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Ranking the NBA’s Central Division

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This week at Basketball Insiders, our writers have been taking a glance at each division and predicting where teams will rank. We’ve covered three so far, so check those out if you haven’t gotten the chance to yet.

Southeast

Atlantic

Pacific

With two superstars departing their respective teams, the Central Division underwent some major changes. Who can take advantage of their situation the best and make an impact to try and bump the back-to-back-to-back defending champions? Let’s predict how the final standings will turn out.

Cleveland Cavaliers (51-31)

It’s been a hectic summer for the Eastern Conference Champions. Coming off their second loss in three years to the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals, speculation began swirling around how the team could improve its roster to compete and defeat the clear-cut favorites in the Bay Area.

Things have not exactly turned out well for LeBron James and company, though. In June, the Cavaliers weren’t able to come to terms with general manager David Griffin and still remain without one while assistant Koby Altman handles business in the interim. That, coupled with the organization’s extremely limited cap space and huge luxury tax bill, hasn’t made it easy to bolster the lineup.

Thus far, Cleveland has added veterans Jose Calderon and Jeff Green for depth. They also brought over their 2015 second-round pick Cedi Osman from overseas. Derrick Rose is a new name floating around that could potentially join the team as well, though he has a few suitors to choose from.

Luckily for the Cavaliers, a less than stellar offseason isn’t going to change the fact that they are the top dog in the East until proven otherwise. LeBron James is still LeBron James, Kyrie Irving hasn’t even come close to approaching his lofty ceiling and Kevin Love has found his niche under Tyronn Lue. The future might not look the greatest with a lack of youth and rumors of James’ inevitable depature, but at least for now, Cleveland is in fine shape to get back to the promised land for another shot at a title.

Projected wins: 56-61

Milwaukee Bucks (42-40)

Giannis Antetokounmpo took a step from good to great last season. As the star of the organization, the “Greek Freak” led the Bucks to the sixth seed in the East after missing the playoffs the year before.

What’s next for the blossoming superstar? Becoming elite. Don’t sleep on Antetokounmpo’s supporting cast, either. Jason Kidd has quite literally the lengthiest group of players in basketball at his disposal. As the Toronto Raptors found out in the first round of the postseason, Milwaukee is a matchup nightmare.

Even more dangerous, they’re still one of the youngest clubs in the league. Malcolm Brogdon shot up through the ranks and won Rookie of the Year as their starting point guard. Thon Maker grew up in front of our eyes when called upon late in the season and delivered in key moments in the playoffs. Before suffering a devastating knee injury for the second time in his career, Jabari Parker was thriving. The only unknown is how he’ll bounce back. Drafting D.J. Wilson gives them even more size and versatility than they already had.

There are plenty of things to work on for the Bucks, though. The primary focus should be crashing the boards since they ranked second worst in the NBA with just 40.6 rebounds per game. If they can do that, consider them a sleeper as they continue to develop and improve.

Projected wins: 43-48

Detroit Pistons (37-45)

The 2016-17 campaign was a disappointment for Stan Van Gundy’s group. That’s putting it nicely.

Riddled with defensive inconsistency and poor perimeter shooting, the Pistons regressed instead of building on the previous year’s success. Throughout the season, Van Gundy tinkered with the starting lineup and rotations to try and find something that worked, yet never really found anything that stuck. Detroit’s head coach even questioned his players’ effort on multiple occasions. People were frustrated.

The past is the past, however, and this version of the Pistons could be something worth tuning in for. After renouncing the rights to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, general manager Jeff Bower found an immediate replacement and acquired Avery Bradley from the Boston Celtics in exchange for Marcus Morris. The organization took sharpshooter Luke Kennard with the 12th pick in the NBA Draft, too.

Those two players address a vital need. Detroit sat in the gutter as the 28th ranked club in three-point percentage (33) and in today’s league, that won’t cut it. Bringing in Bradley, coming off an efficient offensive year with Boston, and adding a confident gunner in Kennard should produce an immediate improvement.

Signing Langston Galloway to a rather generous contract may be questionable, but he’ll likely be an important contributor in the second unit. Anthony Tolliver’s one-year contract benefits both parties.

In the end, it’s going to come down to Andre Drummond’s production on both ends of the floor. If he can utilize his dominance and pure strength in the paint with Reggie Jackson feeding him in the pick-and-roll, the Pistons will get back on the right track.

Projected wins: 40-45

Indiana Pacers (42-40)

Kevin Pritchard wasn’t entering next season with Paul George rumors surrounding his team as a distraction, so he acted quickly and moved the All-Star forward to cut his losses.

The return he received from the Oklahoma City Thunder was harshly criticized, but it’s difficult to field a great trade for a player who won’t commit to a team long term. So, the Pacers ended up landing Hoosier alum Victor Oladipo and second-year forward Domantas Sabonis.

Players and fans hate to come to grips with it, but this is going to be a rebuild in Indiana. Anytime you lose the face of your franchise, the first go-around without that player typically doesn’t go so well.

It might not have to be an extensive period of time before the Pacers are competing again, though. Myles Turner has already shown flashes of what he can become in this league as a two-way stretch five. It’ll be interesting to see how he reacts to being, “the guy.” He’s got a fellow Texas Longhorn to develop chemistry with now, too, as Pritchard struck a deal with the Raptors for Cory Joseph. He also inked Bojan Bogdanovic to a two-year contract to provide an additional threat from the perimeter.

There will be a lot of challenges for Nate McMillan to cope with, but at least he’s got a core that he can grow with. Unfortunately, it won’t result in a winning season in year one.

Projected wins: 22-27

Chicago Bulls (41-41)

Similar to the team that will be joining them in the basement in the Central Division, the Bulls traded away their franchise player in Jimmy Butler. Drawing more comparisons to the above situation, Gar Forman and Jim Paxson were vilified because what they got back wasn’t nearly enough.

The Minnesota Timberwolves gave up Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and their seventh overall pick to steal Butler and Chicago’s 16th selection on draft night itself in a blockbuster move that started off the summer with a bang… for Tom Thibodeau.

For the Bulls, it’s the start of a lengthy project to start anew. It’s going to revolve around Lauri Markkanen, who will be in the spotlight as the likely centerpiece of the deal while LaVine heals up from a torn Achilles suffered midseason last year. Dunn’s first year as a pro was underwhelming, but he was in a tussle with Ricky Rubio and even Tyus Jones for consistent playing time. He’ll get the opportunity to right the ship under Fred Hoiberg.

Veterans like Dwyane Wade and Robin Lopez may start the season off with Chicago, but they’re likely not going to want to wait around to compete and could be the next to go.

The positive of the situation long-term is that the younger players will have plenty of chances to gain experience. Outside of those mentioned, guys like Denzel Valentine, Paul Zipser, Cristiano Felicio and Bobby Portis are probably slated for expanded roles. The Bulls added Justin Holiday in free agency, and David Nwaba could be a key piece moving forward, too.

Hoiberg has his work cut out for him in the coming seasons, but maybe this is what he needs to be successful. At Iowa State, he groomed and developed his players well and it led to wins and an NBA head coaching job. “The Mayor” better be patient though, because it’s going to be a while before Chicago even sniffs a winning season with this inexperienced roster.

Projected wins: 17-22

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About Spencer Davies

Spencer Davies

Spencer Davies is an NBA writer based in Cleveland in his first year with Basketball Insiders. Covering the league and the Cavaliers for the past two seasons, his bylines have appeared on Bleacher Report, FOX Sports and HoopsHype.