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The Next All-Stars: Central Division

Spencer Davies continues Basketball Insiders’ The Next All-Stars series by taking a look at a crop of talented players in the Central Division.

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Being an NBA All-Star puts your name in the history books. If a player earns such honors, his name is cemented among the best that have ever played the game. Good players evolve into great ones, greats turn into stars and stars turn into superstars. The LeBrons, the KDs, the Currys, Hardens of the world — they all had to start somewhere!

That’s why Basketball Insiders has started a new series this week to look at the crop of talent with an All-Star bid in their future, going division-by-division. Ben Nadeau kicked us off with the Northwest Division on Tuesday, and today we’ll follow up with a look at the Central Division. Just a reminder before we dive in — the criteria for who’s in line can range anywhere from being on the cusp to raw potential.

This particular group of five has a championship contender and legitimate postseason threat at the top in the Milwaukee Bucks and Indiana Pacers, respectively, so those teams already have current All-Stars and will be excluded (if you foresee Eric Bledsoe, Myles Turner or T.J. Warren achieving it, you can come back and give me grief if it happens). The Detroit Pistons don’t exactly have stat-sheet stuffers, nor many attractive options to consider as they have torn it all down, so we’ll focus on the remaining pair of squads in Cleveland and Chicago.

Zach LaVine, Chicago Bulls

Starting with the most obvious player makes sense, right? It’s even timely considering the conversation he just had with Alex Kennedy of HoopsHype. LaVine’s climb up the NBA ranks is a remarkable one. Perceived as a pure athlete with a streaky shot, his path took a bad turn midway through his third season when he tore his left ACL. Though many believed he wouldn’t be the same, he’s come back as strong as he ever has been.

The initial return in his first season with the Bulls took time but, over the last two years, LaVine is showing just exactly how much of a leap his game has taken. He’s expanded his range and become a true perimeter threat consistently, nailing 38 percent of the 8.1 triples he attempts per game. On the other end, his defensive win shares have doubled, per Basketball-Reference. He’s still got plenty of explosiveness when he takes it to the bucket, including those highlight-reel dunks we saw in his pre-injury seasons with the Minnesota Timberwolves.

You could have argued for LaVine’s case to be an All-Star in either of the last two campaigns. They always say the third time’s the charm, though, and with a new front office primed to change the direction of Chicago’s franchise, that certainly could be the case come 2021.

Collin Sexton, Cleveland Cavaliers

Judging by the team record and the advanced individual statistics, Sexton isn’t loved by the efficiency crowd. Flip that around to the more traditional numbers and that analytical opposition side of the fence adores him. At least in the Cleveland social media landscape, there’s a large divide on his career outlook. But Young Bull has a little bit of both old and new school in his game, and he’s only going to get better with J.B. Bickerstaff at the helm — just check out the post-All-Star break figures.

The bottom line: Sexton is already one of the most exciting young players in the NBA. There might not be anybody faster with a full head of steam. He has gotten a better sense of where his teammates are going to be in sets. Opponents are now going over on screens because of his three-point success, leaving him to beat his man to the basket or find the next man either on the outside or in the paint. Since the break, he’s starting to draw more fouls as defenders trail him when he puts the ball on the floor.

For Sexton, it’s all been about reading and reacting in the proper ways. Getting blocked is going to happen, but it can’t continue happening at the rate it has been — and he’ll adjust to that, as he’s shown his capability with drop-offs underneath and a nice floater. He still has a ways to go on the defensive end with staying attached to his man off the ball. His general awareness offensively, albeit much improved, still needs work. However, taking matters into your own hands can be good in the right situations.

The fact that Sexton’s played for four different coaches already to this point and hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down is extremely admirable. That’s because nobody’s going to outwork him, and one day that’ll lead to an All-Star appearance.

Lauri Markkanen, Chicago Bulls

Let’s not forget that Markkanen is 22 years old! He hasn’t quite had the season that we might’ve expected, but — when healthy — the seven-foot Finnish big man brimmed with the potential as we saw in his first two seasons. It all comes down to what situation somebody is put in and what role comes with it. His shot attempts have plummeted with the emergence of a few of his teammates, his rebounding numbers are on the downturn (mostly with Wendell Carter Jr. snatching all of them up before his injury) and he just doesn’t seem like himself.

Markkanen requires having the ball in his hands to be as productive as he’s able to be. Chicago has wanted him to spot up more and take more perimeter shots, which he’s done adequately. But that’s not his comfort zone. His wheelhouse is in the mid-range area. When the Bulls — or another team — utilizes that instead of trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, The Finnisher will benefit. He was on the right track before his sophomore season ended and the strategy changed. This year should only prove to be a bump in the road for a talented young man.

Kevin Porter Jr., Cleveland Cavaliers

What an outstanding and fun player Kevin Porter Jr. is to watch. There are 29 other teams that decided to pass up on the Seattle native in last summer’s NBA Draft. The majority of those organizations are likely going to regret it.

Aside from a few moments where he lost his cool with the officiating, Porter has displayed the characteristics of everything you want in a franchise player on the floor. He has versatility as a playmaker with the ball in his hands and a cutter, can catch fire in an instant and oozes immense promise as a lockdown defender with length for days.

Throughout the year, Porter has given us moments that scream superstar. Look no further than a December showdown with James Harden in the fourth quarter and a career night in a huge comeback win against the Miami HEAT in late February. It’ll be well worth your time.

Coby White, Chicago Bulls

Before the NBA shut down, White was the talk of the town. Why? Because the North Carolina rookie was simply unconscious from deep, like breaking team and league records. He became the first rookie in history to post back-to-back 30 point games coming off the bench (why was he there in the first place again?) in magnificent performances. All it takes is an opportunity to shine, and White did not take it for granted. He’s made one start this season and it was a 20-point, 5-rebound, 5-assist statline in a win against the Cavaliers in the team’s last game.

The 9 turnovers were self-inflicted wounds, an area he needs to get smarter with, but the sheer explosion of scoring and gumption to take all of the shots he has is certainly something. White doesn’t fear failure. He’s gone out and proven it. With the Bulls shifting their course, it’ll be exciting to see how White is coveted.

As you can tell, there’s a lot of backcourt talent on this list. The Central has plenty of proven frontcourt players that have already put a stamp on their careers with All-Star appearances.

Their guards and wings might be the next in line to do so.

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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Mavericks are expected to pick up Willie Cauley-Stein’s $4.1 million option

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Per ESPN’s Tim MacMahon, the Dallas Mavericks are planning to pick up center Willie Cauley-Stein’s $4.1 million option for the 2021-22 NBA season. The deadline is tomorrow. Last season, in 53 games played, the seven-foot big man averaged 5.3 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. The sixth-year player also shot 63.2 percent from the field last season.

On July 8, 2019, Cauley-Stein signed a two-year, $4.46 million contract with the Golden State Warriors. Then, on January 25, 2020, Cauley-Stein was traded to the Mavericks for a 2020 second-round pick. If everything goes smoothly, the 27-year-old center is set to earn $4.1 million next season. The 2015 sixth overall pick’s contract consumes less than three percent of the team’s total salary cap.

This news comes right after Dallas received center Moses Brown from the Boston Celtics. Brown is a seven-foot-two, 2019 undrafted player out of UCLA. In 2021, Brown was named to the All-NBA G League First Team and All-Defensive Team. On March 28, 2021, the 21-year-old center signed a four-year, $6.8 million contract with the Thunder.

However, on June 18, 2021, the Oklahoma City Thunder traded Brown, Al Horford, and a 2023 second-round pick to the Celtics for Kemba Walker, a 2021 first-round pick, and a 2025 second-round pick. With Boston, Brown was set to earn $1,701,593 next season. Of course, the Mavs’ organization is finalizing a trade to send Josh Richardson to the Celtics as well. In other news, today is Mavs’ owner Mark Cuban’s 63rd birthday.

Referencing Spotrac’s 2021-22 luxury tax totals, the Mavs’ current luxury tax space is $52,326,531. The 2021 NBA salary cap maximum is $112,414,000. Their current cap space is $27,595,632. Cauley-Stein’s contract is recognized as a club option, not a player option or guaranteed money. Richardson’s deadline is also tomorrow, so because he is getting traded to Boston, the team will not collect his $11,615,328 player option.

Plus, Jalen Brunson’s deadline is also August 1st. His guaranteed value is $1,802,057. Leading into the 2021-22 season, Kristaps Porzingis has the highest cap figure on the team, which is an amount worth $31,650,600, consuming 22.73 percent of the team’s total salary cap. At the moment, Porzingis is a popular name in trade rumor articles. Bettors and NBA analysts are predicting a possible trade to the Brooklyn Nets, Sacramento Kings, or Philadelphia 76ers.

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Lakers Need More Than Big Three

The Lakers have their “big three” after trading for Russell Westbrook but is he the right fit in Los Angeles? The former MVP has had an incredible career but he may not be the point guard the Lakers desperately need.

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The Los Angeles Lakers have formed their three-headed monster as they pursue the franchise’s 18th championship next season. Just as the NBA Draft was getting started, the Lakers completed a deal with the Washington Wizards that landed them the 2016-17 league MVP, Russell Westbrook.

The deal sent Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell and the 21st overall pick in this year’s draft to Washington, paving the way for Westbrook to join fellow superstars LeBron James and Anthony Davis. While the Lakers added a dynamic point guard, not everyone is sold on the idea that the Lakers are the team to beat in the loaded Western Conference.

Over the past several weeks, the Lakers were rumored to be seeking perimeter shooting. Some reports had Los Angeles linked to guys like Chris Paul, Buddy Hield and DeMar DeRozan. When the dust settled, it was Washington that made the deal as Westbrook informed the front office that he preferred the Lakers as a destination.

The move is a homecoming of sorts, as Westbrook grew up in the area and spent two seasons playing at UCLA, leading the Bruins to the 2008 Final Four. He had a solid 2020-21 season, averaging 22.2 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 11.7 assists per game for the Wizards, who earned the No. 8 seed in the playoffs.

Oddly enough, this is the third straight offseason in which the 9-time All-Star has been traded. After leaving Oklahoma City, Westbrook was not able to find postseason success in Houston or Washington. Will that now change in Los Angeles?

For all of his accomplishments, Westbrook’s legacy has been defined by his play during the regular season. This past season, the point guard passed Oscar Robertson for the most triple-doubles in the history of the game. Out of his 184 triple-doubles, only 12 have come in the playoffs. By comparison, Magic Johnson has the most playoff career triple-doubles with 30, and James is next with 28. Now all three will have played for the Lakers during their careers.

The thing about triple-doubles (and this is especially the case with Westbrook) is that they don’t always translate to wins. They clearly help the team overall but some would argue that a more balanced attack is tougher to stop. History has shown that having a “big three” is almost a requirement to be considered a legitimate championship contender, but this trio in Los Angeles doesn’t exactly fit together like many of those others.

As talented and valuable as Westbrook has been over the course of his career, he needs to have the ball to be effective. His poor perimeter shooting has been the big hiccup in his game, and that is something that this Lakers team desperately needs. The problem isn’t that any of these three won’t share the ball. In fact, they had already discussed checking their egos even before this trade went down.

Westbrook has never had a problem sharing the ball. He was able to co-exist with Durant in Oklahoma City, Harden in Houston and Beal in Washington. The difference in this scenario is that he will be occupying the same space as James and Davis. The concern is efficiency. Out of 34 players to average at least 20 points per game over the last four seasons, Westbrook ranked 33rd in true shooting percentage.

When James drives to the rim or when Davis is facing a double-team inside, how confident will they be in passing out to Westbrook for a three-pointer? Better yet, how patient will they be if the shot isn’t falling? We have already seen what happened with Danny Green and Caldwell-Pope.

Now that the Lakers have assembled their trio of stars, many fans are hopeful to witness an NBA Finals matchup where James and the Lakers meet Kevin Durant, James Harden, Kyrie Irving and the Brooklyn Nets. As juicy as that series would be, the Western Conference is a gauntlet. There is no guarantee that the Lakers will make it there.

What helps their path is that the crosstown rival Clippers will likely be without Kawhi Leonard next season. The Denver Nuggets will be without Jamal Murray and the Golden State Warriors might not be the Warriors from four years ago. There is also uncertainty surrounding Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers and some potential roster changeup with the Utah Jazz.

Considering all of the top-tier point guard talent available in free agency this summer, the Lakers may have been better off trying to do a sign-and-trade. Such a scenario would have hard-capped them but after this deal, they are just $12.6 million below the hard cap with just five players on the roster. Putting together a deal for Hield is still possible, but the Lakers will have to get creative. Adding a third team to this trade, in particular, is one way to accomplish that. Again, it is possible but it will be complicated.

In a perfect world, the Lakers could have worked with Toronto on a sign-and-trade for Kyle Lowry. Even though Lowry is older than Westbrook, the current window for Los Angeles to win with this group is closing fast. Lowry would be cheaper and a much better fit overall. His durability, toughness, defense and high basketball IQ would pay dividends for the Lakers. Adding in the fact that he is a much better shooter, one has to wonder why the Lakers wouldn’t pursue this route instead.

Westbrook is still going to help this team. He is a tremendous asset for them in the regular season, especially when James is on the bench or unable to play. Having another floor general on the court to generate offense is something they have not had since James arrived. If Los Angeles can land some above-average shooting to the roster, Westbrook could flourish in this role.

With James sliding to the power forward position and Davis playing more at center, the key for Los Angeles will be to surround these guys with shooters. The Lakers ranked 21st in three-point percentage and 25th in makes last season. Expect the organization to be busy when free agency starts next week. Targets will include guys like Duncan Robinson, JJ Redick, Norman Powell, Evan Fournier, Doug McDermott, Bryn Forbes, Patrick Mills, Reggie Bullock, Kendrick Nunn and Alec Burks.

Obviously, the Lakers are counting on their individual talent and figuring out the rest later. It likely means the end for Dennis Schröder. Can Alex Caruso fit in and where does this leave Talen Horton-Tucker? The rest of the roster is in limbo, but the star players and the front office both feel confident that they will land the other pieces that they need to raise another banner next summer.

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Jazz offering Mike Conley $75 million over next three years

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According to veteran NBA reporter Marc Stein, the Utah Jazz are preparing to offer point guard Mike Conley a three-year, $75 million contract to remain with the team. Of course, the exact amount is a ballpark figure. Stein stated, “Utah has made retaining Mike Conley its top priority, league sources say, and is preparing a three-year offer said to be in the $75 million range.” The 14-year NBA veteran is a significant piece to the Jazz’s championship window, playing alongside superstar teammates, such as center Rudy Gobert and guard Donovan Mitchell. He helped the Jazz finish their regular season with the league’s best record of 52-20 (.722).

Utah went on to defeat the Memphis Grizzlies in five games in the first round of the playoffs. Though, the team lost four games to two in the conference semifinals against the Los Angeles Clippers. In the 2020-21 NBA season, Conley averaged 16.2 points, 3.5 rebounds, and six assists per game in 51 games started. Then, in the postseason, he averaged 15.3 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 7.7 assists per game. The 33-year-old also shot 44.4 percent from the field in the regular season. Last season, the 2007 fourth overall pick earned his first NBA All-Star selection.

On July 6, 2019, the Grizzlies traded Conley to the Jazz for Grayson Allen, Darius Bazley, Jae Crowder, Kyle Korver, and a 2020 first-round pick. Furthermore, the Jazz can still trade Bojan Bogdanovic and Joe Ingles this offseason, if they wanted to improve their current salary cap situation. Referencing Spotrac’s 2021-22 cap holds, Mike Conley’s cap figure is $39,344,900. Cap holds are for pending free agents. Conley earned $34,504,132 last season.

The team’s current luxury tax space is $11,173,027. In addition to the aforementioned cap figures, Mitchell and Gobert have a combined cap figure worth 51.34 percent of the team’s total salary cap. These two players’ contracts alone are consuming a huge chunk of the team’s cap. Plus, on November 23, 2020, Mitchell signed a contract extension with Utah. He is set to earn $28,103,550 next season. On December 20, 2020, Gobert signed a five-year, $205 million extension with the organization. He will earn $35,344,828 next season and $38,172,414 in the 2022-23 season.

However, if the team were to still trade Bogdanovic and possibly Ingles as well, this would clear up an additional 25.68 percent of the team’s salary cap. Bogdanovic’s future guaranteed cash amount total is $19,343,000. They are contributing role players who play together well with the team’s big three, but re-signing the most valuable players is the team’s main objective this offseason. Jazz general manager Justin Zanik might contemplate trading role players who are not worth their asking price. Competitive teams in both conferences have to trim the fat at some point.

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