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The NBA Story Lines Beneath the Surface: Central Division

Two former East All-Stars have rebuilt themselves in the back end of their careers. With the league still in limbo, we’re digging deep into that and more overlooked in-season developments for the Bucks, Bulls, Cavs, Pacers, and Pistons.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Basketball is very good. This long hiatus is … not. If there’s a small silver lining, it’s that the break provides time to dig beneath the surface and explore each team’s core identity, whether the games are played in front of cardboard cutouts of fans at Disney World or not. We’ll be looking at the overlooked story line for each team, division by division, over the next few weeks.

Milwaukee Bucks: Brook Lopez’s Rebounding Redemption

Before the invention of Twitter, the internet was dedicated solely to cyberbullying Brook Lopez. It was weird, but it brought us together.

“He’s 7 feet tall,” we would write. “And he can’t grab a rebound to save his life.”

We just kept writing that exact sentiment for, like, 10 years. Lopez evolved later in his career and became a dangerous 3-point shooter, earned a cool nickname (Splash Mountain!), and became an integral part of a great Milwaukee team. But still, like the kid who peed his pants in third grade on that one field trip, it remained impossible for those of us who lived through blogging’s dark ages to reconcile our view of him.

But I am here to clear the good name of Brook Lopez. As is the order of the universe, Lopez is the one getting the last laugh: He’s the starting center on a team with the highest defensive rebounding percentage in NBA history. This should go without saying, but if he were incapable of rebounding, this would not be possible. According to’s boxout data, the Bucks secure the rebound 91.3 percent of the time when Lopez boxes out … which he does (and always has) quite a lot. Lopez isn’t a bad rebounder; he’s just an unselfish one.

When you combine Milwaukee’s rebounding with Lopez’s excellent rim protection in drop coverage—he has the league’s second-best defensive field goal differential at the rim this season—it’s hard to imagine he could be doing a much better job at being 7 feet, even if his 4.5 rebounds a game don’t get you all fired up.

A million mea culpas would be appropriate, but an all-defensive team nod would be even better. Lopez deserves it.

Detroit Pistons: A Former MVP Blossoms Again

All stats per 36 minutes, who ya got?

  • Player A: 24.1 PPG, 7.4 APG, 3.9 RPG, 1.0 SPG; 44.5 FG%, 33.2 3P%, 85.8 FT%, 32.2 USG
  • Player B: 25.1 PPG, 7.7 APG, 3.4 RPG, 1.1 SPG; 49.0 FG%, 30.6 3P%, 87.1 FT%, 31.6 USG

Close call, right? Can’t go wrong either way?

Player A is … 2010-11 Derrick Rose, the league MVP.

Player B is … 2019-20 Derrick Rose.

Nearly a decade removed from his MVP season, with multiple knee surgeries and failed pit stops in between, Rose is back and playing some of the best basketball of his career at 31 years old. It’s a shocking development for the Pistons, who took a relatively cheap flier on Rose this past offseason by signing him to a two-year deal worth $15 million in an effort to push for a playoff spot in the East and put some butts in the seats.

Ironically, it was someone else’s knee that ended up not cooperating. Blake Griffin’s injury killed Detroit’s chances fewer than 20 games into the season, and with coach Dwane Casey desperately searching for offense elsewhere, Rose stepped up and played out of his gourd, getting into the paint at will and finishing with a variety of flips and floaters. He was so good that even though the Pistons had finally begun a rebuilding phase (Andre Drummond was unceremoniously shipped out to Cleveland for a second-round pick), Rose was reportedly deemed unavailable for trade.

The Pistons will enter next season in a weird spot. Rose will have one year left on his deal, and the likelihood he’ll want to stick around instead of signing with a contender might be slim. Detroit’s side isn’t much easier: Pouring a third of your possessions into a 32-year-old point guard is one thing; signing him to what could be his last big pay day is another.

But if Detroit wants one more crack at being competitive and can somehow convince Griffin and Rose to freeze themselves in carbonite until next season’s opener, it makes at least a little bit of sense to go for it. You can’t let Rose’s high level of play (and cheap contract) go to waste, and there will be free agents who can tick all the boxes and not leave Detroit holding the bag: Retaining breakout stud (and unrestricted free agent) Christian Wood would suffice, or opting for a cheaper reclamation project like Harry Giles would still keep the Pistons young. Toeing the line can be a lot harder than plunging in either direction, but Rose has played well enough to give the Pistons options.

Indiana Pacers: Nate McMillan Goes Back to the Future

In one of the weirdest developments of the 2019-20 season, the Pacers have been sent back in time to an era where mastery of the mid-post matters most. That can happen when T.J. Warren and a son of Sabonis handle the bulk of your possessions, I guess, but it’s still a little disorienting to watch a team in 2020 happily settle down with the in-between.

This is the wishbone offense of the NBA right now, and while it isn’t especially effective (Indiana is 17th in offensive efficiency), it’s perhaps a product of necessity with Victor Oladipo missing most of the season. As the leading slasher and most prolific 3-point shooter on the team, Oladipo’s shouldering of the offensive load should help push the Pacers back into the 21st century.

Still, we are in relatively uncharted territory here. In the shot clock era, only five other teams in NBA history have gotten to the free throw line less than Indiana does (.170 FT/FGA) and compiled a winning record. In case that wasn’t enough, Indiana also owns the league’s lowest 3-point rate. The Rockets and Pacers might as well be playing different sports.

Indiana’s unique scoring profile is something to keep stored away if the postseason takes place. A team that plays this way would seem to be at a major disadvantage when facing substantial fourth-quarter deficits—if you can’t trade 3s for 2s and score with the clock stopped, the climb is naturally a little steeper. Despite being 39-26 on the season, Indiana is 23rd in the league in fourth-quarter margin at minus-0.7.

None of this necessarily dooms the Pacers, but a fifth-straight first-round playoff exit (assuming the playoffs still look the same whenever the season resumes) for Nate McMillan might raise some legitimate questions about Indiana’s offensive philosophy.

Chicago Bulls: Get Jim Boylen Away From the Joystick

As a high school basketball coach, I can empathize a bit with Jim Boylen. There’s this urge you get when coaching a young team to not waste any little opportunity to improve, and it can really start to itch when you’re getting blasted on the scoreboard. You feel helpless and want to do something. I’ve called a timeout to draw up a play while the opposing crowd chanted, “Down by 40!” It sucked.

And it was selfish! Any derived benefit of executing a set play for the sake of repetition is minuscule compared to the amount of disdain that will grow in the players who just want to get the hell out of the gym but can’t because you need to score the tiniest of moral victories at the expense of their embarrassment. Here’s Zach LaVine straight up not having a good time in a similar scenario:

The path to the Eastern Conference cellar can be paved with good intentions. The timeouts themselves are trivial—even if it is amusing that Chicago scores fewer points per possession (0.96, 27th in the NBA) after timeouts than in any live-ball setting, making it counterintuitive to the “play the whole game to win” logic Boylen uses as justification.

The timeouts could merely be a symptom; the disease might be overcoaching. The Bulls are bad, but they shouldn’t be last in the league in points per possession after an opponent’s made field goal. Boylen’s halfcourt sets are fine—most of the league runs fairly similar stuff anyway—but the Bulls just absolutely slog through every designed set. It’s not that they haven’t run them enough—they’ve probably run them too much.

Put down the joystick, Jim. Sit back for a bit, and see whether some of your stunted young talent (Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr., etc.) end up surprising you with some newfound freedom. It might not work, but neither will the alternative. The Bulls just overhauled their front office; if Boylen gets another shot at it in Chicago, it might be time to take a different approach.

Cleveland Cavaliers: Ball Is New Life for Kevin Love

There was a funny moment, right before the league shut down, where Kevin Love got to play major minutes with Matthew Dellavedova in a home game against Denver. I am aware that this does not exactly sound like some great karmic reward for Love, but please look at the pure joy he displays after kicking out to Delly for a 3.

For at least one night, it felt like 2016 all over again. Dellavedova piled up 14 assists—most a result of some old-head, two-man game chemistry with Love. It was just the second time in 63 games that any Cavs player had recorded double-digit assists.

Cleveland knew there would be growing pains with the Colin Sexton–Darius Garland backcourt duo (to be referred to as “SexLand” from here on out), but it’s been unreasonably tough on Love. The little things add up as quickly as the losses: The post entries are just a second too late. The pick-and-rolls aren’t stretched out enough. The ball is delivered a little out of the shooting pocket. Your mismatch gets overlooked. And on and on it goes.

That doesn’t mean Sexton and Garland won’t pan out. Sexton fits the classic sixth-man profile, and Garland can definitely stroke it. There’s potential there, it’s just that distributing doesn’t come particularly naturally to either player, and there’s no replacement for a point guard who can deliver on time and on target. Love should be the focal point of Cleveland’s offense, and yet his usage rate (23.1) is somehow lower than it was while he was playing next to LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. SexLand just can’t get him the ball.

Cleveland may not want to use three straight top-10 picks on its backcourt, but there are too many good playmakers available in this year’s draft (LaMelo Ball, Tyrese Haliburton, Killian Hayes) to be stubborn about it. Move Sexton to the bench, get a guard with size next to Garland, and feed Love like he’s the franchise centerpiece you paid him to be.

D.J. Foster is a writer and high school basketball coach in Oceanside, California.