Central preview: Massive makeover sets up Cavaliers-Bulls showdown
Everything you once knew about the Central division is now obsolete. Black is white, up is down, good is bad... you get the picture.
Where to begin? You might have read that letter on our site from LeBron James, informing the world that he was leaving the Heat after four straight Finals appearances and returning home to the Cavaliers. Cleveland also added Kevin Love—the No. 7 rated player on SI.com's Top 100 of 2015 list—and a host of other veterans as icing on their offseason cake. In Chicago, the Bulls returned 2011 MVP Derrick Rose and lured longtime Lakers stalwart Pau Gasol from L.A.. And in Indiana, the Pacers are toeing a first-to-worst season after losing Paul George and Lance Stephenson this summer for drastically different reasons.
If that wasn't enough, the Pistons handed over their coaching duties and front office keys to Stan Van Gundy, while the Bucks crawled out of irrelevancy by trading for Jason Kidd as their head coach and drafting Jabari Parker—the 2014 draft's surest bet—out of Duke.
Got all that? Yes, just about everything in the Central has changed over the last four months. The division crown appears to be a two-team race between the top two teams in the East. Let's preview the Central for 2014-15:
1. Cleveland Cavaliers
2013-14 record: 33-49 | Missed playoffs
Worst move: Not finding insurance for Anderson Varejao and a viable rim protector off the bench.
Outlook: Pret-tay, pret-tay good. The Cavaliers couldn't have dreamt of an offseason like this—after all, it would have been downright greedy to hope to land LeBron James and arguably the best big man in the league. But here Cleveland is, transformed from a 33-win team to frontrunner title contenders in only a matter of months. They didn't usher out the old era so much as they threw it out the door kicking and screaming.
With Kyrie Irving—fresh off winning the FIBA World Cup MVP—rounding out the new-look Big Three, the Cavaliers are now the cream of the NBA. But adding LeBron James comes with a couple of caveats. The Cavs are now the favorites to win the title, a position a majority of their roster is completely foreign to. Love, Irving and Dion Waiters have never played in a single playoff game. Their new head coach, David Blatt, hasn't even coached a regular-season game. How will this team respond to the pressure? Will Love and Irving be able to adapt to playing alongside LeBron? Will they be able to form a defense capable of starring down the best the league has to offer? Will Blatt be up to the task of handling the most talented team in the world?
Everything has gone Cleveland's way this offseason—from LeBron to Love to the Pacers falling out of contention to Shawn Marion and Ray Allen (probably) spurning other suitors to sign with them. We'll see if the season and the playoffs go as swimmingly. Remember, it took Miami a year to gel and put together a title team. Will the Cavaliers be on the same timetable? Something tells me this one will be expedited.
Best case: LeBron, Love and Irving come together to form a Big Three even more dominant and cohesive than Miami's, cruising to a title.
Worst case: Love and Irving's injury histories catch up to them once again, hampering the Cavaliers and leading them to resemble the old Cavs teams where LeBron was asked to do too much.
2. Chicago Bulls
2013-14 record: 48-34 | Lost in first round (4-1) to Wizards
Best move: Signing Nikola Mirotic to a three-year, $17 million deal.
Worst move: Losing D.J. Augustin in free agency.
Outlook: Short of landing two of the NBA's 10 best players, the Bulls had about as good of an offseason as you can have. They get back their best player in Derrick Rose, who is starting to resemble his former self on the floor. They signed Pau Gasol away from the Lakers, edging out a host of other contenders for the big man's services. They lured Nikola Mirotic—the MVP of Spain's pro ACB League—to come to America after trading for his draft rights in 2011. They traded up to land Doug McDermott, a much-needed shooter and potentially perfect role player. And they replaced D.J. Augustin and solidified their backup point guard position by re-signing Kirk Hinrich and adding Aaron Brooks.
]Tom Thibodeau's teams have become almost as notorious for being depleted as defensive in recent years. But heading into 2014-15, Thibs must feel like he has a seven-nation army at his back. Gasol, Mirotic, Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah combine to form arguably the most talented frontcourt in the league, giving the Bulls a multitude of options. Rose returns needing not so much to be the man but to be him—a missile of a point guard and a facilitator to his much-improved teammates.
The big question for the Bulls—as with any team led by an injury-prone star—is whether they can stay healthy. If they do, they have, as my colleague Jeremy Woo points out, their best shot to win a title since No. 23 was in town.
Best case: Gasol is revitalized by his move East and Mirotic turns into the Rookie of the Year, making the Bulls just as dangerous on offense as defense.
Worst case: I'm not even going to say it.
3. Detroit Pistons
2013-14 record: 29-53 | Missed playoffs
Best move: Handing over the kingdom to Stan Van Gundy.
Outlook: Credit the Pistons for luring Stan Van Gundy, one of the league's most talented coaches, out of retirement in Miami and into the bitter cold of Detroit. It took giving Van Gundy the keys to the front office, but pretty much anything was better than leaving them in the grips of Joe Dumars. Van Gundy inherited a roster more misfit than a floral shirt in Auburn Hills, but the Pistons' new coach is doing his best to turn this lot of underachievers around.
His first move in free agency, signing Jodie Meeks, has already been met with disappointment after it was announced Monday that the shooting guard would miss at least two months with an injury. But the rest of Van Gundy's decisions don't look to be as ill-fated. He's vowed to break up the redundancy of playing Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe and Josh Smith together, saying he wants to play them only sparingly as a trio. He's added shooters like Meeks, D.J. Augustin, Cartier Martin, Caron Butler and Spencer Dinwiddie to the mix, trying to elevate a team that finished second-to-last in three-point shooting last season. And he's not coddling Brandon Jennings, forcing the talented but sometimes thin-headed guard to earn his keep.
Van Gundy's never coached a team that hasn't made the playoffs—but this one will test his record. It'll be his greatest coaching job yet if the Pistons do return to the postseason.
Best case: The Pistons find a taker for Smith or Monroe, netting a guard in return that makes more sense alongside Andre Drummond.
Worst case: Josh Smith leads the league in three-pointers attempted, leading Van Gundy to quit after one disastrous season and walking away from $28 million.
4. Indiana Pacers
2013-14 record: 56-26 | Lost in East Conf. finals (4-2) to Heat
Best move: Extending Frank Vogel before the season started, taking hot seat questions out of the equation.
Worst move: Allowing Lance Stephenson to walk for primarily petty reasons.
Outlook: The Pacers are the NBA's best bet to reverse their record from last season. As bad as it was to let Lance Stephenson walk on a reasonable contract, it was magnified even further by Paul George's devastating injury. Suddenly, Indiana is without its best two players from last season and with no serviceable replacements waiting in the wings. Rodney Stuckey and C.J. Miles are sturdy veterans, but full-time starters? Not on a team hoping to finish the season above .500.
Indiana will still have a top tier defense thanks to Vogel's schemes, Hibbert's rim protection and a veteran roster that knows its role. But baskets are going to be at a premium. Who is the No. 1 option on the Pacers? Who takes a shot when the clock is winding down? George Hill has vowed to take a bigger role on offense, but is that something Indiana really wants? David West is a reliable scorer, but a 34-year-old one at that. And Roy Hibbert was an All-Star last season, but a shadow of himself in the postseason.
This was a team that was on the brink of title contention the past two years, now it finds itself on a one-year sabbatical in mediocrity. The Pacers won't be an easy out during the regular season, but they also won't keep anyone up the night before a game. You can't blame Indy for George's injury, but the front office's mistake of letting Stephenson walk will burn deep this season.
Best case: Hibbert regains his confidence, Stuckey realizes his potential and the Pacers sneak into the playoffs without having to face the Cavaliers in the first round.
Worst case: Nothing works, veterans like West or Hibbert are traded and Paul George returns to a team next season that's in its first stage of rebuilding mode.
5. Milwaukee Bucks
2013-14 record: 15-67 | Missed playoffs
Best move: Drafting Jabari Parker.
Worst move: Giving up picks to hire Jason Kidd.
Outlook: It's tough to get excited about a basketball team that won 15 games last season despite having playoff aspirations. Yet Bucks ownership made several moves to give fans something they've lacked for the past decade: hope.
As uninspiring of a hiring that Larry Drew was, Jason Kidd is the polar opposite. Big name, lengthy NBA pedigree and coming off a second-round playoff trip in his coaching debut. The Bucks also snagged Jabari Parker, the favorite to win Rookie of the Year, and they made their fans salivate by revealing they would be trying out Giannis Antetokounmpo at the point this preseason. All of this isn't going to translate into a winning season—but it does lay the groundwork for one in the future. The Bucks are no longer going backwards, which is reason enough for optimism in the Brew City.
Best case: The youngsters (Parker, Giannis, Larry Sanders, Brandon Knight) make strides, but the team keeps losing, leading to another lottery pick.
Worst case: Jabari Parker gets hurt and the team fails to make progress of any kind.
X-factor: Central division
Nikola Mirotic, Bulls. The Serbian forward might be the difference between a good year from the Bulls and a great one. Pau Gasol represents an upgrade to Carlos Boozer and Chicago has improved its backcourt depth, but it's the small forward/stretch-four Mirotic that could be the key to their success. Mirotic not only helps space the floor on offense, but he enables Tom Thibodeau to throw out a host of lineups at opponents. In the past, the Bulls' defense was stifling, albeit predictable. With the wealth of big men at Thibs' disposal now, other teams will struggle to gameplan for Chicago. With size, shooting and versatility, Mirotic gives the Bulls an option few teams have at their luxury.
Dark horse team
Pacers. The Bucks and Pistons have more upside, but the veteran Pacers have something else possibly more important: pride. This is a veteran team composed of playoff-tested veterans who thought they'd be competing for a title not lottery position. A championship might be out of the question, but a surprisingly good season to silence the skeptics is not. The Pacers have no shot at winning the division—but a playoff berth is within the realm of possibility.
The Pistons broker a trade with the Celtics, sending Josh Smith or Greg Monroe to Boston in exchange for Rajon Rondo, giving Stan Van Gundy the lead guard he desires to run his offense.