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NBA Daily: Post-Deadline Rankings – Central Division

Spencer Davies starts Basketball Insiders’ division-by-division Post-Deadline Rankings series with a breakdown of the group of five in the Central.

Spencer Davies

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We are three days away from the NBA All-Star break, meaning that the first half of the season is coming to a close with teams jockeying for position in their respective conference’s standings.

Last week’s trade deadline was wild and involved a ton of player movement. It’s still happening right now during buyout season, too. So who got better and worse throughout the madness?

Basketball Insiders is starting a division-by-division Post-Deadline Rankings series to illustrate and analyze what moves were made, who benefited the most and how these transactions will impact the race to the top moving forward.

We’ll kick things off with the Central Division.

Milwaukee Bucks (42-14)

Deadline Moves: Acquired Nikola Mirotic from Pelicans

What a first half it’s been for the Milwaukee Bucks. Sitting at the top of the Eastern Conference, they boast the highest winning percentage in the entire NBA.

Behind the brilliance of surefire MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo within the pace-and-space schematics of head coach Mike Budenholzer, they are in the midst of a special campaign with their sights set extremely high. They’re long, they’re athletic and, most importantly, they can shoot the heck out of the basketball.

Milwaukee’s final move to make that extra push involved trading Jason Smith, flipping Stanley Johnson (who they received from the Detroit Pistons in return for Thon Maker) and sending four future second-round draft picks to New Orleans for Nikola Mirotic.

With Mirotic taking over seven threes per game and averaging a career-high 16.7 point per game, general manager Jon Horst couldn’t have found a better fit for the Bucks. Adding him to a frontcourt with sharpshooters such as Brook Lopez and Malcolm Brogdon only spreads the floor wider for Greek Freak to penetrate and really test the best of defenses.

Clearly, Milwaukee felt it was necessary to keep up with the rest of the active East as they made season-changing decisions, but it could’ve happened either way. The rich get richer.

Projected Finish: 1st Place

Indiana Pacers (38-19)

Deadline Moves: Signed Wesley Matthews

Once Victor Oladipo went down for the year, the popular prevailing thought around the league was that the Indiana Pacers wouldn’t have enough firepower to compete seriously enough with the best of the best. And oh, how wrong those people have been.

The Pacers have ripped off six straight wins and currently hold the three seed in the East. Bojan Bogdanovic was just named the Eastern Conference Player of the Week following a four-game stretch where he averaged 22.5 points per game on 53.8 percent shooting from the field, including above 46 percent from beyond the arc.

As a team that is no stranger to handling adversity, it should come as no surprise that Nate McMillan’s group refuses to mail it in. They have plenty of veteran leadership in the locker room and a roster that is ready to fight on a nightly basis.

Stemming from a buyout with the New York Knicks, experienced swingman Wesley Matthews decided to sign with Indiana to play a critical role as another go-to scoring option and heady defender on the team. He’ll be coming off the bench at first, but McMillan has made it clear that Matthews will be a starter once he’s acclimated.

We won’t know until we actually see it on the floor, but the hard-nosed style of Matthews, along with his ability to knock down triples, should mesh well with his new squad.

Projected Finish: 2nd Place

Detroit Pistons (26-29)

Deadline Moves: Signed Wayne Ellington, acquired Svi Mykhailuk from Lakers and Thon Maker from Bucks

You’d be hard-pressed to find a more middling team than the Detroit Pistons. It’s one of those situations where you can see the progress and improvement—they have won four in a row and six out of their last nine—but can’t put too much stock into it due to inconsistencies.

Blake Griffin has been vocal about the Pistons playing with “the right spirit” during this stretch, however, he was also venting about his frustrations not so long ago regarding the team’s lack of focus in crunch time. As a team, they have a tough time putting the ball in the basket. On the other hand, they defend the perimeter well. It’s difficult to put your finger on them, like many other ball clubs in the race for the playoffs in the East.

Sending off Reggie Bullock to the Los Angeles Lakers for Svi Mykhailuk probably isn’t the best way to endear a commitment to this season, but there was more to it. They didn’t want to pay him in the offseason, plus they wound up signing a recently-bought out seasoned gunner in Wayne Ellington as a replacement.

It should be a veteran presence Dwane Casey will enjoy coaching, especially since Ellington’s been dying to play instead of keeping a seat warm with the Miami Heat. Detroit also brought in Thon Maker after swapping their former first-round pick Stanley Johnson for Milwaukee’s seven-footer. Could this be another project for Casey as we saw in Toronto with Pascal Siakam? Time will tell.

If the Pistons can score points consistently during this stretch run, maybe we’ll see them make the playoffs. But let’s see them bring it as they did recently against the Denver Nuggets instead of the Knicks and Wizards.

Projected Finish: 3rd Place

Chicago Bulls (13-44)

Deadline Moves: Acquired Otto Porter Jr. from Wizards

We had a feeling that the Chicago Bulls would move Jabari Parker at the deadline, and perhaps a few other candidates as well, but not many of us saw them getting rid of Bobby Portis. In a deal with the Washington Wizards, they traded the two and a future second-rounder for Otto Porter Jr.

There’s not been much to be excited about in the Windy City. There is Lauri Markkanen, of course, who has been playing like a true superstar—26.2 points, 13 rebounds with a 63.9 true shooting percentage—over the last four games. Porter appears to be a part of the team’s core going forward, as they’ve eaten the remaining two years (potentially three if he opts in) on his current large contract.

Jim Boylen is officially Chicago’s head coach for the foreseeable future and the direction has been set. We’ll see whether Zach LaVine is a part of this (he hasn’t exactly given Boylen ringing endorsements since his hire) and where the Bulls go from here. The rest of the season will be a focus on development and who will be around. Keep an eye on how Kris Dunn does in these last couple months, too, since it’s been a struggle for him to string together a strong stretch of games.

Projected Finish: 4th Place

Cleveland Cavaliers (12-45)

Deadline Moves: Signed Nik Stauskas, acquired Brandon Knight and Marquese Chriss from Suns, acquired 2019 protected first-round pick and 2022 second-round pick from Rockets

Similar to their counterpart in the basement of the Central, there’s not been too much winning going on with the Cleveland Cavaliers. They’ve been snakebitten by from the beginning with injuries, have employed a league-high 23 different starting lineups and seem to be all in on getting their young talent the most experience possible to end the tough year.

Collin Sexton’s found a bit of a rhythm over the last few games and, luckily for the rookie, Kevin Love is slowly but surely being implemented back into Cleveland’s lineups to give him a breather as far as pressure to perform goes. The locker room has been tested on many occasions, including blowout losses and pointed postgame interviews, yet the bunch has stayed together through all of the trying times.

During deadline week, the Cavaliers dealt both Rodney Hood and Alec Burks and received a number of assets in exchange since they were willing to take on the salary of Brandon Knight. They also received a former first-round pick in Marquese Chriss to provide some more depth in the frontcourt and potentially make a case to earn a contract in the offseason.

But make no mistake about it—this season has been about asset accumulation for general manager Koby Altman. Turning George Hill, Kyle Korver, Rodney Hood and Sam Dekker at the beginning of the season into two first-round draft picks and five future second-round picks was one heck of a job. While Cleveland will win more games next year, they’ll also have a ton of expiring contracts with value to load up on even more assets again.

Talent evaluation is going to be crucial to hit in these drafts, as will the correct coaching hire next season. The plan is in place though, and Cleveland should feel good about that much.

Projected Finish: 5th Place

There was plenty of activity within the Central Division up to this point, but the rosters are just about set for the rest of the year. Aside from the bottom of the barrel teams potentially swapping sports before draft lottery positioning becomes solidified, don’t expect these standings to change much.

Make sure to check back with Basketball Insiders as our Post-Deadline Rankings series continues all week.

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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Underdog Teams With a Shot at the Second Round

Underdogs rarely pull-off upsets in the NBA Playoffs. Yet four underdogs stole a game on their respective opponent’s home floor. Which, if any, can succeed in advancing beyond the first round?

Drew Maresca

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The first round of the NBA Playoffs provides infrequent upsets – especially since 2003 when the first round was extended to a best-of-seven series (from a best-of-five).

Per the usual, this year has its share of favorites in the driver’s seat. For example, it’s a fair assumption that the Celtics, Rockets, Trailblazers and Bucks will advance after winning their first two home games.

All of the aforementioned teams were the higher seed in their respective series and – with the exception of the Trail Blazers vs. Thunder – none were seriously expected to end in upset. And while being down 2-0 isn’t a kiss of death, it is difficult winning four out of five with two of the remaining games on an opponent’s floor; in the 282 seven-game playoff series throughout NBA history, only 20 teams have come back to win from a 2-0 hole, which examines all rounds of the playoffs.

So then let’s focus instead on the underdogs of the 2019 NBA Playoffs who stole a game on their opponent’s floor: the Magic, Clippers, Spurs and Nets, all of whom are tied in their respective series at a game a piece.

For context, according to Westgate Las Vegas Superbook via an article written by Kaelen Jones for Sports Illustrated, the Warriors were -50,000 against the Clippers entering the series;  the Raptors were -1,400 against the Magic; the 76ers were -800 against the Nets and the Nuggets were -200 against the Spurs.

Put plainly, Vegas had no faith in the Clippers and Magic advancing. It felt strongly about the 76ers’ chances to advance past the Nets. And it was marginally confident that the Nuggets would eliminate the Spurs.

And while none of the aforementioned odds conclusively indicate that a team will advance, it speaks to the outlook of experts as of the start of the playoffs.

But experts can be wrong. And while we know all four series should still not be viewed evenly, stealing one of the first two games is the first step to upsetting a favorite.  So which of the four underdogs who stole one of the first two playoff games are most likely to advance (if any)?

From an analytics standpoint, the Spurs have played their first-round opponent the best of the four teams we’re examining. In the aggregate, the Spurs are -4 against their first-round opponent through two games, whereas the Nets and Clippers are both -13 and the Magic are -26.

After splitting the first two games, the Spurs are given a 36.6% chance to advance to the second round of the playoffs by Basketball-Reference.com, which is not the best odds of the four teams. The best odds go the Nets, who are given a 39.1% chance of success. Next up is the Clippers, who are receive a 23.1% chance of advancing. And finally, the Magic have only a 21.1% chance of advancing. Those odds are determined by 1,000 simulations of the remainder of the playoffs after two games.

But we all know that analytics and simulations aren’t 100% accurate – after all, the Warriors’ odds for success on Monday was as high as 99.9% when up 31 points against the Clippers. Players and teams get hot at unexpected times and coaching and strategy plays a bigger factor in the playoffs more than it does in the regular season.

So what else might affect the outcomes? Let’s examine three factors that could swing the results in favor of the underdogs.

Brooklyn Nets: Jared Dudley

His initial allure to the Nets was his veteran leadership. And that was valuable enough to justify his spot on the roster.

But his impact on Game 1 was profound. However, he was sorely missed in Game 2 as he was recovering from a tight right calf.

In Game 1, Dudley guarded Ben Simmons on 22 possessions, Joel Embiid on three possession, Boban Marjanovic on seven possessions and Mike Scott on 11, in which time they scored a combined two points (Simmons). Drilling down to the All-Stars (Simmons and Embiid), that’s two points on 25 possessions. Not bad for a veteran leader.

And after examining game film from the first game, his value is even more clear. His defensive instincts are incredibly sound. Dudley makes the right choices far more often than not, as evidenced by his discipline in transition when picking up Simmons. He regularly correctly sagged off of Simmons, resisted the urge to bite on fakes and forced Simmons to take less-than-ideal shots or pass the ball.

And Dudley is a willing passer and screener, too, rarely shooting the ball unless open. He provides the Nets with energy, focus and wisdom. If the Nets are to advance, they will need everything they can get from Dudley, who is listed as probable for Thursday night’s game in Brooklyn.

Orland Magic: Point guard play and three-point shooting

The Magic have a few kinks to iron out that could sway their fortunes.

The first of the two comes from D.J. Augustin. They’ll need Augustin to play like the capable floor general he proved he can be in Game 1 when he dropped 25 points and six assists on the Raptors and shot 80% from three-point range, including a game-winning shot with 3.5 seconds remaining.

On the contrary, when he plays like he did in Game 2 – 9 points, 0 assists and 0-1 from three-point range – the Magic will struggle.

Augustin has the ability to be his team’s best three-point shooter and most capable playmaker with the ball in his hands. He must summon his best play if they are to stand a chance against the Raptors.

But Augustin’s strong play and improved shooting won’t do it alone. The Magic must must shoot better as a team, notably on three-point field goals. In Game 1, the Magic seized that opportunity, shooting a scorching 48% from deep on 29 attempts – that adds up to 42 points on three-pointers. Compare that to Game 2, in which they shot only 26.5% from three-point territory, which resulted in only 27 points.

Hitting the three-ball has residual benefits that are arguably as important as the points. It opens up driving lanes and forces the defense to either close-out aggressively on shooters or deny them the basketball – either way, the result is a better-spaced floor. While it will be a dog fight for the Magic, they’ll have a shot if they can shoot the three at an above average clip and get elite level play from their point guard and floor general.

San Antonio: Home court advantage

San Antonio isn’t typically mentioned among the elite home crowds by the mainstream media. We hear about Denver and Golden State regularly, and rightfully so. Madison Square Garden gets props despite not playing host to a competitive team in some years. Philly has a reputation for being aggressive, too. But the Spurs home record hints that its home court should get more props than it does.

The Spurs were tied for the third-best home record during the regular season (32-9). Add in the fact that the Nuggets had a sub-.500 winning percentage on the road in 2018-19 and we have a recipe for an upset. Interestingly, the inverse is also true – the Spurs were a sub-par road team and the Nuggets a superb home team – so it’s far from guaranteed that the Spurs win the next two. But if they can, the Spurs will go back to Denver up 3-1 with three opportunities to close out the series.

The NBA Playoffs is less about early-round upsets than it is about seeing giants go head-to-head in the conference semifinals and beyond. The first round and its victors is mostly an afterthought. But maybe not this year. There is potential for more than one underdog to advance, which would shake-up the playoff landscape moving forward. The next step in that journey begins tonight, as the Nets, Spurs and Clippers all look to defend their respective home courts.

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NBA Daily: Who Is Headed To The Lakers Next?

With the recent departure of both Magic Johnson and Luke Walton, Jordan Hicks takes a look at where the Lakers stand and who they may end up hiring.

Jordan Hicks

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It is hard to pinpoint exactly how the Los Angeles Lakers organization is feeling at the moment. They’ve now missed the playoffs six seasons in a row, their sole star player – although playing really well – is aging and their young core of high-draft picks still hasn’t found any form of consistency – not to mention a fair share of injury problems.

Flashback to the summer of 2018 and things were going great. Magic Johnson – then president of the organization – had just inked the best player in the NBA to a four-year deal. What followed next was certainly interesting.

Instead of pairing LeBron James with a second superstar-caliber player, the Lakers decided to ink the likes of JaVale McGee, Michael Beasley, Rajon Rondo and Lance Stephenson. A lineup of players so diverse and flashy that most couldn’t help but dub them the Meme Team. The nickname, although silly, was absolutely fitting.

By the end of the season, Rondo and McGee were the only players from that group who were making any sort of an impact. Stephenson found himself injured and Beasley found himself out of the NBA altogether.

To the surprise of no one, those players never really meshed well with the young core of Lonzo Ball, Kyla Kuzma, Josh Hart and Brandon Ingram. Their impact wasn’t much better when sharing the court with James.

By the end of it all, the Lakers found themselves 11 games out of the playoffs. LeBron missed 17 crucial games midseason. The Lakers could have very well gone 11-6 during that stretch, but blaming their omission from the playoffs on James’ slightly-more-than-minor injury just masks the real issues.

Yes, the members of the Meme Team were all on expiring deals, but to think the Lakers left all their problems behind is egregious.

Perhaps the worst thing that happened all season was the myriad of rumors during the trade deadline that involved their entire young core and Anthony Davis. Regardless of what you think, the fact of the matter is that the same agent that represents LeBron also represents Davis. The trade never went down, but there were many solidified rumors that the entire young core of the Lakers was offered for Davis.

This clearly had an impact on the roster, as the Lakers post-All-Star break looked like a completely different team. And LeBron returning to the roster didn’t really make a major impact at all.

The reason for all this build up is to really illustrate the issues both the new president of basketball operations, as well as the new head coach, will come into. Recently, Magic Johnson resigned from his position and a few days later Luke Walton was fired. Reports have also surfaced that current general manager Rob Pelinka is the man that now controls most, if not all, of what goes on within the organization.

On Tuesday morning, Colin Cowherd of Fox Sports reported that Los Angeles already has their replacement for team president. Other reports have suggested that Monty Williams and Tyronn Lue are their two preferred options at Head Coach.

With Lue, you basically have an idea of what you’re going to get. Lue and James found success in Cleveland, making the NBA Finals every year they were together, as well as winning one championship. Shortly after James’ departure, Lue was fired.

This isn’t to say Ty Lue is a bad coach. But what you get with Lue is a very LeBronp-focused team. Lue has no problem taking the backseat – in a sense of the word – to James. They seemed to work really well together, and the Lakers surely would be hoping to regenerate the same sort of success the duo found in Cleveland.

Monty Williams, on the other hand, brings with him a rich history in the league and much more experience than Lue. He has served as a head coach with the New Orleans Pelicans, president of the San Antonio Spurs, an assistant on the U.S. National Team and is currently the assistant to Brett Brown in Philadelphia.

It is hard to say who exactly the Lakers favor, but in the same report highlighted previously, Williams could be offered the head coaching job with the 76ers if they don’t make it to the Eastern Conference Finals. That scenario seems very realistic.

Hiring Lue may be the preferred choice of LeBron James. They have a history, LeBron is comfortable with his coaching style, and his LeBron’s career clock is certainly ticking away. He really doesn’t have a season to waste adapting to the coaching style of someone he isn’t familiar with.

Regardless of who the Lakers hire, even Greg Poppovich himself likely couldn’t take the current roster, as-is, to the NBA Finals. They will certainly need to acquire a second star in free agency or, at worst, a slew of high-level role players.

Whomever they decide to go with at head coach – or whoever chooses to accept the job offer – will have a lot on their plate.

But the one glaring positive in all of this? There isn’t – at least arguably – a franchise in the NBA with a deeper history of success than the Los Angeles Lakers. Regardless of the current state of the franchise, the position alone should be coveted by many potential coaching prospects and candidates around the league.

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NBA Daily: Garrett Temple Fitting In With Clippers

David Yapkowitz sits down with Los Angeles Clippers swingman Garrett Temple to discuss his niche with the team and the culture they’ve established under Doc Rivers.

David Yapkowitz

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It’s been a season of silencing the doubters for the Los Angeles Clippers. Back in October when the NBA season began, you’d be hard pressed to have found anyone that would’ve given them a chance at making the playoffs.

Flash forward to the present, and they not only have made the postseason, but they’re currently tied 1-1 in the first round with the defending champion Golden State Warriors – and with the next two games on their home-court.

Even as recently as the trade deadline, there were people and pundits who doubted them when they traded away Tobias Harris, who was having an All-Star caliber season. But the new guys who arrived in February have been a huge reason why the Clippers continued to win, especially Garrett Temple.

The nine-year veteran began this season in Memphis after having spent the last two years with the Sacramento Kings. When the Clippers dealt Avery Bradley at the deadline, Temple – along with JaMychal Green – was one of the two pieces the Grizzlies sent back.

Temple had been a bit of journeyman prior to his time with the Kings and the four years before with the Washington Wizards. From his rookie season in 2009-10 to 2012-13, he had stints with the Houston Rockets, San Antonio Spurs, Milwaukee Bucks and Charlotte Hornets. When he first arrived in LA, he could tell right away the locker room dynamic.

“It’s great, we have a team where everybody knows their roles, everybody wants to win,” Temple told Basketball Insiders. “Winning is most important here, there’s no egos. We have a team like this where guys are coming together to do whatever coach [Doc Rivers] says. When it’s all about winning, good things can happen.”

And good things did happen. Following the trade deadline, the Clippers went 17-7, including win streaks of five and six games, to finish the season. They were two wins short of winning 50 games.

Temple had a big hand in that, sort of taking over the role Bradley played as the defensive-minded guard, who can stretch the floor and knock down the three.

“Coming off the bench, I give them some defensive energy. I give energy on the offensive end too, in transition, pushing the ball, make my open shots when I’m open,” Temple told Basketball Insiders. “When I get the chance, I make sure I push the pace. But just bringing that energy on the defensive side.”

Defense has been Temple’s strong suit since he’s been in the NBA. At 6-foot-6, he’s got the size to defend both guard positions as well as some small forwards. In this playoff series, he’s got the daunting task of being matched up against Stephen Curry or Klay Thompson.

But defense is something he prides himself on. He isn’t going to back down no matter who is standing across from him. Even as the oldest player in the Clippers locker room, he remains one of their best defenders.

“No question, I’ve prided myself on that since I got in the NBA. It’s part of the reason why I’ve been able to stay in the league,” Temple told Basketball Insiders. “A lot of guys in this league come off the bench and try to score. I pride myself on being that guy on the bench unit that can defend any three positions on the court.”

Since coming over to the Clippers, Temple has been averaging 4.7 points in 19.7 minutes per game. Normally a reliable three-point threat, his shooting numbers have dipped a bit. He’s down to 29.6 percent from three.

None of the team played well enough to mention in Game 1. But in the Game 2 thrilling comeback, Temple gave solid contributions of seven points, knocking down both his free throws and knocking down one of his two attempts from three-point range.

“You don’t fix what’s not broken, you continue to do what you do, whatever’s your strength,” Temple told Basketball Insiders. “Obviously there’s different transitions and different lingo, but at the end of the day, it’s just basketball. I find myself getting comfortable with what our coaches like us to do on the defensive end and offensive end, and trying to fit in well.”

It remains to be seen what happens in this series against the Warriors, but one thing is for sure – the Clippers definitely have Golden State’s attention. To this group, though, the fact that they were able to pull off a historic comeback probably isn’t surprising to them. They’ve prided themselves all season on having this tough mentality.

Temple recognized it right away before the playoffs even began. When he was in Memphis, he experienced the ‘Grit and Grind’ culture of hard-nosed basketball that the team had embraced. He noticed a similar time vibe with the Clippers, a vibe he knew would make them scary come playoff time.

“Just the fact that everybody is hungry, everybody understands their role. There’s no question from anybody what they’re supposed to do when they get on the court. It’s tough when you have a team that just got together,” Temple told Basketball Insiders.

“I think the biggest thing is we know what everybody does. We have enough firepower offensively, we have enough defensive pieces, and we have a Hall-of-Fame coach. We have a good recipe to be somebody to be reckoned with.”

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