Season Preview: Central Division
The wait is over... for the Cavs at least. It's no secret that the East is an extremely top heavy conference with only two or three true title contenders. However, two of the more promising teams to keep an eye on in the East reside in the Central Division with Cleveland and Milwaukee. However, while the Bulls and Pacers begin their rebuild, there's still excitement surround their new, explosive talent. The Central boasts both the stars of today, as well as the stars of tomorrow. Here's how I see the division playing out.
1) Cleveland Cavaliers
The question isn't if Cleveland can win the Central, it's if they can win the title. Cleveland's roster is head and shoulders above the rest of the Central, and even the Cavs reserves would likely hold their own against everyone else's starting 5. When it comes to change, it doesn't get more drastic than trading off a top 10 player in the NBA, Kyrie Irving. The Cavs earned about as good of a return as they could have hoped for with draft capital and Isaiah Thomas being the price for Cleveland's high scoring point guard. Additionally, the Cavs tried to boost the second unit with the addition of former MVP, Derrick Rose. If he can stay healthy, he instantly boosts the scoring output of Cleveland's second unit, which hopefully means Lebron James will be able to get more rest throughout the regular season and even the playoffs. How Cleveland moves on from Kyrie is something to keep track of, but barring injury, this division is locked up prior to the first tip off of the season.
2) Milwaukee Bucks
The Bucks possess some great young talent and roster continuity, but they just can't stay healthy. Milwaukee will already be short handed till about the All Star break with Jabari Parker rehabbing another ACL injury. Khris Middleton also missed extensive time last season with a hamstring injury, but will be a go for the season opener. However, everything stops and starts with Giannis Antetokounmpo for the Bucks. He's an All Star who is well on his way to being a Superstar in the NBA. As long as he stays healthy, he will drag Milwaukee to a winning record as long as he and at least a few of his supporting cast members stay healthy. For this season to be a success, the Bucks need to build on last season's playoff appearance and make it to the Eastern Conference Semifinal. Unfortunately, outside of Milwaukee's top 6 (7 with Parker healthy) there's not much to push this team forward in the postseason.
3) Detroit Pistons
While the Bulls and Pacers opted to rebuild, the Pistons stood firm... not that they had much of a choice. The team doesn't really have a marketable superstar outside of Andre Drummond, and his position is quickly becoming devalued in the NBA. Frankly, that describes most of Detroit's roster. If it were 2005, the Piston's would matchup much better across the league. Unfortunately, it's 2017, and the 3 ball reigns supreme, and it's where Detroit falls dreadfully short. Drafting Luke Kennard was a step in the right direction, but he won't solve the problem by himself. The Pistons need point guard Reggie Jackson to take charge of the team, Tobias Harris to take the next step, and Stanley Johnson to be more effective on offense, and less divisive in the locker room. Expect the Pistons to finish around .500 and compete for the 7th or 8th seed in a weak Eastern Conference.
4) Indiana Pacers
Hope you all got enough playoff talk because there won't be any more of that for the rest of this division. Indiana waved the white flag on keeping Paul George in town and shipped him off to OKC for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. Indiana also let Monta Ellis and Kevin Seraphin walk in free agency. The face of this franchise (if there's one to be had) is Myles Turner. He's promising, young, and is one of the only players who's played for the Pacers the last two seasons. The Pacers definitely downgraded this offseason. They're not bad enough to tank and not good enough to truly succeed. A classic middle team that will win about 32 games this season.
5) Chicago Bulls
The three alphas came and the three alphas went, it was fun while it lasted. Chicago finally admitted defeat on its "win while rebuilding" strategy and blew the team up. Butler was dealt to Minnesota for Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine, and a higher draft pick while Rondo was cut, and Wade was bought out. Head coach Fred Hoiberg will get a fair shot at applying his fast paced offense to the NBA with younger players who will run the floor more consistently. The problem stems from the Bulls having almost no shooting. Lauri Markkanen will be expected to develop quickly as a rookie and provide a lot of the offense Chicago needs. LaVine can provide a lot of scoring, but he is on the mend from an ACL tear. The Bulls have some promising developments with Denzel Valentine and Paul Zipser, but they are barely proven starters yet, yet alone building blocks for a franchise. Also, the Bulls have a major hole at point guard. Considering this position cost them the series against Boston last year, it comes as a slight surprise to see Jerian Grant still seeing significant minutes (and a starting role till Dunn returns) after his abysmal play last season. However, that's somewhat expected from a team that is crossing its fingers to win the NBA draft lottery in the spring.