Central Division Preview: All Five Teams Are Going to the Playoffs!!!


Times are changing in the Central Division.

I am about to say something that may make several of you question my sanity. I am going to go on record right now and say that all five of the Central Division teams in the Eastern Conference will make the playoffs this season (barring catastrophic injury).

Still with me? Good. Here's why that's not a completely ridiculous assumption:

1. This would not be the first time this has happened since the NBA introduced the division format for the 2004-05 season. In fact, this has happened twice in the past. The first time it happened was when the Pistons captured the 1st seed, the Cavaliers got the 4th seed, and the Pacers/Bulls/Bucks went 6/7/8, respectively, sending the entire Central Division to the playoffs. The Southwest Division got close in 2011 but the Rockets (marred by a Yao Ming injury) finished 9th in the West; however, last year the Division successfully sent all of its teams to the playoffs [credit to JoakimsJumpShot for that add]. So while this certainly isn't an easy feat by any stretch of the imagination, history has already proven it's not outside the realm of possibility.

2. The East is still a burning pile of garbage as a whole in comparison to the West. The only true playoff hopefuls outside of the Central Division are the Heat, Hawks, Wizards, and the Raptors. All the other teams are essentially jostling for lottery picks. Now, if you fancy yourself a numbers person, you may have already noticed that if all five of the Central teams make the playoffs, then one of the other previously mentioned teams will fall outside the equation. That means that one of them is going to have to go through some substantial regression from last season. However, this scenario isn't so much about the other teams performing worse as much as it is the other Central Teams doing better.

3. The three teams other than the Bulls and Cavs in the Central are all getting back key players from catastrophic injury that occurred last regular season. The Pistons are getting back Brandon Jennings from an achilles injury, the Bucks are getting Jabari Parker back from a torn ACL, and the Pacers are getting a full season of healthy Paul George. I'll dive into further detail about what each player brings back to their team below.

Sun Tzu once said "Know thyself, know thy enemy. A thousand battles, a thousand victories." Although we have no f#cking idea what Hoiberg is doing on defense already know the Bulls fairly well and the NBA season mercifully hasn't been tweaked to accommodate a 1,000 game schedule, I don't believe that the general opinion of the rest of the conference outside of Cleveland is up to date. The game done changed, and it's about to be a hell of a lot more competitive this season locally than it has been in some time. Here's why:

Detroit Pistons:

2014/15 Record: 32-50
Key Departures: Greg Monroe, Josh Smith, DJ Augustin, Caron Butler, Luigi Datome, Jonas Jerebko, Kyle Singler, Quincy Miller
Key Arrivals: Brandon Jennings (injury return), Marcus Morris, Danny Granger, Stanley Johnson (draft), Ersan Ilyasova, Aron Baynes
Head Coach: Stan Van Gundy

Our fun with the Pistons may finally be coming to an end. After a ridiculous run of success in the 2000s that included six straight trips to the Eastern Conference Finals and a Finals-winning defensive juggernaut of a team in 2004, the Pistons have spent their last seven years since trading Chauncey Billups hopelessly stuck in mediocrity. Well, chronology will tell you that it's about time for the Pistons to turn it around again, and they certainly have all the pieces for doing so.

No longer are the Pistons a collection of schmucks from top to bottom. Joe Dumars mercifully relinquishing the reigns of the franchise in 2014 (along with his two cell phones he used to call GMs) was the first genuinely good news Detroit had in years. It only got better when they hired a guy that took a team led by Dwight Howard, Hedo Turkoglu, and a plethora of 3 point shooters to the 2009 NBA Finals. That guy was Stan Van Gundy (the superior coaching mind of the Van Gundy Gruesome Twosome), and then they made that same guy president of basketball operations. Van Gundy couldn't get much going in his first season of coaching, but you can forgive him when you consider the team enjoyed substantial success after releasing Josh Smith (record was 5-23 before that) and prior to Brandon Jennings' extremely unfortunate achilles injury.

But hold up, you all realize how good Jennings is, right? He has the quickest and most lethal ball-fake (one of the most under-utilized moves in all of basketball) out of anybody in the entire association. Have you ever seen a guy that can pass fake/pump fake/make same pass all in stride before getting called for traveling? Have you ever seen anybody make an underhand bounce pass?!?!? He rightfully had a reputation as a ballhog earlier in his career, but Van Gundy began to awaken his insane passing ability last season before he went down with an injury. Unfortunately, he is not only projected to miss at least the first month of the season, but he will also come off the bench behind Reggie Jackson, likely for good. This could be a blessing in disguise, however, as not only will he be able to shake off any accumulated rust against below-starter level competition, but the Pistons' backups at every position can shoot the ball. On paper, you can do much worse than a bench that consists of Jodie Meeks, Stanley Johnson, Anthony Tolliver, and Aron Baynes; spearheaded by a guy in a contract year that scored 55 points as a rookie and has had the single game season high for assists two years in a row. Jennings will easily be a contender for sixth man of the year if the Pistons qualify for the playoffs.

And that's just the BENCH. Now that the team has a full season of no Josh Smith ahead of them, the offense can breathe the way Van Gundy always wants it to. If you've never watched a clicking Van Gundy team play basketball, you are starving yourself, and when you compare this team to the one he took to the 2009 Finals, there are a lot of similarities, starting with their best player. Andre Drummond has already established himself as one of the best centers in all of basketball at just 22 years old, and he's coming off a year in which he played all 82 games and averaged career highs in points (13.8), rebounds (13.5), and blocks (1.9) per game. Drummond may not quite be the defensive stopper Dwight Howard was then (and is somehow a significantly worse freethrow shooter), but Howard himself was only 23 the season he led the Orlando Magic to the NBA Finals. If Drummond is to replicate the success Howard had that season, he will need to have a bounce-back year in the paint--he shot above 50% last year but this was substantially down from his first two seasons--and finally get a grip on his freethrow shooting. Van Gundy has already indicated, however, that he is extremely optimistic Drummond can shoot as high as 60% from the line this year, so if he can make this leap while keeping his rebounding and defensive play up, the Pistons will make the leap to playoff contender with him. Even if he can't, The Pistons' bringing in of Aron Baynes (an 84% freethrow shooter) will at least ensure that teams can't put them in a Hack-a-Shaq trap with no way out at the end of games.

It's also worth noting that Drummond was 2nd in the NBA in rebounds last season (and first in offensive boards by a margin of +40!!!) behind DeAndre Jordan despite the fact that there was another top ten rebounder on his team in Greg Monroe. Now that Monroe is gone and there is no longer a timeshare on the center position, I don't think it's inconceivable that Drummond could average as many as SEVENTEEN rebounds per game this year. He's that good and there's that many to be had in this offense.

Elsewhere, the Pistons are starting to take shape into what Van Gundy wants them to be: An atheltic team that shoots a barrage of 3's with a center that boards the misses and turns them into garbage points. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is an excellent athlete that improved his shooting from beyond the arc to around league average in his second year. Marcus Morris averaged a career high in points, rebounds, and assists last season starting sporadically for the Phoenix Suns, and has proven he is capable of shooting as well as 38% from 3. But the biggest change in starter the Pistons underwent this offseason that completely changes the dynamic of their offense is the swap they essentially peformed with the Milwaukee Bucks; saying goodbye to Greg Monroe in free agency and trading for Ersan Ilyasova to replace him. Ilyasova is a stretch four that has shot as high as 45% from 3-PT range in previous seasons, and his per 36 numbers from last season suggest that in a starting role he could average as much as 18 ppg. With the athletic Reggie Jackson now free to roam the floor thanks to the space created not only by Monroe's absence but also Ilyasova's presence as a starter and two other capable beyond-the-arc threats, this offense is poised to perform the way its talented coach wants it to.

There are obviously dominos that have to fall over in favor of the Pistons this season for them to make the playoffs, but this year they are not nearly as daunting in size as they have been in the past. Their finishing the season 27-27 last year after Josh Smith's release despite an injury to their starting point guard should be a great prognosis for how the team does this season. I'm not quite sure where they'll end up in terms of seeding, but they are far more than capable of finishing above .500, and that's all it takes in the East right now to make it to the postseason (Milwaukee proved that with the sixth seed, I'll get to them next). Detroit's google streetview album may still be a comedy goldmine, but the basketball team figures to be the saving grace of the bankruptcy capital of the United States this year.

Milwaukee Bucks:

2014/15 Record: 41-41
Key Departures: Zaza Pachulia, Ersan Ilyasova, Jared Dudley, Kendall Marshall
Key Arrivals: Greg Monroe, Jabari Parker (injury return), Greivis Vasquez, Rashad Vaughn (draft), Chris Copeland
Head Coach: Jason Kidd

The Bull's perpetual little brother is pissed off and well into puberty. In fact, that might very well be an enormous understatement, because the eye-test tells you that the Milwaukee Bucks are the real-life equivalent of the Moron Mountain Monstars from Space Jam. This roster is absolutely littered with young and talented leviathans ready to do the bidding of head coach and basketball genius Jason Kidd. In fact, now that Tom Thibodeau is mercifully free of his GarPaxian overlords, I think it's pretty safe to say that Jason Kidd is the best remaining coach in the Central Divison. The Bucks may have ultimately succumbed to the Bulls in the playoffs last season to the tune of a 54-point Game 6 loss, but Jason Kidd--with a team that had the offensive talent of a quadriplegic platypus--managed to squeeze out two wins in the series due mainly in part to his clever manipulation of matchups. Now that Kidd has more scoring toys to tinker with this season, the Bucks should perform far better on offense while not missing a beat with their elite defense from last year.

The Bucks' offensive resurgence starts with the acquisition of Greg Monroe. In terms of satisfying a necessity, this was probably the best acquisition any team made during the offseason, and that includes LaMarcus Aldridge to the Spurs. The Bucks' play outside of defense last season was a hopeless dumpster fire marred by poor shooting and extremely lackluster rebounding. In fact, at the time Pau dropped his 46/18 game on the Bucks last season, Zaza Pachulia was their leading rebounder at an absolutely hilarious 6.4 per game. Fortunately, the arrival of Greg Monroe helps significantly alleviate both of these problems. Now that Monroe is no longer locked into a timeshare on the Center position with Andre Drummond, he is free to function as the most established offensive player on the entire Bucks squad. Not only that, but he's coming off a season in which he averaged a career high 10.2 rebounds per game, an easily greater number than anyone else on the Bucks posted last season, so he should start erasing their problems on the glass almost immediately. In fact, if Monroe does become the focal point of the Milwaukee offense, this could easily be his first all-star season given the volume of looks he is likely to see.

Monroe is not the only member of the Bucks poised to reanimate its offense, however. Simeon's very own Jabari Parker will be returning from an ACL tear suffered earlier on last season that likely derailed what would have been a runaway Rookie of the Year campaign. Parker was averaging 12.3 ppg and 5.5 rpg in 25 contests before he went down, although he did struggle shooting from both 3 and the freethrow line. Keep in mind, however, that Jabari did not play alongside mid-season trade acquisition Michael Carter-Williams last year, instead playing with score-first-mentality point guard Brandon Knight. Now that Jabari is playing with more of a facilitating guard, he should see a slight uptick in volume as he gets better acclimated with the pace and play of the NBA. In many ways, this will be Jabari's true rookie season as he attempts to go the distance without getting hurt and putting up consistent numbers. At just 20 years of age and not poised to turn 21 until March, Jabari still has heaps of potential and is in an even better position to succeed than he was last year. It's too bad that he can't be a rookie of the year candidate, because he'd likely run away with that race this year as well.

Throughout the rest of the Bucks roster, there is length, athleticism, more length, defensive prowess, even more length, and whatever O.J. Mayo is. In the backcourt, Milwaukee re-signed their real +/- treasure Khris Middleton to a lengthy contract, and at 6'7" he figures to keep terrorizing players at the 2 spot while continuing to provide value as a beyond-the-arc threat (40.3%). Michael Carter-Williams may still be a comically bad shooter at under 40% overall, but he is still the biggest starting point guard in the league at 6'5" and is already a walking triple-double threat with a line of 14.6/6.7/5.3 points/assists/rebounds per game. Jason Kidd will absolutely love coaching a player that has already exhibited many similar intangible strengths to his own playing career, supplemented by MCW's supreme length and athleticism for the position. Also, you may have heard they have a guy with a really long greek last name that can do stuff like this and like this and also this and holy crap this guy and Jabari are only twenty years old and he can guard all positions comfortably at 6'11"? Get ready, because if the Giannis Antetokounmpo flashes of brilliance are any indication, the yin/yang offensive/defensive combination of him and Jabari on the wings is going to start wreaking havoc on opposing teams at some point in the future. For entertainment purposes, I hope this happens sooner rather than later. For Bulls purposes... well, let's hope Tony Snell and Doug McDermott can keep up I guess.

As for the Bucks' bench, there are capable backups at pretty much every position. On top of being an infinitely more credible threat from beyond the arc, Greivis Vasquez at 6'6" is somehow an even bigger point guard than MCW is, which means Jason Kidd is going to have a field day this season constantly bullying smaller point guards with unrelenting size. Vasquez can also slide into the 2 guard sport and let Jerryd Baless run point to give the bench a more 3-PT oriented look. Rashad Vaughn came through the draft from UNLV and figures to find a role as a spot-up perimeter shooter behind Khris Middleton. In the frontcourt, John Henson is currently projected to start ahead of Jabari, but I would expect that Jabari will get the nod over Henson sooner rather than later given the Bucks' desperation for scoring. Nevertheless, Henson is a good player in his own right, boasting comically-long limbs that gave the Bulls' frontcourt fits in their two playoff wins last season. Chris Copeland and Miles Plumlee round out the backups at the 3 and 5 spots respectively, with each of them bringing considerable experience to their new roles on the team. It's not a reserve unit that jumps off the page, but the sheer abundance in size throughout the roster is going to allow the Bucks to not miss any beats on defense, and that should at least keep them around the same position they were last year.

The whole kicker here will be the strides Milwaukee makes on offense, but they finally have the star power this year that will allow them to make positive changes. I am extremely optimistic that this team can be as good as fourth in the Eastern Conference by the time the playoffs roll around. Keep in mind that despite this offensively-challenged team trading away their leading scorer Brandon Knight in the middle of the season, they still managed to finish .500 because of how overwhelmingly good their defense is. With no signs of slowing down on that end, if the Bucks can figure out their offensive identity this season, look out for a team that figures to be a presence in the league for years to come. To the chagrin of Bulls fans everywhere, United Center North may finally become it's own arena in the near future.

Indiana Pacers:

2014/15 Record: 38-44
Key Departures: Roy Hibbert, David West, Chris Copeland, Luis Scola, C.J. "I Think Deron Williams is Better Than Derrick Rose and that Omer Asik Can Shoot Freethrows" Watson
Key Arrivals: Paul George (injury return), Monta Ellis, Myles Turner (draft), Chase Budinger, Jordan Hill, Toney Douglas
Head Coach: Frank Vogel

Remember these guys? Once upon a time the Pacers resented the Bulls because they were everything they wanted to be: A defensive juggernaut lead by a brilliant, young, otherworldly athletic freak surrounded by toughness and specialists coached by a defensive genius. They gave the Bulls a terrific first round series in 2011 when Derrick Rose won MVP but ultimately fell in five games. Then, when Rose's first injury sent the Bulls toppling from championship contention for two consecutive playoffs, the Pacers assumed the role of #1 contenders to LeBron James and the Heat. The Pacers proceeded to make it their mission to beat the Heat in the postseason by any means possible, but lost to them in three straight playoffs, including twice in the conference finals. The Pacers, in fact, had become the Chicago Bulls: A team that showed promise and inspired hope year after year thanks to defensive talent and toughness, but one that ultimately could never beat LeBron when it mattered. And then, as if this comparison between rivals couldn't get any more ridiculous, Paul George suffered one of the most unfortunate and visually-catastrophic leg injuries in recent memory, essentially crippling any postseason hopes the Pacers had going into the 2014/15 season. But now, George is healthy and ready to roll, and the main two symbols of that era in Pacers history other than PG-13 (Roy Hibbert and Lance Stephenson) are long gone from the roster. It's the beginning of a new age in Indiana, one that will hopefully see a return to glory for the franchise.

Obviously, all of this starts with their best player, Paul George. George actually managed to make it back for the final six games of the season last year; but, he started in none of them, played less than a hundred total minutes, and averaged just under 9/1/4 points/assists/rebounds in that stretch. In reality, we haven't actually seen what George is capable of since the Eastern Conference Finals in 2014, so it's pretty difficult to determine how he's going to look when he debuts for what will hopefully be a full season for him. Further complicating things is that Frank Vogel will be moving Paul George to power forward this season, and George has already indicated some inital discomfort and concern with respect to his lack of experience at the position. Though he is extremely optimistic about his health, the fact that he will need to focus on adapting his game to his new role rather than working on returning to the level of play he once was at can't be a positive thing. Then again, Bulls fans LOVE to use the reasoning that Derrick Rose is too damn talented to not be able to return to his former glory, and Paul George is a pretty talented guy himself. I have complete faith that George can be at least an all-star level player immediately, but only time will tell whether or not he can excel at his small-ball four role.

However, you can't necessarily blame Frank Vogel for wanting to install George in the four spot. The Pacers lost an obscene amount of front-court strength this offseason with Roy Hibbert fleeing to the Lakers, David West seeking greener pastures with the Spurs, and Luis Scola going to Canada. Furthermore, the roster as currently constructed favors an offensive system that revolves around small ball anyway. Vogel has indicated he is leaning towards starting George Hill at point guard with Monta Ellis and C.J. Miles occupying the wing spots. Given the extreme lack of experience at both forward spots on the Pacers' roster--the second best after Paul George is probably Chase Budinger--this definitely looks like the right decision. The rest of the roster leaves something to be desired, however, with their best bench backcourt players likely being Rodney Stuckey (ok) and Toney Douglas (yuck). Incoming Jordan Hill will figure to provide solid down-low scoring and rebounding coming off of a year in which he set career-best marks in both areas (12.0 and 7.9 respectively), however these numbers came thanks mostly in part to Hill starting 57 out of 70 games and playing 26.8 minutes per game. Hill will have to find ways to contribute without a ton of volume coming his way, something he has struggled with at numerous points in his career.

Finally, out of all the bench pieces on the Pacers, the one that I believe will be most critical to the team's success is Myles Turner. Turner went 11th overall in the draft this year after being laughably underutilized at Texas for a guy that was the 2nd overall high school recruit in the class of 2014. While at Texas, head coach Rick Barnes made the pants-on-head stupid decision to start Cameron Ridley (i.e. THIS GUY) over Turner, which restricted Turner to 22 minutes on average and a line of 10.1/6.5/2.6 points/rebounds/blocks per game. Barnes predictably got fired at the end of the year, which he should have seen coming when he started a St. Puff's Marshmallow Man in Ridley over a guaranteed one-and-done talent at center. But now that Turner is finally in the NBA, his future looks bright again. Although he only shot just over 45% overall and a putrid 27.4% from 3 last year, Pacers team President Larry Bird has already declared that Turner is the best shooter on the entire team. This optimism combined with where management selected him in the draft would indicate that Turner is instrumental to the team's future plans and long-term success. Given that Vogel has indicated he is going to start Ian Mahinmi at center, whom at this time of writing has twenty-one total NBA career starts over eight years, I would expect Turner to be one of the featured players off the bench along with Rodney Stuckey with the potential to jump into the starting lineup if Mahinmi struggles (almost guaranteed to happen). Though his success may not come this season, Turner is only 19 years old and (with good health) figures to be a positive presence in Indiana for the future.

Out of all the teams in the Central Division, I think that the Pacers are probably the worst, if only because of the sheer amount of important players they lost this offseason coupled with an attempted shift in identity. That being said, they still have the best wing player in the East not named LeBron James, a great head coach, a fantastic front office spearheaded by a basketball god, and some intriguing new pieces in Monta Ellis and Myles Turner. This team will struggle at times this season given how much defensive talent is absent from the roster as opposed to years past; but again, hovering around .500 is good enough to get into the playoffs in the East. If their important players can stay healthy, I see no reason why Indiana can't sneak back into the playoffs this year as a seven or eight seed.

Cleveland Cavaliers:

2014/15 Record: 53-29
Key Departures: Mike Miller, Shawn Marion, Kendrick Perkins, Brendan Haywood, Tristan Thompson?
Key Arrivals: Anderson Vaejao (injury return), Mo Williams, Richard Jefferson, Quinn Cook (draft), Austin Daye
Head Coach: Anyone's guess

Cleveland doesn't deserve a paragraph, though not for the reasons you think! These guys are a lock for the playoffs so trying to convince you that they are actually good would just be preaching to the choir. Instead, I want to use this space to remind people that the Cavs are going to be significantly far away from full strength at the beginning of the year, so take any of their initial performances (including opening night against the Bulls) with a grain of salt. Kyrie Irving is still recovering from the knee injury he suffered at some point during the playoffs last year, and he doesn't even have a timetable for his return yet. Kevin Love is expected to miss the opener against the Bulls as he continues to manage his own injury he suffered during the postseason. Iman Shumpert had surgery on his wrist at the end of September and is projected to miss at least the first two months of the season. Tristan Thompson is still holding out for money he doesn't even come close to deserving, but nobody tell him that! And finally, LeBron had his annual HGH tuneup an anti-inflammatory injection this week (the same he had this past January) to treat his sore back. Though LeBron is expected to be ready to roll on opening night, it's nevertheless an indicator of the wear-and-tear that his unfathomable body of work in basketball has had on his body, and there may be more injury hiccups like this with him going forward. Regardless, it's hard to be upset about these injuries if you are a Cavs fan, given how the team powered through to the Finals last year despite so many health setbacks. I would expect this team to run away with the conference once Kyrie comes back and everybody else has their limbs and torsos in order.

The Big Picture:

So where do the Bulls fall in with all of this? Though I don't believe the Bulls will wind up better than the Cavs unless they can capitalize on the Cavs' numerous early-season absences, I still can't see the Bulls getting anything less than a four seed given their abundance of talent and the lackthereof in much of the rest of the Eastern Conference. That means that if all five Central Division teams are going to make the playoffs, I see the Eastern Conference finishing something like this:

1st) Cleveland Cavaliers
2nd) Miami Heat
3rd) Chicago Bulls
4th) Atlanta Hawks
5th) Milwaukee Bucks
6th) Washington Wizards
7th) Detroit Pistons
8th) Indiana Pacers

Perhaps none of these teams other than Cleveland poise a legitimate threat to the ultimate aspirations of the Bulls, but my main reason for writing this was that I wanted to make people aware that this is going to change very quickly. I believe this will be the final season that the Cavs and Bulls serve as the unchallenged big dogs not only in the East, but also in their own division as there figures to be two looming giants in Milwaukee and Detroit along with a team hungry to return to its former glory in the Pacers. We can only hope as cautiously optimistic fans that the Bulls realize this going forward as well.

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