Among the three divisions in the Eastern Conference, none has improved nearly as much as the Central division.
At the top of the Central lies the nascent Cleveland Cavaliers, who have failed their way into a super team. Enough has been made of the series of events that led LeBron James and Kevin Love to join newly crowned FIBA World Cup MVP Kyrie Irving in Cleveland, but there are still many moving pieces yet to be managed.
Rookie head coach David Blatt, one of the top minds of European basketball, certainly has the tactical chops to get the most out of his new weapons. In particular, Kevin Love fits the perfect mould of a power forward in Blatt’s offense. Blatt has consistently deployed his big men to stretch the floor, making Love a perfect fit.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for Blatt will be forming an elite defense out of some slightly misshapen parts. With LeBron regressing on defense last year, it will be hard to find too many above-average defensive players in the roster. When Anderson Varejao inevitably gets hurt, no rim protectors will be left. If Blatt can turn this roster into even a top ten defense, his first year will be a monumental success.
Fortunately for Chicago, such defensive concerns are far from the picture. Joakim Noah is the reigning defensive player of the year, and anchors the most organized defense in the league. Questions exist around the health of Derrick Rose, along with the possible effectiveness of Chicago’s new signings.
As optimistic as some may be about Rose’s health, it’s hard to imagine he will return to an MVP-caliber level of play. Even if Rose is fully effective, Chicago will have a hard time scoring. Noah and Pau Gasol make up a fantastic interior passing tandem, but there are too few options around them to result in an elite offense. New arrival Nikola Mirotic was one of the best players in Europe, but does not project as much more than a spot up shooter.
While it is conceivable that Tom Thibodeau could coax an effective offense out of this roster, it will be hard for Chicago to overcome Cleveland’s new big 3.
Despite going all the way to game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals, the Indiana Pacers went through a remarkably disappointing offseason that will likely leave them filled with regret.
Unwilling to pay the luxury tax required to keep Lance Stevenson, Indiana elected to allow him to sign in Charlotte. The team then made the regrettable decision to replace him with CJ Miles, which will only worsen Indiana’s scoring troubles.
With so few legitimate offensive weapons available, the loss of Paul George to a devastating leg injury has more or less annihilated Indiana’s season. George was the only one on the roster who could create his own offense, and without him, Indiana will be one of the least watchable teams in the league. A playoff berth will be remains reachable for Indiana, especially if they maintain their defense, but they don’t have enough firepower to go far, even in the East.
The Detroit Pistons are in the middle of what is clearly stated to be a year in flux. New President and Head Coach Stan Van Gundy pushed the tough decisions about Josh Smith and Greg Monroe’s futures off to next season, and Detroit lost its own first round pick. Putting Smith, Monroe and Andre Drummond next to one another will not work, as demonstrated by their performance at both ends of the floor last year. Josh Smith will be very difficult to trade, and Greg Monroe will hit unrestricted free agency next summer after signing the qualifying offer.
Apart from that, Detroit will struggle to improve if it cannot improve its shooting. Jodie Meeks is a good shooter, but Van Gundy overpaid for a guy with only one skill. Brandon Jennings, to whom Detroit has handed the keys to its offense, clearly does not deserve that responsibility, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is an unproven commodity. There is plenty of talent on Detroit, but no clear path forward. Stan Van Gundy has his work cut out for himself.
The Milwaukee Bucks, last year’s worst team, are back with an ever so marginally improved lineup.
Jabari Parker is probably the most polished rookie of the new season, and will be an intriguing pair with the Greek Freak, Giannis Antetokounmpo. Brandon Knight is probably not the answer at point guard, but he’s a competent enough stop gap for the time being. The biggest question on the roster is whether Larry Sanders will go back to being one of the league’s most effective defensive players. He played well enough two years ago to earn a lucrative extension, but has yet to earn it.
New head coach Jason Kidd is going to benefit from the low expectations that surround this club, and he is a surprisingly creative head coach who will find interesting ways to use Jabari Parker, possibly in the same role that Paul Pierce occupied last year. Milwaukee won’t be very good, but they should be entertaining enough to keep their fans happy.