We’re over 20 games into the NBA year, meaning that the standings are starting to take shape and teams are starting to create their identities.
This week on Basketball Insiders, we’ll be taking a division-by-division glance at how everyone is doing and will hand out grades for each squad at the quarter-season mark. Let’s get things started with the Central Division.
Chicago Bulls 3-18
As most expected after the trade of Jimmy Butler and other veterans skipping town, the Bulls are in a world of hurt. The season started out with an altercation between teammates that sent Nikola Mirotic to the hospital and left promising second-year forward Bobby Portis suspended for the first eight games. That alone tells you enough about where the organization is right now.
Things have been somewhat better as of late, but the bottom line is Chicago has lost a lot of games, and many of those have been complete blowouts. Four of their final deficits have been by at least 30 points, including one near 50-point loss to the Golden State Warriors on the road. It’s ugly, but this is what a full-scale rebuild looks like in every sense of the word.
Bright Spot: Lauri Markkanen displays plenty of promise as a rookie on both ends of the floor. Second-year guard Kris Dunn has shown upside over the last couple of weeks. Both of these two are heavily depended on. Recovering from an ACL injury, Zach LaVine is inching closer and closer to returning as well.
Biggest Area To Improve: Just about everything. First and foremost, play faster and improve the shooting. Per Cleaning The Glass, the Bulls are dead last in offensive rating and effective field goal percentage. Pace of play is essential in today’s NBA. Maybe LaVine can be the spark this team needs, but everyone needs to pick it up if this team doesn’t want to finish last.
First Quarter Grade: D-
Indiana Pacers 12-11
The Pacers are yet another team that went into the stages of a rebuild by moving their franchise star Paul George, but this one is going far different than most predicted. These guys are competing every night and believe they can make some noise. Nate McMillan deserves a lot of credit for rallying the troops after taking a big blow this summer.
Through about a quarter of the season, Indiana is averaging 109.3 points per 100 possessions and has the third-lowest turnover percentage in the league. This is thanks to a lack of stagnancy on offense and crisp ball movement. Sharing the basketball has resulted in trust and led to made shots, which explains why they are the second-best team in the league in three-point percentage (39.7) to only the Warriors.
Bright Spot: Before the season started, all of the talks surrounded Myles Turner being the franchise darling, but the story so far has been the re-emergence of Victor Oladipo. After a less than ideal stint with the Oklahoma City Thunder, he is thriving in a new environment with the Pacers and has to be a front-running candidate for Most Improved Player. Bojan Bogdanovic was an excellent under-the-radar addition to bolster perimeter shooting. Let’s not slight Domantas Sabonis and his crucial contributions in the absence of Turner, either.
Biggest Area To Improve: Indiana’s got to start defending. CTG statistics cite that their net rating is basically zero, meaning they’re allowing the same amount of points that they’re scoring. The Pacers also need to start crashing the boards better off of misses, as opponents are averaging over 13 second-chance points per game. Furthermore, they’ve allowed the third-highest amount of points in the paint per game (49.3) in the NBA.
First Quarter Grade: B
Milwaukee Bucks 12-9
It’s only been two months and it’s already a roller coaster season for Jason Kidd and company. The superstardom of Giannis Antetokounmpo has placed a metaphorical microscope on every little thing the team does. Ranging from personnel to his supporting cast, all eyes are on Milwaukee as a team looking to make a leap to that next-level tier.
Greek Freak has done everything in his power to this point to make sure that happens, so it’s on his teammates to return the favor. Khris Middleton has excelled at doing his job, while Malcolm Brogdon has picked up where he left off in his rookie campaign and added a reliable jump shot to his repertoire. Even as a team, the Bucks are tied for third in field goal percentage (48).
Bright Spot: Aside from the previous names mentioned, Eric Bledsoe’s impact defensively has been brilliant. Previously detailed here on Basketball Insiders, he is taking individual challenges and stifling the competition, which has proved to be contagious to Milwaukee’s defense as a whole. Largely thanks to Antetokounmpo, they rank in the top seven in both blocks and steals per game.
Biggest Area To Improve: For years, the Bucks have not been able to get on the boards and it still remains the case. They rank dead last in rebounds per game and continue to get crushed on the glass. A lot of it has to do with the lack of a reliable big man, but that’s got to change if they want to compete with the elite teams in this league. Offensively, the pace has to be faster as well. Getting out in transition and capitalizing on turnovers is when Milwaukee is at its best.
First Quarter Grade: C+
Detroit Pistons 14-8
From the revival of the deadly Reggie Jackson-Andre Drummond pick-and-roll combination to the tremendous consistency out of Tobias Harris, it’s clear that these Pistons are not messing around. Stan Van Gundy is coaching up a group of guys who are determined to prove that last year was a farce. So far, they’re living up to their end of the bargain.
What’s remarkable about this Detroit bunch is what plagued them a season ago is now arguably their greatest strength. They’ve flipped the script as a three-point shooting team, tying for fifth in the NBA with a 38.2 percentage clip from the perimeter, and 89 percent of those made threes are assisted, per NBA.com.
Bright Spot: The Pistons’ bench is the one of the best in the league. Defensively, they are tough and provide a heck of a boost when those starters are sitting. To say Langston Galloway was worth every penny of his contract is an understatement. According to CTG, Detroit is a net 18.2 points per 100 possessions better with the fourth-year guard on the floor. The team’s defensive rating is a 93.8 when he’s playing, a difference that is in the 99th percentile among the rest in the league. Couple that with Anthony Tolliver’s +8.4 net rating and that’s a heck of a duo.
Biggest Area To Improve: Believe it or not, the Pistons have got to rebound better. They average the fifth-fewest number of boards per game despite Andre Drummond’s presence down low. Getting to the line needs to happen more often, as they only attempt 18.9 free throws per game. With a combined 107.7 defensive rating, the starting five needs to defend better together as well.
First Quarter Grade: A
Cleveland Cavaliers 16-7
Contrary to the popular belief a few weeks ago, the sky is not falling in Cleveland. A 5-7 start obviously wasn’t what they had hoped for, but an 11-game winning streak has pretty much cured the angst and tension of the team. Look at it this way: The season started two weeks earlier than it ever has. The preseason was shorter, as was training camp. It’s an older team with seven new pieces and one colossal loss. Was it really all that surprising?
Questioning effort is fair, but the conditioning of this group was not up to par. A little bit of time and patience has the Cavaliers back in the driver’s seat once again. LeBron James is playing the best basketball of his career at 32 years old, and that should frighten everybody. Collectively, the defense is a concern, but not nearly what it was to start the season. On the other hand, the team’s 113.8 offensive rating is the third best in the NBA.
Bright Spot: Similar to the Pistons, who knows where Cleveland would be without its second unit. Tyronn Lue found a go-to lineup that is giving him consistency and it’s paid dividends for about a month now. As specified by NBA.com, the foursome of Dwyane Wade, Kyle Korver, Jeff Green and Channing Frye has provided a much-needed boost to the defensive end of the floor. In 160 minutes together, it’s a grouping that has a +11.8 net rating and allows just 97.3 points per 100 possessions.
Biggest Area To Improve: The biggest surprise of the slow start was the inconsistency from two mainstays of the Cavaliers—Kevin Love and J.R. Smith. These two have started to pick it up—especially Love with Tristan Thompson out—but they’re going to need to give it their all every night. In addition, Jae Crowder needs to be more aggressive out there. When the 27-year-old forward scores in double figures, Cleveland is a perfect 10-0.
First Quarter Grade: B-
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