Connect with us


Ranking the NBA’s Central Division Teams

Joel Brigham ranks the teams in the Central Division and analyzes their offseason moves.

Joel Brigham



Please enable Javascript to watch this video

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.


Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Middleton, Bucks Aiming To ‘Lock In’ As Season Comes To Close

Spencer Davies catches up with Milwaukee Bucks swingman Khris Middleton in a Basketball Insiders exclusive.

Spencer Davies



Basketball Insiders had the chance to chat with Khris Middleton about the direction of the Milwaukee Bucks as the season comes to a close.

You guys won three out of four before you came into Cleveland. What was working during that stretch?

Just being us. Doing it with our defense, playing fast-paced offense. Just trying to keep teams off the three-point line. We haven’t done that. We didn’t do that [Monday] or two games ago, but it’s something we’ve just gotta get back to.

With the offense—it seems like it’s inconsistent. What do you think that’s got to do with mostly?

Just trying to do it by ourselves sometimes. Standing, keeping the ball on one side of the floor. We’re a better team when we play in a fast pace. And then also in the half court, when we move the ball from side-to-side it just opens the paint for everybody and there’s a lot more space.

For you, on both ends you’ve been ultra-aggressive here in the last couple weeks or so, does that have to do with you feeling better or is it just a mindset?

I’ve been healthy all year. Right now, it’s the end of the season. Gotta make a push. Everybody’s gotta lock in. Have to be confident, have to be aggressive. Have to do my job and that’s to shoot the ball well and to defend.

Have you changed anything with your jumper? Looking at the past couple months back-to-back, your perimeter shooting was below 32 percent. In March it’s above 45 percent.

I feel like I got a lot of great looks earlier this year. They just weren’t falling. Right now, they’re falling for me, so I have the same mindset that I had when I was missing and that’s to keep on shooting. At some point, they’re gonna go down for me.

Is knowing that every game at this point means more an extra motivator for you guys?

Definitely. We’re basically in the playoffs right now. We’re in a playoff series right now where we have to win games, we have to close out games, in order to get the seeding and to stay in the playoffs. Each game and each possession means something to us right now.

Is it disappointing to be in the position the team is in right now, or are you looking at it as, ‘If we get there, we’re going to be alright’?

I mean, we wish we were in a better position. But where we’re at right now, we’re fine with it. We want to make that last push to get higher in the seeding.

Lots of changes have gone on here. Eric Bledsoe came in two weeks into the season. You had the coaching change and lineup changes. Jabari Parker’s been getting situated before the postseason. How difficult does that make it for you guys to build consistency?

Yeah, it was tough at first. But I think early on we had to adjust on the fly. We didn’t have too many practices. There was a stretch where we were able to get in the film room, get on the court, and practice with each other more.

Now it’s just at a point where we’re adding a lot of new guys off the bench where we have to do the same things—learn on the fly, watch film. We’re not on the court as much now, but we just have to do a great job of buying in to our system, try to get to know each other.

Does this team feel like it has unfinished business based on what happened last year?

Definitely. Last year, we felt like we let one go. Toronto’s a great team. They’re having a hell of a season this year, but I feel like we let one go. This year’s a new year—a little add of extra motivation. We’ve been in the playoff position before, so hopefully, we learn from it when we go into it this year.

Would you welcome that rematch?

I mean, we welcome anybody man. We showed that we compete with any team out here. We can’t worry about other teams as much. We just have to be focused on us.

What has to happen for you guys to achieve your full potential?

Lock in. Just play as hard as we can, play unselfish, and do our job out there night-in, night-out.

Continue Reading


NBA Daily: Raptors Look To Fine-Tune The Defense

The Toronto Raptors’ defense had a letdown against the Cavaliers, but has been outstanding overall.

Buddy Grizzard



The Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors engaged in an offensive shootout on Wednesday that could be a playoff preview. The Cavs protected home court with a single-possession, 132-129 victory. Afterward, the Raptors spoke about the types of defensive adjustments the team needs to make as the postseason rapidly approaches.

“That’s how a playoff game would be,” said DeMar DeRozan, who missed a three at the buzzer that could have forced overtime. “This is a team we’ve been playing against the last two years in the postseason. Understanding how we can tighten up things defensively, how to make things tougher for them [is key].

“[It’s] little small things that go a long way, and not just with them … with every team.”

Raptors coach Dwane Casey concurred with DeRozan that fine-tuning of the defense is needed. He also pointed out that, with young contributors such as center Jakob Poeltl and power forward Pascal Siakam on the roster, defensive experience against the league’s best player, LeBron James, is something they will have to gain on the fly.

“I don’t think Jakob Poeltl played against him that much, and Siakam,” said Casey. “This is their first time seeing it. I thought Jak and Pascal did an excellent job, but there are certain situations where they’ve got to read and understand what the other team is trying to do to them.”

Poeltl was outstanding, leading the bench with 17 points and tying for the team lead in rebounds with eight. Casey praised the diversity of his contributions.

“I thought he did an excellent job of rolling, finishing, finding people,” said Casey. “I thought defensively, he did a good job of protecting the paint, going vertical. So I liked what he was giving us, especially his defense against Kevin Love.”

Basketball Insiders previously noted how the Raptors have performed vastly better as a team this season when starting point guard Kyle Lowry is out of the game. Much of that is due to Fred VanVleet’s emergence as one of the NBA’s best reserve point guards. VanVleet scored 16 points with five assists and no turnovers against Cleveland. It’s also a reflection of how good Toronto’s perimeter defense has been up and down the roster.

According to ESPN’s defensive Real Plus-Minus statistic, three of the NBA’s top 15 defensive point guards play for the Raptors. VanVleet ranks seventh while Lowry is 12th and Delon Wright is 14th. Starting small forward OG Anunoby ranks 16th at his position.

The Raptors also rank in the top five in offensive efficiency (third) and defensive efficiency (fifth). Having established an identity as a defensive team, especially on the perimeter, it’s perhaps understandable that Lowry was the one player in the visiting locker room who took the sub-standard defensive showing personally.

“It was a disgraceful display of defense by us and we’ve got to be better than that,” said Lowry. “We’ve got to be more physical. They picked us apart and made a lot of threes. We’ve got to find a way to be a better defensive team.”

Lowry continued the theme of fine-tuning as the regular season winds down.

“I think we’ve just got to make adjustments on the fly as a team,” said Lowry. “We can score with the best of them, but they outscored us tonight. We got what we wanted offensively. We’re one of the top teams in scoring in the league, but we’re also a good defensive team.”

Lowry was clearly bothered by Toronto’s defensive showing, but Casey downplayed the importance of a single regular-season game.

“We’ve got to take these games and learn from them, and again learn from the situations where we have to be disciplined,” said Casey. “It’s not a huge thing. It’s situations where we are that we’ve got to learn from and be disciplined and not maybe take this step and over-help here. Because a team like that and a passer like James will make you pay.”

While the Raptors continue to gain experience and dial in the fine defensive details, Casey was insistent that his players should not hang their heads over falling short against Cleveland.

“Hopefully our guys understand that we’re right there,” said Casey.

The Raptors host the Brooklyn Nets tonight to open a three-game home stand that includes visits from the Clippers Sunday and the Nuggets Tuesday. After that, Toronto visits the Celtics March 31 followed by a return to Cleveland April 3 and a home game against Boston the next night. With three games in a row against the other two top-three teams in the East, the schedule presents plenty of opportunities for the Raptors to add defensive polish before the playoffs begin.

Continue Reading


NBA Daily: Jaylen Brown Set To Return For Celtics

The Celtics finally got some good news on Thursday. Jaylen Brown’s return is imminent.

Moke Hamilton



Finally, some good news for the Boston Celtics.

Jaylen Brown is set to return to action.

Brown has been M.I.A. since sustaining a concussion during the team’s 117-109 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves back on March 8, but has traveled with the team to Portland and is expecting to return to the lineup on Sunday when the Celtics do battle with the Sacramento Kings.

As the Celts gear up for a playoff run, which they hope will result in them ending LeBron James’ reign atop the Eastern Conference, they’ve picked the wrong time to run into injury issues. Along with Brown, both Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart have each been conspicuous by their absences, and the team could certainly use all of their pieces as they attempt to enter the postseason on a high note.

Fortunately for Boston, with the Toronto Raptors leading them by 4.5 games in the standings and the Celts ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers by a comfortable six games, Brad Stevens’ team is enjoying the rare situation of having a playoff seed that appears to be somewhat locked in.

Still, with the team only able to go as far as its young rotation will carry it, Brown addressed the media on Thursday.

“I’m feeling a lot better. I’m just trying to hurry up and get back,” Brown said, as quoted by

“I’m tired of not playing.”

Stevens is probably tired of him not playing, too.

As we head into the month of April, playoff-bound teams and conference contenders begin to think about playing into June, while the cellar-dwellers and pretenders begin to look toward the draft lottery and free agency.

What’s funny is that in the midst of the Raptors and their rise out East, the Celtics and their dominance has become a bit of a forgotten storyline. When Gordon Hayward went down on opening night, the neophytes from the Northeast were thought to be a decent team in the making whose ceiling probably wasn’t anywhere near that of the Cavs, the Raptors and perhaps even the Washington Wizards.

Yet through it all, with the impressive growth of Jaylen Brown, impressive rookie Jayson Tatum and the rise of Irving as a franchise’s lynchpin, the Celtics stormed out the games to the tune of a a 17-3 record. What made the strong start even more impressive was the fact that the team won 16 straight games after beginning the season 0-2.

Although they weren’t able to keep up that pace, they began the month of February having gone 37-15 and turned a great many into believers. With their spry legs, team-first playing style and capable leader in Irving, the Celtics, it was thought, were a true contender in the Eastern Conference — if not the favorite.

Since then, and after experiencing injuries to some of its key cogs, the team has gone just 11-8.

In the interim, it seems that many have forgotten about the team that tantalized the Eastern Conference in the early goings of the season.

Brown’s return, in one important respect, will signify a return to Boston’s prior self.

With Marcus Smart having recently undergone surgery to repair a torn tendon in his right thumb, he is expected to be out another five weeks or so, meaning that he’ll likely miss the beginning of the postseason.

As for Irving, although reports say that his ailing knee has no structural damage, everything the Celtics hope to accomplish begins and ends with him. FOX Sports 1’s Chris Broussard believes that it’s no slam dunk that Irving returns to action this season, but he’s in the minority. This team has simply come too far to not give themselves every opportunity to compete at the highest level, so long as doing so doesn’t jeopardize the long term health of any of the franchise’s cornerstones.

Make no mistake about it, the Celtics are far from a finished product. With their nucleus intact and flexibility preserved, they will have another offseason with which to tinker with their rotation pieces and plug away at building a champion.

But here and now, with what they’ve got, the Celtics are much closer than any of us thought they would be at this point.

And on Sunday, when Jaylen Brown rejoins his team in the lineup, to the delight of the Boston faithful, the Celtics will be that much closer.

Continue Reading

The Strictly Speaking Podcast


Trending Now