The big change for the Bucks, the chances of the Cavs: Advancement of the Central Division

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By James Edwards III, Darnell Mayberry and Josh Robbins

In the NBA’s Central Division, intrigue lurks in plain sight, even if one team is expected to be crowned the winner.

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The Milwaukee Bucks will rely on a first-year head coach in an attempt to return to the NBA Finals. The Cleveland Cavaliers will try to build on their 51-win season from a year ago. The Chicago Bulls will try to prove that they can be relevant with their current core.

Meanwhile, the Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers, a pair of teams with young and talented defenses, will look to make leaps.

To analyze the Central offseason and look ahead to the 2023-24 regular season, The Athletic has reunited three of its writers: the Pistons beat out writer James L. Edwards III, the Bulls beat out writer Darnell Mayberry, and the Washington Wizards beat out writer Josh Robbins.


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What was the best offseason move (a trade, a free agent signing, a release or a signing) within the division?

James L. Edwards III: From a player perspective, I like the Pacers to get Bruce Brown. Adding winning players when you’re trying to win is always a good thing. From a broader perspective, the young, rebuilding Pistons hiring Monty Williams, the winningest coach of the last three years, is a big deal.

Darnell Mayberry: James is being modest as our Pistons writer. But in a division that lacked player movement during the offseason, the Pistons easily won the summer by signing Williams. He competes with Rick Carlisle as the best coach in the division and gives Detroit instant credibility, which the Pistons were already accumulating with the addition of each young piece they are rapidly accumulating.

Speaking of players, I like Cleveland to acquire Max Strus. He adds depth, shooting and toughness to the Cavs’ defense, and gives Cleveland one more option for Darius Garland and the Cavs’ big men.

Josh Robbins: I think adding Brown, a quintessential tough glue, to the Pacers’ young mix is ​​the best player addition in the division. He’s someone who can impact a game without needing to take a lot of shots, which is important in Indiana, where Tyrese Haliburton, Buddy Hield and Bennedict Mathurin will almost certainly continue to take the bulk of the shots. As The Wall Street Journal correctly noted when the Pacers agreed to a two-year, $45 million contract (including a team option for 2024-25), Brown is someone who accentuates his teammates’ abilities by embracing his defensive role and moving the ball. on offense.

Is it a risk to add Brown to such an expensive contract? No, not really, as our colleague David Aldridge recently wrote. If things don’t work out, the Pacers can simply decline his 2024-25 club option or try to trade him. But I think Brown will fit well in Indianapolis.

The Pistons’ decision to hire coach Monty Williams to a massive contract could be key for the team’s young core. (Bradshaw Sevald/USA Today)

Which offseason move has the most potential to backfire?

Edwards: There really weren’t any groundbreaking moves from the Central Division this offseason, so the only one that could get complicated (simply because of the huge commitment) is the signing of Williams in Detroit. Hypothetically speaking, of course, if the Pistons struggle for the next two or three years, there’s no progress and the vibe isn’t right, would Detroit even consider letting Williams leave so early on a six-year deal? No one, not even the richest of the rich, wants to pay two people to do a job that only one person can do. Pistons ownership and management obviously hope and believe that the team will progress under Williams and that the vibe will be good. I think both things will happen. However, if not, there is great potential for counterproductiveness.

Mayberry: The Bulls have turned down multiple opportunities to go in a different direction since losing to the Bucks in the first round of 2022. Instead, they have doubled down. They chose continuity despite Lonzo Ball’s career-threatening knee injury. They re-signed Nikola Vučević, brought back guards Coby White and Ayo Dosunmu and decided not to trade Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan.

The trio of LaVine, DeRozan and Vučević has not only proven to be insufficient, but it is also not a core with long useful life. DeRozan is 34 years old and is entering the final year of his contract. Vučević is 32 years old. LaVine is only 28, but he has yet to lead the Bulls to perennial contention after six years with the franchise. Will minor additions like Jevon Carter and Torrey Craig keep the Bulls from being forced to blow it before the trade deadline?

Robbins: I don’t disagree with the Bucks’ decision to move on from Mike Budenholzer and replace him with Adrian Griffin, but I also think Budenholzer was a convenient scapegoat for Milwaukee’s first-round exit.

For those who say Budenholzer’s 271-120 record in five Bucks seasons is based primarily on the greatness of Giannis Antetokounmpo, well, that’s correct. But if we acknowledge that fundamental truth, doesn’t it also follow that Milwaukee likely would have beaten Miami in the first round if Giannis hadn’t gotten hurt in the first half of Game 1 and then missed Game 2 and Game 3?

Which Central player is most likely to have a big season?

Edwards: “Here goes the Pistons writer talking about the Pistons again. Give it a break!

Fair enough, but isn’t the obvious answer here Cade Cunningham? The 2021 No. 1 pick only played 12 games last year. He, by all indications, was one of the top three players as part of the US select team this summer, facing the World Cup team.

Evan Mobley could be the answer, but he has been visible. Haliburton was an All-Star last year and was on the World Cup team this summer. There’s really no one to consider in Milwaukee for this. Patrick Williams, anyone? I still have stock, but ehh…

Mayberry: Okay, I was wrong. For James it’s Detroit against everyone. Cunningham is a star in the making. I think we all understand it. I’ll go in a different direction.

I like Strus’ fit in Cleveland and White has a chance to shine in Chicago. But I’m going to say Obi Toppin in Indiana. A change of scenery could be just what Toppin needs to find consistency and another level. He’ll be joining a promising Pacers team and will have a willing quarterback in Haliburton to get him the ball. I’m curious to see how Toppin responds.

Robbins: I agree that Cunningham has breakthrough potential and would have drafted him here if James hadn’t done so and Darnell hadn’t supported that view. But my vote here goes to Pacers rookie forward Jarace Walker, who has an NBA-ready physique and a good feel for the game. I’m not saying Walker is going to put up great stats as a rookie, but I think he will make a positive impact. Does that make him a standout player? No, not by conventional standards, which typically call for a jump in offensive production. Still, I think he will be a valuable addition.

Obi Toppin (right) has potential for a new start in Indiana. (Raj Mehta/USA Today)

Heading into the season, which Central player, coach or executive has the most to prove?

Edwards: I initially wanted to say Billy Donovan, but I don’t think that team has any major advantages. Should they be better than last year? Sure. However, I believe the Cavaliers have the talent and balance on the roster to be a legitimate contender for the Eastern Conference title. JB Bickerstaff is a good coach. However, the coaching business is unfair. So, he is my answer.

Mayberry: Leave me for Griffin in Milwaukee. Griffin earned a chance as a head coach after serving 15 years as an NBA assistant. But when your first head coaching job is with a championship-ready roster, you’re thrown into a pressure cooker.

Griffin’s hiring reminds me of Donovan’s hiring in Oklahoma City in 2015. Donovan was a first-year NBA head coach tasked with successfully coaching what would be Kevin Durant’s final season with the Thunder. When the Thunder fell short in the Western Conference finals, Durant left for Golden State.

A more recent example would be Steve Nash, who landed the Brooklyn Nets job in 2020 despite never having been a head coach or even an assistant. He lasted two seasons. There is a lot of pressure on Griffin, not only to do well in Milwaukee but also to win it all.

Robbins: It’s Artūras Karnišovas, Chicago’s executive vice president of basketball operations. As Darnell said previously, the Bulls continue to bank on a veteran core that is aging and simply isn’t good enough to compete in the East. The 2021 trade for Vučević cost the Bulls two future first-round picks, and one of those picks turned out to be Franz Wagner. Unless something changes for the Bulls in the early months of the season, Karnišovas will be in place as the trade deadline approaches.

Which team will win the Central regular season title? And which team do you think will be runner-up?

Edwards: Is Giannis still a dollar? Yeah? Milwaukee wins the regular season title. Second place is Cleveland, which has the best collection of young, ready-made talent.

Mayberry: I’m with James. Milwaukee wins the division and Cleveland will finish in second place. The most intriguing question is which team will finish third. Chicago, Indiana and Detroit could be pleasant surprises.

Robbins: As long as Giannis stays healthy, the Bucks will prevail over the Cavs in the regular season standings. And the Cavs will finish second, with Mobley repeating as a first-team all-defensive selection.

(Top photo of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Evan Mobley: Michael McLoone/USA Today)


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