By RYAN EGAN
Thanks to the Trax Pack, I’m back! The show runners have given me the green light on Part II of my NBA season preview. In case you missed Part I of OTT’s NBA Preview (on the Atlantic Division), here it is. So let’s go over the Central Division.
Here they are again, in the same predicament they were in last season. The biggest question mark going into the season — Will Derrick Rose regain his MVP form and stay healthy all year? However, there have been a few changes for this team. For starters, Joakim Noah not only won Defensive Player of the Year, but his all-around game took a quantum leap forward, leading to a fourth place finish in MVP voting. They amnestied Carlos Boozer, and while they failed to woo Carmelo Anthony away from the Big Apple, they bolstered their rotation by adding Pau Gasol, Aaron Brooks, Nikola Mirotic through free agency and Doug McDermott via the draft.
The Bulls have arguably the deepest team in the league and the best front-court tandem. Gasol, the prized off-season acquisition, will bring another versatile big man to the Bulls. Gasol has a winning pedigree, is one of the best passing big men in the game and averaged 19 points and eights boards last year. With Gasol and Noah starting, the Bulls are able to bring an annual Sixth Man of the Year candidate in Taj Gibson and a two-time Rising Star Award winner – Nikola Mirotic – off the bench. Gibson, who was expected to start this season until the Bulls signed Gasol, finished most games the past two years and showed vast improvement in his post up game last season. The Bulls drafted Mirotic in the first round back in 2011, but he played in Europe to receive more money and improve his game. Mirotic’s upside is Dirk Nowitzki-like and, at worst he’s a poor man’s Ryan Anderson. He’s a sharpshooter that has active hands on defense and has shown flashes of putting the ball on the floor and in the bucket. McDermott, drafted out of Creighton, is another scorer Chicago can insert for a spark off the bench.
Chicago will battle with Cleveland for the division crown — and quite possibly the conference title. Wiith Rose’s knees being as fragile as RG III’s, Bulls fans will cringe each time he jumps, cuts, and dives to the floor. The new look rotation may take some time to click, and Chicago could get off to a shaky start. After shaking off some early rust, Chicago will rebound to a second place finish, much to my dismay.
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The Cavaliers kept quiet this off-season, deciding to keep their draft picks and develop them, instead of opting to go after a player like LeBron James. Oh wait, that’s actually the opposite of what they did. Cleveland made headlines by signing James and his shooting entourage of Mike Miller and James Jones — and, more than likely, Ray Allen later into the season. They weren’t finished either, later agreeing to a three-team in which they received star forward Kevin Love. Their flurry of offseason acquisitions continued with the hiring of a new coach, David Blatt, who has been handed a golden opportunity with their version of The Big Three — LeBron, Love and Kyrie Irving.
I don’t believe I need to explain why LeBron coming back home is a smart move for the team, but I will anyway. What’s the best way to put this…here we go, he’s the best player in the freakin’ world. Love is also a great move, because he constantly averages over 20 points per game and 10 rebounds. Love’s game complements Lebron’s so well and they will likely tandem to become the best pick-and-roll, pick-and-pop tandem in the league. With the additions of Miller and Jones, Cleveland has surrounded LeBron with deadly shooters that he frees open just by stepping onto the court. Cleveland also brought in Shawn Marion, a swingman that will allow the Cavs to keep LeBron and Love fresh for the season. Marion is able to play both the small and power forward positions well enough that he can sub for either man. Blatt is supposedly an offensive genius, which will only help LeBron and company achieve maximum offensive efficiency.
Just like the Bulls, the Cavs will take time to gel together and that should result in early losses. However, after the all-star break, I am expecting them to go on a long winning streak that will result in a division championship. After that? Well, you’ll just have to wait for Part 7 of this series, with my playoff predictions.
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After a terrible season last year, the Pistons decided to fire their general manager, Joe Dumars, and head coach – Maurice Cheeks. After giving those two the axe, Detroit replaced them both with one man – Stan Van Gundy. His previous coaching style doesn’t fit this team, and that is why I expect changes to come during the season. Josh Smith is rumored to be the odd man out – probably being traded. Even with trading Smith, that still leaves the Pistons with two skilled big men in Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond. Van Gundy will have to adapt his coaching stlyle in order to succeed.
The Pistons weren’t able to resign Rodney Stuckey, so they signed Jodie Meeks to replace his production. Their other two signings were D.J. Augustine and Caron Butler, both veteran players who will contribute in the Motor City. Meeks received a significant amount of playing time for the Lakers last year and proved to be a reliable three-point marksman. Augustine resurrected his career last year playing for the Chicago Bulls, where he and Joakim Noah often carried the offense.
As I previously stated in Part I, the Detriot Pistons will be in a dog fight with the New York Knicks and New Jersey Nets for the coveted eighth seed. But unlike the other two, they will win that eighth seed with the coaching of Stan Van Gundy, great offensive play from Monroe, and superb defensive play from Drummond. And now I think I lost most of my readers.
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Pacers fans, I feel your pain. It’s not fun watching your rising superstar go down for the season and knowing that you have to wait a full year to watch a competitive basketball team again. For those of you that don’t know, Paul George had a gruesome injury playing for Team USA last summer and will likely miss all of the season. With George going down, they will have to rely upon their second playmaker, Lance Stephenson. Scratch that… they let him walk to Charlotte. Indiana signed Rodney Stuckey in hopes of filling the void left by Stephenson’s departure. They also extended their head coach, Frank Vogel, even after Indiana had a rough finish to the 2013-14 season. With George’s injury, Vogel won’t have much expectations — or pressure — on him this season.
The Stuckey singing was a good one; he is underrated and has been his whole career. He is a playmaker that can put the ball on the floor. That’s something this team will desperately need and will take pressure off of their starting point guard – George Hill. The Pacers still have their two starting big men, David West and Roy Hibbert. If you thought watching them before was boring, it’ll be even worse now. Their offense will mainly be dumping it down into the post to either West or Hibbert. This season will be a make or break campaign for Hibbert. He got off to a hot start last year, but fizzled out at the end of the year. He played so poorly many were calling for him to be benched, putting his Pacer career in jeopardy. With George out and Stephenson gone, he’ll be leaned on to provide offense and that’ll showcase how truly good he is.
Each and every game will be a grind and no one will like playing them, but they won’t be able to put up enough points to win against talented teams. They’ll be like the previous two Bulls teams, without the winning. Vogel will try feverishly to provide schemes that’ll help spark offense but few will work and they’ll be watching the playoffs from their couches this season, hopefully netting them a lottery pick in the draft. If they are able to find a gem to pair alongside George, Indiana will again be a team to watch next season and beyond.
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The Bucks actually made some moves this off-season. They drafted former Duke star Jabari Parker, traded for Jared Dudley and coach Jason Kidd, and signed Jared Bayless and Kendall Marshall. Jabari is a remake of Carmelo Anthony, who can score from just about anywhere and in any way, has a fluid release, a nice post game, and rebounds well enough. He’ll get a lot of shots and put up close to 20 points per game. That’s a nice piece to add with their other young stud, Giannis Antetokounmpo.
The trade for Dudley will give the Bucks a veteran player that can play decent defense and knock down an open three. Bayless will provide a spark and instant offense from the bench and Marshall will provide open looks for his teammates when he sees minutes in limited action. Kidd had some people doubting his coaching abilities last year, especially after “SpillGate,” but silenced most of those doubters when the Nets improved as the season went on and eventually reached the playoffs.
The Bucks aren’t making any noise this season or next, but Parker is the face of the future. He’ll be a nice player for the fan base to cheer until Milwaukee puts the proper pieces in place to compliment his game and create a winning culture.