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NBA Daily: Early-Season Central Division Rankings

Newcomer Jonathon Gryniewicz breaks down what we’ve seen out of the Central Division to start the 2020-21 NBA campaign.

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The NBA is back! And to celebrate Basketball Insiders’ big return to cover, we’re ranking each division based on their respective starts to the season – beginning with the Central Division. In this worst to first ranking, each team is evaluated on how they look after watching the exhibition and early-season games.

5. Chicago Bulls, 0-2

The Billy Donovan Era in Chicago has gotten off to a rocky start with a pair of 20-point losses to start the season.

The only players the Bulls will have on the roster with guaranteed money in 2021-22 are Coby White and Patrick Williams, so it’s safe to say that this will be a trial year for everyone. Further, the front office said as much by not extending Lauri Markkanen this offseason.  If the team’s struggles continue it would not be surprising to see them move some players for future assets throughout the season.

Markkanen has started off the season strong and looked comfortable playing next to Wendell Carter Jr. as a four on the perimeter. The Finnish up-and-comer has value as a floor spacer, something that’s even more pronounced with Chicago as they consistent outside shooters. But the organization has to be pleased with the start of the season that No. 4 overall pick Patrick Williams is having. Already, the second-youngest player in the NBA is proving that he can hold up physically, scoring the ball better than anyone thought he would.

Ultimately, Chicago will take time to jell this season.  They have a new coach, a roster with young players, and a shortened offseason that won’t help any of them adjust to the new system.  If it does not look like this team is meshing well, watch for Chicago to be a big partner on the trade market.

4. Detroit Pistons, 0-2

Detroit made more moves this offseason than any team besides the Oklahoma City Thunder.  Four players remain on the roster from last season in Blake Griffin, Derrick Rose, Sekou Doumbouya and Svi Mykhailiuk.  Troy Weaver and the rest of the front office completely reshaped this roster led by the No. 7 overall pick, Killian Hayes from France, and free agent signing Jerami Grant, who came over from Denver on a three-year deal worth $60 million.

Early on, Blake Griffin has looked great. He is healthy, moving well on both ends of the floor and showing a versatile skill set that makes him a match-up problem for opposing teams. Outside of him, however, this is a team that struggles to play consistently at both ends of the floor – and given the roster turnover, it is not surprising.  Trying to integrate so many new players without a true offseason is proving to be difficult.

Killian Hayes has loads of potential but has wrestled with turnovers and not being able to make shots. The fifth-youngest player in the NBA this season does not yet look comfortable running the offense.  The Pistons will be relying on young players such as Hayes, Doumbouya, Josh Jackson and Saddiq Bey to play roles as they try to figure out their rotation. While each has flashed strongly in moments, no one has taken control of the early rotation minutes.

If Griffin and Rose can stay healthy, then this team has a chance to win some games. But until then, it might be a big learning process in 2020-21.

3. Cleveland Cavaliers, 2-0

The Cleveland Cavaliers have started off 2-0 and a big part of that can be contributed to the early growth of their young guards and wings.

Collin Sexton is building off the strong finish to last season averaging 29.5 points per game. The more impressive thing about how Sexton has started is that he looks under control and is making good decisions as a passer. He will always be a score-first player – but through two games he is playing within the flow of the offense and not forcing the issue.

As a bonus, Darius Garland is much more confident in his shot- and play-making abilities. Playing alongside Sexton, Garland is getting a good mix of shots off the dribble and in spot-up situations. Rookie Isaac Okoro won’t fill up the stat sheet scoring the ball, but he has been one of the more NBA-ready rookies and has played 76 minutes through two games –thus showing how he can contribute early as a versatile, switchable defender.

To complement their young group of guards, Andre Drummond and Kevin Love are providing them reliable, veteran players in the frontcourt. While neither one of them is playing at the highest level, both can still relieve the guards of all the playmaking duties and run the offense through them for stretches.

The Cavaliers did not make any splashy signings in free agency, however. While some of their veterans could be moved at some point this season, they’ll rely on internal growth for improvement.

2. Indiana Pacers, 2-0

Nate Bjorkgren can’t be complaining about the start to his coaching tenure with the Pacers – his team is 2-0 and averaging 123 points per game. Indiana retained their core this offseason and through the first two games, it is showing.

Bjorkgen has them playing an up-tempo style of basketball on both ends of the court. Offensively, they are taking advantage of their personnel, having multiple ball screens and isolation creators. The Pacers push the ball and often get into quick drags and empty side pick-and-roll actions with shooters spacing the floor. Additionally, Indiana is taking quick shots in transition and in the half-court, while also attacking the offensive glass to keep possessions alive.

Defensively, the Pacers are chasing hard on both on- and off-ball screens, frequently giving heavy help when opponents get into the lane. The frantic style seems to have opponents playing fast and matching the tempo.  With Turner in the game as a back-line defender, they shoot passing lanes and go for home run steals. Given their length and ability to switch multiple positions, it has been a fun and effective style to watch.

The nine-man rotation seems set for now – but when injuries or COVID-19 protocols rear its head, watch to see who the Pacers attempt to fill the void. We should have a better idea of how good this team after they play stronger competition – but for the time being they have made a strong case for being (and staying) the second-best team in the Central Division.

1. Milwaukee Bucks, 1-1

After finishing with the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference for the second consecutive season, Milwaukee had a busy offseason by replacing eight players that averaged double-figure minutes. The biggest addition, of course, was Jrue Holiday, who came over in a trade with New Orleans that involved Eric Bledsoe, George Hill, two future first round picks and two pick swaps. All of that yielded them a new starting point guard, a depleted bench and what turned out to be enough incentive to sign the two-time reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo to a five-year, $228 million dollar extension.

Coming off a season in which he won MVP and Defensive Player of the Year, what more can Antetokounmpo do to get Milwaukee closer to a championship? Simply put, the answer can be seen in the first two games of the season. Despite being an immense talent, Antetokounmpo is only a 28.4 percent career three-point shooter. Albeit a small sample size, he has started off slow behind the arc shooting just 27.3 percent on what would be a career-high 5.5 attempts per game.

Futhermore, the Greek phenom is also shooting 56.5 percent from the free-throw line on 11.5 attempts per game. The Bucks are leaving tons of points on the court right now – so, in order to maximize their offense and Antetokounmpo as a player, becoming more efficient in these two areas will be essential. Khris Middleton, the two-time All-Star, has gotten off to a great start this season, building on top of a career year where he was 0.3 percentage points away from averaging 50 percent on field goals, 40 percent on threes and 90 percent from the free throw line.

While the core is in place, this is a relatively new team in Milwaukee. Like most teams, they do not seem to be firing on all cylinders right now. With the shortened offseason and training camp, it will certainly take time for this team to mesh, especially the new players off the bench.

Despite the early inconsistencies, they’re still comfortably the best team in the Central and will undoubtedly improve as the season goes on.

In the end, the middle of the Central Division will be interesting this season as Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland all have the ability to compete for the play-in games. But if things don’t break their way, they could also be some of the worst teams record-wise in the NBA.

Luckily, both Indiana and Milwaukee bring some stability at the top of the division; while the bottom of the division could be a rotating carousel throughout the year.

Worked in college and professional basketball the past seven seasons, most recently as Director of Basketball Operations for the Detroit Pistons G League Affiliate, the Grand Rapids Drive.

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Mavericks are expected to pick up Willie Cauley-Stein’s $4.1 million option

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Per ESPN’s Tim MacMahon, the Dallas Mavericks are planning to pick up center Willie Cauley-Stein’s $4.1 million option for the 2021-22 NBA season. The deadline is tomorrow. Last season, in 53 games played, the seven-foot big man averaged 5.3 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. The sixth-year player also shot 63.2 percent from the field last season.

On July 8, 2019, Cauley-Stein signed a two-year, $4.46 million contract with the Golden State Warriors. Then, on January 25, 2020, Cauley-Stein was traded to the Mavericks for a 2020 second-round pick. If everything goes smoothly, the 27-year-old center is set to earn $4.1 million next season. The 2015 sixth overall pick’s contract consumes less than three percent of the team’s total salary cap.

This news comes right after Dallas received center Moses Brown from the Boston Celtics. Brown is a seven-foot-two, 2019 undrafted player out of UCLA. In 2021, Brown was named to the All-NBA G League First Team and All-Defensive Team. On March 28, 2021, the 21-year-old center signed a four-year, $6.8 million contract with the Thunder.

However, on June 18, 2021, the Oklahoma City Thunder traded Brown, Al Horford, and a 2023 second-round pick to the Celtics for Kemba Walker, a 2021 first-round pick, and a 2025 second-round pick. With Boston, Brown was set to earn $1,701,593 next season. Of course, the Mavs’ organization is finalizing a trade to send Josh Richardson to the Celtics as well. In other news, today is Mavs’ owner Mark Cuban’s 63rd birthday.

Referencing Spotrac’s 2021-22 luxury tax totals, the Mavs’ current luxury tax space is $52,326,531. The 2021 NBA salary cap maximum is $112,414,000. Their current cap space is $27,595,632. Cauley-Stein’s contract is recognized as a club option, not a player option or guaranteed money. Richardson’s deadline is also tomorrow, so because he is getting traded to Boston, the team will not collect his $11,615,328 player option.

Plus, Jalen Brunson’s deadline is also August 1st. His guaranteed value is $1,802,057. Leading into the 2021-22 season, Kristaps Porzingis has the highest cap figure on the team, which is an amount worth $31,650,600, consuming 22.73 percent of the team’s total salary cap. At the moment, Porzingis is a popular name in trade rumor articles. Bettors and NBA analysts are predicting a possible trade to the Brooklyn Nets, Sacramento Kings, or Philadelphia 76ers.

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Lakers Need More Than Big Three

The Lakers have their “big three” after trading for Russell Westbrook but is he the right fit in Los Angeles? The former MVP has had an incredible career but he may not be the point guard the Lakers desperately need.

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The Los Angeles Lakers have formed their three-headed monster as they pursue the franchise’s 18th championship next season. Just as the NBA Draft was getting started, the Lakers completed a deal with the Washington Wizards that landed them the 2016-17 league MVP, Russell Westbrook.

The deal sent Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell and the 21st overall pick in this year’s draft to Washington, paving the way for Westbrook to join fellow superstars LeBron James and Anthony Davis. While the Lakers added a dynamic point guard, not everyone is sold on the idea that the Lakers are the team to beat in the loaded Western Conference.

Over the past several weeks, the Lakers were rumored to be seeking perimeter shooting. Some reports had Los Angeles linked to guys like Chris Paul, Buddy Hield and DeMar DeRozan. When the dust settled, it was Washington that made the deal as Westbrook informed the front office that he preferred the Lakers as a destination.

The move is a homecoming of sorts, as Westbrook grew up in the area and spent two seasons playing at UCLA, leading the Bruins to the 2008 Final Four. He had a solid 2020-21 season, averaging 22.2 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 11.7 assists per game for the Wizards, who earned the No. 8 seed in the playoffs.

Oddly enough, this is the third straight offseason in which the 9-time All-Star has been traded. After leaving Oklahoma City, Westbrook was not able to find postseason success in Houston or Washington. Will that now change in Los Angeles?

For all of his accomplishments, Westbrook’s legacy has been defined by his play during the regular season. This past season, the point guard passed Oscar Robertson for the most triple-doubles in the history of the game. Out of his 184 triple-doubles, only 12 have come in the playoffs. By comparison, Magic Johnson has the most playoff career triple-doubles with 30, and James is next with 28. Now all three will have played for the Lakers during their careers.

The thing about triple-doubles (and this is especially the case with Westbrook) is that they don’t always translate to wins. They clearly help the team overall but some would argue that a more balanced attack is tougher to stop. History has shown that having a “big three” is almost a requirement to be considered a legitimate championship contender, but this trio in Los Angeles doesn’t exactly fit together like many of those others.

As talented and valuable as Westbrook has been over the course of his career, he needs to have the ball to be effective. His poor perimeter shooting has been the big hiccup in his game, and that is something that this Lakers team desperately needs. The problem isn’t that any of these three won’t share the ball. In fact, they had already discussed checking their egos even before this trade went down.

Westbrook has never had a problem sharing the ball. He was able to co-exist with Durant in Oklahoma City, Harden in Houston and Beal in Washington. The difference in this scenario is that he will be occupying the same space as James and Davis. The concern is efficiency. Out of 34 players to average at least 20 points per game over the last four seasons, Westbrook ranked 33rd in true shooting percentage.

When James drives to the rim or when Davis is facing a double-team inside, how confident will they be in passing out to Westbrook for a three-pointer? Better yet, how patient will they be if the shot isn’t falling? We have already seen what happened with Danny Green and Caldwell-Pope.

Now that the Lakers have assembled their trio of stars, many fans are hopeful to witness an NBA Finals matchup where James and the Lakers meet Kevin Durant, James Harden, Kyrie Irving and the Brooklyn Nets. As juicy as that series would be, the Western Conference is a gauntlet. There is no guarantee that the Lakers will make it there.

What helps their path is that the crosstown rival Clippers will likely be without Kawhi Leonard next season. The Denver Nuggets will be without Jamal Murray and the Golden State Warriors might not be the Warriors from four years ago. There is also uncertainty surrounding Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers and some potential roster changeup with the Utah Jazz.

Considering all of the top-tier point guard talent available in free agency this summer, the Lakers may have been better off trying to do a sign-and-trade. Such a scenario would have hard-capped them but after this deal, they are just $12.6 million below the hard cap with just five players on the roster. Putting together a deal for Hield is still possible, but the Lakers will have to get creative. Adding a third team to this trade, in particular, is one way to accomplish that. Again, it is possible but it will be complicated.

In a perfect world, the Lakers could have worked with Toronto on a sign-and-trade for Kyle Lowry. Even though Lowry is older than Westbrook, the current window for Los Angeles to win with this group is closing fast. Lowry would be cheaper and a much better fit overall. His durability, toughness, defense and high basketball IQ would pay dividends for the Lakers. Adding in the fact that he is a much better shooter, one has to wonder why the Lakers wouldn’t pursue this route instead.

Westbrook is still going to help this team. He is a tremendous asset for them in the regular season, especially when James is on the bench or unable to play. Having another floor general on the court to generate offense is something they have not had since James arrived. If Los Angeles can land some above-average shooting to the roster, Westbrook could flourish in this role.

With James sliding to the power forward position and Davis playing more at center, the key for Los Angeles will be to surround these guys with shooters. The Lakers ranked 21st in three-point percentage and 25th in makes last season. Expect the organization to be busy when free agency starts next week. Targets will include guys like Duncan Robinson, JJ Redick, Norman Powell, Evan Fournier, Doug McDermott, Bryn Forbes, Patrick Mills, Reggie Bullock, Kendrick Nunn and Alec Burks.

Obviously, the Lakers are counting on their individual talent and figuring out the rest later. It likely means the end for Dennis Schröder. Can Alex Caruso fit in and where does this leave Talen Horton-Tucker? The rest of the roster is in limbo, but the star players and the front office both feel confident that they will land the other pieces that they need to raise another banner next summer.

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Jazz offering Mike Conley $75 million over next three years

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According to veteran NBA reporter Marc Stein, the Utah Jazz are preparing to offer point guard Mike Conley a three-year, $75 million contract to remain with the team. Of course, the exact amount is a ballpark figure. Stein stated, “Utah has made retaining Mike Conley its top priority, league sources say, and is preparing a three-year offer said to be in the $75 million range.” The 14-year NBA veteran is a significant piece to the Jazz’s championship window, playing alongside superstar teammates, such as center Rudy Gobert and guard Donovan Mitchell. He helped the Jazz finish their regular season with the league’s best record of 52-20 (.722).

Utah went on to defeat the Memphis Grizzlies in five games in the first round of the playoffs. Though, the team lost four games to two in the conference semifinals against the Los Angeles Clippers. In the 2020-21 NBA season, Conley averaged 16.2 points, 3.5 rebounds, and six assists per game in 51 games started. Then, in the postseason, he averaged 15.3 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 7.7 assists per game. The 33-year-old also shot 44.4 percent from the field in the regular season. Last season, the 2007 fourth overall pick earned his first NBA All-Star selection.

On July 6, 2019, the Grizzlies traded Conley to the Jazz for Grayson Allen, Darius Bazley, Jae Crowder, Kyle Korver, and a 2020 first-round pick. Furthermore, the Jazz can still trade Bojan Bogdanovic and Joe Ingles this offseason, if they wanted to improve their current salary cap situation. Referencing Spotrac’s 2021-22 cap holds, Mike Conley’s cap figure is $39,344,900. Cap holds are for pending free agents. Conley earned $34,504,132 last season.

The team’s current luxury tax space is $11,173,027. In addition to the aforementioned cap figures, Mitchell and Gobert have a combined cap figure worth 51.34 percent of the team’s total salary cap. These two players’ contracts alone are consuming a huge chunk of the team’s cap. Plus, on November 23, 2020, Mitchell signed a contract extension with Utah. He is set to earn $28,103,550 next season. On December 20, 2020, Gobert signed a five-year, $205 million extension with the organization. He will earn $35,344,828 next season and $38,172,414 in the 2022-23 season.

However, if the team were to still trade Bogdanovic and possibly Ingles as well, this would clear up an additional 25.68 percent of the team’s salary cap. Bogdanovic’s future guaranteed cash amount total is $19,343,000. They are contributing role players who play together well with the team’s big three, but re-signing the most valuable players is the team’s main objective this offseason. Jazz general manager Justin Zanik might contemplate trading role players who are not worth their asking price. Competitive teams in both conferences have to trim the fat at some point.

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