Season Preview: Eastern Conference - Central Division



EASTERN CONFERENCE - CENTRAL DIVISION

Mark Remme
Wolves Editor/Writer

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Editor’s Note: Timberwolves.com will break down each of the NBA’s six divisions leading into training camp, highlighting the moves each team made and what to watch for during the 2013-14 campaign. Part V features the Central Division, where the defenses in Chicago and Indiana will be the two forces at the top.

INDIANA PACERS

2012-13 Record: 49-32 (1st Central Division, 3rd Eastern Conference—Lost Eastern Conference Finals to Heat 4-3)

2012-13 Record vs. Timberwolves: 1-1

Additions: Luis Scola (trade), C.J. Watson (free agent), Donald Sloan (free agent), Chris Copeland (free agent), David West (re-signed), Solomon Hill (draft)

Losses: D.J. Augustin, Tyler Hansbrough, Jeff Pendergraph, Gerald Green, Miles Plumlee

The Pacers put all their pieces together last year and came within one game of the NBA Finals—falling in seven games to the eventual champion Miami Heat. This offseason brought little change when it comes to their core pieces and strong additions to their role players, which leads Pacers fans to believe this could be another special year in Indy. The key to their success is defense. Indiana plays a throw-back style of play that challenges opponents with its physicality. The Pacers averaged 90.9 points against per game last year—second in the league—and one of the reasons they went deep into their series with the talented Miami Heat is because they can match Miami’s small, athletic lineups with their bruising, rim-protecting play. Coach Frank Vogel has the right formula to match his team’s roster.

The defense begins with Roy Hibbert up front, the bruising center that averaged 2.61 blocks per game to go along with 11.9 points and 8.3 boards. David West (17.1 ppg, 7.7 rpg) is still a productive power forward, George Hill (14.2 ppg, 4.7 apg) served this team well at the point and Lance Stephenson chipped in 8.8 points and 3.9 boards as the starting shooting guard last year. But the catalyst across the board was the emergence of Paul George. George moved to the 3 due to Danny Granger’s season-long absence due to injury, and he thrived in that role. He scored 17.4 points and added 7.6 rebounds per game, became an All-Star for the first time and skyrocketed in popularity across the league with his postseason performance (19.2 points, 7.4 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game, including a triple-double in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals). George is quickly becoming the face of the Pacers, and at 23 years old he’s got a long time to continue to grow and develop his game even further. Expect big things out of him in the years to come.


CHICAGO BULLS

2012-13 Record: 45-37 (2nd Central Division, 5th Eastern Conference—Lost Eastern Conference Semifinals to Heat 4-1)

2012-13 Record vs. Timberwolves: 2-0

Additions: Mike Dunleavy (free agent), Nazr Mohammed (re-signed), Tony Snell (draft), Erik Murphy (draft)

Losses: Richard Hamilton, Marco Belinelli, Nate Robinson, Malcolm Thomas

The Bulls finished fifth in the East and advanced to the conference semifinals last year without their undisputed leader and former league MVP, Derrick Rose, on the court. Take the best player away from any team, and it’s hard to imagine similar results. That’s why optimism is riding high both in Chicago and around the league about the Bulls returning to their 2011-12 form this year—when they were the top seed in the East before Rose’s ACL injury in the first round sidelined him more than a full calendar year.

With Rose back, it will take time to get back into his rhythm on the court. But like the Wolves saw out of Ricky Rubio last year, with time that flow comes back. Rose averaged 21.8 points and 7.9 assists in 2011-12, and he averaged 25.0 points and 7.7 assists during his MVP campaign of 2010-11. In the past five years, he’s the only person not named LeBron James to win MVP. Add him back into the lineup with Carlos Boozer (16.2 ppg, 9.8 rpg), Luol Deng (16.5 ppg, 6.3 rpg) and Joakim Noah (11.9 ppg, 11.1 rpg), and that’s a solid core. The Bulls big nice production out of Jimmy Butler during the postseason (13.3 ppg, 5.2 rpg) at the 2-guard spot, and they’ve added sharpshooter Mike Dunleavy and rookie Tony Snell to bolster the wing. Expect coach Tom Thibodeau to preach strong defense once again—Chicago was 3rd in defensive points per game (93.6) last year. That, coupled with Rose’s return, means the Bulls could very well climb back up the Eastern Conference ladder again this year.


MILWAUKEE BUCKS

2012-13 Record: 38-44 (3rd Central Division, 8th Eastern Conference—Lost Eastern Conference Quarterfinals to Heat 4-0)

2012-13 Record vs. Timberwolves: 0-2

Additions: Luke Ridnour (trade), Caron Butler (trade), Brandon Knight (trade), Khris Middleton (trade), Carlos Delfino (free agent), O.J. Mayo (free agent), Zaza Pachulia (free agent), Gary Neal (free agent), Giannis Antetokounmpo (draft), Nate Wolters (draft)

Losses: Brandon Jennings (trade), J.J. Redick (trade), Luc Mah a Moute (trade), Ish Smith (trade), Viacheslav Kravtsov (trade), Monta Ellis, Drew Gooden, Gustavo Ayon, Samuel Dalembert, Mike Dunleavy

Milwaukee snuck into the postseason a year ago with a sub-.500 record, but if they reach the playoffs again this year it will be with by and large a completely different crew. The Bucks have a completely new perimeter this season, starting at point guard with Brandon Knight and Luke Ridnour entering to try and take the place of Brandon Jennings. At shooting guard, Milwaukee brought in O.J. Mayo and Gary Neal—who excelled for San Antonio from 3-point range in the playoffs. They then added Caron Butler at small forward, who will be backed up by newcomer Carlos Delfino. The only holdovers from last year’s starting lineup are Ersan Ilyasova at power forward and Larry Sanders at center.

Sanders became a household name last year thanks to his strong defense at the hoop. He averaged 2.83 blocks per game, and he compiled at least five blocks in 15 different games. His best all-around effort was his triple-double against the Wolves on Nov. 30 (10 points, 12 rebounds, 10 blocks). Ilyasova averaged 13.2 points and 7.1 boards per game. Milwaukee seems to be a team built with complementary players across the board but with little big-name fire power. Losing Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis means their top two scorers and playmakers are gone, and Milwaukee will need to look elsewhere for that productivity. Reaching the eighth seed in the East could happen again this season, but that might be the ceiling for this team as is—especially with the two teams below them in their own division becoming significantly better this offseason.


DETROIT PISTONS

2012-13 Record: 29-53 (4th Central Division, 11th Eastern Conference—Missed playoffs)

2012-13 Record vs. Timberwolves: 0-2

Additions: Brandon Jennings (trade), Josh Smith (free agent), Chauncey Billups (free agent), Will Bynum (free agent), Luigi Datome (free agent), Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (draft), Tony Mitchell (draft)

Losses: Brandon Knight (trade), Viachelsav Kravtsov (trade), Khris Middleton (trade), Kim English, Jose Calderon, Jason Maxiell

Detroit missed the last four postseasons after an impressive run through the early 2000s that included eight straight playoffs, six straight Eastern Conference finals, two NBA Finals and the 2004 championship. The Pistons did everything they could to put themselves in position to make a playoff return his year. Headlining their offseason moves were trading for point guard Brandon Jennings and signing free agents Josh Smith and Chauncey Billups—Billups being a throwback to those successful days in the past decade. As it stands, Jennings (17.5 ppg) and Billups could be the starting combo in the back court, with the 2-guard spot also including Rodney Stuckey and rookie Kentavious Caldwell-Pope out of Georgia. Smith averaged 17.5 points and 8.4 boards last year for Atlanta. Up front, Greg Monroe provided 16.0 points and 9.6 boards a year ago, while Andre Drummond added 7.9 points, 7.6 boards and 1.58 blocks per game.

Detroit parted ways with Lawrence Frank this offseason in favor of new head coach Maurice Cheeks. Cheeks spent four years in Portland and four years in Philadelphia as a head coach between 2001 and 2009. He made three playoff appearances, losing all three in the first round. Cheeks likely has the best overall roster the Pistons have had since their last playoff appearance in 2008-09. In the East it’s always possible to sneak in with 37 wins. Detroit could climb toward that level in the standings this season.


CLEVELAND CAVALIERS

2012-13 Record: 24-58 (5th Central Division, 13th Eastern Conference—Missed playoffs)

2012-13 Record vs. Timberwolves: 0-2

Additions: Andrew Bynum (free agent), Jarrett Jack (free agent), Earl Clark (free agent), Anthony Bennett (draft), Sergey Karasev (draft)

Losses: Wayne Ellington, Marreese Speights, Omri Casspi, Shaun Livingston, Kevin Jones, Chris Quinn

The team with the most room for upward improvement this season within this division is the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cavs already have the top young point guard in the league in Kyrie Irving (22.5 ppg, 5.9 apg, 1st time All-Star in 2012-13), and they complemented him with Jarrett Jack (12.9 ppg, 5.6 apg, 3rd place Sixth Man of the Year in 2012-13). Dion Waiters had a strong rookie year (14.7 ppg), and Tristan Thompson added 11.7 points and 9.4 boards at power forward. Anderson Varejao, when healthy, gave Cleveland 14.1 points and 14.4 rebounds per game.

Now that front court adds Earl Clark from the Lakers, first overall draft pick Anthony Bennett from UNLV and 2012 All-Star center Andrew Bynum (if healthy—averaged 18.7 ppg and 11.8 rpg in 2011-12) from the Sixers. That revamped front court coupled with Irving makes Cleveland an intriguing pick to move into the bottom half of the East’s playoff field. One other name to ponder is Sergey Karasev, the rookie from Russia who was considered perhaps the most NBA-ready international player in this year’s draft. The small forward will be 20 years old when camp starts. As a throwback to their successful LeBron-era days, Cleveland hired back Mike Brown as coach this offseason. He made five playoff appearances with Cleveland from 2006-2010 and won the East in 2007. Could this Cavs team help Brown make a good return impression among Cleveland fans? The talent suggests it could happen.


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