The Chicago Bulls have absolutely dominated the Central Division since Tom Thibodeau took over the team 3 seasons ago. Since Thibs took the lead job, the Bulls are 37-9 in Central Division games. 37-9! Even more remarkable is that in Thibs’ first two seasons, when the Bulls finished with the best record in the NBA each year, the Bulls went 28-2 in the division. Only last year, without Derrick Rose, did the Bulls fall back down to Earth in the division, going 9-7, although they were 8-4 against everyone other than the Pacers.
Chicago has feasted against Milwaukee, Cleveland, and especially Detroit. Detroit’s 99-85 win over Chicago on April 7 snapped an 18-game losing streak to the Bulls. Now, however, there has been an influx of talent into the division, mainly Cleveland and Detroit. (Milwaukee didn’t exactly add talent, unless you count losing Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings as addition-by-subtraction). The Pacers are the defending division champions and added tremendous talent to their bench. The Bulls won’t have such an easy time in the Central this upcoming season.
Well, except maybe when they play Milwaukee.
Projected starters: Brandon Knight, O.J. Mayo, Ersan Ilyasova, John Henson, Larry Sanders
Head Coach: Larry Drew
I’ll give the Bucks this, they have a team with tons of size and length. Ilyasova, Henson, and Sanders measure 6’10, 6’11, 6’11 respectively. Then, they have another 15 centers on the roster. The starting lineup is just my best guess; they have a number of interchangeable players of similar talent levels. Luke Ridnour could come in for Knight, Carlos Delfino can man the wing, Ekpe Udoh can replace John Henson.
Milwaukee’s problem will be finding people to create shots. This wasn’t a problem last year with shot-chucking masters Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis, although neither of them really created very good ones. Now, O.J. Mayo will be their main offensive option on the wings, which isn’t terribly promising. Larry Drew will have good outside shooters at his disposal, with Knight, Mayo, Luke Ridnour, Delfino and Ilyasova all capable from 3-point range. The problem will be creating space for those shooters, as none of these guys for Milwaukee are elite ball-handlers, passers or shot creators. None of the wing players or big men will demand double teams, on the perimeter or in the post. Larry Drew might have to implement an offense like the one former Bucks coach Scott Skiles installed, with lots of side-to-side ball and player movement trying very hard to create driving lanes or shooting space.
Defensively, Milwaukee should be good, and better than last year. It starts with center Larry Sanders, who is on par with Roy Hibbert as a force defending the rim and blocking shots. The Bucks were 12th in the NBA in defensive rating last year, allowing 102.3 points per 100 possessions. That number should improve through more maturation and less fouling by Sanders, and by having bigger backcourt players. Jennings and Ellis were at a size disadvantage basically every night last season, and it was actually impressive that the Bucks were still relatively stingy on defense.
But this team still does not have the talent level to compete with Chicago. Derrick Rose should have his way with any of the Bucks’ point guards, and he and Jimmy Butler will be much too big, strong and athletic for Knight and Mayo to handle. The Bucks’ frontcourt could pester Carlos Boozer with their length, but Joakim Noah and Luol Deng are still better players than Sanders and Ilyasova. Add in the fact that the Bulls’ defense will suffocate the Bucks’ offense, with their lack of shot-creators, and the Bulls should have their way with Milwaukee.
Projected Starters: Kyrie Irving, C.J. Miles, Anthony Bennett, Tristan Thompson, Andrew Bynum
Head Coach: Mike Brown (again!)
First of all, I forgot that Mike Brown is their coach again, and it’s hilarious! Anyways, if the Cavaliers can stay healthy, which is a big if with Kyrie Irving and Andrew Bynum, than this team can take a big step forward from last year. They’ve done a little bit of the Oklahoma City Thunder model, by landing a superstar in the draft (Irving), then still stinking again really bad the next few years to land another few high lottery picks, in Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson, and Anthony Bennett (although they probably could have done better than that trio). Now, they are hoping that all the talent comes together and grows, like it did for the Thunder. If it does, look out. Irving is a superstar. Bynum, if he still has knees, is probably still a fringe All-Star player. Anthony Bennett can be a scoring machine. Dion Waiters can be a dynamic, explosive 6th man. Tristan Thompson can be the uber-athletic, active big man that every team needs. Then, you look at the bench and see Jarrett Jack, Anderson Varejao, Earl Clark, and Tyler Zeller. That’s two solid veterans, and another two talented young role players.
Again, my starting lineup prediction is just a guess, as Mike Brown will have to make major decisions on how to play the forward spot. Neither Bennett or Thompson are really small-forwards, but do you really want your number-1 overall pick coming off the bench, especially when you just went 24-58? Also, will Dion Waiters continue to be the 6th man, or will Mike Brown put him in the lineup for C.J. Miles? Either way, there is a lot of talent on this team.
Offensively, they could be explosive, led by Irving and his killer scoring ability. Defensively, they would still have lots of work to do. They were the 5th-worst defensive team in the NBA. Tristan Thompson and Varejao are really the only guys in the rotation who are solid defenders. They had the worst field-goal percentage defense in the NBA last year.
But, if all these variables go the other way, it could be a disaster. Irving could miss another large chunk of the season with yet another injury. Bynum could officially be done. Waiters and Thompson could continue to underwhelm as top-5 lottery picks, and Varejao could be a shell of his younger, healthier self.
I think the Cavs could have done better with all of their cap-room and the first overall pick in the draft. Bennett, Bynum, Jarrett Jack and Earl Clark is not a useless haul, but it could have been better. Nevertheless, the Cavs will improve, especially with more growth from Kyrie Irving. I think this team could challenge the Bulls’ defense, with all of their scoring options and athleticism. The Bulls are still a smarter, better coached, more complete team, though. Cleveland will be pesky, but Chicago is still better.
Projected starters: Brandon Jennings, Rodney Stuckey, Josh Smith, Greg Monroe, Andre Drummond
Head Coach: Maurice Cheeks
As mentioned earlier, the Pistons have recently been roadkill for Chicago. That could change, as they now boast a frontcourt that, on talent, is as good or maybe even better than what Chicago has. Smith, Monroe, and Drummond should be one of the most explosive and exciting trios in the NBA. The rims at the Palace of Auburn Hills will be getting season-long workouts, if all goes as planned. Maurice Cheeks will have to make a decision at the shooting guard position. He has three candidates: Stuckey, Chauncey Billups, and rookie Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and each brings a different game to the spot. Stuckey brings size, athleticism, and an ability to score at the rim. Billups brings smarts, shooting, and will obviously be a fan-favorite, back in Detroit. Caldwell-Pope will probably be the odd man out right now, but soon enough could be the starting shooting guard of the future, with his 6’5 size and shooting ability.
Back to that front-court. It could turn out to be a dominant trio, with their collective size, speed and athleticism dominating opponents on the boards, finishing at the rim, and running in transition. Or, it could be an offensive spacing disaster, as none of the 3 can really shoot a lick from the outside. It could end up clogging the lane and not allowing space for any perimeter player on the Pistons to get open. Fans and analysts have always chided Josh Smith for his tendency to float on the outside and take perimeter shots, when he basically always shoots a horrid percentage. Ironically, if he was to become a more consistent outside shooter, it would make playing this trio of big men together much more favorable. Drummond can’t shoot a free-throw, (37%!) let alone a mid-range jumper. Monroe can hit a mid-range shot, but you will gladly let him take that instead of working his good post game.
And now Brandon Jennings. I’ve never been a fan of his, mainly because he has an extremely over-inflated sense of how good he is. Now, I am not a Bucks fan, I don’t live in Milwaukee, nor do I follow the Bucks particularly closely. But never once did I ever get the feeling, from his first day in Milwaukee, that he was committed to being there or committed to helping build a winning team. He would constantly talk openly about his desire for a big market or for a max-salary contract, just a year or so after his career began. I can only imagine it was kind of annoying to be his teammate when he was basically out there for himself.
Now, how does that affect the Pistons on the court? Because if Jennings continues to do Jennings, then this Pistons offense will be a disaster. If he can use his quickness to penetrate, dish, and swing the ball around and run the offense they could be a fantastic offensive team with all of their athleticism. If he can get everyone involved, it could work, because he is really the only creator on the team. But if he continues to jack up long jump shots and 3s on a whim, then they will end up with an inefficient, shoot-first point guards and a trio of talented big men wasting away their potential on the court.
The Pistons will certainly present a much better challenge to the Bulls than recent years. I think Jennings will realize the talent he has around him, and do a good job of involving the other guys. I’m not sure how well Smith, Monroe, and Drummond will be able to score while on the court together, but they could grab dang near every offensive rebound and will be very tough to score on in the paint. They are a more athletic team, collectively, than Chicago. But the Bulls players fit together very well, and they know how to play together. Rose should dominate Jennings as always, and Butler will have an advantage at the 2, and the frontcourt matchups should be fun to watch. Until I see the Pistons fit all these talented players together, I will still say a solid advantage for Chicago.
Projected Starters: George Hill, Paul George, Danny Granger, David West, Roy Hibbert
Head Coach: Frank Vogel
I already typed over 3000 words on the battle these two teams will do this year, so I won’t rehash it all here. The Pacers, obviously, present the greatest challenge to the Bulls, and in fact its the Bulls who will probably be challenging the Pacers, as Indy is the defending division champ and I think, the slightly better team right now. The Pacers were the annoying little brother of the Bulls the previous years, but last year the Pacers stepped up and, aided by Chicago’s injury issues, took the division. Now the Bulls, healthy again, hope to take it back. There are two titans in the Central now, and it should make for some great drama, as the division hasn’t really had a battle at the top in some time. Chicago dominated it the last few years, and before that, the LeBron Cavaliers dominated it year after year. Before that, it was the mid-2000s Pistons who were clearly the best team for a number of years. Now, it will be a fun story to follow, and most importantly, the games themselves should be some of the best games on the NBA schedule.
The entire NBA will be filled with fantastic stories and subplots next year. It feels like someone will be ready to take down Miami. Durant and Westbrook will be back together. Rose is back. Howard in Houston. Brooklyn is loaded. San Antonio will continue to fight off decline. Doc Rivers and Chris Paul. And the battle for the Central Division should be included in that list, adding to the intrigue in what will hopefully be a tremendous NBA season.