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NBA AM: Who Still Has Cap Space?

A look at which teams still have cap space as well as which teams are paying the luxury tax.

Steve Kyler

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Who Can Still Play In Free Agency?:  While the bulk of the deals have been finalized, there are still a few NBA teams with salary cap room to play with. Here is who has cap cash left:

Portland Trail Blazers – $19,477,606 Under The Cap

The Blazers currently have the most available cap room of any team in the NBA and have 17 players currently on the roster. There is a good chance that swingman Mike Miller will be bought out at some point, and the Blazers do hold three players with non-guaranteed deals.

There is no question that when LaMarcus Aldridge opted to leave in free agency things changed. As Blazers GM Neil Olshey has explained a few times, the plan in Portland is to surround Damian Lillard with players in his age range so that they can grow into something together, and most of the team’s free agent moves and trades have lined up with that.

With so much cash left to spend, the Blazers can leverage that space to extract assets, much like they did with Cleveland and the Brendan Haywood contract. It’s unlikely the Blazers throw cash at anyone left in the market place, but if a large salary guy becomes available in trade the Blazers have the resources to make a deal.

Cap space is a commodity and, as the Philadelphia 76ers have proven for the last two years, having room to park a contract can help you collect a lot of assets. That seems to be the Blazers’ plan for the immediate future.

Philadelphia 76ers – $13,907,212 Under The Cap

The 76ers come in second to the Blazers, and surprisingly they may use some of it for an offer sheet on restricted free agent Norris Cole. The 76ers’ plan for the last two years was to amass assets and talent, and this year seems to be the year they plan to put that talent on the floor and try and compete.

The 76ers have made leveraging cap space into assets an art form, so even if New Orleans opts to match an offer sheet on Cole (which is still in discussion), the 76ers will continue to work the field as long as they have room to do it.

Playing the cap game as Philadelphia has done isn’t overly sexy, but when you look at what they were able to extract in payments for parking players on their cap, they have done as good a job as anyone in the NBA at stocking up the cupboard. If Cole doesn’t pan out, you can expect more of it, as this may be the last year where that tactic yields fruit.

Utah Jazz – $6,738,065 Under The Cap

The Jazz have some real cap space available, but it’s unlikely they are going to use much of it. With 17 players under contract and 13 fully guaranteed deals, there isn’t much room on the roster for more guys.

While improving and competing for a playoff berth is something the Jazz are expecting this year, there is a belief that the biggest gains will come from internal growth not external additions.

Having space is always a good thing, especially when the trade market opens up in December, but as things stand the Jazz’s free agency is mostly complete. The question becomes which guys at the end of the roster make the team? There is a real debate on who gets those final roster spots.

Denver Nuggets – $2,643,907 Under The Cap

The Nuggets’ cap number likely goes up if they follow through on waiving Kostas Papanikolaou, who has an October 4 guarantee date on his $4.8 million. The Nuggets have some time to try and re-trade him for an asset, especially for a team trying to shed cap cash or create some roster flexibility.

As things stand in Denver they have 16 roster players including Papanikolaou and a partial guarantee on Erick Green. It’s unlikely that the Nuggets are going to add much more to the roster than they already have and will likely have flexibility around the trade deadline, which could make them buyers, especially if they waive Papanikolaou as expected.

Cap flexibility in and of itself is an asset, especially for a Nuggets team that’s always mindful of cash flow.

Orlando Magic – $1,889,998 Under The Cap

The Magic have a little bit of breathing room under the cap, but not enough to make a splashy move. The more likely scenario is Orlando uses some of the cash to guarantee some money to camp invites with the intention of stashing them in the D-League like they did a last year with Seth Curry, Peyton Siva and Kadeem Batts.

The Magic currently have 14 players under contract not including second rounder Tyler Harvey or guard Keith Appling who they were reported to have reached a contract with, so there isn’t much room on the roster for more.

The Magic could trigger a trade or two to open up spots, but the general belief is this is the group that’s going to open the season. How the parts fit together will tell if it stays that way throughout the season.

While the number of teams with space is fairly small, the number of teams staring at the luxury tax is significantly bigger; here is what to watch for with each:

Oklahoma City Thunder – $12,417,411 Over The Tax

As things stand today, the Thunder are over the cap more than any other team in the NBA. That’s a little surprising considering how many assets the team has given up over the last few years to stay under the tax line, but it’s clear that the Thunder are all the way in on this roster.

All 15 roster spots have a guaranteed salary, so there won’t be any relief or reductions via camp cuts.

There are a couple of contracts that could be movable to reduce the tax bill, but in talking with sources close to the Thunder there isn’t a lot urgency to cut cost and there is a belief it’s now or never with this roster. Given the looming free agency of star Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook’s future not that far behind, this is the window the Thunder have been waiting for and they are ready to spend to prove it.

Now if the injury bug resurfaces or the parts just don’t fit under new head coach Billy Donovan, things could change but it’s more likely than not that the Thunder stay where they are which means a tax bill of more than $22.293 million, when you factor in the gradually increasing tax penalty on over spending.

Los Angeles Clippers – $10,765,710 Over The Tax

Given how little the Clippers had to work with this summer in terms of cap space, they did a great job re-tooling their roster. There is almost no scenario in which the Clippers are not tax payers, and given the moves they have made they are fairly locked into this current roster.

The lone exception might be swingman Jamal Crawford. With the arrival of Lance Stephenson and the re-signing of Austin Rivers, it’s unclear how big a role Crawford will play. This one could go both ways, moving off his $5.675 million contract might return a decent lower priced player and reduce the tax bill a little. But given how quickly the Clippers ran out of gas in the postseason, hanging on to Crawford for the playoffs might make more sense.

It’s unlikely the Clippers do anything before training camp; if Crawford gets traded its likely because guys like Stephenson and Rivers live up to expectations making Crawford expendable.

Golden State Warriors – $10,747,927 Over The Tax

The Warriors look fairly locked into their tax overage, as there really isn’t any combination of players that could be offloaded to clean up their books. The Warriors recently flipped Gerald Wallace for Jason Thompson to reduce their tax burden, and there may be one more smaller move to get the number lower as the season goes on, but this seems like the roster the Warriors are bringing to camp.

A little luxury tax is a small price to pay for a NBA championship, and if healthy it’s hard to imagine the Warriors won’t be in the hunt for a repeat.

Cleveland Cavaliers – $10,668,795 Over The Tax

The Cavaliers will be monster tax payers, the question becomes how much will they ultimately pay? There are still two roster spots under negotiation, the biggest being restricted free agent Tristan Thompson. Word is the two sides are still having on-going conversations but the gap between what was originally agreed to be workable – five years, $80 million – seems to have been tabled after others in the free agent class received more. The problem with more for the Cavaliers is that every extra dollar given to Thompson gets taxed at a much higher tax rate. For example, Thompson’s $6.77 million qualifying offer costs the Cavaliers $12.085 million in new tax. If Thompson signs a deal at $13 million, the tax cost jumps to $29.05 million, and that’s just the cost of Thompson. Not the other $88.63 million owed to the rest of the roster or the $5.83 million in tax they owe to that spending.

While having Thompson pick up the qualifying offer is risky, as it would make him an unrestricted free agent next summer, is he really worth more than $13 million in salary and $29.05 million in tax? Next summer when the tax ceiling rises tremendously, fitting a big deal for Thompson likely makes more financial sense even if it means bidding against a much higher salary cap environment. Waiting could shift more of that expense into Thompson’s pocket.

The sense from the Cavs is either they’ll do a deal in the $80 million range, or Thompson plays out his qualifying offer; there seems to be almost no interest is trying to solicit an offer sheet from another team.

The last chip for the Cavaliers is guard J.R. Smith. Sources close to the situation say the value of his deal will be based on how much the team has to pay Thompson, but there continues to be a sense that Smith will be back with the Cavaliers and that he’s not overly interested in other situations. Given the Cavs’ tax situation, it’s hard to imagine they offer a ton to Smith in a new deal.

Miami HEAT – $7,133,745 Over The Tax

Not only are the Miami HEAT $7.133 million over the tax, they also qualify as “repeater” tax payers which almost doubles their tax penalty. To put that into perspective, the HEAT’s current tax bill as a “repeater” is $18.367 million. That’s not an insignificant number. The HEAT have been linked to situations involving forward Chris Andersen, who is poised to make $5 million this season. Point guard Mario Chalmers has also been talked about as a trade candidate; he is set to make $4.3 million.

The problem with moving money and not taking any in return is it usually costs draft picks and young talent, something the HEAT don’t really have to spare. Luol Deng’s $10.151 million ending deal could become a reasonable trade chip, especially closer to the trade deadline when the HEAT has paid the bulk of the salary.

The HEAT have ways to reduce their tax bill, and it seems likely they will do that as the trade deadline gets closer, but their message is that if healthy, they believe they are a contender and want to see if that’s true before making any more cost cutting trades.

Chicago Bulls – $4,284,375 Over The Tax

The Bulls as a franchise have been somewhat resistant to paying the luxury tax which puts their current $4.28 million overage on center stage. Combine the pending tax burden with a log jam in the front court and the proverbial clock seems to be ticking on Bulls forward Taj Gibson. Long considered the odd man out, the Bulls have until the trade deadline to reduce their tax bill and moving off most of Gibson’s $8.5 million salary would get it done in one transaction.

Sources close to the Bulls say there have been no decisions made on anyone’s future as they want to bring everyone to camp and see who really fits in new head coach Fred Hoiberg’s system. But with rookie Bobby Portis and second year scorer Doug McDermott expected to see more minutes, someone may not play the role equal to their salary and the Bulls do not like to pay the tax.

San Antonio Spurs – $2,331,718 Over The Tax

Considering the offseason the Spurs had, it’s amazing they were able to work the cap rules as they did to not only land LaMarcus Aldridge but get the bulk of their guys re-signed and stay relatively close to the luxury tax line. There isn’t a single non-role player that could clean up the projected $2.331 million tax overage, although Patty Mills’ $3.578 million could do it and then some. The guy to watch is Kyle Anderson; while the cap value of Anderson is only $1.142 million, combined with partially guaranteed guys like Jimmer Fredette, he could get the bill significantly lower if neither finds a role in training camp.

Houston Rockets – $493,113 Over The Tax

The Rockets are over the tax line with all fully guaranteed contracts so there is no room for relief in partially guaranteed players. What’s worse is the Rockets are only carrying 12 players at this point so the odds are pretty strong that Houston will add to their tax bill before it’s said and done. Being over the tax in a minor way isn’t a terrible thing, but it does restrict what a team can to in trade construction.

If the Rockets wanted to get out from under the tax line, they do have guys like Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas that could clean up the cap and return reasonable assets. With both headed into restricted free agency next summer, those might be the names to watch.

Brooklyn Nets – $184,480 Over The Tax

The Nets get under the tax line after training camp. The Nets have five players on partially guaranteed deals, and cutting almost any of them in camp gets them below the tax line, so it’s highly unlikely Brooklyn faces the tax this year. Considering where they were two seasons ago, that’s pretty impressive cap work.

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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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