The Central division is one of the strongest divisions in the NBA this year and has the potential to have four playoff teams. Last year, the central division had four all-stars so the division has clear individual talent as well as team talent. The Bulls, Pacers, and Bucks all made the playoffs last year and will look to maintain similar records. The two other teams, the Pistons and Cavaliers both made significant offseason acquisitions that will revamp their rosters. Lets look at how the division will play out. (*denotes projected playoff team)
1.) *Chicago Bulls
The Bulls are arguably one of the top 3 teams in the entire NBA, and with their MVP back at the helm, the Bulls are looking to make a championship run and end the Heat’s reign as Eastern Conference Champions. The Bulls had a successful season last year without Derrick Rose and despite being plagued with injuries to key players all season. The Bulls won 45 games, advancing to the Eastern Conference semi-finals and ranking 3rd in points allowed on average with 92.9. The defense has always been a mainstay with wizard head coach Tom Thibodeau and strong interior and wing defenders such as Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, Luol Deng and Jimmy Butler. The only problem for the Bulls last year was scoring, as they averaged only 93.2 points per game, tied for 28th in league, and clearly correlated to Derrick’s absence. Financially, the Bulls are in a slight bind with the increase on Taj Gibson’s contract starting this year as well as the last two years of Carlos Boozer’s 5 year 80 million dollar deal, but Luol Deng’s expiring contract could be used in a trade piece and free up cap room. The Bulls could make a blockbuster deal with the Minnesota Timberwolves shipping their first round pick, Charlotte’s 2016 protected pick, Luol Deng or Jimmy Butler for Kevin Love, a deal that would benefit both teams. The Bulls will clearly be one of the most interesting teams to watch this year, and they could bring the Larry O’Brien trophy back to the Windy City.
2.) *Indiana Pacers
The Indiana Pacers showed their potential last year, giving the Miami Heat a run for their money during the Eastern Conference finals, and this year should be more of the same. The Pacers are young, talented and play hard. They gave up only 90.7 points per game, and held opponents to 42% shooting per game, 2nd and 1st in the league, respectively. This intense team defense stems from coach Frank Vogel as well as elite defenders such as Roy Hibbert and Paul George, both of whom can seriously impact an offensive game plan. Danny Granger, a former all star, missed much of the season, and he will take on scoring responsibilities, taking some of the pressure off Paul George and David West who combined for 35 points per game for the Pacers. Granger and George are similar players as they both create off the dribble and like to attack the basket, although George is the younger and better player, Granger provides valuable experience the Pacers need. If the two can mesh and play well together, the Pacers should be formidable this season. If not, the front office might look to trade Granger who is on the last year of his contract and is injury prone. The other problem is the Pacers bench as they don’t have a bench scorer that can come in and immediately contribute. The bench becomes a pivotal factor in the playoffs as teams must rest the starting unit. Regardless of the bench, the Pacers will probably win 45-50 games this year and be a top four seed in the Eastern Conference.
3.) *Detroit Pistons
The Pistons were probably the 2nd biggest mover in the offseason behind the Houston Rockets, trading Brandon Knight, Kris Middleton and Viacheslav Kravtsov for Brandon Jennings and then signing him to a 3 year 25 million dollar deal. Detroit also signed Josh Smith, an underrated all around player for 4 years $54 million. The Pistons are clearly trying to turn around their moribund franchise; these are solid moves for two players who needed a change of scenery. The Pistons have an established core with Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe, one of the youngest and best frontcourts in league. And now with a point guard and a dynamic small/power forward, the Pistons are relevant again. They also hired Mo Cheeks, a champion as a player and an assistant on a Thunder team that went to the NBA finals in 2012. The team will have to learn how to balance the ball and spread it out among the big men, but this team will be a terror for opposing big men, as the three man rotation of Smith, Drummond and Monroe will be difficult to deal with. Look for the Pistons to win about 40-45 games this year and earn around a 5-7 seed and potential upset one of the elite teams in the Eastern Conference.
4.) *Cleveland Cavaliers
The Cavs also made some significant offseason moves, including the signings of the oft injured Andrew Bynum and dynamic back-up point guard Jarrett Jack. Both are wildcards that could potentially vault the Cavs into playoff contention for the first time since LeBron left, or they could stay the same course of futility of the last couple of years. The team also drafted Anthony Bennett a big man with enormous potential if he can lose the his excess weight and get into basketball shape. All these pieces are shaped around the man with the ball, Kyrie Irving, a 21 year point guard who might just be the best in the league. He can create for himself, score at will and is tremendous in late game situations. He dazzled during all-star weekend (watch this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mr_WjR6iaj4) and clearly emerged on the national stage. The Cavs also have some bright young talent in Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters, both showed growth throughout last season and they should continue to grow into better core players. Although the Cavs will make the playoffs as a 8 seed, there is little chance that they will advance. The Cavs are on the rise, and who knows what can happen if LeBron decides to go home in free agency. He’d have a good nucleus awaiting.
5.) Milwaukee Bucks
After refusing to sign Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis to extensions, it became clear that the Bucks want to use this season to develop players and cement their place in the lottery. Now it isn’t all bad for Bucks fans as they did resign Larry Sanders, a young, elite defender who has improved his game. They also signed O.J Mayo, a solid scorer but not a game changing type player. The Bucks clearly need a face of the franchise that can provide hope in the coming years. There is some uncertainty about whether the Bucks will be able to stay in Milwaukee becomes Seattle clamors for a team with Paul Allen providing deep, deep pockets. The Bucks should have more clarity next season about the future of this franchise, and hopefully they land a star player to lead them.
How many teams do you think will make the playoffs from the Central? Let us know by voting below.
Stats from ESPN