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NBA Daily: Biggest Surprises – Central Division

Drew Mays continues Basketball Insiders’ “Biggest Surprises” series by taking a look at a group of teams off to a slow start: The Central Division.

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It’s still pretty early to have many reactions based on only a week’s worth of NBA basketball. But that doesn’t mean we can’t have one anyway.

Matt John began our series with thoughts on the Northwest Division and Jordan Hicks snagged the Southwest — so we now move to the Central.

We knew one thing headed into the year in the Central Division: Milwaukee would be the team to beat, plus that’d likely compete for a top-two seed in the Eastern Conference.

As of now, that’s still all we know.

The rest of the division has been mediocre at best and disappointing at worst. With a lot of time left for things to shake out, here are our biggest surprises in the Central Division so far.

Come back, Vic

We’ll start with the organization with the most to worry about.

A team some picked to finish as high as fourth in the East, the Indiana Pacers have gotten off to a terrible start. After three games, they are 22nd in offense and 26th in defense, thus resulting in a 27th-worst point differential at minus-7.5. Obviously, the sample size is small, but that puts their expected win total around 22, per Cleaning the Glass.

FiveThirtyEight still projects them to win 41 games and gives a 73 percent chance to make the playoffs. Indiana should improve. But how much? And how quickly?

The Pacers quietly faced a lot of turnover between this season and last. Six players that played major minutes in 2018-19 are elsewhere. That puts a damper on the assumption that their defense will be good again this year. Tougher: New additions like Jeremy Lamb and T.J. Warren will be counted on for their offense, but they’ve never been known for their defense.

Worse, head coach Nate McMillian still doesn’t have a timetable for Victor Oladipo’s return. Original speculation said December, but even that is a minimum of 20-to-25 games in. Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner have started well. Malcolm Brogdon has too. But Sabonis and Turner can only provide so much offense as bigs, while Brogdon is overtaxed as the only real playmaker on the roster.

Indiana needs to tread water until Oladipo returns. If they can’t get level soon, it may be too late once he does.

Too much, too soon in Chicago?

Playoff talks throughout the organization during preseason created higher expectations for Chicago than maybe they were ready for. Poor losses on the road in Charlotte and New York, added to a drubbing by Toronto at home, have the Bulls sitting at 1-3. Cleaning the Glass projects their expected win total around 26 based on offensive and defensive ratings so far.

There have been positives: Lauri Markkanen flashed All-Star potential against the Hornets with 35 points and 17 rebounds. Zach LaVine did the same versus the Grizzlies with 37 points of his own. Coby White started off hot as well, scoring 17 and 25 over his first two games. Best of all, a healthy Wendell Carter Jr. was the best Bull on Monday night.

But even just four games in, inconsistency rules. The Bulls blew a ten-point advantage late against Charlotte and led New York by 18 at one point before what became The Bobby Portis Revenge Game. While the Toronto game at home could hardly have been penciled as a win, the 84 total points and 30 percent team shooting were wildly disappointing.

The talent has been evident, the Baby Bulls just haven’t put it together yet. The most discouraging part is that this was supposed to be an easier part of the schedule. After Detroit visits the United Center on Friday, the Bulls have a ten-game stretch in which nine opponents are projected to be playoff teams.

They have a few games to adjust before that stretch. Like Indiana, they need to get going before the hole becomes too deep to climb back out of.

Is Wesley Matthews back?

Finally! Wes Matthews looks good through the first week. His true shooting percentage sits at 68 percent. His BPM, below-average the last two years, is well above-average at 2.9. Better, he’s spreading the floor and has attempted seven three-pointers per game, his highest rate since 2014-15. And he boasts the highest on/off numbers on the team – even higher than Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Of course, some of these numbers are unsustainable — bur especially the last one. Even with impending regression in overall metrics, Matthews should flourish in areas he’s excelled in during the earlier part of his career. The longtime veteran is now back to playing almost exclusively off-guard and 93 percent of his minutes have come there. Expect the three-point number to remain about the same as he reaps the benefits of Milwaukee’s deep-heavy philosophy.

Defensively, the Bucks’ scheme and Antetokounmpo’s ability to cover holes lends itself to any dips Matthews’ individual defense has taken. In any case, Matthews is still smart and should be an effective help defender. He’s also strong enough to handle larger players — something that will prove to be incredibly vital in the playoffs, where the Bucks’ biggest rival figures to be Philadelphia and their oversized roster.

He doesn’t have to — and, frankly, is unable to — replace Brogdon’s ballhandling and playmaking. But he can replace his shooting and much of his defense.

As is the case with the rest of Milwaukee’s supporting cast, his salary will be earned in May. With Antetokounmpo’s extension looming, the Bucks; play during both the regular season and playoffs will determine much of their franchise’s prospects – and with it, the rest of the Central Division’s.

If Giannis stays, the Bucks stay top dogs for the foreseeable future. If he leaves, the division is wide open…and based on the early 2019-20 results, it would be anyone’s guess as to who takes the reins.

Drew Mays is a basketball writer currently based in Louisville, Kentucky. Find him on Twitter @dmays0

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