Central Division preview: Cavs remain the heavy favorites, but Bulls linger
The Central Division race figures to be devoid of all drama, as it would take some significant event to budge Cleveland from the top spot by record. That kind of downfall aside, the Cavs have too many advantages, too much depth, and too much ability on both sides of the ball to give way to even a team as solid as the Bulls. To whatever extent the division crown matters—an open question in the context of the current NBA—it should ultimately rest with the Cavs.
The more compelling questions for this group are matters relative to the Eastern Conference on the whole. Cleveland will again be the best team in the conference. That assumed, could the Bulls put together the kind of season that would distinguish them as a credible challenger? Milwaukee, Indiana, and Detroit face similar questions on very different scales—namely, might any among them create separation from a crowded bubble group to secure a playoff spot? The range of this division stretches from competence to contention. All five teams might not be relevant on the broadest levels of the season's narrative but each is equipped to compete nightly and find some relative measure of success.
1. Cleveland Cavaliers
2014–15 results: 53-29 | Lost in NBA Finals
Outlook:Cleveland is the East's overwhelming favorite—all but a lock to advance to the conference finals or beyond. This is because of James, who holds a greater command over the game than any player working; it's because of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, who together with James give the Cavs explosive offensive potential; it's because of Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson (should he agree to a deal and report to camp), who played a part in Cleveland solidifying its defense to impressive standing; and it's because this roster is roundly more capable than the version that preceded it.
This is the kind of team that can afford to ride out some early season absences and still coast comfortably to the top seed. That said, the Cavs are a contender with plenty left to resolve before April. Their aforementioned defense looked fantastic in the postseason but will need to be sustained over a longer term by an altered rotation. On offense, Love's skills need to be put to better, more consistent use in a way that allows him to actively complement Cleveland's star creators. These are, ultimately, good problems to have. All that looms over the Cavs are the trials of a contender, issues born of putting a loaded roster to optimal use.
Best case: A trophy, bottles upon bottles of champagne, and the sports angst of a city relieved.
Worst case: Thompson’s negotiations become a lingering and divisive issue, Love again struggles to find his bearings, and Cleveland flames out in the Eastern Conference playoff bracket.
2. Chicago Bulls
2014–15 results: 50-32 | Lost in conference semifinals
Outlook: Whatever changes come to the Bulls this season will largely be a function of health and imagination. Chicago is counting on Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson to be more active than their injuries allowed last season, and will ultimately bank on Derrick Rose and Mike Dunleavy to make something near a full recovery from their more recent ailments. A healthy Bulls roster, anchored by Jimmy Butler and Pau Gasol, will look very similar to the outfit that took the floor last season. The fundamental difference is in its implementation; Fred Hoiberg subscribes to a very different coaching philosophy than Tom Thibodeau, allowing the same group of players to be deployed in an entirely different way.
Expect different (read: smaller) lineup constructions, better floor spacing, and more movement from the Bulls on offense. That could mean great things for almost every Bull provided they're healthy enough to play into that new style, all while expanding the utility of players like Nikola Mirotic and Doug McDermott. It won't always be easy for Hoiberg to find the precise combination of players that gives the Bulls the best chance of winning from situation to situation, though on paper he has more to work with than every non-Cavs team in the conference.
Best case: Chicago plays up to its talent level and gets an honest shot at the title.
Worst case: Injuries and issues of fit render the Bulls an Eastern Conference also-ran.
3. Milwaukee Bucks
2014–15 results: 41-41 | Lost in conference quarterfinals
Outlook: After the All-Star break last season, the Bucks—while maintaining a stout team defense—cratered completely on offense. Only three teams in the league scored less efficiently over that stretch, which in turn sent a mid-seeded success to near playoff disqualification. For as far as Milwaukee had come with Jason Kidd making smart use of young talent, there was still much left to sort out in bringing a woeful offense to solvency.
Greg Monroe is at least a partial address of that problem. Milwaukee still doesn't have the shooters necessary to support a healthy offense, though it aims to compensate with a significant upgrade of skill in the middle. Monroe has the post game and the passing to work as a hub for the Bucks, capable of absorbing possessions that last year had unfolded aimlessly. Around him swirl Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Michael Carter-Williams, Jabari Parker, and John Henson in roles that now seem far more comfortable with their newest teammate adopting a high-usage role.
Making all of those pieces work together fluidly in tight quarters will take some creativity, as will maintaining the Bucks' lofty defensive standing. This team thrived last season because of the pressure it applied in coverage. Monroe should fit well enough as the big body at the center of that system, though he isn't an especially strong or intuitive defender. The Bucks will have to make do and adapt. Milwaukee is evolving, through growing pains and all, to become a more balanced team in the long run. What exactly that means for the coming season remains to be seen.
Best case: Internal development and Monroe’s arrival make the Bucks a more diverse and compelling team.
Worst case: Defensive concessions and poor spacing knock the Bucks off track and out of the playoff picture.
4. Indiana Pacers
2014–15 results: 38–44 | Did not make playoffs
Outlook: Indiana has committed fully to a perimeter-oriented style and implicitly (based on its roster decisions) to Paul George playing power forward. No matter one's objections with moving George to the four in theory, the realities of the Pacers' roster make the move sensible; the alternatives are merely decent players who would be better served as backups. Indiana will pivot to use George against other elite wings while leveraging his length as a functional big in other circumstances. The importance of the shift, as conveyed by both Frank Vogel and Larry Bird, is the freedom to play bigger or smaller as matchups dictate.
The George angle, however, only distracts from the fact that the Pacers' roster on the whole leaves something to be desired. The top centers are a prolific foul artist (Ian Mahinmi) and an untested rookie (Myles Turner). Monta Ellis gives Indy some needed shot creation but brings his own defensive concerns and won't have a standout pick-and-roll partner. George Hill and Rodney Stuckey will also need to pry the ball from Ellis's hands at times, as those three (and George) will need to somehow strike a satisfying balance of ball handling responsibility. The wings are otherwise fine but underwhelming, and nowhere near contending quality. All of this puts the Pacers on the cusp of the playoffs with no guarantees whatsoever. If they're to be interesting, they'll have to forge a path with somewhat limited personnel.
Best case: Behind a renewed George, the Pacers scrap to a playoff berth with an incomplete roster.
Worst case: Gaps in the rotation trip Indiana out of the playoff race while George’s reluctance to play power forward becomes an actual problem within the organization.
5. Detroit Pistons
2014–15 results: 32–50 | Did not make playoffs
Outlook: Detroit began the 2014–15 season a disastrous 5–23 before finding its footing around the turn of the calendar year. The Pistons played .500 basketball (27–27) the rest of the way, ultimately landing with a league-average offense for the season and some incremental defensive improvement. The coming year should serve as an extension of that trend—the next developmental step for a team that has long been resigned to the mid-lottery.
Any way forward goes through Andre Drummond. Detroit's marquee big man, now just 22, put up monster numbers whenever he was flanked by a pick-and-roll guard and surrounded by shooters last season. At long last the Pistons have the personnel to play that way full-time, unleashing a terrifying roll man in a style signature to Stan Van Gundy's offense. The re-signed Reggie Jackson will also have a chance to post gaudy assist numbers if he keeps his head up on his drives to the hoop, both by setting up Drummond or kicking out to one among Detroit's improved crop of spot-up wings. The simplicity of that formula isn't world-beating, but Van Gundy might finally have stable, foundational elements upon which to build.
Best case: The re-worked Pistons click as intended, with the dual engine of Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson putting the franchise on a competitive course.
Worst case: Detroit’s new roster—including its latest, big-money signings—shows evident structural flaws from the start.
Hoiberg's offensive vision needs room to breathe—room that Chicago won't find consistently in any pairing of Gasol, Noah, and Taj Gibson. Mirotic provides it. That necessity will make him a feature in many of the Bulls' best lineups this season and a natural breakout candidate. As a 23-year-old rookie, Mirotic fired away (he averaged 18.1 points per 36 minutes), worked for rebounds, and gave Chicago a touch of needed dynamism. A bigger role in a more open offense after a year’s experience in the league should only empower him further.
Rookie to watch
Indiana’s lacking frontcourt should leave plenty of opportunity for Turner, a 19-year-old natural athlete, to crack the rotation at center. His presence won’t always be a net positive; depending heavily on a rookie is generally a trying experience for a coach, as players new to the NBA largely have much to learn in terms of systems, positioning, and judgment. Turner will be no different, as the fact that his game is still raw is very much a part of his appeal. From his combination of size, mobility, and touch comes aptitude. That will make Turner tantalizing in some appearances, just as his inexperience makes him frustrating in others.
Coach with most to prove
Coaching LeBron, a basketball genius with his own ideas of how a team should be run, is never as easy as it should be. Blatt found that out first-hand in his initial season with the Cavs—a sometimes grating affair that didn't exactly foster the healthiest of working relationships between coach and superstar. That fact alone gives Blatt something to prove. So long as James continues to take short-term deals and maximize his leverage within the organization, he'll have input into whether Blatt is Cleveland's coach for the long haul. Blatt's burden of proof, then, goes beyond winning merit; he'll need to demonstrate emphatically that he's the right man to manage the Cavs' collection of ego, talent, and personality.
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Potential trade target
If Mirotic is playing more, Noah is moving well, and Gasol is contributing as the Bulls expect, then Gibson could find himself on the wrong side of a minutes crunch. The preseason emergence of Bobby Portis—who brings some of the same energy and rebounding as Gibson—doesn't help matters, either. Gibson could still stick around in a slighter role, though don't be surprised if Chicago explores its options on a potential deal for its fourth big man.
Andre Drummond will make the All-NBA third team. With nine frontcourt spots up for grabs on the All-NBA ballot, it’s hardly inconceivable that Drummond could—provided that his numbers pop and the Pistons post a decent enough record—sneak into the mix.