Suddenly, the Central is the toughest division in the Eastern Conference. Just three years ago, the Chicago Bulls were beating up on their weaker opponents in climbing to the NBA's best record. But two years missed by Derrick Rose has left them on the outside. Have they regained their status as division favorites?
The Indiana Pacers won the title in Rose’s absence, and they aren’t going to surrender their crown without a fight. On the subject of crowns, the King, LeBron James, is making his return to the division, and he’ll be looking to reclaim the throne he abdicated when he bolted for Miami four years ago.
Per Odds Shark, those three titans of the Central Division are listed as having the East’s best chance at winning the NBA title. Ergo, whoever comes out on top of the division will likely represent the conference in the NBA Finals.
Let’s review the offseason of each team to see how the Bulls stack up.
The Pacers' offseason is easily the worst of the three teams. At best, the team held serve. More realistically, they slipped back a step or two.
Stephenson was an important part of the Pacers offense, serving as their third-leading scorer with 13.8 points per game. He also led the team in rebounds at 7.2. And he was their leading passer, distributing an average of 4.6 assists.
Two new acquisitions, C.J. Miles and Rodney Stuckey, will vie to replace him. Miles is a three-point specialist who averaged 9.9 points, 2.0 rebounds and 1.0 assist last season. Stuckey averaged 13.9, 2.3 and 2.1, respectively.
The combination might help offset the scoring loss, but the rebounding and passing will be difficult to make up for. Indiana wasn’t a bad rebounding team last year, finishing eighth in the league, but when your shooting guard is your leading rebounder, that’s not a good sign.
And on the passing end, things are really bad. The Pacers were 27th in assists last year. Losing their leading distributor will not help with that.
In addition, while Paul George led the team in unassisted field goals with 292, Stephenson was second with 274. Combined with assists, that means Stephenson was the primary field-goal creator for the Pacers with 606, slightly surpassing George’s 575.
And George was much more dependent on Stephenson’s help than you might realize. Take a gander at his efficiency with and without Stephenson on the court, per NBA.com/STATS.
|Paul George With and Without Stephenson, 2013-14|
Those numbers are shocking, particularly the way George’s offensive rating fell off a cliff without help from Stephenson. They aren’t based on a small sample size either, as George played nearly a third of his minutes sans Stephenson.
That’s not just numbers, either. Zach Harper of CBS Sports takes note:
Stephenson forced plenty of action in a very detrimental way, but it was an attempt to breakthrough the malady of their offense. They didn't have a dribble penetrator outside of Lance. George Hill can score coming off a screen or spotting up, but he's not going to break down his defender and create a play for someone else on most occasions. Paul George has that ability, but his dribbling is suspect at times and he's usually hunting for his own shot. Stephenson, on the other hand, has an incredible skill set when it comes to creating plays.
For a team that finished 24th in scoring and 23rd in offensive rating last year, they can’t afford to take a hit on offense, which they will.
Stuckey can penetrate off the dribble, but like Hill, he doesn’t do enough passing. Miles can’t penetrate or pass. The offense took a serious hit it couldn’t afford to take.
While the Pacers will still be an elite defense, neither Miles nor Stuckey is noted for their stopping power. Stephenson is. They lose on that end of the court, too.
Indiana made the best out of a bad situation. Finding Stuckey for the minimum—especially in an offseason where shot creators are priced so high—is commendable and necessary. Per Sham Sports, Indiana was already paying $73.9 million in salary. As a small-market team, the Pacers need to avoid the tax territory. But Stuckey and Miles are not enough.
They won 56 games last year in securing the No. 1 seed. It will likely take 60 to win the division this year, and with the roster getting slightly weaker, it’s doubtful they win their third straight division championship.
The last time LeBron James was on a team that didn’t win its division was the 2007-08 version of the Cavaliers. His Majesty is used to wearing the crown, whether he be in Miami or Cleveland.
His credentials are unquestioned. He has four NBA MVPs and two Finals MVPs. Since coming into the league, he has 168.5 win shares, a full 27.8 percent more than any other player in the league. He’s first in points scored, fourth in assists and 16th in rebounds.
Now, unlike his previous stint with the Cavs, he has some All-Star talent around him. In fact, he has the reigning All-Star Game MVP on his team: Kyrie Irving, who was drafted first in 2011. He also has two other No. 1 overall picks in Andrew Wiggins (2014) and Anthony Bennett (2013).
In addition, Dion Waiters, who averaged 15.9 points last season, is emerging as one of the better young shooting guards in the league.
Does James’ presence automatically make the Cavaliers the favorites to win the division?
Not entirely. The Cavaliers have holes.
Their talent is prime beef, but it’s still raw, and steak tartare isn’t going to win a championship.
Based on win shares, Bennett had the worst rookie season by the first pick in the draft in 61 years. Wiggins has a bright future, but he has to develop his half-court offense. The pair have combined for just 27.7 points on .410 shooting in the Las Vegas Summer League.
And while we can say “it’s just Summer League,” that’s an argument normally used to downplay success, not the lack of it.
Irving and Waiters have an ongoing feud. It’s beyond the scope of this article to go too far into that, but Zach Buckley of Bleacher Report did a nice job of recapping it in April.
And in the middle, the Cavs are starting the still-developing Tristan Thompson and oft-hurt Anderson Varejao. Bennett and Brendan Haywood will be serving as their primary backups. Neither is going to offer much resistance to an elite frontcourt.
The Cavs are the Tootsie Roll Pop of the NBA: hard on the outside, chewy in the middle.
Three-point specialists Mike Miller and James Jones helped James to win a pair of titles in Miami. Now they’ve hooked on in Cleveland. Let’s not get carried away with that impact, though. They were marginal role players, not major contributors.
James spent a grand total of 655.2 minutes with the pair in the regular season and postseason combined in 2012-13 and 1151.9 in 2011-12. That’s out of the total 7,146 minutes James played in that span. So, it’s overly optimistic to think that bringing over a couple of teammates from Miami makes the Cavs the new Heat.
The responsibility for shepherding this unit falls on the brilliant mind of David Blatt.
He's a great signing, but he’s been coaching in Europe or Israel his entire career. Can he adapt his strategies to the NBA overnight? Can he corral NBA egos? I think he will, but it’s going to take a little time to adjust.
After all, even the Heat—with James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh—took time to figure things out, and they had a roster fleshed out with veterans. How much truer will that be with Cleveland?
The Cavs have made a lot of progress this year, but they were a long way behind the Bulls and Pacers, winning just 33 games. James is the only addition who will provide help both immediately and significantly. And while that’s one heck of an “only,” it’s going to take time for the team to find its way.
Best-case scenario, they hit their stride midseason. By then, it might be too late.
The Cavs could make a trade for Kevin Love, but that would strain their already thin bench, and it might not fully utilize the talents of all three stars (Irving and James being the other two). If Wiggins is included in the trade, it raises another question: Where's the defense?
However they start, they'll finish stronger, but it’s not realistic to expect them to have a huge number of wins in the regular season. Their ceiling is the mid 50s. They have a chance at the division title if Rose gets hurt.
The hardest thing to do in the NBA is add without subtracting, and that’s what made the Bulls’ offseason such an understated winner. They shored up their biggest weakness without giving up anything in their greatest strength.
Jimmy Butler made the second-team All-Defensive Team. Taj Gibson probably would have if he had been a starter. All three of those players remain.
The only rotation players who are gone, Carlos Boozer and D.J. Augustin, had the worst net defensive rating of any two players with 1,000 minutes played.
Not only did they not have to sacrifice defense to gain offense, it could get even better. Pau Gasol replaces Boozer, and while he’s not a defensive titan, he is longer and should do a much better job of hanging back and protecting the rim. Gasol has 1,484 career blocks. Boozer has 334. So there's that.
And Rose is an upper-tier defender who has consistently shut down the elite point guards in the league. Last season, in his brief time he stifled Kyrie Irving, who shot just 2-of-12 against him. He kept Damian Lillard bottled up, holding him to 3-of-9 shooting.
The defense will stay elite.
On the other end, things weren't so pretty. Chicago had the lowest-scoring offense in the league last season and the third-worst offensive rating. Their effective field-goal percentage as a team was .471, also last in the NBA.
What they really needed to acquire was scoring, which they did.
They landed a player who is probably a future Hall of Famer in Gasol. They added the Naismith Award winner and all-time fifth leading collegiate scorer Doug McDermott. And they added the top pro prospect in Europe, Nikola Mirotic, who shot 46.1 percent from deep this season and won the 2014 Spanish Cup Finals MVP.
Perhaps they didn’t land Carmelo Anthony, whom they coveted, but they added points. In 2011-12, the Bulls had the fifth-most efficient offense in the NBA, although that comes with something of a caveat: The Bulls’ offensive rating of 107.4 was worse than the 108.3 they posted in 2010-11, when they were 11th.
The compacted schedule had its impact on the league. The Bulls' pounding style was less impacted than other offenses by it. It’s not so much they were “better” than they were just “less worse” than everyone else.
That said, here’s the thing that spans seasons and is not dependent on the presence or absence of Rose: When the Bulls hit threes, they win.
I don’t mean a ton of threes. I mean just being average from deep.
Since Tom Thibodeau became the head coach, the average team makes more than seven threes per game. Based on the Play Index at Basketball-Reference, the Bulls are 92-28 when they make just seven. That winning percentage of 76.7 trails only the San Antonio Spurs (77.2).
Of course, the Spurs win if they don’t make six or fewer, too, notching victories 65.9 percent of the time. The Bulls are just 58.8 percent in that scenario.
The Bulls are 17.8 percent more likely to win when they hit the demarcation, and that’s the biggest difference of any team with a winning record over the last four years.
Spacing makes a world of difference for the Bulls.
McDermott shot .458 from deep in college. And the amazing thing about him is that he’s not racking up the easy corner threes, which do less to stretch the court—he’s hitting them from above the arc.
Per Corollary of SB Nation, McDermott was 48.21 percent on left-wing threes, 48.65 percent on right-wing threes and 43.3 percent on straightaway threes.
And the eye test shows McDermott gives zero hoots about where he is when he shoots. He can easily hit from the NBA three-point line. In fact, many of his makes come from well behind the arc, both in college and in Summer League.
And this come with the “it’s just Summer League” qualifier, but bear in mind the three-point line isn't any different in the regular season. Shooting is the most transferable skill there is, so the Bulls have done well with both Mirotic and him.
Gasol gives them a better inside presence than Boozer did. Gasol shot 44.1 percent in the paint in the non-restricted area and 64.1 percent in the paint last year. Boozer’s numbers were 59.1 percent and 33.1 percent, respectively.
Between the shooting on the outside and the scoring on the inside, the offense looks to be much improved.
And then, of course, there’s Rose, whose full name is now “Derrick Rose If He Can Stay Healthy,” because you can’t mention him without that qualifier anymore. So, of course, this argument is predicated on that.
When he’s there, the Bulls are clearly a different offensive team, and Rose has never had these kinds of weapons to exploit. When you start adding in Gibson, Mike Dunleavy and Butler as fifth, sixth and seventh options, there's room to score. For a drive-and-kick point guard who breaks down defenses so well, this has the potential to be explosive.
And there’s always Noah to swallow up offensive rebounds when the shots don’t fall. The more the shooters stretch the court, the easier that job becomes.
Chicago has the makings of a legitimate offense, if not an elite one. If they can finish in the top 10 in offensive rating, they’ll be in contention for the league’s best record.
The Bulls do still have one glaring hole in that Rose is the only true shot creator on the team. I expect that both McDermott and Mirotic will prove they are being undersold in that regard, but until they do it in the NBA, it’s reasonable to be suspicious.
Thibodeau will have to find ways to cheat around that. They have great shooters and great passers to work with.
It’s also worth noting that shots off catch-and-shoot are far more efficient than pull-up jumpers. Among players who played at least 20 games and attempted at least five spot-ups per game, Stephen Curry was the only player in the league with an effective field-goal percentage over 50 percent.
On catch-and-shoots, 21 players qualified with that criteria and six players topped 60 percent.
Using Gasol and Noah, two of the best passing bigs in the league, to work an inside-out game with their three-point shooters is an imperfect but viable strategy in spurts. Using Kirk Hinrich to play off Rose should help when Rose is trapped.
The Bulls will still have the weakness in creating shots off the bounce from someone other than Rose, but it's much less glaring than it was.
The other dilemma Chicago has experienced for the past few years is injuries, but with the depth they have now, those should be less extreme and less frequent. The challenge to Thibodeau here is to actually trust his players before they become the “next man up.”
He's traditionally been reluctant to play rookies, but McDermott and Mirotic are far more prepared. Sophomore Tony Snell has shown improvement in Summer League play. Thibodeau will need to give the youngsters some minutes. Depth is worthless if you only use the top half of your bench.
No team in the East is perfect, but the Bulls have the fewest flaws. They have the most complete and deepest lineup. They have a core that is used to playing together. They also have a history of taking the regular season seriously. For all those reasons, they should boast the Central’s best record.