Jeff Keys' Midwest Division Preview!
This division features an exciting young Pacers squad, a superstar on the rise in Kyrie Iriving, and the return of former MVP in Derrick Rose. The Midwest division of the NBA is definitely one to watch, especially since these teams should either be locked in or on the rise over the next few years. Then there’s the other two teams in Detroit and Milwaukee who seem to just make marginal signings that will have little impact on their standings. However…not sure if we will actually see any bad teams in this division, but I can’t see more than three making the playoffs.
The Good: They have interesting young pieces they can build around. They locked up Larry Sanders to a 4 year extension after he just missed averaging a double-double and nearly three blocks per game in his third season. They also traded for a good, young, Kentucky-bred point guard in Brandon Knight who should see his assist numbers climb having better players around him. Add in frontcourt pieces Caron Butler and Ersan Ilyasova and you have a solid frontcourt. Solid. Larry Drew will be in his first year coaching the Bucks after finding some success with the Hawks. He does also have OJ Mayo as his starting two guard. Mayo could be the leading scorer on this team. Carlos Delfino, Luke Ridnour, and Gary Neal solidify your backcourt and small forward rotation.
The Bad: Who backs up the guys in the frontcourt? And notice how I repeated the word "solid." That’s because the frontcourt is not "great." They’re just solid. Butler is injury prone, Sanders is not a scoring machine, and Ilyasova is not a offensive force either. Any injuries to the frontcourt will decimate any hope the Bucks have at making the playoffs. OJ Mayo has not been the offensive threat many thought he would be entering the league, but will be the leading scorer here, most likely. With that said, what does that say about the rest of your team? They’re lacking much of a team. They have no one in the starting line up who can be "The Man." They remind me, as far as starters are concerned, of the Detroit Pistons that won the title in 2004. A defensive minded center, a power forward with range, two backcourt scorers; but…this team is different in that they don’t have as good of a bench, their starters are mostly unproven, and they lack a clutch, end-of-game closer. I don’t see them making the playoffs.
Projection: Over/Under wins: 36.5 5th in Midwest
The Good: This team is stacked in the frontcourt. Between Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe, Josh Smith, Jonas Jerebko, Josh Harrellson, and the oft injured Charlie Villanueva, there's loads of talent. Add in a young backcourt of Brandon Jennings, Will Bynum, Rodney Stuckey and you have a fringe playoff team. This is without adding in the two rookies and Chauncey Billups, who undoubtedly came back to retire. Mr. Big Shot is loved in Detroit and will get his chance to show what he has left. The frontcourt is overly impressive and should dominate the glass in nearly every game they play, but Greg Monroe will command a large contract in the near future. Will Detroit pay him? And what can we expect from interesting rookies Peyton Siva and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope? Finally...this is the most talent Jennings has played with. He has lots of offensive talent around him. Will he take a step forward?
The Bad: Joe Dumars is still overpaying players that are not worth what he offers. He made stunningly impressive decisions roughly ten years ago. I don't question Josh Smith's talent, but I do question giving him that large of a deal. He has struggled to produce in the preseason, compared to Monroe. And speaking of Monroe, how will they handle his situation going forward? This team is loaded in the frontcourt but may lose some of that if they don't want to give him a huge deal. Jennings is a poor shooter, but having Billups as a player/coach will be huge in his continued development. Speaking of Billups, can he contribute anything?
Projection: Over/Under Wins: 38.5 4th in Midwest
The Good: They've got Kyrie Irving, the best thing for Cleveland since you-know-who. And you-know-who may come back, but that's for another article. And they were lucky enough to have the first overall pick in this summer's draft to snag Anthony Bennett. They have the 4th overall pick from 2011 in Tristan Thompson. This team has a lot of young talent surrounding Irving, who is definitely a superstar in the making, along with potential all stars in Bennett and Thompson. Supersub Jarrett Jack came over from Golden State. They have good depth up front with Tyler Zeller and the returning Anderson Varejao. They also added Andrew Bynum, which could be a huge plus in getting attractive free agents, or one in particular, back to Cleveland. The bench has added depth with Jack, plus Earl Clark and CJ Miles, in addition to the aforementioned Varejao and Zeller.
The Bad: They have potential for injuries, with Bynum, Varejao, and Irving having all missed near entire seasons at some point in their life. Bynum failed to prove himself at all, other than racking up an injury, while already injured. They have a brand new coach, and are very inexperienced. This team will grow together and most likely add a premier free agent of some kind next summer. This year though? A fringe playoff team. At this point, they're too young and the frontline is too brittle.
Projection: Over/under wins: 42.5 Tied for 3rd in Midwest
The Good: Derrick Rose is back. So is Luol Deng. The Bulls definitely missed him in the playoffs, but the good in that was that it gave Jimmy Butler minutes on the big stage, and he played a lot of them and performed well enough to be in the starting lineup this year. They still have Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer, and Taj Gibson, perhaps the best 3 man rotation in the league at PF/C, along with having Nazr Mohammed. Over the past two years, they've lost some of the formidable bench they had in Derrick Rose's last year, but added Mike Dunleavy this offseason. Kirk Hinrich is still in Chicago too.
The Bad: Rose has looked good in the preseason, but you always worry about a player with a tender knee like that. Also...will he eventually show any effects of sitting out the entire year? As mentioned, they have lost the depth they had on their bench. And will Joakim Noah hold up? He plays a reckless game and is such a big part of their defense and energy.
Projection: Over/Under Wins 51.5 2nd in Midwest
The Good: Paul George is emerging as a Kevin Durant Lite. In his third season, George emerged as Indiana's best player. Their former best player, Danny Granger, is back after missing nearly all of 2012-13. George, David West, and Roy Hibbert might be the best frontcourt in the league and are almost certainly the best defensively. The bench was majorly upgraded, as Indiana has a pretty solid backup for every position. Luis Scola will provide toughness and rebounding. Chris Copeland proved to be a guy who could score in a variety of ways as a 28 year old rookie for the Knicks last year. In addition, the team is young, but with the right mix of veterans. They'll be a top four team in the East for several years.
The Bad: Danny Granger is already injured and scheduled to miss at least the first two games as I write this. Paul George got his huge deal but suffers from poor shot selection at times. Will Roy Hibbert start out slow, as he did before? Indiana DID upgrade the bench, but by doing so, did they take a step backwards defensively?
Projection: Over/Under wins 55.5 1st in Midwest
As I examine my predictions, I find it tough to rank the bottom three so low. However, none of those teams have proven anything. And all of them made very questionable free agent signings--some of them longterm signings. Indiana did nothing to hurt themselves longterm while resigning George and upgrading their bench. Chicago took their 2nd round playoff team and added a former MVP to it, while only losing Nate Robinson.
Indiana and Chicago COULD wind up facing each other at some point in the playoffs, and if Rose regains his MVP form, I could see the series going either way.