In this edition of Basketball Insiders’ divisional series, we will be taking a look at the Central Division headlined by the reigning champ Milwaukee Bucks. However, the rest of the division was injected with new life in the offseason, from the Chicago Bulls adding Lonzo Ball and DeMar DeRozan to the Indiana Pacers hiring Rick Carlisle, the division should be more exciting than most think. Let’s take a look.
1. Milwaukee Bucks
Champions at last. After claiming the 2021 NBA throne, the Milwaukee Bucks are back and will try to retake their title. The Bucks had an interesting offseason, seemingly improving on paper by managing to retain key cog Bobby Portis and adding Grayson Allen, Rodney Hood, George Hill and Semi Ojeyele via free agency.
The Bucks seem to be employing a similar strategy as last offseason when they added Portis, Bryn Forbes, D.J. Augustin and Torrey Craig as flyers. That strategy worked out extremely well for the club, with Portis and Forbes emerging as some of the best bench players in the league and ultimately boosting the team to a title.
Of their four free-agent acquisitions, Allen seems to be in line for the most playing time. Milwaukee sent last year’s second-round pick Sam Merrill in a trade for the Duke product, who is coming off a year in which he averaged 10.6 points per game and shot 39.1 percent from downtown on 5.5 attempts per game. With Donte DiVincenzo set to miss time with an injury he suffered in the playoffs, Allen will take over a big chunk of those minutes and may even start to begin the year.
The Bucks’ growth doesn’t stop at external additions though. Second-year guard Jordan Nwora has absolutely done everything in his power to show the Bucks that he is deserving of a rotation spot. Nwora was dominant for the Nigerian Olympic team, showed out in Summer League and is now going off in the preseason. Nwora will also help take over DiVincenzo’s role and, if Allen and Nwora prove to be enough, DiVincenzo could be a valuable asset at the trade deadline. Remember, the team almost flipped him to Sacramento for Bogdan Bogdanovic last offseason.
Milwaukee has a smaller roster than many other teams, with only 13 players on guaranteed contracts, but make no mistake, the Bucks mean business once more.
Tristan’s prediction: 60-22, No. 1-No. 3 seed range
2. Chicago Bulls
Not many teams made bigger splashes in free agency than the Chicago Bulls, who added two of the top five free agents from the class in Lonzo Ball and DeMar DeRozan. The only players left from last season’s opening-night roster? Zach LaVine, Coby White, Patrick Williams and Devon Dotson. The Bulls are going all out for a win-now mode after sacrificing their first-round pick this last season that turned into Franz Wagner.
While Chicago put up a disappointing record after their star-studded acquisition of Nikola Vucevic at the trade deadline, it isn’t as if the team has had much time to click. Lavine went down with injury and the duo only had the opportunity to play in 16 games together. While the 7-9 record the duo accrued in games together isn’t inspiring, it did end the year winning four of its last five games and notched a win over the Brooklyn Nets.
A lot of Chicago’s woes last season came from instability at the point guard position, with then-second-year guard Coby White struggling to open up playmaking opportunities and suffering on the defensive end of the ball. Enter Lonzo Ball, who will immediately alleviate both of those issues for the club, as well as Alex Caruso, who is the definition of a defensive hound.
Those moves allow White to move the bench, where he will have the reins of the offensive creation for the second unit. Between new additions Caruso, Tony Bradley, Alize Johnson and Derrick Jones Jr., the Bulls will have a stonewall bench that will be a nice change of pace from the offensive-oriented starting unit.
Where the Bulls have a chance to get really interesting is through the growth of Patrick Williams. If Williams reaches his ceiling, he has a chance to get into the Defensive Player of the Year conversation, as he will be tasked with handling the brunt of the defensive workload in the frontcourt. ‘The Paw” led the Bulls in defensive win shares last season and if he continues on that trajectory, he figures to be a special player.
While it will likely take some time for the Bulls to click, Chicago certainly has the makings of a low-end playoff team. If the Bulls’ ceiling rises, it will be because White and Williams made huge strides and the depth proves to be better than advertised.
Tristan’s prediction: 42-40, No. 5-No. 9 seed range
3. Indiana Pacers
The big story surrounding the Pacers in the offseason was the hiring of new head coach Rick Carlisle, who is set to instill a new culture on a franchise that needs it following the embarrassing one-year stint with Nate Bjorkgren. Indiana didn’t make many changes to its roster in the offseason but did have a slam-dunk draft, adding Chris Duarte and Isaiah Jackson to its young corps.
Duarte already looks like he’ll make a significant impact in his first season, looking dominant in Summer League and the preseason. With T.J. Warren set to miss more time with injury, it’s entirely possible that Duarte sees big minutes in his first season to fill the scoring load. On the other hand, Jackson has a prime opportunity to develop behind two big men with vastly different skillsets in Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis. Jackson seems most similar to Turner but has the length and frame to make him an intriguing long-term option.
Indiana also added Torrey Craig in the offseason and re-signed T.J. McConnell, fortifying a solid, though unimpressive, roster. The Pacers will improve solely off the hiring of Carlisle, a coach with championship experience, but several roster questions persist that have seemingly been in place for years.
For one, the frontcourt of Sabonis and Turner has yet to work out, and there’s no guarantee that it will suddenly click this year. Both players are phenomenal, but their fit on the court is up-and-down to say the best. Further, Warren is an integral piece for this team. If he isn’t good to go, and he’s still listed as out indefinitely, the team’s scoring will suffer. If the Pacers’ young players can build off their shown promise and Malcolm Brogdon can continue his career trajectory, the team could have a year similar to 2019-20.
Tristan’s prediction: 41-41, No. 5-No. 11 seed range
4. Cleveland Cavaliers
The Cavaliers are making questionable front office decisions, to say the least. Cleveland made the great decision to draft Evan Mobley with the third overall pick of the 2021 NBA Draft, but interestingly brought center Jarrett Allen back on a huge, five-year, $100 million contract. It seems as though the franchise plans to play the two of them together, playing one of them out of position.
Don’t forget that the team brought in power forward Lauri Markannen and rewarded him with a hefty contract and still has two years and over $60 million of Kevin Love left. Whatever happens with the Cavs frontcourt, there’s no question that it’s insanely clogged and there are plenty of rotation questions remaining.
On the other hand, Cleveland shored up its guard depth by acquiring Ricky Rubio from the Minnesota Timberwolves in exchange for Taurean Prince. Rubio is an excellent addition to the squad and provides a fantastic sixth or seventh man to provide mentorship to young guards Collin Sexton and Darius Garland. Look for Garland, in particular, to have a breakout season and be a candidate for Most Improved Player fresh off a 2020-21 campaign that saw him average 17.4 points and 6.1 assists per game with a shooting line of 45.1/39.5/84.8.
The Cavs also made some moves around the edges, snagging Denzel Valentine and Kevin Pangos, with some grouping of Tacko Fall, RJ Nembhard, Kyle Guy and/or Mitch Ballock set to make the roster. If Cleveland can hit on some of those guys, or younger, unproven guys like Lamar Stevens or Dylan Windler, there’s a fun team in the making. For now, though, it appears to be another year of a rebuild with a potential, though unlikely, Play-In Tournament ceiling.
Tristan’s prediction: 36-46, No. 10-No. 14 seed range
5. Detroit Pistons
The Pistons are making several steps in the right direction under general manager Troy Weaver and this offseason was no exception. While trading away Mason Plumlee and moving down 20 spots in the draft just to sign Kelly Olynyk to a three-year, $37.2 million deal wasn’t the best use of resources, there’s at least an argument to be made that Olynyk will be more beneficial as a stretch big for first overall pick Cade Cunningham and Killian Hayes.
Of course, the Pistons absolutely dominated the draft by landing Cunningham, someone who can be a legitimate superstar and franchise player for Detroit. His comments about sticking to franchise traditions and honoring those before him is the stuff of legend. Detroit also added Isaiah Livers, Luka Garza, Chris Smith and Jamorko Pickett (four guys I was incredibly high on). While Livers and Smith seem poised to spend most of the season recuperating, Garza is somebody that could see an extended role early.
Garza was the most dominant player in college basketball for the last two seasons. He made his seriousness about his approach to the game evident in the fact that he lost a tremendous amount of weight and improved his stroke. There’s a reason he was already promoted from the two-way contract he had been on.
Despite the positives, this is very much still a rebuilding year for the Pistons. They’ll be more competitive this year, especially if Hayes, Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart continue to grow, but Detroit still needs to figure out what to do with its other rotational pieces. Guys like Trey Lyles stick out like a sore thumb and it’s evident this roster will still be churning at the trade deadline.
Tristan’s prediction: 30-52, No. 13-No. 15 seed range
Be sure to stay tuned to Basketball Insiders for the next edition of our divisional breakdown, where we will be looking at the Southwest Division.