As the favorites to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals this year, the Milwaukee Bucks clearly own the Central Division. That being said, finding a potential breakout player for them proved to be difficult compared to the other four teams in the division.
There are a lot of new parts and pieces in the division, and even some familiar faces on the other side of the fence. Malcolm Brogdon, Thaddeus Young, and former MVP Derrick Rose are just a few of the names wearing different uniforms in the Central. Aside from the top spot, the pecking order of the division will largely be decided by which players make a leap forward this season.
The winner of the Most Improved Player Award is a good gauge for this exercise. Four of the last seven winners of this award all came from a team in the Central Division. Victor Oladipo (Pacers), Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks), Jimmy Butler (Bulls), and Paul George (Pacers) have all continued to thrive in their respective careers. Last year’s winner Pascal Siakam was arguably the second-best player on a championship-winning team.
Below are seven players from the Central Division that are destined to have a breakout year.
Markkanen is arguably the most likely breakout candidate within the Central Division. The 22-year old enters his third season with high expectations as one of the cornerstone pieces of the franchise. The Bulls have had horrible luck with injuries over the past few years, and Markkanen is no exception. The versatile big man missed 14 games in his rookie season and 32 games last year after missing the first couple of months of the season.
One major aspect of Markkanen’s game is the three-point shooting. The seven-footer shot 36 percent from deep in his rookie and sophomore seasons and is averaging 2.2 threes made per game thus far. That is the most among seven-footers by a comfortable margin (the next most is 1.5 attempts). Lauri had a strong stretch last season where he averaged at least 20 points and 9 rebounds in 11 consecutive games. If he can get on that same level, with stability from the players around him and head coach Jim Boylen, Markkanen could very well become an All-Star this season.
Wendell Carter Jr.
Should Carter have a breakout season, he will have to stay healthy. The 2018 seventh overall pick missed nearly half of his rookie campaign last year due to multiple injuries. He had surgery for a sports hernia in July and two more issues this summer. On the first day of training camp, he suffered a sprained ankle and a tailbone contusion. If the big man stays on the floor, there is no doubt he will be effective. In the 44 games he played, Carter averaged 10.3 points per game, 7 rebounds, 1.3 blocks and 0.6 steals.
While 44 games is a small sample size, Carter’s per 36 minutes statistics looked promising. Scoring 15 points and grabbing 10 rebounds are reasonable expectations for the 20-year old in his sophomore season. Carter should be a double-double machine for the young Bulls, especially with Markkanen on the perimeter. With Robin Lopez no longer in the fold, Chicago lacks serious depth at the center position. They desperately need to keep Carter healthy and conditioned if they want to make a run at the playoffs this season.
The last Pistons guard to score 20 points per game was Richard Hamilton in 2005-06. While that likely won’t happen for Kennard, he should step up his scoring output from his first two seasons. Should Kennard start this season, his offensive upside could be limited playing alongside Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond and either Reggie Jackson or Derrick Rose. What if he were to take on a sixth-man role and be the offensive focal point of the second unit?
Bruce Brown could be a better fit with the starting group, utilizing his defensive skillset. During the regular season, Luke played just under 23 minutes per game. In the playoffs though, he led the team in minutes at more than 33 per game, resulting in a scoring average of 15 points per contest. Kennard has also shown that he can drive to the basket and create for others, which could raise his assist numbers and help Detroit return to the playoffs.
Brown started 56 games for Detroit as a rookie last season. That may come as a surprise until you realize how tenacious he is on the defensive end of the floor. Brown’s 1.6 Defensive Win Shares and 1.7 Defensive Box Plus-Minus ratings (per 36 minutes) from last season were impressive. Even outside of the raw numbers, you can visually notice his high defensive IQ by how he jumps the passing lanes and uses his quick hands to create loose balls. His length and strength are a lethal combination for a team that desperately needed a strong defender on the perimeter.
The determining factor for Brown breaking out this season will be what he can improve in his offensive game. He was a liability on that end of the floor last year, shooting a dreadful 25.8 percent from behind the arc. Most rookies struggle with that shot in their first season, though. They also tend to have problems finishing at the rim, which Brown did as well. His upside is very high, but it all depends on his ability to grow as an offensive player.
Turner broke out a fair amount last season, but this year figures to be the one where he really takes a big leap. The 23-year old has elite interior skills and can switch defensively on the perimeter. Couple that with his silky smooth jump shot and you have a serious weapon on your hands. Turner worked with Hall of Fame big man Kevin McHale to develop some interior post moves and fine-tune his decision making. He has had a problem with getting pushed around, so he worked on strengthening his core improving his lower body strength. If he can actually get to his spot, it will dramatically help Indiana’s offense.
After leading the league in blocks last season, Turner said he is still not content with his defensive skill set. Myles frequently fell for pump fakes and was often a half-a-step late on rotations. Being in the right spot at the right time is something that comes with experience. As he begins his fifth season, all eyes will be on Turner and fellow big man Domantas Sabonis. The two bigs nearly took home the Sixth Man and Defensive Player of the Year awards last season. If the duo can play well together, they could anchor the Pacers while Oladipo continues to rehab.
Four of Milwaukee’s starters are set in stone, but the question is who will start alongside Eric Bledsoe. It may very well be the 2017-18 Final Four Most Outstanding Player, but there is a lot of competition for the spot. Donte’s rookie campaign was cut short due to injury, so 27 games is a small sample size, but he did have the fifth-highest defensive rating among players with at least 20 games played.
Like most rookies, Donte struggled with his outside shot, shooting just 27 percent from beyond the arc and just 40 percent overall. While at Villanova, DiVincenzo shot 38 percent from three. He scored 31 points off the bench in the NCAA Championship game and could play a similar role this year if the starting job goes to Wes Matthews, George Hill, Kyle Korver, Pat Connaughton or Sterling Brown. It is a crowded backcourt in Milwaukee, but Donte could separate himself from the pack if he finds his three-point shot.
Sexton’s rookie season essentially felt like two different ones. The young point guard struggled for the first half of the season, but definitely found himself in the final few months. In his final 29 games, he averaged more than 21 points per game on 47 percent shooting. He also improved his long-range shooting, as he hit 42 percent of his shots from behind the arc. That was with Kevin Love on and off the floor, but the five-time All-Star is healthy and ready (for now) to lead this rebuilding effort. That should bode well for Sexton and rookie Darius Garland, giving them more space to operate and a reliable knock-down shooter they can pass to.
Cleveland surprised a lot of people when they decided to hire 66-year old John Beilein as their new head coach. This actually will be beneficial to Sexton and Garland, as they learn to share the ball and run the offense. If anyone understands how the ball screen offense works, it is the former Michigan coach. The role players will take turns in the spotlight throughout the season, but Sexton should be primed for a breakout season as long as Love can stay healthy – and he and Garland can learn how to play off of each other.
There are a handful of guys that are less likely to have a breakout season this year, but should show significant signs of improvement. Cleveland has a lot of young players, but one guy that has experience and some serious upside is Larry Nance Jr. In Detroit, Svi Mykhailiuk and Christian Wood are two young players to watch as the Pistons aim to take that next step.
The Pacers likely won’t sneak up on anyone this year, but one name you should familiarize yourself with is Edmond Sumner. Aaron Holiday is another guard in Indiana that could fill in quite nicely during Oladipo’s absence. Chicago’s new starting point guard Tomas Satoransky is likely to have a career-best season after three years as the backup in Washington.
That is how things might shake out in the Central Division. Make sure to get the full rundown on the Southwest Division tomorrow.
NBA Daily: Hield, Kings Both Have Room To Bargain
Buddy Hield understandably feels as if he’s worth more than the Kings have offered him, but that doesn’t mean he’s worth more than that to Sacramento, specifically. Douglas Farmer writes.
The emotion in Buddy Hield’s voice Wednesday night made it clear his words were not a negotiating ploy. When the fourth-year shooting guard said he would find someplace else to play if the Sacramento Kings did not properly respect him in contract negotiations, he was sincere.
“We’ll see if they’ll have me here,” Hield said. “Feels home to be here. I love Sacramento, but if they don’t feel I’m part of the core … if they don’t want to do it, then after that, I’ll look for somewhere else to go.”
Kings guard Buddy Hield is taking these contract talks very personally. In an emotional postgame interview, he talked about “finding another home” if the team doesn’t get a deal done by Monday’s deadline. pic.twitter.com/sEkJEZfNkS
— Jason Anderson (@JandersonSacBee) October 17, 2019
The Kings have until Monday to reach an agreement on a rookie-scale extension with Hield, who is eligible for a four-year deal north of $130 million or a designated-player extension of five years and $170 million.
But Hield may not be looking for those outlandish numbers. Per Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports, Hield is looking for a contract of about $110 million, while Sacramento has offered only $90 million across four years.
“It’s not always about less than the max, it’s just something that’s reasonable and is not an insult,” Hield said. “If we respect each other on that level, we’ll come to that agreement.”
Hield shot 42.7 percent from deep last season on 7.9 attempts per game while averaging 20.7 points. He may not necessarily be worthy of a max contract, but his is a valued skill set in the modern NBA. Combine that with the weak 2020 free agent class, and Hield has some ground to dig in upon at the bargaining table. If an extension is not agreed to, Hield would not be free to go wherever he wishes next summer, but he would be free to pursue that which might force the Kings’ hand as a restricted free agent.
Of wings expected to hit the market next summer, Hield would be joined by Otto Porter, Joe Harris and, possibly, Hield’s current teammate, Bogdan Bogdanović (also restricted). It really could be that shallow of a shooting pool. Gordon Hayward is likely to pick up his $31.2 million player option with the Boston Celtics, while DeMar DeRozan and the San Antonio Spurs are reportedly in discussions. Meanwhile, Caris LeVert has already signed a new deal with the Nets.
That market vacuum could drive up Hield’s summertime price, though Sacramento could still match any offer. If the Kings would match ties into the exact reasons they are risking alienating a core player in the first place. Sacramento has returned to respectability — both in the standings and in perceived approach — by building through the draft. But their bill is almost due.
Hield, Bogdanović, point guard De’Aaron Fox and forward Marvin Bagley are all approaching paydays in the next few seasons. The Kings are almost certainly going to make massive offers to Fox and Bagley in 2021 and 2022, respectively, and those contracts will tie up Sacramento’s books for much of the 2020s. The additional $5 million per year sought by Hield could preclude other moves when combined with Fox’s and Bagley’s deals.
The Kings’ ground is strengthened by holding Bogdanović’s restricted rights, as well. If they lose Hield, they will still have a starting-quality shooting guard to play alongside Fox in Bogdanović. He may not have hit 602 threes in his first three seasons in the league as Hield has, but Bogdanović is currently at 263 through two years, hardly anything to readily dismiss.
Even though Bogdanović will not cost as much as Hield — pondering a $51.4 million, four-year extension — keeping both pieces of the shooting duo may prove too costly for Sacramento owner Vivek Ranadivé. At which point, Hield’s raw emotions Wednesday night may foreshadow Ranadivé’s decision.
Where could Hield go, if for no other reason than to drive up his price?
Any discussion of 2020 free agents must include the Atlanta Hawks, who could have as much as $79.1 million in cap space. Hield would fit both their roster timeline and its general construction, though they did just snag both De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish in the 2019 draft. Hield’s minutes would come from the same pool as theirs, making this pairing a bit redundant.
There would be no such conflict with the Dallas Mavericks, whose centerpieces currently miss a wing with range from deep. The Mavericks would lack the space to sign Hield if Tim Hardaway Jr. opts into his $19 million player option, but that could simply precede a sign-and-trade with the Kings. There are certainly ways to make the space necessary should Dallas owner Mark Cuban want to.
If Hield wanted to be a part of another group that is “getting the team back to where it needs to be,” the Memphis Grizzlies would be a situation very similar to Sacramento’s. Forward Jaren Jackson Jr. will see his first big contract begin in 2022 and this year’s No. 2 overall pick Ja Morant should follow that trend a year later. The Grizzlies, however, do not have an exceptional shooter to pair with their young duo. If nothing else, Memphis could drive up the price on Hield to compromise the Kings’ cap space moving forward.
Those possibilities, among others, give Hield practical reason to stand his ground for what he feels he’s worth, while Sacramento’s long view may make it think twice. As emotional and blunt as he was, Hield understands these realities.
“Some people will get the max and some people won’t get the max,” he said. “That’s how it works.”
The Divide On Analytics
The disconnect in the understanding and use of analytics is widespread in today’s basketball landscape. Unearthing the reasoning behind these numbers will not only change how we talk about them, but also revolutionize how we look at the game in the future. Drew Mays writes.
Once upon a time, during a routine, regular season game, a well-regarded shooter was left alone for a corner three. Iman Shumpert, then with Cleveland, rushed to a hard closeout. Seeing Shumpert off balance, the shooter blew by him.
After the play, LeBron James criticized Shumpert for his overaggression. Shump, understandably, was confused – he’s a shooter! Shooters need to get run off the line!
LeBron responded that from that particular corner, the shooter only shot 35 percent – much worse than his overall three-point percentage that garnered his reputation. Accordingly, LeBron would have rather Shumpert closed under control, baiting the shooter into hoisting from a spot he doesn’t like, rather than letting him drive towards the rim with a full head of steam.
This simple knowledge of percentages has merged into the greater conversation of advanced statistics and analytics. Before these numbers were readily available, a respected jump shooter would never be left alone.
Now, the word “analytics” has transformed from a description into a clustered and contentious field. Even though – especially for those of us without data-processing backgrounds and math degrees – the above illustrates what analytics are and what they provide at their core: Information to make decisions on the micro-level and a tool to inform philosophies on the macro-level.
Dean Oliver and John Hollinger are the founding fathers of the basketball analytics movement. Both statisticians, they eventually parlayed their statistical methods and models into NBA front office jobs. These two paved the way for more recent data savants, such as Seth Partnow and Ben Falk, and their positions with professional basketball teams.
In August, Oliver was hired by the Washington Wizards to be a full-time assistant coach. Falk left the NBA a few years ago and has since started his website, Cleaning the Glass. Partnow and Hollinger both departed from their NBA jobs this year, returning to the media as staff writers for The Athletic.
Selfishly, the advantage of having Falk, Partnow and Hollinger back in the public sphere is the access we have to their brains. Partnow’s latest work is particularly geared towards analytics, and Falk and Hollinger’s are always rooted in them. Reading their work will increase your understanding of how basketball works in its current form and help develop your ideas about where it’s going.
The issue is this: Smart guys talking about numbers seems inaccessible…no matter how accessible it actually is.
Despite the talent of these three – and of all the other mathematicians writing in today’s media – there’s still a misunderstanding between those who wield statistics and those who don’t. Many times, even the players are part of the separation.
On Tuesday, Bulls guard Zach LaVine said this to the Chicago Sun-Times:
“I grew up being a Michael Jordan, Kobe [Bryant] fan… I think the mid-range is a lost art now because everyone is moving towards the threes and the analytics. I understand that because how it looks and how it sounds like it makes sense, but sometimes there’s nothing better than putting the ball in your best playmaker’s hands and letting him get the shot he needs rather than the one you want.”
This led to a revival of the discussion on ESPN’s The Jump. Rachel Nichols seemed to agree with LaVine in part, saying, “two is greater than zero.” Kevin Arnovitz followed with points important for our purpose, calling the death of the mid-range a “false dichotomy.”
“No one is saying, if a guy is wide-open at 19-feet, dribble backwards and take a shot… for Zach LaVine, it’s all about impulse control,” Arnovitz continued.
Impulse control in the sense that deciding when to take a mid-range shot is almost all of the battle. Context matters.
Matt Moore of The Action Network used The Jump’s clip to chime in. Moore tweeted, and then Kevin Durant responded.
The abbreviated version of the Moore-Durant thread is this: Durant, a historically great mid-range jump shooter, argues the side of, well, a historically great jump shooter. He talks about taking open shots regardless of where they come and a player’s confidence and feel.
Moore counters using the math. The refreshing conversation ends when another Twitter user points out that, since the analytics movement, James Harden’s mid-range attempts have dipped drastically. Durant admits he didn’t realize this.
The most telling part of the misunderstandings surrounding analytics came from Durant. He said, “I don’t view the game as math…I get what you’re saying but we just have 2 different views of the game. Analytics is a good way to simplify things.”
And that, folks, is the rub. That is the separation between fans, players and the John Hollingers of the world – the assumption that statisticians use advanced metrics and therefore see basketball as a math problem, while everyone else analyzes by merely watching the game (because of course, watching the games inherently equals reliable analysis).
But analytics isn’t a high-concept way to digitize the game and ignore the “eye test” Twitter fingers love to cite; they’re mathematical truths used to assess basketball success. Often, the air surrounding analytics is that it’s like me, an English major, taking freshman-year Calculus – impossible to understand. Because again, smart people explaining numbers can be daunting, even when they do it perfectly.
Truthfully, analytics are just more precise ways of discerning what happened in a basketball game. As Ben Taylor explains in one of his breakdowns, Chauncey Billups shooting 43 percent is more effective than Ben Wallace shooting 51 percent for a season. Billups is providing threes and making more free throws at a better rate, so even with Wallace’s higher raw field goal percentage, he’d need to be more accurate from two-point range to match Billups’ efficiency.
You don’t need to even study actual numbers to see why these statistical categories make the game easier to understand.
But, and this is another oft-forgotten point, these calculations are useless without context. In 2015-16, a Kawhi Leonard mid-range – when contextualized with qualifiers like time left on the shot clock – was a good shot. He right around 50 percent from 10-16 feet, so the advantage of taking a three over a two would be offset by Leonard’s 50 percent accuracy. During the same season, Kobe Bryant shot 41 percent from 10-16 feet. A Kobe baseline fadeaway with 14 seconds on the shot clock and a help defender coming from the high side is a bad mid-range shot.
Kevin Durant shot 58 percent from two last season. He shot 54 percent from 3-10 feet, 51 percent from 10-16 feet and 53.5 percent from 16 feet out to the three-point line.
Meanwhile, from those same distances, Zach LaVine shot 26 percent, 30 percent and 38 percent.
A mid-range jumper from Kevin Durant is usually a good shot. A mid-range jumper from Zach LaVine probably isn’t.
So, is the mid-range dead? Not completely. The last few champions rostered mid-range experts (Kawhi, Durant, Kyrie Irving), and some of the last remaining teams last season had one as well (Jimmy Butler, CJ McCollum).
Does a correlation then exist between mid-range proficiency and winning titles? Again, that’s doubtful. There’s a correlation between great players and titles, and great players usually have the mid-range game in their arsenal. That’s part of what makes them great players: the lack of holes in their games.
The discrepancies in Durant and LaVine’s two-point numbers can be found in talent level and the quality of looks. Both affect the percentages. Again, context matters.
To Durant’s point on Twitter: It is, on some level, a matter of practice. If LaVine keeps putting in the work, he can become a better mid-range shooter, making those looks more efficient.
But as a starting base, we’d say it’s better for LaVine and players like him to not settle for mid-range twos. We’re not too upset if Durant does it.
Even in the age of analytics, basketball will always in part be a matter of feel. It will always be scrutinized by the eyes. And that’s okay – because advanced statistics give context to the effectiveness of those feelings being acted on.
Maybe the point is this: If the shot clock is winding down and you have the ball out top with a defender locked in front of you and have to hoist a shot…don’t take the long two. Please shoot the three.
It’s more effective. The math says so.
NBA Daily: Already, Zion Williamson Has Importance
The preseason has made clear that Zion Williamson will be an abject positive throughout his rookie campaign. But the extent of his success remains to be seen and Williamson could drastically alter a loaded Western Conference playoff race.
Zion Williamson will be the best rookie in basketball this season, and it won’t be particularly close. The New Orleans Pelicans star is considered a generational prospect for a reason: The league has literally never before seen a player with his combination of size, strength and explosive athleticism.
But just because Williamson is a truly unparalleled physical specimen doesn’t mean his acclimation to basketball at its highest level is poised to be seamless. His lack of a reliable jumper was occasionally exploited at Duke and will allow far superior NBA defenders to lay off him, guarding against forays to the paint. He’s not ready to function as anything close to a primary ball-handler, further cramping the floor for a Pelicans team short on shooting. He should be a plus defender at the very least in time but is bound to go through the same struggles of schematic understanding and real-time recognition that plagues all first-year players.
But through four preseason games, Williamson has been so utterly dominant as to render those relative concerns almost completely moot. He’s averaging 23.3 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.5 steals in exhibition play so far, shooting a mind-bending 71.4 percent from the floor and attempting 8.0 free throws despite playing just 27.2 minutes per game. Williamson has a 34.2 PER, and his plus-28.8 net rating leads New Orleans by a wide margin, according to RealGM.
The normal caveats apply, of course. Preseason competition is barely a reasonable facsimile of what Williamson will face during the regular season, when opponents will employ their best players and lineups, play with consistent energy and engagement and, maybe most importantly, gear their strategy around limiting his effectiveness. He certainly wouldn’t be the first rookie whose stellar exhibition performance failed to carry over to the 82-game grind.
But Williamson has nevertheless shown enough during these glorified scrimmages to expect him to be a true impact player from the jump. Alvin Gentry has used him most as a dependent offensive weapon thus far, taking advantage of Williamson’s inherent physical trump cards by getting him the ball in space via rolls to the rim and letting him attack from the corner with a live dribble. He’s been especially unstoppable in the open floor and semi-transition, sprinting the wing for highlight-reel finishes and catching the defense on its heels with quick-hitting dribble hand-offs.
These aren’t especially innovative offensive concepts and teams will know they’re coming throughout the regular season. Williamson is just so much more athletically gifted than his defenders that, more often than not, they’ll be left helpless to stop him regardless.
Williamson won’t maintain his incredible blend of production and efficiency during the regular season. Only four players in league history have ever scored at least 20 points per game while shooting 60 percent or better from the field, per Basketball Reference. Williamson may very well eventually join that exclusive list of all-time greats, but counting on him to do so in 2019-20 only goes to compound outlandish expectations that could lead to an unfair appraisal of his debut campaign.
Unless, naturally, Williamson proves so good that he leads the rebuilt Pelicans to the playoffs in perhaps the most stacked Western Conference ever.
The Western Conference’s top six of the Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers, Denver Nuggets, Utah Jazz and Houston Rockets, in some order, seems clear. The Portland Trail Blazers, despite some quiet churn in the middle of the roster, deserve the same benefit of the doubt the San Antonio Spurs earned years ago.
That’s eight teams vying for eight slots, before accounting for the intrigue and unknown of the Dallas Mavericks. The Sacramento Kings and Minnesota Timberwolves have internal hopes of competing for the postseason, too.
Needless to say, the odds aren’t good for New Orleans, a team that underwent as much turnover as any in basketball during an extremely active offseason. Continuity of personnel and playing style is often the difference between a few extra wins and losses, but the Pelicans have neither in a season where they’ll try to force themselves into the postseason conversation.
The presence of a singular player like Williamson allows for the possibility that it might not matter.
Luka Doncic is coming off one of the most impressive rookie seasons of the decade, and Kristaps Porzingis, even 20 months removed from his last time taking the floor, is the living embodiment of game-changing two-way potential. De’Aaron Fox might be the most underrated player in basketball at 21, while the Kings mitigated the need for Marvin Bagley to pop this season by rounding out the roster with solid veterans. Karl-Anthony Towns will put up monster numbers for a Timberwolves team that’s finally and whole-heartedly embracing tenets of the modern game under Ryan Saunders and Gersson Rosas.
For the most part, though, we know the variance between those ceilings and floors this season and, by proxy, how high they could potentially lift their teams. Williamson is a different dynamic altogether. The preseason has laid bare that he’ll immediately be a positive player on offense, but there are many degrees to the extent of his possible effectiveness.
Will Williamson serve as a less-efficient, lower-usage version of the highlight-reel player he’s been in the preseason? Might this current level of play be his basic norm, with nights of inconsistency sprinkled in between? Or could he grow significantly as the season goes on, shouldering more ball-handling responsibilities and increasing his defensive awareness – unlocking small-ball lineups in which Gentry plays him at center – as the calendar flips to the new year and winter turns to spring?
It would be foolish to put a cap on Williamson’s success this season, just like it would be foolish to expect him to be an All-Star. But that gulf between wildly positive outcomes of his rookie season puts the Pelicans in a better position to pounce when an incumbent inevitably falls from the pack than any other team entering the season with long-shot playoff hopes.
Williamson definitely won’t be the best player in the Western Conference in 2019-20, maybe not even the best player on his team. But in terms of an effect on the playoff race, though, not a single player’s performance stands to loom larger.