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Ranking the NBA’s Central Teams

Concluding our series, Joel Brigham ranks the Central Division teams at the season’s quarter mark.

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A quarter of the way through the NBA season and three Central Division teams – Cleveland, Chicago and Indiana – are among the top four teams in the Eastern Conference. Not to mention, Detroit has played well early on too, and Milwaukee also are more talented than their record indicates thus far.

Today we wrap up our series on ranking the divisions at the quarter-point of the season by taking a look at those Central Division teams that have generally been so impressive:

#5 Milwaukee Bucks

Well, this isn’t what Greg Monroe thought he was signing up for when he joined the Bucks. Twenty games into the season, the Bucks look like the Central Division team least likely to make the postseason, which is disappointing considering all that preseason talk about them potentially being a 50-win team.

They’re not going to win 50 games, and there are a number of reasons why. For starters, in their attempt to revamp the frontcourt and put together a smaller lineup, they’ve given up quite a bit in terms of rebounding. Currently the Bucks rank dead-last in the league in rebounds per game with only 39.5, which is a full board-and-a-half fewer than the team ranked 29th in that category. Life after Larry Sanders and Ersan Ilyasova hasn’t been pretty, and it’s sort of a well-known NBA fact that you won’t win many games when you’re getting out-rebounded every single night.

Furthermore, they just haven’t been the good defensive team they were a year ago, even beyond the rebounding stuff. Last year they were aggressive on the ball, taking a ton of gambles and creating a lot of turnovers, but this season those gambles haven’t paid off. Opposing offenses are just getting more open looks from those strong-side defensive gambles, and they’re knocking a lot of them down.

Now, Jason Kidd is facing an injury epidemic and leaning more on his veterans to try and string some wins together. This was supposed to be a year when the kids became men, but instead the kids have been underwhelming and it’s going to affect their playing time. Things have been a little broken in Milwaukee so far, but the good news is that there’s more than enough talent and more than enough time to turn things around.

#4 Detroit Pistons

As much as the Bucks aren’t rebounding, the Pistons sure are, fueled in large part by Andre Drummond’s league-leading 17 boards per game. As a team, the Pistons are third in the NBA with 47.2 RPG, which is a big reason why Detroit is eighth in the league in opponents’ points per game with 97.8.

Stats aside, though, Drummond’s emergence combined with the coming-out party Reggie Jackson has been putting on this season has led to more early-season success than the Pistons have enjoyed in the recent past. They’re two games over .500 and comfortably in the conversation for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, and that’s a testament to Stan Van Gundy’s vision for this team and how well both the burgeoning stars and the role players have come together. Marcus Morris, to name one example, has been something of a revelation.

In the Atlantic or Southeast Divisions, the Pistons may have an easier time of things. But even where they stand, they sure do look like a playoff team.

#3 Indiana Pacers

The analysis here is pretty easy. Last season, when the Pacers did not have Paul George, they were not very good. In the two previous seasons, when George was healthy and playing at an elite level, the Pacers made the Eastern Conference Finals. Now that George is arguably the Eastern Conference’s MVP and playing the best basketball of his life, it probably shouldn’t come as too huge a surprise that his team once again is one of the best in the division and the conference.

Indiana’s defense has been fantastic early on, as they’re allowing the fifth fewest points per game with 96.8 per night, while they’re also among the top 10 in the league in opponents’ field goal percentage and opponents’ three-point percentage.

More importantly, though, they’ve figured out how to be more consistent offensively after being among the worst in the league in that category a year ago. They were miserable to watch on that end without George, but he and Monta Ellis and George Hill have brought so much more stability there this year. Indiana is scoring 102.6 points per game, which is seventh most in the NBA. While that’s still 13 points per game fewer than Golden State, it’s more than enough to win the majority of their basketball games and that’s what they are doing right now.

#2 Chicago Bulls

Things with the new head coach are going fairly well, as the Bulls remain one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference despite switching from Tom Thibodeau’s defense-focused system to Fred Hoiberg’s offense-oriented system. Interestingly, though, Chicago doesn’t really look all that sharp most nights and still has a whole lot of fine-tuning to do before they’re at their best.

Derrick Rose, for example, has a PER under 10. And while the Bulls are leading the league in rebounds, they actually have a rebound differential of -1.5. That means no team in the NBA truly is averaging more boards per game than whoever plays Chicago.

Mike Dunleavy, Jr. isn’t going to be healthy anytime soon, and Chicago can’t play Jimmy Butler 40 minutes every night, so there are some obvious holes here in the swing rotation. However, Chicago’s talent and familiarity with each other have been enough to get them off to a respectable start. If they had to face a good team in a seven-game playoff series right now, it would be really hard to put big money on them to win. It’s a good thing, then, that the playoffs are still four months away.

#1 Cleveland Cavaliers

It’s hard to imagine any team other than Cleveland representing the Eastern Conference in the 2016 NBA Finals assuming everybody is healthy come spring, but that’s far from a certainty considering how much head coach David Blatt has had to rely on LeBron James early in the season. There’s no question that the team misses Kyrie Irving, and getting him back separates the Cavs from the rest of the pack pretty convincingly. But in the meantime, even without one of their top offensive players, they’re still a top-seven offensive team, which should explain why they have more wins than anybody else in the conference.

Kevin Love looks so much more comfortable in his second season as a Cavalier, and Mo Williams has been a pleasant surprise in his waning years, but James needs some help if the Cavs are going to survive the regular season. Irving can’t get back quickly enough.

Will Cleveland hold onto the conference, or can another Central Division team creep up on them to steal away the top seed? It’s the toughest conference in the East, so anything’s possible. There’s certainly more than enough talent across the board to keep things interesting all season long.

Joel Brigham is a senior writer for Basketball Insiders, covering the Central Division and fantasy basketball.

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