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Six Things to Know: NBA Central Division

A look at six of the most important things to know in the Central Division, including the Bulls’ improved depth up front.

John Zitzler

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This week Basketball Insiders takes a look at six aspects of each division that may be flying under the radar. We kicked our series off with the Southeast Division, now we take a closer look at the Central Division.

The biggest news in the Central Division was of course made by the Cleveland Cavaliers. The return of LeBron James and the acquisition of Kevin Love makes them immediate title contenders. Other major headlines include three coaching changes: Jason Kidd in Milwaukee, David Blatt in Cleveland and Stan Van Gundy in Detroit. The Pacers also lost their star, Paul George, after he suffered a broken leg this summer while playing in a scrimmage for Team USA. While these events may have drawn the most attention, there are number of other items throughout that division that are worth mentioning. Here are six other things to key an eye on in the Central Division in 2014-15.

 1. The Bucks will experiment with Giannis Antetokounmpo at point guard

Over the course of the 2013-14 season Bucks fans had little reason to be excited. Everything that could go wrong for the team seemingly did and they struggled all year long, finishing with the worst record in the NBA. However, despite the team’s lack of success there was one reason for optimism, and that was the performance of first round pick Giannis Antetokounmpo. Antetokounmpo dazzled fans almost nightly with his unbelievable playmaking ability. For a player of his size, his ability, not only to handle the ball, but to pass it as well makes him a truly unique talent.

New Bucks Coach Jason Kidd seems to be very intrigued by the unique gifts Antetokounmpo  possesses and is ready to utilize his variety of skills to the fullest. This means Antetokounmpo, who spent the majority of his minutes last season playing as a wing off the ball, will get the chance to be the Bucks primary ball handler at times this season. Antetokounmpo spoke with Basketball Insiders just a few a weeks ago about the possibility of playing point guard.

“It’s something that I feel comfortable with and I’ll play wherever Coach wants me to play, especially when it’s Coach Kidd who thinks that I can play point guard,” Antetokounmpo said. “That makes me feel like, ‘I can play it. I can play point guard.’ I’m going to try my best and just listen to Coach. I’ll do whatever Coach says to do and I’ll get more comfortable.”

It was reported Monday night that Antetokounmpo will get his first chance to start at point guard in Tuesday’s preseason game against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Antetokounmpo will reportedly get the start alongside Khris Middleton, Jabari Parker, Ersan Ilyasova, and Zaza Pachulia. It should be noted that Jason Kidd has experimented with a number of different starting lineups this preseason and that this certainly doesn’t mean he’ll be the starting point guard when the regular season rolls around, but nonetheless it will be an interesting first look.

2. The Bulls have a very deep frontcourt

The two most recognizable names in the team’s stable of big men will be the starters: Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah. Both players are very accomplished. Gasol is a four-time All-Star and two-time NBA championships with the Lakers; he is one the better post players in the game today. Noah has been named an All-Star twice and is coming of a season where he was awarded the Defensive Player of the Year. The two will combine to form one of the most talented starting frontcourts in the league this season.

While Noah and Gasol will likely get the majority of the minutes, the Bulls have a number of impressive big men they can bring off the bench. The most important player in that group will be Taj Gibson. Gibson has developed into a terrific defender and is more than capable of putting up double digit points on any given night. He has the talent to be starter, but for now will be utilized as one of the premier bench bigs in the league.

The Bulls will also have Nikola Mirotic on their roster this season. Mirotic joins the team after a dominate stint with Real Madrid of the Liga ACB. During his time with Real Madrid he was named twice named to the All-ACB team, was chosen to the All-Euroleague two times and was named the Spanish league MVP in 2013. He is a very good shooter from the outside, shooting just over 40 percent in his last five years with Real Madrid. Mirotic is a much different player than Gibson and the two should complement each other nicely.

The Bulls also have Nazr Mohammed fighting for one of the final roster spots. Mohammed isn’t going to wow you with incredible athleticism or an array of offensive moves but he will offer a steady defensive presence when he is on the court. He likely won’t see many minutes considering the players in front of him, but if he is called upon he will be ready.

3. Stan Van Gundy is stressing conditioning with the Pistons

Stan Van Gundy has a massive undertaking ahead of him to turn the Pistons into a contender. The team significantly unperformed last season and was one of the bigger disappointments in the league. However, he isn’t taking over a team where the cupboard is bare. The Pistons have some talented players. Andre Drummond has the chance to be a truly dominant center with his combination of athleticism and size. Josh Smith has proven throughout his career that he can be an elite defensive player. Greg Monroe is back and the team added Jodie Meeks, Caron Butler and D.J. Augustin, all players who can improve the team this season.

Since taking over, one thing Van Gundy has really focused on has been the team’s conditioning. He has made point during training camp to work his guys into the best shape possible with the season right around the corner. Drummond recently spoke with Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free Press on the topic.

“There’s one thing I can tell; we’ll probably be the best conditioned team in the NBA,” Drummond said with a chuckle. “I can tell you that right now.”

It’s clear Van Gundy is already making his mark on his new team. While they may not be a contender this year it won’t be due to fatigue. Van Gundy appears to already be making strides in getting the Pistons back on the right track.

4. Rodney Stuckey and CJ Miles will both be important pieces for the Pacers

After Paul George suffered a horrific leg injury while playing for team USA, which will likely sideline him for the season, it left the Pacers with a huge hole to fill. Both CJ Miles and Rodney Stuckey were acquired this offseason to help George and the Pacers make another deep playoff run. Their roles quickly changed following the devastating injury to George.

We know for certain that George Hill, David West and Roy Hibbert will be in the team’s starting lineup. Those players have all been steady contributors on very good Pacers teams the last couple of years. If the Pacers have hopes of salvaging their season without George they will need Miles and Stuckey to step up and take on bigger roles than expected. Both may now have the chance to start. Stuckey has been working in the backcourt along with George Hill in practice recently. Frank Vogel spoke with Candace Buckner of the IndyStar about what he has seen from Stuckey.

“Stuckey’s a big, punishing type of guy,” Vogel said. “The two of them played a lot together today and looked really comfortable together. I was pretty excited about what it looked like. Just mixing up, who’s bringing the ball up, who’s playing off screens…and having a two-guard attack, that’s one of the things I’ve been excited about early on in camp.”

Miles is intrigued by the potential of an increased role.

“When I have played and what I have done, it’s been with the first group,” Miles said. “So, we’ll see. The next couple of days, that’s when they’ll let me do more and more. Hopefully, it’ll stay that way.”

All signs so far point to Stuckey and Miles getting the chance to start and play extended minutes. The Pacers will count on consistent production from both to help ease the loss of the team’s star. If the group can mesh together they have the chance to still be a fringe playoff type of team.

5. David Blatt may have the Cavs play some zone defense

With all the talent on the Cavs roster they should have no problem scoring the ball. LeBron James alone will make things much easier for all his teammates. Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving have proven that they can fill it up without the help of James as well, so expect buckets to come even easier for them this season. The biggest concern with this new and improved group of Cavaliers will be on the defensive end.

First year head coach David Blatt isn’t afraid to try something a little different on that end if it means slowing down the opposition. Zone defense is generally frowned upon  in most NBA circles, some viewing it as the lazy way out. However, Blatt who comes to Cleveland after coaching in Europe, has seen how effective a good zone defense can be if used properly. Blatt spoke with Jason Lloyd of the Beacon Journal about the idea of playing some zone defense this season.

“I like any defense that helps you gain an advantage or helps you change the way the other guy plays,” Blatt said.

It may not be a staple of the Cavs’ defense, but be on the lookout this year for Blatt and the Cavs to surprise some teams with a zone defense if they aren’t getting it done in man-to-man.

6. The Central Division has the chance to be the strongest in the East

It all starts up top with the loaded Cavaliers and a Bulls teams that has become a perennial contender over the last five years. Both those squads will battle all-season long for Eastern Conference Supremacy. The two are locks to make the playoffs and are the favorites to meet in the Eastern Conference Finals. Although the Bulls and the Cavs are the most highly regarded teams in the division the rest of the division shouldn’t be overlooked.

Expectations for the Pacers have fallen off significantly following the injury to George. However, don’t expect coach Vogel and company to just roll over and consider the season lost. They have spent too many years establishing a winning culture to regress back to a below-average team. It goes without saying that they won’t be the same type of threat they have been in recent years, but if Stuckey and Miles can provide consistent production the team will be OK. In Detroit Stan Van Gundy will be eager establish that same type of winning culture and has some very talented players to work with. The team figures to be much more disciplined this season and with the addition of some perimeter shooters should become a more balanced offensive unit. They have the chance to make some noise and don’t be shocked if they sneak into the playoffs. The Bucks are still in rebuilding mode, but have a lot talented young players. Jason Kidd will has a good amount of work ahead of him, but has a group hungry to improve and capable of pulling off an upset on any given night.

Make sure to follow our Six Things to Know series throughout the week to stay updated on what’s happening in each division.

This is John's second year with Basketball Insiders, after spending last season working as an intern. Based out of Milwaukee, he covers the NBA with a focus on the Milwaukee Bucks and the Central Division.

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NBA Daily: Danuel House Optimistic About Future

David Yapkowitz speaks to Danuel House about life as a two-way player for the Houston Rockets & what he hopes comes out of his time in the G League with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.

David Yapkowitz

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Opportunity is everything in the NBA. Last season’s implementation of two-way contracts gave a lot more players potential opportunities in the league that may not have been previously available.

One player who has used two-way contracts to showcase himself and really prove that he belongs in the NBA is Danuel House Jr.

House actually began his career two years ago as an undrafted rookie with the Washington Wizards. However, he suffered a wrist injury only about a month into the 2016-17 season.

He was subsequently cut by the Wizards and used the summer to heal up before joining the Houston Rockets for training camp prior to the start of last season. He ended up being one of the final cuts in camp, and he joined the Rockets’ G League affiliate, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.

His strong play earned him a two-way contract with the Phoenix Suns after only two months of G League play. This year, he rejoined the Vipers, only to earn another two-way contract with the Rockets. Having had some experience now with a two-way, it’s something that House sees as being beneficial.

“It’s got its good perks and its bad perks. But then the NBA is just trying to open more doors for more guys to be seen and have an opportunity,” House told Basketball Insiders. “I think it’s a good idea, it’s gonna work the kinks out so it can be more beneficial to the players. It’s still new and it’s still trending and working itself through the NBA.”

This season has been a bit of a whirlwind for House. He initially joined the Golden State Warriors for training camp, only to have them cut him before the start of the season. After spending about a month with the Vipers, the Rockets called him up, only to cut him and then eventually re-sign him to a two-way deal.

Due to injuries in the Rockets lineup, House saw meaningful minutes right away, even being placed in Houston’s starting lineup. He had some solid performances down the stretch of last season with the Suns, but this season he really looked the part of a legitimate NBA rotation player.

When a player signs a two-way deal, they are allotted a maximum of 45 days of NBA service, meaning that the rest of the time they must remain in the G League. If a player exceeds the 45-day limit, they must be sent back down to the G League unless they’re able to reach an agreement on a standard contract with the NBA team.

Because of the Rockets’ necessity of House in the rotation, he used up his NBA days last month. He and the Rockets were unable to agree on a contract, so he returned to the G League with the Vipers. While there haven’t been many updates as of late, he’s still hopeful that something can work out with the Rockets.

“Hopefully I can go back to Houston and compete for a title. There’s nothing like learning from James [Harden] and Chris Paul, Gerald Green, Eric Gordon and those guys,” House told Basketball Insiders. “And now with the additions of [Iman] Shumpert and Kenneth Faried, I’m just excited to hopefully get something done so I can be out there and competing with those guys.”

Initially, House wasn’t playing with the Vipers upon returning to the team. But he made his return to the court a few weeks ago on Feb 8. In that game, House shook off some initial rust and ended up having a solid performance including hitting the game-winning free-throws.

In the past, the G League was often times seen as a punishment for NBA players. The league didn’t have that great of a reputation, but over the past few years that image has started to change. The competition has gotten a lot stronger, and according to House, there are plenty of guys who are that close to making it to the NBA.

“The competition here is real. There’s a lot of dudes out here that got a lot of talent that they can showcase. They just want their one opportunity, their one chance that I was so fortunate and blessed with,” House told Basketball Insiders. “I know not to come out here and take it for granted, that’s why I’m playing hard and of course still trying to be a student of the game and learn.”

Recently, during a media availability session, Rockets star and perennial MVP candidate James Harden expressed hope that the Rockets and House could work something out. Harden told reporters that they all know how good House is and what he brings to the team.

In 25 games for the Rockets this season – including 12 starts – House put up nine points per game while shooting 45.8 percent from the field and 39 percent from the three-point line. He’s in the mold of a three-and-D type player, but he also moves well without the ball on cuts to the rim and can attack the basket as well.

“My role was to play defense and make the right read,” House told Basketball Insiders. “Shoot when I’m open, drive, attack the rack, and run the floor. Of course, defend and rebound and make good reads. It was easy.”

As it stands, the Rockets have 12 players on their roster, and a pair of two-way deals for House and Vincent Edwards. House is not eligible to rejoin the Rockets until the G League season concludes. Even then, he won’t be eligible to play in the playoffs as per two-way deal restrictions.

The Rockets will need to add at least two players to get up to the league-mandated 14 players on the roster. House would appear to be a good candidate for one of those spots, but that remains to be seen. But regardless of whether or not it works out in Houston, House is confident that he’s done enough to prove he belongs in the NBA.

“It gave me the utmost confidence, but my hard work, my passion, and my faith in the man upstairs gave me the ability. I asked him to guide me through the journey and he’s been taking care of me,” House told Basketball Insiders. “I’m so grateful that the opportunities and I used my ability to perform and do something I love to take care of my family.”

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PODCAST: Checking In On Clippers & Lakers, East Arms Race, Warriors’ Challengers

Basketball Insiders Deputy Editor Jesse Blancarte and Writer James Blancarte evaluate the L.A. teams after the trade deadline, break down the Eastern Conference contenders, and look for the Warriors’ biggest challengers.

Basketball Insiders

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Basketball Insiders Deputy Editor Jesse Blancarte and Writer James Blancarte evaluate the L.A. teams after the trade deadline, break down the Eastern Conference contenders, and look for the Warriors’ biggest challengers.

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NBA Daily: Ujiri Leading Golden Era of Raptors Basketball

Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri has taken big risks in going all in for the 2019 season and – with a potentially shortened window – it’s the right move, writes Lang Greene.

Lang Greene

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The Toronto Raptors (43-16) are on pace for their fourth consecutive 50-plus win season and barring a collapse of epic proportions will shortly secure their sixth straight trip to the playoffs.

Make no mistake, this is the golden era of Raptors basketball. Period.

The easiest thing in the world to do is play a situation safe. Minimize risk and accept the near certain outcome. Heading into the season, as previously constructed, the Raptors were already on a trajectory to reach 50 wins and secure a playoff berth. However, Raptors president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri made the risky decision to turn off cruise control and go all in on a championship this season.

The reason was simple – five straight trips to the Eastern Conference playoffs netted only one trip past the second round and some seriously embarrassing postseason eliminations. So sure, the franchise could have stayed the course with the previous roster framework, but realistic title aspirations were a stretch at best.

To begin the roster reconstruction, the Raptors traded All-Star guard DeMar DeRozan, big man Jakob Poeltl and a protected 2019 first round pick to the San Antonio Spurs in exchange for 2014 NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and veteran guard Danny Green.

Green and Leonard immediately provided Toronto with championship heart and grit, something lacking from the team in year’s past. The trade was a huge risk for Ujiri with free agency looming this summer for Leonard (and Green) and having to say goodbye to DeRozan, a homegrown talent and the franchise’s all-time leading scorer.

Toronto rolled early this season and have remained near the top of the Eastern Conference standings, but Ujiri doubled down at the trade deadline by acquiring former Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol in exchange for Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright, C.J. Miles and a 2024 second-round draft pick.

In just over six months, Ujiri was able to acquire two former Defensive Player of the Year award winners while gutting his roster of familiar faces fans came to know during the team’s recent run to prominence.

The Raptors currently sit one game out of the top spot in the Eastern Conference. The moves are driving results and most believe the Raptors are legitimate title contenders. But the risk for the franchise is most definitely real. Gasol, Leonard and Green are all expected to hit the unrestricted free agency market this summer which could leave the franchise facing a real possibility of losing all for nothing in return.

The prospect of losing Leonard and Gasol would undoubtedly take Toronto from the top of the East to a club scrapping to even make a playoff run in 2020. Ujiri went all in for a title this season. Leonard’s future is uncertain and so is Gasol’s. But the prospect of truly competing for a title was too tantalizing to pass up after years of setbacks around playoff time.

Inevitably all teams must go through a time of rebuilding or reloading. Despite Toronto’s previous success, their window was limited in nature and closing rapidly, so you have to admire Ujiri’s daring to be great mindset.

For reference, the Atlanta Hawks reached the postseason 10 consecutive times from 2008-2017 but the franchise’s front office played it relatively safe during their run devoid of any major moves. The Hawks watched All-Star performers Al Horford and Paul Millsap ultimately leave for nothing in return. Atlanta’s rebuild is in good shape with guard Trae Young, big man John Collins and an additional lottery pick this season.

However, the team never swung for the fences during their run – something Ujiri wouldn’t let happen – despite the huge risks needed to be potentially a champ.

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