2017-18 Season Preview: Central Division


The Central Division still runs through Cleveland, and that isn’t changing while LeBron is in town. The Bucks are nipping at their heels, metaphorically, much as Giannis is closing in on LeBron’s territory as an individual player. Cleveland and Milwaukee will be top two in the Central, but the gap won’t be realistically close. After Milwaukee, expect a steep dropoff between the top two and the rest. Detroit should legitimately compete for the playoffs, while Indiana expects to but likely won’t. Chicago is in full on tank mode.

Let’s take a look at each team individually, starting with the reigning Eastern Conference Champs …

       Cleveland Cavaliers  Projected: 58-24

Key Losses: Kyrie Irving

Key Additions: Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Derrick Rose, Jeff Green, Cedi Osman, 2018 1st round draft pick (Brooklyn)

Projected Starters:
G – Derrick Rose
G – Dwyane Wade
F – LeBron James
F – Jae Crowder
C – Kevin Love

The Cavs finally made an offseason splash, after front office controversy and a string of unimpressive veteran signings had many questioning whether this team was willing to make the necessary adjustments to legitimately contend with the Warriors in a potential fourth straight meeting in the Finals. The free agency acquisitions of Derrick Rose, Jeff Green, and Jose Calderon helped to improve a bench that was historically bad without LeBron on the court during last season’s playoffs. But many knowledgeable fans look at these guys as being past their primes and unable to affect meaningful impacts for a championship contender.

Then Kyrie Irving shocked the world by requesting a trade. The former Finals hero and LeBron’s premier partner in crime reportedly wanted the notoriety of being the primary option; which is tough to get playing alongside the Greatest of All Time, even with a usage rate as high as Kyrie’s in Cleveland. Ultimately, his wish was granted. And the Cavs got back more than fair value from Boston. IT fills Kyrie’s scoring void, and Jae Crowder will add a ton of defensive value.  So much so, that Ty Lue announced he will start in place of Tristan Thompson; sliding K.Love to center.

Cleveland will also reunite LeBron with former teammate Dwyane Wade, who was recently bought-out by Chicago. If I were coach, I’d still start JR Smith. I’m not the coach, however, and the Cavs have announced that Wade will start. There are some fans clamoring for Derrick Rose to be the preferred starter over Isaiah Thomas, for reasons that I do not understand. D.Rose is expected to start until IT returns from injury, but I believe Rose holds more value off the bench than he does in the starting lineup.

Best Case: LeBron once again demonstrates that his prime is not over yet, dominating the regular season. The reloaded Cavs ride on the back of LBJ’s 5th MVP campaign to a 60+ win season and the East’s 1 seed. The inevitable Finals rematch ends up resembling 2016, in that the Cavs grind out a 7 game series win. LeBron’s 4th ring and 4th Finals MVP convince him to remain in Cleveland next offseason.

Worst Case: Similar defensive woes plague the Cavs again this season. Boston once again outpaces them for homecourt in the East. Kyrie gets his revenge, making his fourth straight trip to the Finals, dethroning the King.

Alternately, Cleveland still makes it to the Finals but gets swept by Golden State. LeBron, and now Wade, both leave the Land to unite the Banana Boat gang out West.

       Milwaukee Bucks – Projected: 50-32

Key Losses: Michael Beasley

Key Additions: DJ Wilson, Sterling Brown

Projected Starters:
G – Malcolm Brogdon
G – Khris Middleton
F – Tony Snell
F – Giannis Antetokounmpo
C – Thon Maker

Milwaukee enters the 2017-18 season with more hype than any year in recent memory. This can be entirely, and fairly, credited to the emergence of Giannis Antetokounmpo as a legitimate NBA superstar. The “Greek Freak” was named the Most Improved Player in the league last season, and figures to be in contention for MVP this year. Jabari Parker’s second serious knee injury puts a slight damper on expectations, and complicates his pending contract negotiations. But Jabari should be able to return around mid-year, and will finally, hopefully, make his playoff debut.

The Bucks kept the vast majority of their core intact from a year ago, and their opening day starters should look the same as the lineup that started all six playoff games against Toronto. This group played a ton of minutes together post-All Star Break last season, and performed well in the playoffs. Thon Maker will look to take a sizable step forward in his sophomore season, as will reigning Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon. Having a healthy Khris Middleton for an entire season ought to be more impactful than the loss of Jabari for half the year.

I predict the Bucks to hit 50 wins in their 50th season. And my colleague wrote more in depth about exactly that here: https://theleadsm.com/50-for-50/ Check it out!

Best Case: Giannis continues his ascension and validates himself as one of the best players in the world, winning MVP on a 55 win Bucks team. Milwaukee soars to a 2 or 3 seed, blowing through the first round and grinding through the second round, before ultimately falling to Cleveland in a hard-fought Eastern Conference Finals.

Worst Case: The Bucks start slow and fail to improve on their win total from a season ago, ending up as a 5 or 6 seed again. Back to back first round exits to the Toronto Raptors remind Milwaukee fans of this franchise’s all too familiar place in the league, on the cusp but never quite able to make it over the hump.

       Detroit Pistons – Projected: 37-45

Key Losses: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Marcus Morris, Aron Baynes

Key Additions: Avery Bradley, Luke Kennard, Langston Galloway, Anthony Tolliver

Projected Starters:
G – Reggie Jackson
G – Avery Bradley
F – Stanley Johnson
F – Tobias Harris
C – Andre Drummond

Two seasons ago, Detroit was seen as a team on the rise. With a young, talented core, the Pistons played the Cavs tough as an overmatched 8 seed. They were expected to take a leap forward last season, but ended up backsliding. Reggie Jackson battled injuries and inefficiency, and Andre Drummond regressed both offensively and defensively. Drummond’s free throw struggles garner more publicity, but Reggie Jackson’s inefficiency, as a scorer and a distributor, was what hurt the Pistons more last season.

Jackson’s poor play after returning from injury had Pistons fans pleading for Stan Van Gundy to promote Ish Smith. It’s no coincidence that seven of Detroit’s ten best lineups, statistically, last year included Ish instead of Reggie. But the Pistons have a ton of money invested in Jackson, and have no real choice other than to hope he improves this season while fully healthy. The addition of Avery Bradley should help a lot. KCP is a good defender, but Bradley is better. Avery is also able to help facilitate the offense and take some of the load off of Jackson.

I think this team’s success, however, ultimately rests on the massive shoulders of Andre Drummond.

My main rationale in questioning whether this team can return to the playoffs, despite solid depth and coaching, is the lack of skill development shown by Drummond. At some point, he must prove he can do more in this league than just be an athletic big. He grabs a ton of rebounds, but doesn’t have the defensive impact he did a few years ago. He also shot just 53% from the field, even though damn near all of his field goal attempts come from within 5 or 6 feet of the rim. Compared to elite centers DeAndre Jordan and Rudy Gobert, who also shoot almost exclusively inside the paint, Drummond’s offensive efficiency lags far behind.

Best Case: The Pistons’ defensive identity from two seasons ago returns. Drummond dominates the paint like many believe he can, and Jackson proves he’s more consistent than critics claim. The impact of Avery Bradley is larger than anticipated. Detroit wins 44 games, solidly securing the 7 seed. Detroit once again enters the offseason with renewed hope, and a young core ready to take a meaningful leap.

Worst Case: The same issues that plagued the Pistons last year remain. Drummond and Jackson continue their inefficient ways, and the max money committed to each looks more and more like a mistake. Also worst case for Detroit would include Stanley Johnson failing to live up to expectations, getting benched for Kennard or Bullock.

       Indiana Pacers – Projected: 33-49

Key Losses: Paul George, Jeff Teague, CJ Miles, Monta Ellis

Key Additions: Victor Oladipo, Domantas Sabonis, Bojan Bogdanovic, Darren Collison, Cory Joseph, TJ Leaf

Projected Starters:
G – Darren Collison
G – Victor Oladipo
F – Bojan Bogdanovic
F – Thaddeus Young
C – Myles Turner

Everyone and their mother knew Paul George was on his way out of Indiana. Rather than let him walk in a year, Indiana chose to control their own fate and get something back for him via trade. Many thought OKC’s trade offer was significantly worse than what Indiana may have been able to get elsewhere, but time will tell.

The Pacers got back a proven starter in Oladipo, and a promising young talent in Sabonis. I’ve always thought Vic has more potential in this league than he’s shown thus far. Maybe a fresh start in Indy can finally bring that out of him. Domantas started 66 games last year for the Thunder, and developed as a stretch 4 after being primarily a post player in college.

Expectations are very low for the Pacers this season. After George carried a lackluster roster to a 7 seed last year, no one realistically predicts them to be close to the playoffs. Myles Turner is a budding star in this league, though. He possess a similar skill set to Karl-Anthony Towns, and should see his usage go up with George gone.

Best Case: Oladipo shines as the lead scoring guard on a rebuilding roster. Myles Turner makes measurable improvements across the board and receives All Star consideration in a talent depleted Eastern Conference. The 8 seed in the East will likely be .500 or below, and Indiana very well might be able to make a run at that if everything goes right for them.

Worst Case: Aside from injuries, very few worst case scenarios exist. Losing gets them a better draft pick in a class expected to be loaded with talent. The true worst case for Indiana would be narrowly missing the playoffs and winding up at the back end of the lottery.

       Chicago Bulls – Projected: 22-60

Key Losses: Jimmy Butler, Dwyane Wade, Rajon Rondo

Key Additions: Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn, Lauri Markkanen, Justin Holiday

Projected Starters:
G – Kris Dunn
G – David Nwaba
F – Paul Zipser
F – Nikola Mirotic
C – Robin Lopez

Chicago has finally fully committed to a rebuild. They are tanking, and making no secret about it. Neither of their most promising young players are projected to be starters on opening day. Zach Lavine will be brought back incredibly slowly from his ACL injury. The Bulls have said he won’t participate in any contact drills until Mid-November at the earliest. Lauri Markkanen should be given a large role, but the retention of Nikola Mirotic unnecessarily clogs up the PF position. Cristiano Felicio has shown potential in limited minutes, and will continue to be the primary backup for Robin Lopez – who is now Chicago’s best player.

This season will be bleak for Bulls fans. But the future should be brighter, right? Poor management has been frustrating recently. Hopefully the front office addition of Doug Collins signals a changing approach for the future.

Best Case: Lavine returns to a familiar level of athleticism. Kris Dunn overcomes his rookie season struggles and looks like a serviceable point guard. Markkanen overtakes Mirotic and injects himself into the Rookie of the Year discussion. There is no best case scenario where this team sniffs the playoffs this season.

Worst Case: Lavine re-injures his knee, Bulls fans are forced to relive the pains that plagued their past. Aside from that, the only real worst case for Chicago would be winning too many games and falling to the back end of the lottery.

About Preston Dubey

Lifelong basketball fanatic and Bucks' supporter I coach basketball; but I eat, sleep, and breathe the game.

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