NBA Season Preview: Central Division (10/21/16)

By Sean Pyritz @srpyritz

We are but a few days from the start of the 2016-17 NBA season and thus our season previews are coming to an end. Over the past month, we have covered the Southeast, Pacific, Atlantic, and Southwest divisions. This week, we round out the Eastern Conference with an eye on the Central Division.

Division Winner – Cleveland Cavaliers

What a story. LeBron James returns home with a single goal in mind: bring a championship to a city starving for a champion. Two years in, against the best regular season team ever, LeBron James accomplished his mission after falling behind 3-1 in the Finals. Underneath this triumphant victory is LeBron James' historic dominance over the Eastern Conference. He has now reached the Finals in six consecutive seasons, capturing a division championship each year. Nothing happened this offseason to offer a credible threat to seven years running for The King. The Pacers and Bulls each made dramatic changes to their roster but still face doubts about the playoffs let alone a division championship. Thanks to an unfortunate significant injury to Kris Middleton, the Bucks are staring at more lottery balls. Detroit, perhaps best positioned to sniff the Central championship, has injury woes of its own paving a difficult road to the top. So, even with the departure of Matthew Dellavedova and a narrow focus on postseason success to the potential detriment of the regular season, the Cavaliers are the prohibitive favorites to three-peat atop the Central Division – even if they don't claim the crown in the East as a whole.

As they have disproportionately consumed national airwaves the past two seasons, the rest of the division preview will put the Cavaliers aside and focus on the other four teams vying for a spot in a crowded Eastern Conference playoff picture.

All-Central Division Team (sans-Cavs)

G – Reggie Jackson | Detroit Pistons

After receiving platelet-rich plasma injections in his ailing knee and thumb, Jackson is set to miss the first 15 to 20 games of the season, a major obstacle for the Pistons' hopes of gaining home court advantage in the playoffs. If there was any single player the Pistons could least afford to lose from the lineup, Reggie Jackson was probably the guy – with all due respect to Andre Drummond, more on him later. Perhaps no position in the league was leaned on more to create offense for its team last season than the Detroit point guard position. Jackson led the NBA in both seconds and dribbles per touch last season, with back-up Steve Blake finishing in the top ten in each as well. Such heavy ball usage reflects the high pick-and-roll-centric offense that placed Detroit near the bottom of the league in both passes made and assisted field goals. While not necessarily bad, it is difficult to be successful on offense with such limited ball movement and creation for others. With Jackson out, the Pistons will have to rejigger their half-court offense, which could prove to be a blessing, setting a blue print for more assists and less burden on Jackson upon his return.

I will admit, when previewing some of his Eastern Conference peers, I overlooked Jackson. I'm sorry Mr. Jackson, you are for real. When he is healthy, opposing defenses face a challenge on par with the best the position has to offer in the East. Amongst starting point guards in the East last year, Jackson ranked third in assist percentage behind only John Wall and his new teammate, Ish Smith. He also took care of the ball at a top ten rate all while handling the third highest usage and the most pick and rolls. Sifting through his shooting numbers, he holds up with the best of them from all over the court. In fact, Jackson shot as well or better than All-Star Isaiah Thomas from every part of the floor – excluding the left corner three. However, Thomas had a healthy lead in true shooting percentage over Jackson (.562 versus .535) - shedding light on Jackson's room for improvement near the rim. Relying heavily on his in-between floater game, Jackson attempted the most shots in the paint outside of the restricted area (charge circle). The twin effect is lower attempts at the rim and lower rate of free throw attempts. In four playoff games against Cleveland last year, Jackson attempted just four free throws. If the Pistons are going to win a playoff series, Jackson needs to improve his efficiency by not settling for floaters and continuing to draw more fouls – helping his own and the efficiency of the entire Pistons offense.

G – Jimmy Butler | Chicago Bulls

Chicago is Jimmy Butler's team, just as it was before Dwyane Wade arrived reassuring his hometown fans it will continue to be so. Take a trip to the United Center and its Jimmy Butler's charismatic smile adorning the jumbotron before the game promoting the sponsors and Jimmy Butler's feet racking up over 2.5 miles over the course of the game – the most of anyone in the league. Touted as a defender coming out of college, Butler has grown into the rare breed that disrupts the game on both ends – sustaining his offensive production this past season with an additional hint of playmaking. With an ever growing pile of hardware – three All-Defense teams, Most Improved Player, two All-Star games, Olympic gold medal - Butler is well on his way to becoming the best player to ever be drafted 30th overall. Plain and simple, Jimmy Butler is the heart and soul of the Chicago Bulls.

With all that being said, the big question remains: who handles the ball at the end of the game? This question confounded the Bulls last season, who tried to appease both Butler and Derrick Rose – each using 30 percent of possessions in the last five minutes of close games. Replacing Rose with Dwyane Wade hardly hardly solves the problem – Wade's usage rate in the same scenarios last year in Miami was over 40 percent. Should I even mention Rajon Rondo is also on this team, a man not exactly known for his off-ball prowess. Integrating these three into a full 48-minute game should prove to be an interesting challenge for Coach Fred Hoiberg, but at the end of the game, they present a near impossible task. Ideally, their talent and multi-dimensional skillsets will provide the Bulls with a myriad of options down the stretch. However, as Stan Van Gundy has said, at the end of the game, the NBA is a one play league. Thus, who will be trusted to score at the end of that one play remains up in the air, and the only remaining threat to Jimmy Butler's status as the face of the franchise.

F – Paul George | Indiana Pacers

The Indiana Pacers have completely overhauled their roster since making the Eastern Conference Finals in 2014 – reloading around their franchise centerpiece, Paul George. Miraculously, George picked up right where he left on his climb to superstardom last season, posting career highs in points, assists, free throw attempts, usage rate, and true shooting percentage. It's almost easy to forget this man suffered a horrific leg injury just two summers ago, costing him basically the entirety of his 2015 season. Although, consider he posted career lows in dunks and field goal attempts within two feet of the rim. Perhaps this reflects a hesitancy due to the nature of his injury or signals a peaking of his athleticism and explosiveness. Regardless, George has a sweet midrange and three-point jump shot he can rely upon even if his legs aren't as spry as they once were.

At the prime age of 26, coming off an incredible postseason performance, George must have Pacers fans excited about any team built around him. George flashed the type of two-way potential rarely seen in this league, leading the Pacers to a game seven and nearly upsetting the Raptors in the first round. On both ends, George made life a living hell for the Raptors, averaging 27.3 points, 7.6 rebounds, 4.3 assists on 41.9 % shooting from deep on one end and giving DeMar DeRozan nightmares on the other. When it comes to individual defense at the small forward position, perhaps only Kawhi Leonard can best Paul George. And, just like Kawhi, George is still improving. If it wasn't for LeBron James, George would be take the crown as not only the best small forward in the division, but also the best player. We shall see if he can take a LeBron-esque step and lead his team past the first round of the playoffs this season, as it remains to be seen how the rest of the Pacers roster will fit together.

F – Giannis Antetokounmpo | Milwaukee Bucks

Perhaps the only thing harder to do than pronounce his name is establishing his position. Is he a point guard, a small forward, a power forward, a point forward, a unicorn? Nobody knows, not even his coach. But it doesn't matter. What matters is Giannis will be shouldering the burden of primary shot creator, something he handled spectacularly after the All-Star break last season. Only LeBron James assisted on a larger share of his teammates' baskets amongst forwards after the All-Star break in 2016, but Giannis topped him in both defensive rebounding and taking care of the ball in the same window. In fact, in the final 28 games, aside from shooting, Giannis outplayed his season averages to the tune of 18.8 points, 8.6 rebounds, 7.2 assists, 1.4 steals, and 1.9 blocks per game – freakish numbers indeed.

Sadly, the Milwaukee Bucks will likely be without Kris Middleton for the majority if not all of this season. To a team already starving for three-point shooting, losing his team-best 143 threes and 39.6 % from last season is a devastating blow. The highest volume three-point shooter returning to the roster from last season is Rashad Vaughn who made 43 three-pointers at only 29.3 % accuracy. Thankfully, the Bucks added both Dellavedova and Mirza Teletovic - 39.8 % and 37.5 % career three-point shooters, respectively – in an attempt to address the shooting woes that placed them dead last in made three pointers in 2016. The lack of shooting in Milwaukee makes Giannis' emergence as a distributor even more impressive. Of the 345 assists Giannis handed out, only 70 came in the form of a three-pointer – a measly 20.3 %. In comparison, 255 of LeBron's 514 assists ended in three points – nearly 50 %. LeBron is certainly better at finding teammates and creating open shots than Giannis, but not to the dramatic degree reflected in those numbers. Without Middleton, even with the new additions, the Bucks will have to take a rain check on weaponizing Giannis to his fullest potential, leaving the playoffs in serious doubt. Nevertheless, the freshly extended Greek is turning just 22 this season and enduring the hardships of a cramped court should pay great dividends when the floor finally opens up in the seasons to come.

C – Andre Drummond | Detroit Pistons

Andre Drummond wins this spot almost by default. The Bucks have a logjam at the center position, the Bulls have lots of talent in the frontcourt behind Robin Lopez that will chip away at his minutes, Indiana is anchored by an unproven second year player with high upside, and Cleveland is disqualified. Drummond earns this spot with or without the qualifier due to his dramatic impact on Detroit's offense and rebounding. As the other half of the Reggie Jackson pick-and-roll Detroit leaned on so heavily last season, Drummond selflessly sets screens and rolls to the basket, often knowing he will not be receiving a pass for his trouble. The threat of put back or lob is enough to attract additional help defenders, in similar fashion to Hassan Whiteside in Miami. The threat of the put back is especially legitimate – Drummond led the NBA in put back opportunities last season by a wide margin. His imposing rolling presence engineers spacing for Reggie Jackson on a Detroit team in the bottom third of the league in shooting.

Drummond may be the most dichotomous player in the league. On the one hand, he is a ferocious rebounder, perhaps the league's best – largely responsible for Detroit finishing second in both offensive rebounding percentage and opponent defensive rebounding percentage. On the other hand, Drummond struggles in many of the skill areas of the game, namely free throw shooting, and is not quite as impactful on defense as his size and athleticism might suggest he should be – he is still just 23 years old so, defensive expectations should be tampered. His field goal percentage is awfully low for a man with his size and pick-and-roll frequency. The answer resides on the block where Drummond used the fourth most post up possessions in the league, despite scoring just 0.73 points and shooting only 39.6 %. For Detroit to improve offensively, Drummond must either improve in this area – including passing if and when double teamed – or Detroit must ease off the post up throttle. There is so much potential for Drummond to dominate on both sides of the ball and Coach Stan Van Gundy is the perfect man to help him achieve such greatness.

Best of the Rest

6th ManStanley Johnson | Detroit Pistons

A bit of a controversial pick, especially with more established bench players strewn throughout the division, but Stanley Johnson is a particularly superb and unique talent for a bench player. There are not many players of his size, skill, and versatility coming off the bench in this league. He has the potential to come into the game and completely change the dynamic of the game, allowing Detroit the flexibility to play small and potentially super small (no center or traditional power forward) like they did against Cleveland in an attempt to preserve their season down the stretch of game four. You may remember Johnson took a stab at defending/trash-talking LeBron James in that series. It did not go so well for him, but his mindset and competitiveness against the best player in the world give me great confidence that Johnson will have a short career coming off the bench.

Player to WatchJabari Parker | Milwaukee Bucks

The Giannis hype train is swelling. I'm not even sure my blurb above was enough to grant me access on board. This train is so huge and so loud that it is drowning out all the anticipation over the former number two overall pick, the man selected to be the franchise player – Jabari Parker. This is a particularly important season for Parker to prove the ACL tear that cut down his rookie season and lingered into the beginning of last season is no longer an issue and he can return to the form that landed him so high in the draft. Milwaukee has already picked up his option for the 2018 season (as if that was in doubt) but he is by no means a lock for a maximum deal the following summer, as would have been presumed a sure thing by this time on draft night. Without any semblance of an outside jump shot, Parker needs to show improvement getting to the foul line, making plays for others, and/or rebounding if he wants to claim back some of the limelight shining brightly on Giannis. Without the rounding out of the margins of his game, Parker could fall out of fashion along with other high-volume scorers with unreliable jump shots. I expect big improvements from Parker - the fuel behind any hope Milwaukee has for the playoffs.

Key Offseason AcquisitionThaddeus Young | Indiana Pacers

Thaddeus Young might not be the most perfect fit on this Pacers team due to his lack of perimeter shooting, but that has not prevented him from fitting in at every other stop in his career. Young is now entering his 10th season without ever shooting over 35 % from beyond the arc or making 100 threes in any season (are those arbitrary cut-offs? Yes, but stay with me). Where the league has zigged, Young's career has zagged – to his benefit. Out of necessity in order to survive, Young has developed a wide range of layups, flip shots, and floaters to legitimize his sneaky cutting and rebounding game as a positive contribution. His game is so unconventional that he confounds opponents accustomed to the new style at the power forward position. On defense, Young can add a layer to the Pacers defense that has not had a four man mobile enough to disrupt offense on the perimeter in the Paul George era. The Pacers did a lot of restructuring of the roster this offseason, but Young stands out as the best fit and best bet to make a positive impact right away.

Most Missed PlayerMatthew Dellavedova | Cleveland Cavaliers

I am breaking my rule because there are no clear candidates on the other teams in the division. For as big of a role the Australian Olympic bronze medalist will be asked to play in Milwaukee this year, he is leaving behind a nearly identically sized hole in the Cavaliers rotation this season. Sure, last year the Cavs proved they did not need Dellavedova to beat the Warriors in a seven game series. However, given that the only reliable NBA point guard on the Cavaliers, Kyrie Irving, has never played a full 82 game regular season and the Cavaliers clear focus is on the postseason, there is a major uncertainty on the Cleveland second unit in the regular season. What makes Dellavedova special as a role player is his intensity and tenacity picking up opposing point guards on defense supplementing an ability to play without the ball on offense. Cleveland did not fill that role in the offseason and could suffer over the first 82 games, especially if Kyrie misses an extended period of time like last season.

Play of the Division – Cleveland Cavaliers

Once again I am going back on my word. I chose a play from the Cavs mostly because of a lack of good available footage from the other teams in the division. This play is another simple but effective quick hitter. Any time the Cavaliers involve all three of their stars as they do in the clip below, good things tend to happen.

The play is pretty much a dead give away with Kyrie Irving starting at the elbow, a very unusual starting position for him or any point guard for that matter. Alert defenses should smell something fishy right away. Action commences with a misdirection by JR Smith who makes an “Ivo” cut across the free throw line, using Irving and Love as screeners at the elbows. The right side of the floor is now overloaded with Channing Frye sliding to the corner. After setting the decoy screen for Smith at the elbow, Love pops to receive a pass from LeBron. You can see the layup before it happens as LeBron makes a hard cut off the back screen from Irving. Once again, a back screens by good shooter leads to a layup because help is a dubious proposition. The simple interchange between Frye and Smith behind Love along the sideline occupies any potential help defense. Love has lots of experience operating at the elbow from his days in Minnesota, so he is well prepared to handle ball pressure and make a nice pass on time and on target to LeBron. Great execution, great results!

Stat of the Division – 41,068

As its name implies, the Central Division is in the center of the NBA landscape. As such, teams in the Central Division average the fewest travel miles of any division. Over the past three years, the average Central team has traveled 41,0168 miles in a given season. The newly improved NBA schedule has dropped the overall travel miles across the league – Central teams traveled only 37,509 miles on average last season, nearly 3,000 miles fewer than the next closest division. However, all these travel savings come with a price. There is a trade off in the schedule between travel miles and back-to-backs. The Central Division plays a combined 87 back-to-backs this season, the most in the league. Traveling the most miles of any division in each of the past three season, the Northwest Division has the fewest back-to-backs in 2017. Whether fewer travel miles or fewer back-to-backs is ideal for performance is a question only those playing the games can answer, but it is interesting quirk in the schedule nonetheless.

Bold Prediction – The Central Division will be represented by four teams in the playoffs

The Eastern Conference has a large glut of teams that could conceivably make the playoffs and only a few teams almost certain to get in. Last season, the Cavs, Pistons, and Pacers all went to the playoffs. Detroit and Cleveland are pretty much universally accepted to be sure things for a repeat trip to the postseason, even with Reggie Jackson missing games. Indiana is almost a completely different team, but I believe Paul George will be good enough to lead them to the playoffs regardless of how well the new faces fit together. The wild card in this prediction is Chicago. Just like Indiana, the Bulls roster reconfiguration begs many questions, most notably will there be enough space around a backcourt devoid of three-point shooting? The reality is there are many teams with the same shooting concerns vying to break out of the lottery (Orlando, Washington, Milwaukee, New York). I believe the veteran talent and depth of the Bulls will push them over the edge and back into the playoffs. By my estimation, the Central Division is the most talented division in the East. It is only appropriate they are the most well represented after 82 games.