The Central division was represented by three teams in last year’s playoffs. The Bulls and Cavaliers were among the favorites to make it through to the Finals in the East, but the presence of Milwaukee was a big surprise. The young Bucks had a great season but could not take measure of the more experienced Bulls in the first round.
Cleveland didn’t waste any energy in the first round against the Celtics, but lost Kevin Love in the process. A gruesome second round was expected, but the Cavaliers were ready to grind out the series against Chicago, and after sweeping the Hawks, James found himself in the NBA Finals for the fifth consecutive time. Undermanned and fatigued, they lost the Finals in six and will be out for revenge this year.
The team that was expected to challenge for the division win, the Indiana Pacers, did not make it to the playoffs. They lost their most important player in Paul George during the offseason due injury and never got it going. Head coach Vogel was able to maintain the energy level, but eventually the Pacers lost one game too many to qualify (due to a tiebreaker, they finished ninth in the East).
George is back, but they lost one of the league’s best rim protectors in Roy Hibbert, and veterans David West and Luis Scola decided to sign elsewhere during the offseason. They brought in Monta Ellis and Jordan Hill, but Indiana’s roster looks like they are not going anywhere at all. The return of George, who will be shifted to the four position this year, will most likely make them a playoff team again, but they are far from the contending team they were two seasons ago.
Head coach Stan Van Gundy is slowly building the Pistons back to a place in the playoffs, but the roster, although talented, still looks too thin and inexperienced. Detroit chose to let one of their big guys go (Greg Monroe), meaning that they will look at Andre Drummond to become their franchise player.
Next, they offered a huge contract to their (new) point guard Reggie Jackson, who will have to prove the league that he is worth the money. They brought in some solid players in Aron Baynes, Ersan Ilyasova and Marcus Morris, and will be waiting for Brandon Jennings to return from injury. Detroit will be looking to play faster-paced, more attractive basketball, focusing on the big man in the middle and shooters spotting up around the arc. Making the playoffs will be too much, however, even in the East.
The Milwaukee Bucks were the biggest (positive) surprise in the East last year, winning an astonishing 26 more games than the season before. No such improvement can be expected this season, but the Bucks have significantly added to their roster. Talented big man Greg Monroe came in, three-point shooting was added with Chris Copeland, and Greivis Vasquez was brought in to improve their bench at the point. They kept scorer Khris Middleton and with a settled Michael Carter-Williams, a healthy Jabari Parker and an improved Giannis Antetokoumpo, this team has not even began to touch their ceiling. They still have a relatively young roster, but there is no doubt in Milwaukee that head coach Jason Kidd will lead his team back to the playoffs this year.
In Chicago, fans will hope that Derrick Rose will finally be able to play 70-plus games again this season. They had a good season last year, with Pau Gasol playing as an All-Star again and Jimmy Butler emerging as the number one guy in the team. With the return of Rose, the Bulls should be one of the big favorites again to challenge the current Eastern champions Cavaliers for a spot in the Finals.
However, one huge and rather unexpected change came about in Chicago when they fired head coach Tom Thibodeau this offseason and replaced him with a more offensive-minded coach in Fred Hoiberg. It will be a question on how rookie coach Hoiberg will want his team to play, but he will have a roster at his disposal that is good enough to win now, although their bench looks rather thin. Even so, anything but a ticket to the Finals will be a disappointment.
The same high expectations are present in Cleveland. They kept the team together, with the exception of Tristan Thompson, who is yet to sign an extension with the Cavaliers. The bottom line for the Cavs is health. They have proved that the roster is more than good enough to make it to the Finals, but anything but the title this year will be a bust for this team.
Lebron James was only one healthy player away from possibly grabbing his third NBA championship, so keeping their stars fresh and healthy will be the main focus during the regular season. With Anderson Varejao and Kevin Love back (and assumable Tristan Thompson as well), Cleveland will have enough big men down low, and the added an extra security at the point by signing Mo Williams, who played with James before in Cleveland. Even a healthy big three in Miami couldn’t grab the title the first year, but with a season of playing together, expect James, Love and Kyrie Irving to stroll straight back to the Finals where nothing but the trophy will be considered a successful season.