NBA 2013-’14 Season Preview: Central Division

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We continue our exploration of the wild, the innocent and the Broad Street kerfuffle in the NBA. This installment focuses on #thereturn, Roy Hibbert’s quasi-homophobia and the transcendence of Kyrie Irving.

1. Chicago Bulls

2012-’13 regular season record: 45-37, 2nd in the Central Division

Key additions: G/F Mike Dunleavy, F Erik Murphy, F Tony Snell

Key losses: G Nate Robinson, G Marco Belinelli, G/F Richard Hamilton

2013-’14 Linchpin: G Derrick Rose. After a much-hyped campaign surrounding the Rose’s possible return last season from a torn ACL suffered in the previous year’s playoffs, the 2012 NBA MVP never set foot on the court, even as his team seemed on the brink of breakthrough, seemingly needing only a high-volume scorer and playmaker. Rose will be the most scrutinized player in the league this season, and his inexpressive countenance off the court will yield to the effervescent play with which he was able to ignite the league in his first two years. Or at least that is what Chicago can hope, having given him an entire season to heal.

Overall: The Bulls could possess the best chance of anyone in the Eastern Conference of knocking off the Heat, all other conditions being equal. Chicago is a certified championship contender that held up better than any other team could have in losing its franchise cornerstone (Imagine the Heat without LeBron or the Thunder without Durant: No way those teams do as well as the Bulls did last season). Having Derrick Rose back will provide a spark to a huge pot of lighter fluid. In 2012-’13, the team was top 10 in the league in points allowed (3rd), assists and rebounds per game (8th in both), but a near-league worst 29th in points per game. Rose will change that in a way that Nate Robinson never could, even with his breakout playoff performance. Luol Deng will play like a madman in his contract year, particularly given that he is disappointed in the Bulls’ contract extension talks and is seriously considering testing the free agent waters next summer. Never count out an angry, scorned player with Deng’s skill set. Joakim Noah should be able to continue anchoring one of the best defenses in the league, providing excellent rebounding and rim protection under the guidance of coach Tom Thibodeau. Mike Dunleavy, Jr., should slot well into the Kyle Korver/Marco Belinelli vacancy, perhaps fitting the Bulls gameplan even better than others have in previous years. Jimmy Butler will prove to be indispensable off the bench and is a strong Sixth Man of the Year candidate if Thibodeau does not pick him to start consistently.

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2. Indiana Pacers

2012-’13 regular season record: 42-32, 1st in the Central Division

Key additions: F Luis Scola, F Chris Copeland, G C.J. Watson

Key losses: F/C Tyler Hansbrough, G D.J. Augustin, G/F Gerald Green

2013-’14 Linchpin: F Danny Granger. Last year was supposed to be the breakout year for Granger’s Pacers. Here was a guy who had once averaged almost 26 points per game, good for fifth in the league in 2008-’09, and finally he was surrounded by a worthy supporting cast. For the Pacers, it kind of was, but they left their burgeoning star behind due to a knee injury. Now Granger is the second-highest paid player on his team, after Roy Hibbert, and his importance within the Pacers organization is in question following the emergence of Lance Stephenson. Both Granger and Stephenson are in the last years of their contracts, with Granger making just over $13 million more than his replacement. Granger has to step in and provide whatever the Pacers need from him, whether Frank Vogel has him come off the bench or start.

Overall: The Pacers are bona fide title contenders, as evidence by their pushing the Heat to seven games in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals. If Vogel, a typically shrewd coach who was one vital misstep from potentially going to the Finals, can reconcile the Granger-Stephenson plight in a way which retains team cohesiveness, the Pacers could pressure both the Bulls and the Heat for conference supremacy. This might be their last shot to do it with this roster, considering the aforementioned contract situation. Surely Stephenson will not return at the less-than-$1 million-a-year rate for which he is playing now, so Vogel will look to get the absolute most out of this roster right now. Roy Hibbert is a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate, and if he can avoid nonsensical, offensive remarks and antagonizing the media in post-game press conferences, he could set the standard for rim defense and act as the anchor of a team which lead the league in rebounding and came second in points allowed last season. David West should continue to contribute huge minutes at forward, providing the spacing necessary for George Hill’s offensive orchestration. Granger’s return should allow for more assists, an area in which the Pacers struggled without him, and watch for Ian Mahinmi’s minutes to increase in the absence of the Hansbrough brothers should Hibbert find himself, as he often does, in foul trouble.

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3. Cleveland Cavaliers

2012-’13 regular season record: 24-58, 5th in the Central Division

Key additions: C Andrew Bynum, F Anthony Bennett, G Jarrett Jack, F Earl Clark

Key losses: G Wayne Ellington, G Daniel Gibson, F Luke Walton (I mean, the guy does have as many rings as LeBron James AND Adam Morrison at the time of this writing. That must count for something.)

[As a quasi-political side note, “Walton” is also my given political affiliation on Facebook. With four NBA championships in the family, it’s safe to say Luke and Bill are doing better than any of the other choices at this point.]

2013-’14 Linchpin: G Jarrett Jack. Kyrie Irving is the obvious choice here, if only because he has played the role of Derrick Rose Lite in his first two seasons surrounded by an entirely uninspiring cast. Jack’s arrival from Golden State, however, should immediately light a fire within Irving and allows him to rest comfortably when he needs a few minutes off knowing that Jack can capably run the Cavs’ offense. A season after finishing third place in the Sixth Man of the Year voting, Jack is ready to prove his worth and that he can sustain success even without the obvious influence Stephen Curry and the Warriors provided. He may even get spot starting duties at shooting guard, shouldering some of Irving’s immense scoring load.

Overall: Mike Brown will find a way to get the most out of this team. It suits his style much more than, say, the Lakers did a year ago. It always did. In 2007, he took a Cavaliers team with the league’s brightest young star to the Finals. That team, of course, had the once-in-a-generation talents of LeBron, but Brown knows a star’s mentality and can deal with frustration. He learned it the first time. Kyrie Irving, meanwhile, is quickly rising as the most publicly likable player this side of Kevin Durant. He has the best Sprite marketing campaign since Grant Hill ever. Irving is supported by a much more capable group than LeBron ever was in Cleveland, and though Irving is not nearly the player LeBron is (who in this day and age is, really?), he can adapt in a way which will, presumably, not lead to national media fallout and the burning of his jersey. Plus, I mean, the kid can play basketball really well.

The most interesting piece of this puzzle, of course, is Andrew Bynum. Can he bring more to the Cavs’ bench than his follicle follies? Mike Brown might be just the guy to coax Bynum into trying, particularly if Irving is there to challenge him as well. Lest we forget that Bynum was a steadily developing player who had his best season in 2011-’12, the last time he played. If he can average a double-double on points and rebounds again, and there is no reason to believe that he cannot at this point, then the Cavs will have the kind of dangerous inside-outside attack which can seriously wreak havoc on even the most well-balanced of teams (as in, both of the teams listed above in this division). Anthony Bennett’s addition will be interesting, and Brown may use him just as often on the wing as in the interior, if not more so. These Cavs are not your dad’s Cavs, or even your older brother’s Cavs (chances are, if he was a Cavs fan during the LeBron era, he has properly disposed of any memories of that anyway, so it may as well not exist at the dinner table). This Cavs team is well-structured and should be well-coached, and they can cause more than a few surprises this year if some very important dominoes fall their way.

LarrySanders

4. Milwaukee Bucks

2012-’13 regular season record: 38-44, 3rd in the Central Division

Key additions: G O.J. Mayo, G Brandon Knight, G Gary Neal, G Luke Ridnour, G/F Carlos Delfino, G Nate Wolters

Key losses: G Monta Ellis, G Brandon Jennings, G J.J. Redick, F Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, C Samuel Dalembert, F/G Mike Dunleavy, Jr.

2013-’14 Linchpin: C Larry Sanders. Last season, Sanders averaged 9.8 points and 9.5 rebounds per game. He is poised for a huge year with a bigger role this season, hopefully going over 10 on both. As the Bucks’ primary interior presence, Sanders will be expected to contribute big-time minutes and stability, particularly given the circus offseason his team has had (as far as Milwaukee offseasons go, anyway). Sanders is also an interesting fantasy player who can tally a lot of points for his owners, and his real value should start to shine through this season as well. He finished last season second in blocks per game as well, which highlights his versatility as a two-way player. Coach Larry Drew will look to Sanders for guidance and strength in crunch time minutes.

Overall: The Bucks lost their three top scorers from a season ago (Ellis, Jennings and Redick). Ellis, of course, is the self-proclaimed second-best player in the league behind Kobe Bryant (Monta have it all). Ellis’ delusions of grandeur aside, the Bucks will begin the season struggling with the adjustment, at least on the offensive side of the court. Sanders’ defense should be a welcome relief for long stretches, and the additions of Mayo and Knight will alleviate some of those woes. Gary Neal is a compelling figure in this back court. He had an astonishing playoff run with the Spurs, highlighted by his 24-point Game 3 performance in the Finals against the Heat. How he adjusts, how anyone adjusts, outside of the Popovich system is always weirdly captivating. Players who leave the Spurs are the prodigal sons of the NBA, and time will tell if Neal’s movement will result in a wasting of his talent or act as a catalyst to help him realize his full potential. The majority of Milwaukee’s offseason moves involved guards and wings, and fans should be curious to see if it was simply a shuffling of the same deck to get rid of jokers (Ellis) or if Drew really believes that this boss is not the same as the old boss. Ersan Ilyasova remains from last season as well, and his creative, two-way play will open space for the guards to penetrate and distribute as necessary. Keep an eye on Ilyasova; he is quietly but steadily improving all parts of his game, and at 26 years old, there is a lot of reason to believe he is still on the upswing.

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5. Detroit Pistons

2012-’13 regular season record: 29-53, 4th in the Central Division

Key additions: F Josh Smith, G Brandon Jennings, G Chauncey Billups, G Kentavious Caldwell-Pope

Key losses: G Jose Calderon, G Brandon Knight, F/G Corey Maggette

2013-’14 Linchpin: F Josh Smith. At 4 years, $56 million, Smith is no bargain for the Pistons. He is, however, an outstanding player in the prime of his career, the kind of game-changing force which can breathe new life into an otherwise asphyxiated franchise. His legitimate scoring ability and strong rebounding will be Detroit’s bread-and-butter in each and every game this season. Smith chased the money, and fans should watch him to see if his contributions can justify this kind of hit to the payroll. How he fits into the team is an important indicator of how the team will function, and it starts from the very first game. Even so, one must applaud Detroit for acquiring raw talent this offseason, and Smith is the cornerstone of what could be a renaissance for the Pistons, given a few years’ time.

Overall: This season marks the ten-year anniversary of the last Pistons championship. The final Piston remaining from that roster, Tayshaun Prince, was traded during last season, but fear not: 2004 Finals MVP Chauncey Billups has returned to the Motor City, a powerful voice in what would have been an empty room if not for the additions of Smith and Jennings. Billups is 37, and though his locker room leadership and basketball knowledge are incalculably important to a team like the Pistons, those traits alone will not translate to victories. Jose Calderon’s multi-faceted game will be missed, as his passing wizardry will deprive the Pistons of necessary assists and leave them unable to exploit the space Smith will provide to its fullest potential. Andre Drummond should be able to build on his solid rookie campaign; Detroit will need his rebounding primarily and scoring secondarily to improve in order to eek more points per game out of this roster, a stat in which the team finished 22nd in the league a year ago. This division is far too strong from top to bottom for the Pistons to compete this season, but the tutelage of Billups should sow powerful seeds in this youthful squad.

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