The Central Division is one of the most fascinating divisions in the NBA because of the expectations of competitiveness from each team. We do this with most teams throughout the league in which we often try to guess the best-case scenario within realistic expectations, but with the Central Division teams, there is such a fine line between what the realistic best-case scenario for each team is and them falling flat on their faces within their expectations. The Central has two teams with title aspirations and then three teams hoping they've done enough shuffling with their roster to secure one of the two spots up for grabs in the East.
With the Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers, it's not a stretch to think if everybody stays healthy that they can challenge the Miami Heat for Eastern Conference supremacy. The Bulls were arguably there before the ACL tear of Derrick Rose back in 2011 and if he can return to full strength, they look deep enough to be a problem under Tom Thibodeau's defensive clamps. The Pacers were one game away from playing in the NBA Finals, taking the Heat to seven games. If they can find consistent offense, they look to be as good as anybody challenging Miami.
For the rest of the teams, their reasonable expectations for best-case scenario have them all making the playoffs, but assuming the Heat, Bulls, Pacers, Nets, Knicks, and Hawks are all locks (which they should be if healthy), that leaves two spots for three teams hoping to make the playoffs. And that doesn't even include the Raptors and the Wizards who also have a great chance at making the playoffs in the East.
So what are the reasonable best-case scenarios for the Detroit Pistons, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Milwaukee Bucks? Will Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings find a shooting conscience in Detroit or maybe just better accuracy? Will the Cavaliers find health with their three best players? Are the Bucks deep enough inside and good enough on the perimeter for things to go correctly under Larry Drew?
Here are the best-case scenarios within reason, team by team:
They drafted well but didn't land any player who will immediately start. They trimmed some money but didn't go so cheap as to start blowing things up or moving Luol Deng for pennies just because Butler looks like the more promising long-term option.
They landed a top-notch shooter off the bench, are giving guys like Butler and Marquis Teague chances to grow in the system, and aren't making any drastic changes until they get to give Rose a chance with this roster.
It was a good, not great offseason, but really, the team's been in stasis since April, 2012. Hopefully, with Derrick Rose by all accounts set to return for the season opener in Miami, the Bulls can get back to building an NBA champion around their young star.
They just have to get him back first.
Best-case scenario: Derrick Rose is, at worst, back to being his old self again. That's everything the Bulls' season hinges on, just like it was last year. In the 2012-13 season, the Bulls were waiting for the return of Rose and it never came. And while the moves they've made to supplement him with help are really solid, none of it matters if Rose is unable to play at least 70 games and be an MVP-caliber player once the playoffs come around. Even if he's not healthy, the Bulls will find a way to make the playoffs. The supporting cast and coaching are too good not to. But in order for them to contend for a title, Rose has to be healthy.
Looking at what the Pacers had going into last season and what we think of them now as a team, appreciating their offseason and the way they've transformed a bench unit in desperate need of a lift is pretty easy to do. They already had a starting lineup that was capable of contending with any lineup in the NBA. With Granger looking to come back from his knee troubles that kept him out of all but five games last season, the Pacers' scoring might not be a problem or ranked as low as 19th like it was last season.
The Pacers can roll out a rotation of George Hill, Paul George, Danny Granger, David West, and Roy Hibbert in the starting lineup with C.J. Watson, Lance Stephenson, Chris Copeland, Luis Scola, and Ian Mahinmi. They've suddenly gone from a team looking to their starters for the majority of the work being done throughout a game to a deep rotation with many interchangeable parts and the ability to pace (excuse the word play) out their minutes over the course of the season.
Even if Granger isn't able to come back, whittling that rotation down to nine guys or maybe even replacing Granger with limited minutes from Solomon Hill is not a bad way to go. They've upgraded from Augustin to Watson and Hansbrough to Scola. Scola may have severe defensive problems when he's on the court, but he's joining the best defensive team in the league while bringing is bag of scoring tricks.
Best-case scenario: The additions to the bench and the return of Danny Granger turn the Pacers into a top-12 offense in the league. For much of last season, the Pacers just couldn't score points. The offense ended up being ranked 19th in the league by the time they found their rhythm and secured the 3-seed in the East, but it wasn't until they could exploit a huge size advantage in the Eastern Conference finals that the floodgates opened. Will the additions of Luis Scola, C.J. Watson, and Chris Copeland buoy the offense enough when the starters are out?
The new scoring ability of their bench, along with the return of Danny Granger, could mean this Pacers team is a threat to score consistently during the entire 48 minutes. If that's the case and they can make an improvement to being a top-12 offense in the NBA, they might have a lot of people thinking upset if they face the Heat again.
Trying to figure out how this team is going to fit together could be a dizzying feat. The last two years, Josh Smith has had a true shooting percentage of 49.9 percent and 50.1 percent, respectively. Those are two horrendous shooting years from a combo forward that should be dominating exclusively in the post and at the rim. Instead, he settles for jumpers he can't hit. With Jennings, he's been a point guard chucking up bad shots and not finishing layups for about four seasons now, but he claims he was put in that situation by the schemes of the Bucks. He has a career true shooting percentage of 49.8 percent in four seasons.
Are they willing to change their games in order to better fit with the combination of Monroe and Drummond? Will Detroit Lob City actually come to fruition with Jennings becoming much more of a distributor and directing Drummond and Smith to move toward the basket so they can touch the rafters before coming down for the dunk?
I think it's easy to mock the Pistons for the lack of shot selection they've acquired in their two most expensive players (I know I've mocked it a lot), but Joe Dumars is swinging for the fences again and hoping whatever culture he feels he's rebuilding in Detroit will find a way to influence the itchy trigger fingers of Smith and Jennings to be more selective. If the Pistons can get everything to come together, this team is far too talented to miss the playoffs.
Best-case scenario: Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings become NBA stars. Some people will argue that Smith already is a star and Jennings' surroundings in Milwaukee forced him to be the inefficient chucker he showed, but the reality is Smith has been a bad offensive player for two straight seasons and Jennings has only had a few good months mired in a fairly average career thus far. That doesn't mean they can't be stars but better shot selection and better shot accuracy have to come. If that happens under Maurice Cheeks in Detroit, this Pistons team is not only a playoff team in the East but capable of being an extremely tough out in the first round. But the status quo for Smith and Jennings can't be what we've seen recently; they have to be better.
The Jennings trade was fine. It's good they drew a line in the sand. But if they were going to lose him, you would have hoped they would have worked out something to get more back sooner. Same with Ellis, especially since they and the Mavericks wound up swapping several pieces anyway.
Knight isn't great, but he could be pretty good, and they picked up a ton of second-round picks to try and move up over the years. Their core of Knight-Henson-Sanders is young and the veterans aren't obtrusive with their contracts.
They mostly get a D for not having a vision. They don't seem to know where they're going or what they're doing, outside of praying for an "Angels in the Outfield" type situation. They don't have a star or a real core of players, but they added a bunch of window dressing veterans. They won't be as much of an issue in the locker room, but will they be better on the court? There are ways they can, but the overall impression is that they got worse without shedding money, and opted for prolonged mediocrisanity than crazed tank warfare.
Best-case scenario: The young frontcourt turns away opposing defenses as the young backcourt takes a leap. The young frontcourt seems like a much more likely scenario considering we have Larry Sanders protecting the rim and John Henson constricting the floor like a boa constrictor with his length and mobility. Throw in Caron Butler and Ersan Ilyasova providing some much-needed help and this could be a great mix of youth and veterans. But the key will be if O.J. Mayo is a good influence on the offense (and not just his own numbers) and whether or not Brandon Knight can be a good starting point guard in the NBA. If it all comes together, this team is good enough to earn one of the final playoff seeds in the East, but they probably have the lowest chance of these prospective playoff teams.
This is clearly an important season for the Cavs. This is Year Four of post-LeBron, and there hasn't been much sign of tangible progress. There are some good young players in place and Irving appears to be a superstar building block. But as for actual winning, the Cavs haven't done much of it.
So some of that patience for Dan Gilbert probably wore off. Instead of just leaving the future to his young players, his front office made some splashes. Bynum may or may not work out, but $25 million for Jack is a substantial commitment.
But with the Eastern Conference's back end a little watered down, the Cavs have a very real opportunity to be a playoff team. They have two main questions: 1) health and 2) development. Can Irving, Varejao and Bynum all stay on the court for most of the season? And will Waiters, Tristan Thompson and Anthony Bennett take steps forward?
Best-case scenario: Health. Kyrie Irving can't miss double-digit games anymore. Anderson Varejao can't have blood clots or any other big ailments that keep him off the court. And Andrew Bynum has to be on the court and he has to be a presence. The core of the Cavs with those three is more than talented enough and good enough to be a playoff team in an East with a few tanking teams. Sure, it would be nice if Tristan Thompson continued improving and Dion Waiters turned the doubters into believers this season, but that's not the important part for them. Even Anthony Bennett's potential impact won't be all that important if Bynum, Irving, and Varejao can't stay on the court.
Offseason Power Rankings
1. Pacers: The Pacers struggled to score last season and had one of the least potent benched in the league because of their inability to make shots. They brought in C.J. Watson, Chris Copeland, and Luis Scola to fix that and will probably be adding Danny Granger back into the fold.
2. Bulls: I'm not sure the Bulls had to do a ton, but they addressed their need for a shooter off the bench that can give them more offensive punch with the Mike Dunleavy signing that was probably well below market price. And some guy named Derrick Rose is coming back.
3. Pistons: I didn't know if I should rank the Pistons as first, second, third, fourth, or fifth in what they did this offseason because it's just too hard to determine how their roster will shake out. I just settled for the middle of the rankings for them, which might be what they've done for their standing in the Eastern Conference.
4. Cavaliers: Will Andrew Bynum, Anderson Varejao and Kyrie Irving be healthy?
5. Bucks: They're not tanking. They're not a playoff lock. They're not destined for the lottery. They're the Bucks.