Starting when the NBA preseason kicks off next week, I’ll be writing a daily recap of all the previous night’s action, called The Daily Fix (except on Thursdays because you can just watch TNT that night). In the preseason, I’ll focus mainly on team-specific rotational issues, injury updates, and anything else newsworthy. When the regular season begins, I’ll be focusing on every issue possible, with the intention of providing all the information that a box score doesn’t give (although statistics will obviously still be used). Each night’s games will be broken into categories, like “Western Conference Showdown” or “Battles Between Eastern Conference Cellar Dwellers Who Are Doing Everything in Their Power to Lose,” for example. The Daily Fix will also serve as an avenue to all the team-specific writing, and I’ll be following all the story-lines that are covered in great detail by the team-specific scribes.
Until the preseason begins, I’ll be going division-by-division to expand on the predictions I made over the summer, and to iron out my opinions on how each team and player will fair this season (I promise to call myself out for my incorrect predictions as often as I pat myself on the back for my correct predictions). Next up, the only division in the East that has a legitimate chance to send all five teams to the playoffs, the Central (from best to the Pistons):
- In the offseason, the Pacers added Chris Copeland, Luis Scola and C.J. Watson, and they got Danny Granger back from injury; if basketball was played on paper, the Pacers would have done enough in the offseason to beat the Miami Heat this year (in other words, the Pacers will beat the Heat in the NBA Live simulation of the season). With their new additions, the Pacers are set at every position and flaunt one of the fullest nine-man rotations in the NBA. Last year I argued that the top six teams in the West would give Indiana problems in a seven-game series, but now, Indiana would be the favorite to win the West. Yeah, I said it. Especially since Russell Westbrook just had a little problem.
- Roy Hibbert taking the next step as a consistent post scorer is the most important ingredient towards beating the LeBrons. Hibbert looked like an elite center in the Eastern Conference Finals, where he averaged 22 and 10. However, Hibbert hasn’t been a consistent post presence at any point during his regular-season career and between Halloween and March 19 last season (67 games), Hibbert averaged just 10.8 points, 8.0 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game; sounds like Tyson Chandler to me. Part of Hibbert’s lack of offensive successful is because the Pacers don’t have a pass-first point guard to control the ball and keep the bigs happy, but Hibbert needs to hone his post game in the regular season if he wants to take down Chicago/Brooklyn/Miami in the postseason.
- What is Danny Granger’s new role, is it the right role and how does he respond to a lesser role? Granger would be most valuable as a second-unit scorer who can dominate late in the first quarter and early in the second (think James Harden in OKC), and play down the stretch in place of Lance Stephenson in many situations. Stephenson is a jack-of-all-trades guy who wouldn’t bring the same intangibles to the second unit as he does to the starting unit (he’s better at being the fifth-best guy on the court than being the second or third best). Granger would also be a great stretch 4 in the right matchup, which would give the Pacers a dynamic they didn’t have last year. Someone needs to sit down and tell Granger this: “Listen, man, you’re an elite scorer. You’re a very good player, but we didn’t have you last year and we didn’t get any worse. This isn’t the old Pacers, but you can help them be the championship Pacers. What do you say?” Then, hopefully, Granger would go home, think about how his pride hurts a little and then call all his teammates and say “let’s do what Reggie Miller couldn’t, boys.” For the sake of basketball, I hope that happens, and that he’s healthy. We’ve consistently seen this approach fail, but we’ll see.
During the offseason, I compared the 2010-11 Bulls to this season’s Bulls and that piece pretty much sums up my opinion on this year’s Bulls squad. But here are a few tidbits anyway:
- Derrick Rose is the center of the Bulls’ universe. In 2011, when the Bulls played the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals, Rose averaged 23.4 points, 6.6 assists and 4.0 rebounds per game. On the surface that sounds solid, but the Heat beat Chicago in five games, and Rose shot just 35 percent from the field, 23 percent from beyond the arc (he took 30 3s so it’s a legitimate statistic) and averaged 3.8 turnovers per game. If the Bulls want a shot at beating the Heat this season (or even the Pacers for that matter), they’ll need Rose at 100 percent; if he isn’t, then they have no shot.
- The evolution of Jimmy Butler is the Bulls’ biggest variable. Butler averaged a pedestrian 8.6 points, 4.0 rebounds and 1.0 steals per game last season. From March 18 to April 17, Butler averaged 39.6 minutes (14 starts in 17 games), 13.7 points, 6.2 rebounds and 1.7 steals per game, while shooting 48 percent from the floor, 54 percent from behind the arc (not bad, right?), and 71 percent from the line. In the five games against the Miami Heat in the second round of the playoffs, Butler averaged 44 minutes, 15.6 points, 6.4 rebounds and 1.6 steals per game, and shot 43 percent from the floor and 42 percent from behind the arc. That’s a lot of numbers to throw at you at once, but as you can see, they kept going up. On a Rose-led Bulls team, is Butler the perfect shooting guard option? He might be. It’s worth noting his performances throughout the year against the league’s better teams, as the young Marquette product might be the guy that can put the Bulls over the edge.
- Will Carlos Boozer decline noticeably? Taj Gibson has been unable to pry the starting job out of Boozer’s hands, but if he finally does this season, that’s a bad sign for the Bulls. That’s not a shot at Gibson, who I believe is a great third big man; it speaks more to how fragile the Bulls offense is. When an elite defensive team takes a hit to one of their scoring options, sometimes they can’t pick up the pieces. If Boozer stops looking like David West with an uglier jump shot, then Chicago is behind the 8 ball. I don’t think Boozer will drop off significantly, but coming off a mentally exhausting season, Boozer could start to show a little age in his 12th year.
- Mike Dunleavy was a fantastic signing and an upgrade over both Marco Belinelli and Kyle Korver. When you’re a great defensive team, you can take on a defensive liability. Dunleavy can score in bunches and can serve as an independent scorer with the second unit, a floor stretcher with the starters, and a spark plug playing with anyone. Behind Dunleavy, Butler, and Luol Deng, the Bulls have Dahntay Jones (lose Keith Bogans, get Jones; even swap), rookie Tony Snell and Kirk Hinrich (who will see a little time at the 2); in other words, they’re hoping they can rock the three-man wing rotation.
- The rotation is solid, but slightly fragile. After the nine-man rotation of Rose, Butler, Deng, Boozer, Joakim Noah, Kirk Hinrich, Mike Dunleavy, Taj Gibson, Nazr Mohammed (and throw Marquis Teague, Mike James or ex-Spartan Kalin Lucas in as the tenth man/fringe rotational extraordinaire), the team doesn’t seem to have anymore sure-thing options. Is this a huge problem? No, because not too many contending teams who have already paid their stars do, but it’s still worth noting.
- Joakim Noah and Luol Deng are two of the most underrated players in basketball. Noah and Deng are like the Pittsburgh Pirates bullpen; they do their job better than most, rarely get outdueled, make everyone else look good, but fail to get the recognition they deserve. What can I say, defense doesn’t win over the hearts of out-of-market fans unless it’s met with a ring.
- If you’re a basketball purist, you can’t help but root for this team because they do all the little things, they rarely mess up a defensive rotation (it’s beautiful), and they play as a cohesive unit. That all speaks for itself.
After the top two teams, there is a considerable drop off in talent. However, Cleveland, Milwaukee and Detroit are all made waves this summer and are all sculpted so differently that comparing them all season long should be a normal practice. Cleveland was taking the “Sam Presti Method” of rebuilding through top-five picks, but this offseason they splurged a bit, which could really pay off or really mess things up. The Bucks got rid of their backcourt, but brought in a lot of depth, a lot of veterans and a lot of guys who are eager to either prove they’re still got it, that they’ve been overlooked for too long or that they’re game changers who have finally found their home. Detroit brought in Josh Smith to play power forward and then brought in the enigmatic, mercurial (two words that are so overused but spot on for this guy… and Smith for that matter) Brandon Jennings, despite having two bigs already in town. They could all make the playoffs and I think two of them will. Who? You’ll find out soon enough.
- The future is now, but should it be? The Cavs “went for it” this offseason when they signed Jarrett Jack, Andrew Bynum and Earl Clark, but if Bynum is banged up (and he probably is going to be), they might regret making those moves. If they didn’t sign any of those three players, saved their money, got another high draft pick, and strictly played their young guys this season, would that have been a better plan? We’ll revisit this several times throughout the season (probably when Bynum goes down).
- Does Jarrett Jack do to Kyrie Irving what he did to Stephen Curry? You might have found yourself saying “man, Curry looks like he’s got a new role … and it’s perfect for him!” last season and the man to thank is Jack. Can Jack be the leader of this young squad and can he help Irving take the next step into superstardom by allowing him to play off the ball? It shouldn’t surprise anyone if he does.
- What kind of star is Irving? I’m not sold on Kyrie Irving definitely becoming a top-10 player in the next couple years. I know I’m in the minority, but a couple things bother me about Irving. First of all, Cleveland went 45-103 the past two seasons and went just 19-40 in games Irving played last season. If you put Russell Westbrook on that team do they make a playoff push? It’s not out of the realm of possibility. Secondly, missing 38 games in two seasons and most of your lone college season due to injury is a red flag. Thirdly, I think he’s going to be a diva. I have absolutely no information to point to that, it’s just a gut feeling that I have. We’ll see.
- Cleveland boasts a very underwhelming trio of top-five picks in Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson and Anthony Bennett. Presti was able to get Kevin Durant, James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Jeff Green in a matter of three seasons. The Cavaliers got Irving, Waiters, Thompson and Bennett. All five are NBA players, but I’m not sure that anyone other than Irving is going to be more than a slightly above-average starter. Thompson is OK, but he’s raw. Waiters is a pretty good scorer, but he was an awful pick with Damian Lillard, Andre Drummond, Harrison Barnes, Terrence Ross and Jeremy Lamb still on the board (I would be a lot more excited for the season if Drummond was at center, Cleveland had signed a stop-gap 2 or just started Jack and Irving together and Andrew Bynum was out of the equation altogether). Bennett hasn’t played a game yet, but from what I’ve seen, he looks like a bit of a tweener. If Mike Brown can figure out a successful role for Bennett in his rookie season, I’ll be impressed.
- Behind Bynum there’s enough depth to still be a playoff team, but what does that do mentally to such a young team? We. Will. See. Philly didn’t play it too cool last year, did they?
I’m not going to fully repeat myself with the Bucks, because everything I wanted to say is here. The bottom line is this: I think they were put together to make the playoffs in the East and that they will be the seventh or eighth seed. I think they have improved from last season, that they’ve added legitimate depth, veteran leadership and that their frontcourt plus O.J. Mayo will be their backbone for this season and beyond. The offseason moves they made were nearsighted, but when I’m previewing a season, that doesn’t matter. No one seem to agree with me on this, but I don’t mind going out on a limb. In a season where young teams will throw their youth into the fire (which is a form of the “T” word that everyone keeps throwing around) and hope for the ping-pong balls to fall their way, the Bucks will be trying to make the playoffs with a bunch of veterans. I don’t think general manager John Hammond will blow this team up because he’s too close to losing his job, so it’s a playoffs (and bust) or bust (and firing of Hammond) season.
Just like with Milwaukee, I wrote a piece summing up all my ideas about the Pistons here. Long story short, the Pistons aren’t going to become a contender unless a handful of near-impossible things go perfectly. Of any team in the league, I think this one is the hardest to predict because it wouldn’t be shocking if the wheels fell off entirely and it wouldn’t be surprising if they made it to the playoffs with all of their talent. The most important point I want to stress about this team is how important the beginning of the season will be. Who’s the vocal leader and who’s the on-court leader? Did Jennings and Smith mature and are they ready to shed all their nasty labels? Can Smith actually play the 3 when the knock on him has always been that he shoots from outside too much? Does having the three-big lineup hurt Drummond, who isn’t a natural post player and will probably need a lot of room to feel comfortable with his back to the basket? Is Greg Monroe going to be the odd man out? Can they find the right wing rotation with their current roster? It’s all about questions with this team. My prediction is that they’ll win about 37 games, but I reserve the right to adjust that number after the first three weeks of the season. For better or worse, the beginning of the season will be very telling for this Pistons’ squad.
Thanks for reading, folks. On Saturday, I’ll be going over the Southeast division, which might win an ESPY for being the most boring division in professional sports this year (please let me know if anyone else found it funny that a picture of Kyle Singler fronted a Central Divison preview).
Topics: Andre Drummond, Carlos Boozer, Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers, Danny Granger, David West, Detroit Pistons, Indiana Pacers, Jimmy Butler, Joakim Noah, Josh Smith, Kyrie Irving, Luol Deng, Milwaukee Bucks, Paul George, Sam Presti