Six Things to Know: NBA Central Division

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This week Basketball Insiders takes a look at six aspects of each division that may be flying under the radar. We kicked our series off with the Southeast Division, now we take a closer look at the Central Division.

The biggest news in the Central Division was of course made by the Cleveland Cavaliers. The return of LeBron James and the acquisition of Kevin Love makes them immediate title contenders. Other major headlines include three coaching changes: Jason Kidd in Milwaukee, David Blatt in Cleveland and Stan Van Gundy in Detroit. The Pacers also lost their star, Paul George, after he suffered a broken leg this summer while playing in a scrimmage for Team USA. While these events may have drawn the most attention, there are number of other items throughout that division that are worth mentioning. Here are six other things to key an eye on in the Central Division in 2014-15.

 1. The Bucks will experiment with Giannis Antetokounmpo at point guard

Over the course of the 2013-14 season Bucks fans had little reason to be excited. Everything that could go wrong for the team seemingly did and they struggled all year long, finishing with the worst record in the NBA. However, despite the team’s lack of success there was one reason for optimism, and that was the performance of first round pick Giannis Antetokounmpo. Antetokounmpo dazzled fans almost nightly with his unbelievable playmaking ability. For a player of his size, his ability, not only to handle the ball, but to pass it as well makes him a truly unique talent.

New Bucks Coach Jason Kidd seems to be very intrigued by the unique gifts Antetokounmpo  possesses and is ready to utilize his variety of skills to the fullest. This means Antetokounmpo, who spent the majority of his minutes last season playing as a wing off the ball, will get the chance to be the Bucks primary ball handler at times this season. Antetokounmpo spoke with Basketball Insiders just a few a weeks ago about the possibility of playing point guard.

“It’s something that I feel comfortable with and I’ll play wherever Coach wants me to play, especially when it’s Coach Kidd who thinks that I can play point guard,” Antetokounmpo said. “That makes me feel like, ‘I can play it. I can play point guard.’ I’m going to try my best and just listen to Coach. I’ll do whatever Coach says to do and I’ll get more comfortable.”

It was reported Monday night that Antetokounmpo will get his first chance to start at point guard in Tuesday’s preseason game against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Antetokounmpo will reportedly get the start alongside Khris Middleton, Jabari Parker, Ersan Ilyasova, and Zaza Pachulia. It should be noted that Jason Kidd has experimented with a number of different starting lineups this preseason and that this certainly doesn’t mean he’ll be the starting point guard when the regular season rolls around, but nonetheless it will be an interesting first look.

2. The Bulls have a very deep frontcourt

The two most recognizable names in the team’s stable of big men will be the starters: Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah. Both players are very accomplished. Gasol is a four-time All-Star and two-time NBA championships with the Lakers; he is one the better post players in the game today. Noah has been named an All-Star twice and is coming of a season where he was awarded the Defensive Player of the Year. The two will combine to form one of the most talented starting frontcourts in the league this season.

While Noah and Gasol will likely get the majority of the minutes, the Bulls have a number of impressive big men they can bring off the bench. The most important player in that group will be Taj Gibson. Gibson has developed into a terrific defender and is more than capable of putting up double digit points on any given night. He has the talent to be starter, but for now will be utilized as one of the premier bench bigs in the league.

The Bulls will also have Nikola Mirotic on their roster this season. Mirotic joins the team after a dominate stint with Real Madrid of the Liga ACB. During his time with Real Madrid he was named twice named to the All-ACB team, was chosen to the All-Euroleague two times and was named the Spanish league MVP in 2013. He is a very good shooter from the outside, shooting just over 40 percent in his last five years with Real Madrid. Mirotic is a much different player than Gibson and the two should complement each other nicely.

The Bulls also have Nazr Mohammed fighting for one of the final roster spots. Mohammed isn’t going to wow you with incredible athleticism or an array of offensive moves but he will offer a steady defensive presence when he is on the court. He likely won’t see many minutes considering the players in front of him, but if he is called upon he will be ready.

3. Stan Van Gundy is stressing conditioning with the Pistons

Stan Van Gundy has a massive undertaking ahead of him to turn the Pistons into a contender. The team significantly unperformed last season and was one of the bigger disappointments in the league. However, he isn’t taking over a team where the cupboard is bare. The Pistons have some talented players. Andre Drummond has the chance to be a truly dominant center with his combination of athleticism and size. Josh Smith has proven throughout his career that he can be an elite defensive player. Greg Monroe is back and the team added Jodie Meeks, Caron Butler and D.J. Augustin, all players who can improve the team this season.

Since taking over, one thing Van Gundy has really focused on has been the team’s conditioning. He has made point during training camp to work his guys into the best shape possible with the season right around the corner. Drummond recently spoke with Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free Press on the topic.

“There’s one thing I can tell; we’ll probably be the best conditioned team in the NBA,” Drummond said with a chuckle. “I can tell you that right now.”

It’s clear Van Gundy is already making his mark on his new team. While they may not be a contender this year it won’t be due to fatigue. Van Gundy appears to already be making strides in getting the Pistons back on the right track.

4. Rodney Stuckey and CJ Miles will both be important pieces for the Pacers

After Paul George suffered a horrific leg injury while playing for team USA, which will likely sideline him for the season, it left the Pacers with a huge hole to fill. Both CJ Miles and Rodney Stuckey were acquired this offseason to help George and the Pacers make another deep playoff run. Their roles quickly changed following the devastating injury to George.

We know for certain that George Hill, David West and Roy Hibbert will be in the team’s starting lineup. Those players have all been steady contributors on very good Pacers teams the last couple of years. If the Pacers have hopes of salvaging their season without George they will need Miles and Stuckey to step up and take on bigger roles than expected. Both may now have the chance to start. Stuckey has been working in the backcourt along with George Hill in practice recently. Frank Vogel spoke with Candace Buckner of the IndyStar about what he has seen from Stuckey.

“Stuckey’s a big, punishing type of guy,” Vogel said. “The two of them played a lot together today and looked really comfortable together. I was pretty excited about what it looked like. Just mixing up, who’s bringing the ball up, who’s playing off screens…and having a two-guard attack, that’s one of the things I’ve been excited about early on in camp.”

Miles is intrigued by the potential of an increased role.

“When I have played and what I have done, it’s been with the first group,” Miles said. “So, we’ll see. The next couple of days, that’s when they’ll let me do more and more. Hopefully, it’ll stay that way.”

All signs so far point to Stuckey and Miles getting the chance to start and play extended minutes. The Pacers will count on consistent production from both to help ease the loss of the team’s star. If the group can mesh together they have the chance to still be a fringe playoff type of team.

5. David Blatt may have the Cavs play some zone defense

With all the talent on the Cavs roster they should have no problem scoring the ball. LeBron James alone will make things much easier for all his teammates. Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving have proven that they can fill it up without the help of James as well, so expect buckets to come even easier for them this season. The biggest concern with this new and improved group of Cavaliers will be on the defensive end.

First year head coach David Blatt isn’t afraid to try something a little different on that end if it means slowing down the opposition. Zone defense is generally frowned upon  in most NBA circles, some viewing it as the lazy way out. However, Blatt who comes to Cleveland after coaching in Europe, has seen how effective a good zone defense can be if used properly. Blatt spoke with Jason Lloyd of the Beacon Journal about the idea of playing some zone defense this season.

“I like any defense that helps you gain an advantage or helps you change the way the other guy plays,” Blatt said.

It may not be a staple of the Cavs’ defense, but be on the lookout this year for Blatt and the Cavs to surprise some teams with a zone defense if they aren’t getting it done in man-to-man.

6. The Central Division has the chance to be the strongest in the East

It all starts up top with the loaded Cavaliers and a Bulls teams that has become a perennial contender over the last five years. Both those squads will battle all-season long for Eastern Conference Supremacy. The two are locks to make the playoffs and are the favorites to meet in the Eastern Conference Finals. Although the Bulls and the Cavs are the most highly regarded teams in the division the rest of the division shouldn’t be overlooked.

Expectations for the Pacers have fallen off significantly following the injury to George. However, don’t expect coach Vogel and company to just roll over and consider the season lost. They have spent too many years establishing a winning culture to regress back to a below-average team. It goes without saying that they won’t be the same type of threat they have been in recent years, but if Stuckey and Miles can provide consistent production the team will be OK. In Detroit Stan Van Gundy will be eager establish that same type of winning culture and has some very talented players to work with. The team figures to be much more disciplined this season and with the addition of some perimeter shooters should become a more balanced offensive unit. They have the chance to make some noise and don’t be shocked if they sneak into the playoffs. The Bucks are still in rebuilding mode, but have a lot talented young players. Jason Kidd will has a good amount of work ahead of him, but has a group hungry to improve and capable of pulling off an upset on any given night.

Make sure to follow our Six Things to Know series throughout the week to stay updated on what’s happening in each division.