NBA Preview: Central Division

Fri, 10/24/2008 - 1:06pm

By Jon Pastuszek

(Teams listed in projected order of finish)

1. Detroit Pistons
Head Coach: Michael Curry
2007-2008 Record: 59-23 (Lost in Eastern Conference Finals to Boston)
Key Additions: Kwame Brown (FA from Memphis)
Key Losses: Jarvis Hayes (FA to New Jersey)

Another 53+ win season for the Detroit Pistons, another Eastern Conference Finals loss. For the third consecutive year under head coach Flip Saunders, the Pistons compiled an excellent record during the regular season, only to see themselves watching the NBA Finals from their couches.

After three Eastern Conference Finals losses to three different teams, Saunders took the fall. In his three years he averaged a little over 58 wins a season. He’ll be replaced by first year head coach, Michael Curry, who has already built up a rapport as a players coach.

Curry is going to have the same regular season success as Saunders in his first year.

He inherits one of the deepest teams in the league, as well as one of the most talented. The main core of Rasheed Wallace, Tayshaun Prince, Chauncey Billups and Rip Hamilton has been playing together since 03-04. The four of them are extremely comfortable playing together.

Detroit’s bench is also very good. Last year, rookie Rodney Stuckey impressed everybody with his poised and confident play in the Playoffs. The emergence of Stuckey adds to an already fantastic trio of youngsters, Jason Maxiell, Amir Johnson and Aaron Aflalo. Walter Hermann makes the team 10 deep, and if you think Kwame Brown is an adequate backup, the Pistons go 12.

The problem for me, however, is that this is the same Pistons team that has lost in the Eastern Finals for the last three years. You can blame the coach all you want, but at some point it has to fall on the players. Rasheed Wallace, who completely disappeared last year when it mattered most, is the biggest culprit. Every year, he steps out to the perimeter more and more, neglecting the post game that makes him absolutely unstoppable at times.

Dumars tried – with no success – to make a roster shake-up during the offseason. He saw nothing that appealed him, and will the start the year with the same team. The Pistons are a team who lack a go-to crunch time player. It’s both their gift and their curse. Their ability to spread the ball around makes opposing defenses constantly scrambling to defend everybody on the floor. But, when it’s a close game in the last five minutes, who are the Pistons supposed to turn to? It’s a major problem that has cost them in years past, and now may be the time to grab an individually gifted offensive player.
The Pistons are like a turkey sandwich on wheat. It’s never going to bowl you over, but it will always leave you satisfied (at least in the regular season). The Pistons are a lock for 50+ wins and like always, will always be in the mix for the NBA crown.

Top Rookie: Walter Sharpe (UAB)

Sharpe was a second round pick by Seattle who was traded to Detroit. He’s going to be in the D-League for most of this year due to the depth that Detroit already possesses, but Dumars likes his athleticism and length. Dumars has a good record in talent evaluation, so keep an eye on Sharpe, because its very possible he will be a good player.

Bold Prediction: Jason Maxiell starts the year on the bench, ends the year as the starter.

If the Pistons opt not to make any major trades, they will still make a major change. That change will come in the form of Maxiell, an athletic freak who’s not afraid to mix it up in the paint. Maxiell has one of the best block per minutes played in the league, and his intensity and brute strength would be a change from the increasingly finesse-styled McDyess. He’s too good to be kept on the bench, and the Pistons need to move on to the next level in their youth movement. Putting Maxiell in the starting lineup would make the team better and younger, which may be enough to put Detroit in the Finals for the first time since 2005.

Projected Record: 54-28 (2nd in Eastern Conference)

LeBron James

2. Cleveland Cavaliers
Head Coach: Mike Brown
2007-2008 Record: 45-37 (Lost in Eastern Conference Semis to Boston)
Key Additions: J.J. Hickson and Darnell Jackson (both drafted), Mo Williams (traded from Milwaukee)
Key Losses: Devin Brown (FA to New Orleans), Joe Smith (traded to Oklahoma City)

GM Danny Ferry is not afraid to try new things. Every year, the trigger-happy exec makes big signings or big trades to help his Ohio-native megastar, LeBron James.

Last year, the Cavs swung a huge deal to acquire Delonte West, Wally Sczerbiak, Ben Wallace and Joe Smith. The trade was an attempt to give the Cavs more depth and more offensive options.

The trade had mixed results. Smith and West were both effective playing alongside James, and had some key contributions in the Playoffs. Wallace looked like the same aging, declining power-forward who was in Chicago previously and Sczerbiak labored in finding the three point stroke that has eluded him for the past four years.

Despite all of the new faces, the Cavs wrapped up the four seed in the East and beat the Wizards in the first round. Next, they played the Boston Celtics, taking them seven games before losing in an epic James-Paul Pierce shootout in Boston.

We can talk about how the supporting cast is awful, but it doesn’t take away the one universal fact: The power of LeBron is undeniable. The Celtics continually stated that LBJ and the Cavs provided their stiffest challenge during the playoffs. In a single NBA playoff series, LeBron is the most dangerous player on the face of the planet. When he’s dominant over a stretch, the rest of the Cavs can concentrate on playing great team defense and ride on his offense to victory.

Ferry made more big moves this offseason, acquiring scoring point-guard Mo Williams in a trade from Milwaukee. I like the deal. For one, it gives LBJ a point-guard who can score. In the past, LeBron has had to play with offensively inept guards like Eric Snow, Damon Jones and Larry Hughes. Now, he has a running mate in Williams who likes to push the ball, and call his own number on offense. When has LeBron ever had a guy who can create and finish his own scoring opportunities? Ferry has made a lot of questionable decisions in the past, but I think he hit a home-run with this one.

The Cavs now have a pretty good team around LeBron. Williams, West, Sczerbiak, Daniel Gibson is a solid rotation of guards, and Zyrdunas Illgauskas, Anderson Varejao, Ben Wallace up front provide great rebounding and defense.

This team centers around LeBron. He’s the unquestioned leader of this team, and the best player in the NBA in my opinion. His presence alone makes this a team to fear in the Playoffs. Considering that the core of this team was together for just half of a season, the Cavs did well last year. With another true scorer added to the mix, the Cavs should add some wins to their total, while making themselves even more dangerous in the Playoffs this season.

Top Rookie: J.J. Hickson (North Carolina State)

Ever since Carlos Boozer dishonestly bolted for Utah in the summer 2004, the Cavs have been looking high and low for a replacement to play alongside James. This year, they rolled the dice on Hickson, a raw 19 year old that has the physical package to become a solid power forward in a couple of years. There is one problem, though. By the time Hickson develops, LeBron may already be on the East Coast suiting up for a New York City team.

Bold Prediction: LBJ gets his first MVP.

Now that Kobe has his MVP, LeBron now takes over as the best player never to win an MVP award. For his entire career, LBJ has had to carry the offense singlehandedly, navigating himself through five-man defenses that dare him to pass to teammates. With Mo Williams in the picture, ‘Bron finally has another player who can create his own shot and score. Now, he can play off the ball more and/or work screen an rolls with Williams, who is also an effective passer. We’re all witnesses, and we’ve already seen LeBron take his team to the Fnials and put United States hoops back on top. This year, we witness an MVP.

Projected Record: 49-33 (5th in Eastern Conference)

3. Chicago Bulls
Head Coach: Vinny Del Negro
2007-2008 Record: 40-42 (7th in Eastern Conference)
Key Additions: Derrick Rose (Draft)
Key Losses: Chris Duhon (FA to New York)

No team failed to live up to their expectations than the Bulls. This was a squad seen as a legitimate Eastern Conference contender. Kobe Bryant to the Bulls trade rumors were abound, and the anticipation of seeing Kobe in Chicago was high. Scott Skiles was among pre-season favorites for Coach of the Year, Luol Deng was projected to be an All-Star and Tyrus Thomas was expected to make the Sophomore Leap.

None of that happened. Kobe stayed in LA. Skiles was fired mid-season, Deng struggled to regain his 06-07 form, and Thomas clashed with players and coaches. Chicago limped to a very disappointing 33 wins.

No doubt, Chicago was a major bust and took a step backward. But, the news wasn’t all bad. Chicago lucked out and got the number one pick, which turned into Derrick Rose. He doesn’t fill a glaring need, but Rose is a stud and will unquestionably develop into a future All-Star. The drafting of Rose is a changing of the guards (literally) in the backcourt, which means Kirk Hinrich may be on the way out soon.

The Bulls made a change on the sidelines as well. Vinny Del Negro, another Central Division coach in his first year, now takes the reigns for Chicago. Del Negro’s success in his rookie year will coincidently depend on the success of another rookie, Rose.

Don’t let conservative NBA writers fool you. Despite his age, Rose is a better point guard than Hinrich, Ben Gordon or Larry Hughes. He needs to play, and he needs to play more than 30 minutes a game.

Derrick’s blinding quickness is going to make him the perfect guard to run with Chicago’s athletic team. And if the Bulls are going to win games this year, they’re going to need to run, not walk. The Bulls starting bigs, Joakim Noah and Thomas, are ineffective in the half-court and they’re going to be at their best when their beating their men down the floor. Rose showed in Memphis he excels in a wide open game, and Del Negro needs to realize that he fits in with the rest of the Bulls personel.

The new dynamic of the team seems encouraging, but this is still a flawed team. As I just alluded to, Chicago has no front scoring scoring options. Noah and Thomas should both improve, but they still have a long while to go before becoming dependable offensive weapons.

Chicago’s young talent makes them a potential team to be reckoned with in the years to come. This season though, the Bulls lack of inside scoring, as well as inexperience in key positions, will be enough to keep them out of the playoffs.

Top Rookie: Derrick Rose (Memphis)
The NBA is now a small man’s game. NBA rules have eliminated any kind of contact on the perimeter, which makes staying in front of uber-quick guards an impossible task. Rose torched every NBA prospect he faced last year. He’ll probably go through some rough spots in his rookie year, but he’s going to be a stud in this league.

Bold Prediction: Derrick Rose will instantly be a top 10 point guard in the league.

I’ll state this bluntly: The Bulls would be stupid to let Rose sit on the bench. You want your best rookies on the floor gaining experience. This isn’t the NFL and Rose is not a quarterback. He shouldn’t be sitting on the sidelines reading playbooks and taking notes. He should be out there learning from his mistakes and getting better. This is a team that didn’t play well with Hinrich/Hughes/Chris Duhon at the point last year. With Hughes out for the first 6-8 weeks with a dislocated shoulders, the door is open for Rose to start right away. Del Negro shouldn’t miss this opportunity. He needs to let him play. He may struggle learning the ropes, but by March, he will be one of the best point guards in the league. He could even lead this club into the playoffs in his rookie year, he's that good.

Projected Record: 37-45 (9th in Eastern Conference)

4. Indiana Pacers
Head Coach: Jim O’Brien
2007-2008 Record: 36-46 (9th in Eastern Conference)
Key Additions: Brandon Rush and Roy Hibbert (both drafted),T.J. Ford and Rasho Nesterovic (both traded from Toronto), Jarrett Jack (traded from Portland)
Key Losses: Jermaine O’Neal (traded to Toronto), Ike Diogu (traded to Portland), Flip Murray (FA to Atlanta), Kareem Rush (FA to Philadelphia), Shawne Williams (traded to Dallas)

Stuck with a team that was making more headlines off the court than on it, Bird decided to clean house and reassemble a team full of law-abiding, low-key, hard-working individuals. Previous mainstays such as Ron Artest and Stephen Jackson were traded away.

Last year, he signed Jim O’Brien, a coach who’s known for his work ethic and determination. The switch in head coaches also brought a switch in philosophy. True to any O’Brien team, Indiana focused on shutting down the paint on defense and bombing threes on offense.

Now, Bird is in year three of his team’s facelift. He’s publicly shopping troubled point-guard, Jamaal Tinsley. He’s jettisoned the out of favor Shawne Williams to Dallas. He also traded Jermaine O’Neal, the team’s starting center. The athletic, oft-injured center was traded for the fast, oft-injured T.J. Ford.

The Pacers-Raptors swap of O’Neal for Ford was one of those rare trades that helps both teams. Indiana had a major need at point guard, and they were able to offload the slower, half-court oriented O’Neal for the lightning quick Ford. O’Brien is a coach that loves to push tempo and Ford is one of the fastest players in the league. The challenge for him will be to become a leader and stay healthy, two things that have proven difficult for him in the past.

Ford will be flanked by Danny Granger and Mike Dunleavy, two guys who had incredible years. Dunleavy resurrected his career and flourished playing shooting-guard under O’Brien. He became the multi-tooled offense weapon that Golden State hoped he would become, and he looks like he has a bright future with his new club. Granger improved dramatically for the third straight year, putting up a career year. Those two should enjoy another solid year with Ford running the show.

The Pacers also improved their depth with a couple of deals. The team decided Jerryd Bayless wasn’t needed once they knew Ford was coming to Indiana, so they selected the Arizona product and traded him to Portland, where they received Brandon Rush and Jarrett Jack. Jack is a dependable point-guard who will backup Ford, and Rush is a very polished rookie who can step in and play right away.

Up front, the loss of O’Neal doesn’t hurt too much. When he wasn’t injured, he was uninspired on the court and slowing them down. Troy Murphy isn’t a traditional big man, but he fits in with the outside focused Pacers. Jeff Foster is one of the best rebounders in the league, and Rasho Nesterovic is a decent backup center. They don’t have any viable low-post scoring options, but Jim O’Brien teams don’t need those.

The Pacers barely missed the Playoffs last year despite their lack of an adequate point-guard. Now they have a real point-guard who fits in with their style of play.

Top Rookie: Brandon Rush (Indiana)
If he stays healthy, Rush is going to be a contributer. At 6-6 with a 6-11 wingspan, he’s got great size for the two. Brandon’s a fantastic athlete -- great in the open court, using his speed and leaping ability to get down and finish above the rim. Rush also has a solid three point stroke. He’s one of the more NBA ready players in the 2008 Draft and has the potential to be a solid two-way player in Indiana’s fast-paced offense. He’ll contribute to a very solid mix of wing players in Indiana and should be an important part of the rotation this year.

Bold Prediction: Despite being a popular playoff pick, this team lacks the talent to get there.

While Granger and Dunleavy had excellent seasons last year, are they really able to carry a playoff team? In each of his three years in the NBA, Granger has upped his game and improved in almost every aspect. Last year, he put everything together, averaging 19 points, 6 boards, 1 steal and 1 block per game on 44.6% from the field, 40% from three and 85% from the stripe. As his stats indicate, Granger is one of the NBA’s most well-rounded players. He’s going to put up great stats on a decent team, but will struggle to push them into the playoffs. The Pacers decision to give away Jerryd Bayless will ultimately haunt them as their draft additions are safe players that make sense for a team that already has franchise talents.

Projected Record: 35-47 (11th in Eastern Conference)

5. Milwaukee Bucks
Head Coach: Scott Skiles
2007-2008 Record: 25-57 (13th in Eastern Conference)
Key Additions: Joe Alexander and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute (both drafted), Richard Jefferson (traded from New Jersey), Luke Ridnour (traded from Oklahoma City)
Key Losses: Mo Williams (traded to Cleveland), Yi Jianlian and Bobby Simmons (traded to New Jersey), Desmond Mason (traded to Oklahoma City)

I liked the Bucks to make the Playoffs last year. I thought that Mo Williams, Michael Redd, Bobby Simmons, Andrew Bogut, Charlie Villanueva, Desmond Mason and Yi Jianlian was a good enough rotation to get in the playoffs. I thought that they had the potential to be a really good offensive team, and they’d be able to gun their way into a low Playoff seeding.

Boy, was I wrong. The Bucks didn’t shoot the ball well, and they defended even worse. Actually, they defended the worst in the NBA. According to John Hollinger, the Bucks finished dead last in defensive efficiency. Anybody who watched Milwaukee last season had trouble discerning between pre-game lay-up lines and the actual game, because there wasn’t much difference. Teams scored at will against Milwaukee, shooting tremendously high percentages.

To try to fix the problem, the Bucks hired former Bulls coach, Scott Skiles and traded defensive deadwood Simmons, Williams and Yi away for Luke Ridnour and Richard Jefferson.

The Bucks don’t play defense. That’s why they got Skiles.

They’ll play defense now, the problem is, they just might not play very well. There aren’t any gifted defensive players on this roster. None of their key players -- Redd, Jefferson, Bogut, Charlie Villanueva – have ever played a lick of defense in their life. Skiles is famous for being a defensive coach, but how can you emphasize defense when nobody can play it?

If the Bucks can surprise everybody and suddenly play D, they won’t be so bad. That seems highly unlikely, though, and I expect another bad season in Milwaukee.

Top Rookie: Luc Richard Mbah a Moute (UCLA)

Although fellow small forward rookie Joe Alexander was taken 29 spots higher, it's Mbah a Moute with the brighter short term outlook. Mbah a Moute has been much quicker to grasp the team's defensive concepts and has consistently outplayed Alexander throughout summer league, preseason and in practices. Look for Mbah a Moute to recieve more playing time early and to have the better rookie season. His ability to defend is exactly what this team needs

Joe Alexander (West Virginia)

Alexander is an athletic freak-show. He dunks from everywhere on the court. At the NBA Draft combine, he finished first overall, including first in vertical leap and bench press. In addition to possessing out of this world natural athleticism, the Taiwan-born Alexander also speaks fluent Mandarin, a huge attribute according to this Mandarin speaking writer. Alexander and his 6’8 220 frame don’t really have an NBA position. He's off to a slow start, but if his game can get on the same level as his explosive athleticism, he could become a Shawn Marion-type player for the Bucks. That would be awesome for Skiles, who will be having nightmares about defense by February.

Bold Prediction: The Bucks hire writer Bill Simmons as GM.

I’m on board with this. Sure, the Bucks already announced the hiring of GM John Hammond, but does it matter? He won’t make a difference. There needs to be a change. Plus, even if Simmons is terrible, at least we’ll get to read about it in a book later. Make it happen, Bucks. It can't be any worse than what's currently happening there, right?

Projected Record: 29-53 (13th in Eastern Conference)

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