If you asked, I would have to say that this is the division that improved the most dramatically over the offseason, despite a massive setback for last year’s winner. While I could be convinced by a case for either Lebron’s new Superfriends squad in Cleveland or a resurgent Chicago team with one of the best defenses in the league taking 1st place, there is no way I am betting against the Central Division this year. This will be the division capturing the #1 seed and representing the East come June.
Let’s ignore the Cavaliers for a second here, difficult as that may be.
The two of this division’s other lottery teams improved fairly significantly: the Bucks through the draft landing franchise cornerstone Jabari Parker and the Pistons pulling Stan Van Gundy out of basketball retirement and injecting the organization with a great basketball mind and motivational force. There were a lot of other smaller moves as well for either organization, including the assist machine Kendall Marshall joining Milwaukee and Detroit bringing in some desperately needed 3 point shooting in DJ Augustin and Jodie Meeks. Both teams look to be much better than last season, though only Detroit can really claim to be making a run at the playoffs. As for the Pacers, yeesh. This team lost its best two players and replaced them with NBA journeymen, going from the 1st seed last year to a serious uphill climb in returning to the postseason.
The Bulls’ summer could have been marked by their unsuccessful courtship of Carmelo Anthony, until they snapped up an excellent consolation prize in Pau Gasol. In a lot of ways, Gasol actually works a lot better with the Bulls’ play style. Together with Joakim Noah, he’ll form a gigantic frontcourt that is able to pass, shoot, and play-call. Gasol was one of the lone bright spots on the dismal Lakers last year and if he’s excited about playing for winning team and can buy into coach Tom Thibodeau’s brutal conditioning and defensive mindset, he will be a phenomenal two-way player. The Bulls also brought in the little-known Nikola Mirotic who is another stretch 4 capable of stepping out behind the arc and knocking down shots. Between the three of them and Taj Gibson, the Bulls have the best frontcourt in the entire league and I cant even say it’s particularly close. Of course, the real offseason for Chicago was watching Derrick Rose healthy enough to compete in international competition. While he didn’t exactly shine for team USA, Bulls fans just need him to finish out a season. Now that he’s surrounded by all these weapons he’s going to improve very, very quickly.
Let’s get back to Cleveland. A lot of teams go through the equivalent of a face lift or a tummy tuck over the offseason. Instead, the Cavaliers essentially supercharged their existing body into a 14 foot tall behemoth plated in 14 carat gold. I mean, Lebron James? Then Kevin Love? And not only that, but this team is bringing in valuable veterans left and right, picking up Shawn Marion for his defense, Mike Miller for his shooting, James Jones to make this team seem even more like a drearier, rainier South Beach. That this team managed to bring in all of these guys, while holding on to All-Star Kyrie Irving and improving young players Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson means we are looking at the beginning of a dynasty. Seriously, the Cavs could win 65 games this year and people would call them underachievers. They are going to be scary good.
What to be Most Excited About?
Ummm, sorry total copout here but its the Cavs!!! This whole division was pretty much unwatchable last year with the Bulls and Pacers choosing stifling defense over any kind of scoring and the Bucks and Pistons compiling terrible regular season records (at least the Bucks were trying for the lottery) with godawful defenses.
If I have to get more specific here, I’m most excited about Lebron’s impact on Cleveland’s younger players and their backcourt in particular. Irving and Waiters are both fantastic scorers who have struggled to coexist in the backcourt, with Waiters eventually forced to come off the bench so that both could focus on shooting the basketball instead of passing. This is a big reason why Kyrie is a surprisingly bad spot-up shooter, despite winning the 3 point contest during All-Star weekend. The two of them are also notoriously poor defenders and a lot has been made about how including the defensive minus of Kevin Love will make this team somewhat of a sieve that can only survive by outscoring their opponents. David Blatt has talked a little about experimenting with a zone defense as a way to mask some of these deficiencies, but don’t underestimate how much simple effort can improve these players’ performances on the less glamorous end of the floor. Lebron is the consummate hard-worker and lead-by-example guy and I predict his presence and the Cavs’ greater likelihood of success will motivate Irving and Waiters to put in a lot more work when it comes time to keeping their men in front of them and distributing the basketball. Irving, for one, looked to be putting a lot more effort over the FIBA World Cup this summer and came away with the tournament’s MVP, signifying his importance as a 2 way player on team USA.
Biggest Question Heading into 2014?
I’m going to skip over the Cavaliers here; we’ve all heard a ton about them and its safe to say that the whole basketball community will have a close eye on them this season. I also think that while there are some question marks surrounding this team’s defense and what lineups Blatt will choose to use, there are no big issues here. This is going to be a very good team whichever way you cut it and success has an excellent way of ironing out smaller problems with team chemistry. So, instead:
What’s going to happen in Indiana?
The Pacers had a ridiculous turn-around last season when they started as the unquestioned number 1 team in the East, beating down teams like the Thunder and Warriors and boasting the best defense in the league. Roy Hibbert looked like a lock for the DPOY, Paul George was more than a legitimate MVP candidate and the question was whether Miami was tough enough to hang with the big bruisers who had wrested home court advantage away from them.
Months later the Pacers had imploded, had locker room issues between the players and their coach, could barely score 80 points on a given night and were almost knocked out of the playoffs in the first round by a totally forgettable Atlanta team manning the 8th seed. Roy Hibbert basically disappeared during that stretch, George Hill looked like someone’s tall dad playing basketball, and everyone was surprised when they got it together to beat an above average Wizards team.
The offseason was ridiculously cruel for Indiana, robbing them of All-Star Paul George and seeing Lance Stephenson waltz off to Charlotte. They were replaced by Rodney Stuckey and CJ Miles who are basically the NBA equivalent of “Oh yeah, I remember him. Kind of.” The Pacers are banking big on Hibbert having a huge bounceback year and riding their crushing defense back into the playoffs but I have a really hard time seeing that. It will be interesting to see at what point Larry Bird is ready to blow up this team and start fishing for draft picks.
Every new has some growing pains and its always hard for superstars and 1st options on different teams to coexist with one another in that first year together. While I can definitely see the Cavaliers having their growing pains, I think Lebron is more mature and a greater leader than when he first came to South Beach. These guys may have some locker room arguments, but I think they get it together enough to beat out Chicago for the Central Division crown.
Cleveland (57-25) Last Year (33-49)
Chicago (55-27) Last Year (48-34)
Indiana (31-51) Last Year (56-26)
Detroit (30-52) Last Year (29-53)
Milwaukee (22-60) Last Year (15-67)