Grading The NBA’s Central Division
It’s probably safe to say at this point that the NBA champion likely isn’t coming out of the Eastern Conference’s Central Division. Big-time injuries have hit three of the five teams in the division (Derrick Rose and Rip Hamilton for Chicago, Kyrie Irving for Cleveland, and Danny Granger for Indiana), but all five teams are pretty much underachieving six weeks into the season.
But, there’s nowhere to go but up for most of these organizations, and all of the aforementioned missing stars should make it back on the court at some point. Still, even the Bulls with Rip and Rose don’t seem like probable contenders for the NBA Finals. It is, of course, too early to say for sure, but it’s not too early to call these teams out on their shortcomings thus far, and that’s the overlying theme for the first installment of our Grading the Division series, which will run all week.
All that said, here are the grades for the teams in the Central Division:
Chicago Bulls (11-8) – B-
The goal all season has been for the Bulls to at least hover around .500 until Rose finally returns from his ACL injury, and if we really oversimplify things it would appear as though Chicago has accomplished that mission. Dig a little deeper, however, and things are a bit less rosy than that.
Joakim Noah and Luol Deng, the two players responsible for keeping Chicago afloat, are leading the league in minutes per game with 39.8 mpg and 41.2 mpg, respectively. Both are injury prone, and Deng led the league in minutes last year, too, so despite the fact that both guys are having excellent seasons there is a bit of concern that head coach Tom Thibodeau is going to have no choice but to play them into the ground.
On the bright side, the Bulls have still been a top-notch defensive team and are currently in the top three in the league in opponents’ field goal percentage, opponents’ three-point percentage, and opponents’ points per game. Historically, the top defensive teams in the league tend to make the playoffs, so that’s a good sign for Chicago. It’s also a good sign that Marco Belinelli is coming alive, that the team has won three straight and that they are leading their division.
But until Rose comes back, it’s best to temper expectations. Hopefully by the time he returns, Noah and/or Deng won’t be hurt instead.
Conclusion: Win three out of every five until Rose returns, and things will be fine. Until then, though, all fans can do is wait and hope to avoid another major injury.
Cleveland Cavaliers (4-17) – D
Expectations weren’t particularly high for the Cavaliers even before Kyrie Irving went down for a month with that broken finger, but now that rookie Dion Waiters has missed four-straight games with an ankle injury, too, the Cavs are looking worse than ever. Only the insanely disappointing Washington Wizards have a worst record at this point, and with Alonzo Gee, Jeremy Pargo, and Tristan Thompson playing some of the biggest minutes on the team, it’s not a huge mystery as to why.
The only real bright spot for Cleveland through 21 games has been Anderson Varejao, who is playing like an All-Star and leading the NBA in rebounds per game by a wide margin. There were going to be trade rumors surrounding him anyway, but it now it seems even more inevitable should the team continue playing as poorly as they have.
Conclusion: There comes a point when a rebuilding team like the Cavs has to admit that this just isn’t a championship season. Lose the games you need to lose, and maybe see if you can’t add Tyler Zeller’s brother Cody to the roster over the summer.
Detroit Pistons (7-15) – D+
Despite the fact that Detroit still has some veteran salaries to shed in order to truly embrace rebuilding, the hope on this roster clearly lies in Brandon Knight, Greg Monroe, and Andre Drummond. Since all of these guys are still extremely inexperienced, the Pistons are probably going to continue moving forward as a painfully inconsistent young team.
They are, for example, 2-10 on the road so far this year, which doesn’t bode well for things to come, but at some point we’ll start seeing more big minutes for the youngsters so that A.) The core can get as much time playing together as possible, and B.) The team can have a poor enough record to take a shot at a top draft pick in June.
Conclusion: Don’t hold your breath for big things in Motor City this year. The Pistons are stalling, though Knight, Monroe, and Drummond have shown flashes of something that could end up being pretty interesting in a few years.
Indiana Pacers (10-10) – C-
Even without Danny Granger, the Pacers were supposed to be better than this. The guys Kevin Pritchard and Donnie Walsh had hoped would make astronomical leaps this season (George Hill, Paul George, Roy Hibbert, Gerald Green) have either been only marginally better than a year ago or have regressed. That, combined with the preseason stomach punch of losing the team’s top scorer, has made the going get tough for Indy a quarter of the way into their season.
On the bright side, Paul George looks like he’s finally breaking out offensively, but until the rest of the young guys on the roster catch up, the Pacers may be no better than .500, which is severely disappointing considering the way things had progressed for them the last two postseasons.
This might have been the year they finally traded Granger too; now Pritchard and Walsh have to be wondering if they’re better of keeping him. They will at least want to see how things gel (and hopefully change) when Granger gets back before attempting to do anything drastic, and that means Granger likely sticks in Indiana at least through the end of the year.
Conclusion: Unless Indy’s kids get much better relatively quickly, this could end up being a pretty mediocre year for the Pacers.
Milwaukee Bucks (10-9) – C+
Before Milwaukee lost seven of their last 10 games, they were a 7-2 ball club sitting atop the division and looking like a sure-fire bet to make the playoffs. But, they’ve lost a lot of their mojo the last couple of weeks and no longer look like much more than a middle-of-the-road Eastern Conference team.
Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis are both still excellent offensively and atrocious defensively, but Ersan Ilyasova has been seriously disappointing after getting a hefty contract extension in the offseason, and only Mike Dunleavy is also averaging double-figures in scoring this season. There are plenty of talented players on the roster, but too few of them are standing out. Scott Skiles’ tenure as a lame duck head coach could eventually turn into a problem, too, but hopefully the talk in a few months is about playoffs rather than Skiles’ hot seat.
Conclusion: The Bucks have come crashing back to earth and look pretty average, hence the “C+” grade. They could still make the postseason, but they’ve got some work to do in order to get there.
We’re painting a dismal picture for the Central Division this season, but it really is sort of a dismal picture. The NBA champion probably isn’t among these five teams, but this is only the first in a series of Divisional grades. Stay plugged into HOOPSWORLD all week for the other five, and know that some of those reviews will be a little more glowing.