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Ranking the NBA’s Central Division

Can anybody in the Central give the Cavaliers a run for their money? Spencer Davies predicts how the division will shake out.

Spencer Davies

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This week at Basketball Insiders, our writers have been taking a glance at each division and predicting where teams will rank. We’ve covered three so far, so check those out if you haven’t gotten the chance to yet.

Southeast

Atlantic

Pacific

With two superstars departing their respective teams, the Central Division underwent some major changes. Who can take advantage of their situation the best and make an impact to try and bump the back-to-back-to-back defending champions? Let’s predict how the final standings will turn out.

Cleveland Cavaliers (51-31)

It’s been a hectic summer for the Eastern Conference Champions. Coming off their second loss in three years to the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals, speculation began swirling around how the team could improve its roster to compete and defeat the clear-cut favorites in the Bay Area.

Things have not exactly turned out well for LeBron James and company, though. In June, the Cavaliers weren’t able to come to terms with general manager David Griffin and still remain without one while assistant Koby Altman handles business in the interim. That, coupled with the organization’s extremely limited cap space and huge luxury tax bill, hasn’t made it easy to bolster the lineup.

Thus far, Cleveland has added veterans Jose Calderon and Jeff Green for depth. They also brought over their 2015 second-round pick Cedi Osman from overseas. Derrick Rose is a new name floating around that could potentially join the team as well, though he has a few suitors to choose from.

Luckily for the Cavaliers, a less than stellar offseason isn’t going to change the fact that they are the top dog in the East until proven otherwise. LeBron James is still LeBron James, Kyrie Irving hasn’t even come close to approaching his lofty ceiling and Kevin Love has found his niche under Tyronn Lue. The future might not look the greatest with a lack of youth and rumors of James’ inevitable depature, but at least for now, Cleveland is in fine shape to get back to the promised land for another shot at a title.

Projected wins: 56-61

Milwaukee Bucks (42-40)

Giannis Antetokounmpo took a step from good to great last season. As the star of the organization, the “Greek Freak” led the Bucks to the sixth seed in the East after missing the playoffs the year before.

What’s next for the blossoming superstar? Becoming elite. Don’t sleep on Antetokounmpo’s supporting cast, either. Jason Kidd has quite literally the lengthiest group of players in basketball at his disposal. As the Toronto Raptors found out in the first round of the postseason, Milwaukee is a matchup nightmare.

Even more dangerous, they’re still one of the youngest clubs in the league. Malcolm Brogdon shot up through the ranks and won Rookie of the Year as their starting point guard. Thon Maker grew up in front of our eyes when called upon late in the season and delivered in key moments in the playoffs. Before suffering a devastating knee injury for the second time in his career, Jabari Parker was thriving. The only unknown is how he’ll bounce back. Drafting D.J. Wilson gives them even more size and versatility than they already had.

There are plenty of things to work on for the Bucks, though. The primary focus should be crashing the boards since they ranked second worst in the NBA with just 40.6 rebounds per game. If they can do that, consider them a sleeper as they continue to develop and improve.

Projected wins: 43-48

Detroit Pistons (37-45)

The 2016-17 campaign was a disappointment for Stan Van Gundy’s group. That’s putting it nicely.

Riddled with defensive inconsistency and poor perimeter shooting, the Pistons regressed instead of building on the previous year’s success. Throughout the season, Van Gundy tinkered with the starting lineup and rotations to try and find something that worked, yet never really found anything that stuck. Detroit’s head coach even questioned his players’ effort on multiple occasions. People were frustrated.

The past is the past, however, and this version of the Pistons could be something worth tuning in for. After renouncing the rights to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, general manager Jeff Bower found an immediate replacement and acquired Avery Bradley from the Boston Celtics in exchange for Marcus Morris. The organization took sharpshooter Luke Kennard with the 12th pick in the NBA Draft, too.

Those two players address a vital need. Detroit sat in the gutter as the 28th ranked club in three-point percentage (33) and in today’s league, that won’t cut it. Bringing in Bradley, coming off an efficient offensive year with Boston, and adding a confident gunner in Kennard should produce an immediate improvement.

Signing Langston Galloway to a rather generous contract may be questionable, but he’ll likely be an important contributor in the second unit. Anthony Tolliver’s one-year contract benefits both parties.

In the end, it’s going to come down to Andre Drummond’s production on both ends of the floor. If he can utilize his dominance and pure strength in the paint with Reggie Jackson feeding him in the pick-and-roll, the Pistons will get back on the right track.

Projected wins: 40-45

Indiana Pacers (42-40)

Kevin Pritchard wasn’t entering next season with Paul George rumors surrounding his team as a distraction, so he acted quickly and moved the All-Star forward to cut his losses.

The return he received from the Oklahoma City Thunder was harshly criticized, but it’s difficult to field a great trade for a player who won’t commit to a team long term. So, the Pacers ended up landing Hoosier alum Victor Oladipo and second-year forward Domantas Sabonis.

Players and fans hate to come to grips with it, but this is going to be a rebuild in Indiana. Anytime you lose the face of your franchise, the first go-around without that player typically doesn’t go so well.

It might not have to be an extensive period of time before the Pacers are competing again, though. Myles Turner has already shown flashes of what he can become in this league as a two-way stretch five. It’ll be interesting to see how he reacts to being, “the guy.” He’s got a fellow Texas Longhorn to develop chemistry with now, too, as Pritchard struck a deal with the Raptors for Cory Joseph. He also inked Bojan Bogdanovic to a two-year contract to provide an additional threat from the perimeter.

There will be a lot of challenges for Nate McMillan to cope with, but at least he’s got a core that he can grow with. Unfortunately, it won’t result in a winning season in year one.

Projected wins: 22-27

Chicago Bulls (41-41)

Similar to the team that will be joining them in the basement in the Central Division, the Bulls traded away their franchise player in Jimmy Butler. Drawing more comparisons to the above situation, Gar Forman and Jim Paxson were vilified because what they got back wasn’t nearly enough.

The Minnesota Timberwolves gave up Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and their seventh overall pick to steal Butler and Chicago’s 16th selection on draft night itself in a blockbuster move that started off the summer with a bang… for Tom Thibodeau.

For the Bulls, it’s the start of a lengthy project to start anew. It’s going to revolve around Lauri Markkanen, who will be in the spotlight as the likely centerpiece of the deal while LaVine heals up from a torn Achilles suffered midseason last year. Dunn’s first year as a pro was underwhelming, but he was in a tussle with Ricky Rubio and even Tyus Jones for consistent playing time. He’ll get the opportunity to right the ship under Fred Hoiberg.

Veterans like Dwyane Wade and Robin Lopez may start the season off with Chicago, but they’re likely not going to want to wait around to compete and could be the next to go.

The positive of the situation long-term is that the younger players will have plenty of chances to gain experience. Outside of those mentioned, guys like Denzel Valentine, Paul Zipser, Cristiano Felicio and Bobby Portis are probably slated for expanded roles. The Bulls added Justin Holiday in free agency, and David Nwaba could be a key piece moving forward, too.

Hoiberg has his work cut out for him in the coming seasons, but maybe this is what he needs to be successful. At Iowa State, he groomed and developed his players well and it led to wins and an NBA head coaching job. “The Mayor” better be patient though, because it’s going to be a while before Chicago even sniffs a winning season with this inexperienced roster.

Projected wins: 17-22

Spencer Davies is an NBA writer based in Cleveland in his first year with Basketball Insiders. Covering the league and the Cavaliers for the past two seasons, his bylines have appeared on Bleacher Report, FOX Sports and HoopsHype.

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NBA Daily: Spurs Enter New Territory After Moving Parker To Reserve Role

The San Antonio Spurs are seemingly entering a new phase as Tony Parker has been moved to a reserve role.

James Blancarte

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San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg made a significant change to his rotation earlier this week. On Sunday, January 21 Popovich placed guard Dejounte Murray into the starting lineup in place of Tony Parker. The Spurs went on to lose the game at home to the Indiana Pacers. The result was the same as a losing effort in Friday’s matchup against the Toronto Raptors in Toronto.

The San Antonio Spurs came into the 2017-18 hoping to bounce back from last year’s playoffs where the team suffered injuries to Kawhi Leonard and Parker and eventually lost to the Golden State Warriors. This season started off with the Spurs surviving without Leonard and Parker as the two continued to rehab from lingering injuries. As of now, Leonard is once again taking time off to rehabilitate after playing in nine games while Parker has been able to stay healthy so far. Unfortunately, being healthy enough to play doesn’t make up for the inevitable decline that comes with age and injuries.

On the season, Parker is averaging a career low in minutes (21.6), assists (4.0) and points (8.2), as well as free throws made and attempted per game. His usage rate, player efficiency rating (PER) and shooting percentages are also all at or around career lows. It’s hard to argue against the notion that Parker, at 35 years old with 17 years of pro basketball under his belt, is in the twilight of his impressive career.

Parker has acknowledged his demotion but seems to be handling it like a true professional.

“[Popovich] told me he thought it was time, and I was like, ‘no problem.’ Just like Manu [Ginobili], just like Pau [Gasol], you know that day is going to come,” Parker said recently. .

Before Sunday’s game, Parker had started 1151 of 1164 games played, all with the Spurs of course.

Popovich was asked specifically if the plan was either to start Murray at point guard moving forward or if this switch in the lineup was a part of some kind of injury management program for Parker. Never known for being overly loquacious, Popovich responded with little detail or insight.

“We’ll see,” Popovich stated.

In the starting lineup, Murray logged eight points, four assists, seven rebounds, three steals and one block in nearly 28 minutes of action. Murray had previously started before Parker returned from injury earlier this season but eventually relinquished that spot to career reserve guard Patty Mills.

Parker also spoke of the benefit of coming off the bench and potentially mentoring Murray’s growth in his new presumed role as the starter.

“If Pop [Coach Popovich] sees something that is good for the team, I will try to do my best,” Parker said. “I will support Pop’s decision and I will try to help DJ [Murray] as best as I can and try to be the best I can in the second unit with Manu [Ginobili] and Patty [Mills].”

If nothing else, this move will allow the Spurs to see if Parker can be more effective in limited minutes against opposing bench units. Additionally, Parker will hopefully benefit from playing alongside his longtime running mate, Ginobli.

Parker’s willingness to mentor Murray may come as a relief to Spurs fans watching the ongoing dismantling of San Antonio’s former Big-3, which began with the retirement of future Hall-of-Famer, Tim Duncan. At 6-foot-5, Murray benefits from greater size and athleticism than Parker, although Murray failed to keep the starting job when given an opportunity earlier this season. Coach Popovich gave another straightforward answer when asked which areas he thinks Murray can improve in.

“He’s 21-years-old,” Popovich declared. “He can improve in all areas.”

After asking for a trade in the offseason, the Spurs have benefited from focusing their offense around LaMarcus Aldridge, who is having a bounce-back campaign. However, Leonard is now out indefinitely and the Minnesota Timberwolves have now caught the Spurs in the standings. The pressure is on for this resilient Spurs team, which has again managed to beat the odds despite an injured and aging roster.

Parker became a starter for the Spurs at age 19 and never looked back. Now all eyes are on Murray to see how well he performs in his second stint with the starters at a crucial point in the season.

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Sources: Milwaukee Bucks Fire Coach Jason Kidd

Basketball Insiders

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The Milwaukee Bucks have fired coach Jason Kidd, sources ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.

Source: Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN

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Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 1/22/17

Spencer Davies checks into the DPOY race with his latest list of candidates.

Spencer Davies

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It’s a new year and Basketball Insiders is continuing its Defensive Player of the Year watch with sample sizes widening and new players emerging in the conversation.

There were a couple of names knocked out of the list, but that gives more of a spotlight to those who have really stepped up since our last edition ran on December 29. Without further ado, let’s get into it.

 6. Hassan Whiteside

After missing nearly a month of action with a knee injury, Whiteside has returned with a vengeance. The Miami HEAT were already a good defensive team before he came back, but he’s really bolstered that reputation even further. Since Dec. 26, the 7-foot center has recorded eight multi-block games. In five of those, he had at least four swats, including a six-rejection performance in a win at Milwaukee. Overall in ESPN’s Defensive Real-Plus Minus, Whiteside owns by far the best rating at 4.73. “Agent Block” is back and daring all comers to try him.

5. Anthony Davis

Slowly but surely, the New Orleans Pelicans are creeping away from the bottom of the league in defensive rating. Once ranked in the bottom five a few weeks ago, they’ve shot up to 18th in the league (108.4) rather quickly. While that’s not the most impressive statistic to provide, the obvious reason for their improved standing on that end of the floor is Davis. He’s been an absolute workhorse for Alvin Gentry in the restricted area as an elite rim protector, with a heavy responsibility and a ton of minutes. Without him on the floor, the Pels are allowing 8.9 more points per 100 possessions, which puts Davis in the 96th percentile according to Cleaning The Glass.

4. Josh Richardson

Notice there are two members of the HEAT on this list. It’s because they are on fire right now, no pun intended, so it’s about time they received some love in the conversation for DPOY. Whiteside was addressed first, but if we’re talking about a greater sample size with consistent evidence, Richardson fits the bill. Opponents are attempting over 11 shots per game against him, yet are only making 38.9 percent of those tries. That’s the lowest conversion rate in the league with a minimum of 10 attempts.

Battling injuries a season ago, Richardson has played in all 46 games for Miami this year. While it’s been a team effort, he is the heart and soul of Erik Spoelstra’s defense, taking on the most difficult assignments each game. For that reason, he deserves long overdue recognition on this list.

3. Kevin Durant

This isn’t a case where Durant is slipping because of his performances. He’s only ranked third this time around because of the job others have done outside of him. The Golden State Warriors are still a juggernaut on both sides of the court. He’s still a top-notch individual defender. The numbers don’t suggest otherwise and the eye test certainly confirms it.

In isolation situations, Durant is allowing only 0.53 points per possession, which is second in the NBA to only Tony Snell. When it comes to crunch time, he’s always locking up. In fourth quarters, he is limiting the competition to shooting less than 30 percent—and his defended field goal percentage and field goal percentage discrepancy is the best in the league at -17.2. He’s got as good of a chance as anybody to take home DPOY.

2. Joel Embiid

Everybody loves to focus on the off-court antics and hilarities that come with Embiid, but the man deserves his due when it comes to his reputation in the NBA as a truly dominant big. The Philadelphia 76ers have won seven out of their last eight games and it has started on the defensive end of the floor.

Take the games against Boston, for example. Al Horford is a crucial part of the Celtics offense and has had problems getting going against the 23-year-old. In the 22 minutes per game, he’s been on the floor along with him, Horford has been held to below 30 percent from the field on an average of nine attempts. With Embiid off, he’s converted nearly 73 percent of his tries.

Another matchup you can examine is with Andre Drummond. The two have had their fair share of words with each other, but Embiid’s had the edge one-on-one. Similar to Horford, the Detroit Pistons big man has had a rough time against him. Embiid has limited Drummond to under 38 percent on five attempts per game in an average of over 23 minutes on the floor together. When he’s not playing, Drummond has had close to a 78 percent success rate.

Regarding centers, Embiid ranks second in ESPN’s DRPM and fifth in Basketball Reference’s Defensive Box Plus-Minus. Citing Cleaning The Glass, the Sixers are allowing 10 more points per 100 possessions when he’s sitting, which slots Embiid into the 97th percentile.

He’s altering shots. He’s blocking shots. He’s forcing kick outs. And that’s a big reason why the NBA gave Embiid its Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors. Trust The Process.

1. Paul George

Basketball Insiders was well represented this past Saturday in Cleveland when the Oklahoma City Thunder decimated the Cavaliers in their own building. The focus was on the “OK3” exposing a terrible defense, but the real story in this game was how in-tune and sound George was on both ends of the court. He was sizzling shooting the basketball, but perhaps more defining was shutting down LeBron James on a day that was supposed to belong to him.

Any time 23 got the ball to try and get the Cavs going, George was there. He suffocated him with pressure, forcing James into bad decisions and contested shots. The talk of the day was the 30,000-point mark, but PG-13 had other ideas.

“I was hopeful that it took two games for him to get to that,” George said after the 148-124 win at Quicken Loans Arena. “I actually didn’t know that stat until right before coming into [Saturday]. They told me he needed 25 to go to 30,000. I’ve been a part of a lot of those baskets that he’s had, so that’s an achievement or milestone I didn’t want to be a part of.”

Thunder teammate Steven Adams spoke to his prowess on that end of the floor.

“He’s a really good defender man,” Adams said. “It was like a perfect matchup, honestly. He played LeBron really well in terms of our system and what we want him doing. He did an amazing job there.”

Oklahoma City head coach Billy Donovan is a huge fan as well.

“He really I think puts forth good effort,” Donovan said pre-game. “He’s long, smart. He’s disruptive. He’s got good feet. He’s a physical defender. He’s hard to shoot over. Certainly, with he and Andre [Roberson] on the wings, that’s certainly bolstered our defense.”

That was one performance, but it’s obvious how much George brings to the table as one of the toughest guys to score on in this league. He’s got a league-leading 188 deflections and is tied with Eric Bledsoe at the top of the NBA with 2.2 steals per game.

Recently, the Thunder have allowed 91 points at most in three of their last four games. They are also in the top three allowing just 104.7 points per 100 possessions and George has been a huge part of that.

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