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NBA Daily: First Quarter Grades: Central Division

Spencer Davies begins Basketball Insiders’ “First Quarter Grades” series with the Central, a top-heavy division that could potentially field three playoff teams.

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With November coming to a close and December fast approaching, the NBA is about a quarter of the way into the season.

Every team has played in at least 17 games, with a number of those having eclipsed the 20-game mark. Since the standings are shaping up and the divisions are sorting themselves out, Basketball Insiders will begin a “Grading The First Quarter” series, highlighting each group of five and handing out letter grades for each ball club.

From bottom to top, we’ll kick the week off with the NBA Central Division.

Cleveland Cavaliers – D+

From the way things have gone in Cleveland so far, you’d have thought this season would’ve been a surefire disaster. However, since Larry Drew has taken over, there seems to be a new type of self-belief within the locker room—and even more so since J.R. Smith and the organization decided to mutually part ways. Make no mistake about it—this team is not fit for the postseason and will not get there. But the way that Drew has galvanized this roster is nothing short of impressive.

Since entering the starting lineup, Collin Sexton has been aggressive with a number of sensational showings as a score-first point guard. Tristan Thompson looks every bit as healthy and engaged as Cleveland has seen him in some time, while taking on a leadership role with Kevin Love on the sidelines. Jordan Clarkson is buying into the system as a more willing passer, along with his quick hitting points off the bench.

For a year that was pegged to be an unmitigated failure, the front office can take a little solace in the fact of how this team has competed and been in pretty much every game recently. Still, it’s hard to see a situation where that doesn’t land them a top-five pick in the 2019 NBA Draft.

Chicago Bulls – C

As written in our “Areas of Concern” feature just three weeks ago, the Bulls have been banged up…badly. Fred Hoiberg can only work with what he has. Sure, Zach LaVine is enjoying a career season and Jabari Parker is finally getting into a groove, but the best of the rest aren’t cutting it. This is nobody’s fault—these are role players and young guys being asked to fill the void of top talent.

That’s why Chicago isn’t being as harshly graded as some may feel they should. There’s been no shortage of effort from anybody. Justin Holiday has always been a streaky type of player. Antonio Blakeney has a bunch of potential as a pure scorer. Ryan Arcidiacono is a tireless worker that’s earned his time on the floor.

Unfortunately, these players are not of the talent caliber to be fighting for a playoff seed, even in the Eastern Conference. Luckily, it seems like Lauri Markkanen is on the mend and on track to make his season debut sooner than later. Bulls starting point guard Kris Dunn may be ahead of schedule as well. They’re certainly going to need them to dig out of this whole they’re already in.

Indiana Pacers – B-

Though the Pacers have dropped back-to-back games, it’s not indicative of what they’ve accomplished so far on the year. They are as physical as any team in the NBA, which is why nearly all of their defensive statistics stack up in the top 10 across the board.

The majority of their offense runs through Victor Oladipo, who has missed the last three games with a knee injury, but who otherwise has not slowed a step after an incredible All-Star year. The other source of Indiana’s scoring comes from the fast break. There are over five guys, including Oladipo, averaging at least a steal per game. Those takeaways have led to 21 points off of turnovers, which ranks second in the league behind the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Third-year big man Domantas Sabonis is boasting a 69.3 percent field goal percentage, good for the highest in his career thus far and the best in the NBA among players averaging over 20 minutes per game. Having posted seven double-doubles, he’s an early candidate for Sixth Man of the Year.

Detroit Pistons – B-

Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond have combined to create an intimidating two-headed monster in Motown. Griffin has unleashed MVP-level numbers with his playmaking ability, improved shooting and a clutch gene, while Drummond is continuing his dominance of the interior with the most consistency he’s shown since coming into the league.

First-year Pistons head coach Dwane Casey is trying to change the way the offense has been run by generating more threes as he did in Toronto, but it hasn’t worked in the team’s favor quite yet. Their three-point rate is in the top 10, according to Basketball-Reference. The issue is guys aren’t hitting them on a nightly basis.

Detroit’s best perimeter shooter on the team statistically is Griffin (38.5 percent), followed by a vastly improving Reggie Bullock (37) and Langston Galloway (35.6), who’s been much better under Casey than he was with Stan Van Gundy. Reggie Jackson and Stanley Johnson need to start knocking shots down for this group to achieve its full potential. Other than that, with a solid defense and new life, things are certainly looking up.

Milwaukee Bucks – A

You want to talk about a franchise that is finally on the way to showing its full potential? Look no further. The Bucks are absolutely lethal as an offensive juggernaut.

Giannis Antetokounmpo is on the fast track to earning the moniker of best player in the East. Khris Middleton is putting up incredible three-point shooting numbers and is as dependable as a secondary scorer can be. And let’s not forget Eric Bledsoe, who just might have found the perfect head coach to get the best out of him in Mike Budenholzer.

Referring back to an old piece this writer put together this past summer, Brook Lopez’s addition has made all of the difference with Milwaukee’s spacing. He is allowing teammates to penetrate and, in turn, that’s led to easy points inside or a wide-open triple for him. The veteran center has knocked down 37.7 percent of those threes and has the highest net rating on the Bucks at a plus-15.6.

Look for this Budenholzer-led bunch to speed up even more as the season progresses. The Bucks have been searching for the right man to take them to the promise land—and he might be the perfect fit.

As you can see, there’s likely going to be a battle in the Central, a top-heavy division that could potentially field three playoff teams in the Eastern Conference—and one of those organizations might just be at the very top when all is said and done.

Spencer Davies is a Deputy Editor and a Senior NBA Writer based in Cleveland in his third year with Basketball Insiders. Covering the league and the Cavaliers for the past five seasons, his bylines have appeared on Bleacher Report, FOX Sports and HoopsHype.

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