2021-22 NBA Season Preview: Central Division
With the regular season set to tip off on Oct.19, let’s take a look at where each team in the Central Division stands. We’ll break down what’s to like and dislike, a lineup to watch and a reasonable range for them to finish in the standings.
If you missed it, read our Atlantic Division preview here.
WHAT TO LIKE: OFFENSIVE SYNERGY
Last year, I expressed excitement in Chicago's new direction in the front office. Bringing in Arturas Karnisovas and Billy Donovan were necessary moves to pull the Bulls from their pit of ... mediocrity? Confusion? Throw-stuff-at-the-wall-and-see-if-it-sticks-ness?
They made some roster swings this offseason, bringing in DeMar DeRozan, Lonzo Ball, and Alex Caruso among others. Assuming they're healthy, it's hard to envision the Bulls not having a top ten offense.
Zach LaVine is one of the league's best scorers, and took steps as a pull-up threat and playmaker last year. Nikola Vucevic is one of the most versatile offensive bigs in the sport. Adding the rim pressure and playmaking of DeRozan, as well as the shooting and chain-moving of Ball, gives the Bulls a foursome that few teams can deal with.
- Maybe simplifying things for Coby White is a good thing for his development. Pairing him with at least one of the LaVine/DeRozan/Vucevic triumvirate should take some of the playmaking burden off of him. Live your life as a microwave, young king.
- Patrick Williams. I expected him to mooch points off of cuts and whatever spot-ups were created for him from LaVine (and later the attention drawn by Vucevic). I did not expect him to have a pull-up middy he could get to consistently. He's an interesting young guy to track.
- Being able to get a first-rounder out of Lauri Markkanen, even a lottery-protected one, is good work from Bulls brass.
WHAT TO DISLIKE: DEFENSE
I was tempted to specify a particular area of the defense — I have more questions about the frontcourt, for what it's worth. But the more I sat with it, the more concerned I became with all of it.
This is going to be a drop coverage team. That's not inherently a bad thing, but it can be if you don't have the screen navigators to pull it off. Outside of Caruso, who do you trust to fight over and stay attached to ball-handlers?
Even a lack of screen navigators isn't a death sentence if you have the backline "oomph" to cover for mishaps. Vucevic is not that guy as a rim protector, and you're asking a lot of a second-year guy (Williams) to turn into Thad Young overnight.
I also envision cases like this, where teams run Williams through ball screens with an empty corner.
As Williams learned the nuances of screen navigation at the NBA level last year, he at least had Young as a helper behind the action. If you still have Williams defending top-tier wings and Vucevic in a drop, that roamer role will fall to ... DeRozan, if he's defending 4s in an effort to hide him? I don't know, man.
The Bulls do have options to plug in defensively. Caruso will help the point-of-attack issue a good deal. Derrick Jones Jr., acquired in the Markkanen trade, is a rangy defender on the wing. I like Tony Bradley more than most, though I'm not sure what that says about me.
The good news is that, if the Bulls' offense is as good as advertised, the defense doesn't need to be much more than slightly below average to put themselves in the playoff hunt.
- It kinda leans into the defense point, but I'm a bit worried about scheme versatility with this group. How switch-y can they be? Can they really go small against good teams?
- More "concern" than "dislike", but this seems like a pretty important year for Coby White. I had playmaking concerns heading into last season. He grew, but still seems susceptible to tunnel vision and less-than-ideal shots. And the defense ... yeah, let's hope a leap comes.
LINEUP TO WATCH: Caruso-Ball-LaVine-DeRozan-Vucevic
From my view, the Bulls have three guarantees within their closing unit: LaVine, DeRozan, and Vucevic. From there, it's going to be mixing and matching defensive and/or shooting pieces. I'm sure Donovan will test this unit out, just curious to see how it'll hold up defensively.
BEST CASE: No. 6 Seed
Barring injuries, this is going to be a darn good offense. There aren't many threesomes better than LaVine/DeRozan/Vucevic in the East. Internal improvement from the youth (Williams, White) and a defense that isn't a dumpster fire could earn them a flat-out playoff spot.
WORST CASE: Back End of the Play-In Tournament
There exists the possibility that the defense just doesn't come together. Teams hunt DeRozan, pick on Vucevic in space, and the Bulls don't get the jump they need from Williams to cover mistakes. If the offense is closer to 10th than it is to, like, 5th or 6th, they could be battling it out in the 9th or 10th seed range.
WHAT TO LIKE: PERIMETER SHOT CREATION
The backcourt brings the intrigue here. Darius Garland may have taken over as QB1 in the room, a dynamic pull-up threat with passing chops to complement his penchant for buckets. If his post-All Star break surge proves to be real, the Cavs have a borderline All-Star on their hands.
Collin Sexton is pretty darn good in his own right. He's a bonafide bucket-getter that quietly bumped up his three point volume and making quicker passing reads. His ability to get downhill meshes well with Garland's long-range bombing.
- Evan Mobley is going to be a problem, provided the Cavs give him a steady dose of high post reps. Let him hit cutters, or face up and attack slower bigs. Don't post him up, at least not yet. Oh, he's also one of the best defensive bigs to come out of the draft in quite some time. He's scheme proof.
- Speaking of bigs, I'm down with the Jarrett Allen extension. Fantastic lob threat, good shot blocker. He's also making reads like this on the short roll now; that vibes well with Garland continuing to grow as the lead.
- The Cavs finally have a competent backup point guard! I'm here for Ricky Rubio steadying the ship.
- Isaac Okoro is as advertised defensively. I was intrigued by the Cavs giving him on-ball reps during Summer League this year. The shooting is going to be the biggest swing skill for him, but if he offers more ultility as a driver (and passer), he may reach neutral or slight positive on offense quicker than anticipated.
WHAT TO DISLIKE: FRONTCOURT ROTATION
This isn't to say they have bad players up front. Allen is good. Mobley is, or at the very least will be, good. Markkanen can shoot and put it on the deck a little. Kevin Love ... Dean Wade can shoot.
My question: How the heck are the minutes going to be doled out here?
Trying to find the right mix of defense and spacing in the frontcourt is going to be a challenge. Even if you assume Love won't play much or at all, toggling minutes at the 4 and 5 with Mobley and Markkanen with Allen there is going to get tricky.
- I'm still a bit concerned about SexLand as a defensive backcourt. The Garland-Okoro backcourt minutes we saw last year were ... intriguing in that regard, especially in light of the Sexton trade rumors that popped up this summer.
- The Cavs likely want Love gone if they can get a decent trade offer for him, but they might actually need him because who on earth is scoring on this Cleveland bench?
- I'm still scratching my head at the Markkanen deal. Larry Nance Jr. is flat-out better than him at basketball.
LINEUP TO WATCH: Garland-Sexton-Okoro-Markkanen-Mobley
This is Cleveland's young core, basically. My plea for this unit is to run the offense through Mobley in the high post; let him pick out cutters or flow into an endless array of dribble handoffs with Garland or Sexton. Markkanen can space, Okoro will be tasked with making stuff happen from the corner as a shooter or cutter.
Best of luck defensively, but this is a group that's going to need reps regardless.
BEST CASE: Play-In Tournament
Losing Nance Jr. hurts, but there's a play-in case to be made. A leap from Garland and/or Sexton could put the Cavs in the hunt. If they get enough out of some weirdo big lineups, this could be a pretty annoying team to play.
WORST CASE: Bottom of the East
SexLand might not be enough. Outside of Okoro, there isn't much in the way of wing defense. Putting a spacer alongside Allen or Mobley could further hamper the defense. All that combined with the size disadvantage that the backcourt comes with and ... it's tough to make the case for the defense being good enough.
WHAT TO LIKE: YOUNG CORE
I'm still a fan. Last year, I kicked off this section with glowing words about Killian Hayes. I haven't given up on him -- health and a full offseason should bode well for him -- but it's fair to say he isn't the headliner.
That title belongs to Cade Cunningham, a 6-foot-7 do-it-all initiator with All-Star-plus potential. He turned his biggest concern (shooting, particularly of the pull-up variety) into a strength during his lone year at Oklahoma State. He's already a solid driver and high-level passer, and he projects to be a strong multi-positional defender. He's got the goods, y'all.
Beyond Cunningham, you have Saddiq Bey, who has established himself as one of the better young wings in the league already with his sweet stroke and strong positional defense. Isaiah Stewart showed some intriguing flashes during the second half of last season; please read my guy Jackson Frank for more on Beef Stew.
- I'm a huge fan of the Kelly Olynyk signing. I don't think he'll be the Houston version of himself (19-8-4, 64/39/84 shooting split), but his ability to pop should open driving windows for the young guys. Oh, and sign me up for all of the Kelly Keepers.
- Speaking of interesting flashes, I liked the aggressive nature of Saben Lee's game. Dude has no regard for rim protectors -- or his own body, for that matter. I'm interested to see what he does with more burn.
- Oh, right: Jerami Grant averaged over 22 points per game last season. With more playmaking around him, he may not have to self-create as much as he did last season. His point total may go down, but we should see a healthy bump in his efficiency numbers (55.6 TS% last season).
WHAT TO DISLIKE: DEPTH
If we're to believe that Grant, Cade, Olynyk, Bey, and Stewart are Detroit's best players, you could sell me on that being a solid grouping. I like Hamidou Diallo, especially if the shot continues to come around. Take a peep at the rest of the roster and the intrigue goes away.
Hayes is a wild card, though I'm a fan long-term. I'm still not sure what to make of Josh Jackson. It still depends on what night you catch him on. Lee intrigues me, but the jury is way out on if he's actually good yet. Trey Lyles is on the roster for some reason.
- This is a MyCareer-influenced question, but where is the frontcourt size? Stewart is a tank, but he's a bulky 6-foot-8 without a ton of vertical pop. Are Olynyk and Luka Garza (congrats on the deal!) going to be the largest players employed by this team? Seems a bit problematic.
- Cade and Olynyk are going to be the best playmakers on this team, which seems a bit light. Hayes has the vision to be a productive one, but he has to figure out the whole "getting to the rim" thing first. I'm worried about stagnation in the half-court with this group.
LINEUP TO WATCH: Cade-Bey-Grant-Olynyk-Stewart
I'm not sure how often Dwane Casey will go to it, but I'd like to see the Jumbo Unit get some burn. Cade as the smallest guy on the court should allow the Pistons to shrink the floor defensively, even if they'd be kinda stuck playing drop coverage with Olynyk out there. Offensively, it's Cade, three shooters, and Stewart who flashed some roll-or-pop versatility in ball screens.
BEST CASE: Just Outside of the Play-In
Roster spots 6-through-13 worry me too much to see Play-In potential. A Rookie of the Year campaign from Cade, combined with internal growth from the other young guys, should make this a plucky unit that beats playoff teams on random nights throughout the regular season.
WORST CASE: Bottom of the East
When three of the your top five players are (projected to be) first or second-year guys, you probably won't rack up a ton of wins. I'm not sure this would be an awful thing in the grand scheme of things; another high draft pick could help solidify the core. The Pistons really hit in the draft last year. The future outlook is a positive one. But things could still be pretty ugly this year.
WHAT TO LIKE: BALANCE
The Pacers have a pretty wide stable of creators at their disposal. Domantas Sabonis is a high-post hub unto himself, able to spring others free in handoff actions, put dudes under the basket, or attack slower bigs off the bounce.
Malcolm Brogdon looked like an All-Star for the first 20 or so games of the season before injuries and general regression kicked in. He can still bully his way to the rim, and we saw a nice bounce-back year from him as a shooter last season (38.8% on 6.7 attempts). Becoming more fluid off the bounce should open up more drives for him.
Caris LeVert can take over quarters on a whim with his weird cadence. TJ Warren is a walking mismatch. There's a good bit to work with.
- I won't be messy, so I'll just say that Rick Carlisle should be quite the upgrade in the coaching department.
- Myles Turner was pretty darn good last year. He was on the fringes of the Defensive Player of the Year race, and as my pal Mark Schindler touched on, started making better and quicker decisions off the catch last season. Turner is Unicorn-adjacent; hopefully he keeps making strides.
- Chris Duarte as a Doug McDermott replacement is something I can get behind. He looked good in Summer League, for whatever stock you want to put into that. I think he'll be able to produce early on.
- TJ McConnell, the #StealGawd. Also the #ShortJumperGawd. Kudos to Indiana for locking him up, much like he does to enemy ball-handlers.
WHAT TO DISLIKE: SHOOTING
Brogdon can let it fly. Duarte can fling it, though you always have to project a little bit of an adjustment period for rookies. Justin Holiday is one of the more underrated relocation guys in the league. Beyond that, I'm not sure if anyone on the roster really scares me in that regard.
Last year would've been the year for Warren to solidify himself as a bonafide threat in my eyes, but he played three games. I'm not sure how many more seasons I can give Turner to turn into an actual stretch five.
- The real bugaboo for this team is health. Warren's coming off a three-game season. Brogdon is always a risk. LeVert has injury concerns, and had a legitimate health scare before suiting up for the Pacers last season. Having Sabonis control the offense to the extent that he does, and with the amount of body banging he does, is always room for brow raising. We'll see.
- On a related note: the Edmond Sumner Achilles injury absolutely sucks.
- Potentially compounding the shooting concerns is the fact that the Pacers' best perimeter defender -- Torrey Craig -- gets ignored behind the arc. I wonder what kind of role he'll be able to carve out.
- Speaking of the defense, is Goga Bitadze ready for more of a load at backup 5? He looked pretty solid in limited minutes last year. Solid is quite the drop off from the level Turner was at; I'm a little worried about what another extended absence on that front could mean to the defense.
LINEUP TO WATCH: Brogdon-LeVert-Warren-Sabonis-Turner
This unit played a whopping, you guessed it, zero minutes last season. The foresome of Brogdon/Warren/Sabonis/Turner has a plus-8.1 net rating in 673 minutes over the past two seasons, per PBP Stats. LeVert should be a positive addition, thus making this one of the better starting fives in the league.
BEST CASE: No. 6 Seed
Rick Carlisle is one heck of a coach, and he has a pretty deep roster at his disposal. A mid-to-high 40s win total isn't out of the realm of possibility at all; the seeding says more about how I feel about the teams above them.
WORST CASE: Play-In Tournament
Injuries can derail any team, but the Pacers have this unique thing going for them where a ton of key guys get hurt at inopportune times. Any missed time from their core five could derail things a bit.
WHAT TO LIKE: CHAMPIONSHIP CORE
How does it feel to read that, Buck fans?
Giannis Antetokounmpo is the most dominant paint presence in the league; some may argue he's the best player in the league, period.
Khris Middleton is a multi-time All-Star at this point and one of the best wings the NBA has to offer.
Jrue Holiday is an All-World defender that can get to the rim just about whenever he wants. Occasional post scoring, solid catch-and-shoot pedigree. There isn't much he can't do.
- The defensive infrastructure of this group is strong. Holiday, Middleton, and the return of Donte DiVincenzo gives the Bucks a stout perimeter trio. Giannis and Brook Lopez on the interior is very #not #fun for opponents to deal with.
- "If you’re going to lose George Hill, signing DJ Augustin is a reasonable substitute" is a thing I wrote in last year's preview. Now Hill is back to run back-up point. His shooting and guard defense will be welcomed, but his leadership qualities may be an even bigger boost.
- I like the Bucks taking advantage of the Grizzlies cost-cutting and bringing in Grayson Allen. I don't begrudge anyone that dislikes him because of his, uh, #antics. Looking at what he provides on the court, he's a guy that can provide some spot-up and the occasional movement shooting while also being able to attack closeouts. He's in a good spot.
WHAT TO DISLIKE: FORWARD DEPTH
This was the "Mike Budenholzer better bring it, or ELSE" section last year. After winning a title, I think it's fair to mostly give him a break.
My concern now turns to the forward room. Middleton is an All-Star, but there are some question marks behind him. I personally can't quit Rodney Hood, but it's hard to ignore the health concerns that have plagued him over the past couple of seasons.
Mostly, the Bucks are probably going to miss PJ Tucker. For me, it's less about Tucker, and more that they're attempting to replace him with Semi Ojeleye. Squint hard enough and you can see a "big wing" defender that can hit a wide-the-heck-open corner shot, but Tucker does that better and has done it with more volume. So, I mean, we'll see I guess.
Do we get some regular season burn from Thanasis? Maybe? Bueller?
-Half-court creation is less of a concern, but half-court design still gives me a little pause. I still have PTSD from the Bucks-Nets series in which Milwaukee's pick-and-roll offense, from a personnel and location standpoint, made next to no sense. Tighten up, Bud. A title defense is in the balance.
-I have no idea what to expect from Brook Lopez on offense this year. I'd like to see the shot come back, at least.
LINEUP TO WATCH: Hill-Holiday-DiVincenzo-Middleton-Giannis
Giannis-at-the-5 lineups will always intrigue the most. The four of Holiday/DiVincenzo/Middleton/Giannis are locked in; the fifth will likely be a rotating door based on the matchup and who has the hot hand.
I probably like Hill the most as the consistent fifth. For what it's worth, the Hill/DiVincenzo/Middleton/Giannis grouping had a plus-8.4 net rating in 2019-20; replacing Eric Bledsoe with Holiday to round things off will probably be a good thing.
BEST CASE: Top Seed
Giannis, Middleton, and Holiday basically guarantee you a 50-win pace with reasonable health. With the postseason monkey off their backs, who's to say they don't get back to mauling teams during the regular season as opposed to the experimental path they took last year?
WORST CASE: No. 4 Seed
They could, of course, decide to go the maintenance route with their top guys. Nobody would blame them; they just won a title, and Bud already has a history of keeping the minutes down for his top guys during the regular season. Maybe we see some tinkering with the half-court offense this year in preparation for another deep run.