Nov 16, 2013; Chicago, IL, USA; Indiana Pacers point guard George Hill (3) drives against Chicago Bulls point guard Derrick Rose (1) during the first quarter at the United Center. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Investigating The Central Division

We were seconds away from having the strongest division the NBA has seen over the last decade.

Two weeks ago, Carmelo Anthony narrowed his free agency decision down to Chicago and New York, with many criticizing him for dragging the process out longer than it needed to be.

Choosing the Knicks, Anthony helped balance out the Eastern Conference, considering there is absolutely no idea of how Phil Jackson and Derek Fisher are going to respond in the first seasons of their role.  Nobody should rule out New York from reaching the playoffs, or fighting for a top six seed.  With a re-invented culture, the most shocking things have struck us in this league.

Looking only down the lens of the Central Division, can you imagine what the reactions would be if Anthony, LeBron James, Derrick Rose, and Paul George were all in the same division?  For all of the ridicule the East takes for being the D-League compared to the West, it would’ve been hysterical for the NBA audience.

But, things aren’t always that easy.  The East is still playing second fiddle to the West in terms of having championship caliber squads, but that would’ve changed if Chicago landed a top two scorer in Anthony.  That’s really all they lacked, but it was one of the largest scoring burdens I’ve ever witnessed.
This division just got crowded, and the King still has to be knocked off.  What can we be excited for?

Chicago Bulls

As Mike Tyson once said, “I’m a dreamer.  I have to dream and reach for the stars, and if I miss a star, then I can grab a handful of clouds.”
That’s the Bulls’ mentality this offseason, as they didn’t achieve their dreams of bringing in a 28 point per game superstar.  Instead, they received the next best piece in line, a power forward & center asset that can actually put the ball in the cup.  Pau Gasol, the veteran who just turned 34 years old, immediately strengthens the Bulls’ post game.  He does everything Boozer can do — excluding bang with bigger bodies due to the different body frame — but is a much better decision maker and inside scorer.

Jul 18, 2014; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau (left) with newly signed center Pau Gasol during a press conference at the United Center. Mandatory Credit: David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

The biggest “if” in sports will forever be:  “If Derrick Rose can stay durable …. ”

Truth be told, there isn’t any reason this time around that he shouldn’t be able to hold up.  The ACL injury is a pastime, and Rose has had an absurd amount of time to get comfortable on it.  Since he had the meniscus repaired instead of removed, Rose kept a couple more seasons on his career length, but had to sit out the rest of last year.  Finally holding up for 70+ games (it may be a stretch), the Bulls have more than enough offensive punch to grind through the dog days of the season.

Feasting on teams near the bottom of the conference, and keeping the best defense in the sport, Chicago should have no problem taking back their reign as division champs.  Unlike Cleveland, they have the perfect mix of proven production and experience.  LeBron brings a new dimension, but over 90 percent of the Cavs’ roster hasn’t even seen a postseason before.  The Bulls would’ve been the East favorites last season before the tragedy occurred, and that’s not changing this time around neither.

Until, of course, another roadblock gets in their way.

Indiana Pacers

How fast can you scream “horrible offseason?”

Not faster than Lance Stephenson’s white Corvette on the way out of Indianapolis!

Contrary to popular belief around the city, Lance probably wanted to be elsewhere.  Unless Larry Bird was willing to throw massive amounts of dough his way that would escalate over the $44 million mark, he wanted to be “the offensive guy” somewhere.

You could sort of paint that picture after the All-Star break, when he was blamed for being “selfish” by a select teammate.  He was trying to earn his new money, as anyone in their contract year is obligated to do. Losing Lance may hinder a great deal of the offense, if it was even possible to get worse.

However, the fact that Paul George and Roy Hibbert have both  vowed that they’ve taken the necessary steps to improve their post games, this could be outweighed. George’s improvements in the paint are imminent, as one of the head-scratching issues last season was his over-dribbling on the perimeter and wild outside selection when he felt he was “the guy.”  He didn’t handle that new contract label so smoothly.

But, similar to anything in life, the NBA is about learning.

In the pursuit of last season’s No. 1 seed, we witnessed the Pacers’ attempts at some flex offense sets, all with the central goal of getting George his deep looks:

The massive mid-season slump George went on was probably one of those nightmarish things we won’t see this coming season, but he’s got to transform into more of a play-maker this time around with Lance out of the picture.

Rodney Stuckey and C.J. Miles additions are fixable as it relates to the offense, but can either bring the defensive intensity or ball pressure that Lance loved to contribute?  Not in my book.  While it wasn’t as vile of a summer as it could’ve been, the Pacers still took a step back.

Since their record-breaking pace of defense still couldn’t slow down LeBron’s creativity and driving force, expect Cleveland’s new punch to carry more power than Indiana this year, finishing ahead in the division. People are still trying to figure out what Indiana is doing with newcomer Damjan Rudez and the Luis Scola situation, but all has been quiet in Naptown.  Keeping both, with Copeland sitting the bench along the way, could set Frank Vogel up for some uncomfortable decisions.  We know he isn’t crazy about changing his traditional patterns, but it’s probably warranted more than ever now.

Cleveland Cavaliers

Automatically the biggest offseason winners, there’s a reason the ceiling is unknown for this Cleveland roster:  We still are left hanging in the air when it comes to a Kevin Love deal.

Chicago became more than just “serious threats” to this trade saga this week, as they may indeed be frontrunners.  That would leave Cleveland with Andrew Wiggins, who isn’t ready to immediately be a guy everyone’s scared of.  Not yet, but he will be.

In the short-term, that’s better for the Bulls and Pacers.  If Love ends up a member of the wine and gold by the season’s start, there’s not a better lineup that has the guard skills, floor spreading, and paint-pounding force on the boards than Cleveland.  ‘

Nov 27, 2013; Cleveland, OH, USA; A fans holds up a sign referencing Miami Heat small forward LeBron James (not pictured) during a game between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Miami Heat at Quicken Loans Arena. Miami won 95-84. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

The Cavaliers have to ask themselves:  At his absolute peak, is Wiggins a 26 & 12 player in this league?  If you’re not confident for one second, you have to pull the trigger.  If you’re like me, and believe he can step into the shoes of LeBron when the King’s time is up, you keep him and groom the 19-year-old into the player you need him to be.

David Blatt is in the best possible spot as a rookie coach in the NBA.  His team has the highest “ceiling” anyone’s had in the last five or six years.  And, since you have a leader that doesn’t let things go to hell in the regular season, your “floor” isn’t low enough where you could fall out of a top four seed in the East.

Enjoy the 20+ more wins you’ll receive this season, and maybe the “never made the playoffs” narrative surrounding Irving and Love fades away, if we’re lucky.

Detroit Pistons

If there was one coaching and management move that I loved the most during this summer, it’s the idea of bringing in Stan Van Gundy to work with this group of misfits.

Detroit isn’t misfits in terms of players, but how well they gel together.  Brandon Jennings and Josh Smith on the same team, while you’re trying your hardest to work with Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe’s post presence, isn’t the brightest theory.

What has Van Gundy been known for since 2007?  Helping frontcourt guys explode into future stars.  Dwight Howard matured — although he’s the opposite of “mature” sometimes — in Orlando, under Van Gundy.  Howard came into the league as a horrifying rim protector, and he left Orlando in 2012 with an offensive arsenal that was more than respectable.  It’s still not as talented and complete as a healthy Andrew Bynum, but Dwight can actually remain durable.  Van Gundy deserves more credit for that than he normally gets.  Who was the common denominator when it came to people supporting Dwight through the media mess and his on-court struggles?  You got it.

Apr 16, 2014; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Detroit Pistons forward Greg Monroe (10) drives to the basket against Oklahoma City Thunder forward Serge Ibaka (9) during the first quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Van Gundy took over as President of Basketball Operations, and the Pistons decided to overpay Jodie Meeks.  It just went to show that he’s ready to mold this Detroit team into the Magic rotation he took to the Finals in 2009.  Develop a frontcourt that can top the league in rebounding, and surround them with shooters capable of getting streaky.

Detroit now has to decide what to do with Greg Monroe, as their coveted restricted free agent still sits on the market.  Let another team throw an offer sheet at him, and they’ll be forced to act quickly (see, Houston Rockets).

With work together and Josh Smith being toned down by a demanding coach, Drummond and Monroe could work wonders next to each other.  To some, including myself, they complement one another well with their specialties being on opposite ends of the floor.  Drummond ranks up there with death-deifying paint defense, and Monroe is starting to get more offensive flair each season.  Match any offer Monroe receives, and let them be.

Guard depth is never a bad thing to have, and Detroit received it when they inked D.J. Augustin after his 15 point per game stint with Chicago.  When Jennings gets out of hand, Van Gundy now has an option that can handle both ends, and a rising stud in Kentavious Caldwell-Pope that had himself a summer league. Detroit is just sparking their new movement, and it would be crazy to expect a run this early on.  But, they may just have the right tools to inch into their first playoffs since 2009.

Milwaukee Bucks

Anyone else still having a hard time believing a rookie actually wanted to play in Milwaukee?

It was quite odd, but we seen the marriage between Jabari Parker and the Bucks right in front of us on draft night, and that’s good for both.

They wanted him all along, and he wanted to be relatively close to his home in Chicago.  Now, funny enough, the guy picked ahead of him may not be “good enough” to fit with the Cavaliers.

I’ll be honest …. the Bucks’ summer league performances were so exciting with the Greek Freak and Parker, that I forgot about the Jason Kidd shambles with Brooklyn.

Jun 26, 2014; Brooklyn, NY, USA; Jabari Parker (Duke) shakes hands with NBA commissioner Adam Silver after being selected as the number two overall pick to the Milwaukee Bucks in the 2014 NBA Draft at the Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Nobody should say definitively that Milwaukee is in a better spot without Larry Drew, but I wholeheartedly believe that younger rosters would love to play for Jason Kidd over an older, veteran guy.  The entire Nets roster supported Kidd through the struggles, and you never saw others blame him.

However, if I’m Milwaukee, I’m staying as far away from giving Kidd presidential control over the team as I can.  You don’t want to get into that mess.  Kidd has never had the duties of making those kind of decisions, and we’re talking about a younger roster that needs to find stability and grow from it.

Giannis Antetokounmpo shouldn’t get off on the wrong foot this time around, and they actually have Brandon Knight entering the season without health setbacks.

With these Bucks, you have a team that doesn’t love to stretch the floor — averaging 18.9 outside shots per game last season, 24th overall — and nothing is going to drastically change in that area.  Kidd will encourage it, as Brooklyn was a top 10 squad in that department last year, but do you have guys that are made for that type of offense, and is that the way Larry Sanders wants to play without ripping someone’s head off?

Don’t even get started on O.J. Mayo, as Mark Cuban is still waving goodbye to him with a cigar between his lips.

Changes have to come with Milwaukee’s identity, because they’re still the fifth best team in their division with the moves they’ve made.  Or, lack of moves.


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Tags: Chicago Bulls Cleveland Cavaliers Detroit Pistons Indiana Pacers Lance Stephenson Larry Bird Milwaukee Bucks Paul George

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