2015-16 NBA Preview, Central Division: Healing Cavs, Limping Bulls, and Young Bucks

One might wonder why the NBA still separates the conferences into divisions at this point. After Portland’s 51 wins granted them the 4th seed due to winning the Northwest (thanks to OKC injuries), despite finishing with the 6th-most wins in the West, the NBA altered the automatic 4th seeding formula, so that now a division title simply means having the best year out of the five teams closest to each other.

A division title has always been small consolation for a team that is bounced out of the playoffs in the first round. A chance for a team to raise a banner to the rafters. Geographic rivalries are not meaningless, but they mean less in West, where teams are further spread out, and where history doesn’t add that second layer of drama to the proceedings. When Denver visits Salt Lake City or Phoenix visits Sacramento, a divisional opponent isn’t much more than one game on the schedule.

What the divisions do, is provide a smaller group to write about. Five teams instead of fifteen at once. The Central Division is the deepest of the three Eastern Conference divisions and I expect they will finish in the same order that they did last year.

1. Cleveland Cavs

Arrivals: Mo Williams, The Immortal Sasha Kaun
Departures: Brendan Haywood, Mike Miller
Retained: Entire roster except for Tristan Thompson

2014-15: 53-29

The Cavs started 19-20 while they learned (or didn’t learn) David Blatt’s defensive principles, and while Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love learned how to play with LeBron. Center Anderson Varejao ruptured his Achilles after 26 games. The Cavs were fodder for the NBA gossip circuit. How could LeBron’s team be under .500? Maybe it would never work in Cleveland. Of course, trading for two defensive-minded players and one unconscious three-point shooter will help. The Cavs went 34-9 after acquiring Timofey Mozgov, Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith. They survived well-documented playoff injuries to Irving and Love and forced a 6th game with Golden State in the NBA Finals because of their defense, the undeniable rebounding of Tristan Thompson (averaged 13 rebounds per game in the Finals), and a certain superhero/athlete named LeBron.

LeBron is LeBron and LeBron is inevitable. Now that we have that out of the way, let’s talk about the questions surrounding LeBron in Northeast Ohio.
Tristan Thompson and his agent, Rich Paul, are engaged in a staring contest with the Cavs front office. After a brilliant playoff run in which Thompson repeatedly saved the Cavs, Thompson is being offered 5 years, $80 million (similar to Draymond Green’s recent contract), and is now waiting for the Cavs to blink.
*Update (Thompson blinked—and signed on October 21st, Thompson signed for 5 / $82m)
Thompson’s stock rose throughout the playoffs, with the Cavs transforming into a defensively dominant unit after injuries to Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving forced David Blatt to install Thompson and Matthew Dellavedova into the starting five. Thompson imitated Moses Malone (may he rest in peace) in his unstoppable offensive rebounding and displayed some mean pick-and-roll defense. Thompson’s reach, strength, and instincts were perfectly suited to ruining the hopes of Chicago and Atlanta, and eventually causing headaches among Golden State’s strategists. What do you do with a player who simply refuses to be boxed out?

Cavs power forward Tristan Thompson rebounds. (AP photo)

Assessing Thompson’s value is complex. With the financial floodgates set to open next summer, Thompson is demanding a max contract. Few offensively-limited players, if any, are ever considered for maximum-level slots. In addition, Kevin Love is back and healthy in Cleveland, having just signed a max deal for 5 years / $122 million. With LeBron, Irving and Love, the Cavs don’t have a max deal available.
The Cavs will be bringing three key players back from injuries. Aside from Love’s shoulder, Kyrie Irving (foot, knee), Anderson Varejao (hair/knee), and Iman Shumpert (wrist) are all recovering from ailments. On top of everything else, LeBron received an injection in his back within the last week.
Those questions, and the fact that it is increasingly common practice (thanks to the Spurs originally), to pace a team through the overly-long 82-game regular season, the Cavs won’t squeeze wins out of the calendar in the early going. Expect closer to 50 wins rather than 60.

Prediction: 54-28, 1st in East

2. Chicago Bulls

Arrivals: N/A
Departures: Tom Thibodeau (coach), Nazr Mohammed*
Retained: Jimmy Butler, Kirk Hinrich, Mike Dunleavy, Aaron Brooks

Drafted: Clinton Bobby Portis (22nd)

First off, let’s ask an existential question: What the hell did Derrick Rose do to the universe? I mean, every NBA player has to get lucky just to find themselves in an NBA uniform. But after Derrick’s MVP season in 2010-11, the man has simply been cursed. He started camp in good spirits, after an off-season without having to rehab an injury. Within days of preseason practice, he gets elbowed in the eye and is out with an orbital fracture that requires surgery. Goodness gracious. To be a Bulls fan requires a heaping of sadness on top of your cereal every morning.

The Bulls will be an experiment in the power of the new coach. Fred Hoiberg. Tom Thibodeau is apparently hanging out in Salt Lake City with legendary former Jazz coach /octogenarian Jerry Sloan. Thibs was known for his relentless obsession with defense and regular season wins. He was unfairly given the old axe by notorious Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf after all kinds of drama last spring. Now the clean-cut Hoiberg (he makes Celtics coach Brad Stevens look edgy) takes over a roster that hasn’t changed much at all, except for the addition of big man Bobby Portis, drafted out of Arkansas.

At long last, the minutes are expected to be limited. The serious depth (when the team is actually healthy, which is rarer than a Morton’s steak) the team has assembled should enable Hoiberg to keep the minutes around 30 for his aging crew of veterans. Pau Gasol, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson are all in need of leg replacement surgery. Yes, entire legs.

There’s no denying the talent on the roster. From Jimmy Butler to Gasol and Rose, to the grit of Noah and Gibson, to the offensive spark of Nikola Mirotic, Bulls fans have many reasons to be optimistic. Yet, how does a fan-base remain optimistic when tragedy so often befalls the team in the last five years? Maybe the Cubs can come up with some magic this October, and the Bulls can build off that victorious momentum. Or maybe the absence of the brilliant workaholic Thibs can allow some joy to seep into the locker room this year. Either way, the Bulls will win around 50 games. Hopefully they won’t be worn out by the end of April.

Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg kisses basketballs for good luck. (photo must have been a candid shot. No idea where it came from.)

Prediction: 51-31, 2nd in East

3. Milwaukee Bucks

Arrivals: Greg Monroe, Greivis Vasquez
Departures: Jared Dudley
Retained: Khris Middleton

Drafted: Rashad Vaughn (17th)

The Milwaukee Bucks have length. Their name should be changed to the Bucksss. They play defense with arms spread wide, wingspans wreaking havoc on opponent pick-and-rolls by switching everything with a deep roster of athletic swingmen.

Jabari Parker, returning from an ACL tear that forced him to miss the final 57 games of the season, may eventually become a great scorer in the NBA, but three things will keep him from making an significant impact this year. First, Khris Middleton’s range. Second, new arrival Greg Monroe’s post game. Finally, Parker’s lack of outside touch will restrict his time.  Like Giannis Antetuokuompo, Parker is a great slasher from the wing. Parker is stronger than most SFs and quicker than many PFs. If both improve their range to the corners, the Bucks can become true contenders.

John Henson’s recent extension (4/44) will look good starting in year two. Henson’s shot blocking at the rim will be badly needed next to Greg Monroe, who is allergic to shot-blocking and jumping more than nine inches off the ground.

All of this discussion and we’ve yet to mention extra-long point guard Michael Carter-Williams. MCW arrived last spring, with Miles Plumlee and Tyler Ennis, in a 3-way trade that sent Brandan Knight to Phoenix. Knight is a true scoring point. Carter-Williams does everything but score. Much like coach Jason Kidd in his playing days, but with weaker passing skills and yet-to-be-proven leadership, MCW is a force on the glass, a decent post-up option, and a very good defender. Can he lead an offense? Can he find something resembling a jumper? Last year, MCW shot 23.5% from deep. Unsightly.

It was a big gamble for Milwaukee, who is hoping they can rebuild MCW’s shot from the ground up. Not surprisngly, athletic, young players with extra long arms often struggle to shoot. The Bucks future depends on the shooting touch of MCW, Parker, and Giannis.

Also, I miss Larry Sanders. I will never forget that night he roamed the TD Garden paint waiting for any Celtic to attempt a lay-up or dunk. Rondo was looking over his shoulder anytime he crossed inside the three-point arc.

The Milwaukee Bucks starting five with their long arms hidden behind their backs. (Media Day photo)

Prediction: 44-38, 8th in East

4. Indiana Pacers

Arrivals: Monta Ellis, Chase Budinger, Jordan Hill
Departures: David West, C.J. Watson, Roy Hibbert
Retained: Lavoy Allen, Rodney Stuckey, Shayne Whittington

Drafted: Myles Turner (11th)

2014-15: 38-44

Goodbye, Roy Hibbert. David West takes the veteran’s minimum to play in San Antonio, leaving $12m on the table for this year. Everything they say about David West being humble, being an awesome teammate, and being genuine seems true to me. The guy wants to win a championship and so he joins the franchise known for selflessness and teamwork. Go West, young man. Go David West. Out with Hibbert and West and the core interior defenders of recent Pacers contending teams. In comes Monta. Talk about a change in identity. Now Paul George will have some offensive help, but the looks that Dallas’ offense enabled for Monta will be harder to find in Indiana. Paul George might be primed for a big year, and George Hill can knock down a three-pointer, but Lavoy Allen and Jordan Hill will certainly not cause any double teams. Frank Vogel has talked openly about playing Paul George at power forward. On paper this makes sense. The Pacers simply don’t have a power foriward other than Lavoy Allen. Rookie 7-footer Myles Turner doesn’t turn 20 until March, and though he took a bunch of three-pointers in college, he didn’t hit many (27%). He also grabbed only 6.5 rebounds per game (22 min). He is so clearly NOT ready to play more than a handful of minutes a night in the NBA. And yet he may this year…

Good luck, Paul George. The wisdom of the elders is gone. It has been replaced with an aging shooting guard who was never a great shooter (Monta). Things may start slowly…

Prediction: 39-43, 9th in East

5. Detroit Pistons

Arrivals: Ersan Ilyasova, Marcus Morris, Aron Baynes, Danny Granger, Reggie Bullock
Departures: Greg Monroe, Caron Butler, Shawne Williams
Retained: Reggie Jackson, Joel Anthony

Drafted: Stanley Johnson (8th)

2014-15: 32-50

What you might remember from last year’s Pistons team is the fact that Josh Smith was released (contract eaten) mid-year. The team started 5-23. A team that many were predicting to win 40 games. They were 18 games under .500 before Christmas. The funny thing? They finished 18 under. Which means they were actually pretty decent for the final two-thirds of the season…once they tossed Josh Smith to the winds (don’t worry, Smith found himself playing very meaningful playoff games with Houston and is now on another contender–the Clippers.

What can the Pistons do this year? The mid-30s seems about right. Andre Drummond remains enormous, yet not quite dominant enough, thanks in part to abysmal free-throw shooting, and a lack of help around him. Small forward Stanley Johnson has everyone intrigued. Point guard Reggie Jackson can put up solid numbers, but this will be his first attempt at leading a team from opening night. The Pistons will miss Greg Monroe’s steady post play. Aron Baynes has a nice accent, but his post-play is more awkward than steady.

Prediction: 35-47, 11th in East


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