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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 Senior NBA Writer based in Cleveland in his third year with Basketball Insiders. Covering the league and the Cavaliers for the past four seasons, his bylines have appeared on Bleacher Report, FOX Sports and HoopsHype.

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NBA Daily: Who’s On The Move Next?

While the bulk of the NBA offseason is likely done, here are some names to watch as potential movers ahead of training camps in two months.

Steve Kyler

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With NBA free agency all but closed, there are still a few names lingering waiting for deals, and a new batch of players to watch as the NBA season starts to take shape. Until training camps open in roughly 65 days, here are some of the situations we’ll be watching:

Bradley Beal

The Washington Wizards have finally wrapped up their summer-long search process for new leadership, landing on Tommy Sheppard as their new full-time general manager. After flirting publicly with Denver’s Tim Connelly, and privately with several other candidates, Sheppard won out. His first order of business is convincing Wizards’ All-Star Bradley Beal to stay on board long enough for them to build around him.

Sheppard has been very transparent that the team will offer Beal the maximum contract extension possible on July 26th — not only hoping he’ll sign it but also showing him their convictions to remold the next iteration of the team with the sharpshooter as the centerpiece.

Beal has two fully guaranteed years and some $55.7 million left on his current deal and is eligible to tack on three more years later this week.

While it is likely Beal will turn down what’s expected to be a three-year $111 million extension offer, the Wizards feel like the respect shown in making the offer at the earliest possible moment will illustrate to Beal how much the team values him.

Unfortunately for the Wizards, the way the NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement works, it is in Beal’s best financial interests to wait out next season as he can earn substantially more money if he picks up where he left off last season as an All-NBA level guard. Earning an All-NBA nod next season could trigger eligibility for a Supermax extension next summer that could push him towards a $167 million deal over five years.

Turning down the offer will open the trade rumor flood gates on Beal, and that’s not lost on the Wizards. Teams that have tried to engage Sheppard and company on Beal deals have been turned away abruptly, and Sheppard has already started telling people publicly and privately that even if Beal turns down the extension offer, the Wizards will be staying the course with Beal.

While time will tell how committed Beal really is to a rebuilding situation in Washington, for now, it seems that, with or without an extension, the Wizards plan to keep building around Beal.

That could change if he asks out, but even if he stays silent on the subject, that’s not going to stop the speculation train from picking up steam if he does as expected and passes on the extension offer.

Kevin Love

As teams started missing out on All-Star level free agents this summer, Cleveland Cavaliers’ forward Kevin Love’s name started to pop up in trade rumors. Most of the trade talk was speculation according to sources near the Cavaliers, who said there were never any real discussions on moving Love and his remaining four years and $120.4 million.

While interest in acquiring Love is lukewarm, to say the least, there is a belief that Love is obtainable from Cleveland, who have looked at moving most of their veteran players as they start to focus in on building around their youth.

Love, who will turn 31 in September, might be the most obtainable All-Star level guy in the NBA and does have a lot owed on his deal — but it is a contract that plateaus in value next season and then declines during the final year.

As of now, it seems unlikely that anything involving Love happens before training camp. Still, there is a sense in NBA circles that as the season progresses and the balance of power takes shape, Love could be a name on the move around the trade deadline; especially with so much perceived parity in both conferences after the most chaotic offseason the league has seen in years.

Kris Dunn

The Chicago Bulls were pretty active after Summer League wrapped trying to make deals to round out their roster. One name that continued to surface in trade talks was Bulls’ guard Kris Dunn. The belief in NBA circles is that the Bulls are looking to move on from Dunn and that the asking price is fairly low.

Dunn’s time in Chicago has been hot-and-cold, to say the least. He had a breakout redemption year after being traded to the Bulls as part of the Jimmy Butler trade in 2017 — but since then, Dunn has been up and down and has developed a spotty reputation inside the organization.

With the Bulls landing Coby White in the draft and having so much invested in Zach LaVine, the belief is the Bulls are seriously looking at moving on from Dunn.

In terms of easy-to-obtain guard options, Dunn seems like the most plausible starting level young guy, and it might not take much more than a protected draft pick to get it done if the asking price rumors are genuinely true.

Iman Shumpert

Rockets’ guard Iman Shumpert is still unsigned, although it seems he may stay in Houston on a one-year deal if something else doesn’t surface. The Rockets had approached Shumpert’s camp about his willingness to be included in a sign and trade deal before they obtained Russell Westbrook, and there is still talk that Shumpert could be used to bring in another high-level player.

The Collective Bargaining Agreement requires any sign and trade deal to be three years in length, but only the first season must be guaranteed. This means that the Rockets could leverage Shumpert’s Bird Rights to balloon up his first-year salary to add a significant piece to the roster.

Among the remaining unsigned free agents, Shumpert has logged the most minutes, played a solid role for the Rockets in the postseason and might be the best defender on the market.

While there isn’t much left in terms of free-agent dollars, there is still exception money out there, so the book isn’t closed yet on Shumpert’s options.

Chris Paul

When the Oklahoma City Thunder triggered the deal to swap Russell Westbrook for Rockets’ guard Chris Paul, it was assumed the Thunder would immediately flip Paul to another team and start their rebuild around the pieces that came back. The problem is that deal never materialized.

While there has been some criticism of the Thunders’ decision to move Westbrook for what might be the ugliest contract in the NBA. Sources close to the Thunder believed that keeping their word to Westbrook was worth it. When the multi-time All-Star signed his massive extension, one of the promises made by the organization was that if Westbrook were ever unhappy, the Thunder would work with him and his agents to find a suitable situation — something they felt they did with the Houston deal.

While Paul may not be the ideal player to re-build around, the Thunder entered into the deal knowing they could not offload enough of their veteran players to be bad enough to get into the top draft pick discussion, so they opted to add Paul and aim for a playoff spot.

While making the playoffs in the Western Conference might be a stretch, the Thunder have eyes on developing their young guys with Paul as a veteran mentor. There is also hope that Paul will play himself into being more desirable in trade, especially as the three remaining years and $124 million left on his deal ages away.

Basketball Insiders has been grading the offseason of every team in the NBA; if you have missed one check them out here:

New Orleans Pelicans, Dallas Mavericks, Washington Wizards, Atlanta Hawks, New York Knicks, Chicago Bulls, and Cleveland Cavaliers.

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @TommyBeer, @jblancartenba, @SpinDavies, @JamesB_NBA, @MattJohnNBA, @DrewMaresca, @JordanHicksNBA, and @Ben__Nadeau .

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Looking For A Few Great Voices!

From time to time we have open chairs at Basketball Insiders for writers looking to gain experience, grow their brand and to be part of an aggressive up-tempo content team.

Basketball Insiders

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Looking For A Few Great Voices!

From time to time we have open chairs at Basketball Insiders for writers looking to gain experience, grow their brand and to be part of an aggressive up-tempo content team.

We are considering adding up to four new voices in 2019, and what we are looking for is very specific.

Here are the criteria:
– A body of professional work that reflects an understanding of the NBA and basketball.
– Must live within 30 minutes of an NBA team other than in New York & LA; we are full in those markets.
– Must be willing to write two to three times per week on various topics as assigned.
– Must write in AP style and meet assigned deadlines.
– Be willing to appear in Podcasts and Video projects as needed and scheduled.
– Have a strong understanding of social media and its role in audience development.
– Be willing to work in a demanding virtual team environment.

Some things to know and consider:
– We are not hiring full-time people. If you are seeking a full-time gig, this is not that.
– This will be a low or non-compensation role initially. We need to understand your value and fit.
– We have a long track record of creating opportunities for those that excel in our program.
– This will be a lengthy interview and evaluation process. We take this very seriously, so should you.
– If you are not committed to being great, this is not the right situation for you.

If you are interested, please follow these specific instructions, Drop us an e-mail with:

Your Name:

The NBA Market You Live Near:

And Why We Should Consider You:

We do not need your resume, but a few links to work you have done under the above information would be helpful. E-mail that to openings2019@basketballinsiders.com

 

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NBA Daily: Grading The Offseason – New Orleans Pelicans

Spencer Davies recaps a busy summer for the New Orleans Pelicans that turned out to be a huge success going into their first year without Anthony Davis.

Spencer Davies

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With the NBA Summer League concluded and the brunt of free agency completed, the doldrums of the offseason are here. The FIBA World Cup, Drew League, BIG 3 and The Basketball Tournament and other events are currently taking over the scene until the association fires back up in late September.

Last week, Basketball Insiders started a “Grading The Offseason” series by breaking down six teams and the type of summer each has had. To kick off this next round of reviews, we’ll take a look at the brand new version of the New Orleans Pelicans.

Overview

Entering the year, the Pelicans had high hopes. While they did lose key contributors with Rajon Rondo and a rehabbing DeMarcus Cousins electing to sign elsewhere, the organization was able to bring in a motivated Julius Randle and Elfrid Payton to ease the roster hit. The core of Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday, Nikola Mirotic and those two seemed to be a solid group on paper.

Of course, as the season progressed, that changed. Playing the up-and-down pace that Alvin Gentry loves, the Pelicans were getting it done on the offensive end. Davis had been putting up the ridiculous numbers as usual, while Holiday was scoring and dishing with the best of them. Randle fit like a glove with his new team and was a force on the inside, as well as an improved shooter on the outside. Mirotic stretched the floor and, before getting hurt, Payton looked as comfortable as ever.

Then, chaos ensued. Shortly after the new year, Davis made his intentions clear that he wanted out of New Orleans. As the team was hovering around the postseason hunt, the turmoil caused a noticeable distraction and an awkward predicament that left many with a sour taste in their mouths. Up to the trade deadline, the rumors ran rampant regarding Davis’ desire to land with LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers.

General manager Dell Demps refused to give in to those demands though, asking for the steepest of prices to even field a call from LA’s front office duo of Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka. The Lakers offered a majority of the franchise’s young core and a package of picks in an attempt to entice Demps, but he didn’t budge. Pelicans owner Gayle Benson reportedly wanted nothing to do with moving Davis, and she got her wish … at least for the remainder of the season.

New Orleans did trade away Nikola Mirotic and in return received Stanley Johnson and Jason Smith in a three-team deal. Still, it wasn’t enough to bolster a middling, banged-up squad. One week following the deadline, Benson fired Demps and replaced him with Danny Ferry in the interim.

Sure enough, the playoffs became an afterthought quickly. Gentry began playing guys to get a glimpse at what they could bring to the table. On the positive side, Jahlil Okafor made the most of an opportunity, as did upstart rookies Kenrich Williams and Frank Jackson.

However, finishing with a 33-49 record and facing an imminent rebuild, the Pelicans had work to do to straighten out the organization’s direction—with or without Davis.

Offseason

New Orleans wasted no time in finding a mastermind to fix one of the most difficult situations in the league. Less than a week after the conclusion of the regular season, the franchise hired David Griffin as its new executive vice president of basketball operations.

Lady luck shined on the Bayou at the NBA Draft Lottery a short month after, as the Pelicans scored the No. 1 pick with only a six percent chance to do so. Griffin chose Trajan Langdon, a fast-rising front office assistant in the Brooklyn Nets system, as his general manager. Ahead of the NBA Draft, former WNBA legend Swin Cash joined the fray as vice president of basketball operations and team development.

It wasn’t long before Griffin and his team addressed the turmoil surrounding Davis. In mid-June, the Pelicans struck a blockbuster trade to send the disgruntled superstar to the Lakers as he had desired. In return, they received a king’s ransom as a part of a three-team agreement including the Washington Wizards.

After all of the re-routing was done, New Orleans had brought in Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram and the fourth pick in the draft, plus a pair of future first-round draft picks and the ability to swap another first with the Lakers in 2023.

It would’ve been foolish to believe the Pelicans were done there. The week of the draft, Griffin struck a deal with the Atlanta Hawks to offload Solomon Hill’s large contract by using the No. 4 selection acquired in the Davis trade. The No. 8, No. 17 and No. 35 picks, along with a conditional 2019 first-rounder via Cleveland, were sent to NOLA in exchange.

At the end of it all, New Orleans wound up with three highly-touted rookies: Zion Williamson, Jaxson Hayes and Nickeil Alexander-Walker. The franchise also took intriguing 20-year-old Brazilian prospect Marcos “Didi” Louzada Silva in the second round as a draft-and-stash.

That was one portion of a busy summer. The other was making a couple of striking moves to add experience to the locker room. Longtime sharpshooter J.J. Redick quickly came to terms on a multi-year contract with the Pelicans during free agency moratorium. Darius Miller returned on a separate multi-year deal. Italian forward Nicolo Melli decided to make the journey over from Euroleague and signed with the team for two seasons in addition.

More recently, New Orleans decided to go after Derrick Favors and were successful in doing so with another trade with the Utah Jazz. All it took to get the job done was a pair of future second-rounders that the franchise had previously acquired from Golden State. Zylan Cheatham and Josh Gray were also inked to a couple of two-way contracts.

The theme of the Pelicans’ summer has been roster turnover. With a completely revamped and re-tooled group, Griffin did yeoman’s work regarding the task he had been assigned.

PLAYERS IN: Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram, Nicolo Melli, Darius Miller, J.J. Redick, Derrick Favors, Zion Williamson, Jaxson Hayes, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Didi Louzada (draft-and-stash), Zylan Cheatham (two-way), Josh Gray (two-way)

PLAYERS OUT: Anthony Davis, Julius Randle, Elfrid Payton, Solomon Hill, Cheick Diallo, Ian Clark, Stanley Johnson, Dairis Bertans, Christian Wood, Trevon Bluiett

What’s Next

A new era of Pelicans basketball is on tap next year. There is a palpable excitement within the franchise, as there should be. The phrase “fresh start” applies almost all around. Ball, Ingram and Hart haven’t been in the league for long, but they’ve seen enough floor time to be considered young and experienced. We’ve seen plenty of glimpses of how talented they are. Now, it’s time to see whether or not they can carry those past learnings and turn into leaders collectively.

As those three figure out how to mature in that respect, New Orleans will have the organization’s rock in charge—Jrue Holiday. Coming off what probably should have been an All-Star season, the veteran 29-year-old will be depended on as the new number one option. More importantly, he’ll be the top voice in the locker room to guide this up-and-coming contingent of youngsters. Far too long has Holiday’s consistency and improvement gone unnoticed, and you can bank on seeing a sensational year from him.

Holiday will have help from Redick and Favors, two guys with over a decade of experience in the NBA, in that leadership aspect. E’Twaun Moore is still around and an underrated contributor. They’ll have quite the cast of first-year talent as well, namely that guy Zion who everybody is frothing at the mouth to see play—and no, one short stint at summer league was not nearly enough.

Hayes and Alexander-Walker displayed instant chemistry in Las Vegas, and they could make up a significant piece of an exciting second unit. Granted, Hayes will likely be developed slowly behind Okafor and Favors, so we might not see too much of the promising big man in year one.

With the kind of roster this team has, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Pelicans make an immediate return to the postseason. Yes, there’s a heck of a lot of competition in the Western Conference, but they’ve reset the temperature in that building. There is confidence that a weight has been lifted off their shoulders.

New Orleans is going to come out of the gate fast and furious, sticking to Gentry’s style of play. Living in transition and embracing ball movement, it’s going to be a blast to watch this particular group—a mixed bags with loads of potential, plus proven talent—mesh over the course of its first season without Davis.

As difficult as losing a franchise player is, this is by no means your typical rebuild.

It’s a reload.

Grade: B+

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