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NBA Preview 2016-2017: Central Division

The Central division features the NBA world champion Cleveland Cavaliers and four other playoff hopeful teams. Here’s how I think they will shake out

Cleveland Cavaliers v Indiana Pacers Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Cleveland Cavaliers:

Lost: Matthew Dellavedova, Mo Williams, Timofey Mozgov

Added: Mike Dunleavy Jr., Chris Anderson, Kay Felder

Summary: LeBron James, the prodigy out of Akron, won a championship for Cleveland, a city that hadn’t seen a professional sports championship in a long, long time. 2016 was a magical year for the Cavaliers, and takes all the pressure off the team for the 2017 season. James is comfortably one of the five best players of all time, and his ability to take his game to new heights in the playoffs is nothing short of remarkable. While his regular season effort can wane at times, he almost always gets his teams to the top seed in the conference, and he rarely gets injured.

The Cavs’ supporting cast got a little bit weaker over the off-season. Dellavedova was crucial for them last season as the backup at both guard positions, and it will be tough to replace his shooting and defense. Making matters worse, third string guard Mo Williams retired, leaving a gaping hole at point guard behind Kyrie Irving. Kay Felder was one of my favorite prospects in the draft this year, but relying on a rookie is tough as a contending team. The Cavs have enough role players to fill the gaps, but are definitely a bit thinner this year. Regardless, they have the best player in the East, a terrific scorer in Irving, and two versatile big men in Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson. No matter how the Cavs look during the regular season, as long as James is healthy entering the playoffs, they are the gatekeeper to the NBA Finals in the Eastern Conference.

Projected Record: 55-27

Detroit Pistons:

Lost: Anthony Tolliver, Steve Blake, Spencer Dinwiddie

Added: Ish Smith, Jon Leuer, Boban Marjonavic, Henry Ellenson

Summary: After missing the playoffs for six years, the Pistons finally made it back last season, squeaking in as the 8th seed. They are a young team, and should show further improvement this year even without a big haul in free agency. Reggie Jackson isn’t a top tier point guard, but he’s a solid starter, and has formed good chemistry on the pick and roll with max-contract center Andre Drummond. Drummond himself is a bit overrated—his defense isn’t nearly as good as his highlight blocks would make it seem—but he gobbles up rebounds at a tremendous rate and is a powerful threat rolling to the rim. If he can up his free throw percentage a bit and improve his defense, he will deserve every bit of the $127 million coming his way. The rest of the starting lineup fits in well, with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Marcus Morris providing defense and shooting, while Tobias Harris offers a versatile scoring option at either forward position.

The Pistons’ true weakness last year was a horrific bench, and they made moves to fix it over the summer. Ish Smith is a huge upgrade over the carcass of Steve Blake, and Leuer should be a good partner for him as a pick and pop option. 2015 lottery pick Stanley Johnson had a strong rookie season, and has the ability to push Pope or Morris for a starting position before the year is out. Pope is still a better defender, but Johnson has the athleticism and strength to be All-NBA on that end. If he becomes even an average three-point shooter, he will be a scary player. The rest of the bench is filled with capable veterans who know their roles— not standouts, certainly, but a solid crew nonetheless. The Pistons were a nice team last year, and should be better this season.

Projected Record: 47-35

Indiana Pacers:

Lost: George Hill, Ian Mahinmi, Jordan Hill, Solomon Hill, Chase Budinger, Coach Frank Vogel

Added: Jeff Teague, Thaddeus Young, Aaron Brooks, Al Jefferson, Kevin Seraphin, Coach Nate McMillan

Summary: Clearly the biggest news of the off-season is that the Pacers went from having three “Hill’s” to having none. In all seriousness, the Pacers underwent a complete roster overhaul this summer, shipping out two starters and a couple key bench players while bringing in some big names. Jeff Teague is more of an offensive threat and a better playmaker than Hill, but a worse shooter and defender. His fit with Monta Ellis and Paul George is the big question mark going into the season, but I think they should be fine on offense. Defensively, George is one of the best perimeter defenders in the league, though he will have to make up for a lot considering that Ellis is a sieve and Young is very undersized at power forward. The departures of Ian Mahinmi and George Hill will hurt on defense, and the offensive upgrades of their successors might not be enough to make a positive net improvement.

The key to the Pacers’ season rests on two things. The first is second year player Myles Turner, who had an incredibly promising rookie season. Turner can shoot from midrange, finish plays in transition, and protect the rim on defense. If he can start hitting three pointers and improve as a defender, the Pacers’ ceiling would increase substantially. The second item is Coach McMillan, who is known as an old-school coach with an emphasis on slow pace. His adaption to the modern NBA and the pace and space era will be crucial to the Pacers’ development this season. Hopefully he is able to get the Pacers to play good defense while also utilizing Teague, George, and Turner’s athleticism in transition. The Pacers should be pretty solid this year, though they could vary widely depending on how well the defense coalesces.

Projected Record: 44-38

Chicago Bulls:

Lost: Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Justin Holliday, E’Twaun Moore, Pau Gasol, Mike Dunleavy Jr., Aaron Brooks

Added: Dwyane Wade, Rajon Rondo, Robin Lopez, Jerian Grant, Spencer Dinwiddie, Denzel Valentine, Isaiah Canaan

Summary: The Derrick Rose era is over in Chicago. While Bulls fans might be wistful about past glories, the franchise needed new blood in the worst way. Their roster was old, injury prone, and had severe chemistry issues, leading to a disaster of a season where they missed the playoffs (just as I predicted last year). Why the pessimism on their offseason? The problem isn’t so much with who is gone from the roster, but with the specific additions brought on this summer. Simply put, signing both Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo makes no sense. And their pairing in the backcourt is even more awkward considering the strengths and weaknesses of the Bull’s best player, Jimmy Butler. None of the three players is a strong or prolific outside shooter, and they all require the ball in their hands to be effective. Spacing on the court is going to be exceedingly cramped, especially because two of the Bulls’ top big men (Taj Gibson and Robin Lopez) don’t stretch the floor either. Paths to the rim won’t be open with defenders hanging around in the lane all day, and bad midrange shots will probably abound.

The defensive end promises to be better, but still not top-tier. Rondo hasn’t been a good defender in half a decade, and Wade can no longer give consistent effort on that end. Even Butler fell off a bit last season as his offensive load increased, and there’s doubt that he can be the first option on offense while also locking opponents down on the other end. If the Bulls play Nikola Mirotic instead of Gibson to help out with spacing the floor, their defense will suffer. Bench reserves like Tony Snell and Doug McDermott can shoot as well, but both of them are trainwrecks on the defensive end, and McDermott in particular lacks tools to ever be effective on that side of the floor. It’s an ill-fitting roster with mismatched parts, and poor coach Fred Hoiberg has few good options. The Bulls will be entertaining to follow and talk about, but their on-court product is going to be poor.

Projected Record: 33-49

Milwaukee Bulls:

Lost: Jerryd Bayless, OJ Mayo, Tyler Ennis, Greivis Vazquez

Added: Matthew Dellavedova, Jason Terry, Malcolm Brogdon, Mirza Teletovic, Thon Maker

Summary: The Bucks were projected by many pundits to be a much improved team this year, and a likely playoff squad. Those dreams were ended, however, with the sad news a few days ago that starting shooting guard Khris Middleton tore his hamstring, an injury that will sideline him for almost the entirety of the 2016-2017 season. Middleton was the Bucks’ best player last season, and likely would have been their best or second best this year as well. More importantly, he was their only significant three-point threat, and their spacing will suffer accordingly.

Not all is doom and gloom. Giannis Antetokounmpo continued his ascension to NBA stardom last year, and will seize full reign of the offense this season. To fully unlock his potential he must become a threat from outside, as his 28 made threes last year just won’t cut it for a lead perimeter option in today’s NBA. The same holds true for frontcourt mate Jabari Parker, who came on strong at the end of last season but still needs to develop his three-point shot and playmaking abilities. Matthew Dellavedova is a good fit alongside them because of his own strength as a spot up shooter, but he’s not a player who can take over the game at will. There is also the issue of Greg Monroe, who is a very good offensive center but doesn’t fit at all with the Bucks core. If he is traded for better fitting parts, the Bucks might be able to make something happen down the stretch. But I doubt it.

Projected Record: 30-52