Next up in Basketball Insiders’ ICYMI series – where we’re taking a look at the biggest storylines that you may have missed from around the league – is the Central Division.
The Central is led by the Milwaukee Bucks and Indiana Pacers, two playoff teams last season that made aggressive offseason moves to improve this year. There’s also the Chicago Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers, both teams that mostly look much better than they did a year ago so far. Finally, the Detroit Pistons made a number of offseason moves, but are on track for an early lottery draft pick this year.
So, who’s improved from the Central and how? What has potentially gone under the radar during these early parts of the season? Here’s what you might have missed.
Nate Bjorkgren’s New Brand In Indy
The Indiana Pacers’ decision to part ways with head coach Nate McMillan following last year’s playoff loss was a surprise to some – after all, they’d made the playoffs in all four seasons under his tutelage. Unfortunately, those four appearances all ended in the first round with three coming via sweep.
Management decided the team needed a new leader to truly take the next steps forward, and they made a bold hire in Nate Bjorkgren. The former Raptors’ assistant is just what the Pacers needed to develop along with their still young core. With Bjorkgren leading the way, Indiana is moving toward an offensive powerhouse for years to come.
After ranking dead last in the NBA in three-point attempts per game last season, the Pacers have increased that number from 28 per game to 34.3 per game this year. There’s an obvious emphasis on analytics as they’re also taking significantly fewer mid-range shots than under McMillan.
That’s helped them move from a bottom ten to a top ten scoring team in the early part of the 2020-21 season. Even more impressive, that’s after who they’ve been without already this year.
T.J. Warren, the Pacers’ leading scorer last season, played just four games before suffering a broken foot. Caris LeVert hasn’t played after surgery to treat renal cell carcinoma of his left kidney. Both players are currently out indefinitely.
Seeing how the team has produced without two lethal scorers in Warren and LeVert is very promising. Once they’re back to full health, the Pacers will be one of the most dangerous offensive teams in the league.
The Pistons’ Rotation Needs to Change
The Pistons weren’t expected to do much winning this season as they undergo the early stages of a full rebuild. A number of offseason moves they made raised eyebrows but could be justified for a franchise looking to rebuild everything from the bottom up.
But what can’t be justified is their current rotation and lineup decisions. Dwane Casey needs to shift his top priority to player development above all else. Regardless of who’s playing for Detroit, they’re not going to win very many games.
Why are five of their top six players in minutes per game just veterans that aren’t a part of the long-term plan? After Jerami Grant, who is 26 years old and due bags of money moving forward, the next five players are as follows: Blake Griffin (31), Delon Wright (28), Mason Plumlee (30), Wayne Ellington (33) and Derrick Rose (32).
Remember, this is a 4-14 team with a number of young players seeing little court time. That includes Sekou Doumbouya, 2019’s 15th overall pick, and, to a lesser extent, Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart, 2020’s Nos. 19th and 20th overall picks. It’s only a matter of time before they get more playing time and the sooner it happens, the better off the Pistons will be long term.
The veterans should and will still be involved moving forward, but some are already on limited time in Detroit.
Derrick Rose is bound to get moved to a contender at some point before the trade deadline. Blake Griffin has been far too bad to justify 32 minutes per game. It’s understandable to be patient in most cases, but the Pistons have nothing to lose and everything to gain by giving their young talent more playing time.
The Cavaliers Established An Identity
The young gun Cavaliers entered this season desperately needing an identity on both ends of the court. Of course, they finished last year with the worst defensive rating in the league at 114.8. Offensively, only the Knicks scored fewer points per game.
It’s clear they’re working hard on both ends of the floor this season – and, suddenly, the future is looking much brighter in Cleveland.
On the defensive end, they’ve been extremely active in passing lanes and they’re forcing a league leading 17.8 turnovers per game. Using those forced turnovers as an easy offense, Cleveland is scoring 1.21 points per possession in transition and they’re shooting 59.1 percent on those possessions.
Of note, no team has more deflections than the Cavaliers so far. Larry Nance Jr., Andre Drummond, Isaac Okoro and Collin Sexton are leading the way with the activity and disruption of passing lanes.
Due to that activity, the Cavaliers are scoring over 20 percent of their total points in transition – and that’s a recipe for success. Given their blossoming transition offense and a buy-in defensively, Cleveland is ready to be one of the most improved teams in the NBA this year.
Young Bulls Showing Promise
The Bulls have turned a corner offensively this year under new head coach Billy Donovan. Much of that stems from having a stud offensive threat like Zach LaVine, but the surrounding players are doing their part as well.
After a frustrating rookie campaign, Coby White has shown flashes in his first chance to fully be the team’s starting point guard. His playmaking and defense need improvement, but the flashes are enough to get fans more than excited. As a natural score-first athlete, White’s 5.6 assists per game bode well for the future.
Additionally, Lauri Markkanen is showing the potential that had people so excited after his rookie season again. He’s shooting the ball well after a few down years from behind the arc and appears to be an ideal floor stretcher at the very least. Both Markkanen and White have clearly benefited from the changes to the Bulls’ coaching staff.
They’re joined by rookie Patrick Williams, who the Bulls selected fourth overall in the 2020 NBA Draft. Williams is playing smart offensively and flashing his incredible upside on defense whenever he can.
Ultimately, Williams’ ability to knock down shots is certainly promising, and it’s great to see him not forcing it offensively. He’s aware of what his game is and what his strengths are – that’s a valuable asset for the Bulls both right now and long term.
The season is still young, but the Central Division has quickly become one of the league’s most exciting groups to watch. While Giannis Antetokounmpo, Myles Turner and Zach LaVine might be stealing most of the headlines, there’s plenty of up-and-comers, new coaching changes and challenging rebuilds to take stock in.
Anthony Edwards Showing Promising Progression
Anthony Edwards has been a highlight reel every single night but his poor shooting has gotten a lot of attention as well. Chad Smith details why there should be no cause for concern regarding the future of the top overall draft pick.
There is a lot of pressure that comes with being selected number one overall in the NBA Draft. This is especially true in today’s game, where the top pick is expected to have an immediate impact. Often times when a player is the top pick, they are instantly the most talented player on their team, or at least have the most potential.
This was not the case for Anthony Edwards and the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Karl-Anthony Towns is still the face of the franchise. And, as many highlight plays and rim-destroying dunks that Edwards provides, he is still a raw talent with a lot to learn. To his credit, Edwards not only is well aware of and acknowledges that fact, but has the work ethic and maturity needed to fulfill his potential.
The former Georgia Bulldog is still just 19-years-old, but he has the physical tools to do what a lot of players in the league cannot. He does an excellent job of leveraging his size, speed and quickness to get wherever he wants to on the floor. His rebounding and defense have already improved just 35 games into the season. The glaring weakness in his game is shooting efficiency, which every scouting report on him around the league has written in all caps with red ink.
Edwards is shooting 37 percent overall from the floor, 31 percent from beyond the arc and 80 percent from the free-throw line. The latter indicates that he has the touch but the accuracy just isn’t there from long range. On average, Edwards takes 14 shot attempts per game and six of them are of the three-point variety. Nearly half of his shot attempts come from the three-point line because he is typically wide open, which plays right into the hands of the defense.
Whenever Edwards makes a big shot, he immediately tries to make another one. He’ll figure out the composure part as we go along.
— Jon Krawczynski (@JonKrawczynski) February 25, 2021
Once Edwards gets a grasp of how the game is played and what the defense is trying to do to him, a light will go off in his head. The old saying goes “take what the defense gives you” but it is also important to recognize your own strengths and weaknesses. Based on his work ethic and desire to improve his game, it is only a matter of time before he figures it out.
The numbers show that Edwards is already evolving in other areas of the game. After blocking just two total shots in the month of January, the rookie recorded 12 blocks in February. His 3.2 rebounds per game in January rose to 5.1 last month and his assist average went from 1.9 to 3.3 per game.
Minnesota owns the worst record in the league, but help is on the way. The Timberwolves fired head coach Ryan Saunders after their 7-24 start to the season. Minutes after the news broke, the team already had their new man: Chris Finch, one of the NBA’s top assistant coaches for quite some time. More importantly, Finch has a long history with Gersson Rosas and a solid track record of molding talented young players.
Finch worked with a young Nikola Jokic when he was with the Denver Nuggets and helped develop Anthony Davis when he worked for the New Orleans Pelicans. He joined the Toronto Raptors coaching staff this season and molded Chris Boucher into one of the top candidates for the Most Improved Player Award; it wouldn’t be the first time he pushed a player into the award, either, as he helped Brandon Ingram win the award during the 2019-20 season.
One other notable thing that Finch did while in New Orleans is fix Lonzo Ball’s jump shot. He started with the mechanics. Instead of Ball bringing the ball up from the side of his hip, Finch was able to get him to bring it up in the middle of his body. He also worked with the young guard on his shot selection, both of which have paid large dividends this season.
There will be plenty of tools for Finch to incorporate into his plans to resurrect one of the league’s worst offenses. Along with Towns and Edwards, the Timberwolves have been getting fantastic production from Malik Beasley, who just received a 12-game suspension. Ricky Rubio has been filling in nicely as former All-Star D’Angelo Russell is out with a knee injury. Jarred Vanderbilt, Jarrett Culver, Josh Okogie and rookie Jaden McDaniels are all part of the young nucleus that Finch inherits as well.
Before the coaching change, the Timberwolves scored just 1.15 points per possession on cuts and 0.86 points per possession off of screen plays, per Cleaning The Glass. Both of these ranked bottom five in the league. Finch loves to incorporate off-ball screens and cuts to the basket so this should give them a nice boost, especially with excellent cutters like Edwards and Okogie.
Despite the typical rookie efficiency issues, Edwards has been contributing in other ways. Using his elite athleticism to get to the rim provides Minnesota a multitude of positive outcomes. Edwards can either finish at the rim, create space for others to get open shots, or get fouled and collect points at the free-throw line, being the excellent free-throw shooter that he is.
It is easy to see that Edwards has the desire to win; he cares about winning and the team’s success overall. After their game against the Raptors, all anyone wanted to talk about was his incredible dunk over Yuta Watanabe. Edwards didn’t miss a beat though. “I don’t care about the dunk,” he said. “I couldn’t make shots.” Edwards did not dwell on the moment either, leaving the podium and heading back out onto the court to get more shots up.
There is a long history of guys in this league that have struggled with efficiency, then became decent or above-average shooters. It’s all about hard work, dedication, and repetition. Edwards has all of the ingredients needed to improve that part of his game. That is just one piece of the puzzle in Minnesota but one that could finally steer this franchise in the right direction.
NBA Most Valuable Player Watch – March 1
With the All-Star break on the horizon, Tristan Tucker updates the MVP ladder, with two former MVP winners picking up steam in recent weeks.
In a typical year, it’s rare to see more than two players in serious contention for the MVP award midway through the season. But, as everyone knows all too well, this is no normal NBA season, with three players alternating between the top three spots on what seems like a daily basis.
With the All-Star break nearly here, it’s time to take a look at how the MVP race is shaping up at the halfway point of the season.
1. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers (Previous: 1)
Embiid is at the top of his game right now, averaging 31.5 points, 13.2 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game in the time since Basketball Insiders’ last ladder update. In that span, Embiid is shooting 47.2 percent from downtown, with a 50-point performance against the Chicago Bulls and a 42-point performance against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Even more impressive, the 76ers are outscoring opponents by 18.8 points when Embiid is on the floor, which ranks in the 100th percentile of the NBA. That kind of production is literally unmatched, which should give Embiid a clear edge in the MVP race.
Philadelphia is a far more up-and-down team now than they were to begin the year, but Embiid’s continued growth has the 76ers with legitimate title hopes just five years removed from a 10-72 season.
2. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets (Previous: 3)
In the last two weeks, Jokic embarked on an amazing stretch, averaging 27.3 points, 8.9 rebounds, 7.9 assists and 2.1 steals per game while shooting 56.7 percent from the floor and 55.2 percent from deep. While the Nuggets are still searching for answers to their season, Jokic is doing everything in his power to keep them in the playoff picture.
If Jokic’s play this year was combined with Denver’s 2019-20 record, there’s little doubt that he would be leading the MVP race. However, a lack of consistency (with some embarrassing losses to the Washington Wizards and the injury-riddled Atlanta Hawks) has kept Jokic from outright claiming the top spot.
3. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers (Previous: 2)
James’ case for MVP has stagnated over the last two weeks, with the Lakers losing four-straight in that span. It’s hurt his case, but that isn’t to say that his on-court production hasn’t been ridiculously impressive, averaging 25.4 points, 8.6 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game in the last two weeks.
The Lakers are 14.5 points better when James is on the court and it’s evident to see that “The King” is keeping the Lakers afloat in spite of an injury to co-star Anthony Davis. That being said, James is going to need to cut back on games like those played during the team’s four-game losing streak; he committed eight turnovers against Washington and was a minus-20 against the Utah Jazz.
4. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors (Previous: 6)
Curry had an incredible February, especially closer to the beginning of the month. On the month, Curry averaged 32.1 points per game while shooting 41.9 percent on 12.8 attempts from three per game. That kind of production is reminiscent of his play in 2016, when he was unanimously awarded MVP.
Curry’s February numbers would have looked even more impressive if it weren’t for mediocre showings against the Miami HEAT, Indiana Pacers and Lakers. But the fact that Curry missed 30 threes combined in those games and still finished shooting better than nearly everyone else in the league is a testament to just how rare of a talent Curry is.
5. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers (Previous: Not Ranked)
With injuries to CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic, it seemed as if the already struggling Portland Trail Blazers were doomed to fade out of the playoff picture. Despite four straight losses, Lillard is carrying Portland with all of his might to a potential postseason berth, with the Blazers sitting at 18-14.
Over the span of two weeks, Lillard’s been on another planet, averaging 32.2 points and 10.8 assists per game while averaging 13 threes and making 37.2 percent of them. Take a second to think of the names that are starting next to Lillard: Gary Trent Jr., Enes Kanter, Robert Covington and Derrick Jones Jr. Trent and Kanter are playing well, but it’s hard to believe that that lineup is currently the sixth seed in the Western Conference.
6. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks (Previous: NR)
The competition at the bottom of the ladder is getting tighter with each passing week, with Kawhi Leonard and Luka Doncic each making promising cases while the HEAT’s Jimmy Butler has been a triple-double machine. But the selection here, at least this week, is Giannis Antetokounmpo, fresh off a game against the Los Angeles Clippers in which he put up 36 points, 14 rebounds and 5 assists.
In the last six games, the Bucks have put together a five-game win streak, with Antetokounmpo averaging 33.6 points, 13 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.7 blocks per game. “The Greek Freak’s” per game numbers have soared as Milwaukee’s overall success has grown, with his numbers inching closer to that of his MVP seasons. His success was even recognized around the league, with Antetokounmpo most recently named Eastern Conference Player of the Week.
While Antetokounmpo has a lot of work to do to make up lost ground in the MVP race, the Bucks’ recent play should have him among the top vote-getters despite some likely voter fatigue.
The period after the All-Star break is when teams buckle down and commit to playoff runs, separating the pretenders from the contenders. The feeling here is that the same will happen with the MVP race and that one true leader of the pack will soon emerge. Be sure to stay tuned to Basketball Insiders for the next MVP ladder!
NBA PM: Boston At The Crossroads
Boston’s not-so-recent struggles may leave them with some tough decisions to make, writes Matt John.
There’s no need really to ask “what’s wrong with the Boston Celtics?” because it seems pretty clear as day what’s wrong with them. Jayson Tatum hasn’t returned to his dominant form since coming back from COVID. Kemba Walker’s slow recovery has led to maddening inconsistency. Marcus Smart’s calf injury put things out of whack. They don’t have the support from their rotation players that they once did. And, as it turns out, losing Gordon Hayward can sting a little.
A team that seemingly hadn’t skipped a beat since losing in the Eastern Conference Finals has now become losers of 14 of their last 23 games. Their last three losses were particularly demoralizing.
- They had a 24-point lead over New Orleans, only to lose by five in overtime.
- They lost on a buzzer-beater by Luka Doncic in a tight game against Dallas.
- They got crushed by Atlanta in a double-digit loss that looked much worse than the box score showed.
Now here they are, standing at 17-17 and the blame game very much up and about. Pretty much everyone on the Celtics’ end unanimously agrees that the team is underperforming. That’s not a good look seeing they were the only franchise to have two All-Stars and a losing record at the same time.
The one excuse they have at their disposal is that they’ve never had their team at full strength. Sadly for them, it’s hard to know if full health will ever be an option with the current roster. That starts and ends with Kemba Walker. Working Walker back slowly is definitely the right move with his gimpy knee, but when he’s taken the court, his return to form has come in baby steps. He’s having more good nights than bad in recent weeks – scoring 32 points on 53/40/100 splits to go with 6 assists in a victory against Indiana cements his best performance of the season – but that’s not ideal for a player on a max contract.
He has yet to prove that he can play like the All-NBA player that Boston brought him to be – or even that he can play on a night-in, night-out basis. Those are two tough hurdles alone. Beyond that, who knows how long it’ll be before he gets it all back? If he gets it all back.
There’s plenty of season left and, from the looks of things, this team desperately needs the All-Star break to regroup. At 17-17 and the losses piling on in recent weeks, it seems that Boston has reached an impasse. Do they stick it out and ride this bad stretch hoping that the rotation gets it together or is this team due for a massive mid-season overhaul?
To answer that, first, consider how straight-up bizarre this anomaly of a season has been. Even in a 30-game span, teams have managed to flip the switch on their seasonal outlook.
It wasn’t too long ago that Toronto’s subpar play was building up a lot of ‘blow it up’ chatter. Now they’re right back in the playoff race with no signs of falling back. It only took a month for them to pull a 180. Further, it wasn’t that long ago that Washington was playing so poorly and Bradley Beal completely dead inside when he took the court.
Bradley Beal body language during the 1st half pic.twitter.com/qOMXk55CHc
— Main Team (@MainTeamSports) February 1, 2021
Now, the Wizards have won seven of their last 10. Suddenly, they’re not too far behind in the Eastern Conference playoff race. Their start made them look worse than they actually were – now, they’re one of the hottest teams in the league.
And remember when Brooklyn had the league’s worst defense after selling the farm for James Harden? About that…
Nets defensive rating rank since the Harden trade
First 14 games: 30th
Last 8 games: 12th
They have won 8 games in a row. pic.twitter.com/zQSIY3mgAB
— StatMuse (@statmuse) February 26, 2021
And they’ve done just that without MVP candidate Kevin Durant. The point is, this season was going to come with a lot of growing pains for just about everyone involved. There were expected twists and turns following the little time off between the Finals and opening night –it just wasn’t clear from whom.
For Boston, their season has flipped but in the exact opposite direction. Given the overall talent, Boston could be capable of flipping right back by virtue of patience and nothing else. The prospect of a healthier Walker and Smart would definitely seem like enough to get the season right back on track.
Even if time is all they need, that doesn’t mean a trade wouldn’t help them. The Celtics have the largest trade exception in NBA history to use – now more of a necessity than the perceived luxury it was a few months ago. After everything, general manager Danny Ainge has a spectacular ace in the hole.
An exception that can acquire someone as expensive as $28 million – so, potentially, a star-caliber player – would make teams salivate, but return ask is always much larger than imagined. Worse, only picks can be dangled – who might give up a legit piece without a young package in return? The answer is not many.
So although Bradley Beal and Nikola Vucevic would definitely turn the tides back in Boston’s favor, their teams would want more than just a treasure chest of first-rounders for them – and they might not even be available in the first place.
At this moment, the sellers market is beginning to settle, but that’s only in the Western Conference. Minnesota is firmly (and unsurprisingly) out of the race. Houston, Sacramento and Oklahoma City are not too far above them. If their seasons continue to freefall, that gives the Celtics options, albeit not the best ones.
Victor Oladipo aside, options like Harrison Barnes and George Hill aren’t often thought of as game-changers that can pivot the course of a season. Still, they’re better than what Boston has to support Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Walker and Smart.
So they can hold steady and pray for the best or trade for some help with draft assets. Then there’s the nuclear option: make some wholesale changes – an option that likely starts with Walker.
Walker never getting back to normal is a frightening – and real – possibility. As pessimistic and quick to judge as it sounds, maybe what we see is what we get. Someone who can put together a string of excellent performances, just not enough to maintain consistency. If this is who he is, given Boston’s lofty internal expectations, then they may not have a choice but to trade him.
At this point, trading him for something of value is probably out of the question. Just getting him off the roster would require including assets on top of him. Executives would usually rather swallow those contracts wholly or stretch them before giving up assets to part with a bad deal. Boston’s only hope would be to trade him for an equally bad contract that would better support the Celtics than Walker currently is.
That is a tall order, but still doable. Without naming names, we’ve seen players with previously declared ‘untradeable’ get moved, so nothing is impossible.
But odds are high that Walker will get all the time he needs before such a drastic decision is made. As bad as it’s looked for Boston in recent weeks, the wins against Indiana and Washington boosted them from ninth to sixth in the Eastern Conference race. They’re one good stretch from being right back where they were before the walls came crashing down on them.
Long-term, the Celtics should be fine. Tatum and Brown, of course, have already led them to two conference finals appearances over the last three years. While this stretch, which has objectively been one the worst in the Brad Stevens era, just seems so troubling for a team as successful as Boston has been for the last several years.
And for a team that once seemed to have all the time in the world, time might be of the essence for them now.