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Grades at 20 Games: Central Division

Twenty games into the season we check out how the Central Division teams stack up.

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On Monday Cody Taylor gave his quarterly assessment of the Southeast Division and today we are going to do the same with the Central Division. You could argue that no division underwent more changes this past offseason. In Detroit, the Pistons brought in Stan Van Gundy to help lead the franchise back to its winning ways. The Bulls landed Pau Gasol in free agency to help bolster their frontcourt and further strengthen their championship hopes. The Bucks, somewhat controversially, sent Larry Drew packing and reached a deal with the Brooklyn Nets to make Jason Kidd their new head coach. Lance Stephenson and the Pacers were unable to agree to terms on a new deal, allowing their play-making wing to head to Charlotte. More importantly the Pacers lost their centerpiece, Paul George, for likely the entire season after he suffered a horrific leg injury. While those moves all made headlines, they pale in comparison to the news of LeBron James returning to Cleveland and the Cavs’ subsequent trade to acquire Kevin Love. With so many changes, the Central Division has become one of the most intriguing divisions in the NBA.

Now, onto the grades:

1. Cleveland Cavaliers (12-7)

The return of LeBron James and the acquisition of Kevin Love has brought back a level of excitement to Cleveland that had been absent ever since James took his talents to South Beach just a few years ago. The fans in Cleveland once again have reason to believe that the Cavs could deliver them a title. Fair or not, with the talent on their roster many expected the Cavs to be near unbeatable from the start. New head coach David Blatt, a proven winner overseas, faced the enormous task of bringing together the now title favorite Cavs.

The season got off to a rocky start and many were quick to panic after the Cavs won only one of their first four games, including a loss in Utah to the Jazz. The slow start had fans already questioning Blatt. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the Cavs experienced some growing pains as they learned to play together. However, it didn’t take long for the Cavs to find their stride, going 11-4 in their last 15 games, and they are now in the lead in the Central. James has done a tremendous job creating scoring opportunities for his teammates, averaging 7.9 assists per game. James’ play-making has allowed Kyrie Irving to be aggressive looking for his own shot. Despite being 21st in the league in pace, the Cavs are still in the top 10 in points per game, scoring at 103.4 a night. They have been one of the more efficient teams in the NBA, shooting 46.5 percent from the field. As the Cavs continue to mesh, expect them to improve on their already impressive offensive numbers.

Grade: B

2. Chicago Bulls (12-8)

The Bulls have been hampered by injuries early on this season. Unfortunately, Derrick Rose once again headlines the list of players who have already missed extended action. Not only has Rose sat for stretches, but other major contributors like Pau Gasol and Taj Gibson have been sidelined as well. The Bulls have been able to battle through those injuries and remain right in the mix for the division lead.

While their record might not blow you away after 20 games, you have to consider the tough schedule the Bulls have played. They have played only seven of the first 20 games at home. Jimmy Butler has exploded into a star; he is having a career year thus far. Butler is the team’s leading scorer, averaging 21.7 points per game and playing big minutes once again at almost 40 per night. Even while playing heavy minutes, Butler has been able to shoot 48.8 percent from the field. Butler, along with Gasol, have been huge as the Bulls look to keep pace with the Cavs. If Rose can stay healthy, expect the Cavs and Bulls to be neck and neck in the Central Division all season long.

Grade: B

3. Milwaukee Bucks (11-11)

After finishing last season with a league-low 15 wins, expectations weren’t great in Milwaukee. Newly hired head coach Jason Kidd has immediately made his presence felt and has the Bucks shockingly thinking about the playoffs. Adding a healthy Larry Sanders back into the mix hasn’t hurt either. Early on, the Bucks look like a completely different team from that 15-win squad of a season ago.

While the Bucks’ record is clear proof of their early improvement, it’s how their winning games that should encourage fans the most. Kidd has entrusted the future in the team’s faces of the franchise Jabari Parker and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Both have proven that they can handle big minutes and they’ve been key contributors to the Bucks’ success this year. Parker has started in all 22 games and is the Bucks’ second leading scorer and rebounder at 12.4 and 5.9 respectively. Antetokounmpo started the season coming off the bench, but has since settled into the starting rotation; he continues to make eye-popping plays nearly every night. Just as impressive has been Kidd’s impact on Brandon Knight, who at only 23 years old is having his most efficient season as a pro, scoring 17.6 points per game while shooting 44.7 percent the field and 40.2 percent from three.

The Bucks certainly look to have things heading back in the right direction after a long 2013-14 season. They may not be ready for a deep playoff run quite yet, but with the way their young talent continues to develop, they should be a team to watch in the future.

Grade: B+

4. Indiana Pacers (7-14)

When Paul George went down this summer, many wrote the Pacers off completely. Not only would they be without George, but they’d be missing Lance Stephenson, who rejected the Pacers’ five-year, $44 million offer, as well. Both players were catalysts behind the team’s run of success over the past few seasons.  As expected, the Pacers haven’t been the same team without George and Stephenson. However, they have continued to compete hard every night.

Not only are the Pacers missing George, but starting point guard George Hill has been out as well. Backup big man Ian Mahinmi also just went down for several weeks. The Pacers have been forced to play much of the season shorthanded. With the rash of injuries that the Pacers have suffered, offense has been tough to come by. The Pacers are 28th in the league in offensive rating and are scoring only 93.4 points per game. They are without a true go-to scorer and are currently being led by David West, who after returning from injury, is averaging 13.2 points per game.

It’s going to be a uphill battle all season long for the Pacers but there is no quit in this team. The Pacers aren’t the same team they were last year but they are still a tough match-up night in and night out.

Grade: C

5. Detroit Pistons (3-18)

Outside of the Sixers, no team has been worse than the Pistons and unfortunately, unlike the Sixers, the Pistons didn’t come into the season trying to position themselves for a top draft pick. Things have certainly not started as well as Stan Van Gundy would have hoped. This is uncharted territory for him, as he’s never coached a team that finished under .500 before, let alone had the kind of struggles this Pistons team is enduring.

Despite having some talented pieces like Andre Drummond, Josh Smith and Greg Monroe, the Pistons have not played well together. Offensively they struggle mightily to score to ball, shooting only 40.7 percent as a team. The team’s three leading shot takers – Smith, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Brandon Jennings – are shooting well below 40 percent from the field. They are just average on the defensive end and have not been nearly stingy enough to overcome their offensive woes. Van Gundy certainly has his work cut out for him going forward.

Grade: F

This is John's second year with Basketball Insiders, after spending last season working as an intern. Based out of Milwaukee, he covers the NBA with a focus on the Milwaukee Bucks and the Central Division.

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