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NBA Daily: First Quarter Grades: Central Division

Spencer Davies begins Basketball Insiders’ “First Quarter Grades” series with the Central, a top-heavy division that could potentially field three playoff teams.

Spencer Davies

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With November coming to a close and December fast approaching, the NBA is about a quarter of the way into the season.

Every team has played in at least 17 games, with a number of those having eclipsed the 20-game mark. Since the standings are shaping up and the divisions are sorting themselves out, Basketball Insiders will begin a “Grading The First Quarter” series, highlighting each group of five and handing out letter grades for each ball club.

From bottom to top, we’ll kick the week off with the NBA Central Division.

Cleveland Cavaliers – D+

From the way things have gone in Cleveland so far, you’d have thought this season would’ve been a surefire disaster. However, since Larry Drew has taken over, there seems to be a new type of self-belief within the locker room—and even more so since J.R. Smith and the organization decided to mutually part ways. Make no mistake about it—this team is not fit for the postseason and will not get there. But the way that Drew has galvanized this roster is nothing short of impressive.

Since entering the starting lineup, Collin Sexton has been aggressive with a number of sensational showings as a score-first point guard. Tristan Thompson looks every bit as healthy and engaged as Cleveland has seen him in some time, while taking on a leadership role with Kevin Love on the sidelines. Jordan Clarkson is buying into the system as a more willing passer, along with his quick hitting points off the bench.

For a year that was pegged to be an unmitigated failure, the front office can take a little solace in the fact of how this team has competed and been in pretty much every game recently. Still, it’s hard to see a situation where that doesn’t land them a top-five pick in the 2019 NBA Draft.

Chicago Bulls – C

As written in our “Areas of Concern” feature just three weeks ago, the Bulls have been banged up…badly. Fred Hoiberg can only work with what he has. Sure, Zach LaVine is enjoying a career season and Jabari Parker is finally getting into a groove, but the best of the rest aren’t cutting it. This is nobody’s fault—these are role players and young guys being asked to fill the void of top talent.

That’s why Chicago isn’t being as harshly graded as some may feel they should. There’s been no shortage of effort from anybody. Justin Holiday has always been a streaky type of player. Antonio Blakeney has a bunch of potential as a pure scorer. Ryan Arcidiacono is a tireless worker that’s earned his time on the floor.

Unfortunately, these players are not of the talent caliber to be fighting for a playoff seed, even in the Eastern Conference. Luckily, it seems like Lauri Markkanen is on the mend and on track to make his season debut sooner than later. Bulls starting point guard Kris Dunn may be ahead of schedule as well. They’re certainly going to need them to dig out of this whole they’re already in.

Indiana Pacers – B-

Though the Pacers have dropped back-to-back games, it’s not indicative of what they’ve accomplished so far on the year. They are as physical as any team in the NBA, which is why nearly all of their defensive statistics stack up in the top 10 across the board.

The majority of their offense runs through Victor Oladipo, who has missed the last three games with a knee injury, but who otherwise has not slowed a step after an incredible All-Star year. The other source of Indiana’s scoring comes from the fast break. There are over five guys, including Oladipo, averaging at least a steal per game. Those takeaways have led to 21 points off of turnovers, which ranks second in the league behind the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Third-year big man Domantas Sabonis is boasting a 69.3 percent field goal percentage, good for the highest in his career thus far and the best in the NBA among players averaging over 20 minutes per game. Having posted seven double-doubles, he’s an early candidate for Sixth Man of the Year.

Detroit Pistons – B-

Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond have combined to create an intimidating two-headed monster in Motown. Griffin has unleashed MVP-level numbers with his playmaking ability, improved shooting and a clutch gene, while Drummond is continuing his dominance of the interior with the most consistency he’s shown since coming into the league.

First-year Pistons head coach Dwane Casey is trying to change the way the offense has been run by generating more threes as he did in Toronto, but it hasn’t worked in the team’s favor quite yet. Their three-point rate is in the top 10, according to Basketball-Reference. The issue is guys aren’t hitting them on a nightly basis.

Detroit’s best perimeter shooter on the team statistically is Griffin (38.5 percent), followed by a vastly improving Reggie Bullock (37) and Langston Galloway (35.6), who’s been much better under Casey than he was with Stan Van Gundy. Reggie Jackson and Stanley Johnson need to start knocking shots down for this group to achieve its full potential. Other than that, with a solid defense and new life, things are certainly looking up.

Milwaukee Bucks – A

You want to talk about a franchise that is finally on the way to showing its full potential? Look no further. The Bucks are absolutely lethal as an offensive juggernaut.

Giannis Antetokounmpo is on the fast track to earning the moniker of best player in the East. Khris Middleton is putting up incredible three-point shooting numbers and is as dependable as a secondary scorer can be. And let’s not forget Eric Bledsoe, who just might have found the perfect head coach to get the best out of him in Mike Budenholzer.

Referring back to an old piece this writer put together this past summer, Brook Lopez’s addition has made all of the difference with Milwaukee’s spacing. He is allowing teammates to penetrate and, in turn, that’s led to easy points inside or a wide-open triple for him. The veteran center has knocked down 37.7 percent of those threes and has the highest net rating on the Bucks at a plus-15.6.

Look for this Budenholzer-led bunch to speed up even more as the season progresses. The Bucks have been searching for the right man to take them to the promise land—and he might be the perfect fit.

As you can see, there’s likely going to be a battle in the Central, a top-heavy division that could potentially field three playoff teams in the Eastern Conference—and one of those organizations might just be at the very top when all is said and done.

Spencer Davies is an NBA writer based in Cleveland in his first year with Basketball Insiders. Covering the league and the Cavaliers for the past two seasons, his bylines have appeared on Bleacher Report, FOX Sports and HoopsHype.

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NBA Daily: Three-Point Champion is Just a Regular Joe

Joe Harris had his league-wide coming out at All-Star weekend when he shocked fans across the globe in upsetting three-point shootout favorite-Steph Curry.

Drew Maresca

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Joe Harris’ fortunes and those of the Brooklyn Nets appear to be traveling on the same trajectory. Harris’ personality and approach embody the softer side of the Brooklyn Nets’ team persona: he is loyal, hardworking and humble. And while Jared Dudley and DeMarre Carroll provide veteran leadership and Spencer Dinwiddie and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson offer personality, Harris provides a grounded approachability.

No one would blame him, though, if he develops a small ego. After all, Harris just received his formal introduction to the world, having won the NBA’s three-point championship last weekend in Charlotte, North Carolina. It’s hard to deny that his star is rising.

And yet, Harris seems unaware that his status is rising.

“To be honest, I am solid in my role. That’s what I’m about,” Harris told Basketball Insiders before the Nets’ January 25 game against the Knicks. “I’m pretty realistic with where I view myself as a player. And I have the self-awareness to realize that I’m not a star player in this league by any means. I mean, I’m good in my role and I’m trying to take that to another level and be as complete as I can in my niche role that I have.”

While Harris’ comments could be misinterpreted as a humble brag, they shouldn’t be. He is simply a hard-working player who perhaps doesn’t quite realize everything he adds to his team. But let’s be clear, Harris’ presence absolutely improves the Nets’ play.

Harris boasts the second-best three-point percentage in the NBA (.471) through the first four months of the season; he trails only Victor Olapido and J.J. Reddick for top three-point percentage of all 48 players who have at least 10 “clutch” attempts from long-range and he’s ranked tenth in points per clutch possession (1.379).

He helps space the floor for teammates D’Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie, who take advantage of his long-range acumen by attacking an often less congested pathway to the hoop — and drives account for 53.4 percent of the Nets’ points (third in the entire league).

It is no surprise then that the Nets are currently in sixth place in the Eastern Conference.

“At the end of the day we’re just trying to go play good basketball.” Harris said. “The wins are a byproduct of that. It’s about staying locked into this process and how it’s gotten us here regardless of who is on the court.”

Harris’ dedication to the team and its process is becoming more unique each year as players hop from franchise to franchise more frequently than ever before. While Harris only joined the Nets in 2016, he was immediately seen as a key player by the Nets’ leadership, albeit one on a minimum deal – according to Kyle Wagner of the Daily News, Coach Kenny Atkinson saw a lot of Kyler Korver in his game and GM Sean Marks wanted him to study Danny Green.

And while Harris’ 2018-19 stats reflect similar production to the career highs of both of Korver and Green (13.2 points per game with an effective field goal percentage of .622 for Harris versus 14.4 points with an eFG% of .518 for Korver and 11.7 points with an eFG% of .566 for Green), at only 27 years old, he should only continue to improve.

A lot has changed in the two and a half seasons since Harris signed a free agent deal with the Nets, but one thing that hasn’t changed is his character.

“We had various deals that were shorter for more (money),” Harris said. “And some were longer and roughly the same, but this is where I wanted to be and I’m happy it ended up working out.”

Harris ultimately signed a two-year deal for approximately $16 million, which can be viewed as both cashing in, given where he was only two years ago (out of the league), and betting on himself, considering the short-term nature of the contract and his relative youth.

And what’s more, Harris will probably go down as a value signing for the Nets considering his versatility. After all, he is not merely a one-dimensional shooter. In fact, he is actually shooting slightly better than 60 percent on 3.2 attempts per game from the restricted area – which is better than All-Star teammate D’Angelo Russell (53 percent on 2.8 attempts). Further, Harris shoots a fair amount of his three-point attempts above the break, which is to say that he does not rely heavily on the shorter corner threes – which tend to be a more efficient means of scoring (1.16 vs. 1.05 points per possession league-wide from 1998-2018) as they are typically a spot where specialist players lurk awaiting an opening look.

The question is, how much more can we expect to see from Harris in the future? If you ask him, he’d probably undersell you on his ceiling and allude to steady progress that ultimately looks similar to what he’s done recently. But the only thing similar about Harris’ career production is that it has steadily improved – and that’s partially due to his process-oriented approach.

“We talked about it in the midst of the losing streak,” Harris said. “What are you going to change, what are you going to do (when you’re in a slump)? Not that we were going to do the exact same thing, but we felt like we were very process oriented. We felt like we were right there. Our whole thing was about being deliberate and doing it as consistently as possible.”

Harris sees the validity in repeating what works. And he’s figured that out, partially with the help of his teammates. Harris clearly values veteran input and team chemistry.

“You look at our team right now and we have really good veteran presences with Jared and DeMarre and Ed (Davis),” Harris said. “That’s the voice from the leadership standpoint. I’m learning from them just like DLo is. And all the other guys in the locker room are. They’re the guiding presence of what it is to be a professional and they keep everything even keel. They don’t go too low when things are tough, and they don’t let us get too high when things are going well.”

Harris is clearly a little uncomfortable taking credit for his team’s success, and he shies away from the spotlight a bit. He seems to prefer anonymity. But Harris should probably get used to the attention he’s received this season because it will only increase as his profile continues to rise as we enter the 2019 NBA Playoffs.

“He’s not just a shooter,” Atkinson told NBA.com last April. “He’s worked on his drive game, he’s worked on his finishing game. I think he’s worked on his defense. So just a complete player who fits how we want to play. He’s one of our most competitive players. Not a surprise watching, from the first day we had him, how locked in he was, how hungry he was. On top of it, he’s a top, top-ranked human being.”

So expect to see more of Joe Harris this April and beyond, but don’t be surprised by his humility. It’s one aspect about him that won’t change.

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NBA Daily: Danuel House Optimistic About Future

David Yapkowitz speaks to Danuel House about life as a two-way player for the Houston Rockets & what he hopes comes out of his time in the G League with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.

David Yapkowitz

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Opportunity is everything in the NBA. Last season’s implementation of two-way contracts gave a lot more players potential opportunities in the league that may not have been previously available.

One player who has used two-way contracts to showcase himself and really prove that he belongs in the NBA is Danuel House Jr.

House actually began his career two years ago as an undrafted rookie with the Washington Wizards. However, he suffered a wrist injury only about a month into the 2016-17 season.

He was subsequently cut by the Wizards and used the summer to heal up before joining the Houston Rockets for training camp prior to the start of last season. He ended up being one of the final cuts in camp, and he joined the Rockets’ G League affiliate, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.

His strong play earned him a two-way contract with the Phoenix Suns after only two months of G League play. This year, he rejoined the Vipers, only to earn another two-way contract with the Rockets. Having had some experience now with a two-way, it’s something that House sees as being beneficial.

“It’s got its good perks and its bad perks. But then the NBA is just trying to open more doors for more guys to be seen and have an opportunity,” House told Basketball Insiders. “I think it’s a good idea, it’s gonna work the kinks out so it can be more beneficial to the players. It’s still new and it’s still trending and working itself through the NBA.”

This season has been a bit of a whirlwind for House. He initially joined the Golden State Warriors for training camp, only to have them cut him before the start of the season. After spending about a month with the Vipers, the Rockets called him up, only to cut him and then eventually re-sign him to a two-way deal.

Due to injuries in the Rockets lineup, House saw meaningful minutes right away, even being placed in Houston’s starting lineup. He had some solid performances down the stretch of last season with the Suns, but this season he really looked the part of a legitimate NBA rotation player.

When a player signs a two-way deal, they are allotted a maximum of 45 days of NBA service, meaning that the rest of the time they must remain in the G League. If a player exceeds the 45-day limit, they must be sent back down to the G League unless they’re able to reach an agreement on a standard contract with the NBA team.

Because of the Rockets’ necessity of House in the rotation, he used up his NBA days last month. He and the Rockets were unable to agree on a contract, so he returned to the G League with the Vipers. While there haven’t been many updates as of late, he’s still hopeful that something can work out with the Rockets.

“Hopefully I can go back to Houston and compete for a title. There’s nothing like learning from James [Harden] and Chris Paul, Gerald Green, Eric Gordon and those guys,” House told Basketball Insiders. “And now with the additions of [Iman] Shumpert and Kenneth Faried, I’m just excited to hopefully get something done so I can be out there and competing with those guys.”

Initially, House wasn’t playing with the Vipers upon returning to the team. But he made his return to the court a few weeks ago on Feb 8. In that game, House shook off some initial rust and ended up having a solid performance including hitting the game-winning free-throws.

In the past, the G League was often times seen as a punishment for NBA players. The league didn’t have that great of a reputation, but over the past few years that image has started to change. The competition has gotten a lot stronger, and according to House, there are plenty of guys who are that close to making it to the NBA.

“The competition here is real. There’s a lot of dudes out here that got a lot of talent that they can showcase. They just want their one opportunity, their one chance that I was so fortunate and blessed with,” House told Basketball Insiders. “I know not to come out here and take it for granted, that’s why I’m playing hard and of course still trying to be a student of the game and learn.”

Recently, during a media availability session, Rockets star and perennial MVP candidate James Harden expressed hope that the Rockets and House could work something out. Harden told reporters that they all know how good House is and what he brings to the team.

In 25 games for the Rockets this season – including 12 starts – House put up nine points per game while shooting 45.8 percent from the field and 39 percent from the three-point line. He’s in the mold of a three-and-D type player, but he also moves well without the ball on cuts to the rim and can attack the basket as well.

“My role was to play defense and make the right read,” House told Basketball Insiders. “Shoot when I’m open, drive, attack the rack, and run the floor. Of course, defend and rebound and make good reads. It was easy.”

As it stands, the Rockets have 12 players on their roster, and a pair of two-way deals for House and Vincent Edwards. House is not eligible to rejoin the Rockets until the G League season concludes. Even then, he won’t be eligible to play in the playoffs as per two-way deal restrictions.

The Rockets will need to add at least two players to get up to the league-mandated 14 players on the roster. House would appear to be a good candidate for one of those spots, but that remains to be seen. But regardless of whether or not it works out in Houston, House is confident that he’s done enough to prove he belongs in the NBA.

“It gave me the utmost confidence, but my hard work, my passion, and my faith in the man upstairs gave me the ability. I asked him to guide me through the journey and he’s been taking care of me,” House told Basketball Insiders. “I’m so grateful that the opportunities and I used my ability to perform and do something I love to take care of my family.”

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Insiders Podcast

PODCAST: Checking In On Clippers & Lakers, East Arms Race, Warriors’ Challengers

Basketball Insiders Deputy Editor Jesse Blancarte and Writer James Blancarte evaluate the L.A. teams after the trade deadline, break down the Eastern Conference contenders, and look for the Warriors’ biggest challengers.

Basketball Insiders

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Basketball Insiders Deputy Editor Jesse Blancarte and Writer James Blancarte evaluate the L.A. teams after the trade deadline, break down the Eastern Conference contenders, and look for the Warriors’ biggest challengers.

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