The Chicago Bulls are aggressively courting Carmelo Anthony, and that news is dominating the current zeitgeist.
Should Anthony sign with Chicago, joining reigning Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah and former MVP (and often injured) Derrick Rose, the Bulls could become serious title contenders.
Tom Thibodeau has installed a defensive system that is the envy of the league. His complex mechanisms have baffled even the most explosive offenses and have elevated Noah from human gadfly to a gadfly that's pretty damn destructive on defense.
Looking beyond the perennially good Chicago: Indiana was in the Eastern Conference Finals (and as bad as they were, particularly Hibbert, they still should not be taken for granted), Detroit is rebuilding around Stan Van Gundy (and could unlock a functional playing system), while Milwaukee drafted Jabari Parker and traded for (an admittedly overvalued) Jason Kidd. (But let's be real, Milwaukee is still going to suck.)
Which raises a couple of a questions as we begin the slow trudge toward the 2014-2015 season.
- Who will be the top team in the Central division moving forward?
- How do the Cavs fit in this conference?
The Central could easily end up being the most competitive division in the East (and would probably still be the weakest in the West). Indiana was the best regular season team in the Conference last year. Chicago, minus Rose for a second year, was two games away from a 50 win season.
If Chicago signs Melo and gets a fair approximation of a healthy Rose, that Bulls team is going to win at least 50 games. If Indiana manages to right their ship, even a little, they could squeeze 50 wins out of a fairly marshmallow-y Eastern Conference. Why does that matter? No division in the East, last year, featured two 50 game winners.
Then take a gander at Detroit. As their roster currently stands, their three best players all operate best in the low blocks. Andre Drummond could become the best pure center in the NBA. Josh Smith is still a physical specimen that can obliterate opponents on the block (but instead hoists up brick after brick from the wing). Greg Monroe is a savvy passer and low-post scorer. He is also a restricted free agent and it has yet to be seen if Detroit will actively match any offer he receives.
The Pistons are in a bit of a logjam though. Their three best players cannot share the floor together, at least not without pushing Smith to the small forward position where he is most at-risk for taking bad shots. Smith, despite being a veteran, still has terrible decision making on when and where he should shoot. His shot chart sometimes reads like a Stephen King novel. For instance, Smith hurled more 3-point attempts (3.4 per game) last year than at any other point in his career. He converted a disastrous .264 percent of those shots. His overall field goal percentage plummeted to .419 percent, the lowest of his career. He also grabbed a comparatively measly 6.8 boards (his lowest total since 2005-2006). And yet, Smith was averaging the second most minutes of his career (35.5 per game).
How to explain his fairly awful season?
The perimeter. Smith was forced onto the perimeter because of the Monroe-Drummond tandem and a lack of quality wing players. Van Gundy has a history of success with teams constructed around a dominant inside presence (remember Dwight Howard's best Orlando years, everyone?). But he built those offenses with four 3-point shooters and Howard in the middle. He didn't face a roster challenge quite like this one.
Which means Van Gundy will likely be in the market for wing help (note: the Pistons signed Jodie Meeks to a three year contract worth between $19-20 million, sans any player or team options). He'll also have to figure out what to do with Brandon Jennings, who was pegged as a potential star for the Pistons when they signed him. But Jennings doesn't fit well with Van Gundy's three point bombing systems of the past. Jennings has oscillated between mediocre and bad three point percentages (his best percentage: .375; his worst: .323).
All of which boils down to this: we simply won't know what the Pistons are until the off-season is done and the games start getting played. If Meeks is the biggest roster move they make, the Pistons will be lucky to win 40 games next season (an 11 game improvement from last year's 29 wins).
Then there's Milwaukee. Where the hell do you even begin with that team?
Let's start with the positive, I guess. Jabari Parker, the number two overall pick, was roundly considered the most "NBA ready" player in the draft. He garnered serious comparisons to Carmelo Anthony and he will likely be the best player for the Bucks next season, and for a long time after that. He's a clean cut kid that wanted to be in Milwaukee, he's a good face of a franchise (now let's hope he plays like it).
Beyond Parker the pickings get slim, especially on offense. Larry Sanders is mercurial. He has a checkered history and a hefty amount of baggage and he sometimes plays unmotivated and sloppy. When activated though he's one of the best rim protectors in the league (also, the Bucks may move him before the season starts). Giannis Antetokounmpo (henceforth referred to as Giannis, because fuck typing that last name out again) was an extremely promising prospect on the wing and could make a dynamite running mate for Parker for years to come. Brandon Knight might yet be a starting point guard. Nate Wolters showed some potential off the bench. Carlos Delfino shoots 3s. OJ Mayo is also on the team (but probably not for long).
Now for the bad...
The Bucks put a black mark on their organization during the whole Jason Kidd fiasco. Their handling of Larry Drew was unprofessional, at best. And they executed that train wreck for Kidd, a sophomore head coach who foundered for half of last season, spilling pop on the court and openly battling assistant coach Lawrence Frank. He figured out the Nets should be playing small ball at some point last year and the team gelled after that, but there's plenty of reason for concern with both management and the coaching.
And the roster is weak. Parker is promising, if unproven. Sanders is a perpetual question mark. Mayo was a disappointment. Knight has been inconsistent. Giannis is also promising, but less so than Parker. That's pretty much it. That's pretty much all there is to write about the Bucks roster. It's bad.
So, how do the Cavaliers fit in the division?
Assuming Melo joins the Bulls and Rose's knees aren't immediately reclaimed by a hooded Death, Chicago is the best team in the conference and it's not even really close. The Bulls struggled on offense and excelled on defense. The remedy? Sign one of the premier scoring talents in the league and pray your former MVP PG can regain some of his previous form. Chicago could be legitimate title contenders next year.
Indiana will likely get the nod as the second best team in the division. Look. Hibbert was schizophrenic in the playoffs, we all know that. He was the butt of endless Twitter jokes and the centerpiece of every ESPN story on the team. And we still don't have any idea what the hell was going on with him. Lance Stephenson was arguably the Pacers second or third best player and he is an unrestricted free agent. But Paul George is a legitimate All-Star shooting guard/small forward and bonafide two-way machine. David West is a grinder. Barring anymore mental collapses, the Pacers will make the playoffs next year and could challenge for at least 45 wins (and might be able to hit that 50 win plateau again).
So who's the third best team in the division next year?
I'm going with the Cavaliers.
Obviously they'll be better than the Bucks, unless Jason Kidd is hiding Charles Xavier's brain in that bald head of his. Parker will get them some wins but that team isn't going to sniff the playoffs. It's just not going to happen (and I'm sure they'll end up winning 50 games next year just to spite me).
But what about Detroit?
I don't see Van Gundy righting that ship in one-season, and maybe ever. The Meeks contract is a bit much for a glorified role player (but he can shoot the three people). And if the Pistons re-sign Monroe, Van Gundy will be challenged to find the right system, and allocation of minutes, to satisfy his three best players. He might be able to do it. But I doubt it.
Cleveland is an unproven commodity. They only won 33 games last year (still an improvement from the year before, and close to the 8th seed in the East---and yeah, FUCK is the East bad). If Irving plays to his contract and Wiggins becomes a formidable running mate for him, it could be a goldmine. Irving excels as a jump shooter who meanders blindly through defense. With Wiggins, Irving will be able to guard the weakest player on the other team while the Kansas boy tackles the best offensive threat. I expect the defense to improve next year.
I also expect the offense to improve drastically under new head coach David Blatt. If the Cavs keep Dion Waiters, and trot out a starting line of Irving, Waiters, Wiggins---that's a potential juggernaut in transition.
If we assume that the Central will make no major roster adjustments besides the potential addition of Melo to Chicago, Cleveland is still sitting fairly pretty. The East is improving but not rapidly. The Cavs, right now, are better than the Atlanta Hawks (who grabbed the 8th seed last year). With Blatt at the helm, this Cavs team could transform into a mid-tier playoff contender.
And who knows where they go from there.