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NBA Daily: Analyzing First Returns Of All-Star Voting

This week, the NBA released the first returns for All-Star Game voting and, surprises aside, there are plenty of intriguing narratives to watch moving forward, writes Ben Nadeau.

Ben Nadeau

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On Thursday, the NBA released the first returns of voting for next month’s All-Star Game. Within the hour, people everywhere — both fans and media members alike — were sharing their thoughts. Of course, this is hardly a new phenomenon and, more often than not, the shakier results end up smoothing out by the final count. Still, there are some extremely interesting storylines and narratives to dig into, even if most of them won’t come to fruition come February. It’s early, no doubt — but that’s half the fun in revealing these numbers so far ahead of time.

If you need a refresher, through a combination of fan, player and media voting, five players from each conference will be chosen as starters. The remaining roster spots are then voted upon by the league’s head coaches. Ultimately, these fan votes will only account for 50 percent of a potential starter’s resume — so it’s pointless to get too wound up just yet. In any case, the early results give onlookers a healthy indication of where the pulse and lifeblood of the sport currently lies. So with that in mind, here’s what to watch out for as the voting steamrolls on toward the Jan. 21 deadline.

The Current Captains:

Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James

Last year, the NBA shook All-Star Weekend up by adopting a draft system — led during its inaugural attempt by Stephen Curry and LeBron James, two of the league’s most charismatic stars. The only problem? The league held that draft behind closed doors. This time around, however, everybody will get to see and react to the captain’s picks live. Beyond the potential for perfect television, it’ll offer a unique glance into the mind of two unarguable superstars as they mold their own versions of a juggernaut. When voting closes, the highest vote-getters from each conference will take the drafting reins and, as of now, those two captains would be James and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

While many will hope to see the Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid — the wise-cracking, social media superstar — making the choices on-air, it’d be difficult to find fault in putting these two in charge. James, who made waves this week by potentially declaring himself the greatest of all-time, crafted a salivating squad in Los Angeles in the draft debut that featured DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. As he looks to tie Bob Pettit and Kobe Bryant as the only players in NBA history with four All-Star MVPs, how could James possibly follow that success as a captain in year two?

Elsewhere, Antetokounmpo is clearly loved across the board — both domestically and internationally — and seeing the NBA’s next torchbearer in such a prominent position would only further his growing stature. Players like James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Irving could make a run at the respective crowns in remaining weeks, but it’d be a safe bet to start preparing for James and Antetokounmpo as the captains. In the end, those are win-win pair however you choose to slice it.

The Retirement Tour Stays Winning:

Dwyane Wade, Vince Carter

Heading into their twilight seasons — or what is assumed to be for Carter — it originally seemed unlikely that either of these former superstars would be notably involved in the proceedings. No matter what happens in the coming weeks, both Dwyane Wade and Vince Carter will appreciate the love from supporters nonetheless.

Although Wade has been a mid-season staple since he was drafted back in 2003, the last time Vince Carter finished in the top ten for his conference was 2010-11, when he was traded from Orlando to Pheonix in December. Carter has been chosen for the contest eight times in his illustrious career but not since 2007, so it’d be a fantastic send-off for the future first-ballot Hall of Famer. But at just 76,022 votes, Carter’s status here is a mere footnote as he’s already behind Kawhi Leonard by 700k and Giannis Antetokounmpo by nearly one million. Beyond that, the necessary player, media and or coach votes won’t be there for Carter either.

Wade, on the other hand, has a serious chance of turning his retirement tour into an instant classic. The Miami HEAT legend trails Kyrie Irving by about 500k votes but remains up on the Hornets’ Kemba Walker by a decent margin for backcourt votes in the conference. It’s hard to predict whether the other avenues of voting will reward Wade with the curtain call opportunity, but the 36-year-old is well-liked across the league. Wade is a 12-time All-Star selectee, but he hasn’t played in the exhibition classic in three years — so the magic of one final ride in Charlotte may too much for all parties involved to pass up.

The Warrior Fatigue Sets In:

Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Kevin Durant

Nobody truly expects the back-to-back champions to slump through the Western Conference much longer, but the quartet of dominant Warriors isn’t leading the pack in votes as usual. Obviously, some of this can be chalked up to Curry’s time on the injured list and Draymond Green and Klay Thompson’s unexpected struggles, but perhaps some Warrior-related fatigue has finally set in for voters. Green finished as the conference’s second-best vote-getter in the frontcourt for 2017-18, only trailing Durant but beating out Paul George, Davis and Cousins. After the first round of results, Green is holding onto the top ten at all by a slim margin.

Thompson’s 247,618 votes are well off his 1.23 million total from last season as well. Durant and Curry are nearly impeachable in these popularity contests and both will end up as starters again anyway — but it’s worth noting that they may not reach voting highs from before either. Unfortunately for Green and Thompson competition for the reserve spots remains fierce and the Warriors’ non-historic rate of winning won’t be there to save them a spot this time around. Green and Thompson have both made the All-Star game in consecutive seasons and in three of the last four years — but those streaks are most certainly in jeopardy as things stand now.

The International Votes Remain Key:

Jeremy Lin, Derrick Rose, Luka Dončić

Over the years, some fairly consistent patterns have revealed themselves in All-Star Game voting. Superstars will always garner votes, even if they’re hurt — James, Curry, Harden. Then there are the fringe stars that will always dot the periphery, sometimes with an outside chance at snagging a coveted starting spot — for example, Damian Lillard, Cousins, Walker. After that, the list generally consists of exciting, potential-laden players that have little chance of making the cut, but their national recognition is often a step in the right direction — a group that includes Jayson Tatum, Zach LaVine, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma and Devin Booker this season.

But every year, there are a few extra names that spark conversation and this campaign is no different. Entering the ring, last but not least, are your 2018-19 international favorites.

Jeremy Lin, the first American of Chinese or Taiwanese descent to play in the NBA, has always fared well in All-Star Game voting. Lin’s passionate fanbase, both in the states and abroad, have consistently kept the guard in the top ten for backcourt voting, no matter what conference he found himself in. After his popularity erupted in 2012, Lin has stayed in the top ten voting at his position — topping out at 883,809 in 2012-13, the third-highest mark for a guard in the West that season — in every season but last year. Traded to Atlanta during the offseason, Lin has played in a career-low 18.6 minutes per game over 33 games for the Hawks, but his return to the top ten backcourt vote-getters in the East also coincides with his comeback following 81 missed games with the Nets in 2017-18.

Next, there’s the complicated case of Derrick Rose, who appears as a man reborn in Minnesota. His off-the-court issues have raised some deserved red flags recently — but Rose may ride his fan- and media-given redemption arc to his first All-Star appearance since 2012. Naturally, Rose reaching the exhibition classic would be an undoubted success for his once all-but-dead basketball career. But it would also go down as another disappointing case study in rewarding an athlete with a spotty-at-best legal past. Of course, Rose’s current standing in the voting process absolutely has to do with his statistical resurgence (18.9 points, 4.8 assists), that’s without question, but the point guard also still remains massively popular in China.

In an offseason article by ESPN’s Nick DePaula from August, 70 percent of sales from Rose’s Adidas line of gear come from China. Despite the nearly career-ending lows, Rose’s jersey still frequently reached the top ten in sales there as well. That overseas love combined with the redemption narrative and his highest points per game average since 2011-12 has Rose in a surprising position for now. From here on out, Rose will have his hands full holding off Harden and Westbrook, but he’d still need a strong showing from the player and media voting to lock down a starting role. If he doesn’t, it’s tough to envision the coaches keeping him in the mix given the competitive, overfilled nature of the Western Conference player pool.

Finally, the league has been blessed with the breath of the fresh air that is Luka Dončić — everybody’s favorite rookie. Dončić, the super-refined 19-year-old, has taken the NBA by storm so far and the votes have quickly followed suit. After the first returns, Dončić is the Western Conference’s fourth-leading vote-getter, only trailing James, Curry and Rose. Dončić, Slovenian-born but loved in Spain (and all over the rest of Europe), was expected to do well in voting — but could anybody have reasonably seen this coming? There will be stiff competition for Dončić’s high-ranking spot in the coming weeks — notably Durant, Davis and George in particular — but it’s an incredible honor after just three months in the league.

Even with the ballooning number of fans behind him, the player and media votes might leave him out — if he misses out there, Dončić will need to hope that the coaches take him over plenty of more veteran-established options. In the event that Dončić misses out on the festivities as a rookie, he’s still averaging a stellar 19.5 points, 6.6 rebounds, five assists and 1.1 steals over 32 minutes per game.

He might not make the All-Star Game in 2018-19, but his potential here as a shoo-in for the next decade-plus seems almost certain.

Nevertheless, it remains incredibly early in All-Star Game voting and most of these narratives could be flipped on their head by the next time the returns are revealed. Still, it’s always interesting to see how things have panned out over the few months of the season. Whether that’s future Hall of Famers getting some well-deserved shine or impressive youngsters making their mid-season cases, the popularity contest always brings some exciting surprises along the way. But knowing the NBA, there’s still plenty of drama left to be had here before voting ends on Jan. 21 — so get to it!

Ben Nadeau is a Seattle-based writer in his third year with Basketball Insiders. For five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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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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