Tuesday 20 March 2018 / 11:13 AM


The NBA season is right around the corner, with the 2016-17 campaign kicking off on October 25. We will be previewing the league over the course of the next three weeks to get you ready for the season.

Today, we’ll be previewing the Central division, which may be the best division in basketball with five real playoff contenders – not to mention the best player in the world, LeBron James, and the defending champions.

Last year, the division sent just two to the playoffs in the Cavaliers and the resurgent Pistons. But an influx of talent to the division has tipped the scales and has every team thinking that this could be their year to contend.

So with all the shuffling and moves, is it still the Cavs’ division to control? And is there another serious contender in the bunch for the Eastern Conference?

1. Cleveland Cavaliers

The Cavs didn’t have a lot of crazy moves in the offseason, but suffered some attrition. The loss of Timofey Mozgov hurts more than it appears, as injuries limited him from actually producing to the level that he did two years ago. That loss of depth stings. They also lose their dependable backup guard in Matthew Dellavedova. The bench definitely took some lumps and lost some of the depth that they’ve had the last few seasons.

The attrition may not be over, as the team is still in danger of losing starting swingman JR Smith. Smith was integral in the Cavs’ championship run and is looking for $15 million per year. The Cavs haven’t budged on their offer sheet, and while it’s widely expected he re-signs, reports are out that Smith is now flirting with the option of joining a new team. Until Cleveland gets that answered, there’s some questions for that guard lineup.

But the champs are far from limited in depth, addomg Chris Anderson and Mike Dunleavy to shore the bench up. If Smith comes back, the champs are as loaded as ever, and have James on a shiny, new 3-year deal. The three-headed monster consisting of Irving, James, and Love returns, and Tristan Thompson assumes full-time starter responsibilities. The Cavs are still the clear cream of the East, even with a slightly depleted bench.

2. Indiana Pacers

There may not be a team in the NBA that has revamped their roster more than the Indiana Pacers. The team got busy in the offseason, doubling down on the ‘win now’ mantra and moving on from defensive-minded Frank Vogel, while adding Nate McMillan to revamp the offense. They quickly flipped the roster around to a totally new mentality.

Their star, Paul George, now has a roster that is built to more complement his abilities, and the young stud Myles Turner now completely runs the paint. George Hill is gone and replaced with Jeff Teague, which is a solid improvement. Al Jefferson and Thad Young replace Ian Mahinmi and Jordan Hill, and they added some solid rookies in the paint in Georges Niang and Alex Polythress. A lineup of Jefferson-Turner-George-Ellis-Teague is really talented offensively, at least on paper.

The defense of the team is certainly going to struggle, unless Turner can expand his game to paint protection. The Pacers’ guards don’t really scare anybody defensively, but Teague is alright. George will again be carrying the burden of guarding the best player each night, and Myles Turner is going to find out that paint protection is difficult with the lack of rim protection Big Al gives.

They aren’t title contenders just yet, but they are one of the best teams in the East.

3. Detroit Pistons

Is it time to say the Pistons have arrived? I’m not sure an eighth seed quite qualifies that, but the Pistons added some solid talent to their roster. Boban Marjanovic and Ish Smith are big-time depth additions and make the Pistons much better off the bench. That second unit is one of the most competent in basketball, and makes the Pistons a much better scoring team.

The Pistons are incredibly young, but got to grow up a little bit against Cleveland in the playoffs. They’ve doubled down on that Drummond-Reggie Jackson duo, and for good reason. They both played incredibly well and getting some time with Tobias Harris a full offseason with them is great for the gel of the starters. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is expanding his game a bit, while Marcus Morris provided a nice dimension that was missing defensively.

Shooting is an issue for this team and it could become a problem for them throughout the season. But beyond that, this team is way deeper than last season’s line-up, and the natural progression is for them to improve. But this division is tough and the conference around them is better than it was. There should be an upswing in the Pistons’ future, but the youth of the roster leaves no ability to take it as a given this year.

4. Chicago Bulls

Well, the Pacers reworked their roster and so did the Bulls. Gone is what was left of the Bulls of a few years ago, with Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose out of town. They shook up the offseason by adding Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo, and swapped Pau Gasol with Robin Lopez. Add in the talented rookie Denzel Valentine, and the Bulls do have some talent on the roster to offset what they lost.

Wade is still a star, and Jimmy Butler will get to play with a defacto alpha-male in both Rondo and Wade. But neither are the defenders that they used to be, especially Rondo. Meanwhile, the Lopez-Pau downgrade is noticeable. The bench is solid, but this team lost a lot of talent around them. The defense is going to be worse without Noah, and they’ll need Taj Gibson to get better.

But the big issue is the shooting. The whole starting lineup can’t shoot from outside except Butler, and even he isn’t going to hit the long ball with regularity. Wade has never been able to shoot and Rondo is atrocious from outside. They aren’t going to scare anyone, or space the floor for Butler, and driving lanes may not be there. While there’s some big names on this roster, I’m just really not a fan of the way it’s constructed.

5. Milwaukee Bucks

The Bucks infused some talent in the offseason, bringing in Matthew Dellavedova, Mizra Teletovic and Jason Terry to improve the bench. Rookie Thon Maker adds some young talent, but he’s a little bit of a gamble from where he was selected. But the young roster is better than a year ago and should improve.

But the loss of Khris Middleton hinders the ability of this team to be a guarantee to move up. Middleton’s injury absence leaves the team with no real shooting guard, as Jerryd Bayless and OJ Mayo also left in the offseason. That means that the roster is going to be clunky and weird to watch function.

Because there is no shooting on this team at all, the starting lineup is going to struggle to have a spaced floor. Giannis Antetokounmpo is going to have to work some serious magic to keep the Bucks contending until Middleton returns in March.

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About the author

Austin Albertson

Austin is CBS' senior NFL and NBA analyst, bringing you commentary on everything between the lines and inside the hashes, from the film room to the scoreboard.

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