A look at the NBA’s Central Division:
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Cleveland Cavaliers
30 Wins 13 Losses (1st in East)
Projected 55-27 (1st in East)

Central
LeBron James believes the Cavs need another playmaker.

Even when considering predictable road trip losses to Portland and Golden State, Cleveland hasn’t missed a beat this season. LeBron has saved energy and played well, turning it on when necessary. Kevin Love has posted his highest usage as a Cav. Kyrie’s putting up career high point totals and career low turnover percentages.

In anticipation of another deep playoff run, Cavs GM David Griffin swapped a 2019 first round pick, Mike Dunleavy, and Mo Williams for 3-point sniper Kyle Korver. This trade represents a small victory for owner Dan Gilbert, who saves $5 million in combined luxury tax and salary payments by replacing Williams’ and Dunleavy’s contracts with Korver’s deal. Moreover, neither Richard Jefferson nor Dunleavy has looked like they could reprise the role Jefferson played last year throughout the playoffs. The team has yet to deploy a backup point guard, though the way coach Tyronn Lue staggers James’ and Irving’s minutes makes that a serious issue only if either gets hurt.

But because of that possibility, Cleveland is still searching the market for another ball handler. But after trading so furiously since LeBron’s return, what do they have left to offer? Nearly everything of value is nailed down in Cleveland. The rights to Turkish wing prospect Cedi Osman stand out as their best offering, in comparison to a lonely 2020 second round pick. Osman’s rights could feasibly fetch either the seasoned playmaker Cleveland seeks, like Devin Harris, but it’s just as likely that they’ll fall short.

The second rounder will likely fall far too low to attract any team’s interest. That may not prove that critical if the buyout market yields those types of players; Cleveland will need to lean on its sources around the league in anticipation of that. Harris, Jameer Nelson, or Aaron Brooks could be the answer for Cleveland’s playmaking vacancy. The latter two of those players wouldn’t be available if their teams decide to pursue a playoff seat. It could take a stronger offer to get Denver or Indiana to decrease either of their respective chances. Regardless, the Cavs are fairly inconspicuous buyers, making changes on the fringes of their roster.

Chicago Bulls
23 Wins 23 Losses (7th in East)
Projected 40-42 (8th in East)

The Bulls’ hot start obfuscated for somewhat many pointed out this past summer: Chicago’s talented roster would be held back by its lack of shooting. Chicago has finally taken Rajon Rondo out of the starting unit, allowing it to measure this team’s other options sharing the ball with star Jimmy Butler and elder Dwyane Wade. None of those players have pleasantly surprised with their contributions. Luckily for Chicago, it can clear around $20 million in cap room this summer by renouncing Rondo, Carter-Williams, and Isaiah Canaan, even if Dwyane Wade accepts his $23.8 million option. Wade’s decision should be interesting, it stands to reason that he would re-up with for a higher salary with his hometown Bulls, especially since fewer teams can throw money at him this summer. How much of that room Wade demands will, but it will almost certainly be more than the $24 million for which he’s on track.

His departure from Miami reminds one that salary is important to him as a measure of respect, although one’s priorities can always change. Both Wade and Chicago are better off eliminating any uncertainty here. The Bulls can far more easily sketch out its plans knowing if he’s in or out but may have to make a move or two to convince him they’re committed to winning now. If the Bulls have any inkling that Wade plans to accept his option, they will want to consider his pull with prospective free agents when making a move which might cut into their summer spending money.

The roster could desperately use shooting, particularly from a supplementary ball handler, and some athleticism around the rim on both sides of the ball. Doug McDermott has flashed a little more juice on offense and looks to fill out some depth on the wing, eliminating what could have been a need there. Chicago could swap impending free agent Nikola Mirotic and seldom-used prospect Bobby Portis to acquire either a big or a guard matching the above descriptions. Moving on from those players would also free up some cap space this summer. However, those players presumably wouldn’t retrieve someone that would really move the needle for the Bulls, who could still sneak into the playoffs without any roster moves. The organization is still better off trying to acquire difference-makers to complement Butler regardless of Wade’s decision. In addition to all of its own first rounders, Chicago owns Sacramento’s pick this July.

The problem the Bulls face in trading for a point guard is that none of the available candidates really fit their needs, other than maybe Lou Williams. Chicago also has Robin Lopez, Taj Gibson, and Cristiano Felicio, all traditional big men who would muck things up if it acquired a high flyer like Nerlens Noel. If Fred Hoiberg wanted to deploy Dwyane Wade as the team’s nominal point guard, a package of picks may net someone like Danilo Gallinari (or teammate Wilson Chandler). Either of those players would improve the geometry of the Bulls offense as a small-ball power forward. Borrowing from Dave DuFour, the Bulls could acquire Ricky Rubio to run the point and sure up its perimeter defense. They would probably have to include a first-round pick with Mirotic, Carter-Williams, and Jerian Grant to get Rubio, but would probably need Mirotic’s gravity on offense to score at a respectable clip.

None of these moves would fix all that ills Chicago’s roster. They would erase most of Chicago’s upcoming cap room, which it might rather maximize if Wade’s onboard. Regardless of whether or not Chicago makes any deals this season, it could cut Rondo loose with a buyout as he’s not exactly enthused with his new reserve role. The Bulls still have many moves to make, but typically don’t do much at the deadline. With few pieces matching Chicago’s needs available, it’s unlikely that GM Gar Forman will try to drastically improve the club’s chances this February.

Indiana Pacers
22 Wins 22 Losses (8th in East)
Projected 38-44 (10th in East)

Indiana’s reported unwillingness to even listen on Paul George trade calls sends a clear signal that they’re committed to building around the 26-year-old star. Right now, the Pacers have a little over a season and a half until George can opt into free agency, every second of which should be spent proving that they can build around his talents. The club has an inside track on the playoffs, but there’s some work to be done in that department. Sophomore center Myles Turner is the only other player the Pacers can reasonably pencil into their future beyond that timeframe. However, the Pacers could have a bit under $17 million to spend this summer by releasing Lavoy Allen and Kevin Seraphin (team option/non-guarantee). Indiana will likely have more cap room, but more slots to fill as Rodney Stuckey and CJ Miles each have player options worth a combined $11.7 million, but might get more on the open market.

Miles is the surest bet to get paid, making him the most likely to opt out. Jeff Teague hasn’t been exactly what the team needed to ascend as a replacement for George Hill, on defense in particular. But Larry Bird and Kevin Prichard have no easy route to replacing him in the event of his departure this summer. He or his replacement could eat into Indiana’s could eat up to $10 million into Indiana’s cap space. Depending on how much that would take, the resultant cap room may be close enough to the $8 million mid-level exception for over-the-cap clubs. Indiana could just take on some money via trade as well by flipping expiring deals to essentially double its spending money. It would also have pay that much money, which might be a factor for ownership.

Indiana could choose to serve any trade intentions through free agency this summer rather than the deadline. Stars (and agents) are also increasingly cognizant of how teams treat other stars, so Indiana should price that into its decision making. But more importantly, given how difficult it is to draft and develop a star of George’s caliber, the Pacers owe it to themselves (and to George) to try building a winner around him.

It seems as though Larry Bird’s focus is just that. Should George leave in the summer of 2018, Indiana’s cupboard looks pretty bare. Because of this, the Pacers should only deal its picks for players poised to win now and down the road. Indiana would be a natural fit for Courtney Lee if the Knicks were to pivot their position. If the club gives up some extra value to drop Monta Ellis’ or Al Jefferson’s contract, it could deal Rodney Stuckey or CJ Miles to third parties. Another fit would be the Mavs’ Wes Matthews if he becomes available.

Such a move would defray the cost of upgrading Ellis’ minutes by replacing his salary and sending assets from a third team. Assets collected through providing compensation for an outgoing player. Miles especially could help for the Clippers, Knicks, Bulls, Wizards, or Magic. Those teams would not return a quality player, however. It’s hard to imagine the Pacers parting with its key role players if they want to 0stay on track for a playoff spot. Not unless they’re convinced George will stay. While it’s worth sniffing around the market for a player that can help over the next one to three years, it may be worth trying put up a fight in the playoffs for both George and potential free agents to witness.

Milwaukee Bucks
21 Wins 23 Losses (9th in East)
Projected 40-42 (8th in East)

Behind Giannis Antetokounmpo, this young Milwaukee team finds itself in the thick of the playoff race. Because of this, the Bucks encapsulate a rather existential question about developing star players: does giving a taste of the playoffs to an elite young talent, with a nucleus around him, spur improvement enough to offset the benefits of adding a lottery pick to help the team in the future? If taking the safe course is pursuing the lottery pick, the Bucks look like they’re living life dangerously. Milwaukee has put together some formidable performances during a season in which Giannis has made the jump. Jabari Parker has emerged as a consistent threat to score the ball, while rookie Malcolm Brogdon has forced his way into the starting lineup with increasingly steady play. One of the best versions of Greg Monroe has been depended upon as a bench player.

The top-heavy Bucks presently sit one game out of playoff position, flying in the face of low expectations from most. Perhaps most surprising is the news that Khris Middleton will be slowly making his way back into the lineup within the next month after a horrific hamstring injury only four months ago. But with cap holds for Tony Snell and Michael Beasley, the Bucks should sit just barely above the cap this offseason even if Greg Monroe declines his $17.8 million option to hit free agency. That leaves them with few tools to improve this offseason, mainly its mid-level exception.

Despite this, Milwaukee should be perfectly content staying pat at the deadline, since it’s only realistic trade assets are its picks. The team has clear deficiencies, the biggest of which being 3-point shooting, but the cost to obtain a stretchy big, offensive playmaker, or sweet-shooting two-way guard will be too high. Playoff basketball may help as a motivator for this young core, but Bucks shouldn’t mortgage its picks figuring out for sure. Milwaukee’s focus should still remain on the coming years. Its core four are each 25 and younger, and it will need its picks to supplement that group.

With Middleton’s level of readiness slightly unknown and the Bucks focused on the future, it doesn’t look like they’ll be buyers. Alternatively, if the Milwaukee front office wanted to tank, there’s not too much on the roster that they would trade away to plunge down the standings. Tony Snell and Michael Beasley are the only contributors the team could reasonably trade away, but only for a small return. Such deals would neither guarantee a sharp decline in the standings nor a decent return. With those scenarios unhelpful, Milwaukee should sit back and watch these young Bucks go while keeping fingers crossed for Khris Middleton’s return to full health.

Detroit Pistons
21 Wins 25 Losses (10th in East)
Projected 38-44 (9th in East)

A month ago, many would have considered the Pistons buyers in the trade market. When the team was missing point guard and primary offensive catalyst Reggie Jackson, it looked very ready to challenge second-tier Eastern Conference teams like Boston and Toronto upon his return. It still suffers from a lack of wing depth, something the trade market could potentially remedy. However, the return of Jackson has seen problems arise, both in performance and in chemistry. This by no means has to be the end of these Pistons. But it does pump the brakes on the immediate expectations for this roster by raising questions going forward. Aside from issues with the team’s locker room, which may blow over with continued dialogue between players and coaches, there’s the issue of Jackson’s health. The Boston College product has not shown the quickness or explosiveness necessary to create quality shots for himself while maneuvering around screens into the paint, looking understandably rusty after a knee injury sidelined him for the first quarter of the season. However, the real issue has been his insistence on shooting the same volume of shots despite their reduced quality. While this seems to be a temporary issue, it raises questions about how Jackson’s game will age as he enters his late 20s and athleticism starts to permanently wane. During that time period, the Pistons hope to have a puncher’s chance at the Eastern elite. Because of that possibility, Stan Van Gundy has engaged in experimental talks with Minnesota about Jackson and Ricky Rubio.
Even with Jackson at full strength, the Detroit offense has little nuance with its one point of attack. Because of this, the Pistons could really use a secondary ball handler to play off of Jackson. Backup point guard

Even with Jackson at full strength, the Detroit offense has little nuance with its one point of attack. Because of this, the Pistons could really use a secondary ball handler to play off of Jackson. Backup point guard Ish Smith provides an excellent spark off of the bench, but slotting him alongside Jackson is duplicative. Neither can really shoot from deep, defend, or play off the ball. The club desperately needs another wing in its rotation, as the jury’s still out on sophomore Stanley Johnson. Unfortunately, ball handling and wing depth are rare commodities in the NBA, and Detroit may be better off investigating its foundation before building on top of it. A return to form and a spirited playoff series could very well convince the missing piece to take its mid-level exception in free agency. If not, the offseason trade market could bear fruit. Detroit owns its own firsts; if the season really goes south, it could flip its first rounder for an impact player this summer. Johnson, Henry Ellenson, and Boban Marjanovic are the only players with trade value not presently contributing on-court. Marjanovic may be on deck to replace Aron Baynes who could depart this summer. It may also be wise to remain patient with two prospects aged 21 and 20, respectively. The same patience will likely apply to the roster, as the front office and coaching staff simply needs more time to evaluate what exactly they’ve got on their hands.

 

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