The Central Division features the clear preseason favorite in the East, a couple intriguing teams trying to make a move into the playoffs, and a couple others whose window of contention might have slammed shut.
Summertime in the NBA is a season full of hope, where everyone except Sixers fans has something to look forward to as they count down the days to opening night.
Every team made changes and most changes look great on paper this time of year, before the actual product is revealed on the floor and the unexpected inevitably happens. Some can't-miss signings will indeed miss, and some players that are being completely overlooked at the moment will suddenly make a name for themselves.
While we can't predict who will be this year's Hassan Whiteside or Khris Middleton, we can still have a little fun with the whole thing and act like we know what we're talking about. For this, I enlisted the Walter Matthau to my Jack Lemmon, Bright Side of the Sun's noble scribe Jim Coughenour, as we pick apart the summer moves that every NBA team has made since their season ended.
This week we head to the land of bratwurst and cornfields and check in on the Central Division, where the clear early favorite in the East resides.
2014/15 record: 50-32 (lost in semifinals to CLE)
Arrivals: Fred Hoiberg, Bobby Portis
Departures: Tom Thibodeau and his combover
Rollin: The Bulls apparently decided that the only change needed was one of the philosophical nature, as essentially the same team from last year will be returning, but this time under the rule of Fred Hoiberg.
Right Said Fred was too sexy for Iowa State, and the Bulls front office has been coveting him for quite some time while dealing with the mutually abusive relationship with Tom Thibodeau. Hoiberg will look to pick up the pace in Chicago, where last year's Bulls ranked 23rd in that category, and instead of wasting everyone's time by pretending to know the X's and O's of Hoiberg's scheme, I'm gonna refer to this piece from our SB Nation friends at Blog A Bull. It's worth a read.
In short, Hoiberg plans to pick up the pace and run a lot of early-offense sets to create multiple looks, in contrast with Thibodeau's offense, which was much more deliberate and waited until everyone was in position before a play even began. (For the record, they were still 11th in ORtg last season)
A faster pace always sounds nice, but the Bulls feature six rotation players that are at least 30 years of age, and Derrick Rose's knees are about 74. While much has been made of Thibs' tendency to overwork his players, might a faster pace and increased possessions do more damage than the previous system? It'll be interesting to see how long the honeymoon lasts if the scheme doesn't produce immediate results. Jimmy Butler was inked to a $95 million -- which is appropriate for a two-way player of his caliber -- and it's anyone's guess how much longer Pau Gasol, Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose can play at a high level, either due to injuries or age. The Bulls were starting to feel a bit tired and predictable, but it's still quite risky to overhaul the scheme when the window might be close to slamming shut.
Unfortunately for Chicago, the DirecTV Derrick Rose is gone and they're stuck with the cable version.
There is also some roster imbalance that it seems should've been addressed over the summer. Taj Gibson, Nikola Mirotic and Bobby Portis will all be fighting for reserve minutes up front, while Kirk Hinrich and Aaron Brooks will probably get too much time (again) in the backcourt.
I'm not sure how much they can really change the system when the roster is still totally Thibalicious.
Rollin's grade: Young at heart but long in the tooth
Jim: Unfortunately for Chicago, the DirecTV Derrick Rose is gone and they're stuck with the cable version.The inevitable cliff has to be somewhere on the horizon for Pau Gasol, too, even though he set a new career high with 11.8 rebounds per game last season... at the age of 34.
Is it possible that the Bulls can get more from Tony Snell or Doug McDermott? Neither has emerged as a good scoring option at the wing, where the team lacks a minatory presence. The trade of Jusuf Nurkic and Gary Harris for McDermott hasn't paid off for Chicago so far.
I'm not so sure the Bulls decided they only needed a philosophical change as much as they were constricted into that path. Chicago is over the tax, partly due to paying over $20 million to their former MVP... who is now an average starting point guard when healthy. I can think of more than a handful of point guards who might be able to put this team over the top.
The Bulls have gone from close, but no cigar to just missing the boat. By the time a team can get past LeBron it won't be Chicago.
Jim's grade: Painfully awkward and possibly less attractive
2014/15 record: 53-29 (
The Cavaliers LeBron lost to the Golden St. Warriors in the NBA Finals in six games)
Arrivals: Mo Williams, Richard Jefferson
Departures: Shawn Marion, Mike Miller, Kendrick Perkins, J.R. Smith, Brendan Haywood
Jim: Rich Paul seems like the kind of guy I'd really like to have a beer with.
The protracted contract negotiation with Tristan Thompson is the only ominous cloud hanging over this franchise right now. But maybe it's not that boding after all. Thompson has LeBron James in his corner, who just reaffirmed the importance of re-signing Thompson, and Paul's tactics with stalling negotiations and using the qualifying offer as a threat seem to be following a consistent pattern. The sides will likely meet somewhere between $80-$94 million or the Cavs will crumble completely.
Eric Bledsoe's $70 million doesn't look so bad if Thompson is getting north of $80 million, now does it?
The acquisition of Mo Williams may pay dividends for Cleveland, giving them a scoring option in the backcourt and legitimate backup point guard. It was incomprehensibly pitiful watching the ineptitude of Cleveland's backcourt in the Finals after Kyrie Irving went down. Jefferson's best days are (far, far) behind him, but he might still be able to come in for short spells and hit a few threes. He has shot over 40% from long distance in four of his past five seasons (.426 last year).
Their real success of the offseason might be that no one in the East appears ready to present a challenge.
All in all, the offseason has to be viewed as a huge success. The team brought back Kevin Love, and Iman Shumpert to a lesser extent, and with a year together to build more cohesion a healthier squad has a pretty good chance to follow in LeBron's Miami Heat footsteps by winning a title in his second season with the team.
Jim's grade: Does LeBron get paid to be GM, too?
Rollin: Williams might end up being one of the most impactful signings of the offseason, at least when the playoffs roll around. His .342 3P% was the worst of his career since 2010/11, but was still better than any Cavalier shot from downtown during the Finals*, where Shumpert was the resident "marksman" at .320.
*Mike Miller shot 50% on 2 attempts
The Thompson situation is a unique one. There are plenty of reasons not to give him anywhere close to $80 million, but the only reason to cave in -- LeBron -- is far and away the most prominent factor. And yes, as much as Suns fans enjoy picking apart Eric Bledsoe for everything from his personality to his propensity to fall to the floor after missing a layup, his contract is looking better all the time.
But I digress. The Cavs did a fine job locking everyone up sans Thompson and added just enough to stay the clear-cut favorite, but their real success of the offseason might be that no one in the East appears ready to present a challenge. Atlanta looked painfully vulnerable in the playoffs, Chicago made no significant additions, Washington is a nice team but not particularly fearsome, and it looks like business as usual in the East.
Last year the Cavs dealt with major growing pains and had to start the season with Dion Waiters on board. This year they might just coast instead.
Rollin's grade: Breaking Bread
2014/15 record: 32-50, missed playoffs for sixth straight season
Arrivals: Marcus Morris, Ersan Ilyasova, Stanley Johnson, Steve Blake, Aron Baynes
Departures: Greg Monroe, Caron Butler, a few others of no consequence
Rollin: Last year's 32 wins for the Pistons were the most since 2008/09 -- the year they inconceivably traded Chauncey Billups for Allen Iverson. It has now been two offseasons under Stan Van Gundy in Detroit, and the roster is starting to look a lot like a Van Gundy team. He has his 1 and 5 established with Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond, and has filled the rest of his rotation with nothing but shooters.
He traded for Ersan Ilyasova and former Suns fan favorite Marcus Morris; drafted Stanley Johnson, who should at least be a solid 3-and-D player; and the Pistons will return Jodie Meeks, Anthony Tolliver and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. All that needs to happen is for all these shooters to actually start hitting shots (.344 from 3 last year).
Now that the roster is more or less set, Jackson and Drummond will have all the time they need to grow into their roles, and as impressive as the youngsters are at times, they both have a ways to go to become efficient scorers. They ranked 10th and 11th respectively in TS% (.511, .504) for the Pistons, far behind the likes of Tolliver and Jonas Jerebko.
They should just bottom out and roll some dice in the draft. Being the Pistons is what Philadelphia is trying to avoid.
Jackson was given $80 million to take the reins (again, about that Bledsoe contract...) and is already 25 years old, so it might be possible that he just is what he is. If the Pistons are to become anything resembling a contender under Van Gundy, I'd put my faith in Drummond to make it happen. The big man turned 22 a few days ago and if he can just get his .389 FT% up to .500, it would go a long way to filling his beastly two-way potential.
I like what the Pistons have done overall, and at least they are identifiable for something other than giving big contracts to underwhelming players now. They might have overreached with Jackson, but I at least expect them to be in the hunt for a playoff spot.
Rollin's grade: Whooooooaaaaa GUNDY!!!
Jim: It will be interesting to see what Detroit gets out of Reggie Jackson next season. Efficiency aside, Jackson averaged around 18 points and 9 assists per game for Detroit in 27 games after he was traded. That performance certainly helped him with his contract this summer. Will Jackson still be hungry to prove himself as a starter and make good on his new deal, or will he be fat and happy... although maybe not too happy... being a Piston and whatnot.
This team still has way too many question marks for me. Can Ilyasova stay healthy? Can Drummond Avoid being the worst free throw shooter in NBA history? Can Morris be slightly less insane and stay out of prison?
Detroit still looks like a 25-35 win team with a ceiling of possibly sneaking into the eighth seed, but more likely in the 10-12 range and last in their division.
It's hard for me to get behind a plan that puts a team in that position for seven straight seasons. Plus, I just don't see an elite talent in the making. Sure, Drummond is a beast, but he's also allergic to free throws and doesn't seem like he'll ever have more impact than a DeAndre Jordan type. KCP has no heart. Everybody else is at least mid 20's. They should just bottom out and roll some dice in the draft. Being the Pistons is what Philadelphia is trying to avoid.
Factoring everything in, I don't know if there's a single other franchise in the NBA in a worse position than Detroit.
Jim's grade: Have they arrived at nowhere yet?
2014/15 record: 38-44 (in a surprising plot twist... this wan't good enough to make the playoffs out East)
Arrivals: Monta Ellis, Jordan Hill, Chase Budinger, Rakeem Christmas, Glenn Robinson III, Myles Turner
Departures: Roy Hibbert, David West, C.J. Watson, Donald Sloan, Damjan Rudez (to be perfectly honest, I had no idea this guy played 68 games for the Pacers last season)
Jim: I know that the league has trended towards smaller lineups, but this Pacers roster is ridiculous. I wouldn't depend too much on the oft-injured and erratic Jordan Hill. Ian Mahinmi is a nice player, but career backup. How much does Indiana think they can get from 19 year old Myles Turner?
The next concern after the paper thin frontcourt is the addition of low efficiency chucker Monta Ellis. Ellis is one of those special players who doesn't like to share the ball or play defense. At least he shot almost 29% from three point range last season.
This really appears to be a "What else is left out there?" signing.
You don't go with Phil Collins if you're trying to disturb the neighbors, right?
All in all, Larry Bird and Kevin Pritchard have managed to assemble a truly putrid collection of players around Paul George... and should feel appropriately ashamed of themselves. If healthy, George might be able to drag this crew of misfits into the playoffs, but it looks like it will be another wasted year for the 25 year old star.
Jim's grade: Not exactly living the Bankers Life...
Rollin: At first I thought it was cool when I heard that Indiana wanted to get whatever they could for Hibbert and crank up the pace -- David West and Luis Scola were also among the zombies that shuffled out of town -- and I was prepared to say nice things about them until I looked at their depth chart.
I wonder why there is no one on this roster to challenge George Hill for the starting PG spot. And why did they draft Turner if they were planning on committing themselves to playing faster? Wouldn't Kelly Oubre or Devin Booker or Cameron Payne or even Trey Lyles all make a ton more sense if the goal is to become faster?
Does Frank Vogel know how to coach an up-tempo team? I don't think it's quite as simple as putting your SF where your PF used to be and telling everyone to run faster. I mean, you don't go with Phil Collins if you're trying to disturb the neighbors, right? It seems like the Pacers are prepared to challenge opposing teams to a shootout, but their only firepower aside from Paul George is the water-pistol combo of Ellis and Rodney Stuckey. Good luck with that, guys.
Rollin's grade: Nerf, or nothin'
2014/15 record: 41-41 (lost to CHI in the first round)
Arrivals: Greg Monroe, Chris Copeland, Greivis Vasquez, Rashad Vaughn
Departures: Zaza Pachulia, Larry Sanders (I guess), Jared Dudley, Ersan Ilyasova
Rollin: First off, their new brand is excellent. Going from their old Christmas scheme to the smooth color palette and logo set they rolled out this summer is a better achievement than many teams made all by itself.
On top of that, they bagged a major free agent. Unfortunately it was Greg Monroe and not LaMarcus Aldridge or Kevin Love, but still -- the Milwaukee Bucks beat out teams like the Knicks and Lakers for the services of a key player. This would've been inconceivable a year ago.
If that's not enough, the Bucks just might have the best young tandem in the NBA with Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker returning from a torn ACL that abruptly ended what probably would have been a Rookie of the Year campaign last season.
Not only does Milwaukee's starting lineup feature a couple of 20 year old phenoms (Jabari and Giannis), but Monroe is the elder statesman at 25.
Isn't the NBA funny? The Bucks' front office was notorious for refusing to tank and instead shooting for 8-seeds, with milquetoast free agent signings like Drew Gooden, O.J. Mayo and Corey Maggette in recent years, and still they suffer only one truly awful season before emerging from the rubble with a gold Rolex in each hand.
It's a special time to be a Bucks fan. This has probably been the most unremarkable franchise of the past 10+ years, but suddenly it's surprisingly cool -- like that nerdy girl in that one high school movie that gets a makeover and everyone's like "Wow!!!"
I don't know how Monroe will fit -- I assume he'll be the starting center since only John Henson and Miles Plumlee can sort of man the 5 -- but I don't really care and I hope they're on national TV a lot this year.
Rollin's grade: The theme song from Laverne and Shirley is in my head now and I'm not OK with that
Jim: Not only does Milwaukee's starting lineup feature a couple of 20 year old phenoms (Jabari and Giannis), but Monroe is the elder statesman at 25. This has the makings of a young talented core that can grow together.
I don't know about the NBA being funny, though. Bucks fans might disagree. They're probably ready for their team to win some games considering the Bucks have only had one winning season in the past 12 years.
One winning season in 12 years.
That's a testament to being stubborn if I've ever seen one. Bucks fans would probably agree.
But all's well that ends well, right?
Maybe not so fast.
The Bucks are definitely an intriguing young squad, but the pudding is still lacking a little bit of proof. Are the Bucks close to becoming a legitimate contender? I have questions about Monroe's fit in the defensive scheme (4th best DRtg last season) and suspicions the Bucks depth is rather shallow. If Giannis and Jabari continue to develop, though, the Bucks should be able to patch the holes around them.
I also don't discount the Monroe signing and what it says about what the Bucks are building.
I'll root for this team. After the last decade plus their fans are due.
Jim's grade: Have the Bucks set Jason Kidd up to be 2015/16 Coach of the Year?