The NBA officially returns Dec. 22 after a shortened offseason — but a busy offseason, nonetheless.
The Eastern Conference seems to grow more competitive by the day. But aside from the Milwaukee Bucks’ eventful break trying to convince Giannis Antetokounmpo to sign his supermax extension and trade rumors linking Gordon Hayward to the Indiana Pacers, teams in the Central Division seem to be in similar positions as they were last season.
Let’s dive into why the Bucks will come out on top of their division (and probably the conference), why the Pacers will be consistent all season yet have an early playoff exit and why there will be a drop-off from those two teams.
Additions: Jrue Holiday, D.J. Augustin, Bobby Portis, Torrey Craig, Bryn Forbes, Jordan Nwora (draft), Sam Merrill (draft)
Subtractions: Eric Bledsoe, George Hill, Marvin Williams, Wesley Matthews, Robin Lopez
2019-20 record: 56-17
Outlook: The Bucks basically were spectators in the 2020 NBA Draft after shelling out a ton of picks to bring in Jrue Holiday and replace Eric Bledsoe at point guard. Of course, the move also was a way of trying to entice Giannis Antetokounmpo to stick around and help Milwaukee win now.
The Bucks have had the NBA’s best regular season record the last two seasons, but it hasn’t yet amounted to the title that’s expected at the end of this go-round.
They’ve brought in a sharpshooter in Forbes, improved defensively by adding Torrey Craig and have another veteran guard presence with D.J. Augustin. There were a lot of new faces brought in to support Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, so we’ll see how they mesh.
Prediction: Finish first in the division with a 51-21 record.
Additions: Garrett Temple, Noah Vonleh, Patrick Williams (draft), Marko Simonovic (draft), Devon Dotson (undrafted)
Subtractions: Kris Dunn, Shaquille Harrison, Adam Mokoka, Max Strus
2019-20 record: 22-43
Outlook: The Bulls lost a solid defensive presence in Kris Dunn, but this is the beginning of a new chapter for Chicago fans: the Billy Donovan era.
The Bulls replaced Jim Boylen with Donovan to lead their young team, and his challenge will be to establish an identity for the club and find consistency. Of the three teams at the bottom of this division, Chicago should fare the best.
Health has been a big concern, so keeping Wendell Carter Jr. and Otto Porter Jr. on the floor to contribute alongside Zach Levine, Coby White and Co. will be important. The Bulls will need guys to make big jumps after entering the new season worse off defensively.
Prediction: Finish third in the division with a 27-45 record.
Additions: JaVale McGee, Rayjon Tucker, Thon Maker, Damyean Dotson, Isaac Okoro (draft)
Subtractions: Alfonzo McKinnie, Tristan Thompson, Jordan Bell, John Henson, Ante Zizic, Brandon Knight
2019-20 record: 19-46
Outlook: The Cavaliers limited themselves against the salary cap last season by trading for Andre Drummond, and a crowded frontcourt will carry over into this season with him, Kevin Love and Larry Nance Jr.
Now, throw in JaVale McGee, who goes from winning a title with the Los Angeles Lakers to a very different situation. Oh, and Isaac Okoro, one of the best wing defenders in the recent draft class.
Guard Collin Sexton’s numbers have improved in his two seasons, but it’s hard to understand the direction in which this team is trying to go. This season, Cleveland’s focus should be on determining what to do with Drummond and Love (and their respective contracts).
Prediction: Finish fifth in the division with a 22-50 record.
Additions: Jahlil Okafor, Mason Plumlee, Jerami Grant, Delon Wright, Killian Hayes (draft), Isaiah Steward (draft), Saddiq Bey (draft)
Subtractions: Christian Wood, Luke Kennard, Bruce Brown
2019-20 record: 20-46
Outlook: The Pistons had one of the NBA’s busier offseasons, but the decision to replace Christian Wood with players on weird contracts didn’t make a ton of sense.
Detroit had a great draft, though. Killian Hayes, at No. 7 overall, should instantly translate to a good two-way option for the Pistons. They also scored two other first-round prospects in Isaiah Stewart and Saddiq Bey. There’s a lot of potential for that group to become a solid young core in the future, especially when you add Sekou Doumbouya to that mix.
Currently, the health of veterans Blake Griffin and Derrick Rose will play an important factor in the team’s success, as both players have struggled with injuries in their careers. Not to mention, they’re both on the wrong side of 30.
Prediction: Finish fifth in the division with a 23-49 record.
Additions: Amida Brimah, Rayshaun Hammonds, Jalen Lecque, Kelan Martin, Cassius Stanley (draft)
Subtractions: Alize Johnson, T.J. Leaf
2019-21 record: 45-28
Outlook: The Pacers own a respectable five-year playoff streak, but they’re hoping to get over the first-round hump for the first time in that span.
Forward T.J. Warren burst onto the scene in a big way during the bubble, and he’ll hope to build off that performance entering a new season alongside Malcolm Brogdon, who is shaping up to be a quality playmaker.
Along with Myles Turner, Victor Oladipo was at the center of trade rumors throughout the offseason. But both figure to return to the Pacers for another season. Oladipo is expected to begin the season at full health, but even then, Indiana’s shot at again earning the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference will be a lot harder.
Prediction: Finish second in the division with a 42-30 record.