Milwaukee Bucks: Last year’s suddenly good Bucks made the playoffs on the backs of their defense, which was anchored by C Andrew Bogut and F Luc Mbah a Moute, who both return. Then-new coach Scott Skiles obviously got through to them that defense is the quickest way to turn a team around, and everyone listened. They’ve retained a majority of the players who made their D so tough, but they’ve added a couple who seem like real question marks for this team (me-first scorer Corey Maggette, slowly declining Drew Gooden), but it’s hard to argue with a club that’s turned it around so fast. It should be mentioned that offseason acquisitions Larry Sanders (defensive-minded rookie big man, could average 6 boards and 2 blocks off the bench) and Jon Brockman (extremely hard working, undersized rebounder) were good pick ups for this squad.
There are two key questions that will define how well this team does this year in its quest to earn a first-round home playoff series.
First, will oft-injured C Bogut be healthy enough to carry Milwaukee, considering he’s without question their best combination of offensive-defensive talent? He’s missed 59 games over the past two seasons, and it’s been mentioned that he may have issues with his hand (broken near the end of last year) all season.
Second, can Brandon Jennings continue to develop into a solid distributor? It’s obvious he can’t shoot (pitiful 37% FG% last year), so thankfully he started doing so a lot less often by the end of the year, and the result was a focus on passing that pushed his Assist-Turnover rate up above 2.0 (elite PG’s are up around 3.0). If Maggette, Gooden, and free agent signee Chris Douglas-Roberts can acclimate themselves with this squad’s defensive mindset and provide the offensive punch they were brought in for (exactly like John Salmons’ situation last year), the Bucks will become that top second-tier team in the East.
Could Make the Playoffs (In Order of Likelihood)
Chicago Bulls: Just so we’re all clear, if Carlos Boozer wasn’t hurt for the first 6 weeks or so of the season, I would pick the Bulls at the top of this division. I still think they should be the top Central team come playoffs (if Boozer or other starters aren’t injured), but I’m thinking his early absence will be the difference in a few losses, which could end up giving the Bucks the division by a couple games.
That being said, there’s plenty of smart/hustling/underrated talent on this roster (Luol Deng, Ronnie Brewer, Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, CJ Watson), and Derrick Rose (the one Bull who is overrated at this point) will take a step up if his 3-point shot is as improved as it looked at the end of last year. He still needs to contribute more defensively and cut down on his turnovers, but here’s to hoping he’ll improve those areas in his 3rd year much more so than he did in his 2nd (not at all). If Rose shows overall improvement and can better set up his teammates, and if Boozer comes back healthy and contributes his bullish points and boards inside, Chicago should be able to raise their bad 45% team FG% from last year (23rd in the league), giving them a decent chance to cause some problems in the playoffs.
Indiana Pacers: The Pacers are an under-skilled run-and-gun club with plenty of names that sound more intriguing than they really are (Mike Dunleavy, TJ Ford, Brandon Rush, rookies Lance Stephenson and Paul George). Danny Granger looks better than he is because he’s a fast team’s #1 scorer, but a 6-feet-9 forward who doesn’t rebound is part of the reason this club’s biggest issue is they can’t rebound. Everything else is blandly OK about their offense and defense, but an utter lack of rebounding prowess is killing them right now. How was that addressed in the offseason?
They traded PF Troy Murphy (who was one of only 9 NBA players to average double-digit boards last year, 10.2) for PG Darren Collison. As much as nabbing the young Collison was a great move, losing their best rebounder and bringing in…???…to replace those boards was bad. Their new best rebounder is Roy Hibbert, whose lumbering ways don’t fit this club at all, and who averaged less than 6 per game last year in 25 minutes. Ouch. Tyler Hansbrough has shown he can score a little bit at this level, but fans are waiting for the rest of his game to develop. With luck, rookie afterthought C Magnum Rolle gets a chance to cut his teeth because he could end up being the draft’s biggest steal. I’m pretty sure Indy isn’t making the playoffs this year, but they play a unique enough style (sprint for threes) that Collison fits into, it could happen.
Detroit Pistons: They have a few things going on that you should like, but I mean like as in “I like the potential that guy shows to one day be a decent starter.” It’s been so long since their 2004 championship and any signs of life, leftovers Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, and Ben Wallace have come full circle and are now underrated.
Not like they were in 2002, but enough so you’ll look at their stats from time to time and realize Rip and Prince can still score 20 points somewhat regularly (when they’re not injured – weird sidenote: before last year, Prince had 4 consecutive seasons of a league-leading 82 games played, preceded by 2 seasons of a not-league-leading 82 games played) and Wallace is still pulling down nearly 10 boards a night. This is all beautiful in the nostalgia department, and Rodney Stuckey and Jonas Jerebko are keeping some fans excited for the near-future, but overall this team is a mess. They have way too many perimeter players who need the ball in their hands to do anything (Rip, Prince, Stuckey, Ben Gordon, Will Bynum, Tracy McGrady, rookie Terrico White) and an inside group that sounds like a club’s second- and third-teams (Wallace, Charlie Villanueva, Jerebko, Jason Maxiell, Greg Monroe). Any day now, GM Joe Dumars needs to start a real rebuilding effort.
Cleveland Cavaliers: There’s not much to say that you probably don’t already know. LeBron James left, now they suck. A lot of why they suck is because they short-sightedly let James steer what deals the team was making. Believe it or not, still-playing superstars tend to make terrible GM’s. I’m hoping people already knew this, but Mo Williams is not and never has been a legit All-Star PG. The Cavs have a bunch of guys who looked like decent role players next to James, but there’s no Scottie Pippen to play off of while the repeat MVP is away. Owner Dan Gilbert is starting to look a little too crazed with revenge, and Antawn Jamison suddenly has all eyes on him, which is a big uh oh at this point. Anderson Varejao and Ramon Sessions are the basic building blocks for the foreseeable future, but one is playing out of position and the other isn’t starting. Good luck.
Top 5 Players
C: Andrew Bogut, Milwaukee Bucks
F/C: Carlos Boozer, Chicago Bulls
F/C: Joakim Noah, Chicago Bulls
G: Richard Hamilton (if healthy), Detroit Pistons
G: Derrick Rose, Chicago Bulls
Possible Award Candidates
No one in the Central has a chance at MVP. I’d like to think Andrew Bogut and Joakim Noah have a shot at the Defensive Player of the Year award, especially if Bogut is healthy and leads the league in blocks (averaged 2.5 last year, just behind league-leader Dwight Howard’s 2.8). Luc Mbah a Moute should get some consideration, as well, considering his ridiculous defensive versatility (guarded all five positions at one point or another in the playoffs), but he’s not popular enough, and that’s a big part of any award in today’s ESPN highlights universe. Larry Sanders could do enough nice things to play in the Rookie-Sophomore Game, but it’s highly unlikely he’ll take any votes away from Blake Griffin or John Wall for Rookie of the Year. Probably the most likely award-winner in this division is Scott Skiles, who could take home Coach of the Year honors if the Bucks continue to improve and land a decent playoff position.