The Central Division isn’t going to be a very fun place for teams to live this year, but that’s sort of been the case for a few years now due in large part to the return of LeBron James and the team that now calls itself the defending NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Indiana Pacers and Chicago Bulls are playoff contenders more often than not and still look talented enough to get back there in 2017, while upstart squads like the Detroit Pistons and Milwaukee Bucks both appear to be on the rise too. In fact, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to believe that all five of these teams could make the playoffs next spring.
It’s not unreasonable, but it is unlikely, especially with so many other talented organizations elsewhere in the Eastern Conference. Despite all that, it’s worth noting that there’s a very good chance that a lot of the teams in this Central Division preview will be very close in terms of record. Not much separates teams three through five, for example, but there’s got to be a pecking order even with all the ostensible parity. The following is a best preseason guess as to how things will round out in that division for 2016-2017:
5. Milwaukee Bucks
With Greg Monroe in tow, there was talk last offseason that the Milwaukee Bucks would win 50 games. That obviously didn’t happen, as they fell 17 wins short of that accomplishment and regressed dramatically from a team that looked pretty good in the first round of the 2015 NBA playoffs.
Almost everything about their season last year was a bummer, as the things that worked so well for them the year before suddenly stopped being effective. Defensively, the team gambled a ton in their first year under head coach Jason Kidd, and that used to result in a ton of steals and easy fastbreak points. Last season, though, teams figured out what Milwaukee was doing and simply spaced the floor more effectively to negate what was once a smothering defense. It doesn’t matter how long these guys’ arms are (and they are unbelievably long), being in the right place in a defensive rotation is the most important thing and the Bucks didn’t show much ability to do that last year.
They also finished the year dead last in three-point attempts and makes, which in today’s NBA is a death knell for just about any team. Unfortunately, the Bucks don’t look all that different following free agency. Mirza Teletovic, Matthew Dellavedova and rookie Thon Maker each add interesting dimensions to the team, but none of them dramatically boost the team’s defensive prowess or three-point acumen.
That’s not to say there’s no talent on this team. Giannis Antetokounmpo is getting ridiculously close to All-Stardom, and Khris Middleton remains one of the league’s more underrated scorers. Jabari Parker is slowly coming along, and the early returns on Maker are pretty strong too.
The problem is that the team just didn’t make enough dramatic changes this offseason. They’ll be better this year, but getting back to .500 will be an accomplishment in and of itself. For now, this doesn’t have the look of a playoff team, though down the road their future looks as bright (or brighter) than anybody else’s in the Central Division.
4. Detroit Pistons
There is real talent on this roster, and the Detroit Pistons added even more of it this offseason in signing Ish Smith as backup point guard and Boban Marjanovic as part of the frontcourt rotation. Rookie Henry Ellenson was a steal almost two-thirds of the way into the first-round of June’s draft too, but none of these guys are what make the Pistons so good this season. Andre Drummond, Reggie Jackson, Tobias Harris, Marcus Morris, Stanley Johnson and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, however, finally look like they’re ready to come of age together.
This was a team that finished second in the league in rebounds thanks in large part to Drummond’s contributions as an elite earner in that statistical category, but he, Harris and Aron Baynes combine to create one of the more physical frontcourts in the conference. That isn’t going away, especially with the addition of Marjanovic, who adds even more muscle to that rotation.
Jackson, meanwhile, was on the cusp of All-Stardom himself last season, but he didn’t shoot all that well – and neither did the rest of the roster. As a team they shot only 43.9 percent from the field, which was one of the worst team clips in the league. Still, they’re a team on the up-and-up and could easily make even more strides this season with the group they’ve got in place. Considering this core did make the postseason a year ago as an eight-seed, any sort of improvement would suggest that they’d be right back in the mix again this time around.
(Getting Drummond to listen to that Malcolm Gladwell podcast about Wilt Chamberlain’s underhand free-throw shooting would be some nice offseason homework too. He shot a career-low from the stripe last year, so maybe it’s time to start trying them Rick-Barry-style. He certainly can’t get any worse.)
3. Chicago Bulls
In saying goodbye to Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol, the Bulls ended an era in rather dramatic fashion this summer. But all three decisions were necessary in moving on from a team that had reached the end of its road together. As constructed, they were never going to win a championship, so they decided to try something different for a couple years to stave off a complete rebuild. What they’re trying is kind of weird and confusing, but it is different. There’s certainly no denying that.
The Rose trade brought in Robin Lopez and Jerian Grant, two players whom the Bulls hope will replace some of Rose and Noah’s production. The next big move was to sign Rajon Rondo, days after GM Gar Forman claimed the team traded Rose to get “younger and more athletic,” neither of which describe arguably the most disgruntled point guard in the league. They then wrapped things up with a bang, signing Dwyane Wade away from the Miami HEAT in a shocker that more or less completed the team’s big offseason overhaul.
Rondo, Wade and Jimmy Butler figure to be the team’s best players this year, and a lot has been made this offseason of how poor each of them is at shooting three-pointers. One of the biggest mysteries in the league heading into the new season will be seeing how those three operate alongside one another, as each of them tends to do their best work with the ball in his hands.
There is an outside chance that the Bulls are better than many are giving them credit for, but how well they play depends on how well the rest of the team shoots three-pointers and how quickly some of the younger players on the roster get their acts together. Nikola Mirotic and Doug McDermott, for example, are going to have to be better and more consistent three-point shooters this year, and Bobby Portis is going to have speed along this path toward stardom he seems to be on. Suddenly, the Bulls are kind of an old team, at least at their core, but big seasons from McDermott, Portis, Grant and rookie Denzel Valentine could help make the future at least a little brighter.
As for this season, it seems like a lot to ask for the coach to get significantly better, for Rondo to improve his locker room leadership, for Wade to play like a younger version of himself and for the young guys to player like older versions of themselves. There are a lot of “ifs” that have to come to fruition for Chicago to have a shot at doing anything significant in the offseason. Just getting to the playoffs would feel like an accomplishment, and that feels like a reasonable goal for this group of players. This team has “six-seed” written all over it, but depending on which team they pull in the first round, there’s even an outside chance they could win a playoff series with this group.
2. Indiana Pacers
While the Bulls did some pretty big things in terms of their personnel this summer, no team in the division is more transformed than the Pacers, who not only added a handful of significant new players but a new head coach as well. Just about everybody seems to agree that the sum of all these moving parts is a net gain, however, and it’s hard not to get a little excited about watching how much the team has improved from last year’s overachieving squad.
Indiana finished 2015-16 as a seven-seed in the East, but still managed to take the Toronto Raptors to seven games in that hotly-contested first-round series and even then came up only six points short of a rather impressive upset. Paul George, still the MVP for this team and one of the league’s elite two-way superstars, averaged over 27 PPG in that series and showed in his first full season following that gruesome broken leg that he’s still “got it.” In fact, he may have even more “it” than he did before the injury. The guy looks great and poised to lead the team to another playoff appearance, this time likely much higher than a seven-seed.
He’ll do that with some big changes to the team’s starting lineup. George Hill was traded away in the deal that brought in new point guard Jeff Teague, Ian Mahinmi has moved on to create starter’s minutes for Myles Turner, and the acquisition of Thaddeus Young means Paul George isn’t going to have to hear anything more about playing out of position at the four. The additions of Al Jefferson, Jeremy Evans and Aaron Brooks also look like tremendous values, giving Indiana a much more talented roster than they had a year ago.
The question is what new head coach Nate McMillan will do with all that talent. It was assumed when Frank Vogel was fired that team president Larry Bird would look into an offensive-minded coach more willing to run-and-gun and play smaller than Vogel ever wanted to, but rather than hiring someone like Jeff Hornacek or Mike D’Antoni to make that happen, Bird chose another defense-oriented coach in McMillan. One can only assume that his interview included plenty of reassurances that he’d do whatever Bird needed of him, but that hiring doesn’t suggest a completely new identity this season.
The bevy of new players do though, and there’s little reason to believe they can’t improve on last year’s 45-win campaign. They could be a team that finishes with homecourt advantage in the first round, and they definitely look better equipped to handle a potential rematch with the Toronto Raptors in the postseason, should fans be graced with such a fortuitous pairing.
1. Cleveland Cavaliers
LeBron James signed a new three-year, $100 million deal this offseason to stay in Cleveland, so he’ll be back and little else really matters when talking about the defending champion Cavaliers. Long live the King.
Realistically, though, there’s more to this team than LeBron. This never really has been a league where one star could win multiple rings alone, and the explosion of a suddenly very grown up Kyrie Irving in the NBA Finals is a big reason why James now has three rings instead of two. Irving is every bit as important to this team as James, and his health has been key in keeping Cleveland among the league’s most elite teams.
In order to stay elite, they must figure out how to better use Kevin Love, who simply can’t survive another season sitting in the corner waiting impatiently to shoot threes from his little island out there. Tristan Thompson could add another layer to his game as well, and we still don’t know what’s going to happen with J.R. Smith, who would be a huge loss to the team in terms of talent should he opt to play anywhere else next season.
Despite all that, Cleveland is still the best team in the conference, let alone the division, and as long as James and Irving stay healthy that shouldn’t change. Also, who isn’t looking forward to the first-ever season-long divisional rivalry between James and buddy Dwyane Wade?
This doesn’t offer much in terms of changes from last year’s final standings, but it feels like a reasonable prediction. We’re due for some surprises, but barring major injuries, this is more or less how things should pan out in the Central Division this year.
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