Central Division Preview: The Bucks (Kinda) Run it Back

Welcome to the fifth of the Corner Three 2019-2020 NBA division-by-division season previews. In each of these previews, we use RJ Garcia’s player-by-player ratings (based on on/off metrics and career trajectory) and per-game minutes projections (taking into account potential minutes lost to injury) to project overall team quality for the upcoming season. RJ and Derek Reifer also provide their own analyses and commentary to provide any context and additional insights.

Northwest Breakdown here.

Southwest Breakdown here.

Pacific Breakdown here.

Southeast Division here.

We continue with the Central Division:


1. Milwaukee Bucks – 56 Wins (2018-19: 60 Wins)

Player Minutes Rating
PG Bledsoe, Eric 26 3
SG Matthews, Wesley 18 -1.5
SF Middleton, Khris 29 2
PF Antetokounmpo, Giannis 30 6.5
C Lopez, Brook 26 3
6 Hill, George 20 1
7 Lopez, Robin 16 -2
8 Connaughton, Pat 15 -0.5
9 Brown, Sterling 15 -2
10 Ilyasova, Ersan 12 0
11 Wilson, D.J. 11 -1
12 DiVincenzo, Donte 10 -1.5
13 Kover, Kyle 9 -0.5
14 Bender, Dragan 2 -2
15 Mason III, Frank 1 -1
16 Leuer, Jon 0 -2.5
17 Antetokounmpo, Thanasis 0 -3

RJ’s Big Picture:

Compared to the other 2018-19 contenders, the Bucks have the most turnover in their rotation coming into this year, including the loss of Malcolm Brogdon to the avoiding-the-luxury-tax-gods. A sign of the Bucks’ intentions this year is that the majority of their offseason rotation additions were seasoned veterans like Wesley Matthews, Robin Lopez, and Kyle Korver, and players that fit the identity that Mike Budenholzer and the coaching staff have attempted to create in Milwaukee.
Last year, the Bucks had limited the minutes of their starters throughout the regular season, largely because of how many blowouts the team was able to rack up. Many Bucks observers were hoping that Budenholzer would crank up the rotation with heavy minutes from Giannis and Middleton in the playoffs, but that didn’t really happen. Giannis had two games above 40 minutes in the playoffs and players such as Ersan Ilyasova and Pat Connaughton playing significant playoff minutes, players who may not be at the level of an intense playoff series. Since the Bucks’ regular season will likely be a walk through between how good this team is and how weak the Eastern Conference is, one of the biggest points to watch this year for this team probably won’t come until they see the Sixers in the playoffs.

RJ’s Big Question:

Will the Bucks be able to get anything out of the lottery ticket guys? The Bucks have three players that provide some sort of variance for a team that is all things considered extremely low variance: DJ Wilson, Donte DiVincenzo, and Dragan Bender. This is where the most intrigue for this season might lie, both for the development of this team but also to develop some sort of trade asset for a deadline move. DiVincenzo in the draft was considered to be an energy scorer that was able to come in and get hot for a bit scoring, but due to injuries in 2018-19 he wasn’t able to show any of that last year. It is also to be seen if that is a skill that is really needed for the Bucks, or if they would be better off trading him for some sort of a switchable wing, a low end one most likely, but still. A player who could already be that switchable wing for the Bucks, though, is DJ Wilson. Bucks’ Twitter aficionado and founder of tech website Stratechery Ben Thompson has consistently called for more minutes for Wilson in both the regular season and in pressure situations in the playoffs. Wilson didn’t gain Budenholzer’s trust enough to play any serious minutes in the playoffs, and watching how Wilson’s minutes track this season is a major point to watch.

Derek’s Big Number: +9.1.

That was the Bucks’ average point differential last season, by far the best in the league. For some perspective, the Warriors were +7.9, and the eventual champion Raptors were +6.1. This is an insane number, and actually implies that the Bucks’ outperformed their real 60-win total during the regular season, playing at the strength of a 62.4-win team per Cleaning the Glass. Will that continue this season? The only missing name is Malcolm Brogdon, but they are counting on many players (most notably Eric Bledsoe, Khris Middleton, and Brook Lopez) to repeat their awesome seasons.

Derek’s Film Room:

I’m very intrigued by Eric Bledsoe this season. Despite being a member of Mike Budenholzer’s spread-it-out-for-Giannis offense, he still struggled to catch-and-shoot last year (28.7% FG). The Raptors took advantage of this in the playoffs. He’s clearly a guy that needs the ball in his hands, and he’s a whole lot more efficient when he has it:

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Interestingly, he and Giannis pretty much always shared the court, with the top 4 lineups Bud used last season all including both him and Giannis. Is there an opportunity to make this team better by letting Eric be more of Eric? After recently signing him to an extension, the Bucks might want to try.


2. Chicago Bulls – 41 Wins (2018-19: 22 Wins)

Player Minutes Rating
PG Satoranský, Tomáš 24 0
SG LaVine, Zach 26 -0.5
SF Porter Jr., Otto 29 3
PF Markkanen, Lauri 28 0.5
C Carter Jr., Wendell 22 -1
6 Young, Thaddeus 28 1
7 White, Coby 19 -2
8 Dunn, Kris 15 -1
9 Arcidiacono, Ryan 13 -0.5
10 Valentine, Denzel 10 -1.5
11 Hutchison, Chandler 9 -1.5
12 Kornet, Luke 9 1.5
13 Felício, Cristiano 4 -3.5
14 Gafford, Daniel 2 -1
15 Harrison, Shaquille 1 -2
16 Blakeney, Antonio 1 -3

RJ’s Big Picture:

Chicago may have had the best non-Zion offseason in the league, and this team looks completely different than the squad that started the 2018-19 season. Last year, the Bulls’ front office (and some fans) was pushing the idea that with additions such as Jabari Parker they would be able to make a legitimate playoff push. Instead, the Bulls won 22 games, admittedly due in some part to bad injury luck. Since that period, they have consistently acquired a slew of some of the most underrated players in basketball. At the trade deadline the Bulls acquired Otto Porter, essentially just into 2019-20 cap space, trading two expiring contracts. Chicago fans got a bit of the Otto experience when he joined the team and they on a run with him scoring 17.5 points and shooting 49% from three in his first 15 games.
Then, this offseason, the Bulls acquired three more extremely underrated players in the form of Thaddeous Young, Tomas Satoransky, and Luke Kornet. Young is a player who has consistently been seen as a great veteran and a great locker room presence but has been underrated as both an offensive and defensive force. A big man rotation of Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter, Young, and Kornet will form what might be a top 7 front court in the league. Kornet, who somehow wasn’t retained by the Knicks, is a perfect low-usage player to play along side Coby White or Kris Dunn in the second unit, giving these young point guards the security blanket of a big man who can space the floor and hit threes at a high rate. Lastly, Satoransky had been consistently second-guessed as a Wizard and now he gets to be a part of a team that truly believes in him. With Satoransky running the offense going forward, he will be able to find high quality shots for Porter, Markkenen, and LaVine.

RJ’s Big Question:

Will Porter and LaVine be able to stay healthy? The Bulls are deep in the frontcourt, and have decent depth pieces at the guard spots such as Ryan Arcidiacono, but at the wing the team is thin with essentially just LaVine and Porter as quality players at the position, who both unfortunately have a fair amount of injury history. If this team’s year falls apart, injuries to either Porter or LaVine is the most likely reason.

Derek’s Big Number: 19.8%.

That was Otto Porter’s usage percentage last season when he got to the Bulls, by far the largest number of his career (previous high was 17.1%). In conjunction, you’d expect his efficiency to decline – it didn’t. Porter got 1.24 points per shot attempt with the Bulls last season, which ranked in the 90th percentile among forwards per Cleaning the Glass. With a full training camp with this team, and more efficiency-friendly teammates like Tomas Satoransky, Otto could be in for a big season as he hits his prime.

Derek’s Film Room:

Here’s a nice example of Otto Porter’s diverse offensive game. He begins the possession open for 3:

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On the catch, the Hawks have to come sprinting to close out, as Porter was a whopping 40.6% from 3 last season on 4.6 attempts per game.

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Otto knows this, and uses a perfectly-timed pump fake to get Kent Bazemore in the air.

That’s not enough, though – the Hawks simply can’t afford to let him shoot. They send another defender – same result. Otto gets him in the air and makes the perfect swing pass to his now wide-open teammate in the corner:

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As Trae Young begins to close on the corner, Otto cuts hard to the basket, receiving the pass and driving strong:

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As the big comes to help, Otto avoids a charge, doesn’t force up a bad shot, and instead makes the perfect wraparound pass to Robin Lopez for the bucket:

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Many don’t regard Porter as an elite-level player because he can’t do fancy dribble moves or rain 30-foot step-back threes. However, what he does do is just about everything right, providing value every possession he’s on the court.

 


3. Indiana Pacers – 41 Wins (2018-19: 48 Wins)

Player Minutes Rating
PG Brogdon, Malcolm 24 1
SG Oladipo, Victor 17 2.5
SF Warren, T.J. 23 -1
PF Sabonis, Domantas 21 1.5
C Turner, Myles 28 2
6 Lamb, Jeremy 26 1
7 Holiday, Justin 24 -2
8 McDermott, Doug 18 -1.5
9 Holiday, Aaron 17 -0.5
10 McConnell, T.J. 17 -3
11 Bidatze, Goga 11 -1.5
12 Leaf, T.J. 6 -1
13 Sumner, Edmond 5 -2
14 Johnson, Alize 1 -2
15 Bowen II, Brian 1 -4
16 Wilcox, C.J. 1 -4

RJ’s Big Picture:

The upstart Pacers were somewhat of a paradox last year. They were the picture of consistency in a way, but also had a massive event that changed their season. The Pacers created a system with hard defense centered by Myles Turner, and on the second unit Domantas Sabonis, that would be able to beat bad teams consistently.
This season is being treated in somewhat of the same way, with the expectation that the Pacers should be this same level of consistency expecting the team to be able to obtain their rightful place in the top half of the Eastern Conference playoffs. However, this team has a large amount of variance with a number of factors creating uncertainty. To start, if the Pacers stay the course and keep with their current plan, they will be starting Turner and Sabonis together for the first time, and taking a two center lineup into the new modern NBA, which is something that hasn’t succeeded at a high level since the move towards wing- and three point-based basketball. Additionally, the Pacers have lost one and a half of their highest scorers from last year with Bojan Bogdanovic leaving to go to the Utah Jazz and Victor Oladipo still having no timeline for return. The Pacers will turn to new additions Jeremy Lamb, Malcolm Brogdon, and Justin Holiday to fill the scoring gap, yet none of these players can create their own shot as efficiently as Oladipo or Bogdanovic. This is an offense that could struggle pretty mightily, a performance in the bottom ten of offense efficiency is not out of the question.

RJ’s Big Question:

What will the Pacers decide to do with Domantas Sabonis? Reports began to come out last week that the Pacers were actively inquiring about the trade market for Sabonis, with the contract negotiations from both sides not working as planned. This is not all that surprising frankly, a team that has given out contracts of $20M+ to both Brogdon and Turner most likely was not going to be able to give a deal of a similar size to Sabonis. So instead of waiting out this year and seeing how this group does, it appears that the Pacers are looking to get off of Sabonis now and start the year with a different starting group. Likely, the Pacers won’t get a player as good as Sabonis in the form of a trade, but they might be able to get a better fit for the team such as a player like Marcus Smart from the Boston Celtics. Either way, watching how Sabonis plays out is the most interesting subplot of the early part of the season for the Pacers.

Derek’s Big Number: 13.14.

That’s how many wins the combination of Thaddeous Young and Bojan Bogdanovic were worth to the Pacers last season, per Real Plus-Minus. Indiana will hope to look other places to make up those wins, but most of their hopes rest on two injury-prone players in Malcolm Brogdon and Victor Oladipo. They’re counting on a big year from TJ Warren, who came out of nowhere to shoot almost 43% from 3 in his 180 attempts last season. If he can even come close to that number this season, he could do a good job of imitating Bogdanovic with some better defense.

Derek’s Film Room:

One (literally) big reason for optimism for the Pacers this season is the continued growth of Myles Turner, who turned himself into a defensive player of the year candidate last season. Watch his combination of instincts and quickness in the above clip as he absolutely blankets one of the league’s toughest players to stop on an open court in Kyrie Irving.

I expect Turner to become even more dangerous defensively this season, and do it with fewer blocks. It seems counterintuitive, but with the Pacers surrounding him with better perimeter defense in Brogdon and Oladipo (and potentially trading same-position Domantas Sabonis for another capable wing), Turner can become an absolute monster with less of a load. Instead of just waiting to contain the last guy that blew by Darren Collison, he can focus more on rebounding, positioning, and getting into passing lanes. At just 23, Turner has potential for a breakout year in 2019.


4. Detroit Pistons – 38 Wins (2018-19: 41 Wins)

Player Minutes Rating
PG Jackson, Reggie 24 0
SG Kennard, Luke 22 -1
SF Snell, Tony 21 -2
PF Griffin, Blake 29 2.5
C Drummond, Andre 31 2.5
6 Galloway, Langston 21 -1
7 Morris, Markieff 20 -2
8 Brown Jr., Bruce 20 -0.5
9 Rose, Derrick 18 -1.5
10 Maker, Thon 13 -1.5
11 Doumbouya, Sekou 9 -3
12 Frazier, Tim 5 -2.5
13 Mykhailiuk, Sviatoslav 5 -1.5
14 Thomas, Khyri 2 -2

RJ’s Big Picture:

Despite the acquisition of Blake Griffin for Tobias Harris and picks being panned by most in the NBA media circles, Griffin showed that when he is at the top of his game he has the value of a max contract player. His shot selection functionally changed last season in Detroit, with Griffin’s percentage of mid range shots dropping by 35% and his percentage of shots at the rim increasing by 33%.
On top of the general doubt of Blake Griffin’s ability to have high level production anymore, there were similar doubts about the ability of Griffin and Andre Drummond to co-exist on both offense and defense, and those doubts were misplaced. Drummond had his most efficient offensive season in five years in 2018-19, and posted a 2.34 RPM, his in three years.
All in all, with Griffin and Drummond in the frontcourt this team showed how far it was possible to go with two borderline superstar big men, and without a single competent wing starter, and that was the 8th seed in the Eastern Conference. The Pistons enter 2019-20 in largely the same predicament, with the wing rotation being some combination of Luke Kennard, Tony Snell, Bruce Brown Jr, Kyri Thomas, Svi Mykhailiuk and Sekou Doumbouya. None of these players are likely to be at starter caliber for the 2019-20 season, but the one who has the best shot is Kennard, who has turned into a efficient scorer on low usage. The issue with Kennard is on defense, and most any of these options will have some version of this offense-defense trade off, or are simply horrible on both ends of the floor.

RJ’s Big Question:

What is the path forward for this team? In all likelihood, Blake Griffin will not be quite as good as he was last year. It is well within the likely probability distribution that Drummond is also worse than last year. This team has a decent chance of missing the playoffs in the extremely weak Eastern Conference. What happens then? There are some teams that have players that provide some sort of variance in outcomes for the team this year, generally those are young players, and those type of players don’t really exist for the 19-20 version of this Pistons team. Sure, Doumbouya could be that guy, and probably will be that guy in 2020 or 2021, but at this point seems to be so far away that he really isn’t going to have much of a role on this year’s team. So the Pistons might be thrown into a decision point, to continue on in the 7-10 seed in the Eastern Conference spot, or to attempt to gut the team and see if they can move Griffin or Drummond before his free agency, which potentially is this summer.

Derek’s Big Number: 36.2%.

That’s what Blake Griffin shot from 3 last season, on a whopping 7 attempts per game. As his athleticism has dwindled, Griffin has somehow become a far better offensive player, with his shooting and passing (5.4 assists per game last season) turning him into one of the best playmakers in the league. The only other bigs in the league to shoot over 36% last season on as many attempts as Blake were – no one. No one did. This team is still in desperate need of some wing help (they hope Luke Kennard will provide that internally), but Blake can will this team to close to an average offense all by himself.

Derek’s Film Room:

Blake is a master of using his size to create passing lanes. When he posts up smaller players, he can see the entire court, and defenses are forced to either let him score easily on the mismatch, or double and let him pick them apart. Look at how perfectly he places the pass between 4 defenders here as soon as the help comes:

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Not only is the pass right on target, but it perfectly leads Andre Drummond toward the basket for an easy dunk. Here’s another quick example of how he’s able to see over the top of defenses, and make the right play at the right moment:

Enjoy Blake, Detroit. This version might even be more fun than this one:


5. Cleveland Cavaliers – 24 Wins (2018-19: 19 Wins)

Player Minutes Rating
PG Sexton, Collin 30 -2.5
SG Dellavedova, Matthew 12 -2.5
SF Osman, Cedi 27 -3
PF Love, Kevin 21 1.5
C Thompson, Tristan 21 -2
6 Garland, Darius 25 -2.5
7 Nance Jr., Larry 24 1
8 Clarkson, Jordan 22 -2
9 Porter Jr., Kevin 16 -2.5
10 Windler, Dylan 15 -1
11 Žižić, Ante 9 -0.5
12 Knight, Brandon 7 -3.5
13 Henson, John 6 0
14 Wade, Dean 2 -1
15 Bolden, Marques 2 -3

RJ’s Big Picture:

This version of the Cavaliers are the NBA’s poster child for what happens when you tank and don’t get lucky with the lottery balls. The Cavs had tied for the best chance of getting Zion in this draft lottery, and yet they instead got the fifth pick, selecting Darius Garland. The year before, the Cavs had the unprotected first round pick of the Brooklyn Nets from the Kyrie Irving trade, and if not for a late season Nets win over the Bulls, they would have moved up to #2 overall to be able to select Luka Doncic, Trae Young, or Marvin Bagley. Instad, the Cavs have Darius Garland and Collin Sexton, who both play the same position, and neither of which are likely players with superstar-caliber upside.
Cleveland enters the season with most of the same bones of the 2018-19 team that had the worst defensive efficiency in the history of the NBA, but will add new rookie players into the rotation in the form of Garland, Kevin Porter Jr., and Dylan Windler. The Cavs will also have a full season of Matthew Dellavedova, who couldn’t crack the Milwaukee rotation but has been starting at shooting guard in the preseason for this team. With these rookie additions, it is not out of the realm of possibility that this team is even worse on defense this year, and assuming that the Cavs let the rookies get experience and shot attempts, there is no guarantee the offense is any better in its place.

RJ’s Big Question:

Will the two point guard system work? From the little we know about Darius Garland, due to missing all but four games of his Vanderbilt season with injury, he does play a bit more off ball than most modern day point guards, but the upside in his game has consistently been his ability to shoot, and more so, shoot off the dribble. Sexton is a player who needs the ball in his hands, and he had that last year and struggled through the growing pains of a young point guard, eventually putting together some solid games late in the season. But the biggest issue for these two young guards might be on defense. Sexton was atrocious on defense last year, with the second worst defensive RPM in the league, and Garland is also not known for his defensive ability. Whether these two be able to play together and not have both guard spots run rampant on them is a legitimate question.
The dark irony of this for Cleveland is that even if things look decent with Sexton and Garland, if things go right the Cavs will still likely have to make a decision on which of these two players to keep after this season, as the two top prospects for this NBA Draft are likely to be Cole Anthony and Anthony Edwards, both of whom are guards that handle the ball a lot. If the Cavs get the luck that they need and win the lottery or get the second pick, the team simply has to take the best player available, which would likely be one of these two guards, potentially then shipping out Garland or Sexton for perhaps pennies on the dollar.

Derek’s Big Number: +6.6

That was the efficiency (points scored – points allowed per 100 possessions) differential for the Cavs last season when Kevin Love was on the court vs. off, a number that ranked 87th percentile leaguewide despite an injured/down year for Love. The team was better on both offense and defense with him out there, most notably on the boards. Love was recently signed to a contract extension, but many believe he will still be traded by this (don’t call it tanking) team. While he remains, though, he’s a very important player for the growth of young guards like Collin Sexton and Darius Garland.

Derek’s Film Room:

The return of Minnesota K-Love? We got a glimpse last season, though he played under 600 minutes on the season. No longer relegated to Chris Bosh spot-up duty next to LeBron, Love can come back healthy and really show off his diverse offensive game this season.

You can tell in this clip just how good Love is from a mental perspective. Every decision over the course of this play is split-second. He begins with a perfect cut trailing Collin Sexton to the hoop. He gets himself open for a layup but Sexton doesn’t find him:

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Not to worry, though. Love leaks to the baseline and gets the ball as Sexton’s security blanket:

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He then puts his head up to survey the floor, and lulls Danilo Gallinari to sleep:

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Within a second, he’s spun baseline, driven, drawn the foul, and converted the layup.

If he’s good to go this year and they keep him in Cleveland, Love could very well rival the 27.9% usage he once saw on the Timberwolves, and it could be a fun bright spot for a team focused on development this season.

 

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by RJ Garcia, Northwestern University
contributions by Derek Reifer, Northwestern University

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