With a week’s worth of preseason games in the books, it is possible to make a few observations about the teams I have seen a bit of. Obviously given the sample and the preseason, anything here is only of limited utility. But there are some legitimate takeaways so far, especially on player’s health or fitness going into the season.
–The biggest takeaway for the Bulls is that Derrick Rose looks excellent. His defense has been outstanding, and while he is not quite the athletic force he was getting to the rim, that may be more a function of him being 26 instead of 23 when we last really saw him. Granted, Rose had trouble translating his preseason success into the regular season early last year before his injury, but this preseason has provided about as many positive signs as Bulls fans could have hoped for. The only issue so far has been his midrange jumper, which as Grantland’s Kirk Goldsberry noted has declined precipitously. Rose does not appear to be rising on balance very well, as he almost always lands with his body oriented in a different direction.
–Nikola Mirotic has been a mixed bag. He showed *Marv voice* the entire repertoire in the opener against the Wizards, but has struggled offensively since. He has been a little shy taking open spot up threes, looking to drive even when he has plenty of time to get the shot off. That may just be a relic of his play in Europe. There, his driving game was more effective due to a lack of shotblockers, and there is also a little bit more of an unselfish ethos. He should be a very effective offensive player once he adjusts, because he has a very high skill level.
Defensively his team defense has been encouraging. Mirotic has more quickness in rotations than anticipated, and his quick hands and length have provided a solid deterrent in the paint despite the fact he is not a leaper. One-on-one he has struggled a bit more because he does not get into a deep enough stance and does not have a ton of quickness laterally. And, the defensive boards have been a sore spot as well.
A plus though is that Mirotic appears in great cardiovascular shape. He runs the floor hard, competes for offensive rebounds and still gets back on D.
–Joakim Noah is clearly still working his way back from offseason knee surgery. Interestingly, we never found out precisely what that surgery actually was other than a “clean-up.” But the fact that Noah reportedly only resumed basketball activities for training camp after a May surgery would indicate that it was more than a small meniscus trim that a “clean-up” would normally imply.
Noah will eventually be himself on defense, but his offense will be something to keep an eye on as his athleticism declines with age—he turns 30 this year. He can be an effective midrange shooter when wide open, but his slow and low release means that teams can stray very far off him and still recover. They have not been guarding him at all in the preseason, and that is a problem when Pau Gasol is trying to post up. Some of Noah’s scoring shortcomings have been mitigated by having the ball in his hands so much the last two years, because the man with the ball generally must be guarded. But with Rose and Gasol in the lineup now we will see less of Noah facilitating this year, so he must be a threat off the ball. It may be that this is much ado about nothing, but it is something to keep an eye on as the regular season begins.
–Jimmy Butler looks to be in absolutely outstanding shape. It seems clear that wear and tear and a toe injury sapped his athleticism a year ago, but he is now jumping out of the gym the way he was back in 2012-13.
Butler is attacking the basket hard on cuts and getting to the free throw line off passes from the Bulls’ skilled big men. The only thing we have yet to see is his three point shot. Butler has taken only one in three games, which is really going to hamstring the Bulls’ offense if he can’t at least be a consistent threat out there.
–Gasol has looked excellent defensively, as he is functioning as the center with Noah at power forward. He has eight blocks in three games. On offense his midranger has been effective, but he has not been particularly effective posting up, perhaps in part due to the lack of spacing.
–One thing to watch is coach Tom Thibodeau’s rotations. He has a history of extreme rigidity, which has hurt the Bulls in the past. Thus far in the preseason, Thibodeau has started Noah and Gasol, who are both really centers. Rose, Butler and Mike Dunleavy fill out the starting lineup, which has played well despite a relative dearth of shooting. But the bench units have been disappointing. Granted it is preseason, so we may see more mixing and matching of starters and reserves when the real games begin.
My suggestion would be to play Gasol in three stints, like the Mavericks and Spurs often deploy Dirk Nowitzki and Tony Parker. Taj Gibson for Gasol early would allow him to return for Noah and play with the second unit when Rose sits. This second stint could give Gasol minutes with Mirotic, who could space the floor for postups and allow Gasol to work as a go-to option. It would also behoove the Bulls to try a few minutes each half with Rose and Mirotic to run spread pick-and-roll, as Mirotic’s shooting would facilitate Rose’s drives.
To really compete for a championship, this Bulls team needs to get to the top 10 in offense this year. With the offensive talent on hand, that type of finish seems possible. But, Thibodeau is going to need to find the right mix of players in his regular units to make that happen.
Golden State Warriors
–Andrew Bogut is shooting free throws left-handed now! To my knowledge, this was something no one had reported on at all until he unveiled it against the Lakers on Sunday night. After shooting a miserable 34 percent last year, perhaps Bogut came to the conclusion that the after-effects of his awful elbow injury in 2010 would prevent him from shooting passably with his natural right hand. He started 1-4 with the new approach.
–The Warriors’ offense already features much more ball movement than under Mark Jackson. The problem with Jackson’s approach was not merely his fondness for iso-ball, but the fact that little movement occurred off the ball during those isos and postups. That defect has been remedied as of the first two games, although it remains to be seen how the Warriors will look against a defense that is not the Los Angeles Lakers. How the Warriors play offensively without Curry could be the biggest key (non-health division) to whether they can reach the high 50s in wins. With Kevin Durant’s injury, a top three seed appears a bit more realistic for a lot of teams in the West.
–Brandon Rush has looked excellent so far. He cut quite a bit of weight from his nadir in Utah a season ago, when he was probably about 15 pounds too heavy and struggled with his confidence. He is looking like a viable rotation piece as a three and D player, and potentially an excellent signing for the minimum. Despite the “Splash Brothers” moniker, the Warriors could really use another shooter on the wing aside from Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry.
–Backup center is the only real weakness to emerge for the Warriors. Festus Ezeli still has yet to make his debut after a setback with shin discomfort, and Ognjen Kuzmic has not impressed offensively and looks pretty limited athletically. Mareese Speights’ weakness executing the system defensively has been well-documented, so the Warriors do not have a great in-house option backing up the injury-prone Bogut.
–This play was perhaps my favorite so far of the preseason. As the Lakers were getting blown out of the gym, Kobe put Ronnie Price on Harrison Barnes and tried to pressure up Stephen Curry. This was the result.
Los Angeles Lakers
–I have seen all three of the Lakers’ preseason games. After an encouraging start against the Nuggets, the Warriors have put their weaknesses in stark relief. We knew this team would struggle defensively without a single above-average defensive player on the roster aside from the limited Ronnie Price. But as Stephen Curry roasted Steve Nash to start Sunday’s game, it was apparent that the Lakers really didn’t have a superior option. Bryant is not a stopper at this point in his career, although he is better on-ball than off. Jeremy Lin was injured and has never been great on D, and Wesley Johnson is probably too slow. It is very difficult to imagine a scenario in which the Lakers avoid the bottom five in defense this year.
–Another underappreciated Laker weakness was highlighted by Byron Scott’s comments earlier this week that he wanted the Lakers taking less than 15 threes per game. That seems like lunacy in today’s NBA, but L.A. really doesn’t have three-point shooters aside from Nash until Ryan Kelly returns from a hamstring injury. Against Golden State, they took a mere three from downtown, making none. On a related note, the Lakers managed 75 points.
–The good news for the Lakers is that Kobe Bryant has looked about as good as could be expected so far. Unlike his abortive return a year ago, he looks to be about the same weight as he finished 2012-13. Despite the torn Achilles and the knee fracture, I wouldn’t say he looks much worse than might have been expected with another two years of aging had he stayed healthy.
–The encouraging news for the Nets is that Brook Lopez looks like he is back. Lost amidst the Nets’ horrible start last year was Lopez’s injury, and the fact that he was on pace for a wonderful individual offensive season. He looked like his old self against Sacramento in China early Sunday morning.
–Lionel Hollins gave Mason Plumlee and Lopez a few minutes together, but it is hard to imagine that pairing working well with Plumlee’s limited shooting range and Lopez’s penchant for posting up. Plumlee also struggles out on the floor against power forwards despite his athleticism. It is a bit of a conundrum for coach Hollins, as Lopez, Plumlee, and Kevin Garnett are all best at center at this point in their careers.
–Garnett looked great in the few minutes he played, looking quite spry as he skied for a defensive rebound and a goaltend. Maybe we just caught him on a good day (which can be fewer and further between as players age), but it was good to see.
–The Nets were very effective posting their smalls a year ago. With the departures of Paul Pierce and Shaun Livingston, that strategy will be deployed a bit less this year, but Joe Johnson and Deron Williams can still be lethal in that role. They may want to try it with Lopez out of the game though, as he had trouble finding a spot to avoid gumming up the spacing. It may just be rust hurting his timing for cutting to the basket, but the small postups were ineffective when he played.
–Deron Williams looked relatively spry and canned a few jumpers, but he was not particularly successful getting into the paint against Sacramento’s usually porous defense. I did not see enough to posit whether he will be significantly improved after procedures on his ankles in the offseason, although reports from previous games and camp have been positive.
–Sergey Karasev spent the summer in relative limbo before being traded to the Nets as the Cavs cleared space for LeBron James. There appears to be almost no chance he will be in the rotation, which is not a surprise with the veteran wings the Nets have. But it would be nice if he had improved his body some in the offseason. Instead, he looked to have extremely high body fat for a young 20 year old wing. Considering athleticism is his biggest roadblock to success in the NBA, it is disappointing.
–Ramon Sessions was a very underrated signing late in the summer. He is probably the best passer the Kings have rostered since Brad Miller, and has also showed an ability to keep the defense honest with his jumper so far.
–Nik Stauskas is going to get attacked defensively, as he noted the other day. A typical sequence saw Deron Williams wave off a pick-and-roll to isolate against him, although he missed a reasonably tough jumper since the help was waiting behind Stauskas. The good news for the Kings is Stauskas can shoot, dribble and pass. It turns out those skills are pretty important for basketball. Moreover, Stauskas looks like he belongs out there athletically. He certainly isn’t going to help the Kings’ defensive woes, but I would expect him to supplant Ben McLemore as the starter by season’s end, especially with Darren Collison’s playmaking limitations.
–The reports that Omri Casspi had slimmed down appear accurate. I had noted it would really help him to do so after he looked a little heavy down the stretch with Houston a year ago, and he is much quicker getting to the basket and asserting himself in the floor game.
–The Kings are another team that somehow does not have a single high-minute player on their roster who projects to play above-average NBA defense. It is really difficult to see how they are going to improve on last year’s point-prevention, and that is a problem since the offense could take a step back without Isaiah Thomas.
–With the unfortunate injury to Bradley Beal, we are going to find out whether Otto Porter and Glen Rice Jr. can play. While that may torpedo Washington’s hopes of getting home-court in the first round, determining whether a long-term in-house solution is available at the three is a silver lining.
Buy Or Sell: Atlantic Division
Drew Maresca continues Basketball Insiders’ “Buy Or Sell” series by taking a look at the Atlantic Division.
The early portion of the NBA season is fun for lots of reasons – namely, it helps determine which teams are contenders and those that aren’t. Additionally, it allows teams to gauge and grade their rosters. And on December 15, when newly signed players can be traded, the NBA season shifts gears from fun to cut-throat.
So with that beings said, let’s forge ahead with Basketball Insiders examination of buyers and sellers. We have already covered the Northwest, Southwest and Central divisions. Today, we’ll turn our attention to the Atlantic.
Boston Celtics 17-7 — Buyers
The Celtics have surprised most NBA experts so far this season. But not only because they’re playing well; more so due to looking significantly better than last season despite losing a top-flight point guard (Kyrie Irving), a workhouse center (Al Horford) and then replacing them with less talented players.
The Celtics are 17-7 through 24 games — good for fourth place in the conference. Entering Friday night, they’re playing at essentially the same pace as last season (99.2 possessions per 48 minutes vs. 99.6 in 2018-19), but with an average margin of victory of 7.86 (up from. 4.44), which is the fourth-best margin of victory in the league.
But it’s unlikely that the Celtics are satisfied with their early-season successes. And if they hope to crash the Milwaukee Bucks’ party and represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals, they’ll need some to add some depth to their frontcourt.
Despite being nearly 30 percent of the way through the season, the Celtics still need to shore up the center position. They entered the season with a by-committee approach from the beginning and they’ve stuck to it so far by starting Daniel Theis a whopping 18 times, Kanter three times and Robert Williams twice. Theis averages 21.8 minutes per game, compared to Kanter’s 15.8 and Williams’ 14.2. While the three-headed monster approach can be successful, they lack a true difference-maker.
They’ll need a more skilled and versatile center to put pressure on opposing big men like Joel Embiid and Al Horford, while also keeping the floor appropriately spaced. While good centers are hard to come by, the Celtics could package some combination of their rookies and future picks to entice a trade partner.
And it would be in their best interest to do so. Just look at their record against the Philadelphia 76ers this season. While it’s a ridiculously small sample size, their 0-2 record against Philadelphia, who boasts probably the biggest and best frontcourt in the league, should scare them into adding a big man before the deadline – and maybe as soon as this Sunday.
Brooklyn Nets (13-11) — Neither
The Nets have surprised folks, too — but unlike the Celtics, they did so through early struggles. With the newly acquired Kyrie Irving in tow, the Nets started the season by winning only four of their first 11 games – during which time, Caris LeVert suffered an injury, followed by Irving. And just like that, the sky was falling.
But then something monumental happened, proceedings just stabilized all at once. The Nets have won nine of their last 13 games since Irving’s injury. Spencer Dinwiddie stepped up, averaging 25.1 points per game in Irving’s absence. But it’s not all Dinwiddie. Since Irving went out, the Nets are 13th-best in net rating – compared to 20th with him in the lineup – and their chemistry looks much improved.
And what’s more, the Nets can still look forward to adding Irving back into the rotation. While they’ve struggled with him thus far, it’s not entirely Irving. After all, Irving’s return represents a major talent who was averaging 28.5 points and 7.2 assists per game. Dzanan Musa and Theo Pinson, too, have largely failed to fill in as the backup point guard too.
Sure, it’s going to take time to figure out their identity with Irving suited up. And the team must also welcome back LeVert and Wilson Chandler, who is set to return from a 25-game PED suspension on Sunday. But those are great problems to have.
Fortunately, the Nets’ 2019-20 season was always a placeholder until Kevin Durant returns from his Achilles injury. The team shouldn’t worry too much about a playoff run and, instead, they should be squarely focused on building exceptional team chemistry. And adding or subtracting to a newly-formed roster is a terrible way to do so.
Thus, playoffs or not, the Nets should spend the next three or so months learning one another’s styles and identifying their best rotations without tinkering.
New York Knicks (5-20) – Sellers
The Knicks are very obviously a dumpster fire. They have failed to properly develop their young talent through 25 games this year and prioritized playing time for a slew of their recently signed veteran free agents. Additionally, they panicked after a couple of 30-point losses and decided to fire coach head coach David Fizdale.
There are probably more firings to come. Rumors have begun to circulate about the job security of team president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry. But regardless of who’s at the helm, the Knicks must move many of their recent signees to capitalize on their favorable contracts.
The vultures have already begun to circle. According to SNY’s Ian Begley, interested teams could be willing to part with a late first-round pick in exchange for Marcus Morris.
The team should also begin shopping Taj Gibson, Bobby Portis, Wayne Ellington, Reggie Bullock (who has been injured so far all season), Elfrid Payton and even Julius Randle. Cashing in on any of those players would be helpful to a team that is clearly still in the early stages of a rebuild.
And they should be looking to acquire young players who are still viewed as projects — like the Orlando Magic did with Markelle Fultz last season — and/or draft picks. Nothing else. Fit does not matter. Bring in as much talent as you can and see what sticks.
Philadelphia 76ers (19-7) – Buyers
The 76ers are another Atlantic Division buyer.
Despite losing Jimmy Butler to Miami and JJ Redick to New Orleans, the 76ers entered the season with extremely high expectations — and they’ve mostly lived up to them. They are 18-7 overall and 7-3 against teams who are .500 or better. Joel Embiid is better than ever and Al Horford appears to be hitting his stride in Philadelphia. Further, Josh Richardson has looked like an extremely promising fit when healthy and rookie Matisse Thybulle has performed better than anyone could have expected.
So what do the 76ers need to add? One thing: Shooting. The 76ers rank 26th in three-point attempts and the team is currently lacking a Redick-level three-point threat. We’ve all seen opposing defenses, as the Raptors did in the 2019 playoffs, go under screens and sag away from Ben Simmons. Expect more of that. And expect teams to willingly pack the paint to affect Embiid, Simmons and Horford until the team surrounds them with more shooters.
The 76ers should be targeting guys like Kevin Love, Robert Covington, Danilo Gallinari, Marcus Moris, Davis Bertans and even the aforementioned Reddick – any of whom would be an excellent addition if the 76ers could put together an acceptable offer. But that’s where things get challenging. Remember, the 76ers have approximately $126 million tied up in their core five (Embiid, Horford, Simmons, Richardson and Tobias Harris) for 2020-21.
Toronto Raptors (16-8) – Sellers
This may be an unpopular opinion, but this at its core, shouldn’t teams either compete for championships or set themselves up to do so? Obviously that’s easier said than done and there are a number of teams that don’t adhere to such strategy because of the primary driver of profitability.
That being said, the Raptors are coming off a championship and just lost a player that many believe is one of the three best alive. In all likelihood, they’re not quite ready for primetime again, despite what their record suggests. Toronto’s primary focus now should be building around their young talent and adding even more to a team that is already ahead of schedule.
Their roster isn’t well-aligned from an age standpoint, anyway. Their 25-year-old centerpiece (Pascal Siakam) and relatively young core are on a different trajectory than aging stars Kyle Lowry, 33, Marc Gasol, 34, and Serge Ibaka, 30. What’s more, Gasol and Ibaka are on expiring contracts that’ll be chased by contenders looking to add versatile big men – like Boston.
Lowry is different given what he’s meant to the team and the entire city of Toronto. There is a clear benefit to keeping him on as a locker room leader and having him retire a Raptor. Even if they wanted to move Lowry, it would be challenging as he’s signed through next season.
But that doesn’t mean that moving him isn’t worth exploring. Plenty of contenders would benefit from Lowry’s services, even with another season at $30.5 million. Lowry can still lead a team and he’s a fearless competitor. Cooler, the former All-Star has played better this year than in the previous two seasons, scoring 19.1 points in 37 minutes of action per night across 13 games.
Considering how unlikely the Raptors are to win the Eastern Conference again, they should seriously consider moving at least one of their slightly-older stars. It could be one of their last opportunities to add additional building blocks. And as we saw last February and in previous seasons, contenders make silly deals as the trade deadline approaches.
December is an extremely exciting time for the basketball world. Christmas Day represents the sport’s first real prime time opportunity of the young season. But for many, the holiday comes nine days early as teams can begin trading players who were signed last offseason.
But it doesn’t stop there, intensifying in the lead up to the Feb. 6 trade deadline. So let’s all sit back and enjoy the best time of the year, all kicking off in just two days.
NBA Daily: Devonte’ Graham’s Unfathomable Breakout In Charlotte
Devonte’ Graham never drew high praise in high school, college or in draft prep. Breaking through in his second season is a rarity unlike almost any other. Douglas Farmer writes.
Comparing a sweet-shooting, 6-foot-2 guard in his second year with the woebegone Charlotte Hornets to Draymond Green misses its mark on paper, but the poor-shooting forward in his eighth season — three of which have ended with him and the Golden State Warriors hosting an NBA Finals trophy — may be the only player in the league analogous to Devonte’ Graham.
Teams have sought the next Green since he broke through in his third year, seeking a playmaking forward who could defend all five positions. That largely-fruitless search overlooked what made Green so unique — just how overlooked he was.
The No. 122 player in his recruiting class, per Rivals.com, Green did not break into college basketball’s national consciousness until his senior season when he was named a consensus All-American. That pushed him up draft boards all the way to No. 35. He then toiled on the Warrior bench until stepping in for overpriced veteran and changing the trajectory of the Golden State franchise.
Graham was the No. 36 player in his class, per Rivals.com, but otherwise the parallels are nearly exact, and while not as insulting as Green’s recruiting ranking, Graham’s was hardly flattering. He then became a consensus All-American in his senior season, was drafted No. 34 overall and spent his rookie season primarily on the Hornets’ bench. Now, he has usurped free-agent signee Terry Rozier of his starring role and given Charlotte reason to be excited.
Those reasons to be excited are not limited to the long-term, either, as some of Graham’s 20 points per game have included moments of high drama.
Graham’s second-year explosion has come largely off catch-and-shoot threes, clearly showing how different he is from Green, even if their rises from nowhere are similar. Graham has already made 103 threes in just 27 games, a sample size both large enough to end any “Breakout or Mirage? wonders and put him in the company of James Harden and Stephen Curry.
Only Harden and Curry had made it this far into a season on pace to sink 300 shots from deep, and they are also the only ones to actually do so. Maybe Graham cools off and finishes with a mere 280, but given he spent the first 10 games this season coming off the bench, his current pace will likely send him well past 300.
Either way, Graham was never supposed to end up in a sentence comparing him to two surefire Hall of Famers.
Recruits who debate between Virginia Tech, Providence and North Carolina State before ending up at Kansas, who never garner genuine notice until they are three months shy of turning 25, do not break out like this. They go onto decent NBA careers, if that.
While plenty of highly-ranked prep prospects do not pan out at all, it is even rarer for second-tier recruits to reach professional stardom. Of the 120 players Rivals ranked between No. 30 and No. 50 in the six recruiting classes from 2010 to 2015, only 14 have gained genuine traction in the NBA.
2010: No. 31 Meyers Leonard, No. 44 Gorgui Dieng, No. 48 Terrence Ross
2011: No. 31 Dorian Finney-Smith, No. 34 Ben McLemore, No. 37 Otto Porter, No. 41 Maurice Harkless
2012: No. 40 Willie Cauley-Stein
2013: No. 31 Semi Ojeleye, No. 44 Zach LaVine
2014: No. 36 Devonte’ Graham
2015: No. 31 Donovan Mitchell, No. 43 Malik Beasley, No. 46 Dejounte Murray
Porter, LaVine and Mitchell all earned enough notice in college to be drafted in the lottery. Their development into NBA bucket-getters has not been astonishing. It was their play in college that surprised.
Graham did not impress then. Nor did he impress as a rookie, averaging 4.7 points in 14.7 minutes per game and hitting only 28.1 percent of his shots from beyond the arc.
Becoming a 42.9 percent 3-point shooter was not anyone’s expectation. Even in college, Graham topped out at 40.6 percent from behind the shorter arc as a senior when he averaged 17.3 points per game.
Now, he casually went 7-of-12 from deep for 40 points, 5 assists and 5 rebounds on Wednesday in a 113-108 road win over the Brooklyn Nets. The seventh of those made threes drove the fact one more time that Graham is not a flash in the pan.
“Unconscionable” is an overused word in sports. These are just sports, after all. But if ever a shot was unconscionable, it was that dagger on Wednesday. If not that, it may have been unfathomable.
Unfathomable when only Graham’s late prep development got him to a collegiate blueblood, unfathomable when he hardly flashed at Kansas, unfathomable when he fell into the second round, unfathomable when Charlotte signed Rozier for three years and $58 million.
Graham was never supposed to do any of this, and he shows no signs of stopping.
In the first 10 games of the season coming off the bench, Graham shot 42.5 percent from deep and averaged 17.9 points and 7.6 assists per game. In his 17 starts since then, he is shooting 43.1 percent from deep and averaging 21.2 points and 7.6 assists per game.
His consistency has rendered the 6-foot-1 Rozier not just an overpriced point guard, but a lineup liability. With both of them on the floor, Charlotte has a minus-3.1 rating per 100 possessions, getting exposed on defense with an undersized backcourt. With Graham on but Rozier off, the Hornets are plus-1.6. The offensive ratings are within a tenth of a point, but the latter lineup is 4.8 points better per 100 possessions on defense.
Come Sunday, Rozier can be traded. Finding a taker for his onerous deal may be more difficult than one for Graham’s, which pays him only $1.4 million this year and $1.7 million next. Regardless, if Charlotte moves one of them, the organization will be in a better position moving forward because of Graham’s eruption.
At no point was it considered Graham could change the franchise’s direction like this.
Then again, it was never expected of Green, either.
Buy Or Sell: Central Division
Drew Mays continues Basketball Insiders’ “Buy Or Sell” series by taking a look at the Central Division.
It’s Dec. 12, and we’re over a quarter of the way through the 2019-20 NBA season. More importantly, we’re three days away from the 15th – the day much of the league because trade-eligible.
By now, teams have a good idea of who they are and where they want to be in four months when the playoffs roll around. This means they also know something else: Whether what they have in the locker room is enough, if they’re missing a piece, or if their season is toast and they should wheel and deal before the February trade deadline.
These thoughts inspired the Basketball Insiders’ “Buy Or Sell” series. Matt John led us off a few days ago by breaking down the Northwest Division. Yesterday, Jordan Hicks batted second with the Southwest Division. Today we’ll be checking on the division with the hottest team in the NBA: The Central.
Milwaukee Bucks (22-3) – Buyers (?)
Can anyone stop Milwaukee? They’ve won 16 straight, 20 of 21, and haven’t lost since Nov. 8. While part of this stretch has involved beating up lesser teams — and winning games you’re supposed to isn’t a bad thing — undoubtedly the most impressive performance came last Friday at home against the Los Angeles Clippers. They won 119-91 and it was even uglier than that. Los Angeles was down nine at halftime and 25 after three quarters. The Bucks held the Clippers’ three offensive stars – Paul George, Kawhi Leonard and Lou Williams – to 15-for-39 shooting and forced them into 15 turnovers (LA shot 35 percent and committed 21 turnovers as a team).
What Milwaukee did to the Clippers isn’t an outlier, either. They’ve blitzed the entire league on both ends of the floor. They’re first in defensive rating, third in offensive rating and first in average margin of victory at 13.4 points. They aren’t just winning – they’re winning big. They have the best effective field goal percentage in the NBA and the second-best allowed on defense.
The Bucks are deep and have 12 guys that get significant minutes. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the only player above 30 minutes per game, with the rest of the roster falling in succession down to Robin Lopez’s 14.5 per. They’re shooting extremely well while still making the third-most threes per game in the league at 14.4. Nine different players make at least one every game.
Even scarier, Giannis keeps evolving. His three-point shooting volume has been a revelation – he’s taking five each night. He’s never taken more than three. And even shooting only 31.9 percent, the attempts in themselves (and Giannis’ willingness to shoot them) has opened up the offense more than ever before. It’s led to Antetokounmpo somehow topping his numbers from last season – he’s up from 27.7/12.5/5.9 to 30.9/13.2/5.5. Sheesh.
There’s a huge scoring drop off after Giannis, though. Only Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe and Brook Lopez join him in double figures. They could use another scorer or playmaker. People have long half-jokingly floated the idea of Chris Paul, but that seems unlikely. There may not be a player on the market worth chasing based on their needs.
Still, the lack of extra scoring punch behind the MVP might not even be an issue until the postseason. Until then, Milwaukee fans can enjoy the ride – the Bucks shouldn’t have worries for a while.
Indiana Pacers (16-9) – Buyers
After a slow start, Indiana has rejoined the upper cluster of the Eastern Conference. They’ve won nine of their last 12 and sit in the top half of the league in both offensive (15th) and defensive (10th) rating.
Like Milwaukee, Indiana boasts a ton of depth – they have nine regulars that play over 17 minutes per game. Malcolm Brogdon continues to be the Pacers’ engine, averaging 19.5/4.5/7.5. TJ Warren seems to have found his footing and Domantas Sabonis has been a beast, scoring 18.2 and grabbing 13.5 rebounds every night.
That said, the Pacers suffer a similar problem as the Bucks – they lack high-end talent. Their better part of the rotation is similar to Milwaukee’s non-Giannis top players; they’re useful, productive role players, but not guys you expect to beat teams with more star power.
This lends itself to Indiana being buyers over the next few months. They could add another on-ball threat to pair with Brogdon, thus making things easier for Sabonis and the assist-allergic Warren. TJ McConnell and the pair of Holiday brothers have performed admirably to this point, but no one in the conference is batting an eye at those three.
Of course, the Pacers already have a top-flight scorer and shot creator coming – Victor Oladipo. Oladipo has been out since January and is expected to return in the next few months.
Assuming he’s able to at all, it’ll take him time to get back to form. The likeliest scenario isn’t that the Pacers buy prior to the deadline, but that they continue rolling out their massive lineup and stay the course until their star returns.
Detroit Pistons (10-14) – Buyers
The Pistons are right where they want to be.
Well, maybe not. But after years of mediocre teams and 8th-seed finishes, seeing Detroit a handful of games under .500 and in the 9th spot in the Eastern Conference feels like home.
Detroit is 10th in offensive rating and 16th in defensive rating. Those numbers usually mean postseason appearances, especially in the weaker conference. A five-game losing streak in mid-November slowed their progress, but the 6-4 mark since Nov. 22 in about what you’d expect them to be.
But Blake Griffin has not looked like Blake Griffin. Maybe it’s injury-related, maybe it’s age-related. But a player of his caliber – especially coming off his sneaky-great 2018-19 – should regain form.
Andre Drummond is still doing Andre Drummond things. And as we detailed in October, Derrick Rose looks better than he has in years – he’s averaging 16.1 and 5.8 in just under 24 minutes per game.
The Pistons are buyers because the track record shows they don’t embrace the tank — Exhibit A: the Blake Griffin trade — and their age. Some middling teams prefer to bottom-out and rebuild. Detroit has proven their propensity to just hang around, winning 38-42 games each year before getting trounced in the postseason. That’s admirable; it’s hard to win games in the NBA. Trying to do so, even with moderate success, isn’t a bad thing.
Detroit’s top scorers are Griffin (30), Rose (31), Drummond (26), Luke Kennard (23), Markieff Morris (30) and Langston Galloway (24). Kennard has been pretty good, but Galloway isn’t inspiring fear in anybody. Drummond, still relatively young, cannot be a A or B option as a scorer. Detroit went after the now 30-year-old Griffin a few years ago and Rose this past summer. Those are win-now, stay-relevant moves and there isn’t a lot of flexibility there.
Accordingly, it wouldn’t surprise to see Detroit try and get a few players leading up to February. The only player they might try to unload is the currently-injured Reggie Jackson – although it’s hard to imagine who would want him.
Chicago Bulls (9-17) – Sellers
It’s been repeated for months now: The Bulls, 9-17 and 11th in the Eastern Conference, are a disappointment. They talked up the playoffs preseason only to fall victim to the same prey as they did last year. The injuries have been less (although Otto Porter Jr. has been out since Nov. 8 and Lauri Markkanen has dealt with an oblique injury), but it hasn’t translated to wins.
Chicago’s defense has improved – they’re up to 12th in defensive rating – but their offense continues to be bottom-barrel, currently 26th in the NBA. The two though-to-be stars in Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen have struggled; LaVine has been up (49 points and 13 threes in Charlotte on Nov. 23) and down (5 points on 2-for-11 against Detroit on Nov. 20) offensively and rough on defense. Elsewhere, Markkanen has been outright disappointing by managing just 14.5 points per on 39.3 from the field and 32.7 from three-point range.
There have been reported internal riffs, plus tons of questions about head coach Jim Boylen, his fit for the job and whether the players respond to him.
Even if it gets better for the Bulls, it’s unlikely it does so in a way meaningful enough to meet preseason expectations. Chicago should be looking to sell, whether it’s Kris Dunn or players higher on the totem pole. The front office may not want to hear it, but there’d be a market for both LaVine and Markkanen.
Whether they explore that market or not remains to be seen.
Cleveland Cavaliers (5-19) – Sellers
The Cavaliers aren’t good, but we all expected that. They’re 29th in offense and 28th in defense, and they’ve won just one of their last 15 games – including their current eight-game losing streak.
Collin Sexton looks similar to his rookie year, except now his three-point shooting is down. Cedi Osman and Jordan Clarkson are both shooting 41 percent. Darius Garland is shooting 37.9 from the field, and leads the team with a putrid 2.8 assists per game.
— Bootum (@DaRealBootum) December 12, 2019
That clip also shows us the reason the Cavaliers are maybe the biggest sellers of the trade period: Kevin Love.
Love’s numbers are down across the board. He’s averaging 15.7 and 10.5 rebounds per game on 43.8 percent from the field and 35.4 from three. Much of that can be explained by playing on a wholly uncompetitive team – other franchises want Love, a proven championship commodity who rebounds and stretches the floor.
Jason Lloyd of The Athletic reported today that Cleveland was seeking a first-round pick in exchange for Love. Lloyd also mentioned the problem with Love: He’s more expensive than Oklahoma City’s Danilo Galinari, but the latter is on an expiring deal.
Still, Love is a valuable player, and somebody that contenders will jump at once the deadline nears and executives are pressed to make a move. Portland has long been tied to the forward, but their standing in the Western Conference will factor into their willingness to take him on.
Regardless, it would be shocking (and almost implausible) to see Kevin Love in Cleveland past Feb. 6.
December is a big month for basketball – the Christmas day games are the most-watched regular season event on the NBA’s calendar. But something even more important than those matchups is only three days away, when much of the league becomes trade eligible.
Dec. 15 starts the race to Feb. 6. By then, we’ll know exactly who teams are as we look ahead to another NBA postseason.
NBA5 days ago
NBA Daily: Horton-Tucker Making Most Of Time With South Bay Lakers
Headlines7 days ago
Sources: Multiple Cavaliers Players Frustrated with John Beilein
Headlines7 days ago
Report: Rodney Hood Suffers Torn Left Achilles
Headlines7 days ago
Sources: Knicks Fire David Fizdale, Name Mike Miller Interim Head Coach