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First Quarter Grades: Central Division

Spencer Davies breaks down the group of five in the Central Division and gives a grade to each team at this point in the season.

Spencer Davies

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We’re over 20 games into the NBA year, meaning that the standings are starting to take shape and teams are starting to create their identities.

This week on Basketball Insiders, we’ll be taking a division-by-division glance at how everyone is doing and will hand out grades for each squad at the quarter-season mark. Let’s get things started with the Central Division.

Chicago Bulls 3-18

As most expected after the trade of Jimmy Butler and other veterans skipping town, the Bulls are in a world of hurt. The season started out with an altercation between teammates that sent Nikola Mirotic to the hospital and left promising second-year forward Bobby Portis suspended for the first eight games. That alone tells you enough about where the organization is right now.

Things have been somewhat better as of late, but the bottom line is Chicago has lost a lot of games, and many of those have been complete blowouts. Four of their final deficits have been by at least 30 points, including one near 50-point loss to the Golden State Warriors on the road. It’s ugly, but this is what a full-scale rebuild looks like in every sense of the word.

Bright Spot: Lauri Markkanen displays plenty of promise as a rookie on both ends of the floor. Second-year guard Kris Dunn has shown upside over the last couple of weeks. Both of these two are heavily depended on. Recovering from an ACL injury, Zach LaVine is inching closer and closer to returning as well.

Biggest Area To Improve: Just about everything. First and foremost, play faster and improve the shooting. Per Cleaning The Glass, the Bulls are dead last in offensive rating and effective field goal percentage. Pace of play is essential in today’s NBA. Maybe LaVine can be the spark this team needs, but everyone needs to pick it up if this team doesn’t want to finish last.

First Quarter Grade: D-

Indiana Pacers 12-11

The Pacers are yet another team that went into the stages of a rebuild by moving their franchise star Paul George, but this one is going far different than most predicted. These guys are competing every night and believe they can make some noise. Nate McMillan deserves a lot of credit for rallying the troops after taking a big blow this summer.

Through about a quarter of the season, Indiana is averaging 109.3 points per 100 possessions and has the third-lowest turnover percentage in the league. This is thanks to a lack of stagnancy on offense and crisp ball movement. Sharing the basketball has resulted in trust and led to made shots, which explains why they are the second-best team in the league in three-point percentage (39.7) to only the Warriors.

Bright Spot: Before the season started, all of the talks surrounded Myles Turner being the franchise darling, but the story so far has been the re-emergence of Victor Oladipo. After a less than ideal stint with the Oklahoma City Thunder, he is thriving in a new environment with the Pacers and has to be a front-running candidate for Most Improved Player. Bojan Bogdanovic was an excellent under-the-radar addition to bolster perimeter shooting. Let’s not slight Domantas Sabonis and his crucial contributions in the absence of Turner, either.

Biggest Area To Improve: Indiana’s got to start defending. CTG statistics cite that their net rating is basically zero, meaning they’re allowing the same amount of points that they’re scoring. The Pacers also need to start crashing the boards better off of misses, as opponents are averaging over 13 second-chance points per game. Furthermore, they’ve allowed the third-highest amount of points in the paint per game (49.3) in the NBA.

First Quarter Grade: B

Milwaukee Bucks 12-9

It’s only been two months and it’s already a roller coaster season for Jason Kidd and company. The superstardom of Giannis Antetokounmpo has placed a metaphorical microscope on every little thing the team does. Ranging from personnel to his supporting cast, all eyes are on Milwaukee as a team looking to make a leap to that next-level tier.

Greek Freak has done everything in his power to this point to make sure that happens, so it’s on his teammates to return the favor. Khris Middleton has excelled at doing his job, while Malcolm Brogdon has picked up where he left off in his rookie campaign and added a reliable jump shot to his repertoire. Even as a team, the Bucks are tied for third in field goal percentage (48).

Bright Spot: Aside from the previous names mentioned, Eric Bledsoe’s impact defensively has been brilliant. Previously detailed here on Basketball Insiders, he is taking individual challenges and stifling the competition, which has proved to be contagious to Milwaukee’s defense as a whole. Largely thanks to Antetokounmpo, they rank in the top seven in both blocks and steals per game.

Biggest Area To Improve: For years, the Bucks have not been able to get on the boards and it still remains the case. They rank dead last in rebounds per game and continue to get crushed on the glass. A lot of it has to do with the lack of a reliable big man, but that’s got to change if they want to compete with the elite teams in this league. Offensively, the pace has to be faster as well. Getting out in transition and capitalizing on turnovers is when Milwaukee is at its best.

First Quarter Grade: C+

Detroit Pistons 14-8

From the revival of the deadly Reggie Jackson-Andre Drummond pick-and-roll combination to the tremendous consistency out of Tobias Harris, it’s clear that these Pistons are not messing around. Stan Van Gundy is coaching up a group of guys who are determined to prove that last year was a farce. So far, they’re living up to their end of the bargain.

What’s remarkable about this Detroit bunch is what plagued them a season ago is now arguably their greatest strength. They’ve flipped the script as a three-point shooting team, tying for fifth in the NBA with a 38.2 percentage clip from the perimeter, and 89 percent of those made threes are assisted, per NBA.com.

Bright Spot: The Pistons’ bench is the one of the best in the league. Defensively, they are tough and provide a heck of a boost when those starters are sitting. To say Langston Galloway was worth every penny of his contract is an understatement. According to CTG, Detroit is a net 18.2 points per 100 possessions better with the fourth-year guard on the floor. The team’s defensive rating is a 93.8 when he’s playing, a difference that is in the 99th percentile among the rest in the league. Couple that with Anthony Tolliver’s +8.4 net rating and that’s a heck of a duo.

Biggest Area To Improve: Believe it or not, the Pistons have got to rebound better. They average the fifth-fewest number of boards per game despite Andre Drummond’s presence down low. Getting to the line needs to happen more often, as they only attempt 18.9 free throws per game. With a combined 107.7 defensive rating, the starting five needs to defend better together as well.

First Quarter Grade: A

Cleveland Cavaliers 16-7

Contrary to the popular belief a few weeks ago, the sky is not falling in Cleveland. A 5-7 start obviously wasn’t what they had hoped for, but an 11-game winning streak has pretty much cured the angst and tension of the team. Look at it this way: The season started two weeks earlier than it ever has. The preseason was shorter, as was training camp. It’s an older team with seven new pieces and one colossal loss. Was it really all that surprising?

Questioning effort is fair, but the conditioning of this group was not up to par. A little bit of time and patience has the Cavaliers back in the driver’s seat once again. LeBron James is playing the best basketball of his career at 32 years old, and that should frighten everybody. Collectively, the defense is a concern, but not nearly what it was to start the season. On the other hand, the team’s 113.8 offensive rating is the third best in the NBA.

Bright Spot: Similar to the Pistons, who knows where Cleveland would be without its second unit. Tyronn Lue found a go-to lineup that is giving him consistency and it’s paid dividends for about a month now. As specified by NBA.com, the foursome of Dwyane Wade, Kyle Korver, Jeff Green and Channing Frye has provided a much-needed boost to the defensive end of the floor. In 160 minutes together, it’s a grouping that has a +11.8 net rating and allows just 97.3 points per 100 possessions.

Biggest Area To Improve: The biggest surprise of the slow start was the inconsistency from two mainstays of the Cavaliers—Kevin Love and J.R. Smith. These two have started to pick it up—especially Love with Tristan Thompson out—but they’re going to need to give it their all every night. In addition, Jae Crowder needs to be more aggressive out there. When the 27-year-old forward scores in double figures, Cleveland is a perfect 10-0.

First Quarter Grade: B-

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: Biggest Disappointments — Central Division

Basketball Insiders’ Biggest Disappointments series continues as Drew Mays explores the struggles of the Central Division.

Drew Mays

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Basketball Insiders has looked at some of the biggest surprises and disappointments to start the new season. And, now, four weeks in, the shift in perception from “The sample size is too small” to “Maybe this is just who this team is” has begun. While there is plenty of time left to justify the former, the latter has looked far more truthful for much of the disappointments in the NBA’s Central Division.

Confused in Chicago

The Chicago Bulls’ postseason hopes were widely known. And it wasn’t just speculation – the Bulls themselves talked playoffs from media day until the beginning of the season. But, sitting at 4-9, each passing game bears a striking resemblance to last year’s 22-60 team, one that was talented but unable to sustain any consistency.

The numbers paint Chicago’s struggles in an even more confusing light. Per Cleaning the Glass, the Bulls take a slightly above-average number of threes and have the most rim attempts in the league. They’ve shied away from the mid-range, while they get to the free throw line and turn the ball over at standard — not great but not terrible — rates. The offense must be clicking, right?

Wrong. Chicago sits at 28th in points per 100 possessions (they’re 14th in points per 100 defensively). Their half-court offense has been stagnant, with a lot of side-to-side action but nothing much in the way of getting to the basket. The league-high rim attempt percentage is clouded by poor decision-making in the paint, where the Bulls often force shots or flat-out miss kick out opportunities.

Lauri Markkanen, arguably Chicago’s most important player, has yet to get going. He’s averaging 14.5 points and 7.7 rebounds per game, but he’s shot just 37.7 percent from the field and 28.2 from deep. He’s scored over 20 points only once, on opening night in Charlotte.

There is reason for optimism. Markkanen is getting good looks; he should start hitting them eventually. Wendell Carter has been excellent in the middle. The Bulls’ shot chart lends itself to success. Outside of Milwaukee, the rest of the division is vulnerable. Chicago held their own against the Bucks and even the league-leading Lakers, controlling much of the game versus the latter. If not for some fourth quarter collapses, the Bulls might have a winning record.

There’s still time to turn it around. But thus far, 2019-20 has been a disappointment in Chicago.

The Last Two for Cleveland

 The Cleveland Cavaliers are frisky!

They’ve beaten two division foes in Chicago and the Indiana Pacers, and they’ve held their own in games against the Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics over the last two weeks.

Kevin Love and Tristian Thompson are both averaging double-doubles. Collin Sexton has upped his scoring and lowered his turnovers this season. Darius Garland has shown some serious flashes as a young rookie.

Defense is the toughest thing to learn in the NBA. Younger teams are usually really bad on defense – especially teams with a starting backcourt made up of a sophomore and a rookie. However, Cleveland has managed to remain in the middle of the pack on defense, ranking 15th in points allowed per 100 despite being in the bottom third in effective field goal percentage allowed.

They’re even 16th in the league in Basketball Reference’s adjusted net rating, which estimates a team’s point differential every 100 possessions adjusted for strength of opponent. There is a lot to be excited about for the future.

However, after defeating the Knicks and losing by one to the aforementioned 76ers, Cleveland was steamrolled in both first halves against the HEAT and the 76ers at home. They were outscored by 48 in the two halves, looked utterly outclassed and outmatched and, ultimately, lost by 11 and 19, respectively.

Growing pains were expected, especially for the young backcourt. And even after an encouraging start, two straight blowouts where the Cavaliers never had a chance is still disappointing.

The bad news with Cleveland is the same as the good news: they still have a lot of growing to do.

Detroit’s Free Fall

After starting off the season 4-5 (about what we’d expect from the perennially middling team), the Detroit Pistons have gone cold.

Their most recent loss was on Friday – Blake Griffin needed 19 shots to get to 19 points, Derrick Rose turned the ball over six times, and the Pistons fell 109-106 to Charlotte, dropping them to 4-9 on the year.

The disappointing thing for the Pistons has surprisingly been their defense. Detroit’s usual pattern has been to plod on offense and use their top-10 defense to put them in a position to win. But the script has flipped this year – Detroit ranks 9th in points per 100 possessions and 3rd in team effective field goal percentage, but they’re just 26th and 28th in those respective categories on defense.

Their biggest offensive struggle has been turnovers. Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond, and Derrick Rose are averaging almost 12 per game between the three of them, leading to Detroit’s 28th ranked turnover percentage.

The other problem for Detroit is that they’ve faced a relatively easy schedule thus far. That SOS is middle of the pack the rest of the way. If they plan on returning to the postseason in 2020, they’ll need to end this losing streak sooner rather than later.

Khris Middleton’s Left Leg

Khris Middleton is out for the next several weeks after suffering a left thigh contusion November 10 in Oklahoma City. He was averaging 18.5 points and 5.3 rebounds on a career-best 59.9 true shooting percentage before the injury.

Milwaukee cruised to a 2-0 record last week without their second banana, defeating both Chicago and Indiana. The Bucks will have to navigate at least the rest of November with Giannis and Eric Bledsoe as the only real playmakers on the roster.

Luckily, they’re built for this – questions continue to surround Milwaukee as to whether Khris Middleton as the complement to Giannis is even enough to win the East – the bench will be able to fill in around Giannis. All of the wings will see increased minutes, and Bledsoe will be tasked with a higher usage rate.

Any time your second-best player goes down, it’s disappointing. But Milwaukee has the system in place to continue winning, even without Middleton.

Again, it’s still early for all of these teams. They have played just 13, 12, 13 and 12 games each. But as 13 moves towards 20 and 25 games in the coming weeks, these disappointments are no longer early struggles – they are identities, and what the team may be left with for the rest of the season.

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Melo A Match For Offense-Starved Portland

The Trail Blazers’ problems are widespread on defense, but Carmelo Anthony represents an offensive fix more than anything else. Douglas Farmer writes.

Douglas Farmer

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The Portland Trail Blazers did not have a choice.

With Jusuf Nurkić, Zach Collins and Pau Gasol all sidelined by injury, and with Moe Harkless now in Los Angeles and Al-Farouq Aminu in Orlando, the Trail Blazers had nowhere else to turn.

Portland had to call Carmelo Anthony.

The Blazers do not even have a G League affiliate to raid, instead shipping specific players back-and-forth to the Texas Legends, the Dallas Mavericks’ affiliate, this season.

This is what it took for the future first-ballot Hall of Famer to find himself on a roster. Two young stars, Nurkić and Collins, needed to be sidelined for months by leg and shoulder injuries, respectively. A veteran, Gasol, needed to be sidelined by his own foot injury, in addition to years of mileage. A $145 million salary sheet needed to prevent Portland from stocking its bench with suitable forwards during the offseason.

And the options on its bench had to struggle immensely on both ends of the floor, torpedoing a season with title hopes into one that elicits headlines like “Is This Damian Lillard’s Lost Season?

More than an eventual criticism of Anthony’s contributing prospects, this is a harsh reality of the Blazers’ supporting options as constituted.

Skal Labissière has spent three years in the NBA without offering much reason to think he could be a reliable resource off the bench now, and his 49.0 effective field goal percentage fits that past evidence.

Anthony Tolliver has gone from being a three-point specialist to a three-point liability, currently hitting 24.2 percent of his shots from deep. Mario Hezonja is, well, Mario Hezonja. This year that means he is shooting 33.3 percent from 2-point range. Lastly, Rodney Hood simply cannot bang with power forwards while carrying only 208 pounds on his 6-foot-8 frame.

Portland has no forward option better than Carmelo Anthony at this point, so it had no choice but to call him despite his year off of active rosters. The team needs someone to take the pressure off Lillard and CJ McCollum. As well as Anfernee Simons has played — and the second-year guard has, averaging 19.3 points per 36 minutes with a 55.9 effective field goal percentage — relying on him comes at the expense of Lillard and McCollum, not in conjunction with them.

Someone needs to take the defensive focus away from the Blazers’ backcourt duo, at least nominally. That was, in some respects, supposed to be Tolliver. When he could shoot from deep, a defender at least had to stay near him, giving Lillard and McCollum space to operate. With that ability seemingly stolen away by Space Jam’s Monstars, Tolliver’s defender now freely ranges away from him.

In theory, and that theory will not be proven until Tuesday at the New Orleans Pelicans or Thursday at the Milwaukee Bucks — after Anthony passes his physical — Anthony can at least knock down open shots from deep. Even as his career began to spiral, he could always shoot. In his final three seasons, Anthony shot 35.6 percent from 3, including 32.8 percent in his aborted Houston Rockets stint in 2018.

The concerns around bringing in Anthony, even on a non-guaranteed contract, come on defense. The concerns around Portland’s 5-8 start also hinge on defense, where it ranks No. 19 in the league with a 109.3 defensive rating, as of Monday morning.

In Anthony’s 10 games with the Rockets to start last season, they were outscored by 63 points with him on the court, even as he averaged 13.4 points per game. In those 294 minutes, Houston’s defensive rating was 112.2.

Some of that obviously stemmed from other issues with the Rockets then dealing with their own personnel problems — as well as newly-implemented, and soon-abandoned schemes. But some of it was undeniably because of Anthony, never exactly known as a defensive ace.

Maybe in that respect, Anthony fits the Blazers both in need and in ethos. Portland’s appearance in the Western Conference Finals did not come from outstanding defense; it relied upon Enes “Can’t Play Him” Kanter, after all. The Lillard and McCollum era has long been defined by offensive deluges surrounding moments of defensive worry.

Anthony should fit that perfectly, if he chooses to. Shooting strokes are one of the last skills lost with age. Even at 35, he should still demand attention in that respect. That alone will be an improvement for the Blazers and make life a bit easier for Lillard and McCollum.

A defensive rating of 109.3 can be survived when the offensive rating is third in the league at 113.7, as Portland enjoyed last season, part of the recipe that produced a 53-29 record. It cannot be survived when the offensive rating is No. 13 at 108.4, where the Blazers sit currently in that category.

Portland did not call one of the greatest individual scorers in league history to fix its defense.

The Blazers have no choice but to hope Carmelo Anthony can aid their offense.

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NBA Daily: Walton Working Smart In Attempt To Land Role With Clippers

David Yapkowitz speaks with Los Angeles Clippers point guard Derrick Walton about his different experiences around the NBA and how playing overseas helped provide him with wisdom necessary to his growth.

David Yapkowitz

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Every season, multiple players come into NBA training camps with non-guaranteed contracts. For many of these players, being cut is just a mere formality. Most teams already have their rosters set, and these players are little more than practice bodies or potential G League assignees.

But for some of these players, a coveted NBA roster spot is an actual possibility. Some teams have a spot or two open, and the few players whose contracts aren’t guaranteed battle it out in training camp for the right to remain on the team going into the regular season.

Derrick Walton Jr. is no stranger to that battle. Following a strong four years at Michigan in which he was named the Big Ten Tournament Most Outstanding Player his senior year; he went undrafted in the 2017 NBA Draft.

He played with the Orlando Magic that year in summer league and had an impressive outing to the tune of 10 points, 3.5 assists, and 2.5 rebounds per game while shooting 46.9 percent from the field and 50 percent from three-point range. Despite needing some help at point guard, the Magic opted to look elsewhere.

After spending the 2017-18 season with the Miami HEAT on a two-way contract, Walton found himself again looking for a team at the end of that season. He was in camp with the Chicago Bulls last year, but was ultimately cut during preseason.

This year, he came into camp with the Los Angeles Clippers on an Exhibit 10 contract, meaning he was likely destined for the G League. He had a decent showing in the preseason with 7 points , 3 assists and 1.6 rebounds per game. The Clippers opted to convert his contract to a one-year, non-guaranteed deal, essentially solidifying his place on the opening night roster.

Having been through this before, it wasn’t like there was anything particularly different for Walton.

“It was pretty normal to me, just competing every day for the most part,” Walton told Basketball Insiders. “Nothing out of the extreme ordinary, I was just trying to pick up on things as fast as possible and implement them in games for the most part.”

Heading into the season, the Clippers were a little bit thin at point guard. Patrick Beverley was the incumbent starter, with Lou Williams capable of sliding over if need be. But after that, the point was where the Clippers didn’t have as much depth as they did elsewhere.

That appeared to leave a potential opening for Walton to grab the 15th and final roster spot. Despite the seeming need for the Clippers to strengthen their point guard corps a little bit, Walton wasn’t always sure that he had a good shot at making the team.

“It wouldn’t be truthful for me to say yeah, but I’m always silently confident about everything,” Walton told Basketball Insiders. “Nothing is ever for sure until it actually happens, so I would be lying if I said yeah. Now I’m just ready to build on everything for the most part.”

Although Walton initially started his NBA career with the Magic, it was the HEAT that gave him his first real shot in the NBA. Miami has had a history of success with undrafted players, including Walton’s current Clippers teammate Rodney McGruder. While Walton was on a two-way contract, injuries to Miami’s rotation during the 2017-18 season forced him into some immediate action.

He did spend a good portion of that season with the Sioux Falls Skyforce, the HEAT’s G League affiliate, but he was around the team enough to pick some things up here and there. He saw playing time in a total of 16 games in Miami and shot 41.2 percent from the three-point line. Miami ended up extending a qualifying offer that summer, making him an unrestricted free agent, but ultimately withdrew the offer.

The HEAT have been something of a standard-bearer in the NBA for being a professional organization, and Walton definitely learned some things that have helped in his professional career.

“I think just being a professional about everything overall. It’s always being ready,” Walton told Basketball Insiders. “Working hard is always the status quo at this level, but I think working smart and being a professional for the most part is what I learned.”

This past season after being cut by the Bulls, Walton opted for something a little bit different. He headed overseas and joined Zalgiris Kaunas in the Lithuanian Basketball League. He had some success and put up 8.4 points and 4.4 assists per game while in Lithuania, but left the team this past February and joined Alba Berlin in the EuroLeague.

Walton had heard stories about playing overseas and the possible hardships that may have come with it. But he didn’t quite understand it until he experienced it in person. It helped him grow as both a player and a person and helped toughen him up.

“I think it made me grow up a little faster. Overseas, I got to see some things, experience some things that you can only experience in person. Word of mouth can’t make you experience it,” Walton told Basketball Insiders. “Going through that type of stuff, I feel like it gave me a lot of wisdom overall. I feel really battle-tested like nothing fazes me at this point.”

And now, Walton is back stateside trying to carve out a role with the Clippers. He’s already been assigned to their G League affiliate, the Agua Caliente Clippers, but was recently recalled due to injuries to Kawhi Leonard and Patrick Beverley. In a win over the Atlanta Hawks, Walton played seven minutes and hit his only shot, a three-pointer.

Barring any major injuries, it’s unlikely that Walton sees much playing time with the Clippers this season. But in any case, he’s staying ready and is confident in what he can bring to the team should his number be called at some point.

“I think I can space the floor of course. I can make big plays and be like a coach on the floor,” Walton told Basketball Insiders. “Overall, just be a pest defensively and just try to make an impact on the court anyway possible, I’m one of those guys.”

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