Superstars come (Jabari), go (P.G.), bounce back (D-Rose), and return (LeBron) in the East’s most fascinating division
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INDIANA PACERS (Last season: 56-26, 1st in Central, 1st in Conference)
IN: C.J. Miles, Rodney Stuckey, Damjan Rudez, Shayne Whittington, Chris Singleton, Adonis Thomas, Arinze Onuaku, C.J. Fair, Lavoy Allen (re-signed)
OUT: Paul George (injury), Lance Stephenson, Evan Turner, Rasual Butler, Andrew Bynum
Just when you thought at the beginning of last season that the worm was finally turning in the Pacers’ favor and the bridesmaid was becoming the bride for once, that hope got dashed in a hurry. Despite finishing with the best record in the Eastern Conference at 56-26, the Pacers were floundering down the stretch thanks to their anemic offense and a mental checking out by Roy Hibbert. An All Star in February, Hibbert disappeared in a number of playoff games for Indiana, almost costing them their first round series against the Atlanta Hawks. The Pacers were still good enough to shake that off and get to the Conference Finals, but they quickly surrendered home court advantage to the Miami Heat and got slapped around by LeBron and company in Game 6. There were many reporters speculating that head coach Frank Vogel was going to be fired by team head honcho Larry Bird, but that did not happen. You would think that stock would be up for the Pacers because of the Heat’s downfall at the top of the Eastern Conference.
The team that had eliminated them in the postseason the last three seasons had become an also-ran, so would the Pacers become a perennial favorite in the East? Well, not with LeBron going to the same division as Indiana and then the awful broken leg suffered by MVP candidate Paul George during a Team USA scrimmage in Las Vegas in August. It is reasonable to think that George will miss the entire season, not too long after Lance Stephenson departed in free agency. Stephenson was a head case but, in hindsight, I have to think that Indiana would have tried harder to keep him after George’s injury. David West is not getting any younger, but he is still the leader of this team and the Pacers go as he wishes this year. Because he is one of the most dominant defensive forces in the league when he truly applies himself, Hibbert cannot spend games moping on the bench like a malcontent this year when the team needs him most. George Hill took a bit of a step back last year, so I was happy that they got another guard in Rodney Stuckey to try to take the load off. In place of George will be new signee C.J. Miles, a solid forward who always works hard, but there is no way he can replace what P.G. brought to that team. Another new face is Damjan Rudez, a Croatian big man who is a skilled outside shooter.
PREDICTION: When Derrick Rose went down in Chicago, Tom Thibodeau made the right move by tightening up his game plan, slowing the pace down, and focusing on teamwork and toughness. I expect the same from Frank Vogel this year without Paul George on a team that was already the best defensive squad in the league statistically. It does mean that the Pacers will be in a holding pattern on the offensive end, probably doing worse than 96.7 PPG they averaged last year. They were so obsessed last season with taking out the Miami Heat, and fell way short of that goal when it mattered most. Now, with a depleted roster and a new kid on the block, the goal for this Pacers team is to just survive. Despite Hibbert’s presence and West’s leadership, I don’t see this team getting to the playoffs as constituted. Get well and come back stronger than ever, P.G.! (3rd in Central, 9th in Conference)
IN: Pau Gasol, Kirk Hinrich (re-signed), Nazr Mohammed (re-signed), Nikola Mirotic, Aaron Brooks, E’Twaun Moore, Doug McDermott (draft), Cameron Bairstow (draft)
OUT: Carlos Boozer, D.J. Augustin, Jimmer Fredette, Ronnie Brewer, Lou Amundson, Mike James
As the Indiana Pacers seem destined to tumble out of the top spot in the Central Division, one of the best contenders to take over at #1 is the team that had been there in 2011 and 2012 before Derrick Rose’s catastrophic knee injury, and that’s the Chicago Bulls. All systems were go for Rose to come back from a torn ACL in his left knee this past season, but it was only in passing. Rose played just 10 games with stats well below his previous averages when he tore the meniscus in his right knee in November, shutting him down for the season once again. If there were clamors already that Rose would never be the same after the first knee injury, those had turned into catcalls by 2014 as Rose sat out the majority of another season. The Bulls fought hard despite lacking in offensive firepower thanks to the emergence of reigning Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah, but they lost in the first round to the Washington Wizards.
Head coach Tom Thibodeau is a whiz when it comes to team defense, but he and G.M. Gar Foreman knew that merely waiting for Rose to re-emerge as an MVP-caliber player (which may never happen) was not going to be enough. They moved around contracts and amnestied Carlos Boozer hoping to get Carmelo Anthony or trade for Kevin Love. When those deals fell through, they signed Pau Gasol to give them a scoring center, something they desperately needed. They traded up in the draft to get Doug McDermott, the fifth all-time leading scorer in college basketball out of Creighton and a perfect cure to the Bulls’ three-point shooting ills. They added to the bench by signing Aaron Brooks and 6’10” Nikola Mirotic from Real Madrid. They were able to get Gasol without giving up energetic sixth man Taj Gibson, defensive stalwart Jimmy Butler, or veteran back-up point guard Kirk Hinrich. Rose also looked quick on his feet playing under Thibodeau in the FIBA World Cup. If he can cure his rusty jump shot come regular season time, Rose will fit right back in alongside Noah, Gasol, Butler, and Gibson.
PREDICTION: Thibs’ defense is still the name of the game in Chi-town, but with the offense much improved, it won’t be a surprise anymore when the Bulls blow teams out in the regular season. The one issue is that although Foreman did a lot to add offensive firepower to a team that was near the bottom of the NBA in scoring, will those pieces fit the defensive strategy and will the mainstays improve on offense in consequence? Pau is known for taking plays off on defensive assignments, and even though Butler logged in more minutes than any other player in the league, his offensive impact was miniscule. Having good defensive players alongside good offensive players does not fix both sides of the ball if it doesn’t flow well, and team unity is such a key component to Thibodeau’s strategy. Rose’s individual impact is pivotal, as well. The silver lining? Chicago’s defense will be the only thing standing in the way of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ newly pimped offense running roughshod over the East. (2nd in Central, 3rd in Conference)
IN: Greg Monroe (re-signed), Jodie Meeks, Cartier Martin, D.J. Augustin, Caron Butler, Aaron Gray, Hasheem Thabeet, Lorenzo Brown, Joel Anthony (trade), Spencer Dinwiddie (draft), Stan Van Gundy (head coach)
OUT: Rodney Stuckey, Chauncey Billups, Charlie Villanueva, Will Bynum, Josh Harrellson, Peyton Siva, Maurice Cheeks (head coach)
It was another year, another coach, another forgettable trek for the Detroit Pistons last season. In what turned out to be his last major decision in the Pistons front office, G.M. Joe Dumars fired Maurice Cheeks after 50 games and replaced him with assistant John Loyer. Loyer did even worse, going 8-24 and finishing with 30 or less wins for the fifth season in a row. Dumars was finally let go after years of awful moves like signing Charlie Villanueva and Ben Gordon to fat contracts and most recently signing the uninspired Josh Smith. Gordon and Villanueva are finally gone and so are Rodney Stuckey and Chauncey Billups, but even more change was necessary. Owner Tom Gores expected to be in the playoffs with this roster last season, so it was no surprise that the front office move was a dramatic one. Gores decided to hand the reins of both head coach and president of basketball operations to Stan Van Gundy, who was last seen coaching Dwight Howard in Orlando back in 2012 before being dismissed. Although he has a tendency to sound off in the media, you cannot criticize Van Gundy’s success as a head coach. He has never coached a losing season when he was in Miami or Orlando and led the Magic to an NBA Finals appearance in 2009. In his tenure as Magic head coach, Van Gundy’s teams averaged 52 wins.
Now without having to answer to anyone but the owner, Stan the Man is back in the van motoring into the Motor City where he might get a case of déjà vu. Van Gundy inherited a physically dominant defensive center in Dwight Howard when he took over in Orlando, and the same goes in Detroit where he will coach Andre Drummond, a rebounding machine at the ripe age of 21. Stan has already stated that he is going to revolve the team around Drummond, and many expect him to surround Drummond with a bevy of three-point shooters in the same way that he did with Dwight in Orlando. Hence, the signing of Jodie Meeks, a dead-eye three-point shooter. The early returns won’t be good because Meeks will be out until mid-December with a back injury. Josh Smith may already be out of the loop, but moving his contract with three years left on it has already proven difficult. Brandon Jennings is another headache, but he posted a career high in assists last year and D.J. Augustin is a solid back-up so things are looking up at the point guard position. Greg Monroe signed a one-year tender offer, but he is more of a roamer who compliments Drummond inside than a shooter. Stuckey is gone, but I like the potential of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in that guard spot. Will Bynum and Kyle Singler boost the bench, and I can see Singler as a starter in the same role that Hedo Turkoglu had back in the day. Caron Butler will probably be the locker room leader of this team, and he showed in Milwaukee and Oklahoma City that he can still ball.
PREDICTION: I spent a lot of my breakdown for the Pistons comparing them to Stan Van Gundy’s previous Magic tenure and how it was handled, and I cannot help but do it given that this team was, in essence, handed to Stan to try to revive a once-great franchise. In Van Gundy’s first year in Orlando, his team won 52 games, but that team was almost ready-made for future success. Drummond is a bright spot for the Pistons going forward, but the depth of talent is not there yet and, like Lionel Hollins in Brooklyn this season, it does not feel like this team is the perfect mold for the style of play that Van Gundy prefers. We may not see the true identity of this team until the Greg Monroe and Josh Smith contract situations get settled next year. For now, I chalk this up as a learning year despite a slight increase in wins. This division is just too loaded now for upward mobility. (4th in Central, 11th in Conference)
CLEVELAND CAVALIERS (Last season: 33-49, 3rd in Central, 10th in Conference)
IN: LeBron James, Kevin Love (trade), Mike Miller, Shawn Marion, James Jones, Brendan Haywood (trade), A.J. Price, Alex Kirk, Shane Edwards, Lou Amundson, Joe Harris (draft), David Blatt (head coach)
OUT: Luol Deng, C.J. Miles, Jarrett Jack, Alonzo Gee, Tyler Zeller, Anthony Bennett, Carrick Felix, Sergey Karasev, Scotty Hopson, Mike Brown (head coach)
My, my, what a difference a summer makes in the NBA. You could almost hear the heads shaking when the Cleveland Cavaliers, missing the playoffs by a wide margin for the fourth season in a row, won the top overall pick in the NBA Draft lottery. Fans had felt bad for Cleveland because of the Decision in 2010, but owner Dan Gilbert and management had not proven much with their offseason moves since drafting point guard Kyrie Irving #1 in 2011. Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters have been wildly inconsistent, 2013 top pick Anthony Bennett was a no-show his rookie year, and many thought that Joel Embiid was going to the Cavs in this past draft before he broke his foot in a workout. Embiid’s Kansas teammate Andrew Wiggins was picked up under the assumption that he would be the Cavs’ small forward for the future. But the small forward of the future turned out to be a familiar face- maybe the greatest one of all time.
After weeks of courtship in July preceded by years of speculation that the prodigal son would eventually return, the Cavaliers won the biggest lottery of them all by luring hometown savior LeBron James back to Cleveland on a two-year, $42 million deal. James made all of his points pretty poignant in his essay published by Sports Illustrated announcing the Decision Part II, but like all decisions, there was an ulterior motive. Unlike the team he departed from four years ago, LeBron is joining a team with two weapons he has never had the luxury of utilizing before: An All Star point guard and an All Star rebounder. The former is Irving while the latter is power forward Kevin Love, whom the Cavs were able to take off of Minnesota’s hands in exchange for Wiggins and Bennett. You can basically take the last two #1 picks Cleveland won and write Kevin Love’s name on them, and I cannot fault them for that move. Love was second in the league in rebounding and is one of the best shooters in the league to boot. Irving struggled as the leader of the Cavaliers under Byron Scott and Mike Brown, but that won’t be an issue anymore now that King James is the alpha male now. I think Irving, who was the MVP of the FIBA World Cup for Team USA, will thrive as LeBron’s newest backcourt sidekick.
There is a new and fresher Big Three in NBA lore with James, Love, and Kyrie, but there is plenty more where that came from. LeBron didn’t need a lot of convincing from G.M. David Griffin or Gilbert, whom he patched things up with during negotiations, that the Cavs had a better supporting cast going forward than the Miami Heat did. Waiters has an irrational style, but is a fearless guard who can handle the ball and can be unguardable one-on-one at times. Thompson can make for a pretty good back-up power forward while Anderson Varejao is one of the league’s best rebounders and can easily play the center position alongside Love. LeBron did some recruiting of his own by bringing in his ex-Heat teammates James Jones and Mike Miller to spot up for what will likely be a litany of three-point shots. Future Hall of Famer Ray Allen, another LeBron aide from Miami, may not be far behind. Shawn Marion, LeBron’s foil in the 2011 NBA Finals, is winding down, but he still has good defensive presence and can bring a lot to the table. Then there is new head coach David Blatt, whom Griffin had hired away after his Maccabi Tel Aviv club won the Euroleague title. Blatt was hired before LeBron decided to return, but he has a reputation for being an offensive genius who runs a modified blend of the Princeton offense. He doesn’t need to look too far for inspiration in Cleveland, and I expect him to turn heads as a first-year coach on offense the way that Tom Thibodeau did in Chicago on defense.
PREDICTION: Well, the last time LeBron James was in Cleveland, the team won 66 games with a roster that was far worse overall than the one he is joining this year. It’s safe to say that at 30, LeBron is a better player and a much better leader now than he ever was during his first stint with the Cavs. He has played with a great guard and unique big man in Miami where athleticism was a key component, but this will be a new type of guard and big with a wider variety of offensive options and playmaking ability. The biggest worries will be team defense and if James is willing to run Blatt’s high-motion offense efficiently without having to touch the ball on every possession like he did in Miami. Will Blatt use LeBron as a point forward to draw double teams and find open shooters or will he let Irving do most of the ball handling with LeBron creating match-up nightmares off the ball? And even though Love is a great rebounder, his one-on-one defense is pretty soft, as is Kyrie’s. I have a feeling this might be the worst defense LeBron will ever play under, but James is a premier defender who can eradicate a lot of gaffes without help. It is going to be quite the mixed bag in Cleveland, but it’s a pretty damn talented one, and I know not to doubt LeBron’s success in the Eastern Conference anymore. (1st in Central, 1st in Conference)
IN: Jabari Parker (draft), Jerryd Bayless, Jared Dudley (trade), Kendall Marshall, Chris Wright, Elijah Millsap, Johnny O’Bryant (draft), Damien Inglis (draft), Jason Kidd (head coach)
OUT: Ekpe Udoh, Ramon Sessions, Carlos Delfino, Miroslav Raduljica, Jeff Adrien, Larry Drew (head coach)
While the Philadelphia 76ers had one of those losing seasons that are memorably bad, the Milwaukee Bucks may have had an even more dangerous one: The kind that absolutely no one remembers. Not only did the Bucks have the worst record in the NBA last season, but it was unanimously forgettable squad with players that would have been difficult to pick out of any grouping. Their most efficient offensive player was journeyman Khris Middleton. Brandon Knight and O.J. Mayo made up the worst starting backcourt in the league. They were 28th in the league in points scored and 25th in points allowed. They didn’t reach double digits in wins until the All Star break. Everyone knew it was going to be a struggle from the beginning for head coach Larry Drew when he took the job in 2013, but little did he know that the new suitors in Milwaukee were ready to make a power play.
After purchasing the Bucks from Herb Kohl for a then-record $550 million (obliterated by Steve Ballmer’s Clippers purchase a few months later), Wes Edens and Marc Lasry got into the meddling game early and made a move to hire first-year head coach Jason Kidd away from the Brooklyn Nets. Kidd squirmed his way to Milwaukee under the promise of managerial power without the knowledge of Drew or Bucks general manager John Hammond. Drew was quickly replaced while Hammond remains, but the as slimy and scummy as it was, Kidd’s arrival was able to put the Milwaukee Bucks back into the headlines not too long after getting maybe the most ready rookie in a loaded draft class. There is little doubt to the minds of most that Duke freshman Jabari Parker is not only on his way to superstardom in the next few years as a prolific scoring forward, but also going to get plenty of opportunities to score in Milwaukee. It was too small a sample size to figure out how Kidd likes to dictate his players, but I imagine he will adjust to the abundance of forwards on the team, from big man Larry Sanders to marksman Ersan Ilyasova to shot blocker John Henson. The one that peaked my interest last year was the “Greek Freak” Giannis Antetokounmpo, who averaged 6.8 points, 4.4 rebounds, 1.9 assists in only 24 minutes as a rookie. He is obviously raw, but his athleticism and play making ability will perfectly play off of Jabari’s natural scoring ability. I also thought Hammond did a sneaky job of getting Kendall Marshall off of waivers from the Lakers. He can only pass, but that’s a lot better than anything Knight can do for them.
PREDICTION: When looking at the front court going into the future, there are some that might be outright excited about the prospects of the Milwaukee Bucks. Unfortunately, good things down the road are usually the reward for painstaking struggles on that journey, and Jason Kidd has his work cut out for him with a roster far worse than the one he handled in Brooklyn. Parker is a guy whose face you can plaster on a banner outside of the Bradley Center, but there will be hardships for he and Kidd this coming season. Kidd wanted more power and he got his way, but have fun taking that creaky walk down into the basement of the NBA. I don’t expect them to have the worst record in the league this year, however. (5th in Central, 13th in Conference)