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NBA PM: Thunder the Eighth Seed? Not Really

If healthy, the Oklahoma City Thunder will be one of the scariest eighth seeds ever.

Moke Hamilton

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On a routine October day, with one small announcement, the skies over Oklahoma City seemed to get just a bit more gray.

“Kevin [Durant] made us aware of discomfort in his right foot,” general manager Sam Presti said back on October 12. “We proceeded to perform the necessary imaging studies to determine the cause of his discomfort. At this stage, Kevin has been diagnosed with a Jones fracture.”

Today, the Thunder are still dealing with questions and the fallout from Durant’s injury. In fact, he has just been sidelined once again after having another procedure to reduce pain and discomfort in that same foot.

Immediately after the initial injury was announced, the questions began.

Many wondered if the Thunder—who had dealt with major injuries to both Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka—were merely snakebitten.

Some wondered what this would mean for head coach Scott Brooks while others wondered if the Thunder would miss the postseason altogether.

It seems so long ago that the Thunder were 5-13. Now, with the Phoenix Suns having traded key pieces of their core and the New Orleans Pelicans dealing with injury issues of their own, the Thunder find themselves emerging as one of the scariest eighth seed this league has seen in quite some time, assuming Durant will be back for the final stretch and postseason.

Most believe that Durant will make a full recovery from his recent procedure and be at or near 100 percent once the playoffs begin. If true, that, an MVP-caliber season by Westbrook and an amazingly productive trade deadline have the Thunder storming.

Like the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference, their cumulative record entering play on February 22 belies the team that the Thunder are today. After spending the majority of the season outside of the playoff picture looking in, Oklahoma City suddenly finds itself comfortably ahead of the Suns for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

A confluence of events—improving health, the effective replacement of Reggie Jackson with Dion Waiters, Westbrook’s emergence as a floor general and Sam Presti’s haul at the deadline—have the Thunder poised to be a team to reckon with once the playoffs begin.

The journey here, though, for these Thunder, has been anything but direct. It has been long and sometimes circuitous, but today, they are certainly in a better place than a few months ago.

* * *

During his time in New York, Tyson Chandler would often remind anyone within earshot that winning basketball and winning big in the NBA is not merely about what transpires between the lines and on the court. It is about so much more than that.

NBA teams are families. NBA teams, in many ways, are a network of relationships. And in the instance of Jackson, when one individual lets it be known that he is not satisfied with his role within the family or in the relationship, it creates negative energy that can affect and impact the entire team. In Jackson’s case, it certainly did.

Jackson’s discontent was the 800-pound gorilla in the locker room and the questions surrounding the team and the distraction that his situation caused only got worse in the immediate aftermath of the acquisition of Waiters.

Jackson’s desire to be a starter and to have a team to call his own is not something for which he should be demonized, especially not in a basketball culture where we often chastise and criticize players who do not live up to their potential.

To his credit, Jackson believes in himself and his ability to be a foundational player for an NBA franchise. The only issue with that in Oklahoma City is that the team just didn’t have any vacancies. When Jackson saw Waiters sitting across from him in the locker room, he knew he was staring at his replacement.

Whether Waiters can fill the void left by Jackson’s departure remains to be seen. Jackson, after all, did answer the bell when the Thunder needed him to and his performance in the 2013 playoffs is the primary reason why he will get paid this summer.

Still, since the Waiters acquisition, everyone knew that it was more a matter of “when” and not “if” Jackson would be dealt. With him finding a new home in Detroit, there is now one less distraction.

* * *

As defiant and ornery as we have seen in this league in quite some time, Russell Westbrook would never give his critics the satisfaction of letting them know that they were correct.

Westbook has too much pride to admit that, maybe, he was not necessarily doing things the right way before as a point guard. He is now, and he has joined Stephen Curry and James Harden as the three players whose names currently dominate the conversation for the Most Valuable Player award.

Numbers are good and numbers can often help to articulate a position on a player. Assists, turnovers, shooting percentages—they all have some merit. And if you look at Westbrook’s numbers on the season, the only thing that will pop out at you is his scoring average. Merely inspecting the paper and the statistics would probably hide the fact that, as a point guard and a floor general, Westbrook has evolved.

The true measure of a floor general is not how many assists he accrues or how and when he scores his points. Instead, it is his ability to improvise and manipulate. A great many of this generation’s point guards would come down the court and run their coach’s sets with a preordained result. In years past, Westbrook would waltz across the half court line and already have his mind made up as to what he was going to do—pass to Durant, pass to Ibaka, pass to James Harden or shoot.

Watching closely would reveal a point guard who had not mastered the art of manipulating the opposing defense. It would also often lead to bad turnovers and poor shot selection—the two areas that have plagued Westbrook most over the course of his career. His shooting percentage and turnovers still hover around what we would expect, but anyone who has watched Westbrook consistently over the course of the season will attest that his game is just different. It’s more controlled, more poised and more manipulative.

The perfect example came with about six minutes remaining in the Thunder’s 110-103 victory at the Charlotte Hornets on February 21. Sharing the court with Enes Kanter for the very first time, Kanter initiated a simple pick-and-roll set with Westbrook. Kanter held the ball at the top of the key and found Westbrook on the right wing, off of a curl.

Westbrook drove to his right, making a beeline toward the basket, but when Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Al Jefferson (who was guarding Kanter) trapped Westbrook, Westbrook beautifully threaded a bounce pass to Kanter. Jefferson was unable to recover and Kanter nailed the wide-open 16-footer.

The Westbrook of old probably would have barreled into Jefferson on his way to the basket and picked up an offensive foul. But this Westbrook, the new Westbrook, has put himself in the same class as Steve Nash, Chris Paul and, most recently, John Wall.

A point guard’s greatest gift is mastering the art of defensive manipulation. When making a move toward the basket or getting into the teeth of the defense, if the opposition has no idea whether they are attempting to create a shot for themselves or one of their teammates, it leaves them off balance.

Before our very eyes, even if the raw numbers do not necessarily support it, Westbrook has matured into a manipulative floor general. That his assist numbers have not dipped considerably, even playing without Durant, is a testament to this. He has consistently been getting his shooters wide-open shots and getting his finishers dunks and layups, both in half court sets and on fast breaks.

Now, Kanter is poised to be the newest beneficiary.

* * *

Selected with third overall pick of the 2011 NBA Draft, scouts were high on Kanter mainly because of his solid, “true center” frame and his soft hands. He is both a capable finisher around the basket and a good midrange shooter.

Thus far, his NBA career has been marked by inconsistency, but in spurts he has shown both an impressive nose for the basketball and the ability to finish in traffic. He has also consistently shown an ability to put the basketball on the floor, drive into open space and create his own shot opportunities. On pick-and-rolls, Kanter is able to read opposing coverages and make sound decisions with regard to rolling to the rim, popping out for a basket, or laying back and allowing his guard to penetrate.

It is difficult to see those gifts not meshing well with Westbrook, Waiters and Durant.

One element that Kanter may introduce to the Thunder that has been missing is a post player who can get the team easy baskets either by scoring from the low-box or finding cutting teammates.

By the time a top pick has been in the league for four years, general managers want to begin seeing a return on their investment. After four years, a player should have more to offer than potential. Still, in the case of Kanter, he was drafted to a Utah Jazz team that was in transition and spent his first two seasons playing behind both Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap.

After a falling out in Utah, Kanter showed signs of progression this season as a full-time starter for Quin Snyder before being traded on February 19.

Now, in a winning situation, Kanter (who is still just 22 years old) will have the opportunity to play for a Thunder team that will be watched by many onlookers around the league and, perhaps, one that will compete deep into the playoffs. He is eligible for restricted free agency this offseason, so it will be interesting to see how he competes, what he does for his market value and whether the Thunder would truly be willing to match a big money offer for Kanter, if one should come.

* * *

With Jackson gone, Kanter arriving and the improved play of Westbrook, the Thunder seem to have everything that they need to find themselves back in the NBA Finals. Since losing to the Miami HEAT back in 2012, the Thunder have come no closer to a title, but now find themselves with a talented and balanced team that can go 10-deep without yielding much in the talent department to most of their opponents.

Amazingly, despite the departures of Harden, Martin and Jackson, Pesti has managed to keep his team together and afloat.

Entering play on February 22, the Thunder find themselves locked into the eighth and final seed in the Western Conference. If health is on their side, and if they jell the way they are capable, moving up is a distinct possibility.

If they do not, however, they may very well enter the playoffs as the scariest eighth seed that this league has seen in quite some time.

Back in 2007, the Dallas Mavericks entered the postseason after turning in a 67-15 regular season that saw Dirk Nowitzki win the NBA’s Most Valuable Player Award. Baron Davis, head coach Don Nelson and the Golden State Warriors pulled off a miraculous upset and knocked those Mavericks out in the first round.

Back in 2007, Stephen Curry was making a name for himself at Davidson University and probably wasn’t even on the radar of the Warriors.

The rabid fan base in Oakland, though? They knew what it felt like to be on the good side of an upset.

Now, as the sprint toward the playoffs officially begins and the Thunder find themselves a strengthened and unified bunch, it is not outside of the realm of possibility for the top-seeded Warriors to find themselves on the wrong side of the upset this time around.

There is a ways to go, but with Jackson gone, Kanter acquired and Westbrook improving, so long as the Thunder have their health, they will have a shot at capturing the title that escaped them in 2012.

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NBA Daily: The Stretch Run – Atlantic Division

Ben Nadeau praises the Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers, while also gently eulogizing another season gone wrong for both teams in New York.

Ben Nadeau

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The Stretch Run.

With 20-odd games remaining on the schedule, it’s officially make-or-break time for the majority of the league — unless your franchise rhymes with Los Shamjealous or Hillmockie, of course. With tantalizing lottery picks for those that bottom out or home-court postseason revenue for teams that push forward, the post-All-Star break jockeying is always fascinating.

As of Feb. 20, however, most of the Eastern Conference — and particularly so, the Atlantic Division — is cut and dried. From hyped-up expectations to the somewhat-disappointing, one of the conference’s perennially-strongest divisions is looking robust once again. Although all of them presumably lag behind the Giannis Antetokounmpo-led Bucks, the bloodbath for the right to face Milwaukee appears to be better than ever.

But before even getting into the Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers and Brooklyn Nets’ varying playoff hopes, a rapid-fire eulogy for the New York Knicks must first be had. Fans who once dreamt off trotting out Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Zion Williamson — but ask the Nets and New Orleans Pelicans how life without them went, to be fair — had to settle for trading away Marcus Morris at the trade deadline earlier this month.

At 17-38, there are only a handful of franchises worse off in the standings department — Minnesota, Atlanta, Cleveland and Golden State — and absurdity continues to reign in Manhattan. David Fizdale was unceremoniously ousted in December and was replaced by interim head coach Mike Miller, who was then (accidentally) dissed by Steve Stoute on an ESPN morning show. Even Steve Mills was out as president after tapping Leon Rose, another superagent turned front office executive.

On the roster side, Frank Ntilikina is playing less than ever, the aforementioned Morris led the team in points per game (19.6) and Bobby Portis already shot down any idea of a buyout. Kevin Knox, 20, has seen his minutes and averages nearly halved, while Mitchell Robinson has only played more than 25 minutes on 18 occasions. The Knicks desperately have searched for continuity and clarity only to come up empty-handed time and time again.

Thankfully, RJ Barrett looks like the real deal and, according to Marc Berman of The New York Post, the Knicks have begun to look at the upcoming draft to nail down a scoring point guard as the next franchise cornerstone.

With some real, tangible turnover in New York — and some incredibly solid youngsters to boot — it’s far too early to anoint the franchise as revitalized, but they’ve taken some important first steps toward doing so.

And despite stealing away Durant and Irving during the offseason, their cross-river rivals in Brooklyn haven’t fared much better at all. Irving, when he’s played, has been sensational — unfortunately, he’s reached the floor in just 20 total games thus far and is now out indefinitely (again) after re-aggravating that troublesome right shoulder (again). The 27-year-old point guard missed the All-Star Game for the first time since 2015-16 and his season — plus whatever lingering postseason hopes the Nets had — are quickly setting. Durant, as planned, hasn’t logged a minute yet — and likely won’t — while Rodions Kurucs hasn’t matched last year’s breakout campaign and Joe Harris has seen a considerable drop from three-point range too.

At 25-28, Brooklyn owns the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference, some 2.5 games ahead of the Orlando Magic. It’s hard to imagine the Nets falling out of the postseason entirely — the ninth-seeded Washington Wizards are just 20-33 — but there’s little chance they catch the Indiana Pacers at No. 6, especially following the return of Victor Oladipo. If Irving is shelved for much longer and Durant sits out the entire year, the Nets’ best-case scenario becomes stealing a postseason game from Milwaukee or Toronto before bowing out in the first round.

After arguably winning the offseason, it’s a tough pill to swallow in Brooklyn — but, at the very least, there are undeniable better days ahead.

And then that leaves three: Toronto, Boston and Philadelphia.

Today, at 34-21, the 76ers are the most disappointing of the bunch as they often struggle to play to both Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid’s strengths at once. Simmons, 23, for all his other-worldly playmaking — and previous talk of a summertime-made jumper — has only attempted six three-pointers in 2019-20. The defense is as fearful as ever and rates at 106.1 — good for fourth-best, but sadly behind the Celtics, Raptors and Bucks — so counting the 76ers out of a deep playoff run would be downright shameful.

But in back-to-back-to-back contests before the All-Star break, the 76ers lost to the Celtics, Miami HEAT — the franchise occupying the No. 4 seed ahead of them — and Bucks. The deadline fits of both Glenn Robinson III and Alec Burks need some time, but Philadelphia is one of the few legitimate contenders in the conference that actually tried to improve their roster this month — which speaks to the still-strong internal hopes of the franchise.

Just as the Nets are nearly locked into the No. 7 or 8 seed, the 76ers won’t drop any lower than sixth place either. And although both Boston and Toronto have gained an inch of separation in the conference hierarchy, Philadelphia now finds themselves in the midst of a three-team brawl for home-court advantage in the first round. With Philadelphia’s unbelievable ceiling of potential and inherent inconsistency, it’s too early to predict where exactly they’ve fall come playoff time — but, make no mistake, this is a roster no opposing team will be excited to face.

On the other hand, Boston is peaking at just the right time as head coach Brad Stevens continues to push all the right buttons. Jayson Tatum, fresh off his first-ever All-Star berth, is a force to be reckoned with (22.4 points, 6.9 rebounds) and Kemba Walker has found himself right at home in the Garden. Surely the Celtics would love to avoid the Bucks for as long as possible and to do so, they’ll need to skip Toronto over the season’s final few months — however, even without Kawhi Leonard, that’s easier said than done.

The Celtics boast top-five ratings on both sides of the ball and, in spite of everybody’s doomsday-worthy proclamations, the 1-2 punch of Enes Kanter and Daniel Theis under the rim have more than sufficed. It’ll begin to sound like a repetitive cliche — and just wait for Toronto to fill out this trifecta — but Boston is still Boston: Hard-nosed and even harder-working, they’re an absolute shoo-in for home-court advantage in the first round at the very least.

But the Raptors currently stand as the Atlantic Division crown jewel, ready as ever to defend their conference throne.

You know the details by now: Leonard is dealt to Toronto and he wins the city their first-ever championship ring before signing with Los Angeles last July. Without last weekend’s All-Star MVP in tow, the Raptors were expected to sharply fall down the standings — playoffs, maybe, but this? Certainly not.

This is domination. This is an elite defensive unit. This is a franchise that not only lived on after their superstar left — but then thrived off that departure. Sans Leonard, the Raptors are only 40-15, good for the second-best record in the Eastern Conference. Crazier, right now, the Raptors are on pace to win as many regular-season games as they did with Leonard.

If not for the single-digit loss Bucks, they’d probably be the NBA’s darling story of the season once again. Pascal Siakam, 25, has blossomed into superstardom — 23.5 points, 7.5 rebounds — and is a more-than-worthy mark to pin the franchise’s back-to-back hopes upon. But perhaps even more impressive is Toronto’s ability to shuffle through next-man-up cards with reckless abandon. In fact, post-All-Star break, Terence Davis, an undrafted rookie, is the only player to have featured in all 55 games.

Every major member outside of OG Anunoby has missed a chunk of the season, too: Fred VanVleet, 10; Pascal Siakam, 11; Serge Ibaka, 11; Kyle Lowry, 12; Norman Powell, 17; Marc Gasol, 20.

And yet, they relentlessly compete like bonafide champions.

Toronto is likely destined for a second-round showdown with either Boston and Philadelphia — that much seems ultimately clear. But in the conference’s suddenly-thickening race to the top, for the first time in a long time, it’s still anybody’s best guess as to who will come out on top. Simply put, if you want star power — bank on Simmons, Embiid and the 76ers. If you want pedigreed basketball on both sides of the floor — there’s Walker, Tatum and the Celtics.

But if you want to back a franchise that was left for relative dead mere months after hoisting a championship trophy — well, Siakam, Lowry and the Raptors may just be the heavyweight title contender the conference has been waiting for.

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NBA Daily: Collin Sexton’s First All-Star Weekend A Success

Spencer Davies looks back at Cleveland Cavaliers guard Collin Sexton’s first-time experience at NBA All-Star weekend in Chicago.

Spencer Davies

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It was early Friday afternoon at the Wintrust Arena in Chicago, the stage was set to kick off a laid-back weekend of celebration on NBA All-Star Weekend and commend the hard work of the brightest young talents, both national and international, the league had to offer.

The events of the 72-hour spectacle are meant to be enjoyed, connecting with others and soaking in the experience as a reward rather than being a full-on competition. Added to the U.S. Team roster as a replacement for injured Miami HEAT rookie Tyler Herro, Cleveland Cavaliers guard Collin Sexton did just that. Between a multitude of media appearances in the bright lights with cameras all around, the 21-year-old upstart took advantage of the opportunities to expose his personality to a national audience.

But amidst the fun, Sexton still went the extra mile as he always does. Phil Handy, a former Cavaliers assistant who worked famously with Kyrie Irving and the man that conducted Sexton’s pre-draft workout with Cleveland, was the head coach of the U.S. Team. So the one they call Young Bull decided to take full advantage with a post-practice workout when the floor cleared.

“[He’s worked with] great guards, yeah. He’s a great guy,” Sexton told Basketball Insiders. “He just told me to continue to get better, continue to work, continue to strive to be great. He talked to me a little bit about Kobe [Bryant] and his time with him, so I just got a good takeaway from him.”

Additional work at a practice to improve his game and prepare for an exhibition contest during a time that was meant for fun? It’s par for the course in his world. Just weeks prior following the Cavaliers’ loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder on the road, a team source revealed to Basketball Insiders that Sexton went to Cleveland’s practice facility after landing in Northeast Ohio in the early morning hours to hone his craft.

“Dude’s motor doesn’t stop,” the source said.

“Oh naw, I work hard. When I feel like…if I’m on the court, I’mma do whatever I’ve gotta do. No days off, whatever,” Sexton told Basketball Insiders of his never-ending drive. “If it’s taking care of my body or just stretching or lifting, it’s not always about shooting and stuff like that. You’ve just gotta do the little things and that’s going to help you in the future.”

Though Sexton wasn’t used to the kind of attention he was receiving in the Windy City, he was determined to prove that he belongs. Usually taking a business-like approach to downplay things of this nature, he admitted how amazing it felt to achieve the milestone and be a part of the most popular three-day stretch the NBA has to offer.

“I feel like all my hard work, it paid off. So I’m glad to be here, especially with these group of guys, really good group. It’s an honor,” Sexton told Basketball Insiders that Friday morning.

Among star-studded sophomore names such as Luka Doncic and Trae Young, as well as human-highlight-reel rookies like Zion Williamson and Ja Morant, a motivated Sexton made his mark on the floor.

In 20 minutes of action, he poured in 21 points, nabbed five rebounds and dished out three assists. He shot 9-for-14 from the field, including three triples on six tries. And he even had a reverse jam on a bounce pass to himself, though he joked that it was “kinda weak.”

“At first, I was just chillin’ out there, wasn’t playing too hard. Then, you know, I can turn it on pretty quick,” Sexton said.

“Honestly, I just go out there and just play my game. Honestly, no matter who I’m put in the room with, I’mma do what I do,” Sexton told Basketball Insiders. “It’s exciting just because of like all the attention they bring, but me, being myself . . . I’m a dog too, so I’mma go out there and show everybody that I can represent as well.”

Sexton was the 20th Cavalier in franchise history to represent the team in the Rising Stars game since its inception in 1994. With a grin on his face naming those wine-and-golders who came before him, he was thinking ahead about the teammates that could now follow his lead.

Basketball Insiders saw a side of Sexton that hasn’t been seen much in Cleveland. He started a long media tour Thursday with a Yahoo-sponsored pop-a-shot contest followed it up with an NBA TV sitdown interview alongside Dennis Scott. While the next day was entirely centered on Rising Stars, he continued Saturday with an appearance for Metro By T-Mobile during a media-player role reversal contest and finished off at a Mountain Dew barbershop sit down with the legendary Scottie Pippen and other notorious players from the league.

Through all of the losing, through all of the tumultuous nature of his one-and-a-half seasons with the Cavaliers — who are hiring their fourth coach since the 2018 NBA Draft — Sexton is not going to change his approach. He’s not going to change who he is. He’s not going to veer into a different path because of another shift in direction.

“It’s a great experience for me just to take my bumps and bruises, to go out there and pretty much just play hard each and every night, and that’s what I’mma do,” Sexton told Basketball Insiders. “It’s tough losing because no one wants to lose. I feel like we’re moving in the right directions and we’ll get better and start winning.”

Whether people want to believe it or not, what he’s doing is working just fine.

All-Star Weekend proved it.

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NBA

NBA Daily: The Stretch Run – Central Division

In the next edition of our The Stretch Run series, Basketball Insiders takes a closer look at the Central Division bubble teams as things get back on track following the All-Star break.

Chad Smith

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The so-called second half of the season is kicking back into gear, but the forthcoming agendas for teams in the Central Division are all very different. Some organizations have their eye on the draft lottery, some on making the playoffs and one or two have set their sights on the NBA Finals. Each team has less than 28 games remaining, which means every one of them will be extremely important.

As part of Basketball Insiders’ latest running series called The Stretch Run, we’re taking a look at every division and analyzing their standing — both in the postseason position or rebuilding efforts.

The Central Division is a mixed bag of teams on various tier levels, naturally. The Milwaukee Bucks find themselves alone at the top, owning the best record in the league — as of publishing — with a 46-8 record. Clearly not a bubble team, Milwaukee’s focus has been on fine-tuning their roster and figuring out their playoff rotation. They recently added another piece in Marvin Williams after his buyout with the Charlotte Hornets.

Behind the Bucks sit the Indiana Pacers with a 32-23 record at the All-Star break. Indiana beat Milwaukee in their final game before the stoppage to end a five-game losing streak. One of the reasons for their recent struggles is likely due to incorporating Victor Oladipo back into the rotation. While the chemistry will take time to build, the talented backcourt Oladipo and Malcolm Brogdon should be one of the best in the league eventually. Their twin towers of Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner should keep the Pacers squarely in the playoff picture.

At the opposite end of the spectrum sit the Cleveland Cavaliers. They are 14-40 on the season and have had very few bright spots. Collin Sexton picked up where he left off last season, but he hasn’t been able to elevate his teammates. The Cavaliers decided not to move Kevin Love before the trade deadline, before then acquiring Andre Drummond from a division rival to create a log jam of big men. After taking Sexton and Darius Garland in the draft lottery the past two years, Cleveland will likely have another top pick to use this summer.

The odd five-year contract that Cleveland gave former Michigan head coach John Beilein this past summer has not worked out well. After reports earlier this season that the players had already tuned him out, it appears as though his days in the league have come to an end. Beilein and the organization finalized a contract settlement that’ll stop proceedings just a half-season into the deal.

Again, and swiftly, the franchise has fallen on hard times since LeBron James’ second departure.

The remaining two teams in the Central are right on the bubble and have some work to do. All hope is not lost, but they will need a few breaks to go their way over these final weeks.

With those three out of the way, it’s time to dive deep into the divisional troublemakers.

The Chicago Bulls have had a disappointing season, but they also have dealt with a myriad of injuries. Now that the All-Star festivities have concluded, the city will see if their team can get back into the postseason with a little bit of luck. The Bulls are 19-36 on the season with 27 games remaining. Looking ahead, the numbers are fairly even as 14 of those games will be against teams .500 or better. Additionally, Chicago will also have 14 of those 27 games on their home floor.

Chicago has lost six straight games and is currently tenth in the Eastern Conference standings. worse, they must find a way to leapfrog the Orlando Magic and Washington Wizards. Both teams have a similar strength of schedule over the course of their remaining games. If the Bulls want to get back into the playoffs, they will have to finish tight games. Chicago has a winning percentage of 41.7 in close games this season, which ranks 22nd in the league.

Individually, Zach LaVine has been having an outstanding season. His 25.3 points and 4.8 rebounds per game are career highs — and his late-game execution has been remarkable, considering the defenses knowing exactly where the ball is going. His ability to penetrate, finish, or just pull up has kept Chicago afloat this season. Injuries to virtually every other player on the roster have had this team trying to dig their way out of a hole since early in the year.

Oddly enough, the offense has been the biggest issue in Chicago this season. The Bulls are 26th in offensive rating and rank 25th in the league in scoring. Their defense has actually been much better than most people realize as they rank inside the top half of the league in opponent scoring and defensive rating. Both Thaddeus Young and Kris Dunn have been catalysts on that end of the floor for Jim Boylen’s squad. If they crumble over this final stretch, it could be the end for the outspoken coach.

The Detroit Pistons have a little more work to do and they only have 25 games in which to do it. Detroit currently sits 12th in the conference with a 19-38 record. The most difficult obstacle in this challenge for the Pistons will be jumping over four teams to get there. Of their 25 remaining games, only 11 of them will be played at home in Little Caesars Arena.

A playoff appearance last season increased expectations for the Pistons this year, even with Blake Griffin’s injury in that first-round series. The thought was that he would be ready to go at the start of this season, but that didn’t happen. Unfortunately, he only made it 18 games before he had to have another round of surgery. Quickly, the season outlook changed for Dwane Casey’s team.

Drummond had a fantastic start to the season without Griffin and was put up his typically-monstrous numbers. With their outlook changing, Detroit traded the big man to Cleveland for all of John Henson, Brandon Knight and a second-round draft pick. Stranger, Derrick Rose has been Detroit’s best player by a wide margin. The resurgent point guard leads the team in points and assists  — and, further, did not want to be traded. Reggie Jackson returned to the lineup just before the break but just accepted a buyout so that he could join the Los Angeles Clippers.

Christian Wood has played very well and rookie Sekou Doumbouya emerged as a pleasant surprise for the Pistons, thankfully, so it’s not all doom and gloom. Bruce Brown continues to be one of the best young guards that no one talks about. Should Luke Kennard return to health and continue his progression, a return to the playoffs might be possible with a strong finish. Change must come swiftly, however, as Detroit has lost 10 of its last 12 games.

The real question here is if the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference is indeed worth pursuing. Should Chicago or Detroit earn the spot, a first-round exit is almost a certainty. The Bucks are arguably the best team in the league with the likely back-to-back MVP leading them. Obviously these division rivals know Milwaukee well and simply do not have an answer for them. Injuries can always play a factor in how these things turn out, but the owners would prefer to have the playoff revenue.

The other side of this would be getting into the lottery to improve their first-round draft pick. Normally this is weighed heavily by the organizations, but with the rules designed to prevent teams from tanking, that’ll be difficult to do so.

Making the playoffs is still something that most players would like to do, needless to say. Coaches definitely would prefer that route, of course, as their jobs are dependent on it. Looking at the two Central Division teams in the hunt though, both appear to be headed back to the lottery once again.

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