NBA Daily: Early-Season Central Division Rankings

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The NBA is back! And to celebrate Basketball Insiders’ big return to cover, we’re ranking each division based on their respective starts to the season – beginning with the Central Division. In this worst to first ranking, each team is evaluated on how they look after watching the exhibition and early-season games.

5. Chicago Bulls, 0-2

The Billy Donovan Era in Chicago has gotten off to a rocky start with a pair of 20-point losses to start the season.

The only players the Bulls will have on the roster with guaranteed money in 2021-22 are Coby White and Patrick Williams, so it’s safe to say that this will be a trial year for everyone. Further, the front office said as much by not extending Lauri Markkanen this offseason.  If the team’s struggles continue it would not be surprising to see them move some players for future assets throughout the season.

Markkanen has started off the season strong and looked comfortable playing next to Wendell Carter Jr. as a four on the perimeter. The Finnish up-and-comer has value as a floor spacer, something that’s even more pronounced with Chicago as they consistent outside shooters. But the organization has to be pleased with the start of the season that No. 4 overall pick Patrick Williams is having. Already, the second-youngest player in the NBA is proving that he can hold up physically, scoring the ball better than anyone thought he would.

Ultimately, Chicago will take time to jell this season.  They have a new coach, a roster with young players, and a shortened offseason that won’t help any of them adjust to the new system.  If it does not look like this team is meshing well, watch for Chicago to be a big partner on the trade market.

4. Detroit Pistons, 0-2

Detroit made more moves this offseason than any team besides the Oklahoma City Thunder.  Four players remain on the roster from last season in Blake Griffin, Derrick Rose, Sekou Doumbouya and Svi Mykhailiuk.  Troy Weaver and the rest of the front office completely reshaped this roster led by the No. 7 overall pick, Killian Hayes from France, and free agent signing Jerami Grant, who came over from Denver on a three-year deal worth $60 million.

Early on, Blake Griffin has looked great. He is healthy, moving well on both ends of the floor and showing a versatile skill set that makes him a match-up problem for opposing teams. Outside of him, however, this is a team that struggles to play consistently at both ends of the floor – and given the roster turnover, it is not surprising.  Trying to integrate so many new players without a true offseason is proving to be difficult.

Killian Hayes has loads of potential but has wrestled with turnovers and not being able to make shots. The fifth-youngest player in the NBA this season does not yet look comfortable running the offense.  The Pistons will be relying on young players such as Hayes, Doumbouya, Josh Jackson and Saddiq Bey to play roles as they try to figure out their rotation. While each has flashed strongly in moments, no one has taken control of the early rotation minutes.

If Griffin and Rose can stay healthy, then this team has a chance to win some games. But until then, it might be a big learning process in 2020-21.

3. Cleveland Cavaliers, 2-0

The Cleveland Cavaliers have started off 2-0 and a big part of that can be contributed to the early growth of their young guards and wings.

Collin Sexton is building off the strong finish to last season averaging 29.5 points per game. The more impressive thing about how Sexton has started is that he looks under control and is making good decisions as a passer. He will always be a score-first player – but through two games he is playing within the flow of the offense and not forcing the issue.

As a bonus, Darius Garland is much more confident in his shot- and play-making abilities. Playing alongside Sexton, Garland is getting a good mix of shots off the dribble and in spot-up situations. Rookie Isaac Okoro won’t fill up the stat sheet scoring the ball, but he has been one of the more NBA-ready rookies and has played 76 minutes through two games –thus showing how he can contribute early as a versatile, switchable defender.

To complement their young group of guards, Andre Drummond and Kevin Love are providing them reliable, veteran players in the frontcourt. While neither one of them is playing at the highest level, both can still relieve the guards of all the playmaking duties and run the offense through them for stretches.

The Cavaliers did not make any splashy signings in free agency, however. While some of their veterans could be moved at some point this season, they’ll rely on internal growth for improvement.

2. Indiana Pacers, 2-0

Nate Bjorkgren can’t be complaining about the start to his coaching tenure with the Pacers – his team is 2-0 and averaging 123 points per game. Indiana retained their core this offseason and through the first two games, it is showing.

Bjorkgen has them playing an up-tempo style of basketball on both ends of the court. Offensively, they are taking advantage of their personnel, having multiple ball screens and isolation creators. The Pacers push the ball and often get into quick drags and empty side pick-and-roll actions with shooters spacing the floor. Additionally, Indiana is taking quick shots in transition and in the half-court, while also attacking the offensive glass to keep possessions alive.

Defensively, the Pacers are chasing hard on both on- and off-ball screens, frequently giving heavy help when opponents get into the lane. The frantic style seems to have opponents playing fast and matching the tempo.  With Turner in the game as a back-line defender, they shoot passing lanes and go for home run steals. Given their length and ability to switch multiple positions, it has been a fun and effective style to watch.

The nine-man rotation seems set for now – but when injuries or COVID-19 protocols rear its head, watch to see who the Pacers attempt to fill the void. We should have a better idea of how good this team after they play stronger competition – but for the time being they have made a strong case for being (and staying) the second-best team in the Central Division.

1. Milwaukee Bucks, 1-1

After finishing with the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference for the second consecutive season, Milwaukee had a busy offseason by replacing eight players that averaged double-figure minutes. The biggest addition, of course, was Jrue Holiday, who came over in a trade with New Orleans that involved Eric Bledsoe, George Hill, two future first round picks and two pick swaps. All of that yielded them a new starting point guard, a depleted bench and what turned out to be enough incentive to sign the two-time reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo to a five-year, $228 million dollar extension.

Coming off a season in which he won MVP and Defensive Player of the Year, what more can Antetokounmpo do to get Milwaukee closer to a championship? Simply put, the answer can be seen in the first two games of the season. Despite being an immense talent, Antetokounmpo is only a 28.4 percent career three-point shooter. Albeit a small sample size, he has started off slow behind the arc shooting just 27.3 percent on what would be a career-high 5.5 attempts per game.

Futhermore, the Greek phenom is also shooting 56.5 percent from the free-throw line on 11.5 attempts per game. The Bucks are leaving tons of points on the court right now – so, in order to maximize their offense and Antetokounmpo as a player, becoming more efficient in these two areas will be essential. Khris Middleton, the two-time All-Star, has gotten off to a great start this season, building on top of a career year where he was 0.3 percentage points away from averaging 50 percent on field goals, 40 percent on threes and 90 percent from the free throw line.

While the core is in place, this is a relatively new team in Milwaukee. Like most teams, they do not seem to be firing on all cylinders right now. With the shortened offseason and training camp, it will certainly take time for this team to mesh, especially the new players off the bench.

Despite the early inconsistencies, they’re still comfortably the best team in the Central and will undoubtedly improve as the season goes on.

In the end, the middle of the Central Division will be interesting this season as Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland all have the ability to compete for the play-in games. But if things don’t break their way, they could also be some of the worst teams record-wise in the NBA.

Luckily, both Indiana and Milwaukee bring some stability at the top of the division; while the bottom of the division could be a rotating carousel throughout the year.