With the regular season set to tip off on Oct.18, let’s take a
look at where each team in the Central Division stands. We’ll break
down what to like and be concerned about, a lineup to watch and a
reasonable range for them to finish in the standings. (If you've
missed them, read our previews on the Atlantic Division and Northwest Division.)
For deeper thoughts on the Central Division, you can listen to
the latest episode of The Dunker
WHAT TO LIKE: A HEALTHY ZACH LAVINE
Lost in DeMar DeRozan's excellence — or on the low end, the
inconsistent nature of Nikola Vucevic offensively — was Zach
LaVine's campaign in 2021-22. Quiet 24-4-4 seasons shouldn't be
possible, but LaVine had one; of the 40 players to average at least
20 points last year, LaVine ranked seventh in True Shooting
He bombed away from three (38.9%) on high volume (7.1 attempts).
He flirted with a career-high in free-throw rate (.316, career-high
was .330 in 2018-19). His turnover rate dropped by nearly three
percentage points from the year before. This was all done while
playing through a bum knee for half the season.
With a successful clean-up surgery over the offseason, we should
see a consistently explosive LaVine, and that should terrify
- Speaking of better health, we get more Alex Caruso. He was the
best guard defender in basketball up until his collision course
with Grayson Allen. Watching him and Ayo Dosunmu play together will
bring me great joy — and bring opponents a lot of stress.
- DeRozan is one of the smoothest basketball players I've ever
watched. I'm glad more people got to see the kind of playmaker he's
become. Not enough was made of his growth in San Antonio.
- I'm a Dalen Terry fan, man. I think he's going to force the
Bulls to play him.
BIGGEST QUESTION MARK: REPLACING LONZO BALL
When the Bulls were at their best — and at the top of the
Eastern Conference standings — Lonzo Ball was a figurative and
literal driver of their success. The Bulls turned teams over in
large part due to Ball's off-ball prowess and quick hands against
loose ball-handlers. That, combined with his grab-and-go ability,
made the Bulls a dangerous transition team.
Without him, the turnover rate dropped, as did the pace. More
half-court basketball was played, which put more of a spotlight on
how LaVine, DeRozan and Vucevic were able to blend.
The Bulls will have to take a by-committee approach to replace
what Ball brings — and more importantly, what he brings at
legitimate wing size. It won't be easy.
- I wonder what version of Patrick Williams we get this season.
Injuries cut his second year short, though he did showcase some
encouraging flashes in the postseason.
- Aside from Ball's absence, Vucevic's usage may be the most
important subplot of the season for the Bulls. He can be utilized
in a multitude of ways, and his jumper is a weapon that can unlock
opportunities for himself and others. But it's important that the
Bulls find a balance with him.
- Finding time and coherent lineups for Caruso, Dosunmu, Coby
White, Goran Dragic, and Terry will be an interesting challenge for
head coach Billy Donovan to navigate.
- Donovan is absolutely going to experiment with playing Vucevic
and Andre Drummond together and I'm not sure how to feel about
LINEUP TO WATCH:
This unit only played 92 minutes last season, but it didn't go well: it was
outscored by 41 points, with opponents shooting a ridiculous 66%
from two in those minutes. I don't think that number is super
sustainable, but I am curious to see if they can get enough stops
with that group considering how (relatively) small they are
BEST CASE: No. 5 Seed
The Bulls have three All-Star caliber players in their starting
lineup. If they were to follow a keep-things-close formula through
the first three quarters, they can take solace in having three
options to run clutch time offense through.
A healthier LaVine should cover any sort of slight DeRozan
regression that may come; as long as they're average-ish
defensively, they should be a comfortable playoff team.
WORST CASE: Play-In Tournament
Losing Ball does hurt their perimeter size, their pace, and
their lineup versatility. Any regression or injury trouble from
members of their big three could put the Bulls in the Play-In
WHAT TO LIKE: EVAN MOBLEY'S UPSIDE
With all due respect to Donovan Mitchell, the excitement starts with Evan
Mobley. Rookie bigs aren't supposed to be as good as Mobley
was. He was a legitimate All-Defensive team candidate. It's
terrifying to think there's room for more, but there's plenty of
low-hanging fruit for him to grab.
Add in the fact that Mobley proved to be a solid play-finisher
and playmaking hub without being all the way there physically, and
the sky is truly the limit for him.
- Mitchell and Darius Garland should have a lot of fun playing
off each other. Garland is a unique threat off the ball — not just
as someone who can receive a screen that flows into a ball-screen
or handoff, but someone with legit movement-shooting chops. I'm
excited to see the Cavs indulge that part of his game more. And
it'll be tougher to crowd Garland knowing that Mitchell can torture
tilted defenses if the ball is swung to him.
- I'll spare you of Sharife Cooper propaganda, and instead
highlight Kevin Love as an overqualified sixth man. It's nice to
see him thriving on and off the court.
BIGGEST QUESTION MARK: THE FIFTH STARTER
Lauri Markkanen surprised some people (slowly raises hand) by
how well he held up as the nominal 3 last season. With him being
shipped to Utah as part of the Mitchell trade, the spotlight goes
right back to that position.
Do you start Isaac Okoro and lean on his defense, and find a way
to navigate his lack of shooting? Do you roll with Cedi Osman while
hoping he doesn't shoot everything? Is the answer
Dean Wade, who shoots, maintains advantages and defends well
Where does Lamar Stevens factor in? Heck, what, aside from
health, stops the Cavs from leaning fully into creators and giving
the role to Caris LeVert?
- I'd keep an eye on the backup center. Mobley getting stronger
would allow him to play the 5 more often, alleviating any concern I
have. If it takes a bit, there's a solid drop-off from Allen to
Robin Lopez (or Love if they give the role to him). We just saw how
much Allen's absence hurt this team last season.
- I asked this during the preview pod, but something rubs me the
wrong way about Cleveland's shooting talent overall. They have guys
— Garland and Mitchell off the bounce, Osman, Love, Wade, Windler —
so I'm not sure what the hesitation is on my end. Maybe it's
because, aside from Wade, there are defensive question marks.
- Until Ricky Rubio is healthy, I worry about the collective
decision-making of the backcourt room. It's less about Garland and
more about the others. Mitchell has had weird bouts throughout his
career; LeVert is methodical until he isn't. We'll see how much of
a role Raul Neto plays.
LINEUP TO WATCH:
We only got 21 minutes of this group last season, but this is
the big-ball variation I'm excited to see more of. Let Mobley
defend threes and prosper. If teams want to put Love in action with
one of the guards, good luck dealing with Mobley and Allen on the
back end. Offensively, the ball-screen or handoff pairings are
BEST CASE: No. 2 Seed
It's easy to forget now, but the Cavs were pretty firmly a
home-court advantage team before injuries derailed their season.
This should be an elite defensive unit as long as the frontcourt
stays healthy. They should also get 48 minutes of Garland or
Mitchell running the show if the minutes are staggered correctly.
The foundation for a top-two seed is there.
WORST CASE: Play-In Tournament
If the spacing falters, there's room for the offense to
underwhelm relative to expectations. That, combined with the
overall strength of the East, could have them closer to the No. 7/8
seed instead of fighting for home-court advantage.
WHAT TO LIKE: CADE CUNNINGHAM
Mobley and Rookie of the Year Scottie Barnes provided tremendous
value on both ends of the floor, and exceeded expectations in their
There was a reason that Cade Cunningham went No. 1 overall, and
still projects as the best rookie in his class to many people. Look
no further than his March, where he averaged 22.9 points
(.480/.324/.826 shooting splits), 7.0 assists (4.0 turnovers), 5.9
rebounds and 1.4 steals while operating in a suboptimal
It's hard to find Cunningham's blend of playmaking, pull-up
chops, off-ball comfort, and driving craft in two players, much
less a rookie. With the offseason additions Detroit made, life
should be a little easier for him.
- Of those additions, I'm probably the most excited about
Bojan Bogdanovic's impact on the
offense. His shooting ability and versatility should open the
floor for everyone. His ability to get his own bucket should take
some of the creation burdens off Cunningham.
- Saddiq Bey's 51-piece caught everyone by surprise, but it's
worth noting he grew as a scorer despite his three-ball
fluctuating. I'd keep an eye on his work in the mid-post; smaller
defenders just get bullied at this point.
- I still believe in Killian Hayes. If the tweaked jumper works,
I won't shut up about it.
BIGGEST QUESTION MARK: WING DEFENSE
Who exactly is the big wing defender for this
team? Having Bey or Bogdanovic — who's been overtasked in this
department at prior stops — doesn't feel great. I love Hayes
defensively, but that feels like miscasting him. Braxton Key and
Isaiah Livers gave interesting flashes last season, but I can't say
I love either against elite talents.
- The shooting on the roster has improved, but it still isn't in
a great place overall. A stretch option would help; the Pistons are
relying on Isaiah Stewart (or Marvin Bagley III) to take steps in
that regard. We'll see.
- For Stewart's sake, I hope he's able to take a leap. His
willingness to take jumpers will be worth monitoring all season, in
addition to what kind of "oomph" he'll provide as a roller. Bagley,
Nerlens Noel and rookie Jalen Duren are better roll options, so I
wonder what kind of leeway Stewart will be given to improve
- I'm keeping an eye on the tempo for this team. They ranked
13th in pace last season, and there's probably room to push a
little more. Jaden Ivey will push the issue himself, but I do
wonder what the overall emphasis will be.
LINEUP TO WATCH:
Spacers in Bey and Bogdanovic; a true roller in Duren;
Cunningham or Ivey having fun with the space (and roller) they're
provided with. The Cunningham-Ivey-Bey-Duren quartet projects to be
the future of the franchise; roll it out and see what you have.
BEST CASE: Play-In Tournament
There's enough talent surrounding Cunningham to where they
should be competitive nightly. Any sort of leap from Cunningham —
or even an extension of what we saw from February onward — should
put them in position for a Play-In push.
WORST CASE: No. 11 seed
There's still plenty of youth on the roster, and there's room to
question how good they'll be defensively. If the Play-In push is
off the table, this is the year to be bad. Shut the vets down
and hope you can land top-three odds. You don't want to be bad
enough to miss the playoff/Play-In conversation but too good to put
yourself in the Victor Wembanyama/Scoot Henderson race.
WHAT TO LIKE: POINT HALIBURTON
It was a trade that came out of nowhere, but the Pacers turning
Domantas Sabonis into Tyrese Haliburton (and others, but he's the
focal point) is good work.
He was given the keys upon arrival,
averaging 17.5 points (.502/.416/.849 shooting splits) and 9.6
assists across 26 games. Not only are those good numbers, but there
was also legitimately room for more.
(I am begging the man to take an extra dribble on drives to
fully engage the big before kicking it out. Force the issue! We
believe in you!)
After an offseason of work, I'm excited to see what a full
season of Tyrese The Lead Guard looks like.
- There's movement shooting galore in the backcourt. Buddy
Hield, Chris Duarte and newbie Bennedict Mathurin can all shake
loose off the ball and keep defenses on high alert.
- There's plenty to clean up, but I liked what I saw from Isaiah
Jackson last season. That dude flies. Not many bigs
can deal with his intersection of speed and leaping ability. Spread
pick-and-rolls involving him should be fruitful.
- Speaking of flying around, sign me up for more of the
weirdness that Oshae Brissett and Terry Taylor provide.
BIGGEST QUESTION MARK: DEFENSIVE IDENTITY
I just don't know what to expect from this group. There's no
telling what the personnel will look like; we're in Year 74 of
wondering where Myles Turner will play basketball, for
Beyond that, how many schemes have the Pacers cycled through
over the past two years? How many of them have worked? Have they
figured out how to play zone yet?
- If Turner is finally traded, I'm
low-key terrified of what the interior defense will look like.
Jackson has a long way to go in a drop; he needs to work out his
footwork in space, period. Goga Bitadze has underwhelmed in the
early portions of his career. I don't think Jalen Smith is prepared
to anchor the 5.
- I touched on it during the Haliburton section, but rim
pressure might be an issue. I'd be surprised if Mathurin gets there
at a high clip in Year 1, and that certainly isn't the portion for
Hield, who's never had a rim rate (percentage of shots taken at the
rim) above 25% since his rookie season. Duarte had an above-average
rate (28%, 58th percentile per Cleaning The Glass), so that's worth
- (I hope Rick Carlisle really lets Haliburton cook. The Pacers
ranked 18th in pace last year — 12th after the Haliburton
LINEUP TO WATCH:
This is a run-and-shoot lineup if I've ever seen one. The
Haliburton-Duarte-Mathurin-Jackson quartet played just 23 minutes
together, and it's encouraging that the grouping won those minutes by 16 points.
The defense wasn't (and likely wouldn't) be great, but this is the
year to work through those growing pains.
BEST CASE: Bottom of the East, Young Guys
If Haliburton proves to be a legitimate franchise cornerstone,
you take this season as a glowing success. Big steps from Jackson,
especially if Turner gets moved, would also be encouraging moving
Ultimately, the Pacers should have a clearer picture of what
their actual core is — and how they want to tailor their schemes
WORST CASE: Bottom of the East, Jumbled
If there are no answers given on the big man room, it wouldn't
be the worst thing in the world — especially if they find
themselves in a position to draft Wembanyama. But it would be
It would really be disappointing if we enter the next
offseason without knowing what kind of team the Pacers want to be
on either end.
WHAT TO LIKE: CONTINUED GROWTH OF GIANNIS
It's not enough for Giannis Antetokounmpo to be the most
dominant player in the sport; he has to add to the toolkit.
The three-ball has never quite come, but watching him refine
things on the margins has been a blast. The mid-range and post game
have become more fluid. His passing placement has gotten better
year over year; the speed with which he finds open teammates
continues to increase. As cliche as it is, you can see how the game
has slowed down for Giannis, and how much better he's become.
(Well, aside from that one guy.)
- Watching Pat Connaughton or Grayson Allen ghost screens for
Giannis is a not-so-hidden joy of mine. There really isn't much you
can do when the Bucks dial up their inverted ball-screens.
- Brook Lopez is back! The Bucks only got 13 regular-season
games out of him last year, and they felt that loss defensively.
Their scheme versatility was limited, forcing them into a two-on-the-ball style that
worked until teams got more comfortable against it. Having
Lopez should slot everyone, particularly Giannis, into their ideal
- I really like the Joe Ingles signing. His blend of size,
shooting ability and decision-making — boy do they need it — should
juice the Bucks' attack when he's healthy.
BIGGEST QUESTION MARK: WING DEPTH
All-Star wing Khris Middleton is slated to miss the beginning of
the season as he recovers from wrist surgery. Ingles isn't expected
to play for another two months at the earliest. It's worth
wondering who's going to step up in their absences.
I would imagine Connaughton or Wes Matthews will slot into
Middleton's place for the time being. What kind of impact can we
expect from Jordan Nwora? His bucket-getting and shooting could be
useful, but there's work for him to do defensively.
- This won't matter until the postseason, but good lord is it
infuriating watching the half-court process sometimes. Poor
shooters spaced one pass away from Giannis post-ups or isolations;
taking 10-12 seconds to begin an action; Jrue Holiday just losing
his mind. Please work out those kinks during the regular
- I wish I felt better about
their backup center. By that, I mean the players directly behind
Lopez on the depth chart. Serge Ibaka and Sandro Mamukelashvili
couldn't be further apart on the age/experience spectrum, but have
similar "how will they fare in space?" and "will they shoot well
enough for defenses to respect them?" questions.
- Seriously, work on the
LINEUP TO WATCH:
The Bucks have been world-beaters with Holiday, Connaughton,
Middleton and Antetokounmpo on the court together. Over the past two seasons, the
Bucks have posted a plus-19.3 Net Rating in the 333 minutes the
four have shared. The shooting splits are even more absurd: 57.1%
from two and 40.2% from three.
Adding Ingles into the mix as a shooter and secondary creator
should make them even more difficult to defend. I have concerns
about Ingles in space — he looked rough before the season-ending
injury last year — but there's enough IQ and ground coverage behind
him to help.
BEST CASE: No. 1 seed
Having Giannis on the floor gives you a baseline of goodness.
With good health and tried-and-true systems on both ends, the Bucks
could run through the East during the regular season.
WORST CASE: No. 6 seed
This would be less about the Bucks being underwhelming, and more
about them slow-playing the regular season. Giving Middleton and
Ingles time to fully recover and integrate themselves; keeping
Giannis' minutes down more than usual; rest days for veterans like
Lopez and Matthews.
If we get more scheme experimentation, they may be okay with
punting a few regular-season wins in exchange for postseason