NBA Central Division Preview
The Central Division has been Detroit’s domain for the past four seasons. In that time, the Pistons recorded three division championships, and they won the NBA Finals in the one year that they did not win the division. However, it appears that the atmosphere of the division is about to change. Detroit’s dismal performance in last season’s postseason, followed by a player mutiny against Flip Saunders and Ben Wallace’s departure to the rival Chicago Bulls will spell the end of Detroit’s dominance of the Central Division. In addition, the Central Division accomplished a unique feat in the fact that every team from the division made the postseason in 2005-06. With the general putridity of the Atlantic and Southeast Divisions, it is possible that that feat could repeat itself. So, without further delay, here's how the Central Division will play out in the 2006-07 season.
In the backcourt, Jamaal Tinsley should benefit from the general trend in the NBA of moving toward a faster pace. The point guard is at his best in the running game, pushing the ball, creating shots for others and finding his own opportunities. Stephen Jackson is a good ball-handler and passer, but only an adequate shooter and an atrocious defender. In addition, an off season strip club visit that went wrong means that he will have legal issues plaguing him during the season.
1. Chicago Bulls
The Chicago Bulls enter this season with a great deal of momentum. During the Eastern Conference playoffs, they gave Miami the best fight amongst Eastern Conference teams. The momentum continued into the offseason, where they made one of the biggest free agent signings by acquiring Ben Wallace from the Pistons. This move served two functions. First, it strengthened the Bulls in the middle and gave them a great rebounding and defensive presence. Also, signing Wallace weakened the Bulls’ chief rival.
In addition, the Bulls used their first round draft pick to acquire LaMarcus Aldridge, whom they immediately traded to Portland for Tyrus Thomas. Thomas will add a dimension of explosiveness and athleticism to the squad, and has a great turn-around jump shot. The biggest question surrounding Thomas is whether he will be dedicated enough in the weight room. As it currently stands, Thomas needs to add at least 20 pounds of muscle to his body to have a solid frame for an NBA power forward. However, the Bulls did buy time for Thomas to develop, by trading Tyson Chandler to the Hornets for PJ Brown. Chandler never lived up to the lofty expectations he had coming out of high school to the Bulls in 2001. PJ Brown will provide veteran leadership, approximately 10 points and six or eight rebounds per game, and he has only one year remaining on his contract, giving the Bulls greater financial flexibility in the summer of 2007.
The Bulls have a 10 deep rotation of quality NBA talent, and a good mix of burgeoning young talent and solid, experienced talent. Kirk Hinrich and Ben Gordon form a formidable backcourt, and their abilities should continue to grow. Andres Nocioni progressed nicely last season, and this year he'll start as a key bench contributor behind versatile small forward Luol Deng. PJ Brown and Ben Wallace do provide the veteran guidance that any young team needs. This talent should enable the Bulls to match up well with any team on any night and perhaps win the division and go deep into the playoffs.
2. Detroit Pistons
The Detroit Pistons stormed through the regular season last season, going 64-18. During the regular season, players credited new coach Flip Saunders for opening up the offense, a great change from the more offensively conservative Larry Brown. With that said, during the playoffs, Flip Saunders became more unpopular than glam rock became during the early 1990s. Detroit barely squeaked by the Cleveland Cavaliers, and they were embarrassed by the Miami Heat. The summer months did nothing to restore the cohesiveness that Detroit had prior to last spring.
The loss of Ben Wallace will continue Detroit’s regression on defense. Although still possessing good perimeter defense with Richard Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince, the Pistons now lack an intimidating interior presence. Opponents will not fear taking the ball to the basket and should find easier scoring opportunities. Defense was the reason for the Pistons’ postseason success from 2003-2005, but that defensive strength is eroding.
Despite the lack of cohesiveness and the departure of Ben Wallace, the Pistons still have a great deal of talent on their roster. Former NBA Finals MVP Chauncey Billups is still a great playmaker at the point guard position and shooting guard Richard Hamilton is a deadly scorer, one who can be counted on for 18-20 points per game. Tayshaun Prince is an aggravating force on the defensive end, and a productive complimentary piece on the offensive end.
The Pistons’ do have to be concerned about the regression of Rasheed Wallace. The former Blazer seemed rejuvenated when he arrived in Detroit in the spring of 2004, and his self restraint enabled him to be a fully productive player that brought a lot of positive attributes to the 2004 championship-winning team. However, by last season, it was evident that Wallace was beginning to regress into the distraction he was in Portland, as the number of technical fouls he racked up increased. Wallace must exhibit greater self control in order to be at his most productive. He was also playing hurt, so perhaps health this season will help.
The Pistons also lack of the bench depth of title contending teams. Their reserves are mostly unproven players, or players past their prime. Opposing teams will find matchups that will take advantage of the lack of depth. This action likely will cause the Pistons to become too reliant on their starters, causing them to garner too minutes during the regular season. As a result, the Piston starters may not be as fresh as other teams to compete during the NBA’s long and grueling postseason.
3. Cleveland Cavaliers
The Cleveland Cavaliers go as far as LeBron James takes them. And that could be very far. Last year, King James averaged 31.4 points per game on 48% shooting from the field. In each of James’ three seasons, he has increased his points per game totals and his field goal percentage, and came close to winning MVP last season. LeBron James is the primary reason the Cavaliers won 50 games last season and why they will competitive so long as he is healthy.
James’ athleticism makes him an impossible matchup when the Cavaliers are on offense. He has worked on the biggest hole in his offensive arsenal, the three-point shot. At this point, he is nearly a complete offensive player. Now is the time for James to develop his perimeter defense, the skill set he lacks on the court.
The biggest question in Cleveland is how the supporting cast will perform. Until otherwise demonstrated, the supporting cast has been a letdown and the front office must be held accountable for that.
A full year from Larry Hughes should help the development of the supporting cast. Hughes only played in 36 games during the regular season and missed time during the postseason. He is a solid offensive player that needs to stay within the system and realize that the offense runs through LeBron James. He is a stronger perimeter defender than James and that should help Cleveland’s fortunes.
As for the rest of team, there are flaws. Eric Snow is an adequate point guard, but he is on the wrong side of 30. Zydrunas Ilgauskas is very good at both ends of the floor but sometimes Anderson Varejao's energy is a better fit. Drew Gooden and Donyell Marshall can be a competent combination at the power forward position. Drew Gooden is a good rebounder, but tends to get lost at the offensive end at times. Donyell Marshall can be a good scorer, but his limitations are exposed if he gets starters’ minutes.
Cleveland has enough talent to make the postseason, as they will probably fall somewhere between the 4th and 6th spot in the East. This team needs to upgrade around LeBron if they expect to reach the NBA Finals.
4. Indiana Pacers
Three seasons ago, the Pacers were a 61-21 team, and possessed the best record in the entire NBA. During the 2004 Eastern Conference Finals, they succumbed to a strong Piston defense and Detroit went on to win the championship. The next season, they lost Ron Artest for most of the season following the infamous Pacers-Pistons brawl, and Stephen Jackson and Jermaine O’Neal faced long suspensions. The Pacers finished 44-38. Last season the team continued a downward spiral, traded Artest, finished 41-41 and suffered a first round loss to the New Jersey Nets.
Al Harrington, good for 15-18 points per game, is back in Indiana after a two year hiatus. His backup, Danny Granger, one of the steals of the 2005 NBA Draft, in some ways fits in better than Harrington. The Pacers should consider starting Granger at small forward, Harrington at power forward and Jermaine O’Neal at center. However, keeping O'Neal healthy is key, and putting him at center may hurt that cause.
Jermaine O’Neal is the centerpiece of this team and they go as far as he takes them. He has averaged over 20 points per game for the last four seasons. However, he has missed 69 games over the past two seasons due to suspensions and injuries. It is essential for him to remain in the lineup if the Pacers are to contend.
Off the bench, the two most productive players will be Granger and Marquis Daniels. Granger shot 46% from the field in his rookie year, and there should be no reason that declines significantly. Daniels’ fits well in a running offense and he can be an average to above average defender.
The Pacers look like a squad that should make the playoffs but exit quickly.
5. Milwaukee Bucks
The Bucks changed their logo, team colors and traded blazing fast point guard TJ Ford for forward Charlie Villanueva this summer. These changes looked to be big positives until the injury bug hit, striking Andrew Bogut, who fortunately recovered quickly and should barely miss any time.
The decision to trade Ford for Villanueva made sense. Villanueva is a rarer commodity in the NBA, because it is more difficult to find skilled power forwards than guards. Villanueva averaged 13 points a game as a rookie on a barren Raptors squad. I expect his scoring numbers and field goal percentage to improve in Milwaukee on a better team, as he should get more open looks.
However, Milwaukee does not have a great fit to replace Ford at the point. Mo Williams is more of an undersized two-guard. Steve Blake is a more classic point guard but he's best used as a reserve off the bench.