Remember when the Central Division was good? I do. It was three years ago.
Back in the 2005-06 season, the Central was the NBA's most competitive, with each of its five teams possessing 40 wins or more. At that time, the Pistons (64) were the standard-bearer while the Bucks (40) gamely brought up the rear.
Somewhere along the way, however, the Central stumbled. Fast-forward three years and the Bulls have regressed. Indiana's Ron Artest completed the nuclear meltdown that shattered the Pacers' title hopes in 2004 and was traded. The Bucks went from a young team with potential to an overpaid team mired in mediocrity. The Pistons and Cavaliers continued to excel, but the competitive balance that defined the division vanished.
Can the Central regain its swagger? That will depend on the effectiveness of some new coaches. The Pistons jettisoned Flip Saunders after he failed to get them back to the NBA Finals for the third straight season, replacing him with Michael Curry. In an effort to wipe the 2007-08 season from their memory, the Bulls hired Vinny Del Negro to run the show. And the Bucks, desperate for a little defensive intensity, brought in the ultimate taskmaster in Scott Skiles.
Three new coaches, three tough and very different tasks ahead of them. Let's see how it shapes up.
What went right:
They didn't panic.
How many of you thought Chauncey Billups and Rasheed Wallace would be wearing a different uniform next season? Better question, how many of you didn't think they would? After Joe Dumars announced that the Pistons were open for business after the season, the speculation was that he would shake up the roster by dealing Billups and Wallace, thereby freeing space for youngsters Rodney Stuckey and Jason Maxiell.
Dumars still might make some moves, but as it stands, the Pistons of 2008-09 look a lot like the ones that closed out 2007-08. And that's not a bad thing. Detroit is still one of the most talented and deepest teams in the league, and with free agency looming for Wallace at the end of '09, this group still has one more run left in it.
Kwame Brown can help them.
Yes, you read that right. Look, Brown will never live up to the expectations that come with being the top overall pick in the draft. At 26, that much is clear. But when healthy, he can be a strong backup at the center and power forward positions, and he will face zero pressure in Detroit as the second big man off the bench. Despite his history, Brown is still a career 7.5 points/5.7 rebounds player, and those aren't bad numbers for a guy who is expected to play 13-15 minutes per night. And under the tutelage of Wallace and Antonio McDyess, Brown may even develop some offense along the way.
What went wrong:
They hired Michael Curry.
I like Curry. Liked him as a player, liked him as a league executive, and liked him as an assistant coach. I even like him as a head coach...in a few years. But on a team with a window that is rapidly closing, hiring an inexperienced hand like Curry has to be questioned. The former president of the NBA Players Association certainly has the respect of his players, but this is a team that treats the regular season like an elongated exhibition schedule. Curry has one or maybe two seasons to win a championship before this roster is either blown up or ages too much. That's a lot of pressure to put on a rookie coach.
They didn't trade Rasheed Wallace.
Now hold on, I'm not contradicting my earlier statement. The Pistons not panicking was a good thing. There was no reason to trade Wallace just to trade him. But NBA general managers love players with these two qualities: talent and an expiring contract. Wallace has both. I'm sure Dumars shopped him over the summer and I'm sure the offers weren't to his liking. But not acquiring a front of the line center to pair with Maxiell may come back to haunt Detroit at playoff time, as will losing Wallace for nothing next summer.
The Pistons are what they are: a deep, talented, veteran team that has lost just enough to not be considered serious contenders anymore. Curry will face enormous pressure to succeed in his first season and he might have to work in a new face at midseason when Dumars will undoubtedly pull the trigger if his team is not living up to expectations. Maxiell, Stuckey, Rip Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince are the de facto core of this team now and they will need a couple of years to play and grow together.
What went right:
They got another scorer in Mo Williams.
Give Cleveland credit. It isn't afraid to take on salary. Williams will collect $43 million from the Cavaliers over the next five years, but he finally gives them a dynamic scorer to pair next to LeBron James. Williams averaged 17.2 points with Milwaukee last season (making him the best scorer, statistically, that James has ever played with) and can break down opponents off the dribble as well as hit the outside shot. He's not a pure point guard and his defense is mediocre, but when paired with Daniel Gibson, he will open up a lot of space for James in the halfcourt.
They kept Zydrunas Ilgauskas out of the Olympics.
It's unfortunate for Ilgauskas that he didn't compete for Lithuania in Beijing. But don't think the Cavs are losing any sleep over it. While Ilgauskas hasn't shown any lingering effects from the foot problems that plagued him early in his career (he's played in at least 73 games during each of the last six seasons), the Cavs didn't want to risk losing their 33-year-old center to injury or see the wear and tear from the Olympic schedule catch up to him late next season. The Cavs' ability to play inside-out is predicated almost entirely on Big Z and they need his 14.1 points per game to make a run in the conference.
What went wrong:
They didn't get Michael Redd.
OK, so Cleveland got one Buck. They should have negotiated for two. The Cavs (and to a certain degree, Redd) have been lamenting not having the sharpshooting two-guard in their lineup since he spurned their max offer in 2005 for a more lucrative one from Milwaukee. Redd is exactly what the Cavaliers need. Outside of Ray Allen, he's the best shooter in the league and is far more comfortable in a supporting role. Redd could average 20 points without a single play being called for him. It's a little surprising that Cleveland couldn't trade for him, given their needs and Milwaukee's interest in slashing salary.
The could put a lot of pressure on J.J. Hickson.
The Cavs' coaching staff is very high on Hickson, but should Ben Wallace continue to regress, they will be faced with the possibility of a rookie playing significant minutes at power forward. For almost four years, Drew Gooden was a staple at the four spot, but when the Cavs acquired Wallace they made the decision to try to win now. The 33-year-old Wallace has never been much of an offensive threat, and the wear and tear of playing center for much of his career has taken away some of his defensive abilities. Hickson was explosive in the Las Vegas summer league -- several coaches told me they thought he was the best player at the camp -- but he is a year or two away from being a regular NBA player. Cleveland may have to throw him into the fire before he is ready.
Cleveland was a Paul Pierce explosion away from the conference finals and a likely return trip to the NBA Finals, so any additions make them a threat to win the East. But should Wallace and/or Ilgauskas go down, the Cavaliers don't have much behind them, especially offensively. Neither Hickson nor the hyperkinetic Anderson Varejao is a threat to score on the blocks. Still, if the Cavs can stay healthy, they could be a darkhorse in the East.
What went right:
They traded Jermaine O'Neal.
Jeff Foster said it best when he told the Indianapolis Star, "It was tough because Jermaine really didn't want to be here the last couple of years. It was tough to become a team when your best player did not want to be on the team."
Once a franchise player and dominating big man, O'Neal's injuries and unhappiness during the last two seasons made him a distraction on a team that was desperately trying to rebuild. On paper, acquiring T.J. Ford from Toronto for O'Neal is getting 50 cents on the dollar, but O'Neal had no future with the Pacers. Cutting their losses was the right thing to do.
They stayed committed to Jim O'Brien.
It sounds strange to compliment a team on sticking with a coach for more than one season, but these days patience is not a virtue shared by many front offices. Indiana was an atrocious defensive team last season, giving up 105.4 points per game. But O'Brien has always been a defensive coach, and once he a) gets better players and b) convinces the remaining players to play defense, Indiana, which averaged 104.0 points per game, could get better in a hurry.
What went wrong:
They couldn't unload their bad contracts.
And Indy has lots of them. Starting with Jamaal Tinsley (who GM Larry Bird would likely trade for the rights to Joe Kleine right now), the Pacers have been actively shopping the bulk of their roster. Power forward Troy Murphy (who has three years and $33.1 million remaining on his contract), swingman Mike Dunleavy (three years, $29.3 million) and Tinsley (three years, $21.4 million) would probably all be elsewhere if Pacers management had its druthers, but Indiana didn't get many offers this summer. Tinsley is still likely to be bought out, but the Pacers' first step on the road back has to be cleaning up their salary cap mess.
They blew it when they traded Jerryd Bayless.
Brandon Rush may turn out to be a nice player, but the Pacers made a huge mistake when they dealt Bayless to Portland. Bayless is a star in waiting. He was virtually unstoppable in the Las Vegas summer league (29.8 points per game on his way to winning the league MVP award), and while he still has to learn some rudimentary point guard skills, Bayless has serious All-Star potential. Bird will regret this one.
Indiana isn't expecting to contend this season, so just getting out from under O'Neal's onerous contract (two-years, $44 million) is a plus. But the team dropped the ball with Bayless and will need to completely rebuild the front line over the next two seasons. This grade will improve if the Pacers can work out a trade for one of their bloated contracts in training camp.
What went right:
They got out of last season.
From the Kobe Bryant rumors to the struggles of Luol Deng and Ben Gordon to the team tuning out Scott Skiles, Chicago needed to escape. A more tranquil training camp will ease the pressure immensely and help the Bulls avoid the kind of start that doomed them by Christmas last year. And there should be harmony. Deng got the contract he wanted, Del Negro is regarded as a player's coach, and you have to hope the flamboyant Joakim Noah is more under control in his second season. Adding highly-touted rookie Derrick Rose to the mix doesn't hurt either.
They finally got their floor general.
And they so desperately needed one. An argument could be made that with Kirk Hinrich in place, the Bulls would have been better off drafting Michael Beasley in June--particularly if Beasley turns out to be a legit power forward -- but Hinrich's shooting problems last season made finding a point guard a priority. Rose looked NBA-ready in the NCAA tournament, and even though point guard is the most difficult position to learn in the league (see Billups, Chauncey), Rose should be able to step in and start right away.
What went wrong:
Vinny Del Negro is a risky choice as coach.
After unsuccessfully courting the seasoned hand of Mike D'Antoni, the Bulls turned to Del Negro, he of 12 years NBA playing experience and zero years coaching. Clearly the Bulls don't respond well to a taskmaster -- the failures of Skiles and Jim Boylan are testaments to that. But this is a team that needs developing, and Del Negro will have to lean heavily on his assistant coaches to do it. Del Harris and Bernie Bickerstaff are former head coaches, and Bob Ociepka has more than 30 years of coaching experience. They will help keep the train on the tracks, but it will be on Del Negro to find a way to successfully gel this young roster.
They still have no post scorer.
The Bulls are extremely good on the wings: Deng, Gordon (assuming he re-signs), Hinrich, Rose and Larry Hughes are all dangerous perimeter players. But the Bulls have no discernable threat in the low post. Drew Gooden fancies himself a post player, but his game is better suited for offensive rebounding. Noah is more of a threat to score on his own basket than Chicago's opponents', Tyrus Thomas thrives in transition, and Andres Nocioni is better when he is attacking the basket. Don't be surprised to see John Paxson try to package some of his young talent for a scoring big man during the season.
Rose fell into their laps like manna from heaven and Deng should be a much better player with his contract settled. But the Bulls' front line doesn't match up with Boston's, Detroit's, Cleveland's or Orlando's, and unless they shoot the lights out every night (if last season is any indication, that's a big question mark) they will struggle. A playoff spot is not out of the question, but Chicago is not the team that appeared to be on the rise three years ago.
What went right:
That's really all you have to say. All Hammond has done since taking over the Bucks' front office in April is hire a proven coach (Skiles) offload two bad contracts (Bobby Simmons, Mo Williams), acquire an All-Star caliber small forward (Richard Jefferson) and bring in a playmaking point guard (Luke Ridnour). Not a bad summer's work. Hammond still has some things to do (figuring out if Michael Redd is in the team's long-term plans, for one) and his decision to draft Joe Alexander after trading for Jefferson was a little puzzling. But Hammond has Milwaukee back on the right track.
They haven't pressured Richard Jefferson.
Here's the worst-kept secret in the league: Jefferson has no desire to play in Milwaukee. After spending his entire career in New Jersey (really New York, as RJ lived in the Tribeca section of Manhattan), he wanted no part of life in Milwaukee. But the Bucks were patient and it appears that Jefferson will be in training camp and focused on being a productive member of the organization. That's good because outside of Redd the Bucks don't have much veteran leadership, certainly not someone like Jefferson, who has been to two NBA Finals.
What went wrong:
Andrew Bogut got big bucks.
I know big men are at a premium, but $72.5 million for a center who has yet to make an All-Star team? Certainly, locking down Bogut solidified the pivot for the next few years, and if the Olympics are an indicator, there is still a lot of talent that Bogut has yet to mine. But that's a lot of money to commit to an unproven player.
Not much to criticize here. The Bucks were in shambles when Hammond took control and in a few short months they look to be headed in the right direction. Milwaukee will need Bogut and Charlie Villanueva to carry the frontcourt, but if they can, and if Skiles can instill some defensive intensity in the team, the Bucks could make a push for a playoff spot.
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