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Four For Five: Untold Personal Observations From Covering The NBA

In this NBA Sunday, Moke Hamilton shares some of his favorite personal encounters from covering the NBA.

Moke Hamilton

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Tracy McGrady’s 13 points in 33 seconds, Kobe Bryant’s 81 points and even Giannis Antetokounmpo’s leapfrogging Tim Hardaway, Jr. in a professional basketball game—those moments are why I watch the game.

Aside form the obvious, other moments often end up being the reason why I cover it.

As fans of professional sports and those that cover the game, we spend so much of our time sitting through expected occurrences just in case something exceptional happens.

Kyrie’s three-pointer to sink the Warriors in the 2016 NBA Finals and Ray Allen’s three-point shot to give the Miami HEAT new life back in the 2013 NBA Finals are two examples, but the truth of the matter is that moments of grandeur occur fairly often. Obviously, though, the higher the stakes are the more those moments will resonate as time progresses.

What I’ve appreciated most over the past five seasons, however, have been the moments that occurred behind the scenes and away from the public eye. As journalists and those that follow the game, we have a front row seat to both the action that occurs on the basketball court, but also many of the things that happen off of it.

Here are a few that will stay with me forever.

Dwyane Wade and Kevin Durant’s Rendezvous

In 2012, with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh by his side, for the first time in his career, LeBron James knew what it felt like to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy. Little did he or Kevin Durant know that it would be the first of a few times that they would be doing battle for the right to sit atop the NBA’s iron throne.

It’s been a long six years for James. Dating back to 2011, he’s made eight consecutive trips to the NBA Finals, emerging victorious in three of them. One could argue, however, that the past six years have been even longer for Durant.

Back in 2012, the basketball viewing public was still euphoric at the thought of James, the mercenary, still being winless.

In many ways, the 2012 NBA Finals featured the HEAT—a team that many felt were attempting to “buy” their way to a championship—against the team that had come to embody all that was right about professional sports. Along with Durant, Sam Presti and the Oklahoma City Thunder had an organic program that featured players that had been drafted by the franchise. From Russell Westbrook to James Harden, Serge Ibaka and the oft-used Reggie Jackson, the marketing tale of the 2012 NBA Finals was one of good versus evil.

Still, after the HEAT somewhat easily dispatched the Thunder in five games, the contrast between the upstart Thunder and the veteran-laden HEAT was stark. The HEAT turned American Airlines Arena into a South Beach nightclub, while Durant and Westbrook sat silently in their locker room after Game 5 had concluded. I stood over Durant’s shoulder for about 10 minutes. He said nothing, but found refuge in his iPhone. In all likelihood, it appeared that he was finding a way to cope with the loss and responding to the hundreds of text messages he’d received that were each attempting to reassure him.

None of those text messages, however, probably resonated with him as much as his chance encounter with Dwyane Wade.

The two had an impromptu rendezvous as Wade’s media availability ended. Standing in a white tee-shirt that smelled of Dom Perignon champagne, after going up and addressing the media, Wade spent about five minutes chatting with Durant while I stood about 10 feet away.

In the conversation, Wade told Durant to keep his head up and assured him that as long as the Thunder stayed together and remained dedicated to one another, that they too would be winning multiple championships.

For the most part, Durant simply nodded, even as Wade instructed him to never be afraid of failure. Wade held the Larry O’Brien trophy in his left hand and embraced Durant with his right.

The two eventually went their separate ways and, interestingly enough, would never see one another in the playoffs again.

Years later, in our last one-on-one conversation, Wade, then a member of the Bulls, discussed Durant and his defection to Golden State with me at length. Wade drew comparisons between his experience with James and what Durant would experience in Oakland and advised him to not try to play into the villain role.

Now a two-time champion, Durant can obviously do things his way. But I’ll always remember how he appeared in Wade’s embrace after the 2012 NBA Finals.

Humble and meek, the young Durant has come a long way.

Greg Oden’s Triumphant Return

Just as it’s impossible to mention the name of Michael Jordan without thinking of Sam Bowie, it’s equally difficult to think of Kevin Durant without Greg Oden.

Oden was believed to be the second coming of Bill Russell back when he was dominating college basketball, and for the Portland Trail Blazers, the decision to use the first overall pick in the 2007 NBA Draft to select Oden (instead of Durant) was easy enough to understand.

Unfortunately for Oden, he would play just 82 games over his first five years in the league and would eventually be waived by the Blazers after undergoing a fifth micro fracture knee surgery in February 2012.

After spending the 2012-13 season away from the game, after an edict to curb spending had come from the Miami HEAT’s ownership group, the club made the decision to trade Joel Anthony to the Boston Celtics in what amounted to a salary dump. The departures of Anthony and Mike Miller—two vital contributors to the HEAT’s championship success—played an indirect role in James departing for Cleveland some years later, but that’s another story for another day.

Part of the reason why the HEAT opted to send Anthony packing was because they thought they could get similar production from the 25-year-old former first overall pick. Best part? Oden would only cost the HEAT about one-fifth of what Anthony would, including luxury tax charges.

Internally, the HEAT kicked the idea around a bit before deciding to take a flier on Oden. He was still just 25 years old and Miami only needed him to give them some spot minutes here and there.

During the 2013 preseason, Oden wasn’t able to get on the floor on this particular night at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, but he was kind enough to chat with me, anyway. I met Oden outside of the locker room after the game was over. In our one-on-one conversation, the center told me what he’d endured over the past few years. He hadn’t been traveling with the Blazers and cited only the love of his family and his dream of salvaging somewhat of a career as the things that kept him from self-destructing.

In the years since, Oden has battled depression and has done his best to remain close to the game, even though his knees have consistently reminded him that they have other ideas.

What I’ll remember most about my conversation with Oden that night was his conviction and the simple answer he provided when I asked him exactly what he hoped to get out of his tenure with the HEAT.

“…to walk off healthy,” is what he told me.

Sadly, it simply wasn’t meant to be.

Oden went on to play just 23 games for the HEAT. He played about seven cumulative playoff minutes for the club en route to their succumbing to the Spurs in five games in the 2014 NBA Finals.

Polite and reserved, Oden had a slight limp when he walked toward me at Barclays Center on that October night. And as we parted ways, I remembered hoping that it all worked out for him.

It didn’t.

Years later, after attending the NBA’s 2015 Las Vegas Summer League, I ran into Oden at McCarren International Airport. We exchanged pleasantries, but he wasn’t interested in conversing with me.

I had a feeling I knew why.

Visiting Kemba Walker In Charlotte

A city with a proud basketball tradition, Mo Bamba and Cole Anthony will now carry the cross for Gotham.

If they’re lucky, they’ll follow in the footsteps of Kemba Walker.

For as long as I’ve known Walker, he’s been quiet and humble, but when I paid him a visit in Charlotte back in January 2015, I was startled by the tremendous growth he’d experienced—both physically and mentally.

After Steve Clifford wrapped up practice, Walker found me in the corner of the team’s practice facility and we shared memories of the night he was drafted. That night, in New York City, Walker assured me that he would put everything he had into proving to Michael Jordan that his team had made a smart decision in drafting the undersized UConn product.

In the years that followed, Walker lived up to those expectations, and more. Despite relocating his family to Charlotte, he remained connected with his hometown of the Bronx and made it his personal duty to pave the way for New York City’s next torchbearer.

What stood out most about the encounter with Walker was the pride that he had when he told me all about what it took for him to secure the funds necessary to refurbish courts in the Sack-Wern housing development where he grew up in the Soundview section of the Bronx.

I told Walker that there were quite a few that expected him to be named an All-Star in the coming years, and he shrugged the thought off. Walker assured me that what was most important to him was simply being renowned as a kid who works hard and one who serves as an inspiration to his teammates, his family and, most importantly, those in New York City that were told that they were too small or not good enough. 

Speak with Walker today and ask what motivates him, he’ll surely tell you it’s memories of his parents going to work under all circumstances. A first-generation American with Caribbean lineage, like my parents, Walker’s came to America many moons ago with nothing but summer clothes and dreams.

Growing up in the Bronx, Walker could relate, except that his dreams were draped in a bubble coat.

Walker’s eyes opened wide and he beamed at me before admitting that it wasn’t until sometime after he participated in the McDonald’s All-American game in 2008 that he thought he had a chance…

On draft night, he assured me that he’d make the most of it, and seven years later, in Charlotte, it was obvious that he had.

As fate would have it, in 2017, Walker and I found ourselves standing at center court at Madison Square Garden shortly after he’d received the phone call letting him know that he’d been named an All-Star for the first time in his career. It was fair to say he’d live up to his billing. Of all places, it was in Madison Square Garden—where he’d become a household name during the 2011 Big East tournament—that Walker reflected.

There’s still much further for Walker to go, but observing him lead his team on the practice floor and do all that he could to be exemplary on a regular afternoon back in January 2015—it was refreshing. And it sure was memorable.

Hanging Out With Jeff Hornacek

Perhaps it was Phil Jackson’s affinity for the triangle, or maybe it was the belief that he wasn’t ready to return to the professional coaching ranks, but Jeff Hornacek’s being hired as head coach of the New York Knicks back in 2016 caught everyone by surprise.

Especially those, including me, who hung out with Horancek during the NBA’s Draft Combine in 2016.

The Combine took place just three months after Derek Fisher had been surprisingly fired by the Knicks, and questions as to who his successor would be were rampant.

In this day and age, it’s difficult to move in stealth, but, to their credit, the Knicks and Hornacek managed to do exactly that.

Days after the combine, Hornacek was named head coach of the Knicks, and after doing a little digging, it was easy to connect the dots and get confirmation of the fact that he was interviewing with the club’s brass in Chicago. That and the fact that he maintained close relationships with other team personnel is probably what brought Hornacek to Michael Jordan’s Steakhouse at the Intercontinental Hotel on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile.

For a few hours, after the duties of the day had ended, writers had filed their stories, scouts had sent in their reports and agents had finished their socializing. For those few hours, dozens of men of different disciplines were united by their love of basketball, and all were equal.

I was a part of a group of a half-dozen who spent a few hours socializing with Hornacek. Soft spoken and friendly, he didn’t make the conversation about him, and interestingly enough, nobody bothered to ask what he was doing there.

He told a story about how his wife had given him a clever idea as to how to teach young players proper shooting mechanics. The tactic involved tape and, without giving away his secret, using it to tape certain fingers together in order to dissuade improper finger manipulation of the basketball.

He talked about his playing days in Utah, told some stories of Karl Malone and overall, admitted to missing coaching.

Hornacek probably knew that he had a big payday coming from the Knicks, because although he was only drinking tonic water, he paid a pretty hefty bill for many in attendance, including myself.

There aren’t many media guys who can boast that they’ve been bought drinks by the head coach of the New York Knicks.

Even though we didn’t find out about Hornacek’s hiring until a few days later, it still counts.

*****

Just as NBA players lace up their sneakers, hard-working journalists put on their walking shoes. As fans of the game, we spend an incalculable amount of time watching and observing with the hope of seeing something incredible happen. That’s why we continue watching when our favorite teams are down by 20 points or continue watching a playoff series when a team finds itself in an 0-3 hole.

The thrill of the chase and the fortunate of witnessing the improbable—that’s why most of us are here.

For someone like me, it’s often the opportunity to cover the game from up close and the ability to find oneself in a moment or a situation where you hear or see something that stays with you forever.

Fortunately, I’ve found myself in those situations a few times over the past five seasons.

These are four of many. And if I’m lucky, in the future, there will be many, many more.

Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders.

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NBA Daily: The Stretch Run – Atlantic Division

Ben Nadeau praises the Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers, while also gently eulogizing another season gone wrong for both teams in New York.

Ben Nadeau

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The Stretch Run.

With 20-odd games remaining on the schedule, it’s officially make-or-break time for the majority of the league — unless your franchise rhymes with Los Shamjealous or Hillmockie, of course. With tantalizing lottery picks for those that bottom out or home-court postseason revenue for teams that push forward, the post-All-Star break jockeying is always fascinating.

As of Feb. 20, however, most of the Eastern Conference — and particularly so, the Atlantic Division — is cut and dried. From hyped-up expectations to the somewhat-disappointing, one of the conference’s perennially-strongest divisions is looking robust once again. Although all of them presumably lag behind the Giannis Antetokounmpo-led Bucks, the bloodbath for the right to face Milwaukee appears to be better than ever.

But before even getting into the Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers and Brooklyn Nets’ varying playoff hopes, a rapid-fire eulogy for the New York Knicks must first be had. Fans who once dreamt off trotting out Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Zion Williamson — but ask the Nets and New Orleans Pelicans how life without them went, to be fair — had to settle for trading away Marcus Morris at the trade deadline earlier this month.

At 17-38, there are only a handful of franchises worse off in the standings department — Minnesota, Atlanta, Cleveland and Golden State — and absurdity continues to reign in Manhattan. David Fizdale was unceremoniously ousted in December and was replaced by interim head coach Mike Miller, who was then (accidentally) dissed by Steve Stoute on an ESPN morning show. Even Steve Mills was out as president after tapping Leon Rose, another superagent turned front office executive.

On the roster side, Frank Ntilikina is playing less than ever, the aforementioned Morris led the team in points per game (19.6) and Bobby Portis already shot down any idea of a buyout. Kevin Knox, 20, has seen his minutes and averages nearly halved, while Mitchell Robinson has only played more than 25 minutes on 18 occasions. The Knicks desperately have searched for continuity and clarity only to come up empty-handed time and time again.

Thankfully, RJ Barrett looks like the real deal and, according to Marc Berman of The New York Post, the Knicks have begun to look at the upcoming draft to nail down a scoring point guard as the next franchise cornerstone.

With some real, tangible turnover in New York — and some incredibly solid youngsters to boot — it’s far too early to anoint the franchise as revitalized, but they’ve taken some important first steps toward doing so.

And despite stealing away Durant and Irving during the offseason, their cross-river rivals in Brooklyn haven’t fared much better at all. Irving, when he’s played, has been sensational — unfortunately, he’s reached the floor in just 20 total games thus far and is now out indefinitely (again) after re-aggravating that troublesome right shoulder (again). The 27-year-old point guard missed the All-Star Game for the first time since 2015-16 and his season — plus whatever lingering postseason hopes the Nets had — are quickly setting. Durant, as planned, hasn’t logged a minute yet — and likely won’t — while Rodions Kurucs hasn’t matched last year’s breakout campaign and Joe Harris has seen a considerable drop from three-point range too.

At 25-28, Brooklyn owns the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference, some 2.5 games ahead of the Orlando Magic. It’s hard to imagine the Nets falling out of the postseason entirely — the ninth-seeded Washington Wizards are just 20-33 — but there’s little chance they catch the Indiana Pacers at No. 6, especially following the return of Victor Oladipo. If Irving is shelved for much longer and Durant sits out the entire year, the Nets’ best-case scenario becomes stealing a postseason game from Milwaukee or Toronto before bowing out in the first round.

After arguably winning the offseason, it’s a tough pill to swallow in Brooklyn — but, at the very least, there are undeniable better days ahead.

And then that leaves three: Toronto, Boston and Philadelphia.

Today, at 34-21, the 76ers are the most disappointing of the bunch as they often struggle to play to both Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid’s strengths at once. Simmons, 23, for all his other-worldly playmaking — and previous talk of a summertime-made jumper — has only attempted six three-pointers in 2019-20. The defense is as fearful as ever and rates at 106.1 — good for fourth-best, but sadly behind the Celtics, Raptors and Bucks — so counting the 76ers out of a deep playoff run would be downright shameful.

But in back-to-back-to-back contests before the All-Star break, the 76ers lost to the Celtics, Miami HEAT — the franchise occupying the No. 4 seed ahead of them — and Bucks. The deadline fits of both Glenn Robinson III and Alec Burks need some time, but Philadelphia is one of the few legitimate contenders in the conference that actually tried to improve their roster this month — which speaks to the still-strong internal hopes of the franchise.

Just as the Nets are nearly locked into the No. 7 or 8 seed, the 76ers won’t drop any lower than sixth place either. And although both Boston and Toronto have gained an inch of separation in the conference hierarchy, Philadelphia now finds themselves in the midst of a three-team brawl for home-court advantage in the first round. With Philadelphia’s unbelievable ceiling of potential and inherent inconsistency, it’s too early to predict where exactly they’ve fall come playoff time — but, make no mistake, this is a roster no opposing team will be excited to face.

On the other hand, Boston is peaking at just the right time as head coach Brad Stevens continues to push all the right buttons. Jayson Tatum, fresh off his first-ever All-Star berth, is a force to be reckoned with (22.4 points, 6.9 rebounds) and Kemba Walker has found himself right at home in the Garden. Surely the Celtics would love to avoid the Bucks for as long as possible and to do so, they’ll need to skip Toronto over the season’s final few months — however, even without Kawhi Leonard, that’s easier said than done.

The Celtics boast top-five ratings on both sides of the ball and, in spite of everybody’s doomsday-worthy proclamations, the 1-2 punch of Enes Kanter and Daniel Theis under the rim have more than sufficed. It’ll begin to sound like a repetitive cliche — and just wait for Toronto to fill out this trifecta — but Boston is still Boston: Hard-nosed and even harder-working, they’re an absolute shoo-in for home-court advantage in the first round at the very least.

But the Raptors currently stand as the Atlantic Division crown jewel, ready as ever to defend their conference throne.

You know the details by now: Leonard is dealt to Toronto and he wins the city their first-ever championship ring before signing with Los Angeles last July. Without last weekend’s All-Star MVP in tow, the Raptors were expected to sharply fall down the standings — playoffs, maybe, but this? Certainly not.

This is domination. This is an elite defensive unit. This is a franchise that not only lived on after their superstar left — but then thrived off that departure. Sans Leonard, the Raptors are only 40-15, good for the second-best record in the Eastern Conference. Crazier, right now, the Raptors are on pace to win as many regular-season games as they did with Leonard.

If not for the single-digit loss Bucks, they’d probably be the NBA’s darling story of the season once again. Pascal Siakam, 25, has blossomed into superstardom — 23.5 points, 7.5 rebounds — and is a more-than-worthy mark to pin the franchise’s back-to-back hopes upon. But perhaps even more impressive is Toronto’s ability to shuffle through next-man-up cards with reckless abandon. In fact, post-All-Star break, Terence Davis, an undrafted rookie, is the only player to have featured in all 55 games.

Every major member outside of OG Anunoby has missed a chunk of the season, too: Fred VanVleet, 10; Pascal Siakam, 11; Serge Ibaka, 11; Kyle Lowry, 12; Norman Powell, 17; Marc Gasol, 20.

And yet, they relentlessly compete like bonafide champions.

Toronto is likely destined for a second-round showdown with either Boston and Philadelphia — that much seems ultimately clear. But in the conference’s suddenly-thickening race to the top, for the first time in a long time, it’s still anybody’s best guess as to who will come out on top. Simply put, if you want star power — bank on Simmons, Embiid and the 76ers. If you want pedigreed basketball on both sides of the floor — there’s Walker, Tatum and the Celtics.

But if you want to back a franchise that was left for relative dead mere months after hoisting a championship trophy — well, Siakam, Lowry and the Raptors may just be the heavyweight title contender the conference has been waiting for.

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NBA Daily: Collin Sexton’s First All-Star Weekend A Success

Spencer Davies looks back at Cleveland Cavaliers guard Collin Sexton’s first-time experience at NBA All-Star weekend in Chicago.

Spencer Davies

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It was early Friday afternoon at the Wintrust Arena in Chicago, the stage was set to kick off a laid-back weekend of celebration on NBA All-Star Weekend and commend the hard work of the brightest young talents, both national and international, the league had to offer.

The events of the 72-hour spectacle are meant to be enjoyed, connecting with others and soaking in the experience as a reward rather than being a full-on competition. Added to the U.S. Team roster as a replacement for injured Miami HEAT rookie Tyler Herro, Cleveland Cavaliers guard Collin Sexton did just that. Between a multitude of media appearances in the bright lights with cameras all around, the 21-year-old upstart took advantage of the opportunities to expose his personality to a national audience.

But amidst the fun, Sexton still went the extra mile as he always does. Phil Handy, a former Cavaliers assistant who worked famously with Kyrie Irving and the man that conducted Sexton’s pre-draft workout with Cleveland, was the head coach of the U.S. Team. So the one they call Young Bull decided to take full advantage with a post-practice workout when the floor cleared.

“[He’s worked with] great guards, yeah. He’s a great guy,” Sexton told Basketball Insiders. “He just told me to continue to get better, continue to work, continue to strive to be great. He talked to me a little bit about Kobe [Bryant] and his time with him, so I just got a good takeaway from him.”

Additional work at a practice to improve his game and prepare for an exhibition contest during a time that was meant for fun? It’s par for the course in his world. Just weeks prior following the Cavaliers’ loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder on the road, a team source revealed to Basketball Insiders that Sexton went to Cleveland’s practice facility after landing in Northeast Ohio in the early morning hours to hone his craft.

“Dude’s motor doesn’t stop,” the source said.

“Oh naw, I work hard. When I feel like…if I’m on the court, I’mma do whatever I’ve gotta do. No days off, whatever,” Sexton told Basketball Insiders of his never-ending drive. “If it’s taking care of my body or just stretching or lifting, it’s not always about shooting and stuff like that. You’ve just gotta do the little things and that’s going to help you in the future.”

Though Sexton wasn’t used to the kind of attention he was receiving in the Windy City, he was determined to prove that he belongs. Usually taking a business-like approach to downplay things of this nature, he admitted how amazing it felt to achieve the milestone and be a part of the most popular three-day stretch the NBA has to offer.

“I feel like all my hard work, it paid off. So I’m glad to be here, especially with these group of guys, really good group. It’s an honor,” Sexton told Basketball Insiders that Friday morning.

Among star-studded sophomore names such as Luka Doncic and Trae Young, as well as human-highlight-reel rookies like Zion Williamson and Ja Morant, a motivated Sexton made his mark on the floor.

In 20 minutes of action, he poured in 21 points, nabbed five rebounds and dished out three assists. He shot 9-for-14 from the field, including three triples on six tries. And he even had a reverse jam on a bounce pass to himself, though he joked that it was “kinda weak.”

“At first, I was just chillin’ out there, wasn’t playing too hard. Then, you know, I can turn it on pretty quick,” Sexton said.

“Honestly, I just go out there and just play my game. Honestly, no matter who I’m put in the room with, I’mma do what I do,” Sexton told Basketball Insiders. “It’s exciting just because of like all the attention they bring, but me, being myself . . . I’m a dog too, so I’mma go out there and show everybody that I can represent as well.”

Sexton was the 20th Cavalier in franchise history to represent the team in the Rising Stars game since its inception in 1994. With a grin on his face naming those wine-and-golders who came before him, he was thinking ahead about the teammates that could now follow his lead.

Basketball Insiders saw a side of Sexton that hasn’t been seen much in Cleveland. He started a long media tour Thursday with a Yahoo-sponsored pop-a-shot contest followed it up with an NBA TV sitdown interview alongside Dennis Scott. While the next day was entirely centered on Rising Stars, he continued Saturday with an appearance for Metro By T-Mobile during a media-player role reversal contest and finished off at a Mountain Dew barbershop sit down with the legendary Scottie Pippen and other notorious players from the league.

Through all of the losing, through all of the tumultuous nature of his one-and-a-half seasons with the Cavaliers — who are hiring their fourth coach since the 2018 NBA Draft — Sexton is not going to change his approach. He’s not going to change who he is. He’s not going to veer into a different path because of another shift in direction.

“It’s a great experience for me just to take my bumps and bruises, to go out there and pretty much just play hard each and every night, and that’s what I’mma do,” Sexton told Basketball Insiders. “It’s tough losing because no one wants to lose. I feel like we’re moving in the right directions and we’ll get better and start winning.”

Whether people want to believe it or not, what he’s doing is working just fine.

All-Star Weekend proved it.

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NBA Daily: The Stretch Run – Central Division

In the next edition of our The Stretch Run series, Basketball Insiders takes a closer look at the Central Division bubble teams as things get back on track following the All-Star break.

Chad Smith

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The so-called second half of the season is kicking back into gear, but the forthcoming agendas for teams in the Central Division are all very different. Some organizations have their eye on the draft lottery, some on making the playoffs and one or two have set their sights on the NBA Finals. Each team has less than 28 games remaining, which means every one of them will be extremely important.

As part of Basketball Insiders’ latest running series called The Stretch Run, we’re taking a look at every division and analyzing their standing — both in the postseason position or rebuilding efforts.

The Central Division is a mixed bag of teams on various tier levels, naturally. The Milwaukee Bucks find themselves alone at the top, owning the best record in the league — as of publishing — with a 46-8 record. Clearly not a bubble team, Milwaukee’s focus has been on fine-tuning their roster and figuring out their playoff rotation. They recently added another piece in Marvin Williams after his buyout with the Charlotte Hornets.

Behind the Bucks sit the Indiana Pacers with a 32-23 record at the All-Star break. Indiana beat Milwaukee in their final game before the stoppage to end a five-game losing streak. One of the reasons for their recent struggles is likely due to incorporating Victor Oladipo back into the rotation. While the chemistry will take time to build, the talented backcourt Oladipo and Malcolm Brogdon should be one of the best in the league eventually. Their twin towers of Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner should keep the Pacers squarely in the playoff picture.

At the opposite end of the spectrum sit the Cleveland Cavaliers. They are 14-40 on the season and have had very few bright spots. Collin Sexton picked up where he left off last season, but he hasn’t been able to elevate his teammates. The Cavaliers decided not to move Kevin Love before the trade deadline, before then acquiring Andre Drummond from a division rival to create a log jam of big men. After taking Sexton and Darius Garland in the draft lottery the past two years, Cleveland will likely have another top pick to use this summer.

The odd five-year contract that Cleveland gave former Michigan head coach John Beilein this past summer has not worked out well. After reports earlier this season that the players had already tuned him out, it appears as though his days in the league have come to an end. Beilein and the organization finalized a contract settlement that’ll stop proceedings just a half-season into the deal.

Again, and swiftly, the franchise has fallen on hard times since LeBron James’ second departure.

The remaining two teams in the Central are right on the bubble and have some work to do. All hope is not lost, but they will need a few breaks to go their way over these final weeks.

With those three out of the way, it’s time to dive deep into the divisional troublemakers.

The Chicago Bulls have had a disappointing season, but they also have dealt with a myriad of injuries. Now that the All-Star festivities have concluded, the city will see if their team can get back into the postseason with a little bit of luck. The Bulls are 19-36 on the season with 27 games remaining. Looking ahead, the numbers are fairly even as 14 of those games will be against teams .500 or better. Additionally, Chicago will also have 14 of those 27 games on their home floor.

Chicago has lost six straight games and is currently tenth in the Eastern Conference standings. worse, they must find a way to leapfrog the Orlando Magic and Washington Wizards. Both teams have a similar strength of schedule over the course of their remaining games. If the Bulls want to get back into the playoffs, they will have to finish tight games. Chicago has a winning percentage of 41.7 in close games this season, which ranks 22nd in the league.

Individually, Zach LaVine has been having an outstanding season. His 25.3 points and 4.8 rebounds per game are career highs — and his late-game execution has been remarkable, considering the defenses knowing exactly where the ball is going. His ability to penetrate, finish, or just pull up has kept Chicago afloat this season. Injuries to virtually every other player on the roster have had this team trying to dig their way out of a hole since early in the year.

Oddly enough, the offense has been the biggest issue in Chicago this season. The Bulls are 26th in offensive rating and rank 25th in the league in scoring. Their defense has actually been much better than most people realize as they rank inside the top half of the league in opponent scoring and defensive rating. Both Thaddeus Young and Kris Dunn have been catalysts on that end of the floor for Jim Boylen’s squad. If they crumble over this final stretch, it could be the end for the outspoken coach.

The Detroit Pistons have a little more work to do and they only have 25 games in which to do it. Detroit currently sits 12th in the conference with a 19-38 record. The most difficult obstacle in this challenge for the Pistons will be jumping over four teams to get there. Of their 25 remaining games, only 11 of them will be played at home in Little Caesars Arena.

A playoff appearance last season increased expectations for the Pistons this year, even with Blake Griffin’s injury in that first-round series. The thought was that he would be ready to go at the start of this season, but that didn’t happen. Unfortunately, he only made it 18 games before he had to have another round of surgery. Quickly, the season outlook changed for Dwane Casey’s team.

Drummond had a fantastic start to the season without Griffin and was put up his typically-monstrous numbers. With their outlook changing, Detroit traded the big man to Cleveland for all of John Henson, Brandon Knight and a second-round draft pick. Stranger, Derrick Rose has been Detroit’s best player by a wide margin. The resurgent point guard leads the team in points and assists  — and, further, did not want to be traded. Reggie Jackson returned to the lineup just before the break but just accepted a buyout so that he could join the Los Angeles Clippers.

Christian Wood has played very well and rookie Sekou Doumbouya emerged as a pleasant surprise for the Pistons, thankfully, so it’s not all doom and gloom. Bruce Brown continues to be one of the best young guards that no one talks about. Should Luke Kennard return to health and continue his progression, a return to the playoffs might be possible with a strong finish. Change must come swiftly, however, as Detroit has lost 10 of its last 12 games.

The real question here is if the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference is indeed worth pursuing. Should Chicago or Detroit earn the spot, a first-round exit is almost a certainty. The Bucks are arguably the best team in the league with the likely back-to-back MVP leading them. Obviously these division rivals know Milwaukee well and simply do not have an answer for them. Injuries can always play a factor in how these things turn out, but the owners would prefer to have the playoff revenue.

The other side of this would be getting into the lottery to improve their first-round draft pick. Normally this is weighed heavily by the organizations, but with the rules designed to prevent teams from tanking, that’ll be difficult to do so.

Making the playoffs is still something that most players would like to do, needless to say. Coaches definitely would prefer that route, of course, as their jobs are dependent on it. Looking at the two Central Division teams in the hunt though, both appear to be headed back to the lottery once again.

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