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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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Update: Eric Bledsoe Trade Talks

Michael Scotto updates the ongoing Eric Bledsoe trade saga.

Michael Scotto

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The sun has set on the 2017-18 season for Phoenix three games into the year.

The Suns fired head coach Earl Watson and promoted Jay Triano as the team’s interim head coach, as ESPN first reported. The Suns suffered an embarrassing 124-76 loss in the home opener against the Portland Trail Blazers. The final straw came during a 130-88 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on the road to drop the team to 0-3.

Then things went from bad to worse rapidly after a tweet from guard Eric Bledsoe.

General manager Ryan McDonough spoke with Bledsoe. Bledsoe told McDonough he was at a hair salon with a girl and the tweet wasn’t related to the Suns. McDonough didn’t believe that to be true and said the 27-year-old guard “won’t be with us going forward.”

Bledsoe spoke with McDonough and owner Robert Sarver privately several weeks ago. During that conversation the desire for a change was expressed, a league source told Basketball Insiders.

Since then, Phoenix has discussed trades involving Bledsoe around the league, sources told Basketball Insiders. In addition, Tyson Chandler has continued to be shopped by the Suns during that time.

Trade talks have rapidly picked up since Bledsoe’s desire to be traded was made public.

The Suns and Denver Nuggets have discussed a trade of Eric Bledsoe for Emmanuel Mudiay and other pieces, league sources told Basketball Insiders.

Nuggets forward Kenneth Faried has emerged as part of the trade package with Mudiay, league sources told Basketball Insiders.

Denver has shopped Faried for years. The 27-year-old forward is owed $12.9 million this season and $13.7 million next season. Mudiay is owed $3.4 million this season and $4.3 million next season. Mudiay will then become a restricted free agent if given a qualifying offer in the summer of 2019. For more information on Denver’s salary cap situation, click here.

The Suns also spoke to the New York Knicks and asked for No. 8 overall pick Frank Ntilikina and Willy Hernangomez in exchange for Bledsoe. The Knicks are not interested in that package, however.

Kyle O’Quinn is a candidate to be traded. Several teams have called the Knicks expressing interest in O’Quinn. New York wants to retain Hernangomez for the foreseeable future despite a lack of playing time early in the season. It’s also worth noting Hernangomez is a close friend of Kristaps Porzingis. Ntilikina is currently the point guard of the future in New York.

In addition, New York would need to add a salary filler to make the trade work financially. For more information on New York’s salary cap situation, click here.

The Milwaukee Bucks have also expressed interest in trading for Bledsoe, according to the New York Times. The Los Angeles Clippers and Portland Trail Blazers also have interest in Bledsoe, according to Amico Hoops.

Bledsoe is owed $14.5 million this season and $15 million next season before entering unrestricted free agency in the summer of 2018.

Bledsoe has averaged 18.8 points, 6.0 assists, 4.8 rebounds, and 1.6 steals per game with Phoenix. In addition, Bledsoe shot 45 percent from the field, 34 percent from downtown, and 81 percent from the foul line.

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NBA PM: Greek Freak Off to an MVP-Caliber Start

Giannis Antetokounmpo is the Bucks’ MVP and looks primed to be in the actual MVP race this season.

James Blancarte

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The NBA season is officially underway. Although each team has only played a few games so far, it has helped illuminate where many teams and players are in their development. For example, last night’s game in Oklahoma City gave a glimpse into how the Thunder will handle a late-game situation now that the team has three previous number one options. In the final minute, Russell Westbrook scored two of the Thunder’s last three baskets and assisted Carmelo Anthony on the final basket just before Andrew Wiggins hit a game-winning buzzer beater from well beyond the arc.

After three games, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s individual development has been one of the most exciting storylines to follow. A number of positive and far-reaching questions can be asked of Giannis. What is the ceiling for him? Can a player of his considerable talents continue to improve after winning Most Improved Player last season? Remember, Giannis was drafted in 2013 and is still only 22 years old.

When told in August that although he could win most valuable player, he could not also win most improved player as well, he responded with a simple, yet telling response.

“Why not?” Antetokounmpo responded.

While he continued to be lighthearted and moved on to the next topic, it’s fair to ask, “why not?” when it comes to Giannis. Through three regular season games, he is averaging 38.3 points, five assists, 9.7 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game. These averages will likely regress to more sustainable numbers as the season continues. For now, however, his averages are in elite territory. In addition, his ability to impact the game is already getting to the point where LeBron James may be the only other player who can similarly fill up the stat lines while physically terrorizing opponents on both the offensive and defensive end of the court.

When asked who the “biggest freak in the NBA” is, Giannis elaborated that it was James due to his ability to impose himself on the game.

“The things [James] does, the veteran leadership he brings to the team, how big he is, how quick, how strong,” Giannis stated. “And at the end of the day, how smart he is. He can put his team in the right spots, make the right decision.”

In Saturday night’s game against the Portland Trail Blazers, Giannis willed his team to victory. It was Giannis demonstrating how big, strong and smart he was, putting his team on his shoulders and carrying them to an impressive win.
With less than a minute left in a close game, Giannis closed in with a well-timed double team on Damian Lillard and came away with a clean steal. The steal got the Bucks the ball back and Giannis was fouled, which put him on the free throw line. Unfortunately, he came up short on both attempts and the Bucks remained a point behind.

Despite missing the free throws, Giannis came up huge on the very next play. Giannis took on C.J McCollum one-on-one at the top of the key and created yet another steal. He then leaked out to receive the pass for a breakaway dunk that quickly gave the Bucks the lead with 11.4 seconds remaining.

On the next play, when Jusuf Nurkic set a high screen and roll, he received the pass on the roll and headed to the basket. Giannis’ primary responsibility was the shooter in the corner and yet he read the action correctly and was ready and waiting at the rim for Nurkic. Giannis times Nurkic’s shot perfectly and rejected him at the rim, which effectively ended the game in favor of the Bucks.

Giannis’ ability as defensive Swiss Army Knife was instrumental in the Bucks’ close win over Portland. In addition, Giannis has also made further improvements in an area of his that has received a lot of attention over the years. He continues to shoot a below average three-point percentage for his career (27.6) and has had a rocky start to this season as well (16.7). It’s likely that Giannis’ three-point shooting will be a significant limitation in his game for the foreseeable future. However, over his career, Giannis has shown an ability to improve his shooting percentage on two-point shots consistently, especially shots from 0-3 feet and 3-10 feet, per basketball-reference. As Giannis has gotten stronger and more explosive, he has developed a strong desire to attack opponents off the dribble and absorb contact at the rim. Whether he blows by his opponent outright or scores through opponents at the rim, Giannis has developed into an offensive force that few players in the league could hope to slow down.

In addition to his scoring, Giannis continues to display his unique ability to handle the ball in transitions and run the Bucks’ offense in the half court as a point forward. This sort of ability separates Giannis from the other elite wings in the league who don’t have the skill or vision to act as a primary playmaker. Giannis is doing much of what he did last year, but seems more aggressive and physically dominant through the first three games of this season. That sort of improvement of course puts Giannis in the MVP discussion (though it is incredibly early in the season to even start this sort of discussion).

Giannis was recently asked about his ability to win the MVP and wasn’t shy about his desire to win the prestigious award.

“I’m going to be one of the players that hopefully dominates the game. But I’ve got to still make sure that my team wins, that my teammates get better,” Giannis stated. “I’ve set the goal since the last game against Toronto last year, at the playoffs. I want to be the MVP this year.”

What helps solidify Giannis’ ability to be such a strong MVP candidate is also what makes his team less dangerous. The Bucks are woefully dependent on their star and, at least for now, lack the necessary depth to be a true contender in the East.

Through three regular season games, it’s clear that the Bucks will only go as far as Giannis can take them. And that is the key to Giannis’ budding MVP campaign. Let’s take a look at last year’s top five MVP candidates. Last year’s winner, Westbrook, has two new star-caliber players (Paul George and Carmelo Anthony) to share the spotlight, and the ball, with. James Harden is sharing the ball with Chris Paul, who is currently struggling with a knee injury. LeBron James and the Cavaliers are almost exclusively concerned with the postseason. Kawhi Leonard is similarly crucial to the San Antonio Spurs on offense and defense but has lingering health concerns and has yet to play this season. Finally, Isaiah Thomas is coming off a major hip injury and is not projected to play until January.

With so much uncertainty, Giannis has the opportunity to continue to draw attention as not only the most important player on the Bucks but perhaps the most valuable player in the league. Giannis’ early play this season indicates that this is possible. Despite his early-season outburst, Giannis is giving deference to LeBron James — though he admits he hopes to reach James’ level at some point in the future.

“Definitely [James is] the best player in the NBA. For a few years to come,” Giannis stated. “But I think a lot of players are getting better. Even myself. And hopefully one day we can get to that spot from him.”

Perhaps Giannis will take the spot as the best player in the NBA as early as this season. Considering how dominant he has been so far this season, it’s fair to ask “why not?”

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Wright Primed To Take Next Step With Raptors

Third year Utah alum Delon Wright is showing flashes of what he can do in an expanded role for Toronto.

Spencer Davies

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Backup point guards are essential to a team’s success.

They’re the floor generals of the second unit. They create for themselves to score. They collapse defenses in order for the others to get opportunities.

In some cases, these players perform so well that they outgrow the role they provide and force their way into the starting five—on that same team or elsewhere. Just look at past examples: Darren Collison, Eric Bledsoe, Reggie Jackson, Dennis Schroder, etc. The list goes on.

Kyle Lowry was 20 years old when he was drafted late in the first round of the 2006 NBA Draft by the Memphis Grizzlies. He studied the position behind veteran guards Chucky Atkins and Damon “Mighty Mouse” Stoudamire.

But even after showing promise in his rookie season, management decided to take Mike Conley Jr. the very next year. Though the two were about even in playing time, it was clear the Grizzlies favored youth over anything else, so in 2009, Lowry was dealt with the Houston Rockets in a three-way trade at the deadline.

At this point, Lowry had started in only 30 games over two-and-a-half seasons, so the keys to the car weren’t ready for him just yet. Aaron Brooks was a unique talent that Rick Adelman loved to throw out there along with Tracy McGrady and Kevin Martin.

Brooks started all 82 games in the 2009-10 campaign and blossomed into a scoring machine. He was shooting the lights out that year, and because of that, it was tough to sit him. Lowry still took advantage of his playing time, though, with plenty of floor run. He averaged nearly 14 points and seven assists per 36 minutes.

To the misfortune of his teammate and the advantage to Lowry the next season, Brooks struggled mightily with the jump shot that made him so deadly. After 34 games, the Rockets moved him in a deal to Phoenix for Goran Dragic and a first-round pick. Dragic was on his way to carving his niche in the league, but it opened up a door for Lowry to really take hold as “quarterback” of the team.

Circumstances arose once again, however. Houston had let go of Adelman and hired Kevin McHale in June 2011. Lowry and his new head coach did not have the same rapport. He unfortunately suffered from a bacterial infection and missed out on the beginning of the season, and towards the end, the emergence of Dragic led to his demise.

That summer, the Rockets sent Lowry to the Toronto Raptors for Gary Forbes and a future first-rounder. Once again, it was a fresh start for him, but also a brand new team with a different head coach.

It didn’t take long for the man to realize his true potential there. Aside from shuffling a bit with Jose Calderon as the starter in Toronto, Lowry found a home. The jump he made between that season and the next one was impressive.

Lowry got paid after that 2013-14 season and re-signed with the Raptors for four years. He earned three All-Star appearances and—aside from the postseason disappointments—led the team to new heights with his fellow All-Star backcourt partner DeMar DeRozan.

Toronto and its star point guard agreed to a three-year, $100 million deal over the summer to keep him running the show and to honor that contract well as he has always had. But now there’s somebody behind Lowry waiting to break out, and could very well be the one who gets the torch passed to him.

Delon Wright is ready to make his mark. When he entered the league, he was a reserve behind Cory Joseph and had to observe and soak in the experience of NBA life. For some rookies, they get the chance immediately, and for the others, they have to wait their turn. In this case, it was the latter.

Playing the waiting game ended up working out well for him. In the offseason, the Raptors went out and traded Joseph for C.J. Miles due to the loss of DeMarre Carroll. It was a move that not only addressed a need for depth at the wing but also opened a door for Wright.

So here we are, two games in. The Raptors are 2-0 and have outscored their opponents by 51 points. In those combined, Wright has received 55 minutes of playing time.

Despite the competition being the rebuilding Chicago Bulls and a Philadelphia 76ers team trying to find an identity, he looks extremely comfortable. You don’t want to take too much out a sample size as small as that, but neither the numbers nor the eye test lies.

Wright has played the third-most minutes on the team thus far. He’s done a great job on both sides of the floor but has truly made a difference on the defensive end. As of now, the Raptors are only allowing 83 points per 100 possessions with him on the hardwood. When he’s not, that number blows up to 98.9 using the same scale.

Offensively he’s almost been just as good. Wright has been aggressive as a facilitator and as a shooter, putting up 13- and 14-point games early on. He dished out five assists in the season opener and nabbed five rebounds in the second game. He has a higher offensive rating than both Lowry and DeRozan.

According to NBA.com, Toronto’s net rating with him off the court (12.9) is the second lowest to his lifelong teammate Jakob Poeltl (12.8). Take it with a grain of salt because it’s one week into the season, but Wright has the best net rating in the league (37.6) among those playing at least 25 minutes per game.

Call it garbage time play or whatever you want: He has the tools to succeed. The stature is there. The intangibles are evident. It’s all about putting it together over the course of an entire season.

If the trend continues, there’s no way Casey can keep him off the floor for long. We don’t know where Wright’s career could go. It’s way too early to tell. The Raptors are likely hoping for him to be the successor after this era of basketball has come and gone.

Lowry is the man in Toronto, as is DeRozan. Nothing is changing that anytime soon. But rest assured, Wright’s primed to take a big step this year and it’s going to be fun to watch.

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