clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Milwaukee Bucks v Indiana Pacers Photo by Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images

Filed under:

NBA Season Preview: What the heck happened in the Central Division?

The Bucks reign supreme, but storylines are plentiful in the Central Division

Did you know the Eastern Conference champion has come out of the Central Division in five of the past seven seasons? The Detroit Pistons, Cleveland Cavaliers, Milwaukee Bucks, Chicago Bulls, and Indiana Pacers have all taken turns (some longer than others) atop the division over the past 15 years.

Currently, we’re living in Milwaukee’s world as the Bucks look to defend their first NBA title since 1971, but the rest of the division is steadily improving after a wild offseason:


Oklahoma City Thunder v Milwaukee Bucks Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

Offseason in 5 Words: Kings Look to Protect Crown

The Bucks remain the cream of the crop in the division, which is hard to argue when you look at the duo of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton. The whole story with Milwaukee — from fizzling out in the bubble to winning it all — really was impressive.

Those two saw it all unfold. Giannis re-affirmed himself as arguably the best player in basketball (even though this debate rages CONSTANTLY) and Middleton proved that, while he may not be a superstar player, he may be the best closer in basketball.

I’m not sure there are more than 3-4 guys in basketball I would rather have shooting for my team in the final seconds of a tie game than Middleton. He’s that good.

Better or Worse?: Better

Here’s the thing: Milwaukee didn’t make a splash move, but got better in little ways.

Great teams need as many 3-and-D guys as they can find.

Grayson Allen, a punk in his days at Duke, is another one for Milwaukee. He was quietly a vital cog for the Grizzlies and now steps in to replace Bryn Forbes as a better all-around player, one who shot 39% from 3 last season.

I know he was around last season, but after missing the playoffs, Donte DiVencenzo should give another big boost to the Bucks. He and Jrue Holiday formed one of the best defensive backcourt pairings last season.

Toss in a revival from Rodney Hood, the steady hand of George Hill and the terror that is Bobby Portis and the Bucks seem primed to cruise to a Central Division title to meet the Nets in the Eastern Conference Finals.


Offseason in 5 words: Rick Carlisle > Nate Bjorkgren

I think some would argue that the Bulls and all of their flashy offseason player acquisitions deserve to be in this spot, but I’m not sold.

Indiana Pacers v Cleveland Cavaliers Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

If you ignore the fact that Indiana might land Ben Simmons and just look at the pieces they have now, you see that it’s a deep team. Malcolm Brogdon is as steady a point guard as there is in the East and Caris LaVert has the potential to be the perfect backcourt partner with his ability to get to the rim, hit from deep, and serve as a secondary playmaker.

Better or Worse?: Better

I think new head coach Rick Carlisle is going to find really creative ways to get more out of that duo, but I think his impact will really be felt in the front court. Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner have always been a better pairing on paper than in practice.

Their skills don’t really overlap, but they really aren’t ever at their best together. Sabonis is coming off a career-best season, while Turner had a down year across the board. If anyone is going to figure this pairing out, it’s a coach like Carlisle.

And if he cannot, maybe we see the Pacers make a move for a more traditional small forward to play off of the remaining core? That’s the one hole they have and Isaiah Jackson, the pogo stick rookie from Kentucky, is waiting in the wings.

Possible Playoff Contender?

Indiana is going to be battling for the sixth or seventh seed.


Offseason in 5 words: Trying to Try This Season

Yeah, I don’t know how to view this one. The Bulls feel like a team in a similar spot to the Pistons a few seasons ago — desperate to win now and willing to spend whatever it takes to get there this season.

Chicago Bulls v Cleveland Cavaliers Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

That’s a dangerous place to be.

Better or Worse?: Better, but maybe not good enough

They’re probably a ball to play with on NBA 2K22, but I’m not sold on them in real life, despite their red-hot preseason performance. DeMar Derozan and Lonzo Ball join the fold alongside Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic.

It’s old fashioned, but those are four dudes who love to have the ball... is there enough to go around here? And on the flip side, can these guys defend? I know Lonzo can, but I’m not convinced that teams won’t target LaVine, Vucevic and Derozan constantly. Even Patrick Williams emerging as a viable lockdown-type defender won’t be able to hide them.

Billy Donovan is a good coach. This team is going to have a fun offense to watch, no matter how much bickering there might be about who gets the ball. It just wouldn’t be surprising to see the Bulls finish with a top five offense and a bottom five defense.

The other thing is what the hell happened to Coby White? Does he have a future in Chicago with the big-name additions + Alex Caruso and Ayo Donsunmu?

Possible Playoff Contender

It’s going to be an interesting team to watch, and I could be very wrong here, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see them finish closer to 35 wins than 45 wins.


Offseason in 5 words: Welcome to the basement

Indiana Pacers v Cleveland Cavaliers Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

Cleveland is doing some wild things to build this roster, and though it doesn’t make sense on paper, it should be fun to watch unfold.

Better or Worse?: Better but still bad

You know about the backcourt of Darius Garland and Collin Sexton, both of which should continue to improve this season. It’ll be interesting to see what happens with Sexton going forward. He wants a big contract, the Cavs don’t appear keen on handing him one.

That’s a potential deadline deal that could impact both the future of this team and the playoff race. Even their backup guards — Isaac Okoro and Ricky Rubio — are going to be a pain in the ass for teams defensively.

Where the team is really wild is the front court. They drafted Evan Mobley after re-signing Jarrett Allen. They then went out and acquired Lauri Markkanen and still have Kevin Love after failing to move him.

How that grouping plays out this season is anyone’s guess, but Mobley deserves all the time he can handle. He’s already played a little bit of small forward in the preseason, which in itself is very interesting.

There is just a lot going on with the Cavs. They have talent though, which is something we haven’t been able to say about them in awhile. I think they’re going to be bad, but they’ll be a team to watch in the latter half of the season.

Possible Playoff Contender?

I would not be surprised to see this team in the play-in tournament race.


Offseason in 5 words: “ ... Detroit Pistons select Cade Cunningham.”

San Antonio Spurs v Detroit Pistons Photo by Brian Sevald/NBAE via Getty Images

Ahhh, we know about these guys.

The Pistons are going to be a fun team this season, but as you’ve seen, they’re buried in a very difficult division. The story starts with Cade Cunningham. How quickly can he adapt to the NBA? Most are confident is shooting is going to translate immediately, but it’ll be worth watching to see how long it takes his playmaking and defense to catch up.

Better or Worse?: Better

The other young guys—Saddiq Bey, Isaiah Stewart and Killian Hayes—should all fill in where needed. Bey is primed for a big season and Stewart should be close to a double-double average if his production sans Mason Plumlee last year is any indication.

With Hayes, we have to see it to believe it. Maybe he figures it out and is a perfect pairing with Cade? Maybe he’s better off eventually running the second unit. We’ll see.

And of course the veterans like Jerami Grant, Kelly Olynyk and Josh Jackson are back and should each serve as crucial players in their roles. I’m actually most excited to see how Olynyk helps this machine—his creator game is similar to Plumlee, but he’s far more mobile and stretchy on offense.

Possible Playoff Contenders?

The Pistons could be bad again, and that might be a positive in the end, but I’ve said it a few times: I wouldn’t be surprised if they made a run at the play-in game, either.

Pistons Game Threads

Pistons vs. Magic GameThread: Game Time, TV, Odds, and More

Pistons Podcasts

The Pindown: What’s Up with the Rotations?

NBA Draft Big Board

2024 NBA Draft: Top 30 Big Board entering college’s home stretch