NBA Central Division Preview

TheSportsNotebook’s NBA commentary has been doing tours of each of the league’s six divisions in anticipation of the October 29 regular season opener. Today we focus in on the NBA Central Division, with a look at each team’s lineup and how they compare to their expectations, as measured by the NBA win futures in Las Vegas.

It’s an interesting division, with both Chicago and Indiana seeing themselves as title contenders and having legitimate basis for that belief. Cleveland and Detroit see themselves as a ready to make the playoffs, and they also have reason for confidence. Milwaukee probably doesn’t know what to think of themselves after an offseason of change, but as we’ll see, they have enough talent to be interesting.

Chicago: The return of Derrick Rose makes the Bulls the favorite in this division and reminds us all that this was the #1 seed in the Eastern Conference for the 2012 NBA playoffs, before Rose blew out his knee in the first game of that postseason.

Rose pairs up with Kirk Hinrich and Jimmy Butler, each of whom make competent two-guards and provide different skill sets, with Hinrich being a shooter and Butler able to take defenders off the dribble. The frontcourt is going to be very strong, with Joakim Noah anchoring the middle and flanked by Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer at the forward spots. The opportunity for Deng to play an enhanced role over the last year-plus will end up as a long-term positive that comes out of the Rose injury.

Chicago’s expectations are hefty, at 56.5, and it’s lot to ask of a team to go 57-25 when I’m sure their best player is still going to be monitored carefully. I mean no aspersions on Chicago’s championship hopes when I say the safe bet is the Under.

Indiana: The Pacers took Miami to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals of the 2013 NBA playoffs and with that experience under their belt, Indiana meets the classic definition of an NBA team that has bided its time and is ready to take their turn. But they have to make sure the backcourt is up to snuff.

I’m surprised the Pacers didn’t do more with their guards. They’re still going with the George Hill-Lance Stephenson combo and C.J. Watson backing them up. It’s not bad, but against the top teams–which now include Chicago again, as well as Miami–it’s not a strength.

The good news is up front, where Roy Hibbert had a breakout showing in the Miami series and demonstrated he can dominate the middle. David West is a very consistent at power forward and Paul George gave the team legitimate star power at small forward. George had a meltdown in Game 7 in Miami, but that simply makes him a microcosm of the team–took his lumps this year, and now stronger for the experience.

Indiana has added Luis Scola to provide even more depth. The health of Danny Granger is an issue. If he can get on the court he’s a great scorer and possible trade chip. But he missed almost all of last year and is struggling with a calf issue right now.

I’m seriously considering making the Pacers my championship pick next week, but even given that I don’t like to go Over on big numbers like 55.5. I’m making an exception in this case–I don’t see them going any lower than 53 wins and I think a 58-60 win season is possible. That means more room on the Over.

Detroit: After a few years out of the postseason, the Pistons made a free-agent splash when they signed power forward Josh Smith away from Atlanta. Smith can score inside and outside, and can also rebound. The key for Detroit will be making sure Smith understands that the outside has to flow from the interior game and not vice-versa. That’s a long-winded of saying he can’t sit around on the three-point line.

Greg Monroe joins Smith to make a good forward tandem . The guards are the question mark right now–Rodney Stuckey and Brandon Jennings are going to miss some time to start the year, though it appears not a lot. Jennings, just acquired from Milwaukee still has to mesh with the offense. The minor injuries might end up working out for the best, since it means more playing time for first-round pick Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.

Detroit’s expectations are at 40. I can see them as a .500 team, but not a lot better. The playoffs are very much in play, but in the East, it has not always required 40 wins to get there. I’m leaning to the Under.

Cleveland: This is one team with no guards issues. Not when Kyrie Irving is in the house, Dion Waiters is developing and Jarrett Jack has been brought in from Golden State to provide a little depth. What the Cavs needs is for the frontcourt to come through.

To that end, Cleveland took a prudent risk of Andrew Bynum’s health and attitude. The temperamental center is not yet ready to play, but doesn’t appear far from it. I love the top overall draft pick of Anthony Bennett, a physical power forward and I still think Tristan Thompson can be a decent NBA starter.

In spite of that, Cleveland is still an Under pick for me. Their win prop is the same 40 that Detroit is, and my reasons are basically the same–the Cavaliers can meet their goals without necessarily winning 40 games, even in a best-case scenario they aren’t going much higher and if anything goes wrong, they could end up in the low 30s.

Milwaukee: With Jennings gone, and Monta Ellis shipped out, the Bucks high scoring backcourt that led them to the playoffs last year is gone and the expectations have tanked, down to a 28.5 win prop.

That’s a little harsh. Milwaukee brought in O.J. Mayo, Caron Butler and Gary Neal to man the perimeter. Brandon Knight isn’t ideal at point guard, but he’s manageable, and Larry Sanders superb defensive skills at center will wipe away mistakes on the perimeter. Sanders is also a maturing offensive player, and Ersan Ilyasova can help with points from the forward spot.

A key X-factor will be if John Henson is ready to help up front. The third-year player was a first-round pick out of North Carolina, but his rail-thin frame meant he needed some time to physically develop. The Bucks need him to produce now, and if he does, Henson will be another shotblocking threat.

I’m going Over on Milwaukee.

TheSportsNotebook’s NBA commentary will have a final preseason overview just prior to next Tuesday’s opener, where we’ll tie together all six divisional previews, and make some playoff predictions.