2017-18 Season Preview: Central Division

NBA.com Global on Oct 15, 2017 03:16 PM
2017-18 Season Preview: Central Division
Chicago Bulls' Lauri Markkanen (24) shoots around Cleveland Cavaliers' Tristan Thompson during the second half of an NBA preseason basketball game in Cleveland, Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2017. The Bulls won 108-94. (AP Photo/Phil Long)

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com

If the Eastern Conference were in the business of medicine, technology, engineering or almost any other profession, what’s gone on in recent months would be termed a “brain drain.” In NBA terms, it’s been more of a “talent drain” or “star drain,” with a rash of relocations to the West. In terms of big names lost, the Central Division has waved bye-bye to Paul George, Jimmy Butler, Rajon Rondo, Kyrie Irving and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope among others since last season. But the expected impact isn’t likely to prevent another “business as usual” finish in the standings, with Cleveland heavily favored to head toward its fourth consecutive Finals, but it might alter competitive balance within the division.

DIVISION PREDICTION

1. Cleveland Cavaliers

2. Milwaukee Bucks  

3. Detroit Pistons

4. Indiana Pacers  

5. Chicago Bulls

Team On The Rise

Milwaukee Bucks -- No team in the division can boast more continuity, in terms of a roster returned largely intact from 2016-17, and the Bucks are counting on all that familiarity to shorten their learning curve, deepen their bonds and remind teammates to get out of rising all-NBA star Giannis Antetokounmpo’s way.

Team On The Decline

Chicago Bulls -- From “Three Alphas” last year to no alphas this season, now that Butler, Rondo and Dwyane Wade are gone, the Bulls’ race to the bottom won’t be impeded by any proud veterans unwilling to endure 60 defeats or so. And if the folks digging into their wallets at United Center don’t like it, well, they shouldn’t have to cope with more than 30 to 35 losses out of the 41 home games.

Top Player

LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers -- Milwaukee’s "Greek Freak" is poised to take over in two or three years but for now -- especially after an energizing summer and with his pal D-Wade on board -- James will hit his waning years hard.

Player On The Rise

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks -- The Bucks’ versatile young leader has been likened to Kevin Durant in the past, mostly for his length. But if he can extend his reliable shooting range to anything approximating Durant’s, a Kia MVP award might soon follow.

Top Coach

Stan Van Gundy, Detroit Pistons -- Despite Detroit’s disappointing step backward last season, its coach still is respected for his basketball acumen and skills as a teacher. Van Gundy’s second job of building the roster and overseeing all aspects of the basketball operation seems to raise more questions than his work on the court.

Coach On The Hot Seat

Jason Kidd, Milwaukee Bucks-- This category is a process of elimination, with several of the division’s bench bosses preemptively removed from the conversation. Neither Chicago’s Fred Hoiberg nor Indiana’s Nate McMillan faces pressure to win, Van Gundy could shed his front-office job before losing his coaching gig and Cleveland will have greater worries than Tyronn Lue’s job status if the Cavs don’t topple Golden State in June. That leaves Kidd, who could get squeezed in Milwaukee’s three-headed decision-making process.

Top Rookie

Lauri Markkanen, Chicago Bulls -- Four of the top 18 players drafted in the first round will set up shop in the Central, and there’s no reason that Markkanen – picked No. 7 as part of Chicago’s Jimmy Butler trade with Minnesota – shouldn’t live up to his billing. The 7-foot shooter starred for Finland’s national team in the summer’s EuroBasket tournament, not just scoring from distance but putting the ball on the floor and finishing at the rim.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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