As far as the Eastern Conference goes, the Central Division is where a lot of the excitement will be next year. With two of the top three teams in the East last season coming from the Central and other up-and-coming teams in that division having made some nice additions in the offseason, it sure does look like four of the conference’s eight playoff seeds will come from these five teams.
All that said, here’s a look at how the teams in the Central Division stack up following the draft and big free agency moves. If you missed it yesterday, Basketball Insiders kicked off this series by ranking the Pacific Division teams.
#5 – Detroit Pistons (32-50 last year)
Key Additions: Stanley Johnson, Ersan Ilyasova, Marcus Morris, Aron Baynes
Key Subtractions: Greg Monroe
From the moment that Greg Monroe took the qualifying offer a year ago rather than agree to an extension, it seemed pretty clear that he was not planning on a long-term future in Detroit – even with the team jettisoning Josh Smith’s massive contract midway through last season to help clear up the frontcourt logjam. It didn’t work out well that Monroe ended up in the Central Division with another team, but Stan Van Gundy did a reasonable job restocking the frontcourt in the wake of Monroe’s departure.
Ilyasova is the likely starter at power forward alongside Andre Drummond, while Morris and Baynes are the kind of versatile bigs who should make Detroit’s frontcourt reasonably effective even if it doesn’t pack quite as much star power as a year ago.
Still, Drummond has the chops to be an All-Star if the Pistons are able to stay in the playoff hunt (and they should), while re-signing Reggie Jackson gives them the promising young point guard they’ve coveted for a while and makes the news that Brandon Jennings could miss the start of the season considerably less interesting. Also, Stanley Johnson looks like he’ll be an All-Rookie first-teamer with his combination of talent, maturity and swagger, while Kentavious Caldwell-Pope should make another step in the right direction this season as well.
There are promising young pieces on this roster, but the Central is an incredibly tough division in which to play. Considering all the youth and new faces, they seem like the most likely team to fall to the bottom of the conference next season.
#4 – Indiana Pacers (38-44 last year)
Key Additions: Monta Ellis, Myles Turner, Chase Budinger, Jordan Hill
Key Subtractions: Roy Hibbert, C.J. Watson. Luis Scola
First of all, getting Paul George back healthy is a massive addition for this team. The fact that Indiana flirted with .500 and making playoffs last year even though George missed almost the entire season is a credit to how hard those guys worked (and how bad the Eastern Conference was).
One thing to keep an eye on this upcoming season is Larry Bird’s desire to see George play more power forward. Trading away Hibbert and bringing aboard guys like Ellis and Budinger help to turn this team into a quick, small-ball group that outruns people and knocks down a ton of three-pointers.
It was an interesting (and fast) rebuild for the Pacers, who easily could have traded away Hibbert and gone toward gutting the team and starting over, but instead they’ve reloaded with respected veterans who should bring some stability to the team offensively, and Turner looks like he’ll be one of the better rookies from this class eventually. He’s huge, athletic and only scratching the surface of his potential. As always, the Pacers found a gem late in the lottery to slide in among a group of hard-working veterans with an eye toward getting back into the playoffs.
Assuming Ellis doesn’t cause issues with the locker room chemistry (and he shouldn’t), that goal isn’t an unreasonable one.
#3 – Milwaukee Bucks (41-41 last year)
Key Additions: Greg Monroe, Rashad Vaughn, Greivis Vasquez
Key Subtractions: Jared Dudley, Ersan Ilyasova
Had the Milwaukee Bucks done absolutely nothing except get Jabari Parker healthy after ACL surgery, the entire world would be talking about them as this year’s next big sleeper team. Adding Monroe, however, turns this roster into one of the most exciting (and longest) in the entire NBA.
It’s crazy to think that two years ago the 15-win Bucks were the joke of the league after having finished with the worst record in franchise history, and then a year ago they were involved in the Jason Kidd scandal, only to finish last season with a promising first-round loss to the Chicago Bulls despite not having Parker.
To add two players capable of scoring 20 points a game is a major coup for a good defensive team that simply had no identity offensively a year ago. With Michael Carter-Williams’ deficiencies on that end, they’ll need to find other ways to score, and Monroe, Parker and even rookie Rashad Vaughn should help with that. Khris Middleton isn’t a top option offensively, and Giannis Antetokounmpo still isn’t quite there yet, but he’s inching closer.
The arrow was pointing up for the Bucks by the end of last year, but the Monroe addition and the return of Parker makes them look like the conference’s most likely upstarts. They aren’t quite on par with the Bulls and Cavaliers, but it should only be another couple of years before they get there.
#2 – Chicago Bulls (50-32 last year)
Key Additions: Fred Hoiberg (head coach), Bobby Portis
Key Subtractions: None
It’s not often that you see a team bring back almost an identical team, but Chicago already had most of their important guys locked up for this season, and by re-signing Jimmy Butler, Mike Dunleavy Jr. and Aaron Brooks, they essentially guaranteed that they’d return the same group as last year, even though that was a team that didn’t make it out of the second round of the playoffs.
That’s not entirely bad, however, as the Bulls were a team trying to work Derrick Rose back into shape in the playoffs and who were playing a grinding brand of basketball that, after five years under former head coach Tom Thibodeau, finally had taken its toll on the players.
There’s reason for optimism because this is still a very loaded team. A lot will depend on the health of the veterans, as Pau Gasol enters his twilight, Taj Gibson deals with ankle issues and Joakim Noah fights off a whole host of injuries, but Portis has looked great in summer league and Nikola Mirotic seems primed for a much bigger role in his sophomore campaign. In other words, the frontcourt is way too deep not to be fine.
New head coach Hoiberg should make the biggest difference though, as he’s a guy who should figure out how to get Rose and Butler playing exciting, symbiotic basketball together. And with sharpshooters like Mirotic, Dunleavy, Butler, Tony Snell and Doug McDermott on the team, there’s the potential for this group to shoot (and knock down) a ton of three-pointers.
Maybe the defense drops off a bit, but the Bulls should be energized by the new leadership, not only because Hoiberg will play his ailing veterans fewer minutes, but because sometimes a new boss makes life at work a whole lot more enjoyable. And everybody works better when they’re happy.
#1 – Cleveland Cavaliers (53-29 last year)
Key Additions: Mo Williams
Key Subtractions: None (yet)
So far, the Cavaliers have spent a ton of money keeping the band together after they made the NBA Finals this past June, and just by retaining LeBron James and Kevin Love they’ve kept themselves among the upper echelon of the division and the conference, especially considering Kyrie Irving will be a whole lot healthier by the start of next season as well.
The only problem with the Cavaliers is that they really haven’t done a whole lot in terms of making additions to their team this offseason, which wouldn’t typically be necessary when you’ve got James, Love and Irving on the roster, but the reality is that there are some concerns that those three guys just aren’t enough to beat Golden State or San Antonio in next year’s Finals.
Re-signing Iman Shumpert was well-done, even if the contract was criticized by some, and getting Mo Williams to jump aboard on the cheap was a nice move for them as well. Still, J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson (who is restricted) – two of the team’s biggest contributors in this past postseason – do not have contracts, and their losses would hurt Cleveland’s depth when they don’t have a whole lot of depth in the first place.
Getting those two players re-signed would a big help in keeping them in the conversation for next season’s best team, but even with all the work they’ve done, they still have more to do.
Keep your eyes peeled for the rest of Basketball Insiders’ “Ranking the Division” series, which will run through the next week. The Pacific Division got done yesterday, and the rest are soon to come!
Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards
Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.
We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.
The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.
With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.
The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.
Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old
Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.
He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.
Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.
Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old
Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.
He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.
Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.
Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old
Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.
He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.
One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old
Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards
Basketball Insiders’ examination of the 2020 draft class continues with a look at the small forwards.
It was announced on Wednesday that the NBA Draft would be delayed from Oct. 16 to Nov. 18. The rationale is that the extra month gives the league and its players association more time to negotiate changes to the CBA. It also grants teams additional time to procure information on prospects and allows the NBA to establish regional virtual combines. But nothing is set in stone.
Still, draft prep must continue. This year’s draft class has more question marks than usual – which was complicated by the cancellation of the NCAA tournament (along with the NIT and a number of conference tournaments). There are incredibly skilled offensive players with limited offensive upside and jaw-droppingly talented defenders with incomplete offensive packages. But if (recent) history serves as a guide, there will be a few guys who make an immediate impact – and some of them very well could be small forwards.
The small forward position is key for the modern NBA. Want proof? Survey the league and you’ll find that most – if not all – contenders have an elite small forward – Milwaukee, Los Angeles (both), Boston, Miami, Toronto.
But the list of can’t miss small forward prospects feels smaller than usual. Scanning the numerous legitimate mock drafts (including our own by Steve Kyler), it becomes apparent that we lack a consensus on which small forwards will be selected (and in what order) after the top 3 or 4. Can any of them grow into a star? Maybe. Maybe not. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s identify what the top few bring to the table.
Deni Avdija, Israel – 19 years old
Avdija is a relatively well-rounded prospect who’s played professionally since he was 16. He boasts good height (6-foot-9) and uses it effectively to shoot over and pass around opposing defenses. Further, Avdija is an exceptional playmaker and he’s incredibly confident, enabling him to take chances many players would be apprehensive trying. Avdija is a high-IQ player. And what’s more, he’s a surprisingly strong defender. His height and above-average athleticism allow him to block shots, and he’s more physical than you’d expect him to be.
But there are drawbacks to Avdija, too. His main issue is around shooting. Avdija shot only 28% in the EuroLeague last season, and he shot only 60% from the free-throw line. Further, while he’s a decent athlete, he’ll struggle to secure a role in the NBA. He’s going to need to add speed to stay with modern wings, and he’ll also have to bulk up to bang with power forwards.
Still, Avdija’s upside is alluring. He’s only 19, and his smarts, confidence and grittiness should provide him cover for much of his rookie season. Avdija should be the first small forward off of the board.
Isaac Okoro, Auburn – 19 years old
Avdija might be the flashier name currently, but Okoro will give him a run for his money in terms of which small forward is first off the board. Okoro is built like a traditional NBA wing; he’s 6-foot-6 with good strength packed in his muscular frame (215 lbs). Okoro finishes well around the rim and he converts well through contact. He’s an exceptional athlete who excels catching the ball on the move. Like Avdija, Okoro has the poise and composure of a more experienced player. Also, like Avdija, Okoro looked the part of a high IQ player in his lone season at Auburn.
And while all that is great, the main allure of Okoro is his defense. He’s a fairly advanced defender given his age, and his athleticism and timing make him an effective weak side help defender.
While Okoro’s raw abilities are exquisite, his refined offensive skills leave something to be desired. Okoro shot 28 percent on three-point field goals and he struggled from the free-throw line (67.2 percent). His mid-range jump shot also needs work, and he struggles in isolation situations.
If Okoro can hone his offensive game, he could grow into an All-Star. He has the ability to guard multiple positions, and his strength and athleticism give him a leg up on most prospects. But even if he doesn’t become an All-Star, he possesses a fairly high floor given his defensive abilities — and the guy definitely fills the state sheet (12.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, .9 steals and .9 blocks). He has lockdown defender potential and he’ll put his stamp on the game beginning on night one.
Devin Vassell, Florida State – 20 years old
Vassell played two seasons at Florida State, but he came into his own in his Sophomore season. He averaged 12.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. He shot a more than respectable 41.5% on three-point attempts, and he demonstrated a strong stroke from the free-throw line (73.8 percent) and on two-point field goal attempts (53.2).
Vassell is an extremely athletic leaper, who can rise up for a highlight dunk and sprint down the floor with ease. He has good body control and demonstrated a strong mid-range game, especially his step-back jump shot. But Vassell must generate more free throws through decisive moves to the hoop, which would be bolstered by a more muscular frame. Additionally, he must improve his ball-handling to get more from isolations.
Vassell will have an adjustment period in terms of scoring the ball at the next level. Fortunately, his defense and shooting should get him by. If he can bulk up and improve his handling, Vassell could grow into a serious player.
Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt – 20 years old
Nesmith probably has a lower floor than any of the other top small forward prospects given that he’ll be 21 by the draft. Still, he looked quite good in his Junior year, averaging 23 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game on a scorching 52.2 percent shooting from deep. Nesmith is an incredibly gifted shooter who has impressive range. His ability to catch-and-shoot and create space with fakes makes him a promising prospect – for the right team.
Nesmith is a high IQ player who uses his smarts on the defensive end. He’s also quite strong, can get buckets in the open floor and demonstrates above average ball-handling skills, as long as he’s not taking the ball to the hoop.
But there are inherent limitations in Nesmith’s game. He’s doesn’t create for his teammates too effectively and he turns the ball over more frequently than one would like with. Further, Nesmith is plagued by robotic movements that limit his athleticism. His ball-handling breaks down when taking the ball to the rack – something he’ll certainly have to work on in the NBA if he wants to be a versatile scoring threat against the bigger and stronger competition.
Still, Nesmith’s positives give him an excellent chance at being selected in the first round. His range alone will intrigue teams in need of a shooter.
Saddiq Bey, Villanova – 21 years old
Jaden McDaniels, Washington – 19 years old
Robert Woodard II, Mississippi State – 20 years old
With the uncertainty around small forward prospects, expect to see a revolving door of names enter the discussion after the first four wing prospects are off the board prior to Nov. 16 – assuming the draft is held then. But regardless of how you have them ranked, all of the aforementioned prospects have question marks. But all have had far more time to improve than they would have in years’ past. Let’s hope that shows come next season.
NBA Daily: Opposite Plotlines for Today’s Matchups
With the two matchups going on today, Matt John examines the two teams who could be in the most trouble because of one of their individual stars for opposite reasons.
The second round of the NBA playoffs was hyped up to be one of the most entertaining we’ve had in years. So far, they haven’t fallen short of expectations. We knew that Houston and Los Angeles’ battle of opposite philosophies would make for some twists and turns. We knew that Boston and Toronto would duke it out in an Atlantic Division showdown. We knew that Miami would push Milwaukee to new heights. We didn’t really know if the Nuggets would give the Clippers a good series, but the fact that they have so far has made an intense postseason all the more gripping.
Anyway, today we’re getting two games from two series in completely opposite places. The Lakers and the Rockets will face off for the series lead, while the HEAT will try to finish off the Bucks once and for all. Below, we’re going to focus on two teams who have an individual star that either may be more flawed than we thought or one that may not be as flawed as we thought.
Bucks vs. HEAT: Giannis is great and all, but…
We all pretty much knew this was going to be a good series. We did not expect this.
The buzz surrounding Bucks v. HEAT was that Miami was going to make Milwaukee earn every win they got in this series. If that was the plan, then Miami has failed miserably, because until Khris Middleton went supernova on them on Sunday, Milwaukee had come up terribly short.
Let’s first give Miami the credit that they are due and more. With Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler alone, Miami was going to be a tough matchup for Milwaukee – but to see the Bucks all but roll over in this series is an unpleasant sight. Acquiring Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala has paid huge dividends and it’s showing. There are other factors involved, but Miami’s defensive efforts have limited Giannis to 21.8 points a game and that’s played a role in the HEAT being in the driver’s seat of this series.
Speaking of Giannis Antetokounmpo, this series has not been a good look for the Defensive Player of the Year. Especially since it looks like his second consecutive MVP (presumably) is right around the corner. So, to see both him and Milwaukee, once an unstoppable force without an immovable object in sight, get stopped by a sturdy but not immovable squad is saddening.
Nearly a year ago, Basketball Insiders compared these current Bucks to the Dwight Howard-led Orlando Magic from the late-2000’s/early 2010’s. To oversimplify things, both were contenders led by a superstar with a rare physique that made them tough to stop. To put the superstar in the best position, they surrounded them with playmakers and three-point shooters.
While the teams’ roster constructions weren’t exactly the same, their strengths as a team certainly were. Now we’re seeing the Bucks’ flaws just as we did the Magic 10 years ago. If you have the personnel to make the lone superstar uncomfortable, the team doesn’t function as well.
Giannis is near impossible to stop, but the one major flaw is that if you take away his ability to drive and force him into a jumper, he loses his rhythm. Even if his shot is on – never a guarantee – his opponents will let him beat them that way until he makes them pay. Hardly any team can pick on this, but the HEAT are one of them, and now they’re one win away from their first Eastern Conference Finals since LeBron James took his talents out of South Beach.
This ultimately is what puts Antetokounmpo below the likes of LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard for now. Those guys are rare physical specimens like him, but their elite games don’t revolve entirely around their natural gifts as he does or Dwight did. At 25 years old, there’s plenty of time for him to change that and, for all we know, he will, but to see him struggle at a time when the conference was supposed to run through him has ignited tons of questions.
Milwaukee’s technically not out yet, but they’ve shown their mortality against Miami. If this really is it for them, then they’ve got to find a quick fix for this problem because if they don’t, then the unspeakable may happen.
Lakers vs. Rockets: Westbrook has been bad and all but…
Shaking off the rust and recovering from a balky knee would be tough for anyone. For Russell Westbrook, it’s killing his productivity and, in turn, the Rockets’ playoff chances. He’s averaging 15.6 points on 39/16/47 splits with a most recent 10-point, 4-of-15 effort from the field which included seven turnovers and air balling wide-open threes sticking out like a sore thumb.
It also doesn’t help that he’s playing the Lakers of all teams. When Westbrook has been in, the Lakers have taken advantage of his shortcomings offensively and it shows both on the court and the stat line.
Most of Westbrook’s damage is hurting Houston on the offensive end. With the All-Star guard in the game, Houston is minus-13.7 with him on the court, the worst offensive rating on the team. The 12 turnovers he’s coughed up in this series probably have something to do with that.
With Westbrook’s struggles and his predecessor Chris Paul coming off of his best individual season since 2016, this, of course, has led to many second-guessing the swap last summer. Or let’s rephrase that: People have been second-guessing that trade since the moment it was announced and, in light of recent events, they’re piling on now more than ever.
Maybe they’re right. Even after playing in the NBA for over a decade now, Westbrook still hasn’t proven that he can control himself enough to reach his potential as a team player. We’ve seen glimpses. On the other hand, Paul showed that he can still pick apart defenses while holding his own on that end.
But replacing Paul with Westbrook was Harden’s idea. He didn’t want to play with Paul anymore and chose to play with one of his closest friends. You may think that the better fit is what’s best for the team, but we’ve seen the damage that can happen when your team’s best players have friction with one another. It hurt Utah this season. It hurt Boston last season. It destroyed the Lakers back in 2013. There’s no telling what it could have done to Houston this season.
Besides, we know that as bad as Westbrook has been, he’s capable of being better. Not a knockdown shooter, not even an efficient scorer, but he has done better in the past when the focus was on him. The more days he takes to shake off the rust from his knee, the more optimistic the Rockets ought to be.
The Rockets have to take the glass-half-full on this one because they don’t really have a choice otherwise.