The preseason is in full swing and the regular season is fast approaching. The staff here at Hickory-High is previewing the entire league, taking a stab at answering the big questions, division by division. We’ve already looked at the Northwest, the Atlantic and the Pacific. Today we’re talking Bulls, Pacers, Cavaliers, Bucks and Pistons in the NBA’s Central Division.
1. What is the most intriguing storyline in the Central Division?
Ian Levy - @HickoryHigh - Chicago’s roster disassembly. Financial constraints led to the decimation of Chicago’s depth this summer with Omer Asik, Kyle Korver, Ronnie Brewer, C.J. Watson and John Lucas all finding new homes. Those players aren’t household names but they were the sturdy lumber which framed Joakim Noah‘s exuberance, Luol Deng‘s constancy and Derrick Rose‘s excellence. Asik, Brewer and Watson in particular helped keep the Bulls’ defense running on all cylinders when the starters came off the floor. The Bulls still have enough firepower to win the division but this is clearly a transition year as their core is re-shuffled and a new supporting cast begins to take shape.
Matt Cianfrone - @Matt_Cianfrone - How good can the Bulls be if Derrick Rose doesn’t return this season? Reports have been trickling out the last few days that Rose may not be able to return this season, and it makes a lot of sense for the Bulls to play it safe with their superstar. But the question then looms – how good these Bulls can be without him? As we saw in the playoffs last year there is cause for concern, and that was before the massive overhaul that left the Bulls without two of their best four defenders in Ronnie Brewer and Omer Asik. Tom Thibodeau will now have to somehow make a roster that features Nate Robinson and Marco Bellinelli as good defensively as the C.J. Watson, Brewer group and find scoring somewhere besides Carlos Boozer and Luol Deng. It will be a test for sure and the early season could be rocky, especially if all the miles on Deng’s body finally catch up to him and maybe even force him to miss time. If Rose returns, than the Bulls should have no problems making the playoffs as a bottom three seed. If not, this team looks like it could possibly join the fight for the eighth seed or worse, if an injury takes Deng, Joakim Noah or Boozer from them.
Myles Ma - @mylesmanj - Kyrie Irving. I’m not usually taken with rookie phenoms. I’m too mature for them. But even skeptics had to be impressed with Kyrie Irving’s rookie campaign. He managed to display elite passing and scoring skills on a dismal team. Even so, there were moments early in the season before Irving got hurt when it seemed like Cleveland might squeak into the playoffs. The Cavaliers sought help through the draft, but still seem years away from contending. Despite that, seeing Kyrie Irving go through a sophomore slump or becomes one of the best point guards in the league will make for good television. Cleveland needs this.
Kyle Soppe - @unSOPable23 - The Pacers’ ability to build on last season’s .636 winning percentage. Roy Hibbert took a huge step forward last season and is looking more and more like he can be the paint-protector on a championship level team. They’ve also got a 6’8″ swing man in Paul George who is the best player with two first names this side of Chris Paul. His scoring average jumped 4.3 points, an increase that he could very easily replicate this season. Tyler Hansbrough brings energy to the floor, and every elite team always has a guy they can count on for a spark. However, their back court depth is a cause for concern. Danny Granger has been the team’s go to option in years past, but he posted his worst scoring season last year since he became a starter. He is still on the right side of 30 years of age, but is it possible he returns to his 20 ppg form? George Hill and D.J. Augustin are NBA talents, but after that, there isn’t much to like. Lance Stephenson and Gerald Green have the potential to step into a limited role, but they have lacked consistency in the past. A team that is focused heavily on front court players can compete, but it is often guard play down the stretch that is needed to finish off a victory. They defend well and play hard, but can they ice a close game with good decision making and free throws?
Kris Fenrich - @DancingWithNoah - Kyrie Irving. Last year I was all irritated that the Cavs took Irving numero uno. I was clowning Dan Gilbert’s stupidity, questioning the thought process that leads you to draft a kid who’s appeared in eleven college games and had bones so brittle that he wasn’t up for pre-draft workouts. Kyrie Irving? Pfft. That was me a year ago. So you can imagine (and maybe relate to) how I felt when I saw Irving in the Cavs’ wine and gold-colored jerseys playing the point with unteachable control and pacing. I had to wipe egg off my face, eat crow, listen to Dan Gilbert’s voicemails berating me for questioning his basketball knowledge (what a dick). Then there was Irving challenging Kobe to a duel and the Uncle Drew character and then the broken wrist. And now with the season a little over a fortnight away, I’m sitting on my floor scratching my head and contemplatively stroking my chin asking myself what’s got my attention in the Central division and while the Bulls’ attempts to build a Derrick Rose replacement out of Kirk Hinrich, Nate Robinson, Marquis Teague and Marko Jaric is frighteningly intriguing, nothing in the CD has me looking forward to hoops as much as the development of Kyrie Irving.
2. Who will be the top newcomer in the Central Division?
Matt Cianfrone - @Matt_Cianfrone - Samuel Dalembert? This division doesn’t have a ton of newcomers that I think will make a huge impact this year. Dion Waiters and Andre Drummond look like they have bright futures but I am not sure exactly how good they can be this year. Waiters will have to figure out how to play off the ball with Kyrie Irving doing most of the work with it in his hands, and to call Drummond raw is a bit of an understatement. The Bulls’ best addition was either Kirk Hinrich or Nate Robinson and the Pacers’ best was either Gerald Green or D.J. Augustin; all useful players but hardly high impact ones. So by default, I chose Dalembert because he at least fills a big need for the Bucks – a true center. The rebounding, shot blocking and size Dalembert will bring will be helpful, although I am not exactly how long he will be able to play in most games. All in all it is a pretty underwhelming class of newcomers to the Central Division.
Myles Ma - @mylesmanj - Ian Mahinmi. Wait, don’t leave! There weren’t a lot of big moves in this division, and I think rookie performance can be a crapshoot to project. But trading Darren Collison and Dahntay Jones for Mahinmi is a sneaky smart move for the Pacers. The arrival of George Hill and the improvement of Paul George made them expendable. Mahinmi was one of the three centers who protected the rim for a Dallas defense that was still among the best in the league even after losing Tyson Chandler. On the Pacers, Mahinmi will be the third big and keep the delicate Roy Hibbert and the aging David West fresh. I did my best.
Kyle Soppe - @unSOPable23 - Andre Drummond. The Pistons are not a good basketball team and are very likely to let the UConn product learn on the fly. He may only be 19 years old, but you can’t teach his 7’6″ wingspan or his NBA ready body. He landed in a good situation, as he can learn from Greg Monroe and benefit from playing alongide him. HIs defensive prowess should translate in the NBA, and if he can increase his range a little bit, he could be a double double threat on a nightly basis. The Pistons will pound the ball, and I expecy the big man to learn from experience, and thus play his best basketball as the season progresses. This was a division with three lottery picks, and while Drummond wasn’t the highest selection, he could easily be the most productive newcomer.
Kris Fenrich - @DancingWithNoah - Terrence Williams to the Pistons. Part of my fascination with the NBA and sports in general is the unknown, the could be, the could’ve been. When I look at Terrence Williams, a player I’ve followed closely since his Louisville days, I see a guy who’s been one of more talented players at each of his previous pit-stops in the NBA, but has some other undesirable trait that’s unknown outside of NBA locker rooms and front offices. Where Kyrie Irving hypnotizes me with his cleanliness and refinery, T-Will’s inability to stick despite his obvious potential (athletic, great size and strength, three-point shot, playmaker, confident) is equally magnetic. Does T-Will finally find a home in Detroit or is it just another stop on a vagabond’s long journey that inevitably ends in a strange gym somewhere in China?
Ian Levy - @HickoryHigh - Tobias Harris. Harris is not technically a newcomer, but he might as well be having played just 479 minutes as a rookie for the Bucks last season. Although he had a hard time getting on the floor, he showed flashes of his potential with per 36 minute averages of 15.6 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 1.7 assists, while shooting 46.7% from the floor. He has continued to develop his body and has a versatile inside-outside offensive game. Minutes will be there for Harris this season and I expect he’ll make the most of them.
3. Who has the most to prove in the Central Division?
Myles Ma - @mylesmanj - Derrick Rose. We know he’s one of the most spectacular players in the league, but can his knees recover and then survive the explosive moves he attempts? They may have to carry more weight this season. The Bulls shed a lot of role players this season, including C.J. Watson, who filled in admirably as the starter while Rose was out. His replacement, Kirk Hinrich, isn’t the player he was during his first stint in Chicago. The Bulls are hoping Marquis Teague can become the backup they need, but ideally, they won’t be relying on either player too much. They need Derrick Rose to come back soon and to play a lot of minutes. He’s one of the best scorers in the league when healthy, and gives the most entertainingly vapid post-game interviews.
Kyle Soppe - @unSOPable23 - Bulls without Rose. Chicago won two thirds of their games last season with Rose on the sidelines, but can they really duplicate that? They drafted Marquis Teague to add back court depth, but his inconsistent play at Kentucky won’t correct itself at the NBA level. Don’t get me wrong, Teague is a decent prospect moving forward, I just don’t think he is ready to be thrown into the fire quite yet. Their other guards include the well traveled Kirk Hinrich and Richard Hamilton, nice players, but no longer players that can hold up for more than 20 minutes. The Bulls rely on defense, and while that should keep games close, I simply don’t trust any players currently on their roster to close. Luol Deng stepped up his game in Rose’s abscence last season, but their opponents will have that tape, forcing Deng to adjust in ways he hasn’t had to over his 8 years in the league. DRose is likely to miss more than a month of action, forcing the Bulls to prove that last year’s success without their all star wasn’t a fluke.
Kris Fenrich - @DancingWithNoah - Joe Dumars. Joe D did a great thing with that Chauncey Billups-led title team, but moves like Darko over Wade, Bosh and Melo, giving up Billups for Allen Iverson, all the hype about Rodney Stuckey, the Ben Gordon/Charlie Villanueva signings…it makes me wonder whether Joe D just happened to get lucky with the previous crew. Greg Monroe and Brandon Knight both appear to be flesh and bone basketball players who actually give a damn. Andre Drummond? Time always tells and while I’m optimistic about this kid who’s been compared to Dwight Howard and DeAndre Jordan (comparisons have been of the physical variety and free throw disability), he has plenty of detractors. But sadly I get the feeling that it doesn’t matter much who’s doing what in Detroit. The distressed city elected a former NBA player as Mayor and might rely on just mere glimpses of former heroes like Dave Bing and Dumars to not abandon all hope.
Ian Levy - @HickoryHigh - The Indiana Pacers. Last year the Pacers won 63.6% of their games, their highest mark since the 2003-2004 season. However, they did it in a chaotic and disorganized, lockout-shortened season, where their original starting five missed just 11 games, combined, due to injury. Don’t get me wrong the Pacers were great last season, but how much of their success was health, stability and a set of circumstances that emphasized the importance of physicality and endurance? With few significant roster changes the Pacers now need to find their upside, their sixth gear, and prove that they are truly a team who’s talent can transcend circumstance.
Matt Cianfrone - @Matt_Cianfrone - Brandon Jennings. As a Bucks fan I really like Jennings, although most times it feels very irrational. Last season, Jennings attempted the second most three-pointers in the league, which wouldn’t be such a problem if he had better than the 12th worst percentage in the league at 33.2%. Add to this that Jennings isn’t a great finisher or defender and that he can tend to pout and disappear during games or stretches of games (see last February). But under all that there is promise. After all Jennings can catch fire and take over a game (see his 31 point outburst against Miami last season) and is a ton of fun to watch when he does so. Add to this that he just doesn’t turn the ball over (12.0% turnover percentage for his career) and there seems to be promise. But what will the Bucks get this year, before they have to decide between a contract extension and letting Jennings walk? With a good season things can get very interesting in Milwaukee.
4. Who is the most likely to be moved in the Central Division?
Kyle Soppe - @unSOPable23 - Monta Ellis. He moved last season from Golden State to Milwaukee, which may make it less likely that he is dealt this season. But I can’t help but feel that Ellis isn’t going to like sharing the spotlight with Brandon Jennings or the losing that figures to happen this season. Should a schism errupt in Milwaukee, the organization figures to stand by the player whom they have worked with since he entered the NBA. Sooner or later, I expect Ellis to team up with a passive point guard and a tenacious front court (Denver?). Ellis can score in bunches, but can he be the best player on a good team?
Kris Fenrich - @DancingWithNoah - Monta Ellis. At first, I was going to say a tie between Ellis and Carlos Boozer, but then I looked at Boozer’s contract and don’t think other teams would want to touch that deal; even if they were paying with someone else’s money. That leaves Monta and the player option he has on his contract next season. He could easily end up in the same boat he was in last year: being traded at the deadline—hopefully for his sake, it would finally be
to a winner.
Ian Levy - @HickoryHigh - Tayshaun Prince. Even with a step forward it’s hard to imagine the Pistons competing for a playoff spot this season. That leaves Prince in the same situation he’s been in the past few years – a useful piece wasting into obscurity and wallowing in his own general surliness. He’s not the player he was, but could still have tremendous value to the right team. With just over 21 million left on his contract it may be difficult to find a trade partner, but I imagine the Pistons will be trying their damdest.
Matt Cianfrone - @Matt_Cianfrone - Scott Skiles. I mean it’s about that time, isn’t it? Skiles lasted three years in Phoenix, three and a half seasons in Chicago and is going into his fifth full season in Milwaukee. He has a defensive mind but an offensively-fueled roster and a star player in Jennings who can tend to be moody. There were questions at the end of last season about whether or not Skiles would return and it would seem that if the Bucks get off to a rough start that a change could be made.
Myles Ma - @mylesmanj - Monta Ellis. I think Samuel Dalembert is great and everything, but I don’t think the Bucks got much better this offseason. And they were a below-average team last season. If the same thing happens again, the Bucks might start wondering why their highest-paid player shoots so much, defends so lazily and keeps the ball out of the hands of Brandon Jennings, whom they’d like to lock up in a long-term deal.
5. What will be the order of finish in the Pacific Division?
Kris Fenrich - @DancingWithNoah - 1. IND 2. CHI 3. CLE 4. MIL 5. DET
Ian Levy - @HickoryHigh - 1. IND 2. CHI 3. CLE 4. MIL 5. DET
Matt Cianfrone - @Matt_Cianfrone - 1. IND 2. CHI 3. MIL 4. CLE 5. DET
Myles Ma - @mylesmanj - 1. CHI 2. IND 3. DET 4. MIL 5. CLE
Kyle Soppe - @unSOPable23 - 1. CHI 2. IND 3. CLE 4. MIL 5. DET