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

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NBA Daily: They Guessed Wrong

Matt John reflects on some of the key decisions that were made last summer, and how their disappointing results hurt both team outlooks and players’ legacies.

Matt John

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It doesn’t sound possible, but did you know that the crazy NBA summer of 2019 was, in fact, over a year ago? Wildly, in any normal, non-pandemic season, it all would have been over three months ago and, usually, media days would be right around the corner, but not this time. The 2019-20 NBA season is slated to end sometime in early to mid-October, so the fact that the last NBA off-season was over a year ago hasn’t really dawned on anyone yet. Craziest of all, even though there will still be an offseason, there technically won’t be any summer.

Coronavirus has really messed up the NBA’s order. Of course, there are much worse horrors that COVID-19 has inflicted upon the world – but because of what it’s done to the NBA, let’s focus on that and go back to the summer of 2019. It felt like an eternity, but the Golden State Warriors’ three-year reign had finally reached its end. The Toronto Raptors’ victory over the tyranny that was the Hamptons Five – as battered as they were – made it feel like order had been restored to the NBA. There was more to it than that though.

Klay Thompson’s and Kevin Durant’s season-ending injuries, along with the latter skipping town to join Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn meant two things.

1. Golden State was down for the count
2. Brooklyn’s time wasn’t coming until next year.

A one-year window was open. Even if neither Golden State nor Brooklyn posed the same threat that the former did when it had Kevin Durant, those were two contenders out of commission. If there was a time to go all in, it was in 2019.

Milwaukee certainly seemed to go all in. For the most part.  Malcolm Brogdon’s departure seemed a little odd since he was arguably their best non-Giannis playmaker when they were in crunch time. Not to mention there was nothing really stopping the Bucks from keeping him except for money. Detractors will call out Milwaukee for electing to cheap out by not keeping Brogdon and hence, avoiding the luxury tax. However, there’s more to it than that.

Milwaukee thought it had enough with the core it had on its roster. Coming off the best season they had put up since the eighties, they believed the franchise built the right team to contend. There was an argument that keeping Brogdon may have been overkill with their guard depth – let’s not forget that Donte DiVincenzo did a solid job in Brogdon’s role as the backup facilitator. This would have been more defensible had it not been for Milwaukee picking the wrong guy to let go. That was the indefensible part- electing to keep Eric Bledsoe over Brogdon.

Bledsoe wasn’t necessarily a bad investment. No one’s complaining about an almost 15 point average on 47/34/79 splits or playing individual defense tight enough to get named on the All-Defensive second team. By all accounts, Bledsoe earns his keep. That is until the playoffs. Bledsoe’s postseason woes have been a weight ever since he first entered Milwaukee, and this postseason was more of the same.

Bledsoe’s numbers dwindled to just 11.7 points on 39/25/81 splits, and Milwaukee getting ousted in five games at the hands of Miami made his struggles stand out even more than it had ever been. Bledsoe may be the better athlete and the better defender, but Brogdon’s all-around offensive savvy and his only slight dropoff defensively from Brogdon would have made him a bit more reliable.

Milwaukee guessed wrong when they opted to extend Bledsoe before the postseason last year when they could have waited until that very time to evaluate who to keep around. Now they face a hell of a lot more questions than they did at the end of last season – questions that may have been avoided had they made the right choice.

Now they could have kept both of them, yes, but it’s not totally unreasonable to think that maybe their approach with the luxury tax would have worked and maybe they would still be in the postseason right now had they gone with the homegrown talent. And just maybe, there wouldn’t be nearly as much of this Greek Freak uncertainty.

The Houston Rockets can relate. They got bruised up by a team that everyone thought Houston had the edge on going into the series and then crushed by the Lakers. Now, Mike D’Antoni is gone. The full-time small ball experiment likely did not work out. Since the Rockets emptied most of their assets to bring in Russell Westbrook and Robert Covington, there may not be a route in which they can become better than they presently are.

The mistake wasn’t trading for Russell Westbrook. The mistake was trading Chris Paul.

To be fair, most everybody severely overestimated Chris Paul’s decline. He’s not among the best of the best anymore, but he’s still pretty darn close. He deserved his All-NBA second team selection as well as finishing No. 7 overall in MVP voting. OKC had no business being as good as they were this season, and Paul was the driving force as to why.

For all we know, the previously-assumed tension between Chris Paul and James Harden would have made its way onto the court no matter what. Even so, Houston’s biggest obstacle in the Bay Area had crumbled. If they had just stayed the course, maybe they’re still in the postseason too.

To their credit, none of this may have happened had it not been for the Kawhi Leonard decision. Had he chosen differently, the Thunder never blow it up, and Houston might have very well been the favorite in the Western Conference. Instead, the Rockets took a step back from being in the title discussion to dark horse. But at least they can take pride knowing that they weren’t expected to win it all – the Clippers can’t.

Seeing the Clippers fall well short expectations begs the question if they too got it wrong. The answer is, naturally: of course not. They may have paid a hefty price for Paul George, but the only way they were getting Kawhi Leonard – one of the best players of his generation – was if PG-13 came in the package. As lofty as it was, anyone would have done the same thing if they were in their shoes. They didn’t get it wrong. Kawhi did.

On paper, the Clippers had the most talented roster in the entire league. It seemed like they had every hole filled imaginable. Surrounding Leonard and George was three-point shooting, versatility, a productive second unit, an experienced coach – you name it. There was nothing stopping them from breaking the franchise’s long-lasting curse. Except themselves.

Something felt off about them. They alienated opponents. They alienated each other. At times, they played rather lackadaisically, like the title had already been signed, sealed, and delivered to them. The media all assumed they’d cut the malarkey and get their act together – but that moment never really came. They had their chances to put Denver away, but even if they had, after seeing their struggles to beat them – and to be fair Dallas too – would their day of destiny with the Lakers have really lived up to the hype?

Even if it was never in the cards, one can’t help but wonder what could have happened had Kawhi chosen to stay with the team he won his second title with.

Toronto was the most impressive team in this league this season. They still managed to stay at the top of the east in spite of losing an all-timer like Leonard. That team had every component of a winner except a superstar. They had the right culture for a championship team. Just not the right talent. The Clippers were the exact opposite. They had the right talent for a championship team but not the right culture. That’s why the Raptors walked away from the postseason feeling proud of themselves for playing to their full potential while the Clippers writhed in disappointment and angst over their future.

In the end, everyone mentioned here may ultimately blame what happened to their season on the extenuating circumstances from the pandemic. The Bucks’ chemistry never fully returned when the Bubble started. Contracting COVID and dealing with quad problems prevented Westbrook from reviving the MVP-type player he was before the hiatus. As troubling as the Clippers had played, the extra time they would have had to work things out in a normal season was taken away from them.

For all we know, next year will be a completely different story. The Rockets, Bucks, and Kawhi may ultimately have their faith rewarded for what they did in the summer of 2019 – but that will only be mere speculation until the trio can change the story.

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Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards

Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.

David Yapkowitz

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We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.

The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.

With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.

The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.

Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old

Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.

He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.

Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.

Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old

Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.

He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.

Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.

Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old

Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.

He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.

One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.

Honorable Mentions:
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old

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NBA

Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards

Basketball Insiders’ examination of the 2020 draft class continues with a look at the small forwards.

Drew Maresca

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It was announced on Wednesday that the NBA Draft would be delayed from Oct. 16 to Nov. 18. The rationale is that the extra month gives the league and its players association more time to negotiate changes to the CBA. It also grants teams additional time to procure information on prospects and allows the NBA to establish regional virtual combines. But nothing is set in stone.

Still, draft prep must continue. This year’s draft class has more question marks than usual – which was complicated by the cancellation of the NCAA tournament (along with the NIT and a number of conference tournaments). There are incredibly skilled offensive players with limited offensive upside and jaw-droppingly talented defenders with incomplete offensive packages. But if (recent) history serves as a guide, there will be a few guys who make an immediate impact – and some of them very well could be small forwards.

The small forward position is key for the modern NBA. Want proof? Survey the league and you’ll find that most – if not all – contenders have an elite small forward – Milwaukee, Los Angeles (both), Boston, Miami, Toronto.

But the list of can’t miss small forward prospects feels smaller than usual. Scanning the numerous legitimate mock drafts (including our own by Steve Kyler), it becomes apparent that we lack a consensus on which small forwards will be selected (and in what order) after the top 3 or 4. Can any of them grow into a star? Maybe. Maybe not. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s identify what the top few bring to the table.

Deni Avdija, Israel – 19 years old

Avdija is a relatively well-rounded prospect who’s played professionally since he was 16. He boasts good height (6-foot-9) and uses it effectively to shoot over and pass around opposing defenses. Further, Avdija is an exceptional playmaker and he’s incredibly confident, enabling him to take chances many players would be apprehensive trying. Avdija is a high-IQ player. And what’s more, he’s a surprisingly strong defender. His height and above-average athleticism allow him to block shots, and he’s more physical than you’d expect him to be.

But there are drawbacks to Avdija, too. His main issue is around shooting. Avdija shot only 28% in the EuroLeague last season, and he shot only 60% from the free-throw line. Further, while he’s a decent athlete, he’ll struggle to secure a role in the NBA. He’s going to need to add speed to stay with modern wings, and he’ll also have to bulk up to bang with power forwards.

Still, Avdija’s upside is alluring. He’s only 19, and his smarts, confidence and grittiness should provide him cover for much of his rookie season. Avdija should be the first small forward off of the board.

Isaac Okoro, Auburn – 19 years old

Avdija might be the flashier name currently, but Okoro will give him a run for his money in terms of which small forward is first off the board. Okoro is built like a traditional NBA wing; he’s 6-foot-6 with good strength packed in his muscular frame (215 lbs). Okoro finishes well around the rim and he converts well through contact. He’s an exceptional athlete who excels catching the ball on the move. Like Avdija, Okoro has the poise and composure of a more experienced player. Also, like Avdija, Okoro looked the part of a high IQ player in his lone season at Auburn.

And while all that is great, the main allure of Okoro is his defense. He’s a fairly advanced defender given his age, and his athleticism and timing make him an effective weak side help defender.

While Okoro’s raw abilities are exquisite, his refined offensive skills leave something to be desired. Okoro shot 28 percent on three-point field goals and he struggled from the free-throw line (67.2 percent). His mid-range jump shot also needs work, and he struggles in isolation situations.

If Okoro can hone his offensive game, he could grow into an All-Star. He has the ability to guard multiple positions, and his strength and athleticism give him a leg up on most prospects. But even if he doesn’t become an All-Star, he possesses a fairly high floor given his defensive abilities — and the guy definitely fills the state sheet (12.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, .9 steals and .9 blocks). He has lockdown defender potential and he’ll put his stamp on the game beginning on night one.

Devin Vassell, Florida State – 20 years old

Vassell played two seasons at Florida State, but he came into his own in his Sophomore season. He averaged 12.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. He shot a more than respectable 41.5% on three-point attempts, and he demonstrated a strong stroke from the free-throw line (73.8 percent) and on two-point field goal attempts (53.2).

Vassell is an extremely athletic leaper, who can rise up for a highlight dunk and sprint down the floor with ease. He has good body control and demonstrated a strong mid-range game, especially his step-back jump shot. But Vassell must generate more free throws through decisive moves to the hoop, which would be bolstered by a more muscular frame. Additionally, he must improve his ball-handling to get more from isolations.

Vassell will have an adjustment period in terms of scoring the ball at the next level. Fortunately, his defense and shooting should get him by. If he can bulk up and improve his handling, Vassell could grow into a serious player.

Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt – 20 years old

Nesmith probably has a lower floor than any of the other top small forward prospects given that he’ll be 21 by the draft. Still, he looked quite good in his Junior year, averaging 23 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game on a scorching 52.2 percent shooting from deep. Nesmith is an incredibly gifted shooter who has impressive range. His ability to catch-and-shoot and create space with fakes makes him a promising prospect – for the right team.

Nesmith is a high IQ player who uses his smarts on the defensive end. He’s also quite strong, can get buckets in the open floor and demonstrates above average ball-handling skills, as long as he’s not taking the ball to the hoop.

But there are inherent limitations in Nesmith’s game. He’s doesn’t create for his teammates too effectively and he turns the ball over more frequently than one would like with. Further, Nesmith is plagued by robotic movements that limit his athleticism. His ball-handling breaks down when taking the ball to the rack – something he’ll certainly have to work on in the NBA if he wants to be a versatile scoring threat against the bigger and stronger competition.

Still, Nesmith’s positives give him an excellent chance at being selected in the first round. His range alone will intrigue teams in need of a shooter.

Honorable Mentions:

Saddiq Bey, Villanova – 21 years old

Jaden McDaniels, Washington – 19 years old

Robert Woodard II, Mississippi State – 20 years old

With the uncertainty around small forward prospects, expect to see a revolving door of names enter the discussion after the first four wing prospects are off the board prior to Nov. 16 – assuming the draft is held then. But regardless of how you have them ranked, all of the aforementioned prospects have question marks. But all have had far more time to improve than they would have in years’ past. Let’s hope that shows come next season.

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