NBA Preview: Central Division
Chicago: Last year the Chicago Bulls surprised everybody by running away with the NBA’s best record. Their leader was undoubtedly their franchise point-guard, Derrick Rose, the league’s defending MVP. Rose will be in Chicago for a long time as it was reported recently that he signed a 5-year, $94 Million contract extension. The Bulls weaknesses were exposed in the playoffs by every team they played. Derrick Rose seemed to be all by himself at times late in games. Carlos Boozer was not the number two option that many had thought he would be last season and if the Bulls have aspirations either he, or someone else, needs to step up and help Rose share the load. To help in that regard, they signed veteran shooting-guard Richard Hamilton. Hamilton is a proven scorer and hopefully for the Bulls, will be able to give them a dependable scoring option.
They will be one of, if not the best defensive team in the league this season and they will not face a challenge in the division. Rose may not be the league’s MVP again this season but he will have to carry his team again. They did set very high expectations by having the league’s best record last season and I suspect that there may be a drop-off but that still won’t hinder them from running away with this division. Their team needs to work on ways to get easier baskets and find some other sets that are not simply, “everyone, get out of Derrick’s way.” However, that plan isn’t too bad considering Rose ranked 7th last year in points per possession in isolation situations.
Indiana: Chris Paul may have garnered the post-lockout headlines but the Larry Bird has done a very nice job adding good pieces to a playoff team in Indiana. They got David West at a very palatable 2-year $20 Million deal to add to a team that snuck into the playoffs last season. They also re-signed veteran big man Jeff Foster and added power-forward Jeff Pendergraph to strengthen the depth on their frontline. Tyler Hansborough has emerged as a solid bench player and will be a solid number two behind West. They traded away draft pick Kwahi Leonard for George Hill who is a solid guard to come off the bench and is a great scorer.
Darren Collison is a solid starting point guard but he did not grow in the way many expected. His per 36-minute averages dropped in nearly every statistical category except free-throw percentage and turnovers. Roy Hibbert’s improvement last year was one of the keys to Indiana ending their playoff drought. Hibbert’s averages in points and both increased (points 11.7 to 12.7 and rebounds 5.7 to 7.5). Hibbert must continue to improve as a rebounder, the improvement is nice but 7.5 are too few rebounds for a man of his 7’2’’ stature to get. Danny Granger is still Indiana’s best player. His scoring average dipped by four points from 24 to 20 points per game but he attempted less shots, specifically his three-point attempts went from 7 to 5, which seems small but over the course of a season it adds up. His shooting percentage stayed the same but since the Pacers are starting to get better, the pressure for Granger to score has eased up a bit. The Pacers are a team full of young talent and will be a tough out for anyone that faces them in the playoffs and it’s not inconceivable that they could be in the top half of the conference standings.
Milwaukee: Milwaukee was the 2009-2010 season’s biggest surprise team. In 2011, they were probably the most disappointing team. Brandon Jennings, who made noise in his rookie year, helping lead the Bucks to the playoffs, struggled with injuries and was not the same type of playmaker he was in 2010. His assists took a small dip and his three-point shooting percentage dropped 5% from 37% to 32%. Andrew Bogut managed to average a double-double again last year but he was not as an effective scorer as he was in 2010 before his nasty arm injury. Hopefully for Milwaukee, Bogut can return to his 15+PPG form because the Bucks desperately need offense. It might seem that Brandon Jennings and Bogut would be a great pick-and-roll combo, however, according to Synergy Sports Technology, Bogut was only a “roll man” on 9% of possessions while Jennings was a pick-and roll ball-handler 37.8% of the time. So style is a little bit of a concern since it seems like Jennings strengths don’t really mesh well with Bogut’s. To help in the scoring department, they acquired Stephen Jackson from the Charlotte Bobcats. Jackson is a quality NBA scorer who can get his points in more ways than one, either in isolation or coming off screens.
Another good acquisition for the Bucks was that of Beno Udrih. Udrih is an efficient pick-and-roll player, he surprisingly ranked second in points per possession last year in those situations, according to Synergy Sports. It’s also possible that they could incorporate more sets with Brandon Jennings as a “slasher,” with Udrih or Jackson on the ball as Brandon Jennings shot an insane 61 % when receiving the ball on cuts. This team might be able to sneak into the playoffs. They did lose John Salmons but adding Jackson and also veteran swingman Mike Dunleavy gives the Bucks a solid chance at making it back to the post season. However, I do not see them making it unless Brandon Jennings shows considerable growth in both shot-selection and overall decision-making.
Detroit: I honestly can’t tell you what the Pistons are doing. They do have some good young players like Austin Daye, Brandon Knight and Greg Monroe. When Monroe started getting extended minutes last year (averaging over 30 MPG), he started producing more. After the all-star break, he was averaging 13.7 points and 10 rebounds per game. They re-signed Tayshaun Prince, which will stunt the growth of Daye and they re-signed Rodney Stuckey who will likely be the starter in front of Brandon Knight. Knight represents the future for Detroit as a star point-guard and although Stuckey is a very good player, I do not see him as the leader of a playoff team in the future. Stuckey is a nice player and was Detroit’s leading scorer last year, but I do not see him as much more than an obstacle in Brandon Knight’s development.
Monroe, Knight and Daye are going to be the Pistons rocks going forward but it seems as if Joe Dumars and co. really don’t seem to know where they are going. Prince and Stuckey are two holdovers from the team that made the Eastern Conference Finals in 2008 but those days of contention have long since passed. The time to re-build has come in Detroit but it seems as if their management doesn’t quite understand that yet.
Cleveland: Year two post-Lebron looks as if it will provide the Cavs with more things to be hopeful for in the 2011-2012 season. The Cavs were fortunate enough to have the 1st and 2nd picks in the 2011 draft and they used them on Duke’s Kyrie Irving and Texas big-man Tristan Thompson. On draft day, they also dealt for Omri Casspi from the Sacramento Kings who has shown flashes of brilliance during his rookie season, but seemed to fall off last year. However, reports out of Cleveland have talked about Casspi’s positive influence. Last February, the only month of the season where Casspi averaged over 30 minutes per game, he seemed to find a rhythm, shooting 43% and averaging over 10 points per game. Casspi will likely find himself in a more important role and thus, he will produce more. They amnestied Baron Davis, who likely would have been an unmotivated, overweight distraction. They did lose JJ Hickson who is a good scorer at the power forward spot but with the selection of Tristan Thompson it was clear that he really had no place in Cleveland anymore. The team is now in the hands of young players like Thompson, Irving and Casspi. They are not close to becoming a playoff-team and this year will be rough but unlike last year, they have some pieces to build with. I should have written this entire paragraph in comic sans.