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2022-23 NBA Season Preview: Central Division

2022-23 NBA Season Preview: Central Division

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 Spot.

Chicago Bulls

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 percentage (60.5%).

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 people.

OTHER LIKES

- 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.

OTHER CONCERNS

- 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 it.

LINEUP TO WATCH: Caruso-Dosunmu-LaVine-DeRozan-Vucevic

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 1-through-4.

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 picture.

Cleveland Cavaliers

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.

OTHER LIKES

- 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.

- Jarrett Allen is really freaking good on both ends of the floor; him quietly getting better at sealing and scoring against size mismatches flew under the radar last season.

- 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 enough?

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?

OTHER CONCERNS

- 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: Garland-Mitchell-Mobley-Love-Allen

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 endless.

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.

Detroit Pistons

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 own ways.

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 context.

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.

OTHER LIKES

- 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.

OTHER CONCERNS

- 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 there.

- 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: Cunningham-Ivey-Bey-Bogdanovic-Duren

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.

Indiana Pacers

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.

OTHER LIKES

- 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 example. 

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? 

OTHER CONCERNS

- 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 monitoring.

- (I hope Rick Carlisle really lets Haliburton cook. The Pacers ranked 18th in pace last year — 12th after the Haliburton trade.)

LINEUP TO WATCH: Haliburton-Duarte-Mathurin-Brissett-Jackson

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 Thrive

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 forward.

Ultimately, the Pacers should have a clearer picture of what their actual core is — and how they want to tailor their schemes around them.

WORST CASE: Bottom of the East, Jumbled Mess

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 disappointing.

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. 

Milwaukee Bucks

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.)

OTHER LIKES

- 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 roles.

- 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.

OTHER CONCERNS

- 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 season.

- 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 spacing!

LINEUP TO WATCH: Holiday-Connaughton-Middleton-Ingles-Antetokounmpo

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 prowess.

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