The NBA’s Central Division is one of the most interesting to consider for the upcoming season, with four potential playoff teams and two dark-horse championship contenders.
The five teams in the Central combined for the most wins out of the three Eastern Conference Divisions in the 2011-12 season, with 169. By contrast, the Atlantic Division had 155 wins, while the Southeastern Division (including the Champion Miami Heat) won 150.
In each of the past two seasons, the Bulls have won both the Central Division and secured the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. With superstar guard Derrick Rose likely out until March, however, Chicago won’t have such an easy time winning the division.
Depending on how the season pans out, both Chicago and Indiana could make some serious noise in the playoffs. You could make the case for both Milwaukee and Cleveland to make the postseason as well. Detroit is a step behind, but the Pistons have an exciting young roster with a ton of talent.
Which of the division’s talent will rise to the top? How will the final standings play out?
Let’s take a look at my predictions for the Central Division in 2012-13.
The Pistons won’t be winning a ton of games this year, but the future is certainly bright in Detroit.
Over the past three seasons, Detroit has managed to draft three players (Greg Monroe in 2010, Brandon Knight in 2011 and Andre Drummond in 2012) who were all expected to go higher than they did.
Monroe is already a star player, with one of the more complete skill sets of any NBA big man. Knight shows the promise to be a very solid starting point guard, and Drummond has as much potential (if not more) than Monroe.
It isn’t going to be anywhere near an easy transition, though. I don’t expect Detroit to be at the absolute bottom of the league, but they need a few more seasons of experience.
Drummond is as raw a prospect as there is. However, the Pistons lack consistent big men, so he may be forced into a bigger role than he should be playing.
When Charlie Villanueva and Corey Maggette are expected to serve big roles on your squad, you aren’t a playoff team. 30 wins is my prediction for Detroit, but I could see anywhere between 25 and 35.
Projected Record: 30-52
Milwaukee is an enigma. If starting guards Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis manage to mesh together to form a consistent and efficient duo, then they could form one of the best combos in the league. That is a pretty darn huge “if,” though.
Neither Jennings (41.8 percent field-goal shooting last season) nor Ellis (43.8 percent) are efficient players, nor are they good defenders.
Ellis allowed .93 points per possession last season, according to Synergy Sports, which was tied for 370th overall. Jennings was better, but not spectacular by any stretch, allowing .82 points per possession, 147th overall.
The Bucks' big men are pretty much the opposite—solid defenders but not great scorers. You would never count on Ersan Ilyasova or Ekpe Udoh to average 18 points a game.
Ilyasova is one of the games most underrated role players, though, scoring 13 points per game on 49.2 percent shooting last year while grabbing 8.8 boards a contest.
Udoh, the other projected starter, is a great defender but leaves much to be desired offensively. He averaged 5.6 points last year on 43.1 percent shooting.
Milwaukee is a solidly built team that doesn’t go above “solid” anywhere. They have two nice scorers in Ellis and Jennings, but they can’t be relied on to be consistent stars.
They have talent in the paint without any real scoring punch. I wouldn’t be shocked to see the Bucks hang around the .500 mark, but I doubt their record goes higher than that.
Projected Record: 36-46
Kyrie Irving is an absolute monster. A good number of fans and experts alike doubted the 2011 No. 1 overall selection, but in his rookie season he left no doubt of his talent.
He averaged 18.5 points and 5.4 assists while shooting 46.9 percent from the field last season, and it’s crazy not to expect an even better season out of him in 2012-13.
The Cavaliers were 21-45 in 2011-12, but I predict a big resurgence in 2012-13. It’s easy to forget just how excellent Anderson Varejao was before his injury (10.8 points and 11.5 rebounds). Before he went down, he was likely headed for an All-Star appearance.
There is also hope for Tristan Thompson, the No. 4 overall pick last year. He will need to be far more consistent this season, but shows promise as an all-around big man.
Incoming rookie Dion Waiters was a stretch as the No. 4 selection, and I don’t think he is as NBA-ready as some of the other rookies in his draft class. That might set the Cavs back a bit.
The only real loss for the team was Antawn Jamison, who averaged 17.2 points per game but gave up just as many defensively.
A playoff spot may be unlikely, but it is possible.
Projected Record: 39-43
The key here for Chicago is, surprise surprise, Derrick Martell Rose.
Rose is expected to return from his knee rehabilitation in March, which would give him anywhere between 24 and 11 regular-season games. Clearly, though, the priority is Rose’s health. If he can come back 100 percent and be the Derrick Rose we all remember, Chicago will instantly transform into a championship contender again.
The big question is the Bulls' ability to survive without their superstar for that long. I predict a resurgent season from big man Carlos Boozer, and Tom Thibodeau is one of the best coaches in the league. Even without their superstar, the Bulls will remain at the top of the defensive charts.
Chicago has very solid depth around Rose, with Luol Deng, Joakim Noah and Rip Hamilton rounding out the starting lineup. Kirk Hinrich will also serve as a very acceptable replacement point guard until Rose returns.
Still, while I think Chicago will stay a playoff team without Rose, they won’t have the firepower to win the division.
If Rose can return to full health early in March and propel the Bulls to a magnificent winning streak, anything is possible. I just wouldn’t give them the same odds as my presumed Division winner.
Projected Record: 47-35
Indiana proved in the 2012 Playoffs that they can run with the big boys, but Miami proved in the end that the Pacers just weren’t ready to be true contenders. Will that change this year?
The Pacers look a lot like the 2004 Pistons, the only squad in the last 20 years to win a NBA Championship without a true superstar.
They have the Ben Wallace-type defensive stud (Roy Hibbert), the Tayshaun Prince crazy-athletic wingman (Paul George) and the Rasheed Wallace-type scoring big man (David West). Add in Danny Granger as their third or fourth best player and the Pacers look excellent.
They also have some supreme depth. They signed the massively underrated Gerald Green and got backup big man Ian Mahinmi from Dallas. With Tyler Hansbrough and a hopefully improved Lance Stephenson as well, their bench is solid.
The main area of concern is at the point guard slot. Indiana traded away Darren Collison, elevated George Hill to the starting spot and signed D.J. Augustin as backup.
Hill is a more efficient scorer than Collison (he had a 55.7 true shooting percentage compared to Hill’s 52.6 percent), but Collison was the far more proven point guard.
Collison had a 29.0 assist rate compared to Hill’s 23.1. While Hill is an acceptable starting point guard, Indiana will regret trading away Collison.
Regardless, the Pacers are a lock for a playoff spot and could play spoiler next May. If they get enough of a division lead over Chicago before Rose comes back, even a superstar effort from the Bulls guard won’t knock the Pacers from the top of the division.
Projected Record: 52-30