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NBA Daily: Post-Deadline Rankings – Central Division

Spencer Davies starts Basketball Insiders’ division-by-division Post-Deadline Rankings series with a breakdown of the group of five in the Central.

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We are three days away from the NBA All-Star break, meaning that the first half of the season is coming to a close with teams jockeying for position in their respective conference’s standings.

Last week’s trade deadline was wild and involved a ton of player movement. It’s still happening right now during buyout season, too. So who got better and worse throughout the madness?

Basketball Insiders is starting a division-by-division Post-Deadline Rankings series to illustrate and analyze what moves were made, who benefited the most and how these transactions will impact the race to the top moving forward.

We’ll kick things off with the Central Division.

Milwaukee Bucks (42-14)

Deadline Moves: Acquired Nikola Mirotic from Pelicans

What a first half it’s been for the Milwaukee Bucks. Sitting at the top of the Eastern Conference, they boast the highest winning percentage in the entire NBA.

Behind the brilliance of surefire MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo within the pace-and-space schematics of head coach Mike Budenholzer, they are in the midst of a special campaign with their sights set extremely high. They’re long, they’re athletic and, most importantly, they can shoot the heck out of the basketball.

Milwaukee’s final move to make that extra push involved trading Jason Smith, flipping Stanley Johnson (who they received from the Detroit Pistons in return for Thon Maker) and sending four future second-round draft picks to New Orleans for Nikola Mirotic.

With Mirotic taking over seven threes per game and averaging a career-high 16.7 point per game, general manager Jon Horst couldn’t have found a better fit for the Bucks. Adding him to a frontcourt with sharpshooters such as Brook Lopez and Malcolm Brogdon only spreads the floor wider for Greek Freak to penetrate and really test the best of defenses.

Clearly, Milwaukee felt it was necessary to keep up with the rest of the active East as they made season-changing decisions, but it could’ve happened either way. The rich get richer.

Projected Finish: 1st Place

Indiana Pacers (38-19)

Deadline Moves: Signed Wesley Matthews

Once Victor Oladipo went down for the year, the popular prevailing thought around the league was that the Indiana Pacers wouldn’t have enough firepower to compete seriously enough with the best of the best. And oh, how wrong those people have been.

The Pacers have ripped off six straight wins and currently hold the three seed in the East. Bojan Bogdanovic was just named the Eastern Conference Player of the Week following a four-game stretch where he averaged 22.5 points per game on 53.8 percent shooting from the field, including above 46 percent from beyond the arc.

As a team that is no stranger to handling adversity, it should come as no surprise that Nate McMillan’s group refuses to mail it in. They have plenty of veteran leadership in the locker room and a roster that is ready to fight on a nightly basis.

Stemming from a buyout with the New York Knicks, experienced swingman Wesley Matthews decided to sign with Indiana to play a critical role as another go-to scoring option and heady defender on the team. He’ll be coming off the bench at first, but McMillan has made it clear that Matthews will be a starter once he’s acclimated.

We won’t know until we actually see it on the floor, but the hard-nosed style of Matthews, along with his ability to knock down triples, should mesh well with his new squad.

Projected Finish: 2nd Place

Detroit Pistons (26-29)

Deadline Moves: Signed Wayne Ellington, acquired Svi Mykhailuk from Lakers and Thon Maker from Bucks

You’d be hard-pressed to find a more middling team than the Detroit Pistons. It’s one of those situations where you can see the progress and improvement—they have won four in a row and six out of their last nine—but can’t put too much stock into it due to inconsistencies.

Blake Griffin has been vocal about the Pistons playing with “the right spirit” during this stretch, however, he was also venting about his frustrations not so long ago regarding the team’s lack of focus in crunch time. As a team, they have a tough time putting the ball in the basket. On the other hand, they defend the perimeter well. It’s difficult to put your finger on them, like many other ball clubs in the race for the playoffs in the East.

Sending off Reggie Bullock to the Los Angeles Lakers for Svi Mykhailuk probably isn’t the best way to endear a commitment to this season, but there was more to it. They didn’t want to pay him in the offseason, plus they wound up signing a recently-bought out seasoned gunner in Wayne Ellington as a replacement.

It should be a veteran presence Dwane Casey will enjoy coaching, especially since Ellington’s been dying to play instead of keeping a seat warm with the Miami Heat. Detroit also brought in Thon Maker after swapping their former first-round pick Stanley Johnson for Milwaukee’s seven-footer. Could this be another project for Casey as we saw in Toronto with Pascal Siakam? Time will tell.

If the Pistons can score points consistently during this stretch run, maybe we’ll see them make the playoffs. But let’s see them bring it as they did recently against the Denver Nuggets instead of the Knicks and Wizards.

Projected Finish: 3rd Place

Chicago Bulls (13-44)

Deadline Moves: Acquired Otto Porter Jr. from Wizards

We had a feeling that the Chicago Bulls would move Jabari Parker at the deadline, and perhaps a few other candidates as well, but not many of us saw them getting rid of Bobby Portis. In a deal with the Washington Wizards, they traded the two and a future second-rounder for Otto Porter Jr.

There’s not been much to be excited about in the Windy City. There is Lauri Markkanen, of course, who has been playing like a true superstar—26.2 points, 13 rebounds with a 63.9 true shooting percentage—over the last four games. Porter appears to be a part of the team’s core going forward, as they’ve eaten the remaining two years (potentially three if he opts in) on his current large contract.

Jim Boylen is officially Chicago’s head coach for the foreseeable future and the direction has been set. We’ll see whether Zach LaVine is a part of this (he hasn’t exactly given Boylen ringing endorsements since his hire) and where the Bulls go from here. The rest of the season will be a focus on development and who will be around. Keep an eye on how Kris Dunn does in these last couple months, too, since it’s been a struggle for him to string together a strong stretch of games.

Projected Finish: 4th Place

Cleveland Cavaliers (12-45)

Deadline Moves: Signed Nik Stauskas, acquired Brandon Knight and Marquese Chriss from Suns, acquired 2019 protected first-round pick and 2022 second-round pick from Rockets

Similar to their counterpart in the basement of the Central, there’s not been too much winning going on with the Cleveland Cavaliers. They’ve been snakebitten by from the beginning with injuries, have employed a league-high 23 different starting lineups and seem to be all in on getting their young talent the most experience possible to end the tough year.

Collin Sexton’s found a bit of a rhythm over the last few games and, luckily for the rookie, Kevin Love is slowly but surely being implemented back into Cleveland’s lineups to give him a breather as far as pressure to perform goes. The locker room has been tested on many occasions, including blowout losses and pointed postgame interviews, yet the bunch has stayed together through all of the trying times.

During deadline week, the Cavaliers dealt both Rodney Hood and Alec Burks and received a number of assets in exchange since they were willing to take on the salary of Brandon Knight. They also received a former first-round pick in Marquese Chriss to provide some more depth in the frontcourt and potentially make a case to earn a contract in the offseason.

But make no mistake about it—this season has been about asset accumulation for general manager Koby Altman. Turning George Hill, Kyle Korver, Rodney Hood and Sam Dekker at the beginning of the season into two first-round draft picks and five future second-round picks was one heck of a job. While Cleveland will win more games next year, they’ll also have a ton of expiring contracts with value to load up on even more assets again.

Talent evaluation is going to be crucial to hit in these drafts, as will the correct coaching hire next season. The plan is in place though, and Cleveland should feel good about that much.

Projected Finish: 5th Place

There was plenty of activity within the Central Division up to this point, but the rosters are just about set for the rest of the year. Aside from the bottom of the barrel teams potentially swapping sports before draft lottery positioning becomes solidified, don’t expect these standings to change much.

Make sure to check back with Basketball Insiders as our Post-Deadline Rankings series continues all week.

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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