2018-19 NBA Preview: Central Division

So basketball is back.

Save the date, October 17 sees the Boston Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers tip-off the 2018 season, and once you go ahead and circle that on your calendar, it’s time to get stuck into some preseason previews for the year ahead.

Trades and draft picks are the two things you need to know, but in case you’ve been snoozing since June, the NBA Championship market has received a bit of a shake-up.

This week, one old favourite, and a serious up and comer and a couple of rebuilders – the Central.

Chicago Bulls

Bulls forward Lauri Markkanen averaged 7.5 rebounds per-game in his rookie season last year.

  • Starting Five: Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine, Robin Lopez, Jabari Parker, Lauri Markkanen

This Could Work

Our old friend optimism has returned to Chicago, and boy does this feel different.

The Bulls got busy during the offseason making a handful of moves that could really work, and it all began with the signing of Jabari Parker. Chicago landed him on a two-year deal, signing him, and his extensive ACL problems away from Milwaukee for a cool $40 million. It’s risk vs. reward here, but signing a hometown guy like Parker who is capable of averaging 20-points a game makes a lot of sense.

Next up, the Bulls re-signed point guard Zach LaVine in July for another four-years. Again, he comes with his own knee concerns, but the 23-year old is a big contributor on defence that looks to have some spring in his step after recovering from ACL surgery at the beginning of last year.

Playing in only 24 games with the Bulls in 2017, we’re yet to receive a full taste of LaVine. We should see plenty of him this season though, and after fighting for minutes on a stacked Minnesota roster in 2016/17, he should have a whole lot less to worry about now that he’s guaranteed minutes and a starting spot on Chicago’s roster.

Smart Thinking 99

It looks as though Chicago have finally gotten this draft thing right.

A season ago they selected Lauri Markkanen with the seventh overall pick, and after starting in 68 games last year, it’s safe to say the Bulls have found a forward they can build around. Markkanen is the kind of aggressive player Chicago have been lacking for years, and although his defence needs work, shooting 36% from three-point land in his rookie year is a stat to be proud of.

Markannen is an agile player, capable of making moves one-on-one and establishing himself in the paint – which is exactly what we should expect from this year’s seventh overall draft pick, Wendell Carter Jr.

As far as talent goes, this guy is the full package. He’s a future All-Star, capable of shooting from the perimeter, blocking shots, and handling the pick ‘n’ roll. It’s tough to find a flaw here, and with the Bulls still rebuilding, there’s no rush to force him into a starting role at only 20-years old.

Dunn Deal

The Bulls acquired Kris Dunn in the Jimmy Butler trade last season, and are yet to reap the full rewards the 24-year old has to offer.

At his best, Dunn is capable of scoring 15-20 points a night, but nonsense injuries like sprained ankles and toes have derailed his production so far. The sky really is the limit, and Chicago will be hoping they see Dunn reach his potential this season as the teams starting point guard. Defensively he is one of the better guards in the league, and if he can improve his shooting from the field, Dunn should be a big contributor for the Bulls this season.

Cleveland Cavaliers

Cavs fans remain hopeful on a Kevin Love bounce-back season.

  • Starting Five: George Hill, Rodney Hood, Tristan Thompson, Kevin Love, Cedi Osman

The Elephant in the Room

Regression, a step back, whatever you want to call it – this Cavs team won’t win anything close to 51-games again this season.

Losing a once in a generation talent like LeBron James (again) hurts this team, and in more ways than one. Obviously they lost the most prolific scorer in franchise history, but they also lost a ton of momentum, skill, and dare we say… faith?

If the East was tough before, it must seem nearly impossible now that LeBron has left. There’s no doubt they’ll be competitive, and probably sneak in as a seventh or eighth seed come playoff time, but this is a new journey for everyone, including a fan base short on patience and expectations.

A Love/Hate Relationship

The general consensus seems to be that, now LeBron is gone, Kevin Love can finally step up and average close to 26 points-per-game again like he did in his final season with the Wolves.

But let’s be realistic, a) Love is 30-years old, and b) he’s still extremely injury prone.

There’s no doubt Love will receive maybe eight or so more shots a night now that LeBron has moved on, however he played in 60 or less game in the last two seasons, which makes Cleveland’s four-year deal for the veteran all the more surprising.

More Changes Are Coming

If the Cavs get to the All-Star break with a sub. 500 record, do they call it quits and press the ‘tank’ button?

That’s for General Manager Koby Altman to decide, but one thing is for certain – the Cavs are going to be serious players come trade time.

There’s currently a ton of money being paid to aging guys like George Hill, J.R. Smith, Tristan Thompson and Kyle Korver, all of which the Cavs would preferably like to rid themselves of sometime in the next 12 months.

There’s also going to come a time when the Cavs need to call it quits on some veterans and enter full rebuild mode. Whether or not that happens this time next year, or before mid-February, depends entirely on how the team is traveling by the halfway point.

Detroit Pistons

Pistons forward Blake Griffin holds the keys to Detroit’s success in 2018.

  • Starting Five: Reggie Jackson, Reggie Bullock, Andre Drummond, Blake Griffin, Stanley Johnson

Dear Dwane

After four-years and only one playoff berth under Stan Van Gundy, the Pistons pushed their veteran coach out the door back in May, making room for former Toronto Raptors head man Dwane Casey.

Turns out steering a talented team like Toronto to five straight playoff appearances (as well as winning 2017 Coach of the Year) makes you fairly sought after, and the Pistons acted swiftly signing Casey to a five-year deal. Tinkering with the culture and the leadership in Detroit was necessary, especially after this team floundered their way to a 39-43 record in the East last year.

There’s still plenty of work to do to make this team a second-tier Conference contender mind you, and it all begins with a clean bill of health. The Pistons missed Reggie Jackson for most of last season, a loss that would cancel out any plans of playoffs if he was miss significant time again this year.

Dear Stan

Make no mistake, the glass is half empty when it comes to Stanley Johnson. Scouted as a decent three-point shooter and defensive contributor with Detroit’s first-round pick back in 2015, the forward has shot no better than 30% from downtown, leaving many Pistons fans to wonder if he’s worthy of a spot in the starting five.

Defensively Johnson is just okay, nothing else. He’s capable of limiting some of the games better shooters on the wing – coach Dwane Casey even thinks he’s the best player to cover LeBron James – but for Detroit to take the next step this season, he’ll need to become a nightly contributor on the scoreboard going forward.

Dear Blake

Blake Griffin hasn’t played in an All-Star game since 2015, and at age 29, it’s safe to say he’s still in the prime of his career.

Now entering his first full season in Detroit, can Blake not only turn his game around, but the Pistons with it? The stats don’t lie, Detroit went 11-14 after acquiring the superstar forward in January, but he still projects as the only scorer on the roster capable of averaging 20 points-per-game each night.

Can he stay healthy? And who exactly will he be lobbing the ball to this season? Those are all questions detrimental to Detroit’s success this year.

Indiana Pacers

 

Pacers point guard Victor Oladipo led the league in steals per-game last season.

  • Starting Five: Darren Collison, Victor Oladipo, Myles Turner, Bojan Bogdonovic, Thad Young

Sleepers & Steals

In case you missed it, the Pacers pushed the Cavs to the brink in the first round of the playoffs last season, narrowly losing a Game 7 to LeBron James yet again.

The loss overshadowed what was otherwise a fantastic season, one that saw the Pacers exceed expectations, silence the doubters of the Victor Oladipo/Paul George trade, and most importantly finish fifth in the East.

Normally a season of such unheralded success would make a talented team like Indiana one of the favourites in the East, but they currently open at $26.00 in our market behind the Wizards, staying true to the underdog tag that has plagued the Pacers for decades.

To be frank, it’s not altogether fair though. The Pacers, fresh from a near 50-win season, have only gotten better this year through free agency, which makes them a sleeper, a dark horse, or whatever else you want to call them once again.

The addition of veteran guys like Doug McDermott and Kyle O’Quinn help take the pressure off Oladipo from the bench, and each should play solid minutes, but gaining a former Rookie of the Year winner in Tyreke Evans was far and away the steal of the offseason.

Evans, fresh from a bounce-back season in Memphis last year, averaged 19.4 points-per-game, and is a versatile forward capable of making plays anywhere on the court. At just 29-years old, the partnership between Evans and Oladipo should be a treat to watch this season.

Sky is the Limit

The great thing about the Pacers is they kept their young roster relatively intact this season – although that may not be the case this time next year with several players in the final year of their deal.

Still, to play captain obvious for a moment, this is Oladipo’s team, and on the heels of his first All-Star appearance, the franchise couldn’t be in better hands. The hunger is there after tasting the postseason, and he’s surrounded by a strong support cast that should look to build on new inclusions like Evans and McDermott as well as 2017 improvers like Myles Turner and Domantas Sabobis.

In case you haven’t already figured it out, this roster is quite full. If, let’s say by the mid-way point, Indiana find themselves sitting fourth in the East, the Pacers certainly have the trade pieces to make a splash and add another prolific scorer like Oladipo to the roster.

Milwaukee Bucks

After earning All-Star honours in back-to-back seasons, Giannis Antetokounmpo enters 2018 as an early MVP favourite.

  • Starting Five: Drew Bledsoe, Malcolm Brogdon, Brook Lopez, Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo

Out With the Old

If you haven’t caught much of the Bucks during preseason, allow us to fill you in.

Milwaukee attempted the most three-point attempts of any team, a strategy new head coach Mike Budenholzer is hoping to employ in the regular season. Spreading the court has been a challenge for the Bucks in recent years, but the hope is to attempt as many perimeter shots as possible, which will in turn open up the court for Giannis to either take a shot himself, or drive to the rim.

Speaking of Giannis, his new-found three-point shot could prove handy in itself this season. He shot 30% from the field last year, which should help Milwaukee rank inside the Top 10 in overall offensive rating once again this season.

In With the New

Jabari Parker has moved on to Chicago, which leaves long time veteran and returning Bucks fan-favourite Ersan Ilyasova to fill-in from the bench. The 31-year old is more than capable on the defensive end, but the Bucks will miss Parker’s playmaking abilities this year.

Milwaukee also got busy during the offseason adding Brook Lopez from the Lakers. Now entering his 10th year in the league, Lopez has bounced around between four NBA teams, but has quickly developed into a reliable shooter from the field.

Speaking of deadeye dicks, how about Khris Middleton? It’s unlikely he’ll shoot 51% from the field again this year, but he does need to improve from three-point land himself. He shot a lousy 35% from the beyond the arc last year, so if he can find that balance between the two this season, the Bucks’ attack should be even more potent.

 

  • NBA Championship Odds: $71.00
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