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Grades at 20 Games: Central Division

Twenty games into the season we check out how the Central Division teams stack up.

John Zitzler

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On Monday Cody Taylor gave his quarterly assessment of the Southeast Division and today we are going to do the same with the Central Division. You could argue that no division underwent more changes this past offseason. In Detroit, the Pistons brought in Stan Van Gundy to help lead the franchise back to its winning ways. The Bulls landed Pau Gasol in free agency to help bolster their frontcourt and further strengthen their championship hopes. The Bucks, somewhat controversially, sent Larry Drew packing and reached a deal with the Brooklyn Nets to make Jason Kidd their new head coach. Lance Stephenson and the Pacers were unable to agree to terms on a new deal, allowing their play-making wing to head to Charlotte. More importantly the Pacers lost their centerpiece, Paul George, for likely the entire season after he suffered a horrific leg injury. While those moves all made headlines, they pale in comparison to the news of LeBron James returning to Cleveland and the Cavs’ subsequent trade to acquire Kevin Love. With so many changes, the Central Division has become one of the most intriguing divisions in the NBA.

Now, onto the grades:

1. Cleveland Cavaliers (12-7)

The return of LeBron James and the acquisition of Kevin Love has brought back a level of excitement to Cleveland that had been absent ever since James took his talents to South Beach just a few years ago. The fans in Cleveland once again have reason to believe that the Cavs could deliver them a title. Fair or not, with the talent on their roster many expected the Cavs to be near unbeatable from the start. New head coach David Blatt, a proven winner overseas, faced the enormous task of bringing together the now title favorite Cavs.

The season got off to a rocky start and many were quick to panic after the Cavs won only one of their first four games, including a loss in Utah to the Jazz. The slow start had fans already questioning Blatt. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the Cavs experienced some growing pains as they learned to play together. However, it didn’t take long for the Cavs to find their stride, going 11-4 in their last 15 games, and they are now in the lead in the Central. James has done a tremendous job creating scoring opportunities for his teammates, averaging 7.9 assists per game. James’ play-making has allowed Kyrie Irving to be aggressive looking for his own shot. Despite being 21st in the league in pace, the Cavs are still in the top 10 in points per game, scoring at 103.4 a night. They have been one of the more efficient teams in the NBA, shooting 46.5 percent from the field. As the Cavs continue to mesh, expect them to improve on their already impressive offensive numbers.

Grade: B

2. Chicago Bulls (12-8)

The Bulls have been hampered by injuries early on this season. Unfortunately, Derrick Rose once again headlines the list of players who have already missed extended action. Not only has Rose sat for stretches, but other major contributors like Pau Gasol and Taj Gibson have been sidelined as well. The Bulls have been able to battle through those injuries and remain right in the mix for the division lead.

While their record might not blow you away after 20 games, you have to consider the tough schedule the Bulls have played. They have played only seven of the first 20 games at home. Jimmy Butler has exploded into a star; he is having a career year thus far. Butler is the team’s leading scorer, averaging 21.7 points per game and playing big minutes once again at almost 40 per night. Even while playing heavy minutes, Butler has been able to shoot 48.8 percent from the field. Butler, along with Gasol, have been huge as the Bulls look to keep pace with the Cavs. If Rose can stay healthy, expect the Cavs and Bulls to be neck and neck in the Central Division all season long.

Grade: B

3. Milwaukee Bucks (11-11)

After finishing last season with a league-low 15 wins, expectations weren’t great in Milwaukee. Newly hired head coach Jason Kidd has immediately made his presence felt and has the Bucks shockingly thinking about the playoffs. Adding a healthy Larry Sanders back into the mix hasn’t hurt either. Early on, the Bucks look like a completely different team from that 15-win squad of a season ago.

While the Bucks’ record is clear proof of their early improvement, it’s how their winning games that should encourage fans the most. Kidd has entrusted the future in the team’s faces of the franchise Jabari Parker and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Both have proven that they can handle big minutes and they’ve been key contributors to the Bucks’ success this year. Parker has started in all 22 games and is the Bucks’ second leading scorer and rebounder at 12.4 and 5.9 respectively. Antetokounmpo started the season coming off the bench, but has since settled into the starting rotation; he continues to make eye-popping plays nearly every night. Just as impressive has been Kidd’s impact on Brandon Knight, who at only 23 years old is having his most efficient season as a pro, scoring 17.6 points per game while shooting 44.7 percent the field and 40.2 percent from three.

The Bucks certainly look to have things heading back in the right direction after a long 2013-14 season. They may not be ready for a deep playoff run quite yet, but with the way their young talent continues to develop, they should be a team to watch in the future.

Grade: B+

4. Indiana Pacers (7-14)

When Paul George went down this summer, many wrote the Pacers off completely. Not only would they be without George, but they’d be missing Lance Stephenson, who rejected the Pacers’ five-year, $44 million offer, as well. Both players were catalysts behind the team’s run of success over the past few seasons.  As expected, the Pacers haven’t been the same team without George and Stephenson. However, they have continued to compete hard every night.

Not only are the Pacers missing George, but starting point guard George Hill has been out as well. Backup big man Ian Mahinmi also just went down for several weeks. The Pacers have been forced to play much of the season shorthanded. With the rash of injuries that the Pacers have suffered, offense has been tough to come by. The Pacers are 28th in the league in offensive rating and are scoring only 93.4 points per game. They are without a true go-to scorer and are currently being led by David West, who after returning from injury, is averaging 13.2 points per game.

It’s going to be a uphill battle all season long for the Pacers but there is no quit in this team. The Pacers aren’t the same team they were last year but they are still a tough match-up night in and night out.

Grade: C

5. Detroit Pistons (3-18)

Outside of the Sixers, no team has been worse than the Pistons and unfortunately, unlike the Sixers, the Pistons didn’t come into the season trying to position themselves for a top draft pick. Things have certainly not started as well as Stan Van Gundy would have hoped. This is uncharted territory for him, as he’s never coached a team that finished under .500 before, let alone had the kind of struggles this Pistons team is enduring.

Despite having some talented pieces like Andre Drummond, Josh Smith and Greg Monroe, the Pistons have not played well together. Offensively they struggle mightily to score to ball, shooting only 40.7 percent as a team. The team’s three leading shot takers – Smith, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Brandon Jennings – are shooting well below 40 percent from the field. They are just average on the defensive end and have not been nearly stingy enough to overcome their offensive woes. Van Gundy certainly has his work cut out for him going forward.

Grade: F

This is John's second year with Basketball Insiders, after spending last season working as an intern. Based out of Milwaukee, he covers the NBA with a focus on the Milwaukee Bucks and the Central Division.

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NBA Daily: Rich Cho Out As Charlotte Hornets GM

The Charlotte Hornets opted to not move forward with GM Rich Cho and are expected to pursue former Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak.

Buddy Grizzard

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The fateful moment for Rich Cho came days after he was hired as GM of the Charlotte Hornets in June of 2011. With the NBA Draft coming just nine days later, Cho started work on a three-team trade that would land Charlotte a second top-10 pick to pair with its own ninth pick, which was used to draft franchise cornerstone Kemba Walker.

In that draft, Klay Thompson went 11th to the Golden State Warriors and Kawhi Leonard 15th to the Pacers. Of the 17 players selected after Bismack Biyombo, who went to the Hornets with the seventh pick, 12 are regular contributors on current NBA rosters. The Orlando Magic are currently outscored by 11.6 points per 100 possessions with Biyombo on court, a rotation-worst.

Today, Hornets owner Michael Jordan announced that Cho is out as Charlotte’s GM.

“Rich worked tirelessly on behalf of our team and instituted a number of management tools that have benefited our organization,” said Jordan in a press release. “We are deeply committed to our fans and to the city of Charlotte to provide a consistent winner on the court. The search will now begin for our next head of basketball operations who will help us achieve that goal.”

While the failure to obtain Thompson, Leonard or any of the numerous impact players in the 2011 draft will always mar Cho’s record, falling to the second pick in the 2012 NBA Draft will continue to haunt Charlotte. Despite a brutal 7-59 record in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, which set the record for lowest win percentage in an NBA season (.110), the New Orleans Pelicans won the right to the first overall pick and selected Anthony Davis.

The Hornets selected Michael Kidd-Gilchrist with the second pick. Although the 2012 Draft wasn’t nearly as deep as 2011’s, the Hornets still left players like Bradley Beal (third) and Andre Drummond (ninth) on the board. Either would have been an outstanding compliment to Walker, who remains with the team despite rumors of his availability leading up the the trade deadline.

“I feel like I’m going to be in Charlotte,” said Walker at his All-Star media availability. “So that’s where I’m at, that’s where I’m playing. So I never really sat and thought about any other teams.”

Walker made his second All-Star appearance after Kristaps Porzingis suffered a season-ending ACL injury.

“I wish K.P. hadn’t gotten hurt,” said Walker. “Everybody hates to see guys go down, especially great players like him. But when I was able to get the call to replace him, it was a really good feeling.”

Another fateful moment in Cho’s tenure came during the 2015 NBA Draft. According to ESPN’s Zach Lowe, the Boston Celtics offered the 15th and 16th picks, a future protected first rounder from the Brooklyn Nets and a future first from either the Grizzlies or Timberwolves in exchange for the ninth pick, which Cho used to draft Frank Kaminsky.

“If it was such a no-brainer for us, why would another team want to do it,” Cho asked rhetorically in defense of the Kaminsky selection, according to Lowe.

Years later, it’s evident that the Celtics dodged a bullet when both Charlotte and the Miami HEAT rebuffed its attempts to move up and draft Justise Winslow. The latter has not panned out while Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, the players Boston subsequently obtained with Brooklyn’s picks, have developed into starters.

Chris Mannix of Yahoo! Sports reported in the first week of February that Charlotte may target former Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak for a high-ranking role in the organization. Kupchak, like Jordan, is a former UNC star. Kupchak would join Jordan’s UNC teammate and Charlotte assistant GM Buzz Peterson.

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The G-League is a Path Back to the NBA

The G-League has become an avenue for several player types toward the NBA, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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When the NBA first instituted their development league, its main purpose was two-fold. The first was to give experience to young players who perhaps were not seeing regular playing time on their respective NBA teams. The second was to give undrafted players a chance at getting exposure and ultimately getting to the NBA.

With the growth in size and popularity of the development league, now known as the G-League, it’s begun to serve another purpose. It’s become a place for older veterans who have already tasted the NBA life to get back to the highest level of basketball that they once knew.

One player in particular who has a wealth of NBA experience is Terrence Jones. Jones is currently playing with the Santa Cruz Warriors, the G-League affiliate of the Golden State Warriors.

Jones was originally drafted by the Houston Rockets with the 18th overall pick in the 2012 draft. He was part of a vaunted class of Kentucky Wildcats that year, which included Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marquis Teague, Doron Lamb, and Darius Miller. During his four years with the Rockets, he emerged as a dependable reserve and part-time starter. He averaged 9.5 points per game on 49.5 percent shooting and 5.3 rebounds.

“It was just a lot of excitement and a lot of joy, being part of the Houston Rockets was a lot of fun,” Jones told Basketball Insiders. “We had great memories and great seasons, a lot of up and downs, I just enjoyed the journey.”

Jones’ dealt with injuries his last two season in Houston, and when he was a free agent in the summer of 2016, the Rockets didn’t re-sign him. He was scooped by the New Orleans Pelicans, however, and he made an immediate impact for them. Prior to the trade deadline, he played in 51 games for the Pelicans, including 12 starts while putting up 11.5 points on 47.2 percent shooting, and 5.9 rebounds.

When the Pelicans acquired DeMarcus Cousins, however, they cut Jones. He didn’t stay unemployed for long, though, as he was signed by the Milwaukee Bucks to add depth for a playoff run. He was unable to crack the rotation, though, and the Bucks cut him as well before the playoff started. After a brief stint in China, he’s now back stateside and using the G-League to get back to the NBA.

“That’s the goal. Right now, I feel I’ve been playing pretty well and just trying to help my team get wins,” Jones told Basketball Insiders. “I think I can play multiple positions offensively and defensively. Whether that’s creating plays for myself or for others, I think I can help contribute on the offensive end.”

He’s been the second-leading scorer for Santa Cruz with 19.9 points per game. He’s pulling down 7.1 rebounds, and even dishing out 4.5 assists. In the G-League Challenge against the Mexican National Team at All-Star Weekend, he finished with eight points on 50.0 percent shooting, six rebounds, four assists, and two steals. He’s definitely a name to watch for as NBA teams scour the market for 10-day contract possibilities.

Another player who’s had a taste of the NBA is Xavier Silas. Silas is currently with the Northern Arizona Suns, the affiliate of the Phoenix Suns. He went undrafted in 2011 and started his professional career in France. That only last a few months before he came back the United States and latched on with the Philadelphia 76ers.

He played sparingly with the 76ers and was ultimately cut before the start of the 2012-13 season. Since then, he’s played summer league with the Bucks, and been in two different training camps with the Washington Wizards.

“It was amazing, any time you get to go and play at the highest level, and I even got to play in the playoffs and play in the second round and even score, that was big,” Silas told Basketball Insiders. “It was a great time for me and that’s what I’m working towards getting back.”

While his professional career has taken him all across the globe from Israel to Argentina to Greece to Germany and even Ice Cube’s BIG3 league, he sees the G-League as being the one place that will get him back to where he wants to be.

He’s done well this season for Northern Arizona. He’s their third-leading scorer at 19.3 points per game and he’s one of their top three-point threats at 39.9 percent. At the All-Star Weekend G-League Challenge against the Mexican National Team, Silas had a team-high 13 points for Team USA including 3-5 shooting from three-point range.

It’s isn’t just what he brings on the court that Silas believes makes him an attractive candidate for an NBA team. At age 30, he’s one of the older guys in the G-League and one with a lot of basketball experience to be passed down to younger guys.

“I think it’s a little bit of leadership, definitely some shooting. I’m a vet now so I’m able to come in and help in that aspect as well. But everybody needs someone who can hit an open shot and I think I can bring that to a team,” Silas told Basketball Insiders. “I think it’s the best place for anyone who’s trying to make that next step. We’re available and we’re right here, it’s just a call away.”

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NBA Daily: Lillard Playing For Something Bigger

Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard has his eyes set on a bigger prize than just being an NBA All-Star.

Steve Kyler

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Playing For Something Bigger

The NBA All-Star Game is a spectacle.

By design, the game is meant to be a showcase, not just for the players selected to compete, but for the league and all of its partners, on and off the floor. It is easy to get caught up in how players selected actually play, but the reality is while most see the game as important for a lot of reasons, Portland Trail Blazer star Damian Lillard understands it has to be put into perspective.

“I don’t think it’s fair to expect people to go out there and treat it like they are playing for the team they’re under contract for,” Lillard explained this weekend.

“It’s the one time in an 82-game season plus playoffs, preseason and training camp that we actually get a break. It’s necessary to take a mental break, along with a physical break from what we do every day. There’s nothing wrong with that, so I don’t think it’s fair to ask guys to go out there and play like it’s for the Trail Blazers. My loyalty is to my team; I got to stay healthy for my team. I got to do what’s best for my team. Obviously, go out there [during All-Star] and not mess around too much and that’s how people get hurt and stuff like that. You got to go out there and play and have respect for the game, but I don’t think it’s necessary to go out there and go crazy like it’s a playoff game.”

Lillard notched 21 minutes in Sunday’s big game, going 9-for-14 from the field for 21 points for Team Stephen, a roster that included three Golden State Warriors players. Lillard believes that eventually, he’ll get the chance to share the weekend, his third, with teammate C. J. McCollum.

“Each year you see teams are getting two to three, Golden State got four this year,” Lillard said. “But you look at it and say ‘why is that happening’ and it has a lot to do with team success. Me and C.J. just have to take that challenge of making our team win more games. I think when we do that, we’ll be rewarded with both of us making it. If we really want to make that happen, then we’ll do whatever it takes to win more games.

“I feel like this season we’ve moved closer in that direction. In the past, we haven’t even been in the position to get one, because I did not make it the past two years. I think if we keep on improving we’ll eventually get to the point that we’re winning games and people will say ‘how are they doing this’ and then hopefully our names come up. Hopefully, one day, it’ll happen.”

Another issue that got addressed during the All-Star Weekend was the growing tensions between the NBA players and the NBA referees. Representatives from both sides met to address the gap developing on the court, something Lillard felt was necessary.

“We’re all human,” Lillard said. “As competitors, we want to win. If you feel like you got fouled, you want them to call the foul every time. I think sometimes as players, we forget how hard their job can be. At the pace we play, it’s hard to get every call, and then you got guys tricking the referees sometimes, we’re clever too. It’s a tough job for them. I think when we get caught up in our competitive nature, and we forget that they’re not just these robots with stripes, they are people too. You have got to think, as a man if someone comes screaming at you every three plays, you are going to react in your own way. Maybe you’re not going to make the next call; maybe I am going to stand my ground. It’s just something that I think will get better over time. I think both have to do a better job of understanding.”

With 24 games left to play in Lillard’s sixth NBA season, the desire to be more than a playoff team or an All-Star is coming more into focus for Lillard, something he reportedly expressed to Blazers management several weeks ago.

“There are guys that have this record and guys that have done these things, and I want to at least get myself the chance to compete for a championship,” Lillard said. “If I get there and we don’t win it, it happens. A lot of people had to go see about Michael Jordan, a lot of people had to go see about Shaq and Kobe. You know, those great teams, but I have a strong desire to at least give myself a chance to be there. Take a shot at it.”

With All-Star out of the way, the focus in the NBA will switch to the race to the playoffs. As things stand today Lillard and his Blazers hold the seventh seed in the West and are tied with Denver, and just a half of a game back from the five seed Oklahoma City Thunder.

If the Blazers are going to make noise this post season its going to be on the shoulder of Lillard, and based on what he said, it seems he’s up to the challenge.

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