he’s only knocking down 31.5 percent. Usual sharpshooter Reggie Bullock and teammate Stanley Johnson have also struggled, only making a quarter of their three-point attempts.

Something’s got to give with this poor turnout, especially considering Dwane Casey’s offense in Toronto was predicated on terrific shooting last year.

Start Getting To The Line, Indiana

There is little to express when it comes to “concern” with the Pacers, but there’s a specific element of their game that’s consistently been lacking—free throws.

That goes for attempts, makes, the whole nine pretty much. It’s perplexing how a team like Indiana is so effective on the offensive end, yet can’t draw fouls or produce at the charity stripe. It ranks among the bottom three in each free throw category across the board.

Victor Oladipo leads the group in attempts with just over four per game, with the rest of the crew taking less than that. The only other Pacer kind of earning his way to the line is Domantas Sabonis, who is right behind Oladipo with 3.7 attempts per game.

Other than the percentage, Indiana had the same trouble last season. Perhaps it has to do with the scheme offensively, but it seems to suggest that the players aren’t being aggressive enough.

If Bud’s Bucks Take Care Of The Ball, They’ll Be Elite

Milwaukee is one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference. In no way, shape or form is there a major issue with this team. Mike Budenholzer has done a magnificent job of putting his players in the best situation to win and they have done that with an 8-1 record to open the year.

Realize that when you play a style as fast as the Bucks do in open space, you’re bound to make mistakes. It’s just the nature of the pace and space style of play. Either some mistakes dribbling the ball, a bad read on a pass or maybe even a travel. That’s exactly what we’ll point out here.

In nine games, Milwaukee is turning the ball over 16 times per game. Its turnover rate is among the bottom seven teams in the NBA. On the flip side, the Bucks’ defense isn’t causing a whole lot of miscues itself as of yet, as their opponent percentage rate is hovering around 13 percent, per Cleaning The Glass.

What On Earth, Cavs?

There are plenty of starting points for the mess going on with the Cleveland Cavaliers, so we’ll just pick one and go from there.

First off, Kevin Love hurt his left toe in a preseason game against the Boston Celtics. By continually playing through the pain over the first four games of the year, he aggravated the injury so much that he ended up having surgery. The All-Star forward is expected to be out at least six weeks before his return to basketball activity can be updated. Translation: It’ll probably be more than six weeks.

There is dissension in the locker room already. Some veterans are voicing their displeasure with younger guys who aren’t playing the right way. While these players have won at the highest level in basketball and earned their spot in this league, they are the same ones getting blown out and showing poor body language the minute things go south. It’s not the best example to set for those trying to learn good habits, and, quite frankly, it is weak to throw teammates under the bus this early. If the rift continues, moves need to be made.

What about the mixed messages from the Cavaliers front office and coaching staff? It is pretty clear that general manager Koby Altman is eager to get his offseason acquisitions and inexperienced talent valuable experience, but at the same time, Tyronn Lue and now Larry Drew haven’t exactly granted that wish. Let’s not forget that Jim Boylan, one of the assistants on last year’s coaching staff with Lue, filed a lawsuit against the team for age discrimination to which Cleveland’s team counsel Jason Hillman retorted was a “shameless cash grab.”

But hey, the city was awarded the 2022 NBA All-Star Game on Thursday afternoon.

As you can see, some organizations have more to worry about than others. That’s just how the league works. Hopefully, everybody can figure out a way to correct these problems and put forth a better product moving forward.

Stay tuned for the rest of Basketball Insiders “Areas Of Concern” series the rest of this week.

Spencer Davies is a Deputy Editor and a Senior NBA Writer based in Cleveland in his third year with Basketball Insiders. Covering the league and the Cavaliers for the past five seasons, his bylines have appeared on Bleacher Report, FOX Sports and HoopsHype.

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NBA Daily: Horton-Tucker Making Most Of Time With South Bay Lakers

David Yapkowitz has a chat with Los Angeles Lakers rookie guard Talen Horton-Tucker about getting reps in the G League with South Bay and what he sees his role being in the NBA when that time comes.

David Yapkowitz

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When the Los Angeles Lakers drafted Talen Horton-Tucker this summer, the expectation was that he probably wouldn’t receive much playing time. On a veteran-laden team with championship expectations, there wasn’t going to be much of a role for a rookie.

That was further accentuated when Horton-Tucker suffered a stress reaction in his right foot, causing him to miss all of Summer League, which kept him limited during training camp. When he was finally cleared to return to the court, the Lakers assigned him to their G League affiliate, the South Bay Lakers.

He has suited up in only one game for the Lakers this season, but he’s played in every game with South Bay so far. In 11 games in the G League, he’s shown flashes of why the Lakers still drafted him despite suffering the foot injury during the draft combine.

His time in the G League was his first meaningful court action since leading Iowa State to the NCAA Tournament last spring.

“It feels great to be out here finally. I’m just trying to catch a rhythm with South Bay,” Horton-Tucker told Basketball Insiders. “I’m just taking it a day at a time. I feel like it’s been pretty good for my overall growth, that’s what’s important.”

Horton-Tucker has fit in well with the South Bay roster. He’s shown an ability to shoot from the perimeter at times, and he’s looked comfortable in putting the ball on the floor and making plays off the dribble.

His shot hasn’t always been on point, though. He’s shooting only 32.4 percent from the field and 24.2 percent from the three-point line, but he’s gotten good looks from the perimeter within the flow of the offense. And despite that, he’s made himself valuable on the court by contributing in other ways. He’s attacked the glass well, and he keeps the ball moving while looking to set teammates up for easy shots.

He’s managed to average double-digits in scoring with 11.8 points per game, and he’s put up 5.9 rebounds and 3.2 assists as well. Being able to be a positive on the court when his offense isn’t quite there yet is something he believes will help his career moving forward.

“I feel like if you play basketball, you’ve got to learn how to do everything. It’s just something I got to do,” Horton-Tucker told Basketball Insiders. “Whenever my shot is not falling, I know I can stay involved and rebound. I’ll still be able to contribute to a winning environment. I feel like I’ve been doing that the last few games that my shot hasn’t been falling.”

A few years ago, Horton-Tucker wouldn’t have had this opportunity to work on his game. The G League was much smaller than it is now, and most teams didn’t have affiliate they could send young players down to for development. NBA teams didn’t use the league as much, and many players viewed being sent down as punishment rather than a positive.

Without the G League, Horton-Tucker would likely have spent the majority season gathering splinters on the Lakers bench. With the growing expansion and usage of the G League, he’s able to get actual game reps in against legitimate competition to stay fresh.

He knew coming into this season that he wasn’t going to play much for the Lakers, if at all, so he’s grateful for being able to play with South Bay.

“It’s good to get your run in when you need to. I understand that I’m probably not going to get minutes with the Lakers right now,” Horton-Tucker told Basketball Insiders. “I’m just taking it one day at a time. I feel like the G League has been great. It helps us get our reps in and it helps our careers get started.”

While Horton-Tucker is still very young — he was one of the youngest players in the draft and just recently turned 19 years old last month — he has a skill set that should be able to eventually translate to regular NBA minutes. He’s a big guard who can generate his own offense, and he’s strong enough and skilled enough to be able to match up defensively against multiple positions.

He was recalled to the Lakers this weekend for their game against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He only played in two minutes of garbage time and missed his only shot, a three-pointer. He’ll likely return to South Bay sometime soon, and when he does get brought back to the Lakers, garbage time minutes will be his role. But the NBA can be unpredictable at times, and injuries and whatnot can strike at a moment’s notice forcing players into immediate action.

In the event that he is called upon for regular minutes at some point this season, Horton-Tucker is confident in what he can bring to the team.

“I feel like I can bring the same things I bring to this team right now,” Horton-Tucker told Basketball Insiders. “It’s my versatility, being able to do things like rebounding, passing, just doing whatever they need me to do, I can do that.”

The Lakers are clearly going to be in win-now mode for the duration of LeBron James’ contract, but if Horton-Tucker continues with his development, it’s going to be hard to keep him off the court. He’s going to use this year to continue to learn, with the hopes of being able to play a meaningful role next season.

“I just want to get better all around. I want to play on the Lakers next year, that’s just my goal,” Horton-Tucker told Basketball Insiders. “Not being cocky or anything, but that’s just my goal, to play with the Lakers next season. That’s something that I’m going to work hard towards.”

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NBA Daily: Most Improved Watch – 12/6/2019

A quarter of the way into the season, multiple players have begun separating themselves for the Most Improved Player award. Quinn Davis takes a look at five of these players and why they are worthy of the consideration.

Quinn Davis

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The NBA season is now a quarter of the way through and the sample size is nearly large enough to make meaningful assessments of players and teams. This sample size is especially important when evaluating the Most Improved Player, as an early-season hot streak could prove to be fool’s gold by Christmas.

Two weeks ago, Basketball Insiders grouped certain players together to encapsulate a large number that could then be reasonably considered for Most Improved. Now, some of those players have separated themselves, rendering those groups unnecessary.

Andrew Wiggins has fallen closer to Earth since his early-season shooting barrage, while Brandon Ingram has continued his hot start and has shown no signs of cooling off. Luke Doncic has been a revelation and an MVP candidate, while Trae Young has continued to put up impressive numbers but is stuck on a 5-17 Hawks team.

I’ve already given away two, but here are the five names that have stood out from the rest.

5. Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors

Siakam has cooled a bit after his scorching start to the season, but his vast offensive improvements still make him worthy of a spot on this list. He is still hitting 38 percent of his non-corner threes and has been the central cog of the Raptors’ offense.

The Raptors’ offense is blitzing opponents with Siakam on the court, scoring about 114 points per 100 possessions. With him off, that number plummets to 99.8 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass. That’s the equivalent of going from the second-best offense in the league to two points below the New York Knicks’ league-worst number.

Siakam is using three more possessions per game than last season in isolation and is scoring 0.90 points per possession on those plays. That’s only slightly below the 0.97 number he put up last year on the much lower volume. His post-game has also stayed efficient with higher usage. He is taking two more possessions per game in that department and is scoring 1.01 points per possession, compared to 1.08 last season.

His unique combination of strength and balance allows him to make multiple moves while staying in complete control. Here he overpowers a very good defender in Royce O’Neale, before flipping up a nifty turnaround bank shot.

The most impressive part of his game this season might be his pull-up shooting. This was simply not in the repertoire last season. He can dribble at the top of the arc and launch a three on a sagging defender with confidence like he does here over Bojan Bogdanovic.

Siakam has been great, but the biggest hindrance to his Most Improved campaign will be the fact that he won the award the last year. If his efficiency continues to dip, he will likely not receive consideration. That said, his jump to near-superstar this season is worthy of praise.

4. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks

Next on our list is a player who has also made a leap to superstardom. Doncic has taken the league by storm in his second season, blossoming into a genius point-forward that can dominate as a scorer or a passer on offense.

He is putting up stat lines that can only be described as Lebron-esque. Just earlier this week, he put up 33 points, 18 rebounds and 5 assists against the Pelicans, physically overpowering their frontcourt at only 20 years old.

Per Cleaning the Glass, his usage is at 40.5 percent, which is second in the league to only James Harden. Doncic has been asked to completely control the offense in only his sophomore season and has done so better than anyone could have expected.

Despite the increased usage, his effective field goal percentage has increased six percent from last season. Doncic’s three-point percentage has stayed constant at 34 percent, so this increased efficiency is coming almost solely from his dominance at the rim.

He is finishing 72 percent of his shots at the rim, up from 62 percent in 2018-19, per Cleaning the Glass. Doncic is also drawing fouls at a higher rate. He looks comfortable attacking NBA bodies and using his size to get where he wants on the court.

His scoring is bested only by his virtuoso passing. Better, Doncic’s assist rate is up a whopping 17 percent this season to 48.7 percent, putting him second in the league in that category.

Additionally, Doncic has the ability to manipulate defenses with his eyes. In the play below, he stares down the cutter on their move to the rim. Jordan Clarkson notices this and shifts to the paint to help. As soon as he veers too far from Delon Wright in the corner, Doncic whips the pass that way for a wide-open three.

Doncic’s MVP consideration may overshadow his Most Improved consideration, but the leap he made this season is certainly one of the league’s biggest.

3. Bam Adebayo, Miami HEAT

Adebayo makes his debut on this list after throwing his hat into the ring over the last few weeks. His defense has been key in the HEAT’s strong start to the season, anchoring the middle and keeping opponents out of the paint.

Opponents take only 31.4 percent of their total shots at the rim when Adebayo is on the court per Cleaning the Glass. That places in the 90th percentile of the league. When Adebayo takes a rest, that number soars to 40.9 percent, which is in the fifth percentile of the league.

His raw numbers are up across the board as well. The center is averaging a double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds while shooting an efficient 56 percent from the field. Adebayo is up over 40 percent from mid-range for the first time in his three seasons.

The most impressive improvement in his game might be his off the bounce ability. He can consistently roast unsuspecting defenders with a quick dribble move to the cup. Here’s Jaylen Brown, thinking he is safe to relax guarding a center at the elbow. Adebayo uses one devastating jab step to shake Brown and get all the way to the rim for the dunk.

There are not many centers in the league that can move that quickly to the rim against a wing defender. If Adebayo keeps up the stellar defense and starts making a bit more of an impact on the stat sheet, he should garner serious consideration for Most Improved.

2. Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans

Brandon Ingram’s hot start was written off by some as streaky shooting, but it seems apparent now that he is well on his way to the best season of his career. He is still at 43 percent from deep and he seems more comfortable than ever before at shooting off the catch.

Ingram’s catch-and-shoot three-point percentage is up to 46.5 percent, a steep increase from his 31 percent last season. Even his free throw percentage, which has hovered in the ’60s through his first three years, is now up to about 84 percent.

Most of all, his raw stats are probably his best argument for the award. Ingram is up to 25 points, 7 rebounds and four assists with an effective field goal percentage of 56 percent, career-highs in all categories. As of now, he is having a rare year in which there’s an increase in both usage and efficiency.

He has significantly improved his pick-and-roll game this season as well. The Pelicans have scored 0.94 points per possession with Ingram as the pick-and-roll ball-handler, per NBA.com. That is up from the 0.79 number the Lakers posted in those situations last season.

In previous seasons, Ingram had a tendency to settle for long mid-range jumpers out of the pick-and-roll. He has decreased his attempts from that area now, opting instead to either take the three or get closer to the rim for a floater.

The talented youngster also has had more success attacking switches. If a smaller defender picks up, Ingram is able to use his size and length to get to the rim and easily convert the layup, as he does here against Devin Booker.

If Ingram’s statistics stay at their current levels, he will be right a the front of the race for Most Improved.

1.Devonte Graham, Charlotte Hornets

Simply put, Devonte Graham has been the leader of this race since day one. His meteoric rise from second-rounder seeing minimal court time to stud sixth-man to flamethrowing starting point guard has been a joy to watch.

Graham’s three-point barrage has been unprecedented. After canning 10 triples against the Warriors Wednesday night, Graham is up to second in the league in made threes, behind only the incomparable Harden.

The way Graham hits these threes is a work of art. In the first look at Most Improved, Graham was posting an unreal 50 percent mark on his pull-up. He is down to 41 percent now, but that number still ranks among the best in the league.

If he comes off a high screen and sees daylight, that ball is going up. His release is quick and fluid, leaving no chance for a sagging center to affect the play.

Graham has carried the Hornets’ offense through the first 20 games. The Hornets score about 112 points per 100 possessions with Graham playing. That number drops to an abysmal 95 when he sits, per Cleaning the Glass.

His pull-up shooting combined with much-improved passing — his assist percentage is up to 35.7 percent — has been the lone bright point for a mediocre team.

Being drafted in the second round and seemingly coming out of nowhere makes his story the most likely to gain Most Improved traction throughout the year. If his shooting keeps up, he will be the clear frontrunner for this award.

Those five are the stand-outs, but there is a lot of the campaign left to play. Any number of players could turn a corner and vault themselves into this conversation. Be sure to stay locked to Basketball Insiders as track every major award throughout the season.

In the hunt: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Malcolm Brogdon, Trae Young, Andrew Wiggins, Jonathan Isaac, Jaylen Brown, Luke Kennard, Aron Baynes, Devin Booker, OG Anunoby, Jabari Parker

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NBA Daily: Pacers Preparing For The Future

Without their star player leading the charge, the Indiana Pacers have quietly been laying the groundwork for one of the top spots in the Eastern Conference. Chad Smith details how Indiana’s strong start will pay dividends in the second half of the season.

Chad Smith

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Head coach Nate McMillan entered this season fully aware that he would be without his superstar guard for several months. He was cognizant of the roster turnover and understood that the team chemistry was going to take some time. He also knew that the Indiana Pacers had a soft schedule to start the year and that they had a golden opportunity to position themselves well upon Victor Oladipo’s eventual return.

Things got off to a rocky start, as they dropped their first three games, which came against the Cleveland Cavaliers and then the Detroit Pistons sans Blake Griffin. Since then though, Indiana has been on a tear by posting a 14-5 record since the night before Halloween. Over that time span, only the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers have won more games.

Even the losses have been close, tightly contested games too. They lost an overtime thriller in Charlotte, suffered a nine-point loss in Houston, fell to the Bucks and had a three-point loss in Philadelphia. Given their situation with all of the injuries and new personnel, it has been a remarkable first quarter of the season.

While the schedule has been extremely light and the easiest in the league there have been quality wins as well. They have beaten Brooklyn, Oklahoma City, Memphis, plus Orlando two times each. They also have a victory over Utah, but the Jazz haven’t quite been the elite team that many pegged them out to be before the start of the season.

Sure, it sounds cliché but you can’t worry about how the schedule looks, you have to win the games in front of you. Every team will have some easy stretches on their schedule, but those are the games that must be won. For Indiana, this is especially true as they fight without their All-Star guard. Once healthy, this should be a formidable group in the Eastern Conference.

Jeremy Lamb has already missed nine games, while Myles Turner lost eight with concussion-like symptoms. Then there’s Malcolm Brogdon out for three and Domantas Sabonis was for an additional two games. Edmond Sumner has missed the most time as he has played just three games due to a broken hand.

Brogdon was the big addition this off-season, and he has been sensational. The former Rookie of the Year is averaging 19 points, five rebounds and eight assists as the head man. The dynamic guard led the league in free throw percentage a year ago and is on pace for a repeat performance again this season.

Indiana’s biggest concern heading into this season was if the duo of Turner and Sabonis would work. So far, so good. Sabonis is having a career year averaging 18 points and 13 rebounds while also dishing out 4 assists per game. The former Gonzaga product is a big reason why the Pacers have had success in the paint.

Turner led the league in blocks last season, but somehow didn’t even make one of the three All-Defensive teams. That has motivated him to be more aggressive and more diligent in his defensive positioning. His rebounding has improved, and he continues to be an elite stopper at the rim averaging 2.3 blocks per game.

After his first five seasons in the league were clouded by defunct teams in Phoenix, TJ Warren has proven that he is a capable scorer at this level. After shooting a career-high 43 percent from three-point range last season, he is just a tick below that (41 percent) so far this year. He is shooting nearly 52 percent from the floor, averaging nearly 19 points per game. When the Pacers need a bucket, they have been consistently going in his direction with the ball.

This squad is the very definition of the word team and is proving it on a nightly basis. Each night, a different guy is stepping up, whether it is on offense or defense. Indiana ranks fourth in defense, tenth in offense and they have the fifth-best net rating entering today’s game in New York. The Knicks, who just fired head coach David Fizdale yesterday, will get Indiana on the second night of a back-to-back.

The schedule will ramp up for the Pacers after this weekend. They will host the Los Angeles Clippers on Monday, then play in Boston 48 hours later. A showdown with LeBron James and the Lakers awaits the following week, followed by a brutal back-to-back set with Milwaukee and Toronto just before Christmas.

An early tip time awaits on New Year’s Eve against Philadelphia, which is then followed by a matchup with Denver. In this nearly three-week span, the Pacers will face Philly, Minnesota, Denver and Miami two times each. This will be a difficult test, but one that they need.

We are only a week into the month of December but, oddly enough, Indiana has already finished up their four-game series with Detroit. The Central division foes will only meet again if they find each other in the postseason. That is the destination for the Pacers, who will likely get their franchise player back before the All-Star break.

The Pacers still have not yet announced a timeline for Oladipo’s return, but indications are that he will be coming back within the next two months. After such a devastating injury, you can expect the organization to proceed with extreme caution once he returns to the floor.

Oladipo himself has admitted that he has been itching to make his return and that he wants to go full throttle once he is given the green light. Indiana will, of course, limit his minutes early on and there is no chance he will play any back-to-back games. This slow but necessary transition will be another speed bump on the road to the postseason for the Pacers.

The players have had 22 games to get a feel for one another. When you consider how much time each of them has missed, it is actually much fewer than that. They are still trying to build chemistry and camaraderie among themselves. As they inch closer to that point, a new wrinkle will be thrown in when the time comes to work their star back into the lineup.

But, ultimately, it is a good problem to have for Indiana. Adding a top 25 player to your team is obviously a major positive, but it won’t come without any setbacks. The team will once again have to gel and understand how to play with one another — most notably the newest additions to the team, which include their other star guard, Brogdon.

Fortunately for Indiana, the season is a long one, and they should have ample time to get Oladipo back fully integrated into the system. It will be a mega boost for the team and could be a major thorn in the side for the rest of the teams in the East.

A defensive unit with Oladipo, Brogdon and Turner fueled with the offensive firepower of guys like Sabonis, Warren and Lamb could prove to be elite. Should they find themselves healthy, they will be factors in the playoffs yet again. Of course, to get there, they have to keep winning the easy games on the schedule.

So far, so good.

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