Jalen Smith

Central Notes: Pistons, Lillard, Portis, Pacers, Carter

No matter what happens in today’s game vs. San Antonio, the Pistons will finish with the worst record in franchise history in a season that featured a record-breaking 28-game losing streak.

James L. Edwards III of The Athletic takes a look at Detroit’s disastrous 2023/24 campaign, writing that there is plenty of blame to go around. Changes could be on the horizon, however.

League sources tell Edwards that owner Tom Gores is considering hiring a president of basketball operations who would potentially become general manager Troy Weaver‘s new boss.

While Edwards suggests that Weaver and head coach Monty Williams seem likely to return in ’24/25, the situation appears to be “fluid,” since a new top decision-maker might want to overhaul the staff.

Here are a few more notes from the Central Division:

  • Bucks guard Damian Lillard, who was sidelined for Friday’s loss to Oklahoma City, is probable for Sunday’s regular season finale in Orlando, tweets Anthony Chiang of The Miami Herald. As Chiang notes, the Heat need Milwaukee to beat the Magic to have a chance of moving out of the play-in tournament. If the Bucks win, Milwaukee would secure the East’s No. 2 seed.
  • Bucks forward/center Bobby Portis believes he should be the frontrunner for the Sixth Man of the Year award and his teammates agree with that assessment, according to Eric Nehm of The Athletic. “We’ve played together four years now,” two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “I think every single year he’s been the Sixth Man of the Year, hands down.” The award typically favors high-usage guards, not big men whose offensive roles are limited by the team’s roster construction, Nehm observes, but Portis has put together a strong season, averaging 13.7 PPG and 7.4 RPG on .506/.401/.787 shooting while appearing in every game (24.4 MPG).
  • Pacers forward Obi Toppin sustained a left ankle sprain in Friday’s close loss to Cleveland, as Scott Agness of Fieldhouse Files relays (via Twitter). Toppin is questionable for today’s game vs. Atlanta, as are reserve big men Isaiah Jackson (left hamstring strain) and Jalen Smith (left ankle sprain), per the league’s latest injury report. If the Pacers beat the Hawks and the Bucks defeat the Magic, Indiana would move up to the No. 5 seed in the East.
    [Update: Head coach Rick Carlisle says all three players will be active today, tweets Dustin Dopirak of The Indianapolis Star].
  • While Jevon Carter‘s first NBA season in his hometown hasn’t gone the way he envisioned when he signed with the Bulls in free agency, he has been a positive voice in the locker room and has stayed professional even when he hasn’t been part of the rotation, writes K.C. Johnson of NBC Sports Chicago. “I’ve been here before,” Carter said. “This is my sixth year in the league. Every year, I’ve had to prove myself. But I never lose that confidence. I work too hard.”

2024 Free Agent Stock Watch: Central Division

For the rest of the regular season and postseason, Hoops Rumors is taking a closer look at players who will be free agents or could become free agents during the 2024 offseason. We consider whether their stock is rising or falling due to their performance and other factors. Today, we’re focusing on a handful of players from the Central Division.

Patrick Williams, F, Bulls

  • 2023/24: $9,835,881
  • 2024/25: RFA
  • Stock: Neutral

The Bulls are in a tricky spot with Williams, whose season ended early when it was announced in February that he would undergo foot surgery that would sideline him for the remainder of ’23/24. He’ll be a restricted free agent if Chicago gives him a $12.97MM qualifying offer, which should be a lock.

Still just 22 years old, Williams is a former No. 4 overall pick who has shown glimpses of tantalizing two-way upside over his first four seasons. The problem is, those glimpses have been fleeting and have never been sustained for a prolonged period of time.

In fairness to Williams, injuries have certainly played a role in his up-and-down play — while he played 71 games as a rookie and all 82 games in 2022/23, he was limited to just 17 games in ’21/22 due to a wrist injury and only made 43 appearances this season due to foot and ankle issues.

I’m sure the Bulls would have loved for Williams to have a breakout season in ’23/24 and cement his place as a cornerstone to build around going forward. But his averages — 10.0 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 0.9 SPG and 0.8 BPG on .443/.399/.788 shooting in 43 games (27.3 MPG) — were basically in line with his career numbers. Not better or worse, just neutral.

Williams has a high ceiling on both ends of the court due to his size, length, athleticism and skills. His production hasn’t matched his talent level to this point though, and there are a wide range of outcomes for what his next contract could look like, depending on how much external interest he draws as a RFA.

Isaac Okoro, G/F, Cavaliers

  • 2023/24: $8,920,795
  • 2024/25: RFA
  • Stock: Up

Okoro was selected with the No. 5 overall pick in 2020 — right after Williams. And as with Williams, Okoro showed glimpses of being a productive rotation regular for Cleveland during his first three seasons.

So why is Okoro’s stock up and Williams’ stuck in neutral? The answer is subjective of course, but part of it has to do with expectations.

After playing a career-low 21.7 minutes per game last season, Okoro is up to 27.2 MPG in ’23/24, and he has played well both as a starter and as a reserve. Overall, he’s averaging 9.7 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 2.0 APG and 0.9 SPG on .498/.399/.686 shooting in 57 games, including 34 starts.

The 23-year-old has improved in the area most critical to his development: three-point shooting. His 39.9% mark from deep is a career high, and he’s Cleveland’s best perimeter defender.

Like Williams, Okoro will be a restricted free agent in the offseason if he’s tendered a qualifying offer. Given the Cavs’ salary cap situation, I don’t expect him to receive much more than the mid-level exception, which is projected to be worth about $13.8MM annually on a four-year deal.

Okoro’s future with Cleveland was looking a little shaky last summer after the team acquired Max Strus and re-signed Caris LeVert. But he has become more decisive and effective on offense on top of being an already-strong defender, and I’d be very surprised if the Cavs didn’t keep him around in the offseason.

Jae Crowder, F, Bucks

  • 2023/24: $3,196,448 (minimum salary; $2,019,706 cap hit)
  • 2024/25: UFA
  • Stock: Down

Now in his 12th NBA season, Crowder has far exceeded the careers of most second-round picks (he was selected No. 34 overall back in 2012). But he also appears to be at the tail end of his career.

The 33-year-old’s lengthy holdout with Phoenix last season was one of the more bizarre decisions for a player who was about to become a free agent. He was eventually moved to Milwaukee — his preferred destination — but at a significant cost: he made $10.2MM in ’22/23, and re-signed with the Bucks on a one-year, minimum-salary contract last summer.

Crowder hasn’t shown anything this year to prove he’s worth more than the veteran’s minimum going forward, averaging 6.1 PPG and 3.4 RPG on .421/.353/.692 shooting. He  has only appeared 36 games (23.8 MPG), having missed 31 games early in the season after suffering a left adductor and abdominal tear, which required surgery.

Perhaps things will change if Crowder has a strong playoff performance, but to my eyes, he’s at least a half-step slower on defense than he used to be, and that was always his calling card. At his age, it’s rare for that trend to reverse.

Jalen Smith, F/C, Pacers

  • 2023/24: $5,043,773
  • 2024/25: $5,417,386 player option
  • Stock: Up

Smith, who turns 24 years old today (happy birthday), is actually the third former lottery pick from 2020 on this list, as he was selected No. 10 overall in the same draft as Williams and Okoro. However, he has had a much different NBA path than his fellow draftees.

Smith didn’t play much for the team that selected him, Phoenix, and the Suns declined their third-year team option on his rookie scale contract in 2021. He was traded to Indiana in February 2022, eventually re-signing with the Pacers on a three-year, $15.1MM deal with a player option for the final season.

In 2022/23, which was Smith’s first full season with the Pacers, it seemed like the team was a little unsure about how best to utilize him. He opened the season as the starting power forward, but it was an awkward fit on both ends of the court, and he was eventually moved to the bench, mostly playing backup center. Overall, he averaged 9.4 PPG, 5.8 RPG and 0.9 BPG in 68 games (18.8 MPG).

Smith’s counting stats in ’23/24 — 10.4 PPG, 5.6 RPG and 0.6 BPG in 47 games (17.7 MPG) — are very similar to last season’s. There’s one huge difference though: he has been one of the most efficient offensive players in the NBA.

After posting a below-league-average 56.5 true shooting percentage in ’22/23, Smith is at 70.7 TS% in ’23/24, more than 12% above league average. He’s shooting 71.8% on twos and 44.2% on threes.

Given his elite offensive efficiency, decent defense, and age, it’s hard to imagine he’ll pick up his $5.42MM player option. The big man market is pretty thin in 2024, and Smith is in line for a raise — the two-year, $16MM deal Moritz Wagner signed with Orlando last summer should be his floor.

The Pacers will have cap room and Smith’s Early Bird rights if they want to bring him back. But they also have to pay Pascal Siakam, and third-year center Isaiah Jackson will be entering the final year of his rookie scale deal. Money could be a sticking point in negotiations.

Pacers Notes: Mathurin, McDermott, Hield, Smith

Pacers second-year guard Bennedict Mathurin is set to miss at least the next three games, and probably a fourth, as he deals with a sprained right shoulder, according to IndyStar’s Dustin Dopirak.

Pacers coach Rick Carlisle said Mathurin will be reevaluated after Indiana’s upcoming two-game road trip that concludes March 12 in Oklahoma City. That reevaluation will come before the Pacers play the second half of a back-to-back against the Bulls on March 13, so it’s unlikely he plays in that game, according to Dopirak.

We hope it’s not serious,” Carlisle said. “He’s a guy who bounces back very quickly and hates missing game. We hope that it’s relatively short term, but he will miss a week at least.

Mathurin is averaging 14.5 points per game in his second year in the league.

We have more notes on the Pacers:

  • There’s still no return timetable for Doug McDermott, who is dealing with a right calf strain. According to Dopirak, as of Saturday, McDermott hadn’t engaged in any on-floor work since suffering his injury on Feb. 26. He’s averaging 5.7 points and shooting 41.5% from three this season.
  • Buddy Hield recently opened up about his trade from the Pacers, explaining how he didn’t see a future with the organization. “I love Buddy. I wish we could have kept him. The whole organization wishes they could have kept him,” Carlisle said in response to Hield’s comments (Twitter links via Dopirak). “And we could have, but it would have been self-serving for the organization. … He’s one of a kind. I loved him. I loved working with him for two years. He was a total pro with everything with he did.”
  • Jalen Smith is knocking down a career-high 61.2% of his field goals and 44.3% of his three-point attempts. According to Smith, the key to his better shooting is to stop thinking about knocking them down, Dopirak writes in another story. “I guess it’s just an ‘F-it’ mentality,” Smith said. “I’m pretty much saying if it goes in, it goes in. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t.” Smith is playing just 17.7 minutes per night in a crowded frontcourt, but has been highly efficient in his limited time and is averaging 20.9 points and 11.3 rebounds per 36 minutes.

Central Notes: Giannis, Gallinari, Pistons, Haliburton

Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo said former coach Adrian Griffin was “figuring things out” before the team fired him last month, but he’s enjoying the security of having Doc Rivers in charge, writes Eric Nehm of The Athletic. Antetokounmpo felt like he had to become a more vocal locker room leader earlier in the season with a first-time head coach running the team. That responsibility has eased, and Antetokounmpo expressed full confidence in Rivers’ ability to get the team ready for the postseason.

“We have to keep on evolving. We don’t have to change our identity,” he said. “Of course, we gotta be stronger. We gotta be tougher. I have to play better. I have to see the game better. But we have to keep on evolving. We have to add coach Doc’s philosophy with what has been working and hopefully can create a great mix for the next 25 games that we have and compete in the playoffs.”

Another major difference for Milwaukee will be the presence of Damian Lillard, a supreme scorer with the ability to take over playoff games. Antetokounmpo and Lillard had discussions about the direction of the season while they were in Indianapolis for All-Star Weekend, Nehm adds.

“I am his biggest fan,” Antetokounmpo said. “Good or bad, I ride with Dame until the f—ing end. I ride with Dame. Like I’ve been saying this over and over again. This. Is. His. Team. Down the stretch, he’s going to get the ball. There’s nothing else that we will do. I don’t know how else to put it. I don’t know what else to say. But at the end of the day, he has to believe it too.”

There’s more from the Central Division:

  • Coach Billy Donovan talked to Danilo Gallinari about joining the Bulls before he opted to sign with Milwaukee, according to K.C. Johnson of NBC Sports Chicago. Donovan, who coached Gallinari during the 2019/20 season in Oklahoma City, said the veteran forward was looking for a situation with a greater opportunity for playing time.
  • Pistons coach Monty Williams said winning as many games as possible will be the priority for the rest of the season, tweets Omari Sankofa II of The Detroit Free Press. “I’m not going to be throwing certain combinations on the floor just to see how they look,” Williams said. “We’re done with that … we’ll be competing.”
  • Tyrese Haliburton had been listed as questionable with a hamstring issue for every game since January 30, but he’s not on the Pacers‘ injury report for Thursday’s contest with Detroit, tweets Dustin Dopirak of The Indianapolis Star. Aaron Nesmith will miss the game with a sprained right ankle, while Jalen Smith is questionable due to back spasms.

Scotto’s Latest: Mavs, Washington, Grimes, Pacers, Hornets, Hyland, More

The Mavericks and Hornets have discussed various P.J. Washington trade concepts that include a future first-round pick from Dallas, league sources tell Michael Scotto of HoopsHype.

According to Scotto, if Charlotte is going to agree to take back Richaun Holmes, who holds a $12.9MM player option for next season, in exchange for Washington, the Hornets want that Dallas first-rounder to be unprotected. The Mavs have resisted that idea so far, Scotto writes, adding that Seth Curry has also been part of those trade discussions between the two teams.

While Scotto doesn’t say that Grant Williams has come up in the trade talks between the Mavs and Hornets, he suggests it wouldn’t be a surprise if that’s the case, since Dallas has talked about Williams with multiple teams already.

In addition to Washington, the Mavs have expressed interest in Raptors wing Bruce Brown and Knicks wing Quentin Grimes, among others, Scotto reports. League sources tell HoopsHype that Dallas explored acquiring Grimes in exchange for a package headlined by Josh Green, but New York turned down the proposal.

Here’s more from Scotto, with just hours to go until Thursday’s trade deadline:

  • Although Buddy Hield is considered Indiana’s top trade candidate, rival executives think the Pacers might move some of their frontcourt depth, with Obi Toppin and Jalen Smith among the players believed to be available, Scotto writes. Lottery pick Jarace Walker, on the other hand, remains off limits based on what the Pacers are telling other clubs, league sources tell HoopsHype.
  • The Hornets have expressed interest in Bones Hyland, according to Scotto, who says the Clippers are seeking a pair of second-round picks in exchange for the third-year guard.
  • Despite some speculation that the Nets are interested in D’Angelo Russell, Brooklyn hasn’t had any “substantive” talks with the Lakers and/or Hawks about getting involved in a potential Dejounte Murray trade to acquire Russell, Scotto reports.
  • The Pistons and Grizzlies continue to talk about a possible Killian Hayes trade, with second-round draft compensation serving as the sticking point, per Scotto.

Central Notes: Griffin, Lillard, Pacers, Cunningham

The tensions that led to the Bucks‘ decision to fire head coach Adrian Griffin on Tuesday stemmed from a loss of their defensive identity, according to Ramona Shelburne and Jamal Collier of ESPN. A source tells the authors there was a “constant” string of internal conversations about why the team was falling short of expectations, even though Milwaukee is tied for the second-best record in the league at 30-13.

Griffin had a reputation as a defensive specialist after building the Raptors’ defense that resulted in a championship in 2019, and he impressed general manager Jon Horst and other team officials during the interview process with his ideas for the Bucks’ defense, according to Shelburne and Collier.

However, the aggressive scheme that Griffin implemented wasn’t popular with players, who couldn’t understand why center Brook Lopez was being taken out of drop coverage after finishing second in Defensive Player of the Year voting last season, sources tell the authors. The new approach, which also included attacking ball-handlers far away from the basket, helped Milwaukee rise from 27th to fourth in the league in deflections, but the team ranked last in field goal percentage at the rim after five games before Griffin relented following a meeting with his top players.

Even though the Bucks kept winning, the defense never showed significant improvement, which caused the organization to lose its faith in Griffin. Shelburne and Collier note that former coaches reached out to Griffin to offer advice, including Lionel Hollins and Doc Rivers, who the authors say became a mentor to Griffin before ultimately replacing him in the job.

There’s more from the Central Division:

  • Fixing the Bucks‘ defense isn’t the only priority for Rivers as he takes over, observes Eric Nehm of The Athletic. Damian Lillard is suffering through one of the worst shooting seasons of his career, connecting at just 42.7% from the field and 35.1% from three-point range, which are his lowest figures in nearly a decade. Nehm suggests that creating more pick-and-roll opportunities for Lillard and Giannis Antetokounmpo might be one of Rivers’ solutions.
  • The Pacers have a lot more options on defense after trading for Pascal Siakam, notes Dustin Dopirak of The Indianapolis Star. Coach Rick Carlisle already took steps to improve atrocious defensive numbers early in the season by moving Aaron Nesmith and Jalen Smith into the starting lineup late last month. There has been progress, as Dopirak points out that the team is 19th in points allowed and 17th in defensive rating over its last 15 games.
  • The Pistons considered having Cade Cunningham return tonight, but coach Monty Williams will give him at least one more game off to recover from a left knee strain, tweets Omari Sankofa II of The Detroit Free Press. “We felt like we were in a good place, but decided to make sure he’s in a good place before he’s out there,” Williams said in a pregame meeting with reporters. Cunningham was originally listed as probable before downgraded to questionable and then out.

Scotto’s Latest: Pacers, Mavericks, Grant, Kuzma, More

Rival executives applauded the Pacers for being able to land star Pascal Siakam without moving Bennedict Mathurin, Jarace Walker, Andrew Nembhard, Ben Sheppard or Obi Toppin — or including the expiring deal of Buddy HieldHoopsHype’s Michael Scotto details in a trade deadline intel piece.

But the Pacers now have a logjam at the power forward position, with Jalen Smith, Toppin and Walker all playing behind Siakam. On top of that, there’s still a belief Hield could be moved to create playing time for Mathurin, Nembhard and Sheppard, Scotto writes. As a result, rival executives think Indiana are a candidate to make another trade before the deadline.

We have more from Scotto’s latest roundup:

  • The Mavericks are scouring the market to see if there are any available power forward upgrades, Scotto writes. According to Scotto, Dallas tried acquiring Bojan Bogdanovic last year and had their eye on Siakam before he was moved. Dallas has kept tabs on Portland forward Jerami Grant, Scotto writes, and could potentially look into Washington forward Kyle Kuzma. While Dereck Lively has drawn trade interest from other teams, Dallas told teams he’s not available for trade.
  • As noted earlier on Thursday, the Trail Blazers are signaling to opposing teams that they won’t easily part with Grant before the deadline. Portland values what Grant brings to the table in the locker room and on the court and some executives are pondering whether he could be the missing piece to a championship team like Aaron Gordon was, according to Scotto. Executives thus believe Malcolm Brogdon is the likelier of the two to be dealt, with a fair price expected to be a first-round pick and salary filler, Scotto writes.
  • For what it’s worth, both Portland and Brogdon appear to enjoy their partnership, Scotto explains. “At times, it’s been tough, but there’s something very gratifying about coming to a team where your voice and leadership is really valued and you play a different role,” Brogdon said. Meanwhile, head coach Chauncey Billups said Brogdon is one of the team’s leaders, and that he loves having him in Portland, but acknowledged the difficult transition for Brogdon going from a contender to mentor on a rebuilding team. “He’s in a tough spot here,” Billups said. “He’s coming off the bench, and sometimes he doesn’t have the ball in his hands.
  • Rival teams are monitoring the Wizards, and Kuzma is drawing exploratory interest. Scotto writes the Wizards hold Kuzma in a high regard after he chose to re-sign with them over offers from the Kings and Rockets, and they’d seek at least two future first-round picks beyond the 2024 draft in exchange for their leading scorer. Kuzma is viewed as a positive asset partially due to his descending contract. Meanwhile, Washington would desire a first-round pick in exchange for Tyus Jones, but they hope to re-sign the 27-year-old point guard in free agency this year, according to Scotto. Washington is also aiming to use their trade exceptions — such as the $12.35MM exception from the Kristaps Porzingis trade — to acquire picks and young players in salary dumps from other teams.
  • The Pelicans traded Kira Lewis to duck under the luxury tax this year, and rival executives are pondering whether New Orleans will move another player to do so again next year, Scotto writes. Jonas Valanciunas, CJ McCollum, Herbert Jones and Trey Murphy are among players rival teams could monitor, with some facing free agency or potential extensions.
  • The Knicks are gauging the value of a package consisting of Evan Fournier, Quentin Grimes and draft capital to look for potential upgrades, Scotto writes. Echoing a report from Marc Stein, Scotto writes the Knicks are eyeing Brogdon, Charlotte’s Terry Rozier and Detroit’s Alec Burks. New York is also in the market for a backup power forward. Additionally, rivals are expecting OG Anunoby to re-up with the Knicks in free agency.

Raptors, Pacers Engaged In Serious Talks On Possible Siakam Trade

JANUARY 17: Several parties familiar with the negotiations between the Raptors and Pacers were surprised that the two teams didn’t finalize an agreement before Tuesday’s games begin, according to Jake Fischer of Yahoo Sports.

One sticking point, per Fischer, has been Indiana’s unwillingness to include either of their two most recent lottery picks – Bennedict Mathurin and Jarace Walker – in a package for Siakam. Charania has also stated that the Pacers aren’t interested in giving up either of those young players (Twitter video link).

According to Fischer, the other pieces that would be sent to Toronto along with Brown in the latest framework of the proposed deal are Jordan Nwora and either Obi Toppin or Jalen Smith. Buddy Hield hasn’t been a part of the recent discussions between the two teams, says Fischer.

Fischer adds that two of the first-round picks in in Indiana’s proposal are 2024 selections (the Pacers’ own pick and a least favorable pick from Oklahoma City).

JANUARY 16: The Raptors and Pacers are engaged in serious talks about a potential trade that would send power forward Pascal Siakam to Indiana, The Athletic’s Shams Charania and Sam Amick report.

Indiana’s package would be built around swingman Bruce Brown, other salaries and three first-round draft picks, according to The Athletic’s duo.

The Raptors have discussed potential deals involving Siakam with several teams, but the talks with the Pacers have gained traction in recent days. They have yet to finalize or agree to a deal, although they are far along in the process, with proposals being made back and forth.

The Kings had pulled out of the Siakam sweepstakes in recent weeks, in part because the two-time All-NBA forward reportedly isn’t interested in re-signing with them after the season. The Warriors and Mavericks are among the other clubs that have expressed interest in the 29-year-old.

Siakam has an expiring $37.9MM contract and any acquiring team would want to have a strong indication if he’d commit to their organization beyond this season. Siakam is known to be seeking a max-salary deal and extension talks between the Raptors and his reps have not progressed in recent months.

Brown’s contract features a $22MM cap hit this season with a $23MM club option for 2024/25. Although Brown’s salary is well below Siakam’s, the Pacers have over $8MM in cap room and would only need to send out about $7.6MM in additional salary to make a deal legal, notes cap expert Yossi Gozlan (Twitter link).

As for the draft picks, the Pacers control all of their own future first-rounders, as well as a 2024 pick from Oklahoma City that includes “least favorable” language — it will almost certainly be either the Thunder’s or Clippers’ first-rounder.

The potential acquisition of Siakam would strengthen a Pacers starting lineup that also includes star guard Tyrese Haliburton — currently injured — and center Myles Turner and would make them a more dangerous playoff team.

Indiana reportedly made an effort to acquire OG Anunoby from Toronto before he was sent to New York.

Central Notes: Ball, Green, Pacers Lineup, Sasser

Bulls head coach Billy Donovan said guard Lonzo Ball was in town last week and he’s optimistic that his latest procedure to alleviate his pain worked, tweets NBC Sports Chicago’s K.C. Johnson. Ball is still ruled out for the rest of the season but, according to Johnson, he’s progressing well and is expected to resume running by January.

Everything they’ve done in terms of progressing him, he’s handled very well,” Donovan said, per Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times.The pain he was experiencing that was causing the setback is eliminated in terms of what he’s doing now, but he hasn’t run.

Ball hasn’t played in a game since Jan. 14, 2022 as he’s dealt with continuous injuries and setbacks. With his pain alleviated and physical activity soon to resume, his eventual return to the court looks more likely with this latest development.

In 35 games with the Bulls, Ball has averaged 13.0 points, 5.4 rebounds and 5.1 assists. He was acquired by Chicago in the summer of 2021 in a sign-and-trade with the Pelicans. He has a player option next year for roughly $21.4MM and Cowley mentions it’s possible he returns to play sometime in the offseason or training camp, but that’s more speculation than anything.

We have more from the Central Division:

  • It took some time for Bucks sharpshooter A.J. Green to find his footing in the NBA, but he finished the 2022/23 season strong and earned a guaranteed contract ahead of this year, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Jim Owczarski writes. While Green hasn’t yet earned a permanent keep in the rotation, the Bucks can count on him to come in and hit threes when needed. “Freakin’ A.J.,Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “I feel like whenever he shoots the ball, the ball is going in.” Green is under contract for two seasons after this one, though both are non-guaranteed.
  • Pacers coach Rick Carlisle made significant changes to the team’s starting lineup in their Tuesday game against the Bulls, moving Buddy Hield and Obi Toppin to the bench for Aaron Nesmith and Jalen Smith, respectively, IndyStar’s Dustin Dopirak observes. Andrew Nembhard also started in place of the injured Bruce Brown. The Pacers, who had previously lost six of their last seven, defeated the Rockets 123-117 with their new lineup.
  • After finishing his collegiate career tied fifth for wins in Houston’s program history, Marcus Sasser is having to adjust as the Pistons suffer through a 28-game losing streak, tied for the longest in NBA history, Joseph Duarte of the Houston Chronicle writes. However, Sasser has been able to turn to his former college coach Kelvin Sampson for advice this year, according to Duarte. “I worry about him in his first year,” Sampson said. “But at the same time, you get paid for this, man. Suck it up, you’ll be all right.

Central Notes: Lillard, A. Jackson, Smith, Merrill, Jerome

Bucks guard Damian Lillard became the 51st player in NBA history to surpass 20,000 career points in Tuesday’s victory over San Antonio, writes Steve Megargee of The Associated Press. Lillard scored a season-high 40 points, shooting 14-of-22 from the floor, 7-of-12 from long distance, and 5-of-5 from the free throw line.

I don’t want to fake downplay it like it’s nothing,” Lillard said. “I know it’s a big deal. It’s a great accomplishment. It’s a rare space to be in.”

According to Megargee, Lillard is the eighth active player to reach the milestone, joining LeBron James, Kevin Durant, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, DeMar DeRozan and Chris Paul. Lillard, James, Harden and Curry are the only players in league history to record at least 20,000 points, 5,000 assists and 2,000 three-pointers, Megargee adds.

Here’s more from the Central:

  • Rookie Bucks wing Andre Jackson Jr. recently started two games in place of Malik Beasley, who was out with an illness. Beasley reclaimed his starting job on Tuesday, but Jackson will continue to receive rotation minutes, head coach Adrian Griffin told reporters, including Eric Nehm of The Athletic (Twitter link). “He did a tremendous job the past couple games. … We’re all extremely pleased with his progress so far,” Griffin said as part of a larger quote. Jackson, 22, was the No. 36 overall pick in the 2023 draft.
  • After missing the past nine games with a left knee bone bruise, Pacers big man Jalen Smith will be active for Wednesday’s contest vs. Charlotte, tweets Dustin Dopirak of The Indianapolis Star. Smith had been one of the more productive reserves in the league on a per-minute basis prior to the injury, averaging 10.0 points and 5.5 rebounds on .707/.667/.741 shooting through 14 games (15.4 MPG).
  • Cavaliers guard Sam Merrill hasn’t played much this season, averaging just 8.4 MPG in his 13 appearances prior to Monday’s game. But he was instrumental in the Cavs’ overtime victory over Houston on Monday night, scoring a career-high 19 points while also chipping in four rebounds, three assists, one steal and one block in 24 minutes, per Chris Fedor of Cleveland.com. Merrill, whose contract is non-guaranteed, converted 5-of-10 from behind the arc in an expanded role with Darius Garland and Evan Mobley out for the next several weeks.
  • In a subscriber-only story for Cleveland.com, a source tells Fedor that Cavaliers guard Ty Jerome‘s recovery from a high ankle sprain has reached a “plateau,” and his progress (or lack thereof) has “confounded” the team’s medical staff. Jerome, who signed a two-year deal with the Cavs as a free agent over the summer, remains in a walking boot and is out indefinitely, Fedor writes.