The 2015-16 NBA Preview: Central Division

by: Drew Sorrells

B/R
Courtesy: B/R

Cleveland Cavaliers:

  • 2014-15 Record: 53-29
  • Key Additions: Mo Williams (Charlotte)
  • Key Departures: Mike Miller (Denver), Shawn Marion (Retirement)
  • Projected Starting Lineup: Kyrie Irving, J.R. Smith, LeBron James, Kevin Love, Timofey Mozgov

What You Need to Know

Vegas has the Cavaliers with the top odds to win it all next season, and there are many reasons this is the case. There is one obvious reason that supersedes all else, and that reason is LeBron James. When it seemed like everything that could possibly go wrong in his return home went wrong, the world was swiftly reminded why he is the best.

Okay, so maybe he was the one who made sure we got the reminder, but the man had a point. To say he singlehandedly gave the Cavaliers a shot at the title against the Warriors is an understatement. While everybody was writing them off as done the minute Kyrie Irving went down to a knee injury, LeBron took the series to 6 games and put up some of the most absurd numbers we have ever seen in the Finals. He played so well that he had the entire world convinced that Matthew Dellevadova could lockdown Steph Curry. This alone was an incredible feat, until well… this.

Look at that stank face. Savagery.

We all know what LeBron is capable of, but before Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving went down with injuries the Cavaliers looked like they were coming together. The “Kevin Love and LeBron James don’t like each other” feud was a season-long saga filled with speculation on both sides and well… this

Clique Up!!

But despite grumblings of Kevin Love being unhappy with his new role, he inked a five-year extension this offseason, citing unfinished business. Chris Bosh, who had a similar role to Love when James assembled the Big 3 in Miami, had warned that it would take immense adjustment on Love’s part to make their experiment work. He was right. Love’s points per game average was only 16.4, a 10 point drop from the previous year. But by the end of the season, it looked as if Love had found that niche.

The third link in their big 3 is 23 year old point guard Kyrie Irving, who has developed into one of his positions’s elite. He keeps the ball on one of the tightest strings in the league and is an explosive scorer. With these 3 anchoring their offensive strategy, Cleveland has the best big 3 in the NBA and is automatically with the elite teams of the league like Golden State and San Antonio.

Their surrounding role players now must give their stars a lift. With Iman Shumpert sidelined for the first 3 months due to a wrist injury, they will start thin at that position. J.R. Smith has to provide season-long consistency to take pressures off of Irving and James.

J.R. Smith just doing J.R. Smith things.

Their front court combination of Mozgov and Tristan Thompson should continue their rebounding consistency and paint protection on defense. With James, Irving, and Love handling things offensively, they will not be asked to do much on that end.

However, LeBron James’ championship window is closing quickly. At just 30, he has logged over 41,000 minutes over the course of his career, which is more than Steve Nash, Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson among others. He has also logged more playoff minutes than any player in the NBA in the past 5 seasons. He will likely see minute restrictions during the regular season to preserve his health, as he will once again be asked to carry the workload when the playoffs come.

A huge reason they are favored to win it all is because they are better than any other team in the East, and it’s not close. LeBron James’ teams have won the Eastern Conference every year since 2011, dating all the way back to his first year with the Heat. They will be coming back with revenge on their mind, and in the past that has been the type of team that LeBron thrived on.

credit: www.bullstimes.com

Chicago Bulls:

  • 2014-15 Record: 50-32
  • Key Additions: Coach Fred Hoiberg (Iowa State)
  • Key Departures: None
  • Projected Starting Lineup: Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler, Mike Dunleavy, Pau Gasol, and Joakim Noah

What You Need to Know:

Derrick Rose is no longer the face of the Bulls. That spot now looks to have been filled by his backcourt partner Jimmy Butler, who won last season’s Most Improved Player Award. The Bulls find themselves in a mix with about five other teams who are competing for the number two seed in the Eastern Conference. With Cleveland as the Conference’s top dog, the second tier of the East is clouded with uncertainty. Chicago fits ever-so-perfectly into this tier of confusion, and are contributing to a fair amount of the unclarity.

This team has all of the makings to put together a legitimate playoff run, but also has all the makings of a team that could underachieve. They bring on a first time NBA head coach Fred Hoiberg in a very critical year, one that will mark what is to come for the future. There are more questions for the Bulls than there are answers, like whether Pau Gasol continue to fight time and produce at a high level, if Joakim Noah remain can healthy and if Derrick Rose will find a new way to be productive.

Joakim Noah is the engine of his team. He leads by example with tough defense and high aggression. He sets the tone for Chicago, and will challenge any man (or city).

Former Creighton hero Doug McDermott is poised for a breakout year. He was the club’s top scorer in the preseason and will look to make a splash coming off of the Bull’s bench. The Bulls are looking to him and Tony Snell to provide added scoring, which they lacked last season under the defense-first principles of Tom Thibodeau. While the Bulls will still be stout defensively, they hope to be more efficient offensively instead of relying solely on their defense.

I am hesitant to call the Bulls a real contender, though they have the makings to be one. Both Noah and Gasol are increasing in age and its tough to predict how consistently their production will be. Even more importantly, while Butler has emerged to the public as the clear franchise player, there appears to be a power struggle with Rose on that front. Rose will never be the player he was before that fateful injury against Philadelphia, and some think the franchise has stagnated their own growth with Rose’s misfortunes.

credit: www.foxsports.com

Milwaukee Bucks:

  • 2014-15 Record: 41-41
  • Key Acquisitions: Greg Monroe (Detroit),
  • Key Departures: Ersan Illiasova (Detroit)
  • Projected starting lineup: Carter-Williams, Khris Middleton, Giannis Atetokounmpo, Jabari Parker, and Greg Monroe

What You Need To Know:

One of the biggest surprises of the offseason was when Milwaukee won the Greg Monroe free agency sweepstakes. They now have a very solid core of young talent to build around, but one who is not ready to win just yet. they handled their business this offseason and put themselves in a great position to build a contender. Jabari Parker will be returning from injury, and looks to make a splash after missing most of his rookie season.

This young roster gained supporters last year as the quirkiest team in the NBA. This team is young. But more importantly, this team is long. Their wings, Giannis “the Greek Freak” Atetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, stand at 6-foot-11-inches and6-foot-7-inches respectively. The Bucks have used their tremendous length at every position to become one of the league’s premier defensive teams. They built around their defense, but adding Greg Monroe will contribute where they need it the most.

The majority of improvement must come offensively. The biggest problem they face is a lack of shooters. They ranked 26th in the NBA in three pointers attempted, and 22nd in points per game. They are a slower paced offense who often struggled to score points. They do not have an explosive scorer who can take the game over, and Monroe gives them much needed scoring on that end.

Milwaukee does not need to put up extravagant numbers to win games. They are also still very much a work in progress as a team. While there is real potential for this team to become a great one, they have to develop into this over the course of a couple of years. They can remain competitive in the East, but ultimately there is no shot at a title in Milwaukee yet. Stay tuned for more from this team though, because that could change.

credit: www.cbssports.com

Indiana Pacers:

  • 2014-15 Record: 38-44
  • Key Acquisitions: Monta Ellis (Dallas)
  • Key Departures: David West (San Anotonio), Roy Hibbert (LAL)
  • Projected Starting Lineup:  George Hill, Monta Ellis, C.J. Miles, Paul George, and Ian Mahimi

What You Need to Know:

The Pacers have changed their identity. With the intentions of getting smaller and faster, they traded Roy Hibbert and cut ties with David West to sign Mavericks combo guard Monta Ellis. Larry Bird and the rest of the front office have moved on from the Pacers of the old, who were based on slow-methodical offense and stingy defense, into a smaller lineup that will look to play fast and push the ball.

This new style of play will move Paul George down to the 4 position, away from the wing. Much of the success will hinge on how well this transition goes for George. He has expressed skepticism as to whether this is the best move for his style of play, but its happening. Before his horrific leg injury, George was on his way to being one of the best wing players in the league. For Indiana to win, George must regain his pre-injury form.

The backcourt combination of Hill and Ellis is an underrated one that could be effective. Hill was 5th among point guards in PER last season, and turns the ball over at a low rate. He will be a great set-up guy to compliment Ellis’ scoring. In their new ramped-up and high speed offense, these two along with George will carry the scoring load.

The development of Myles Turner, the first round pick out of Texas, will play a large part in how successful their new identity plays out. If he can be a starting quality big, then the Pacers will have more flexibility with their lineups. If he goes through some growing pains, as rookie big men tend to do, then the Pacers will be thin at that position.

It’s tough to predict where the Pacers end up this year. They could be a sleeper team in the East, but its hard to see them becoming legitimate contenders.  There is likely to be a buffer period as the Paul George adjusts to his new position and the team as a whole adjusts to its new style of play. If the stars align for this team, they could make some noise. If not, it could be a painfully awkward season in Indiana.

credit: monroenews.com

Detroit Pistons:

  • 2015-15 Record: 22-53
  • Key Acquisitions: Ersan Illyasova (Milwaukee), Marcus Morris (Phoenix)
  • Key Departures: Greg Monroe (Milwaukee)
  • Projected Starting Lineup: Reggie Jackson, Kentavious Caldwell Pope, Marcus Morris, Ersan Illyasova, and Andre Drummond

What You Need to Know:

Stan Van Gundy has assembled a poor man’s version of his 2008 Eastern Conference champion Orlando Magic team. They have Andre Drummond, a big man who is on the verge of becoming dominant, but a lot of so-so talent surrounding him. They were a bad team last year, but fell victim to their own 3-19 start to the season. They proceeded to cut Josh Smith, and remained in the playoff hunt because the Eastern Conference was so bad. Now Van Gundy, who is both the head coach and team president, has made offseason moves to try and make Detroit a contender.

None of these offseason moves appear to be fruitful upon examination, and its hard to see the personnel mixing in a way that could translate into wins. They have both Reggie Jackson and Brandon Jennings as point guards. While the two can individually be effective, they are not the type of players who will compliment each other. The rest of their roster is filled with players, like Ersan Ilyasova, who have proven to be inconsistent at best.

They have replaced their previous spacing issues from last season. They had two traditional big men in Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe attempting to conduct their offensive game from the same spaces, making it easier for defenders to guard the two and harder for Detroit to spread the floor. They let Monroe walk, and replaced him with a prototypical stretch 4 Ersan Ilyasova.

This season will ride on Andre Drummond making the leap into the Demarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis league of phenomenal young big men. Drummond lacks the offensive game that those two possess, but will still be Detroit’s first option. He has the potential to be great, but right now remains very good.