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ICYMI: Central Division

Next up in our ICYMI series, Garrett Brooks looks at the Central Division and posits on what you might have missed early on in the season.

Garrett Brooks

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Next up in Basketball Insiders’ ICYMI series – where we’re taking a look at the biggest storylines that you may have missed from around the league – is the Central Division.

The Central is led by the Milwaukee Bucks and Indiana Pacers, two playoff teams last season that made aggressive offseason moves to improve this year. There’s also the Chicago Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers, both teams that mostly look much better than they did a year ago so far. Finally, the Detroit Pistons made a number of offseason moves, but are on track for an early lottery draft pick this year.

So, who’s improved from the Central and how? What has potentially gone under the radar during these early parts of the season? Here’s what you might have missed.

Nate Bjorkgren’s New Brand In Indy

The Indiana Pacers’ decision to part ways with head coach Nate McMillan following last year’s playoff loss was a surprise to some – after all, they’d made the playoffs in all four seasons under his tutelage. Unfortunately, those four appearances all ended in the first round with three coming via sweep.

Management decided the team needed a new leader to truly take the next steps forward, and they made a bold hire in Nate Bjorkgren. The former Raptors’ assistant is just what the Pacers needed to develop along with their still young core. With Bjorkgren leading the way, Indiana is moving toward an offensive powerhouse for years to come.

After ranking dead last in the NBA in three-point attempts per game last season, the Pacers have increased that number from 28 per game to 34.3 per game this year. There’s an obvious emphasis on analytics as they’re also taking significantly fewer mid-range shots than under McMillan.

That’s helped them move from a bottom ten to a top ten scoring team in the early part of the 2020-21 season. Even more impressive, that’s after who they’ve been without already this year.

T.J. Warren, the Pacers’ leading scorer last season, played just four games before suffering a broken foot. Caris LeVert hasn’t played after surgery to treat renal cell carcinoma of his left kidney. Both players are currently out indefinitely.

Seeing how the team has produced without two lethal scorers in Warren and LeVert is very promising. Once they’re back to full health, the Pacers will be one of the most dangerous offensive teams in the league.

The Pistons’ Rotation Needs to Change

The Pistons weren’t expected to do much winning this season as they undergo the early stages of a full rebuild. A number of offseason moves they made raised eyebrows but could be justified for a franchise looking to rebuild everything from the bottom up.

But what can’t be justified is their current rotation and lineup decisions. Dwane Casey needs to shift his top priority to player development above all else. Regardless of who’s playing for Detroit, they’re not going to win very many games.

Why are five of their top six players in minutes per game just veterans that aren’t a part of the long-term plan? After Jerami Grant, who is 26 years old and due bags of money moving forward, the next five players are as follows: Blake Griffin (31), Delon Wright (28), Mason Plumlee (30), Wayne Ellington (33) and Derrick Rose (32).

Remember, this is a 4-14 team with a number of young players seeing little court time. That includes Sekou Doumbouya, 2019’s 15th overall pick, and, to a lesser extent, Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart, 2020’s Nos. 19th and 20th overall picks. It’s only a matter of time before they get more playing time and the sooner it happens, the better off the Pistons will be long term.

The veterans should and will still be involved moving forward, but some are already on limited time in Detroit.

Derrick Rose is bound to get moved to a contender at some point before the trade deadline. Blake Griffin has been far too bad to justify 32 minutes per game. It’s understandable to be patient in most cases, but the Pistons have nothing to lose and everything to gain by giving their young talent more playing time.

The Cavaliers Established An Identity

The young gun Cavaliers entered this season desperately needing an identity on both ends of the court. Of course, they finished last year with the worst defensive rating in the league at 114.8. Offensively, only the Knicks scored fewer points per game.

It’s clear they’re working hard on both ends of the floor this season – and, suddenly, the future is looking much brighter in Cleveland.

On the defensive end, they’ve been extremely active in passing lanes and they’re forcing a league leading 17.8 turnovers per game. Using those forced turnovers as an easy offense, Cleveland is scoring 1.21 points per possession in transition and they’re shooting 59.1 percent on those possessions.

Of note, no team has more deflections than the Cavaliers so far. Larry Nance Jr., Andre Drummond, Isaac Okoro and Collin Sexton are leading the way with the activity and disruption of passing lanes.

Due to that activity, the Cavaliers are scoring over 20 percent of their total points in transition – and that’s a recipe for success. Given their blossoming transition offense and a buy-in defensively, Cleveland is ready to be one of the most improved teams in the NBA this year.

Young Bulls Showing Promise

The Bulls have turned a corner offensively this year under new head coach Billy Donovan. Much of that stems from having a stud offensive threat like Zach LaVine, but the surrounding players are doing their part as well.

After a frustrating rookie campaign, Coby White has shown flashes in his first chance to fully be the team’s starting point guard. His playmaking and defense need improvement, but the flashes are enough to get fans more than excited. As a natural score-first athlete, White’s 5.6 assists per game bode well for the future.

Additionally, Lauri Markkanen is showing the potential that had people so excited after his rookie season again. He’s shooting the ball well after a few down years from behind the arc and appears to be an ideal floor stretcher at the very least. Both Markkanen and White have clearly benefited from the changes to the Bulls’ coaching staff.

They’re joined by rookie Patrick Williams, who the Bulls selected fourth overall in the 2020 NBA Draft. Williams is playing smart offensively and flashing his incredible upside on defense whenever he can.

Ultimately, Williams’ ability to knock down shots is certainly promising, and it’s great to see him not forcing it offensively. He’s aware of what his game is and what his strengths are – that’s a valuable asset for the Bulls both right now and long term.

The season is still young, but the Central Division has quickly become one of the league’s most exciting groups to watch. While Giannis Antetokounmpo, Myles Turner and Zach LaVine might be stealing most of the headlines, there’s plenty of up-and-comers, new coaching changes and challenging rebuilds to take stock in.

Garrett Brooks is a contributing writer for Basketball Insiders based out of Chicago, Illinois. In addition to multiple years of covering the NBA, Garrett has also spent time in live events, analytics, and on-court training.

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NBA Daily: Sixth Man of the Year Watch — March 6

With the All-Star break upon us, the Sixth Man of the Year award would appear to have a heavy favorite. Ariel Pacheco examines.

Ariel Pacheco

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With the All-Star break upon us, it’s a good time to take a look at the candidates for Sixth Man of the Year. In comparison to other award races, the race for the Sixth Man is a lot more clear-cut in terms of the favorite and their competitors. 

There are certainly plenty of players that are having great seasons off the bench but, due to a variety of reasons, are out of contention for the award. Still, their play is deserving of recognition: Terrence Ross is averaging 15.5 points per game for an Orlando Magic team that has fallen out of playoff contention due to terrible injury luck. Montrezl Harrell, last year’s winner, has seen his numbers dip significantly with the Los Angeles Lakers this season — he’s still productive, but his 13.8 points and 6.4 rebounds per game just won’t cut it this season. Tyrese Haliburton has been a surprise, but the rookie and his 13.2 points, 5.4 assists and 43.3 three-point percentage off the bench has been a bright spot for an otherwise bad Sacramento Kings squad.

That said, while they’ve performed well, none of those players — and many others — have a real chance to compete for the award. In fact, barring a major mixup in the season’s second half, the race to the award might come down to just three individuals.

3. Eric Gordon, Houston Rockets

The Houston Rockets are in the midst of what is currently the longest losing streak by any team this season. They’ve lost 13 in a row and have completely fallen out of the playoff picture. Houston’s poor record hurts Gordon’s case, but the 32-year-old is still putting up big numbers and, despite a hefty salary over the next few seasons, may even be a guy teams look to add at the trade deadline.

Gordon is averaging 17.8 points per game, the second-most by any bench player this season. He hasn’t been as consistent from beyond the three-point line as in years past, or when he won the award back in 2017, but Gordon’s still more than capable from distance and has been one of the league’s best at attacking the rim. Gordon has also provided some excellent on-ball defense.

Gordon has become a perennial candidate for the award — and for good reason. Still, at this point, it’s hard to justify him over the other two candidates in these rankings.

2. Chris Boucher, Toronto Raptors

The opposite of a household name prior to the 2020-21 season, Boucher has burst onto the scene and been a revelation for the Toronto Raptors. His play has been a needed spark for a team that struggled mightily out of the gate but has since turned their season around. So far this season, Boucher has, by far, been Toronto’s most consistent and important big — and he’s been so despite the fact that he plays just 23.8 minutes per game.

Averaging 13.6 points, 6.5 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game, Boucher has slid nicely into a role similar to what Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol fuflilled a season ago. And, despite a janky-jumper, Boucher has made his presence felt on the outside, hitting 44.5 percent of his 3.8 three-point attempts per game and clearing major space down low for Toronto’s offense.

In almost any other season, Boucher would have a strong case for the top spot on this list. But, as it stands, may not even garner any first place votes for the 2020-21 iteration of the award.

1. Jordan Clarkson, Utah Jazz

Because Jordan Clarkson has just been that good.

This year’s runaway favorite for the Sixth Man of the Year award, there just aren’t many arguments that stand up to what Clarkson’s been able to do this season. He’s scoring the most of any candidate and doing so on great efficiency. Further, he’s proven the offensive fulcrum for the bench of the best team in the NBA.

Clarkson is averaging 17.9 points with a true shooting percetnage of 58.1 percent. He’s been consistent yet forceful offensive punch for the Jazz and their second unit, scoring in double digits in all but one of Utah’s games this season, including a 40-point outburst agaisnt the Philadelphia 76ers’ top-tier defense and 10 games with 20 or more. While All-Stars Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert and Mike Conley deserve a lion’s share of the credit for the team’s success this season, Clarkson has also played an integral role.

Were the vote cast today, Clarkson’s selection for the Sixth Man of the Year award would likely be unanimous — again, he’s been that good. Utah recently gave him a four-year, $52 million deal and, if Clarkson can continue to play at this level, he’ll prove that deal a steal for the Jazz in short order.

For now, this is where the race to the Sixth Man of the Year award stands — but anything could happen in the second half of the season. With that in mind, keep on the lookout for Basketball Insiders’ next peek at the race.

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NBA Daily: Washington’s Positionless Rebuild

Drew Maresca explains why the Washington Wizards’ are closer to legitimacy than you might think

Drew Maresca

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Upon first glance, the Washington Wizards look like an absolute train wreck. They traded away a lottery-protected 2023 first-round pick to swap out John Wall for Russell Westbrook – whose contract will haunt them through the end of 2022-23 – and they are on the verge of chasing away their 27-year-old, thirty-point per game scoring guard, Bradley Beal. So insert your “Washington can’t get their stuff together” comment here while you can, because the opportunity won’t be here for long.

Before getting too far ahead of ourselves, it’s worth acknowledging that the Wizards have, in fact, botched the opportunity to build a winner around Beal thus far. But, when John Wall opted to have heal surgery and subsequently ruptured his Achilles, the door shut on that option, anyway.

There is an obvious silver lining – Beal is signed through the end of next season with a player option for 2022-23. Given what the Milwaukee Bucks gave up for Jrue Holiday last offseason, one could assume that the Wizards would get more than enough to jump-start a rebuild in exchange for Beal.

But a look closer at Washington’s roster would reveal they’ve quietly laid a foundation for the future. Specifically, the Wizards’ last two lottery picks, Rui Hachimura and Deni Avdija, embody position-less basketball, as versatile, highly skilled players who can be plugged into almost any lineup. Both were recently named to the Rising Star challenge — although it won’t be played due to inherent limitations in the arrangement of the 2021 All-Star Weekend, NBA coaches clearly agree. Sure, there’s international appeal given Hachimura’s Japanese background and Avdija’s Israeli heritage, which one could surmise was a major motivator in naming one or both to the team, but coaches aren’t known for playing politics.

So let’s take a closer look at the young Wizards hoping to lead Washington into the future.

Avdija is a top-flight, Israeli prospect who played on for EuroLeauge’s storied Maccabi Tel Aviv – alongside former pros Amare Stoudemire and Omri Casspi – as a teenager for the past two seasons. He entered the NBA as a highly-touted playmaker, capable of playing and defending multiple positions. Somewhat surprisingly, Avdija fell to the Wizards with the ninth pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, as he was rated as the fourth-best prospect by the Wizards’ front office prior to the draft, according to sources.

The comparisons between Avdija and Luka Doncic were inevitable, as both are big, point forward types with a flair for the dramatic. That put obvious pressure on the young forward and, while he’s struggled for much of his rookie season – Avdija is averaging just 6.0 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.3 assists per game while connecting on 35.6% of his three-point attempts – his ceiling is obviously sky-high. He’s shown flashes of his greatness, like in a game in early March in which he recorded 10 points, 7 rebounds; or an early January game in which he collected 20 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists.

Further, no one should be discouraged by Avdija’s struggles. First, he shot just 27.7% on three-point attempts last season in the EuroLeague – so his three-point percentage this season should come as a huge relief. Further, Avdija is averaging just 21.4 minutes per game, often deferring to Beal and Westbrook (and, to a lesser degree, Hachimura and Thomas Bryant). So, as much as everyone wanted him to be the next Doncic, the opportunity simply hasn’t been there.

But the potential is.

Wizards coach Scott Brooks explained some of what’s went wrong for Avdija’s thus far: “It’s normal to have some good moments and some tough moments. Every player, every single player in this league. I’m sure Michael [Jordan] had a couple of bad games in his rookie year. Every player. Russell [Westbrook], I coached him his rookie year. He’s had a handful.”

“Deni’s gonna be a good player,” Brooks continued. “For all the rookies in the league, it’s never happened where you had no Summer League, really no training camp and then with the safety protocol, he missed three weeks in the middle of the season. That’s hard to overcome.”

To Brooks’ point, the lack of preparation has definitely made the transition for Avdija even harder. What’s more, it’s not just Avdija who’s struggled; Obi Toppin (New York) and Devin Vassell (San Antonio), two of the more refined prospects, have also struggled to get carve out a consistent role.

Further, Avdija isn’t the first lanky foreigner who needed more than a third of a season to acclimate to the NBA; Dirk Nowitzki averaged just 8.2 points in 20.4 minutes per game as a rookie; Manu Ginobili averaged just 7.6 points in 20.7 minutes per game; Danilo Gallinari averaged just 6.1 points in 14.6 minutes per game. The list goes on.

Once he gets an actual opportunity, Avdija’s bandwagon should fill up quickly.

If Avdija is Washington’s future facilitator, then Hachimura is its finisher. And, while questions plague Avdija’s performance, Hachimura is being praised for his.

To be fair, Hachimura is farther along in his development, with one NBA season already under his belt (and three years at Gonzaga). Hachimura, already 23, is a bit more refined and it shows in his output: 13.2 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.8 assists this season.

That said, a closer look at Hachimura’s play shows room for improvement – with a below league-average 12.9 PER and a 29.2% three-point percentage serving as his most glaring weaknesses. But, like with Avdija, the upside is clear as day. We’re talking about a second-year player who scored 15 or more points 11 times so far this season – just 26 games. He’s strong, polished and bouncier than advertised prior to the 2019 draft.

Further, a closer examination of his shooting numbers reveals that while his three-point shooting clearly needs work, his mid-range game is spot on. Hachimura is connecting on 41.2% of his shots from between 16 feet and the three-point arc – better than noted midrange expert Carmelo Anthony (37%) and just hair behind All-Star forward Jayson Tatum (42.9%).

But Hachimura’s offensive abilities have been known for what feels like forever, partially due to the ridiculously long 2019-20 season. What’s surprising, though, is how he’s continued to improve on the defensive end – so much so, in fact, that Brooks specifically called out his defensive development after a recent game.

But no one should be that surprised. Hachimura’s combination of speed and strength, along with his high motor, is tailor-made for defensive success. And, again, like Avdija, the 6-foot-8 Hachimura’s versatility is his major selling point. He boasts size, dexterity, touch and handle. And, while his skill set has become far more common in the NBA, plug-and-play guys of Hachimura’s build are still relatively rare. And, most importantly, they allow teams to get creative in roster construction, enabling the addition of players whose deficiencies could be covered up by players like Hachimura.

Ultimately, neither Avdija nor Hachimura is a guarantee. Both possess serious upside and could grow into perennial All-Stars, but neither is a sure thing. Their attitudes and approaches will be a major determining factor in their success, or lack thereof.

The Wizards could look very different as soon as next season. But, as of now, Washington looks ready to tackle its rebuild — and, between these two, they may already have a headstart.

Blink and you might just miss their entire rebuild.

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NBA Daily: Three Teams Failing Expectations

Expectations were extremely high for three teams entering this season. A variety of factors have derailed their trajectory but there may still be time to address their issues and turn their seasons around.

Chad Smith

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Every offseason presents the opportunity for organizations to revamp their rosters in hopes of improving their team for the upcoming season. Between the NBA Draft and the free agency period, executives are busy around the clock. The flurry of phone calls and internal discussions among management is key to molding the future.

But the league found itself in an unfamiliar position this past year with the delayed season, the playoffs in the Orlando “bubble” and a shortened offseason that went by in the blink of an eye. The first preseason game tipped off exactly two months after the final game of the NBA Finals. The turnaround was quick and complicated for everyone involved.

That said, several teams were able to capitalize on the abbreviated turnaround. The Phoenix Suns knocked it out of the park with the Chris Paul trade and signing of Jae Crowder. The Charlotte Hornets nailed the draft and free agency, as Michael Jordan landed both Gordon Hayward and LaMelo Ball. The New York Knicks found success in the draft with Immanuel Quickley and Obi Toppin. The Brooklyn Nets added excellent role players in Bruce Brown and Jeff Green while re-signing Joe Harris, who has been worth every penny.

Some teams appeared as though they had hit a home run, only to see the ball being caught at the warning track. The hype and buzz surrounding these teams were well warranted at the time, but things just haven’t panned out for a variety of reasons. With the All-Star break finally here, these three teams would welcome the idea of hitting the “undo” button on their offseason moves.

Toronto Raptors

The Raptors find themselves sitting two games under .500 entering the All-Star break. While they are certainly not out of contention, they are a far cry from where most people thought they would be at this point. It began with a rocky start to the season, where they dug themselves a massive hole with a 2-8 record.

The crux of their struggles came with their frontcourt issues. Both Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka took the Kawhi Leonard route from Toronto to Los Angeles in the offseason. Losing one of their big men hurt, but losing both of them was crippling. The signings of Aron Baynes and Alex Len looked okay on paper, but the fit could not have been worse. Toronto currently ranks dead last in rebounding as a team.

Toronto ended up waiving Len, while Baynes has seen his role reduced even more. Fortunately, the emergence of Chris Boucher and Norman Powell has helped the Raptors turn their season around. Draft picks Malachi Flynn and Jalen Harris haven’t had a major impact, but Pascal Siakam finally snapped out of his bubble fog and Kyle Lowry is healthy once again as well.

One good thing that the Raptors were able to do in the offseason was retain their sensational guard Fred VanVleet. Toronto has seemingly turned things around over the past few weeks and, considering they are playing all of their home games 1,400 miles away from their arena, they are positioned for a much better second half of the season.

Dallas Mavericks

Last season, the Mavericks boasted the best offense in the entire league, led by MVP-candidate Luka Doncic. The goal for them in the offseason was to acquire a defensive presence that could get this team more balanced. It appeared as though they addressed that when they traded Seth Curry to Philadelphia for Josh Richardson. Unfortunately, that has not been the case early on.

Dallas was also looking for an upgrade at the center position, but they missed out. They ended up having to settle for bringing back Willie Cauley-Stein on a two-year deal for $8.2 million. As a team, the Mavericks rank 24th in rebounding. James Johnson has been a solid addition, but he alone was not nearly enough to upgrade their porous defense.

Kristaps Porzingis has been quite inconsistent this season, so it is difficult to know what they are going to get from him every night. He is nowhere near the defensive presence that he was during his time in New York. Richardson is the guy that Dallas has been waiting on to provide outstanding perimeter defense, but he too has been unable to piece it together on a nightly basis.

The Mavericks did not find anything in the draft and it seems as though, once again, Doncic is having to do everything for this team in order for them to have success. His 36.2 percent usage rate is the highest in the league and that doesn’t appear to be going down anytime soon. If you are going to give the keys to the entire offense to someone, he is a good choice but Dallas struck out in terms of giving their franchise player more help this season.

Atlanta Hawks

No team had won the offseason quite like the Hawks. The organization was able to surround its franchise player with truckloads of talent in free agency. They added elite shooters like Bogdan Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari. They added key defensive guards in Kris Dunn and two-time champion Rajon Rondo. They even scored more talent in the draft, taking Onyeka Okongwu with the sixth overall pick.

Atlanta lost no players of significant value, either, as general manager Travis Schlenk added to his already loaded young nucleus of Trae Young, John Collins, Clint Capela, Cam Reddish, De’Andre Hunter and Kevin Huerter. The problem here is that there are just too many overlapping pieces.

The veterans that were brought in either haven’t been able to get on the floor or are taking up valuable minutes for the younger players, potentially stunting their growth. The workload has been spread thanks to their depth as they deal with all of the injuries but there is no chemistry on the floor. In a season where practice time is near non-existent, that is a real problem.

The Hawks hit the All-Star break in 11th place in the Eastern Conference with a disappointing 16-20 record. The game is being played in their backyard, yet they don’t even have a player to represent them. And, in recent days, it’s gotten even worse; the team officially fired head coach Lloyd Pierce on Monday, with Nate McMillan set to take over as interim coach.

Atlanta has played 36 games this season. Their nine best players have missed a combined 143 games. Not including Dunn, who hasn’t played all season, that number is still well over 100 games missed. This locker room is a mixed bag of players that lack leadership and desperately need guidance. Pierce wasn’t the answer and Vince Carter isn’t walking through those doors anytime soon.

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