Turning to the Central, we see the same pattern we saw in the Atlantic. One title contender (Cleveland) and a whole bunch of maybes. While the Central doesn’t look like it will have any truly horrible teams it also has plenty of also-rans. The also-rans are varying degrees of interesting from very (Chicago) to not so much (Milwaukee). Let’s see how it all shakes out:
1. Cleveland Cavaliers: By most accounts, the Cavs seemed to be the best team in 2008-09. They had the most wins, the best expected won-loss record, and the best player in the NBA. Alas, things fell apart against Orlando when Dwight Howard dominated them enough to knock off a 66-win team. The Cavs are back with substantially the same team, with the exception Shaquille O’Neal, who they hope can annoy Howard enough to slightly negate this edge. Going forward, the Cavs look to be in great shape. LeBron James is still the best player in the NBA and the only older players on the roster are Shaq and Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who will be splitting time at center.
Last year, we noted that teams that win over 65-games tend to decline slightly the next season. But even if this is the case, this team is quite good and obviously championship caliber. The interesting thing is here is how good LeBron’s team was when its star was so young. Most of the inner circle Hall of Famers had their best team season when they were near the traditional peak ages (26-28 years old). Check out a sampling of the big stars in NBA history:
-LeBron James (age 24), 2008-09 Cavaliers (66-16)
-Bill Russell (age 30), 1964-65 Celtics (62-18)
-Larry Bird (age 29), 1985-86 Celtics (67-15)
-Michael Jordan (age 32), 1995-96 Bulls (72-10)
-Magic Johnson (age 27)/Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (age 39), 1986-87 Lakers (67-15)
-Julius Erving (age 32), 1982-83 76ers (65-17)
-Wilt Chamberlain (age 35)/Jerry West (age 33), 1971-72 Lakers (69-13)
-Elgin Baylor (age 34), 1968-69 Lakers (55-27)
-Shaquille O’Neal (age 27), 1999-00 Lakers (67-15)
-Hakeem Olajuwon (age 31), 1993-94 Rockets (58-24)
-Tim Duncan (age 29), 2005-06 Spurs (63-19)
-Karl Malone (age 33)/John Stockton (age 34), 1996-97 Jazz (64-18)
-Oscar Robertson (age 32), 1970-71 Bucks (66-16)
As can be seen, none of the perceived inner circle Hall of Famers experienced huge success until their prime or even their decline years. It’s not clear if this means that LeBron may eventually have more team success than he did in 2008-09, whether James’ success is an outlier, or whether the above trend has no real meaning. Regardless, James and the Cavs are the best team in the East and should be able to beat Orlando and get to the Finals.
-PG, Andre Miller 2001-02: 16.5 ppg, .454 FG%, 4.7 rpg, 10.9 apg, 21.8 PER
-SG, Wesley Person 2001-02: 15.1 ppg, .495 FG%, 3.8 rpg, 2.2 apg, 16.3 PER
-SF, LeBron James 2008-09: 28.4 ppg, .489 FG%, 7.6 rpg, 7.2 apg, 31.7 PER
-PF, Carlos Boozer 2003-04: 15.5 ppg, .523 FG%, .11.4 rpg, 2.0 apg, 20.8 PER
-C, Zydrunas Ilgauskas 2005-06: 15.6 ppg, .506 FG%, 7.6 rpg, 1.2 apg, 21.9 PER
2. Chicago Bulls: Of any non-Cav team in the division, the Bulls are, by far, the most interesting. They continue to be a fun team with nice young players but the nature of the team’s style of play has changed considerably. Whereas in the Scott Skiles days, the Bulls were a great defensive team that tried to score just enough to get by, the 2008-09 Bulls were a decent offensive team but were even worse defensively than the team that imploded in 2007-08. The Bulls have plenty of young talent (in particular Derrick Rose) and cap room for 2010 off season. It’s a great position to be in but there is a murmur that coach Vinny Del Negro may not be the guy to get the Bulls to the next level (Peter Vecsey just reported that a bad start may get Del Negro fired).
So, Del Negro must improve this team both offensively and defensively this coming season. But there is room for improvement on all ends. Rose who looked like a weak defender as a rookie may improve, Luol Deng missed a lot of time with injury, and Brad Miller and John Salmons will be on the team for a full season. The Bulls also have a chance to sign a big name this off-season (Dwayne Wade?) and they have to figure out what to do with Joakim Noah and Tyrus Thomas, who are duplicative talents on a team that could use a banger to complement their offensive players. In all, this is a team that could take another step forward but isn’t likely to be great. Expect another 40-45 win season and a chance to make a major move at the trading deadline or in the off-season.
As an aside, we do all wonder how good will Derrick Rose be? It’s not clear yet but he does seem really advanced for a 20-year old. Here’s a list of most of the 20-year old point guards we’ve seen in the NBA. Rose isn’t at the top of the list but his ability at age-20 is an indication that he’s pretty much a lock to be an All-Star at some point in his career:
|C. Paul||New Orleans||2005-06||36.0||16.1||0.430||5.1||7.8||22.1|
|G. Arenas||Golden State||2001-02||24.6||10.9||0.453||2.8||3.7||17.0|
|T. Parker||San Antonio||2002-03||33.8||15.5||0.464||2.6||5.3||16.5|
|J. Farmar||L.A. Lakers||2006-07||15.1||4.4||0.422||1.7||1.9||10.8|
|S. Livingston||L.A. Clippers||2005-06||25.0||7.4||0.414||3.0||4.5||10.6|
-PG, Kirk Hinrich 2006-07: 16.6 ppg, .448 FG%, 3.4 rpg, 6.3 apg, 17.0 PER
-SG, Ben Gordon 2006-07: 21.4 ppg, .455 FG%, 3.1 rpg, 3.6 apg, 18.2 PER
-SF, Luol Deng 2006-07: 18.8 ppg, .517 FG%, 7.1 rpg, 2.5 apg, 18.7 PER
-PF, Elton Brand 1999-00: 20.1 ppg, .482 FG%, 10.0 rpg, 1.9 apg, 20.6 PER
-C, Tyson Chandler 2004-05: 8.0 ppg, .494 FG%, 9.7 rpg, 0.8 apg, 16.4 PER
3. Detroit Pistons: Joe Dumars may have made some legendary moves this decade but he’s ending it with some head scratchers. Faced with an aging core and wanting to avoid rebuilding from the bottom up, Dumars made the defensible decision to tear down some of the foundation. The decision seemed a little premature but not crazy or clearly wrong. The problem was that the actual rebuilding plan seems a little off so far. It was inconsistent to trade Chauncey Billups for cap room and also sign Rip Hamilton to a long term extension. It was not evident why the Pistons wanted to keep the Hamilton, who wasn’t as vital to the team as Billups and would require a longer term cash outlay.
The cash freed up in the Billups deal was then used to sign Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva. Going forward, that leaves the Pistons with a core of: Rodney Stuckey, Hamilton and Gordon in the backcourt and Tayshaun Prince, Villanueva, Maxiell, and room for possibly one more big signing short term (assuming Hamilton or Prince aren’t traded). It remains to be seen if Stuckey will end up being a good NBA player (or a point guard even if he is good) and there is a distinct lack of stars in this core. This is not a bad team but it the rebuilding process is hard to sniff out at this point. On the bright side, Gordon and Villanueva should help an offense that struggled last year but will do nothing for the defense that suddenly become mediocre. Short term, this is a .500 team. Long term, the Pistons will have to sign a big name to make the rest of this roster look good. The ball is in Dumars’ court. He generally has come through but you could understand if Pistons fans are a little worried.
-PG, Chauncey Billups 2007-08: 17.0 ppg, .448 FG%, 2.7, rpg, 6.8 apg, 23.6 PER
-SG, Jerry Stackhouse 2000-01: 29.8 ppg, .402 FG%, 3.9 rpg, 5.1 apg, 21.8 PER
-SF, Grant Hill 1999-00: 25.8 ppg, .489 FG%, 6.6 rpg, 5.2 apg, 24.5 PER
-PF, Rasheed Wallace 2005-06: 15.1 ppg, .430 FG%, 6.8 rpg, 2.3 apg, 17.6 PER
-C, Ben Wallace 2001-02: 7.6 ppg, .531 FG%, 13.0 rpg, 1.4 apg, 18.6 PER
4. Indiana Pacers: Let’s see, a team that runs a lot (3rd in pace in the NBA) and shoots a ton of threes (4th in the NBA), and scores a bunch (5th in the NBA in points). Despite all the points, the Pacers weren’t actually a good offensive team and they weren’t particularly fun to watch. Since the stacked Pacers team of the mid-2000s have fallen apart, Indiana has put together a team that isn’t cheap or very good. Aside from plucking Danny Granger, there isn’t much to like on this roster. The current line up features T.J. Ford, Granger, Mike Dunleavy (if he’s healthy), Troy Murphy, and Jeff Foster. Ford, Murphy, and Foster all are still useful but playing them together creates a team without any particular strengths and a very thin bench to boot. The playoffs are not impossible here but the absence of any great players indicates that Indiana will probably be in the mid-30s in wins and outside of the playoffs.
-PG, Mark Jackson 1999-00: 8.1 ppg, .432 FG%, 3.7 rpg, 8.0 apg, 17.7 PER
-SG, Reggie Miller 2000-01: 18.9 ppg, .440 FG%, 3.5 rpg, 3.2 apg, 17.3 PER
-SF, Danny Granger 2008-09: 25.8 ppg, .447 FG%, 5.1 rpg, 2.7 apg, 21.8 PER
-PF, Ron Artest 2003-04: 18.3 ppg, .421 FG%, 5.3 rpg, 3.7 apg, 18.2 PER
-C, Jermaine O’Neal 2002-03: 20.8 ppg, .484 FG%, 10.3 rpg, 2.0 apg, 21.4 PER
5. Milwaukee Bucks: Bringing in Scott Skiles definitely worked on some level. The Bucks, who had been among the worst defensive teams in the NBA for years, actually were a respectable 15th in efficiency. The problem is the offense regressed a little and their best offensive player, Michael Redd, suffered a major knee injury. The Bucks then sent the off-season letting go two of their best young players (Ramon Sessions and Charlie Villanueva) for nothing and also trading Richard Jefferson for cap relief. Milwaukee still has Andrew Bogut, who has established himself as an above-average center and Redd is coming back. But Redd is already 30 and was declining from his peak even before the injury. The Bucks have replaced Sessions, Villanueva, and RJ, with assorted trinkets (Carlos Delfino, Hakim Warrick, Ersan Ilyasova) that aren’t bad aren’t likely to be improvements either. I’m also very skeptical that Skiles will be a fan of first-round draft choice Brandon Jennings, a raw shoot-first lead guard. Put this altogether and the Bucks are clearly the worst team in the division and the only team without a solid shot at the playoffs.
-PG, Sam Cassell 2002-03: 19.7 ppg, .470 FG%, 4.4 rpg 5.8 apg, 22.3 PER
-SG, Ray Allen 2000-01: 22.0 ppg, .480 FG%, 5.2 rpg, 4.6 apg, 22.1 PER
-SF, Glenn Robinson 2000-01: 22.0 ppg, .468 FG%, 6.9 rpg, 3.3 apg, 20.1 PER
-PF, Charlie Villanueva 2008-09: 16.2 ppg, .447 FG%, 6.7 rpg, 1.8 apg, 18.6 PER
-C, Andrew Bogut 2007-08: 14.3 ppg, .511 FG%, 9.8 rpg, 2.6 apg, 17.5 PER