Today we look at the NBA Central Division. When last we left, the Anointed King James was crowned and the Mighty Pistons went out with a whimper. Have the tables turned? Have new contenders arisen?
Projected Starting Lineup:
PF Joakim Noah
SF Luol Deng
SG Ben Gordon
PG Kirk Hinrich
Coach: Scott Skiles
The good: They didnt trade for Kobe.
The Bulls are on the verge. Theyre almost there. They lost in the 2nd round to the Detroit Pistons in six games, but things seem to be coming together for them. Why? Forward Luol Deng is coming into his own, having a career year in 06-07, averaging 18.8 PPG and 7.8 RPG as he enters his fourth year in the league. He picked a good time to do it too; his contract extension is due any day now. Also looking for an extension is Ben Gordon, who managed to remain the starting shooting guard by averaging 21.4 ppg. With Kirk Hinrich playing a steady PG for them, they have one of the youngest and most potent backcourt trios in the NBA.
First round pick out of Florida Joakim Noah is ready to be Mr. Hustle in the same way center Ben Wallace has been throughout his career. They wont be lacking depth with Chris Duhon, Joe Smith, and Andres Nocioni leading the reserves.Thabo Sefolosha can be a Bruce Bowen-like player off the bench as well. For a team that is already good, the fact that they may get better with time is scary.
The bad: Failing to trade for Pau Gasol or any dominant low post scorer will still be a sore weak point for the Bulls.
The Bulls are set everywhere except in the post. Joakim Noahs offensive gameis still maturing, Ben Wallace makes Shaq look like J.J. Redick from the charity stripe, and Tyrus Tyrus Thomas looks like a bust in the making. Although hes very athletic, he's so far shown a low basketball IQ and it makes one wonder whether they will regret trading LaMarcus Aldridge in 2006 to Portland for Thomas rights. They will be going up against teams who have low post presences and although they have the defenders to stop them, they wont have the offensive firepower from their big men to attack.
Lastly, the Bulls cannot get off to a slow start the way they did last year. The better they start, the more they can tell reporters that they dont need Kobe Bryant, or Pau Gasol, or Kevin Garnett, or anyone else they were in the hunt for. Deng and Gordon need to play like they belong in Chicago rather than audition for a starting job with the Los Angeles Lakers and it is up GM Jim Paxson to dead those talks now.
The outlook: 1st in the East, 1st in the Central, out in the Eastern Conference Finals
Projected Starting Lineup:
Coach: Flip Saunders
The good: The experience is there, the players are mostly the same, and Amir Johnson is ready to get comfortable in Detroit.
The Pistons choked last year in the Eastern Conference Finals to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. They lost to a guy people call Boobie (Daniel Gibson). Tayshaun Prince played defense the likes of which would have made Carmelo Anthony cringe. However, this team learns from its mistakes. Detroit has a championship pedigree and is a perennial playoff team, still good enough to get by in a tough Central Division. All-Star point guard Chauncey Billups averaged 7.2 assists per game, but now he may have more of an opportunity to live up to his nickname Mr. Big Shot.
First round pick Rodney Stuckey out of Eastern Washington is a steal. He was chosen to possibly replace Billups had he not taken his 5 year $60 mil extension. Between Stuckey and other first rounder Arron Afflalo, coach Flip Saunders does not have to burn out Billups and shooting guard Rip Hamilton. Seldom used forward Amir Johnson re-signed for $11 mil over 3 years. That contract will look like sweatshop money after Amir gets an extended look by Saunders. After dominating the NBAs Development League, Amir and fellow forward Jason Maxiell should look to be effective in helping out former all-star Antonio McDyess at the 4 spot.
The bad: The window of opportunity is closing and they have Rasheed Wallace.
Rasheed Wallace at center is not working. Wallace, coming off of a terrible season in which he averaged 12 ppg and 7 rpg, needs to keep his emotions in check for this upcoming season. Before, he could rack up all the technical fouls he wanted while averaging almost 20 points per game. Now he lets his bad judgment get the better of him and it showed during Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
Flip needs to give guys like Amir Johnson a chance to play. Flip has a tendency to go with the veterans, something that doesnt help the young kids down the line. This team is now capable of imploding to lesser competition. The entire team looked lost against the Cavaliers and it could linger this season. Theyve got the pieces, but they are a season or two away from looking old, out of place, and out of excuses. Last year in the playoffs we saw how much the departure of longtime center Ben Wallace hurt them. This year they need to figure out how they will offset that. The key is letting Johnson play more.
The outlook: 4th in the East, 2nd in the Central, out in th eEastern Conference Semi Finals
Projected Starting Lineup:
Coach: Mike Brown
The good news: LeBron James is ready to be the best player in the world.
LeBron James i scoming off another great season, averaging 27.3 points, 6.0 assists, and 5.7 rebounds per game and proving to everyone that he is ready to be the best player in the NBA at 22 years of age. His ability to carry the Cavs from league laughingstock to the NBA Finals in a matter of four years is amazing.
Although the San Antonio Spurs swept them in an forgettable Finals, the Cavs are returning knowing they can trust guys other than LeBron. Sophomore Point Guard Daniel Gibson, known as Boobie to hardcore Cavs fans, surprised everyone in the postseason, spearheading the Cavs comeback against the Detroit Pistons, including a 31 point performance in Game 5. Pegged potentially to start, Boobies presence on the court now gives LeBron the player he needs to complement his game. Gibson will be the real deal.
Head Coach Mike Browns defensive scheming came up big during the playoffs. Now with added offense for players like Gibson and Drew Gooden, the Cavs could conceivably make another Finals run.
The bad news: The inability to re-sign glue guys Andersen Varejao and Sasha Pavlovic weakened this team in more ways than LeBron James wants to know.
Power forward Anderson Varejao was the hustle man for the Cavs, taking charge after charge and providing energy off the bench while Sasha found his niche as a deadly three point shooter, averaging 40% from downtown in 2007. Both seemed like lay-ups to be resigned, especially with the Cavs ability to match any offer they received. As of this articles writing, neither has been re-signed and negotiations are not looking good.
If it is a money issue, then guard Larry Hughes needs to personally agree to give them half his salary at least. Hughes flat out frustrates, averaging 14.9 ppg, but only shooting 40% from the field. Add the fact that hes making $12 mil a season and you wonder what it will take for Hughes to ever live up to his potential, because everyone is running out of options. The Cavs on paper do not have the talent that other teams have and with a bench that has old veterans such as Donyell Marshall, Eric Snow, and Damon Jones, it doesnt bode well for LeBron.
The outlook: 5th in the East, 3rd in the Central, out in the first round of the playoffs, and thats IF the Cavs can somehow get Varejao and Pavlovic signed.
Projected Starting Lineup:
PF Yi Jianlian
SG Michael Redd
Coach: Larry Krystkowiak
The good: Michael Redd is the best shooter in the NBA not named Ray Allen. The Bucks have the best potential to surprise.
The Bucks came off of a 28-54 season. Part of that was because injuries decimated the team. Michael Redd missed 29 games and former UConn standout Charlie Villanueva missed 43 games in his first season in Mil-Town due to various injuries. If health is on their side, theres no telling what both of them can bring to this team.
Maurice Williams is perhaps the best point guard nobody has heard of, averaging 17.1 points and 6.1 assists per game, clearly making himself and Redd one of the best backcourts in the East. Backup PG Charlie Bell is back (although he might want to be). Many teams lobbied for his services (just ask Pat Riley down in South Beach) as he averaged 13.5 points per game off the bench. They have the youth to do it and it should be no surprise to anyone if they make noise this season in the East.
The bad: So many question marks on this team + so many things needing to break their way = one season away from playoffs.
This is truly a season for head coach Larry Krystkowiak to find out what his team is made of. Bobby Simmons did not play a single game last season, but despite that, he needs to prove that he can justify the $55 million contract he signed after winning the Most Improved Player Award with the Los Angeles Clippers. Andrew Bogut, though he has been solid, needs to prove that he was worthy of being chosen the #1 pick in 2005. Though his numbers have been solid, he needs to do more because backup center Dan Gadzuric can only be so mediocre. Most of all, first round pick Yi Jianlian needs to prove he belongs in the league. The 19 year old (allegedly) Chinese prospect almost did not sign with the Bucks as his agent realized that Milwaukee was not New York, L.A., or Chicago. Yi can eithe rgo bang or bust, it's too easy to tell. Before Yi and his people can begin making diva-like demands, he needs to show he can even be a starter in the NBA. If he cant, then Milwaukee blew a shot to improve the team and Yi will be looked at as Wang Zhi Zhi more than Yao Ming.
The outlook: 14th in the East, 4th in the Central.Out of the Playoffs
Projected Starting Lineup:
Coach: Jim OBrien
The good news: Danny Granger is going to be a rock for this team for years to come.
Danny Granger was the 17th overall pick in the 2005 Draft. Solid, good, and professional were words used to describe him. Cornerstone was not one of them. However, Granger is proving that he can be the main man for the Pacers. Averaging a shade less than 14 points per game, Granger is developing into one of the better young small forwards in the game. Ike Diogu was picked eight selections before Granger by the Golden State Warriors and brought to the Pacers in the deal that sent Stephen Jackson and Al Harrington to the Bay Area last January. Diogu is backing up star forward Jermaine ONeal. His time is coming soon, as the Pacers are going young for the future.
The bad news: Jermaine ONeal already has one foot out the door. GM Larry Bird does not..
Jermaine ONeal averaged 19.6 points, 9.6 boards, and 2.6 blocks per game, but that may only be important for the teams courting ONeal. This summer, ONeal has been in the middle of many trade rumors, including one that almost sent him to the Boston Celtics and another which could have sent him to the Los Angeles Lakers, a team that ONeal has said he would not mind playing for. The Pacers were unable to trade him, as well as unable to do many things this offseason.
They missed out on their first round after trading their pick to the Atlanta Hawks for Al Harrington (who didnt even spend half the season with them before being traded to Golden State). PG Jamaal Tinsley flat out cant shoot, only making 39% of his jump shots. The rebuilding is starting, albeit with overpaid former Warriors Troy Murphy and Mike Dunleavy Jr. making $17.5 mil this season between the two of them.
Overall, new head coach Jim OBrien will have his hands full for this soon-to-be-rebuilding project. Things need to change and it will start when Jermaine ONeal is finally traded. Well, Larry Bird and Wolves head architect Kevin McHale were at the top as players. Now they can have bunk beds at the cellar as GMs.
The outlook: Last in the East, Last in the Central. First in wanting to know how Derrick Rose is doing at the University of Memphis. Theyll need him in the worst way for the future.