In the past couple of weeks, people have begun to talk about how difficult the Central division is, and how it might be the hardest division in all of basketball. This article will be used to discuss whether or not this true, and will give in depth explanations for my statements.
Cleveland, Chicago, Milwaukee, Indiana, and Detroit. All five of these teams have a great shot at making the playoffs next season. In my predictions, which I will post closer to the start of the season, I have four of these teams making the playoffs, while the fifth will be contending for the eighth or ninth seed. Each team will get a short description of what they are facing, and after each team has their case presented, I will then give an overall division summary, and then discuss whether or not they are the best division in basketball, or if someone else is better.
Cleveland is already a Vegas favorite to win the title next season, but will their path be as easy as it was this past season? The answer is no. The Cavalier’s will not have the cakewalk of a team like the Boston Celtics in the first round, a chaotic organizational mess in Chicago, and an injury plagued Atlanta Hawks team. I am not trying to make excuses for these teams, I am simple presenting the facts of what happened to them. Chicago, Miami and Washington pose the biggest threat to dethroning Cleveland this next season. Milwaukee and Toronto would not be easy opponent’s for Cleveland, but both do not have the developed talent to take them out in a seven game series yet. Atlanta, Indiana, Detroit, Brooklyn, and Boston, the teams likely competing for the last two playoff spots have little to no chance against Cleveland, and would all be four game sweeps. Cleveland and Chicago is what draw people to this division for why they think it is the best, but we will have to see later in the article if they can actually make this division the best in basketball.
Chicago is coming for LeBron. Can a new offensive minded coach outwit LeBron? Can their team stay healthy? These questions are complete unknown’s. Chicago is always the favorite to unseat LeBron from his reign atop the Eastern Conference. Last year was suppose to be the year, until the mess within the organization about Tom Thibodeau began in the playoffs. Milwaukee presented a greater challenge than expected, as it took six games to defeat them. Next up was the Cleveland Cavaliers, who made a joke of the Bulls. The Bull’s gave up in that series. Thibodeau lost control of the heart of his team with extremely questionable decisions. The team lost that series in humiliation, but with that humiliation comes a brighter future. Fred Hoiberg was one of the hotter names in college basketball for a move up to the professional level. His offensive mind is unique, and should allow for Chicago to morph into a different team. In the draft, the Bull’s selected Bobby Portis, who was one of my favorite players from the draft. Portis is a much more cheaper option than Taj Gibson, and therefore allows Chicago to shop him to fill a bigger need. With teams like Toronto and Indiana needing some more depth at the four positions, Chicago could look to offload his salary in return for picks, or a young player like Terrence Ross or Joseph Young. The season is bright for Chicago, and with the high chance this season is it for them, Chicago, lead by a new coach, has all the potential to unseat LeBron and represent the Eastern Conference in the finals.
Milwaukee is gaining a lot of respect throughout the league this coming season, and we will see how they react and handle that. The past 4-5 years, Milwaukee was a joke. Last season was suppose to be like the previous one, a top five draft pick, as Milwaukee was just trying to develop their young players. Little did they know how much of an impact Jason Kidd would have on the players, and transform them into a top two defense. The offense was a big issue, as scoring was usually hard to come by. Jabari Parker, their rookie offensive sensation, tore his ACL a few weeks into the season, and then their the next offensive weapon, Brandon Knight, was traded in an effort to acquire Michael Carter-Williams, and groom him under Jason Kidd. Coming into the offseason, Milwaukee was suppose to be very active, and they were just that. Milwaukee traded away two veterans in, Jared Dudley and Zaza Pachulia. They were able to resign Middleton to a team friendly deal that gives them plenty of flexibility going forward. The biggest acquisition was Greg Monroe. Monroe provides the down low offensive threat Milwaukee was dying for. Now with Monroe, a healthy Parker, Antetokounmpo’s insane desire to improve, Middleton and Williams continued development, Milwaukee is not looked forward to on the schedule anymore. Going into the season, Milwaukee will have to learn to embrace the fact they are suppose to win, and this is not a fairy tale story anymore. Teams will play them harder now, as they are so talked about, and opposing players will want to humiliate them for that. Milwaukee has the talent to be a top four team in the Eastern Conference, but with a reloaded Miami Heat team, Healthy Cleveland, Chicago, and Washington teams, I do not think they can qualify that high, and will likely be at the fifth seed. With such a young squad with little playoff experience, Milwaukee just is not as freighting as the media is making them sound, and this is coming from a huge Buck’s fan. I believe Milwaukee will be good, a 47-49 win team, but a deep run in the playoffs is more likely next year, than this coming year.
Indiana, what a intriguing team this is to look at on paper. I do not know if this team will be good, mediocre, or bad. With Frank Vogel as head coach, Indiana will still be a competitive team no matter the roster. As an example, look at this past season. Things are different though in Indiana this coming season. Roy Hibbert, Luis Scola, and David West are gone, while Myles Turner and Jordan Hill are in. This gives the Pacer’s a inexperienced frontcourt. At least Ian Mahinmi is present to give veteran leadership to the new guys. Paul George is back, and with his recent statement of wanting to be the MVP this season, who knows what he will be able to accomplish. Indiana did get him an offensive weapon in Monta Ellis, but their bench is still rather thin with offensive threats. Paul George has a great shot at MVP, and leading this team into the playoffs, but with such a weak offensive roster, I do not believe their stingy team defense would be able to take on the offensive threats that are now forming in the Eastern Conference, like Cleveland, Chicago, Washington, or Miami. I say they would be playing these teams, as Indiana will likely be competing for the seventh or eighth seed, and those four seem to be the favorite for the top four seeds in the conference.
Detroit has had a great offseason, which no one is talking about. Losing Greg Monroe to a divisional rival hurt, but he was a very poor fit next to Andre Drummond. Also in Gundy’s system, he likes to surround his center with shooters, so acquiring Ersan Ilyasova was a great addition to replace Monroe. Stanley Johnson was a perfect selection at eighth overall, and while I think Winslow will be a better player long-term, Johnson will still have a big impact. To make an easy comparison within the division Winslow has Paul George potential, while Johnson is at Jimmy Butler potential, both great players, but George possess a superior gift. Nevertheless Detroit is beginning to be built in Gundy’s vision. I think the only flaw of the offseason was paying Reggie Jackson, an average NBA point guard, $16 million a season. I do not care about the rising cap situation, that is a poor contract, especially when you have Brandon Jennings on the roster for only $8 million a season. This will be the main question going into the season, as neither Jennings or Jackson are combo guards, and work better at the point. If Jennings’s beat out Jackson, will his cancerous attitude come out again? I think to prevent this, Detroit needs to trade Jennings soon, and I have already wrote an article on that, which you can find on the site. Once this ordeal is settled, Detroit is looking at a promising roster for the season. In any other Eastern Conference year, this roster would make the playoffs, but with Paul George returning, the Miami Heat retooling, and the rest of the conference improving, Detroit is looking at an eighth seed at best, if they can make the playoffs.
Now that each team has being given a statement about themselves and what they are expected to do, we will begin the argument for why they are the best division in basketball. Every team is very capable of beating one another. All five teams present the chance of making the playoffs. You have two early Vegas favorites to win the title, in Chicago and Cleveland. You have multiple potential MVP candidates, as well as multiple defensive player of year players. Even with that being said, I still do not view the Central as the best division in basketball. Detroit is obviously the weakest, but in an argument who is better, the Central or Southwest, I would take Detroit over Dallas for the worst teams in each division. Now this is where it begins to get fun, as I would not pick Cleveland over San Antonio, Chicago over Houston, Milwaukee over Memphis, or Indiana over New Orleans(went by standings for pairings). The division of the Southwest cannot be matched by anyone else talent wise. Just look at the recent Ty Lawson trade. This usual blockbuster trade moves the needle greatly for that team, but for the Rockets, you can barely tell it moved. You not only have to worry about your division, but also the rest of the dreaded Western Conference. For all five teams in the division to make it in the playoffs last year was remarkable, and although that could happen in the Central division this year, the rest of the conference presents far less superior talent, than that of the Western Conference. For these reasons, the Central division will be good this year, and fun to watch, but is not even close to as challenging as the Southwest division. Although the Southwest took a step-back with the Dallas Mavericks losing out in free agency, they still have a decently competitive team with Matthews, Parsons, and Nowitzki, as well as having the new look Spurs, the offensive juggernaut, Houston Rockets, Anthony Davis lead Pelicans, and the gritty, defensive Grizzlies. The Southwest will likely send at least four teams to the playoffs this next season, with all probably to have 50+ wins apiece, while I only see two teams in the Central winning 50+ games.
BY Mac Crowe, @Mac_Truck17