- Change could prove to be a positive for the Cavaliers, but what about the rest of the Central? The Greek Freak offers promise in Milwaukee, but there's little else to get excited about.
It wasn’t long ago that the Central teemed with promise: LeBron James was back leading the Cavs, Jimmy Butler had risen to stardom in Chicago and Paul George was on the mend from injury for a Pacers team that won 56 games in 2013-14. The Bucks’ rebuild was arcing upward behind malleable teenage prodigy Giannis Antetokounmpo and Stan Van Gundy was on his way to fix the Pistons. Three years later, and, well... some of those things are still true.
This absurd NBA summer served to stratify the division even further. Gone are Butler and George while the Bulls and Pacers race to the bottom. The Pistons are still floating in the hapless middle. Antetokounmpo may well be the league’s next true superstar and should have Milwaukee threatening. Kyrie Irving angled his way out of town, but the division and conference still run through LeBron, who’s outlasted entire eras of other franchises—and making it look easy.
Facelift aside, this is still all about Cleveland, and for all the front office turmoil and salary weight, the Cavs made out well. They shipped out an unhappy Kyrie but found an injured Isaiah Thomas, aging Dwyane Wade and vestigial Derrick Rose to up the star power.
This will be the deepest roster LeBron’s ever had in either stint in Cleveland as he enters the final year of his contract. The new-look Cavaliers should carve through the conference largely unhampered. Some things never really change.
Outlook: Change should actually prove a positive for the Cavs, who still employ the league’s best player and an elite second banana in Kevin Love. Coming off a quietly outstanding season, the plan is for Love to open the season at center with Tristan Thompson coming off the bench. Isaiah Thomas nabbed more headlines, but the addition of Jae Crowder as a defensive stand-in for James may prove equally important over the course of a long season, and he figures to slide in at the other forward spot. Whatever Dwyane Wade has left is still quite a luxury for one of the better supporting casts you’ll find around the league. The point guard equation will take some balancing, but the playmaking duties will always belong to LeBron when it counts, and history’s shown that’s quite a failsafe.
Best Case: The Cavs roll into June fully healthy, the Warriors get a run for their money, and LeBron improbably walks away with another ring, leading to an offseason extension.
Worst Case: Thomas struggles to find a role, Derrick Rose goes the way of Deron Williams, Kyrie Irving exacts playoff revenge and that Nets pick ends up outside the top five. LeBron panics and goes west.
Outlook: Milwaukee’s young cast of characters will put them atop League Pass wish lists to start the season, and not for nothing. The early stages of Giannis Antetokounmpo’s career arc have entrenched him on the shortlist of most intriguing 22-year-old basketball players ever. Where his development might take him leaves more room for the imagination than there are appropriate descriptors for his potential. With a solid supporting cast led by Khris Middleton and Malcolm Brogdon, a midseason Jabari Parker return on the horizon, and a young wild card to track in Thon Maker, the Bucks are poised for an entertaining ride. Whether that translates to playoff success will be up to Giannis.
Best Case: The Greek Freak goes supernova, the Bucks win a playoff series and make LeBron and Co. nervous in Round II.
Worst Case: The role players take a step backward, Milwaukee misses out on homecourt advantage, and turn tail with another first-round exit.
Outlook: Still stuck in the middle heading into in Year Four of the Van Gundy era, the Pistons will hope to bounce back with many of the same faces in key positions. Detroit won 44 games when Reggie Jackson was healthy two years ago, and their success depends on the synergy between Jackson and Andre Drummond. The big man’s production plateaued last season, but he’s still just 24 and a double-double machine. The addition of Avery Bradley improves the team on both sides of the ball and gives Jackson a quality backcourt partner. If that trio finds a way to thrive, it may not take a ton for the Pistons to return to the postseason in a conference this thin.
Best Case: Jackson gets through 82 games, Drummond returns to form and the Pistons secure a playoff spot.
Worst Case: Bradley can’t stabilize a mercurial core, the stars can’t stay happy and Detroit finds itself on the outside looking in, again.
Outlook: If there are any illusions about this post-Paul George era, they’ll be gone by the time Bojan Bodganovic starts in his place on opening night. The Pacers are charting a new course, and the results may not be pretty. The good news is that Indiana likes to compete year-to-year and does have a number of viable pieces headlined by center Myles Turner. Victor Oladipo and Thaddeus Young are legitimate starters, and there’s a good deal of experience in the rotation. But as you’d expect, there’s not much star power or upside in the short term.
Best Case: Turner ups his production and becomes a true foundational piece for this rebuild.
Worst Case: The big fella struggles playing without much help, and the Pacers are neither bad enough for great lottery odds nor good enough to scrape at the eight-seed.
Outlook: Things have gotten dire enough that it’s not even fun to bash the Bulls anymore. Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade are gone and Chicago is starting over—defensibly so, but perhaps a year later than necessary. On paper, this is the worst roster in the league. There’s just enough youth to slap a smile on it, but the Bulls gutted their team without a true foundational piece to build around. The chief concerns are Zach LaVine’s ACL recovery, Lauri Markkanen’s development and a successful tank to the bottom before the NBA’s lottery reform kicks in next year. And...maybe not in that order.
Best Case: The odds fall in Chicago’s favor and Michael Porter Jr., Marvin Bagley or Luka Doncic shows up on Madison Street in June.
Worst Case: Markkanen flops out of the gate, LaVine’s shooting percentages take a tumble with a big workload, and the Bulls end up picking outside the top three
Breakout Player: Myles Turner, Pacers
The odds are favorable that Turner will enjoy a serious uptick in production as he enters his age-21 season. Four of the Pacers’ six leading scorers are gone, and he’ll naturally become the focal point. Turner’s efficiency numbers were generally strong across the board, and with his size and ability to catch and shoot from the midrange, there’s plenty of room to improve and emerge as a viable No. 1 option. However, he did most of his damage working as a screener last season, and with Jeff Teague and Paul George gone, quality looks could be much tougher to find. If Indiana finds creative ways to use Turner, he could approach the 20-point mark thanks to what should be heavy usage. At present, he’s the Pacers’ best hope for the future.
Rookie to Watch: Lauri Markkanen, Bulls
It was tough to feel great about Markkanen on draft night as the long-term centerpiece of the Jimmy Butler trade, but a strong performance starring for Finland at Eurobasket helped assuage some of the concerns. Still just 20, Markkanen was under-used on a guard driven team at Arizona and has proven he’s a natural shooter and scorer around the perimeter at 7-feet. That’s certainly a rare package, and while Chicago shouldn’t rush him or place undue pressure, there’s a decent chance we get some interesting flashes of what Markkanen could be. If he can put his athletic ability to use defensively and rebound respectably at this level, it’s a good start. There’s some safety in his floor-spacing skills, but the Bulls would love for him to be more. Temper expectations for now.
Coach on Hot Seat: Fred Hoiberg, Bulls
Although nobody’s expecting magic in Chicago this season—and Hoiberg was the front office’s hand-picked choice for the job—the results haven’t been especially fruitful after two seasons. Although a lot of that falls on management, Hoiberg has something to prove from a player development standpoint this season. and with the major egos gone from the Bulls’ locker room, leadership will fall on his shoulders. In that respect, patience could wear thin if the team can’t make progress.
Random Bold Prediction
Derrick Rose settles in as a distributor and leads the Cavs-not-named-LeBron in assists.