Posted Oct 1, 2012 2:15 PM
The Central Division is an interesting mix of contenders and squads looking to rebuild around young cores.
The Indiana Pacers have joined the Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference elite. And with Derrick Rose out for the first half of this season, Indiana just might be the better team. Meanwhile, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Detroit Pistons are in a bit of an arms race, looking to stockpile young assets for a slow build back toward relevance.
Seemingly stuck in the middle are the Milwaukee Bucks, who are hoping that last season's blockbuster trade will eventually pay off. While the Atlantic Division might be improved across the board, the Central appears to be moving in a bunch of different directions.
Here's a deeper look at some key numbers from last season for each team in the Central Division, and how those numbers might change this year.
Pace: 91.8 (26)
OffRtg: 104.5 (5)
DefRtg: 95.3 (1)
NetRtg: +9.3 (1)
Pace = Possessions per 48 minutes
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions
The Bulls are going to be without Rose for a while, something they're accustomed to. They went 18-9 in the regular season without Rose last year, getting by with defense and offensive rebounds.
That could be more difficult this season without Omer Asik, Ronnie Brewer and C.J. Watson, all gone via free agency. The Bulls' bench has been a big reason why the team has ranked No. 1 defensively each of the last two seasons. In 166 minutes with Asik, Brewer and Watson on the floor last year, Chicago allowed just 83.5 points per 100 possessions, more than 18 points fewer than the league average.
So the question for this season is whether Marquis Teague, Marco Belinelli and Nazr Mohammed can similarly hold down the fort defensively. The good news is that they won't have to do it alone. Of those 166 minutes that Asik, Brewer and Watson played together, 157 were played with either Luol Deng or Taj Gibson also on the floor.
Of the 279 players who played at least 750 minutes last season, Gibson had the lowest on-court DefRtg, with the Bulls allowing just 88 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor. He's still around and that's a good thing for the Bulls' defense.
The aspect that will be missed most is Asik's ability to defend the rim. Chicago opponents shot just 47.1 percent in the restricted area with Asik on the floor last season, while Oklahoma City opponents shot 58.0 percent from the restricted area with Mohammed on the floor.
Pace: 94.0 (12)
OffRtg: 98.1 (27)
DefRtg: 106.0 (26)
NetRtg: -7.9 (29)
The Cavs were a decent team through the first 30 games last season, and were just a game and a half out of a playoff spot at that point. Then, playing without Anderson Varejao, they went 8-28 the rest of the way (8-27 after the All-Star break).
It's doubtful that they would have made the playoffs if Varejao was healthy, but the numbers clearly demonstrate his impact. The difference between the pre-break Cavs and the post-break Cavs was mostly on defense and mostly on the interior.
Before the break, the Cavs were a slightly above average defensive rebounding team. After the break, they were the sixth-worst defensive rebounding team in the league.
Before the break, the Cavs allowed their opponents to shot 53.2 percent in the paint. After the break, they had the worst paint defense in the league, allowing their opponents to shoot 58.9 percent inside.
Those numbers don't speak well of rookie big man Tristan Thompson, who played more than twice as many minutes after the break (957) as he did before the break (463). But they do tell us that a healthy Varejao will make the Cavs a much tougher team, no matter how quickly their young core develops.
Pace: 91.7 (27)
OffRtg: 97.8 (29)
DefRtg: 104.0 (25)
NetRtg: -6.2 (27)
Statistically, the Pistons were the third most improved team in the league (behind San Antonio and Washington) after the All-Star break. Most of that improvement came on defense, where they allowed 3.5 fewer points per 100 possessions in the second half of the season than they did in the first half.
That doesn't seem like a huge difference, but the league as a whole scored 2.7 more points per 100 possessions after the break than it did before. The Pistons ranked 27th defensively before the break and 11th defensively after it.
While Cleveland's defensive regression was on the interior, Detroit's defensive improvement was on the perimeter. Their 3-point defense ranked 29th before the break (allowing opponents to shoot 37.6 percent from beyond the arc) and seventh after it (33.3 percent). They also improved 21 spots in defending mid-range shots.
Those are promising numbers leading into this season. The Pistons are still going to struggle offensively, but if they can rank in the top 12 defensively, they'll be competitive.
It will be interesting to see though if Tayshaun Prince continues to start and play big minutes. Prince has a great defensive reputation, but the Pistons' defense was not very good (106.4 points allowed per 100 possessions) when he was on the floor last season, even after the break (104.0).
The Pistons' post-break 3-point defense was actually at its best (31.1 percent) when Jonas Jerebko was on the floor. But in addition to Prince, Jerebko might have to compete with new addition Corey Maggette for minutes this year.
Pace: 93.4 (19)
OffRtg: 103.5 (9)
DefRtg: 100.4 (10)
NetRtg: +3.1 (8)
The Pacers were one of only four teams (Chicago, Miami and Oklahoma City were the other three) to rank in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency last season. Offensively, they crashed the boards and got to the line. Defensively, they forced turnovers and defended the rim.
The Pacers also benefitted from good health. The top seven guys in their rotation averaged 62 games played, with only one (George Hill) missing significant time. And their lineup of Darren Collison, Paul George, Danny Granger, David West and Roy Hibbert played 254 more regular-season minutes than any other lineup in the league.
Of course, late in the season and in the playoffs, Frank Vogel went with Hill as his starting point guard. And this summer, Collison was swapped out for D.J. Augustin.
The numbers back up the Hill-for-Collison decision. The four-man group of George, Granger, West and Hibbert was better both offensively and defensively with Hill on the floor than with Collison. In 469 total minutes together (including playoffs), the new starters outscored their opponents by an amazing 16.1 points per 100 possessions.
The Pacers were still excellent (+8.7 points per 100 possessions) when Collison played with the starters, but they weren't so great when he played with the reserves. Their top returning reserve is Tyler Hansbrough, and Indiana was downright awful (-6.8 points per 100 possessions) in 696 minutes (including playoffs) with Collison and Hansbrough on the floor together.
Now, there's no evidence that Augustin will be any better off the Pacers' bench. In fact, there's this disturbing stat: Last season, the East's best point guards (Kyrie Irving, Rajon Rondo, Derrick Rose and Deron Williams) shot a combined 87-for-160 (54 percent) when Augustin was on the floor. They shot 43 percent otherwise.
Pace: 96.4 (3)
OffRtg: 102.4 (16)
DefRtg: 102.4 (17)
NetRtg: -0.0 (18)
For two straight years, the Bucks were a defense-only team, ranking in the top five in defensive efficiency and barely able to put the ball in the basket themselves. Then, last season, they morphed into an average team on both ends of the floor.
The defensive regression had a lot to do with Andrew Bogut's injury issues and eventual departure. The Bucks allowed just 98.0 points per 100 possessions with Bogut on the floor over the last three seasons and 103.3 with him on the bench.
Now, the Bucks have a group of bigs -- Samuel Dalembert, Ekpe Udoh, John Henson and Larry Sanders -- that can seemingly replace Bogut's interior defense. But defensive improvement will have to start on the perimeter, with the undersized backcourt of Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis.
After their trade with the Warriors, the Bucks' defense allowed 107.7 points per 100 possessions in 601 minutes with Jennings and Ellis both on the floor. But in 386 post-trade minutes with one of the two on the floor without the other, Milwaukee allowed just 95.1 points per 100 possessions.
Defensively, that's a deadly combination, and not in a good way. The Bucks were much, much better when Beno Udrih was in the backcourt, paired with either Jennings or Ellis. And if the Jennings-Ellis numbers don't improve early in the season, Scott Skiles should think about bringing one of the two off the bench.
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