Indiana Pacers: Life In The Sorry Central Division

Nobody is blind to how deplorable the Eastern Conference has been this season.  Heading into the 2013-14 campaign, the balance between the East and West appeared to be moving in the right direction.

Some teams completely altered their roster identities, while others believed a new voice as a head coach would solve their issues.

Pacers

Jan 25, 2014; Denver, CO, USA; Indiana Pacers head coach Frank Vogel during the first half against the Denver Nuggets at Pepsi Center. The Nuggets won 109-96. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

Nevertheless, it’s still appalling, and that’s putting it in respectable terms.  The Eastern Conference currently possesses four teams above the .500 mark, with only two that have eclipsed the 30-win mark thus far.

Take that a step further, and examine the NBA’s Central Division specifically.  In this new era of professional basketball, it’s becoming common to find fans that aren’t quite aware of which teams rival their favorites in their division.

Frank Vogel’s Indiana Pacers have the luxury of playing in the second-worst division in basketball, which would be a complete mess if it wasn’t home to 38-10 juggernaut.

Along with the Pacers, the Chicago Bulls, Detroit Pistons, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Milwaukee Bucks make up the Central Division.  Largely due to the lack of superstar power with the injury to Derrick Rose, the division currently sits with one team above .500.  I’ll let you take a wild guess of who that could be.

In fact, the stardom is relatively weak in the Central Division, compared to the five others that are now loaded.

In the Atlantic Division, the Brooklyn Nets generate an entire lineup of future Hall-of-Famers (Pierce & Garnett), perennial All-Stars (Johnson & Williams), and perhaps the best offensive center in the East when he’s healthy in Brook Lopez.   The Toronto Raptors are on the rise with their dynamic duo of Kyle Lowry and All-Star DeMar DeRozen and, as of right now, New York City is still hanging on to a top three scorer in Carmelo Anthony.

Pacers, Cavaliers, Kyrie

Oct 11, 2013; Orlando, FL, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers head coach Mike Brown talks with point guard Kyrie Irving (2) during the first quarter during game against the Orlando Magic at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: David Manning-USA TODAY Sports

The Southeast Division is quite unfair to judge in terms of superstar talents, as Miami’s Big 3 has dominated their four division rivals since joining together.  With the Charlotte Bobcats taking a step forward this season, Al Jefferson has finally made a push to be considered the best big man in the entire conference, and Kemba Walker‘s explosive play style has earned him the right to at least have that superstar potential for the future.  John Wall has remained healthy and on a tear this season, gradually placing Washington in the mix for a home-court playoff spot.  When healthy, Atlanta’s frontcourt of Al Horford and Paul Milsap aren’t necessarily considered star worthy, but definitely second-tier NBA players.

Heading out to the Northwest Division, the talent is simply superb.  Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook will likely have Oklahoma City pursuing their first NBA title in June, and the duo of LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard has ripped up every analysts’ preseason prediction of Portland hovering around the seventh or eighth seed all season.  Did we even mention the best stat sheet stuffer in the division, Kevin Love?  The Northwest could form an All-Star team of their own …. at least before Love bolts for Southern California.

In the Pacific Division, the state of California never fully disappoints.  While Kobe Bryant has been a ghost this season, he’s still a top three player in the league when healthy.  Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are thriving under Doc Rivers, and Stephen Curry continues to shoot his way into the record books.  DeMarcus Cousins is playing with something to prove in the paint, as Goran Dragic enjoys putting Phoenix on his back and taking them to unexpected heights.

Down in the Southwest, the talent thickens.  If you enjoy veteran intelligence and the ability to work magic in the Western Conference playoffs, San Antonio’s Big 3 will be healthy and ready to taste revenge.  Houston’s guard/center duo of James Harden and Dwight Howard is nothing to sleep on, as either has proven to be able to pick up the slack for Kevin McHale‘s Rockets.  Memphis sure loves defense, and Marc Gasol plus Mike Conley equals disaster for any top seed that draws them in the postseason.  Anthony Davis has joined the discussion of the NBA’s best power forwards over in New Orleans, despite the Pelicans getting shot down consistently.  Then there’s poor Dirk Nowtizki, who has always loved playing a bit under the radar in Dallas.  Loaded bunch, to say the least.

What does the Central Division have, exactly?

Besides the eventual All-time greatest Pacer, Paul George, and fellow All-Star starter Kyrie Irving … nothing screams superstar talent, at least in my own basketball world.   Let me apologize for leaving off Chicago’s Derrick Rose, but I’m certainly one of the many that wrote off Rose’s future when the meniscus gave out on him in late-November.  Hardly anyone feels that he’ll ever be the same.  Detroit did invest their money in forward Josh Smith, but the more unnecessary perimeter shots he lets fly, the more I stray away from labeling him a star in this league.  Andre Drummond is a promising young center, but is the opposite of formidable on the offensive end and also shows great promise of becoming a secondary version of DeAndre Jordan.

This division consists of intense defense that you won’t find anywhere else.  But at the same time, ironically, the bottom of the division includes rosters that aren’t capable of figuring out the defensive end of the floor, despite one being led by a proclaimed defensive genius in Mike Brown.

Indiana has been the NBA’s most terrifying defensive unit all season, still ranking first in points allowed per game (90.2) and team defensive rating (96.3).  Defensive rating is a measure of points allowed per 100 possessions, and it truly isn’t a surprise that the masters of “verticality” are first in the category.  The 7’2″ tree of Roy Hibbert and the aggressive, veteran power forward in David West make it a nightmare for their opposition, and we often even see the league’s best offensive players (such as LeBron James) struggle to convert once they cross the free throw line.  Besides the interior defense Indiana has formed since adding West through free agency, the perimeter defense is clearly in great shape considering George Hill‘s length as a point guard greatly restricts superior play makers, and Paul George has set his goal to being the best “two-way” player by pestering opposing small forwards.

Tom Thibodeau’s Bulls have been and up and down story since opening night.  Pundits seemed to agree that Chicago would be more dangerous in the postseason than Indiana …. until their former MVP had to say goodbye on Nov. 22.  Don’t get it twisted, however, as Rose wasn’t this team’s heart and soul.  No, no no.

Pacers, Bulls

Jan 15, 2014; Orlando, FL, USA; Chicago Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau talks with shooting guard Jimmy Butler (21) and power forward Taj Gibson (22) against the Orlando Magic during the second half at Amway Center. Chicago Bulls defeated the Orlando Magic 128-125. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Defensive intensity has always been Chicago’s heart and soul, and it’s easy to make that connection since Thibodeau is the guy in charge.  Just take a glance back at how aggravating the 2008 Boston Celtics defense was throughout their NBA Finals run.  Then realize who their defensive assistant was that same season.  The Bulls own the NBA’s largest discrepancy in terms of offense to defense comparison, as they rank dead last (30th) in points scored per game, but still hold their opponents to 93 points per contest, only second behind Indiana.  It’s no surprise that Chicago is directly behind the Pacers in defensive rating, neither.  With a defensive rating of 101.0, Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, and Jimmy Butler could very well be the best defensive trio.  They currently have the Bulls one game under .500 (24-25 record) after blowing the lead to Golden State on Thursday night.

That’s about as good as it gets, sadly.

Detroit made a fool out of many (including myself) this season.  When Mo Cheeks took over the reigns and management was able to play offensively minded Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings alongside the defensive youth of Drummond and Greg Monroe, I thought it was a lock for at least a playoff spot.  You know what …. it definitely should have been.

Little did we expect Chauncey Billups to be sidelined for all but 18 games this season.  Billups’ veteran sense of how to control the egos on this roster and actually prevent Smith from destructing the offense was the only way this project was going to work.  The Pistons sit at 19-29 (but still only two games out of a playoff spot!) and have dropped seven of their last 10.

Then, there’s the heart-rending Milwaukee Bucks.

Pacers, Bucks

Jan 22, 2014; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Milwaukee Bucks guard Brandon Knight (11) during the game against the Detroit Pistons at BMO Harris Bradley Center. Milwaukee won 104-101. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

An easy way to put it would be to say that Larry Drew chose a bad head coaching gig.  But when you dissect it, Milwaukee may have been the only available position for him after some underachieving years in Atlanta.  Placing all their chips on O.J. Mayo this offseason is proving to be a questionable choice, as Mayo has appeared in 41 games and averaged just 12.2 points per contest on 39.6 percent shooting.  Brandon Knight has been the only bright light for Milwaukee, posting 14 games of 20+ points since his return from injury.

Milwaukee’s defensive anchor, Larry Sanders, has played in just 22 games thus far, and Gary Neal‘s frustration with his role eventually boiled over to the point where he rarely leaves the bench.  The Bucks are averaging just 92.2 points per game (ranked 29th) because they have no reliable scoring options in the frontcourt, and can never form a consistent lineup without injuries.  Well in front of the Orlando Magic in the race for the NBA’s worst record, Milwaukee is going to nothing but prey to the Pacers in their final three meetings of the year.

Dan Gilbert’s Cleveland Cavaliers are among the youngest teams in the association, full of players that haven’t even begun to blossom yet.  From the start, it was supposed to be Cleveland’s “resurgence season” after adding Andrew Bynum, and snagging back the coach they fired after the 2009-10 season, Mike Brown.  All-Star starter Kyrie Irving serves as Cleveland’s new hero since LeBron James’ departure, but could also exit in the same manner when his contract expires.  After firing General Manager Chris Grant on Thursday, the team still finds themselves only 5.5 games out of the playoffs.  So, nothing is totally in the trash yet.  But when you lose at home to a team that found their roster adopting the newly famous “Sacre rule,” you question the coaching and chemistry.  Don’t let Irving mislead the public; it’s can’t be enjoyable for anyone within the Cavaliers’ organization at the moment.

Indiana has performed well against their Central Division foes this season, collecting a record of 6-2.  That’s three victories over Cleveland, one over Chicago, one against Detroit, and one versus Milwaukee.  The Pacers’ two losses were to the hands of the Bulls and Pistons, in which both instances were somewhat understandable.  In Chicago on Nov. 16, the Pacers entered the night with a 9-0 season record and remained the league’s last unbeaten.  They had a target on their back, and it was just a matter of time before someone got the best of them.  In the home loss to Detroit on Dec. 16, Roy Hibbert played arguably his worst game of the season, shooting 2-of-12 from the field and grabbing only four rebounds against the most athletic frontcourt in the league.  Detroit will undoubtedly have a load of confidence during their next meeting in March.

Just How Bad Is The Central?

All five teams have a combined record of 106-137, which means they have won 43.6 percent of their games as a group.  The Pacers don’t deserve to be mentioned with this division’s performance any longer.

As that figure shows, the Central Division is the second worst division in basketball, statistically.  The Atlantic Division (Nets, Knicks, Celtics, Raptors, 76ers) currently has them beat in terms of horrible season performance, but I don’t expect that to hold up down the stretch.  Atlantic Division teams are 99-146 thus far, winning 40.4 percent of their games.

How the other divisions stack up:

Southeast:  120-125 (.489)

Northwest:  139-105 (.569)

Pacific:  127-122 (.510)

Southwest:  145-101 (.589)

Up Next For Pacers

Indiana will host the Portland Trailblazers on Friday, at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.  If this meeting resembles the last, we are in for a superstar battle between Paul George (who poured in 43 in the December loss at Portland) and LaMarcus Aldridge.  Lost in all of the hype will be Roy Hibbert, who always gets enjoyment from going head to head with Aldridge in the paint.  Indiana has been nearly unbeatable at home this season (23-2), but the Phoenix Suns recently showed the rest of the league just how to get the job done in Indianapolis.

Good luck, Pacers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Topics: Central Division, Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers, Detroit Pistons, Indiana Pacers, Milwaukee Bucks, Paul George, Roy Hibbert

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