One Question Every Team in NBA’s Central Division Must Answer By the End of 2017-18
NBA championship odds come courtesy of Bovada. Although teams that have been officially eliminated from playoff contention won’t be subject to line changes, be sure to double-check the numbers on postseason-bound squads before deciding on or placing a wager, as they will often move with each passing game.
Chicago Bulls (Off): How Much Is Zach LaVine Worth?
Is it possible for the Chicago Bulls to answer this most pressing question without actually playing Zach LaVine?
We may yet find out.
LaVine didn’t make his season debut until the middle of January due to a torn ACL he suffered with the Minnesota Timberwolves last year. Now, less than 25 games into his return, he’s back on the sidelines with knee tendinitis. He hasn’t played since March 15, and it remains unclear when, or if, he’ll rejoin the team this season.
Some could view the Bulls’ decision to not play him as tanking preservation. It’s not. Or rather, it shouldn’t be. LaVine hasn’t been great since returning from his ACL injury. His offensive timing is out of whack, and his defense has regressed—which is saying something, since he was a train wreck on that side of the floor to begin with.
The Bulls’ net rating, in fact, improves by roughly seven points per 100 possessions when LaVine isn’t on the court. So not playing him actually hurts their tank.
It also hamstrings their ability to determine how much he’s worth to them in restricted free agency. Though it doesn’t seem like they’re at risk of another team overpaying him, you never know. The right general manager may see that the Bulls have no choice but to match whatever offer he receives after viewing him as a centerpiece of the Jimmy Butler trade last June. That general manager could, in turn, come in over the top with an above-market contract, forcing the Bulls to overpay for someone who may never be the same.
This isn’t to say Chicago must rush LaVine back into the lineup. That would be a gross mistake if they consider him a part of their big picture. He only just turned 23. He has a lot of basketball left in him, and after the years-long Derrick Rose debacle, they of all teams should know how delicate this situation is.
At the same time, they need to have a number—both dollar amount and total years—in mind. They cannot go into this summer merely prepared to pay whatever it takes to keep LaVine. That would be disingenuous to the infancy of their rebuild.
Cleveland Cavaliers (+600): Does The Defense Have Another Level?
You knew this question was coming.
The Cleveland Cavaliers have been slightly better on the defensive end since overturning more than half of their roster at the trade deadline. They’re 18th in points allowed per 100 possessions during that time—not great, but a massive improvement over the previous status quo.
Lineups featuring Larry Nance Jr. and LeBron James have been particularly interesting. The Cavs post what would be a top-13 defensive rating when they’re in the game together—once again not great, but good enough when they’re trotting out a highly potent offensive attack.
Is this enough to get them out of the Eastern Conference? Probably. James has been awful on defense for much of this season. He refuses to exert himself on close-outs and is part of the Cavaliers’ shoddy pick-and-roll coverage. He remains one of the best lockdown pests when fully engaged, but he’s seldom fully engaged during the regular season. We’ve seen a much better version of him over each of the past three playoff campaigns. This year should be no different.
Will that be enough to give them a puncher’s chance in the NBA Finals, against presumably the Golden State Warriors or Houston Rockets? As of now, we can’t be sure.
The Cavaliers first need to see if they can float average defensive returns with Kevin Love on the floor. He’s too integral to their offensive spacing for him to have his minutes curtailed during the most important time of the year.
If Nance is able to cover up for Love defensively the way Tristan Thompson used to, the Cavaliers become that much more appealing on the championship scale—especially if LeBron, as anticipated, locks in. But if they’re destined to cough up bottom-five numbers (or worse) whenever Love takes the court, their postseason push may end before ever reaching the NBA Finals.
Detroit Pistons (+50000): Is Reggie Jackson The Right Point Guard For The Future?
A quick aside: While the Detroit Pistons are mathematically alive in the Eastern Conference’s playoff conversation, you have no business investing in them. FiveThirtyEight gives them less than a one percent of making the postseason. It would take an implosion of epic proportions from the Milwaukee Bucks for the Pistons to re-enter the picture.
Reaching this point doesn’t bode well for the immediate outlook in Detroit. Stan Van Gundy’s head coaching gig is probably safe, but the team seems poised to bring in others to handle his front-office duties. Not that it will matter a whole lot. The Pistons won’t have cap space this summer. They won’t even have a semi-reasonable path to opening up cap space.
The roster they have is the one they’re stuck with, at least for the time being. That means any improvement for next year must come from within. And though they can hope the Blake Griffin-Andre Drummond pairing polishes itself off over the offseason, Reggie Jackson’s performance is their biggest variable.
Jackson missed a huge chunk of this season while dealing with a right ankle injury, leaving the Pistons to lean on an inconsistent combination of Ish Smith, Langston Galloway and Dwight Buycks. They’ve also been forced to milk Griffin’s face-up game, which, yeah, isn’t great.
In the four games since his return to the rotation, the Pistons have a lot to be happy about. They’re outscoring opponents by 13.7 points per 100 possessions when Jackson shares the court with Drummond and Griffin. That’s an elite mark, but it’s also telltale of very little.
Late-season results are always misleading. The Pistons haven’t played out a particularly tough schedule, and a few of the opponents they’ll face from here are comfortable enough in their spot on the playoff ladder to rest key players.
Still, the Pistons don’t have anything else on which to go off. They need to see if the dynamic between Jackson and their bigs can hold, even if for a short time to close year. In the event it doesn’t, or should it show the faintest signs of cracking, they’ll need to consider making a change at point guard over the summer—assuming, of course, they have the minimalist flexibility to do so.
Indiana Pacers (+30000): Is Their Offense Postseason-Proof?
The Indiana Pacers remain one of this season’s biggest feel-good stories. No one saw them contending for a top-five playoff seed after trading Paul George to the Oklahoma City on the eve of free agency—not even they’re most devout supporters.
In many ways, they’re operating on found money. Getting to the playoffs at all is an accomplishment. They don’t actually need to make much noise upon entry.
But they’re not looking at their rise through this lense. They’ll want to do damage. And they’ll need the offense to improve for that to happen. They’ve dropped to 12th in points scored per 100 possessions after spending most of the year inside the top seven.
The catalyst behind their fall? A slippery shot distribution. They lead the NBA in long-two attempts and are 27th in three-point volume. They shoot efficiently on both looks, but the discrepancy creates a slight, yet meaningful, variance in points per possessions.
Indiana also relies on Victor Oladipo isolations a ton during crunch time. And while that’s worked out for them thus far, it’s also a red flag. They’re dead last in assist rate when playing in the clutch. In the absence of another premier one-on-one scorer, they need to generate more ball movement and additional three-pointers to drive up the appeal and effectiveness of an offense that’s starting to fall behind the progress of their defense.
Milwaukee Bucks (+6600): Does Jabari Parker Belong?
This question is both incredibly important and, on some level, a little pointless.
Even if Jabari Parker doesn’t fit the Bucks’ long-term mold, he isn’t going anywhere. He’ll enter restricted free agency over the summer, and they’re not about to let him walk for nothing. It would take an egregious four-year offer sheet worth at least $18 million a year for them to think about not matching. And even then, they might be seduced into keeping him, if only because he’s a No. 2 pick and they don’t have the financial tools necessary to replace him.
Immediately, though, this question matters.
The Bucks are getting blitzed by 5.2 points per 100 possessions in the time he’s spent on the court since his return from a second career ACL injury. The returns are even worse when he’s playing next to Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Interim head coach Joe Prunty might be able to mitigate some of this damage by using Antetokounmpo at the 5 with Parker at the 4, but the Bucks have yet to test out that exact positional combination, according to Cleaning The Glass. That also doesn’t profile as a permanent solution. The Bucks won’t want Antetokounmpo playing too much time at the 5. It will be hell on his lanky frame.
Parker’s offense is fine…for the most part. He’s still struggling with his touch around the basket, but he’s canning threes and mid-range attempts at an above-average rate. His defense, however, is abysmal, and something the Bucks aren’t built to overcome.
Strike that: It’s something they haven’t adequately tried to overcome. Malcolm Brogdon’s switchability would help, but he may be done for the year. Tony Snell is a potential defensive buffer in Parker-plus-wing lineups, but Prunty seems unwilling to play him enough.
Something has to give. The Bucks have already dropped to eighth place in the Eastern Conference and don’t look like a team that can contend with the first-place Toronto Raptors. If they don’t figure out how to make Parker a productive part of their rotation, both their short-term and long-term outlooks will suffer in a big way.
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