With us finding ourselves yet another week closer to the first tip-off of the season, the previews keep on rolling here in the BTGIO bunker. Camp rosters are being filled, we are a mere 5 weeks from hearing shoes squeaking on the court, random curses picked up by on-court mics, and Reggie Miller making bad joke after bad joke.
This week I am turning my predictive eye towards the Central Division of the Eastern Conference. This division produced two playoff teams last year, as well as the Rookie of the Year, Mr. Kyrie Irving. The questions raised here are numerous. Are the Pacers ready to compete for a title? Will Derrick Rose return at anywhere near full strength? Will the Cavaliers make a return to the playoffs powered by Uncle Drew?
The answers, of course, await you below, again presented in The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly format.
You can also view my preview of the Atlantic Division here.
Hit the jump for the rest of Jordan’s piece…
The Good: You may already know this (and if you don’t you be bludgeoned to death by giant rocks), but Tom Thibodeau is a pretty freaking amazing coach. The fact that he was able to coach this team to the first seed even with Derrick Rose missing gigantic swaths of time last year is a testament to his genius. Management also deserves a huge tip of the cap here. Knowing the faced some holes in the roster at guard and center, they were able to replenish with quality free agents like Kirk Hinrich, Marco Belinelli, Nazr Mohammed, and the always entertaining Nate Robinson. With stalwarts like Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, and Luol Deng returning, this is still likely going to be one of the league’s top defensive units, as all Thibodeau teams always are. While the top seed may not necessarily be attainable again this year, if Carlos Boozer and Rip Hamilton can take over a larger offensive role then the Bulls should have no problem at all cruising into the playoffs as a seed somewhere in the top half.
The Bad: After suffering his devastating injury in last year’s playoffs, Derrick Rose is expected to be out until sometime after the new year. Something that is amazingly bad since this team is not really designed to run without him. True enough, they didn’t seem to miss much of a beat last year, and have had ample time to prepare for his absence, but still, the wins definitely come harder without Derrick out there. There’s also the matter of Houston GM Daryl Morey’s theft of Omer Asik. Mohammed will fill his place, but is not the defensive presence Asik was by a long shot. And if any of this leads to more Carlos Boozer, Bulls fans may find themselves yelling at their TV a good deal this season.
The Ugly: Look, I don’t want to be the guy to jinx someone, but what if Derrick Rose comes back, but it isn’t the Derrick Rose we have all come to expect? Or what if he does come back and gets reinjured? What if it turns out that the greatest Chicago athlete since Jordan is injury ridden? Trust me, I don’t want this to happen, but without Rose going nuclear in the playoffs, can this team survive Miami? The Pacers? Celtics? What’s their ceiling without Rose?
Season Prediction: 42-40
The Good: The Pacers are a team that forgoes the splash of the mega-star in favor of slowly assembling a roster that, while it may not grab many headlines, will definitely grab a lot of wins. We all know that this team came out and punched Miami in the mouth in the second round of the playoffs last year, and the Hibbert-West-George-Hill core of that team is all returning. With reinforcements in spades. Gerald Green was added, and coach Frank Vogel will surely find a use for his athleticism. D.J. Augustin looks to replace Darren Collison at point guard. Miles Plumlee was added in the draft, and if he can provide suitable minutes along with Ian Mahinmi, then the Pacers will have a rather good frontcourt platoon going. This team is deep. Scary deep. And while there may not be an A-list star around on the roster, the talent present is overflowing. One does not have to have a very active imagination in the slightest to imagine a situation where the Indiana Pacers reach the Eastern Conference Finals. And anyone facing them will be forced to take them seriously.
The Bad: Like I said, the Pacers have built an insanely well rounded roster here, so there isn’t a lot bad to be said. The only thing that I would point out is that as I’ve said a billion times already, there is no real superstar on this team. Which means that come playoff time will not be able to count on the “superstar calls” that guys like Wade, Lebron, Kobe, Rose, and Durant get on a regular basis. Not exactly a huge chink in the armor, but we saw in the Finals last year how important one call getting made differently for any reason can be. If Lebron James or Carmelo Anthony go barreling at Danny Granger, and the call is close, which way do you honestly think that call is going?
The Ugly: While it is impossible to tell what planet all these Hansbroughs are coming from, it seems that the Pacers have added another one, every bit as crazy-looking as the first. It seems that the Pacers have picked him up to give them options of deploying both of them at once come playoff time, something that will surely drive opposing teams instantly insane with fear. (Dear HansBros, I am only kidding. You are very suave-looking gentlemen. Please don’t take me back to the mothership and probe me.)
Season Prediction: 50-32
The Good: The Bucks are a team with a number of good pieces. We all know about the trade from last year that brought Monta Ellis to Milwaukee. When you couple him with Brandon Jennings, there is obviously the potential to have an electric, high scoring backcourt in place. Beno Udrih provides a serviceable back-up at either guard spot, and Ersan Ilyasova is a multi-talented forward who brings a great deal to the table while taking very little off of it. The addition of Samuel Dalembert will help to plug the hole at center. All of this to say that the Bucks have a roster that is very well rounded, even if a lot of the pieces may not set the world on fire. The success of the team will depend on these players’ ability to play together, and coach Scott Skiles has proven himself to be up to the task of getting his guys to do just that time and time again. A full offseason will likely help him get a handle on these new look Bucks.
The Bad: While I did say that this team has a lot of nice pieces, I did not say I necessarily see all of these pieces necessarily fitting together into a contender. Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings are two ball handling guards, and running an offense that can flow through both enough to keep them engaged is likely to be a challenge, even with the full offseason. Skiles normally coaches a very defensively intensive team, and while Dalembert is a great pickup, past hopes of a Milwaukee championship hinged on Andrew Bogut, who at the time was almost at a Howardian level as a defensive big man. This team will have to make up the difference in piecemeal fashion, and it will be interesting to see how they respond.
The Ugly: Much was made about Brandon Jennings’ comments about possibly wanting to leave for a bigger market last year, and rightfully so, considering that it was an incredibly tacky thing to talk about in the middle of a basketball season when you’re the captain of a small market team. If that talk starts to rear its ugly head again, Brandon may find himself pelted with empty beer cups. If you could package Brandon Jennings with Drew Gooden’s contract and bring back a decent piece or two, wouldn’t you have to look pretty hard at that?
Season Prediction: 40-42
The Good: Kyrie Irving’s lack of college experience sure didn’t seem to hurt him all that much, did it? Cleveland struck gold with Irving, who won the Rookie of the Year by a mile and showed an uncanny ability to squirrel his way inside for easy layups last year. If Kyrie continues to improve, and displays the ability to stay healthy and lead the team back to the playoffs, then he will certainly be the franchise superstar Cavs fans were hoping for him to be after their last franchise player (what was his name again?) split town. Alonzo Gee also showed the ability to jumpstart the team with his high-voltage drives to the basket last year, something that can’t be discounted in front of the packed house that the Q usually is. When you add in sophomore Tristan Thompson and rookie Dion Waiters, Cleveland may be on to something with their young core, especially if you include the other solid pieces on the roster such as Anderson Varejao and Omri Casspi. By the time it’s said and done, Byron Scott may not regret taking this job after all.
The Bad: While I do love this team for the future, this is a team that a lot would have to go exactly right for in order for them to achieve success now. While Kyrie certainly looked like the real deal last season, a sophomore slump has happened to better players than he. Do we think that Tristan Thompson makes the strides necessary to be a significant contributor to wind this season? Then you have Anderson Varejao, who misses an awful lot of time with injuries due to his hard-playing style. If the stars align, we could see the Cavs in the playoffs, sure. But it would only take one of two fairly predictable bad breaks to kill that hope.
The Ugly: TELL ME WHO’S READY FOR THE CONTINUATION OF THE LUKE WALTON ERA IN CLEVELAND!!! Oh, no one? No takers at all? Okay. That’s sort of what I figured. And while it doesn’t really fit under this section (you can’t expect to add a The Awesome section, do you?), I would love to see Kyrie Irving play just one game in his Uncle Drew get-up, just so I can see what it looks like when Twitter collapses in on itself black hole style.
Season Prediction: 38-44
The Good: One thing that is certainly going in the Detroit Piston’s favor is their youth. Other than team captain Tayshaun Prince and Corey Maggette, all other players on the Piston’s roster are on the right side of thirty, and a ton of them are in the twenty-five and under range. Brandon Knight returns for his second year, and his improvement will be important to watch. Rodney Stuckey at times looked like he had made major strides, and the continued growth of his game will be something that must happen for the Pistons to be successful. Greg Monroe was point-three rebounds away from averaging a double-double last year, and spent most of the season looking the next great NBA center. If he continues to improve the Pistons may well find themselves in the playoffs again. These parts and the rest of the new blood on the roster for camp should definitely have a rejuvenating impact on the team, something that is certainly refreshing for a team that has spent a lot of time being weighed down by past mistakes.
The Bad: Behind Greg Monroe, the depth in the frontcourt on this team has a whole lot of questions. I expect to see rookie Andre Drummond get a lot of burn in an effort to see what he’s got, and if he displays an ability to play at this level that will be a huge boon for this team. If Brandon Knight doesn’t develop into a player that can carry more of the offense, then a lot of the offensive onus will be on Rodney Stuckey, who could be ready for the task, but there are certainly concerns over if we will see good Rodney Stuckey or bad Rodney Stuckey this season.
The Ugly: If Greg Monroe goes down for any length of time and Andre Drummond isn’t able to contribute, then will be looking to either Charlie Villanueva or something called a Vyacheslav Kravtsov to pick up the slack. Charlie V’s most significant contribution to the league is helping spawn the KG Trash Talk meme, and Kravtsov’s Wikipedia page has no picture and less words than most comic strips I’ve read. Imagine the possibilities!
Season Prediction: 36-46
Jordan Akin has been staring at the name Vyacheslav Kravtsov for about thirty consecutive minutes now, and as far as pronunciation goes, your guess is as good as his. You can help him brush up on his Ukrainian on Twitter @jakin1013, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.