Monday, October 30, 2006

'06-07 Season Preview--Central Division

This division is flat-out sick; sort of the polar opposite of the Atlantic. You have 4 teams who have a legit shot at winning the East Conference crown. I think you can shake up the Bulls, Cavs, Pistons & Pacers in any order of finish; it is really hard to choose who is winning this division. Injuries could be the deciding factor since I don't see much separation in records between these 4 teams. Milwaukee is clearly the also-ran of the division, but even so, they have a realistic shot at getting one of the last 2 playoff spots. Intra-divisional games should be dogfights and can't-miss games.
*-The teams are listed in alphabetical order with last year's record in parentheses.

CHICAGO BULLS--(41-41; 4th in Cen; 7th in East)
Key additions: Ben Wallace; PJ Brown; Tyrus Thomas; Thabo Selofosha; Vik Khryapa
Key losses: Tyson Chandler; Darius Songalia; Eric Piatkowski; Othella Harrington

Well, we know the defense is going to be awesome; then again they were awesome last year before they added Ben Wallace & PJ Brown. Skiles gets his hands on two vets (Ben & PJ) who he will love--hardworking, classy guys who sell-out on the defensive end every nite. But can the Bulls' offense keep up with their stellar defense?

But the well-received signing of Ben did not address their biggest deficiency--scoring the ball, especially the need for low-post scoring. Ben & PJ surely do not answer that problem, this is why the deal for Ben was somewhat overrated. I do think the offense should naturally be a little better this year just because key guys like Gordon, Hinrich, Nocioni, & Deng are a year older & wiser. But the lack of an inside offensive presence could ultimately be their downfall in the playoffs. In general, the overall frontline depth is a little shaky & could use some more size.

Kirk Hinrich showed signs of emerging Nash-like abilites, but Kirk actually defends, and might be the best def. PG in the NBA. They really need to get him signed to his extension in the next couple of days--he's one of the better young points & they are not easy to find, so when you own his rights you do what it takes to resign him.

The Bulls look to have nice depth & versatility, especially on the wings--adding Thabo Sefolosha & V. Khryapa are underrated moves & both guys have looked promising in the preseason. Really like the Deng/Noce combo at SF--both guys rebound well for SFs & are active on both ends of the floor. Also, Ty Thomas should see some minutes at the 3 & 4, and provide even more athleticism & activity to the forward positions.

Can compete for the East crown. They played the Heat as tough as anyone in the playoffs & now they have added the guy who guards Shaq one-on-one better than anyone in the league. Even with the lack if ovrewhlkeming offensive firepower, this team is dangerous because Skiles has shown the ability to squeeze every ounce of talent out his ballclubs and this is arguably the deepest squad in his tenure.

CLEVELAND CAVS--(50-32; 2nd in Cen; 4th in East)
Key additions: Shannon Brown; David Wesley; Scot Pollard
Key losses: Luke Jackson; Flip Murray

Played above & beyond the call of duty vs. the Pistons last spring, and had legit chances to advance to the East finals. Should be better this year just by Lebron being a year older & having a healthy Larry Hughes around. Having lost only Flip Murray from their main rotation helps the natural progression of the team as well.

But if there is one place they can look to upgrade, it's their point. They really do not need a classic pure point, they need a point who can flat-out shoot and defend decently. Eric Snow does a commendable job doing the little things & bringing defense, but he's a major liability in the shooting department. On the other hand, Damon Jones can stroke it, but brings absolutely nothing else to the table besides his reserved personality and understated sense of style. Now if you could somehow combine those two guys, you would have the perfect point for the Cavs.

Their 3pt shooting was subpar last year (6th worst in the league) and is critical when you have a player like Lebron. They added David Wesley who should help and hopefully rookie Shannon Brown can pitch in some long-range bombs.

Their defense slowly improved during the year & performed surpringly well in the playoffs--but still needs to improve more--Bron can still be a better defender. I do not the love the resigning of Gooden, but they got him at a reasonable price--I think Varejao is ready to start & was productive playing off Lebron on the high pick/roll in the playoffs.

Have a legit shot at the East crown. But I think they might be a little too inexperienced to make the leap to Conf. champs after only one playoff run under their belt. Personally, I don't think they are quite ready, but nothing would surprise me with Bron behind the wheel.

DETROIT PISTONS--(64-18; 1st in Cen; 1st in East)
Key additions: Flip Murray; Nazr Mohammed
Key losses: Tony Delk; Mo Evans

Some people are predicting the demise of Detroit with the loss of their heart & soul, Big Ben. Don't count me in that camp--they still have an array of steely vets who are battle-tested and mentally tough. They still have the ability to win the East and challenge for a NBA title. But, if this team were to get off to a unexpected poor start, I could see things turning south with how the players' relationship with Coach Sanders is somewhat uneasy to begin with.

It will be interesting how much the defense falls off this year without Ben. Expect it to fall-off to a degree, I am just not sure if the drop-off will be significant. This team fell off last year with Ben, and many point the finger at Flip for the defensive shortcomings. So will see if he can muster more intensity from his troops this year.

Rebounding is a minor flaw & could be exposed even more with Ben gone. Sheed has always been a poor rebounder for an athletic 6-11 guy, but last year's 6.8 rpg is ridiculous. He has to concentrate on getting on the glass & getting his caboose down on the block, where only Duncan is more nasty. Also, as well-rounded as Tay Prince is, he still needs to be getting more than 4 rpg for a long 6-9 SF.

I don't expect the offense to fall off at all, it will probably have better spacing with Ben gone. But Detroit really bogged down in the playoffs because they were settling for jumpers way too much and their offense was too one-dimensional. This is why I loved the pick-up of Flip Murray because he can attack off the dribble & they got him at a great price.

But they sort of offset that signing by overpaying for Nazr. I know he's a big, but he's not much better than Lo Wright and Lo got signed for 2 years at $3 mil per. Nazr might technically start but McDyess should get the significant minutes, especially during crunch time. I really did not think this team loss very much when Detroit subbed McDyess for Ben over the last two years. McDyess held his own defensively and provided more options on offense than Ben.

Carlos Delfino has to get more minutes this year. He is a great athlete who finishes at the rim and is a sweet ball-handler with nice passing skills. Carlos was great at the Worlds and has the ability to be a starter in this league in the near future.

This team will not win any near as much games as last year, not just because the absence of Ben, but their is no way they can be that lucky avoiding injuries. If they somehow get off too a slow start, I could see friction brewing and Flip too feel the brunt of the heat.

INDIANA PACERS--(41-41; 3rd in Cen; 6th in East)
Key additions: Marquis Daniels; Shawne Williams; Maceo Baston
Key losses: Austin Croshere; Anthony Johnson; Peja Stojakovic; Fred Jones

Have been derailed by injuries (mental & physical) to key players for two years straight, but have still played tough, which is a testament to Carlisle. J. O'Neal is still their go-to-guy and if he could just get a healthy year under his belt, he could regain his status as one of the best bigs in the NBA. Having Jeff Foster hurt last year was a very underrated factor as well--he brings tremendous energy off the bench and crashes the boards like few others.

To make things easier on the Pacers, Jamaal Tinsley has to find a way to stay healthy for this team to reach its full potential. Sarunas has to find a way to conditon his body for the rigors of a 82 game season--he was pretty solid for roughly the first 50 games then he smacked hard into the rookie wall. They will need him if Tinsley misses his usual 15 games per year.

Love the versatility of the roster--they have many guys who can play multiple positions. Carlisle has the advantage of throwing a varitey of different lineups out this year: Danny Granger & Al Harrington can play the 3 or 4, O'Neal can play the 4 or 5, S. Jackson the 2 or 3, Marquis Daniels can play the 1,2, & 3. Newcomer Maceo Baston gives them another athletic vet to plug into the frontline who won titles with Saras in Europe.

This versality should help the Pacers be a litle bit more creative on the offensive end. Under Carlisle, the Pacers have been one of the more conservative teams in the NBA, and would have a tendency to go thru extended lulls--they shot 44.4% from the field last year & only put up 93.9 ppg. Carlisle has hinted that he has plans to take the chains of the offense, probably sensing the increased athleticism of his roster & the paradigm shift in style of NBA play. Re-acquiring Al Harrington was a quite a coup and definitely gives the offense more natural firepower.

With the fans and seemingly the rest of the team irritated by Steve Jackson's mercurial ways, I wonder how long this team sticks with Jackson. He was on thin ice before the recent incident, so if he becomes a distraction in the locker room, he should be gone if Bird can find a taker.

This team has a legit shot at winning the East, but they need better luck in the injury & mental health categories than they have had in the last 2 years. I like the potential of this team alot and think Carlisle is one of the top coaches in the league, so I can easily see them in the finals. Indy fans just have to hope that Jackson does not ruin the locker room like Artest did, and that Tinsley & O'Neal can be more durable.

MILWAUKEE BUCKS--(40-42; 3rd in Cen; 8th in East)
Key additions: Ruben Patterson; Charlie Villanueva; Steve Blake
Key losses: TJ Ford; Joe Smith; Jamaal Magliore; Toni Kukoc

Can't see this team being much better than it was last year. Should be in the running for one of the last playoff spots. Can't afford Bogut to miss too many games, because there is no room for error when only a couple games usually separate the teams fighting for the last playoff seeds.

The team defense needs to be upgraded, pronto--a 46.6 Def. FG% is not good. And I don't foresee this team being a much better defensively this year, so that will not make their quest for thr playoffs any easier.

Not quite sold on Villanueva, even though he fills the void of an athletic 4 next to Bogut. One year on a bad team does not prove he has turned the corner in my book. There was still rumblings from Toronto that he had attitude issues, so lets wait a few years before we assess this deal. I really did not think that the TJ Ford/Charlie deal was as uneven as everybody else did--now the Bucks need to find a point guard--have combo guards & career back-ups trying to fill the void.

Like to see them run some of the offense thru Bogut showcase. His passing skills will be needed since the Bucks are starting Mo Williams at PG and he more concerned with scoring. Mike Redd should still be the #1 option, but I liked to see some more offense run thru Bogut in the high post.

They have a diamond in the rough in young Turk Ersan Ilyasova. He displayed glimpes of a NBA-style game in the Worlds: step-back jumpers, pull-ups off the dribble, fadeaways to combine with good size & athleticism at the SF. Can easily see him being a starter in 2-3 years, probably supplanting Bobby Simmons who the Bucks can hopefully deal for a legit starting caliber point guard that they still need; sorry Steve Blake is not the answer.

Bucks are finishing in last place in Central, this is a surefire guarentee (barring any major injuries to the other 4 teams). But then again this is probably the best division in the NBA, so they still have a shot at the 7 or 8 seed in the East.

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