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NBA Training Camp Questions: Central Division

How Derrick Rose looks in his return is just one of many huge questions hanging over the Central Division this preseason…

Joel Brigham

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Training camps start within the week for all NBA teams, which means there will finally be real basketball to digest after a long summer of rumors, anonymous sources and soap opera drama. The following are some questions that each team in the Central Division may face over the course of the preseason. The answers to these, many of which will be provided during October’s slate of warm-up games, should tell us a lot about what sorts of teams these organizations will actually be by the time the regular season finally rolls around.

Chicago Bulls

  • What kind of Derrick Rose will Chicago get this season?
  • It wasn’t a strong Team USA experience for Derrick Rose from a personal standpoint, as he looked a lot more like the guy who sloughed through ten games last season than the guy who won an MVP trophy in 2011. Everything Chicago is expected to do this season hinges not only on whether or not he can stay healthy, but on if he can still attack and create offense for this team the way he used to. The preseason will tell us a little about this, however last preseason Rose was utterly dominant throughout the warm-ups and by Game 1 of the regular season he seemed to regress. In any event, it will be interesting to get a good look at D-Rose playing NBA competition after two years of knee rehabs.
  • How much will Thibodeau use his talented rookies?
    While Thibodeau used Tony Snell out of necessity last season, he isn’t typically the kind of coach who enjoys playing rookies. Chicago, however, has two really good ones this year in Nikola Mirotic and Doug McDermott, both of whom appear ready to contribute immediately. Neither is a typical NBA rookie, as McDermott is 22 years old coming off four years at Creighton, and 23-year-old Mirotic has been arguably Spain’s best player for a couple of years now. These are mature, offensively gifted players who the Bulls could really use, and the preseason will help us get a sense of just how much they might play, at least early on in the season.
  • How will the frontcourt minutes shake out?
    Part of Mirotic’s problem is that he’s the fourth man up in what some would say is the league’s best and deepest frontcourt. Mirotic, Pau Gasol, Taj Gibson and reigning Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah all are vying for minutes, and the preseason will help give a sense of what the pecking order is. Gasol and Noah are expected to start, but Gibson is accustomed to playing pretty big minutes and finishing games. Will that be the case this year? And how does Mirotic play into all of this? Thibodeau has a full preseason to figure it out.

Cleveland Cavaliers

  • How will LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love share offensive touches?
    Chances are that these guys will figure out how to share the ball eventually, but the preseason is sure to be an adjustment for them as they touch the ball less often than they’re accustomed to. James, for example, was fifth in the league last year with a usage rate of 29.1, but Irving (27.8) and Love (27.7) were both also in the top ten. That’s an 84.6 usage rate combined, which simply isn’t sustainable. All three are guys accustomed to having the ball in their hands, but at least two of them will have to figure out to be effective on that end without using as many possessions for themselves. Camp should show us how, exactly, that’s going to work.
  • Will the Cavaliers be as bad defensively as some think they will?
    LeBron James is one of the league’s best defensive players. Anderson Varejao is strong on that end as well, as is Shawn Marion. But beyond that? Cleveland looks like they’re going to have some issues. Early games should give a sense of how head coach David Blatt will mask Love’s deficiencies and construct a defense that can still be effective. With a lot of sieves on this roster, that may be easier said than done.
  • How will David Blatt handle his first NBA team as a head coach?
    People rave about Blatt, a championship coach on just about every level of basketball outside of the NBA, but even the most prized coaching candidates sometimes can fall flat on their faces. That doesn’t seem like it will be the case with Blatt, but it will be interesting to get a first glimpse of his coaching style after a few practices and a couple of preseason games. Can a man with no NBA coaching experience deal with the expectations of a championship season? We’ll get our first look at that during training camp.

Detroit Pistons

  • How big a difference does Stan Van Gundy make?
    The Pistons have been through more coaches than any other team in the NBA over the last five years, but Van Gundy is the kind of great mind that could actually stick around for a while. With Indiana hurting and most of the rest of the conference outside of Chicago, Washington and Cleveland pretty wide-open, this could be the year Detroit makes it back to the postseason. We should see changes under the Van Gundy regime almost immediately, but what those changes are remain a mystery until the start of the preseason.
  • Does the outside shooting look any better than it did a year ago?
    The first deal agreed to in this past summer’s massive free agency session was a bloated offer for Jodie Meeks, brought aboard exclusively to knock down three-pointers. The Pistons were 29th in the league last year in three-point field goal percentage and were 26th in three-pointers made. Adding Meeks (and D.J. Augustin and Caron Butler) was meant to remedy that, but will it actually translate to better on-court production? If so it should open up everything for Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe. If not, we’re looking at the same frustrating, congested as offense as a year ago.
  • Does Andre Drummond have another level?
    Drummond wasn’t an All-Star last year, but he ate the freshmen and sophomores for dinner during the Saturday exhibition and showed enough growth during the regular season to establish himself as one of the brightest rising stars in the league. Will he come back playing older this year, scoring his points as consistently as he’s blocking shots and hauling in rebounds? Dominating the preseason will go a long way toward convincing everyone of that.

Indiana Pacers

  • Who’s going to score for these guys?
    Here’s a fun fact: With Paul George and Lance Stephenson both gone, the Pacers are losing about 35 points per game, which obviously won’t be easy to replace. While Indiana, who was 24th in the league with 96.7 PPG, isn’t going to start scoring only 60 points a night, their offense inevitably will suffer without those guys. How will players like David West and George Hill and Roy Hibbert respond to the need for more offensive assistance? Training camp should help answer that.
  • Will C.J. Miles or Rodney Stuckey end up starting at shooting guard?
    For now, it looks like Miles will be the starter, but Stuckey is good enough when healthy to score in bunches, and that may be more of what Frank Vogel needs out of his starting two-guard. While this is by no means the most epic of positional battles in the NBA this preseason, it is possible that both players prove themselves worthy to start. The question is about who will ultimately be given the job.
  • Which Roy Hibbert are we getting this year?
    We’ve all seen more than enough Hibbert to know that there’s a mild-mannered Dr. Jekyll version of him that can’t seem to grab six rebounds a night despite being one of the tallest players in the NBA, and then there’s a Mr. Hyde version that dunks on people and swats away four shots a game. When he’s confident, Hibbert is among the best centers in the game. When things aren’t going his way, however, he’s pretty brutal. He has his ups and downs during a season, but how he looks in the preseason will give his team a sense of how the new year will start for him.

Milwaukee Bucks

  • Are people expecting too much out of Giannis Antetokounmpo?
    Despite being incredibly young and incredibly raw, Giannis Alphabet had a great rookie season in Milwaukee, leading many people to predict a huge breakout campaign during which he places himself among the league’s elite players. It’s important to remember, however, that the Bucks will probably be pretty bad again this year, and that Antetokoumnpo is still only 19 years old. He’ll be no less exciting, but to expect him to be a star in Year 2 is probably unfair. Training camp will give us a sense of how much closer to that he actually is.
  • Will Jabari Parker immediately change the vibe here, or will it take time?
    Similarly, a lot of hope has been placed in Parker to revive the Bucks, which could realistically happen as long as Parker stays there long-term. He’s exactly the kind of player who does eventually turn a franchise around, but it doesn’t often happen in a rookie season. The overwhelming majority of teams with high lottery picks end up right back in the lottery the next season. The future is brighter for the Bucks than it was 18 months ago, but the present is still pretty bleak. Parker is NBA-ready, but all rookies need time to develop. Preseason games are just the start of that process.
  • Who does Jason Kidd value most in this crowded frontcourt?
    There’s plenty of talent in the Milwaukee frontcourt, with Larry Sanders, John Henson, Ersan Ilyasova and Zaza Pachulia all vying for minutes. It was up and down last season as to who got that playing time, but perhaps Kidd will come up with something more substantial and consistent during the preseason, though there’s no telling what will actually roll over to the regular season. Either way, someone in this frontcourt rotation is likely to end up with the short straw this year; there are only so many minutes to go around.

The preseason will be here before we know it, and when it does finally roll around we’ll be given access to the answers we’re looking for. In the meantime, all we have is the questions, and already, they’re all pretty loaded ones.

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NBA

NBA Daily: The Young, Western Conference Bubble

The race for the West’s final playoff spot may seem crowded, but the last two months make it clear that two teams are already ahead of the pack.

Douglas Farmer

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We all jump to conclusions too quickly, this space and this scribe most certainly included. Three months ago, five weeks into the NBA season, the Western Conference playoff bubble looked like it would be a race between the Sacramento Kings, Phoenix Suns and Minnesota Timberwolves. That has assuredly not become the reality.

While the Kings and Suns can claim to still be in the playoff race, they would have to not only make up five-game deficits, but they would also each have to jump over four other teams to reach the postseason. The Timberwolves would delight at such challenges as they initiate a not-so-subtle tank with franchise cornerstone Karl-Anthony Towns sidelined for at least a few weeks with a fractured wrist.

Instead, the race to be swept by the Los Angeles Lakers has come down to a pair of up-and-comers, a perpetual deep threat and the NBA’s most consistent organization. Of all of them, it is the youngsters who are both currently playing the best and have the most control of their playoff hopes relative to their competition.

Between the current No. 8-seeded Memphis Grizzlies, the Portland Trail Blazers (3 games back), New Orleans Pelicans (3.5) and San Antonio Spurs (4), the next six weeks will feature eight key games. Five of those will include either the Grizzlies or the Pelicans or, in two instances, both.

That pair of matchups is still a month out, but they warrant circling already, nonetheless. Memphis and New Orleans have been playing at a high level for two-plus months now, and by the time they play two games within four nights in late March — when the basketball world is largely distracted by the NCAA Tournament — the two inexperienced teams may have completely separated from Portland and San Antonio.

After starting 1-5, 5-13 and then 10-19, the Grizzlies have gone 18-9 since Dec. 21. The Pelicans have matched that record exactly, down to the date, since starting even worse than Memphis did, bottoming out at 7-23 before finding an uptick long before Zion Williamson found the court. Winning two-thirds of your games for two months is a stretch with a sample size large enough to make it clear: Neither Memphis nor New Orleans should be dismissed in this playoff chase.

Their early-season profiles were examples of young teams sliding right back into the lottery — and there was absolutely no indication a surge was coming.

Grizzlies Pelicans
Offensive Rating 106.4 – No. 23 106.8 – No. 21
Defensive Rating 111.7 – No. 23 113.5 – No. 27

Through Dec. 20; via nba.com.

Then, for whatever reason, things changed. They changed in every way and in ways so drastically that one cannot help but wonder what could come next for the teams led by the top-two picks from last summer’s draft.

Grizzlies Pelicans
Offensive Rating 111.9 – No. 15 115.1 – No. 4
Defensive Rating 109.3 – No. 11 110.3 – No. 13

Since Dec. 21, through Feb. 23; via nba.com.

In a further coincidence of records and timing, the Blazers and Spurs have both gone 13-16 since Dec. 21.

If all four teams in the thick of things out west continue at these two-month winning rates for another month, then Portland and San Antonio will have drifted out of the playoff conversation before Williamson and Ja Morant meet for a second time. Of course, those rates would keep New Orleans a few games back of Memphis; the latter has 14 games, compared to 12, before March 21, so the gap in the standings would actually expand to an even four games.

If the Pelicans can just pick up a game or two before then, though, they have already beaten the Grizzlies twice this season. Doing so twice more that week would just about send New Orleans into the playoffs – at which point, perhaps Williamson could steal a game from LeBron James to put a finishing coda on his rookie season.

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NBA

NBA Daily: The Stretch Run — Southwest Division

David Yapkowitz finishes Basketball Insiders’ Stretch Run series with an overview of the Southwest Division.

David Yapkowitz

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We’ve hit that point in the NBA season approaching the final stretch of games before the playoffs roll around in April. The trade deadline has come and gone, the buyout market is wearing thin and most teams have loaded up and made their final roster moves in anticipation of the postseason.

Here at Basketball Insiders, we’re taking a look at each team — division by division– at what they need to do to get ready for the playoffs, or lack thereof. Looking at the Southwest Division, this was a division that used to be one of the toughest in the league.

It still is for the most part. The Texas triangle of the Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs was no joke and hell for opposing teams on a road trip. Those are still a couple of formidable teams, but with the exception of the Rockets, it’s not quite near the level of yesteryear.

The Memphis Grizzlies and New Orleans Pelicans are a pair of young, up-and-coming teams that will give you 100 percent every night. While Memphis sits firmly in the eighth spot in the Western Conference, the Pelicans are on the outside looking in. Here’s a look at how each team might fare in the stretch run.

The Houston Rockets have been the best team in the Southwest all season long, and all that remains for them is playoff positioning. They currently sit in fourth place in the West, giving them home-court advantage in the first round, but they could just as easily slip a bit with the Utah Jazz essentially tied with them record-wise in the standings and the Oklahoma City Thunder a mere two games back.

The Dallas Mavericks have taken a huge leap this season behind Luka Doncic, who is rapidly becoming one of the best players in the league. They currently sit in seventh place in the West and a return to the postseason is in the cards for the Mavericks.

The rest of the teams in the Southwest is where things get a little interesting. The Grizzlies have been one of the surprises of the season, as they’ve defied expectations and are firmly entrenched in the playoff race out West. They have a three-game lead on the Portland Trail Blazers and a four-game lead on the San Antonio Spurs.

Out of the Grizzlies’ final 26 games, 15 of them come against teams over .500, more than either the Blazers or the Spurs. 14 of those final 26 are also on the road, again, more than the Blazers or the Spurs. They also play both the Spurs and Blazers one more time this season. If the Grizzlies end up making the playoffs, it will be very well earned.

The Spurs are knocking on the door, and they have one more game against the Grizzlies which could prove to be very meaningful. This is a team that has been one of the standard-bearers in the league for success over the past decade. Their streak of playoff appearances is in serious jeopardy.

They’ve won two of their last three games, however, and out of their final 26 games, 15 of those are at home, where they are 14-12. Based on how the Grizzlies are playing though, a close to .500 record at home probably isn’t going to cut it. They’re going to need to pick it up a bit over the next month if they want to keep their playoff streak intact. A lot can happen between now and then, and the Grizzlies do have a tough remaining schedule, but it looks as if San Antonio will miss the playoffs for the first time in 22 years.

The final team in the Southwest is the Pelicans, boosted by the return of prized rookie and No.1 draft pick Zion Williamson. Prior to the start of the season, the Pelicans were looked at as a team that could possibly contend for the eighth seed in the West. Then Williamson got hurt and things changed.

But the team managed to stay afloat in his absence, and as it stands, they’re only three-and-a-half games back of the Grizzlies with 26 games left to play. Out of the bottom three teams in the division, it’s the Pelicans who have the easiest schedule.

Out of those 25 games, only seven of them come against teams over .500. They are, however, just about split with home and away games. New Orleans is 8-2 over their past 10 games, better than the Grizzlies and Spurs. If Memphis falters down the stretch due to its tough schedule, and the Pelicans start gaining a little bit of steam, things could get interesting in the final few weeks.

In all likelihood, the Pelicans probably won’t make the playoffs as not only do they have to catch up to the Grizzlies, but the Spurs and Blazers as well. But it certainly will be fun to watch them try.

There are some big storylines in the Southwest Division worth following as we begin the final run to the postseason. Can the young Grizzlies defy expectations and make a surprise return to the playoffs? Will the Spurs get their playoff streak snapped and finally look to hit the reset button after nearly two decades of excellence? Can the Pelicans, buoyed by Williamson’s return, make a strong final push?

Tune in to what should be fun final stretch in the Southwest.

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NBA

NBA Daily: The Stretch Run — Southeast Division

With the All-Star Break behind us, the final stretch of NBA games has commenced. Quinn Davis takes a look at a few teams in the Southeast Division that have a chance at making the dance.

Quinn Davis

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Well, that was fast.

With the NBA All-Star break in the rearview, there are now fewer than 30 games to play for all 30 NBA teams. In other words, time is running out for certain teams to improve their seeding in the conference.

Here at Basketball Insiders, we will be looking at a certain subset of teams that are right on the border of making or missing the playoffs. In this edition, the focus will be on the Southeast Division.

The Southeast features three teams — the Charlotte Hornets, Orlando Magic and Washington Wizards — operating in the lower-middle-class of the NBA. These three will be slugging it out over the next month-and-a-half for the right to meet the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round of the playoffs.

The two remaining teams are the Miami HEAT and Atlanta Hawks. As this is being written, the former is comfortably in the playoffs at 35-20, while the latter is comfortably gathering more ping pong balls at 16-41.

In this space, the focus will be on the three bubble teams. The Magic are currently frontrunners for the eighth seed, but the Wizards and Hornets are within striking distance if things were to go awry.

Led by head coach Steve Clifford, the Magic have ground their way to the eighth seed behind an eighth-ranked defense. Lanky wing Aaron Gordon is the standout, helping the Magic execute their scheme of walling off the paint. The Magic only allow 31.3 percent of opponent shots to come at the rim, putting them in 89th percentile in the league, per Cleaning The Glass.

Following a post-break loss to Dallas Mavericks, the Magic sit at 24-32 and three games up on the ninth-seeded Wizards. While a three-game margin doesn’t sound like much, that is a sizable cushion with only 26 games to play. Basketball-Reference gives the Magic a 97.4 percent chance to make the playoffs.

The Magic have the third-easiest remaining schedule out of Eastern Conference teams. They have very winnable games coming against the Bulls, Hornets, Cavaliers, Knicks and Pistons. They also have multiple games coming against the Brooklyn Nets, the team they trail by only 1.5 games for the seventh seed.

The Magic are prone, however, to dropping games against the league’s bottom-feeders. It can be difficult to string together wins with an offense this sluggish. The Markelle Fultz experiment has added some spark in that department, but his lack of an outside shot still leaves the floor cramped.

After a quick analysis of the schedule, the most likely scenario appears to be a 12-14 record over the last 26 games, putting the Magic at 36-46 come season’s end. A record like that should not be allowed anywhere near playoff basketball, but it would probably be enough to meet the Bucks in round one.

If the Magic go 12-14, that would leave the Wizards, fresh off a loss to J.B. Bickerstaff and the Cleveland Cavaliers, needing to go 17-11 over their last 28 games. They will need to finish one game ahead as the Magic hold the head-to-head tiebreaker.

The Wizards finishing that strong becomes even more farfetched when you consider their remaining schedule. They have the second-toughest slate from here on out, per Basketball-Reference.

The Wizards do have a trump card in Bradley Beal, who is the best player among the bubble teams in the East. He has now scored 25 points or more in 13 straight games and has been the driving force behind the Wizards staying in the race.

He has also picked up his defense a bit following his All-Star snub in an effort to silence his critics. The increased focus on that end is nice, but it would’ve been a little nicer if it had been a part of his game earlier in this season when the Wizards were by far the worst defense in the league.

Even if Beal goes bonkers, it is hard to see a path for this Wizards team to sneak in outside of a monumental collapse in Orlando. Looking at their schedule, it would take some big upsets to even get to 10 wins over their last 28. Their most likely record to finish the season is 8-20 if all games go to the likely favorites.

The Wizards’ offense has been impressive all season, but injuries and a porous defense have been too much to overcome.

The Hornets, meanwhile, trail the Wizards by 1.5 games and the Magic by 4.5 games. They have won their last three in a row to put themselves back in this race, but they still have an uphill climb.

The Hornets also may have raised the proverbial white flag by waiving two veterans in Marvin Williams and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The goal coming into this season was never to make the playoffs, so they are likely more interested in developing young talent over these last 27 games.

If the Magic do play up to their usual levels and go 12-14, it would require the Hornets to go 18-9 to finish the season against the sixth-toughest remaining schedule in the East.

Devonte’ Graham and his three-point shooting have been a bright spot for the Hornets, but it would take some otherworldly performances from him and Terry Rozier down the stretch to put together a record like that. Basketball-Reference gives this a 0.02 percent chance of happening (cue the Jim Carrey GIF).

Barring a miracle, the eight playoff teams in the Eastern Conference are locked in place. The only questions remaining are how seeds 2-6 will play out, and whether the Magic can catch the Nets for the seventh spot.

The Wizards will fight to the end, but it is unlikely they make up any ground given the level of opponents they will see over the next six weeks. The Hornets, meanwhile, are more likely to fight for lottery odds.

At least the playoffs should be exciting.

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