The Central Division is usually pretty easy to predict. You write the Milwaukee Bucks in first place in sharpie, and then, you don’t worry too terribly much about the rest, because, well, why would you, the Bucks are so clearly the best team?
Milwaukee should be the best team in the division this year, but beyond them, every team is interesting to one extent or another. Cleveland pulled off a gigantic offseason trade, Chicago was one of the top seeds in the East last year before becoming a Murphy’s Law team, Detroit is in the midst of an exciting youth movement, and while Indiana might be the worst team in the conference, there is enough there to provide optimism about what is coming down the road.
With the 2022 NBA season finally here, we decided to take a look at the biggest questions that don’t involve injuries facing each team in each conference. And in this space, we’re breaking down the Central.
Chicago Bulls: Can DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine get enough help?
It would be very hard for DeRozan to follow up his magnificent 2021-22 season, which earned him All-NBA Second Team honors. Still, he should be able to score and create a little bit, as should LaVine, who agreed to a gigantic contract extension over the summer to tie him to the Bulls for the foreseeable future.
After that? Woof. Lonzo Ball is still out injured, and while Alex Caruso is a capable hand in the backcourt on both ends of the floor, Chicago is at its best when those two are playing alongside one another. The Nikola Vucevic trade has not worked out — imagine this team with the version of Wendell Carter Jr. that Orlando got and Franz Wagner. Injuries have prevented Patrick Williams from being the players Chicago has needed him to be ever since he was drafted No. 4 overall in 2020. Guys like Ayo Dosunmu, Javonte Green, and Coby White are nice players, but this is asking a ton of them. Goran Dragic and Andre Drummond are nice veterans who are not the players they were younger in their careers.
If you squint and mix whatever you can see with Ball getting healthy earlier than they expect, you can maybe put together a playoff basketball team. But being a playoff team in the East is really, really, really hard, and Chicago looks like a team that needs a whole lot of stuff to go right to finish above the play-in line for the second year in a row.
Cleveland Cavaliers: How do they handle opposing star perimeter players?
Injuries down the stretch really derailed things for the Cavaliers last season, and as a result, the team lost in the play-in tournament. Their response: Trade a bunch of stuff they don’t really need and acquire Donovan Mitchell, giving Darius Garland one heck of a running mate in the backcourt. Those two, plus Jarrett Allen and the ascending Evan Mobley, give Cleveland one of the best four-man groupings in all of basketball. It’d be hard, but there is a universe where the Cavs have four guys make the Eastern Conference All-Star team this year.
The whole “can everyone get the ball enough to be happy?” thing is fair, but at least during their first year, teams can navigate that pretty easily. There is a very, very big question mark, however, about how they will approach the best perimeter players in the league. Garland is a willing defender but can get overpowered easily. Mitchell’s defense has taken a step back with each passing year. Mobley switching onto dudes might work, but that’s only in specific situations.
Can Isaac Okoro provide any offense and make defenses respect him at all? The inverse is true of Caris LeVert, who has, to put it gently, never exactly been Marcus Smart on the defensive end of the floor. They have options a little farther down their bench, but Okoro, in particular, is the guy worth watching here.
Detroit Pistons: Can Cade Cunningham make a leap?
There is legitimate optimism about the Detroit Pistons for the first time in, uh, well it’s been a while. Cunningham, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft and the sort of jumbo playmaker every team would kill to have, is at the heart of it all. For all the young talent in Detroit, and for how their veteran players like Alec Burks, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Nerlens Noel seem to compliment them well, Cunningham’s ability to be the straw that stirs the drink for the next decade-plus is going to be the thing that determines where the ceiling should be set in the Motor City.
As is oftentimes the case with rookie guards, Cunningham struggled out the gate last year. When things clicked, though, you saw exactly why he went No. 1 overall — before the All-Star break, Cunningham averaged 15.7 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 5.2 assists on a true shooting of 48.9 percent. After? Cunningham went for 21.1 points, 6.5 assists, and 5.7 rebounds with a 53.1 percent true shooting. You bet on guys with his size (6’6, 220 pounds) and IQ to figure things out. He managed to do that in his first season.
There is no guarantee Cunningham gets better this year. There is also the chance that he’s an All-Star. If that happens, the Pistons have a real shot of making it into the play-in tournament.
Indiana Pacers: Do they pull the plug and focus on the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes?
Indiana’s over/under on the year is set at 23.5 wins. There is plenty of stuff here that can help them clear that if they decide to try and win. Rick Carlisle is a good coach, Tyrese Haliburton is one of the league’s brightest young stars, first-round pick Bennedict Mathurin can really score, and with guys like Chris Duarte, Buddy Hield, and Myles Turner on the roster, it’s not hard to see the Pacers —a franchise that has staked its reputation on consistently being competitive — being a thorn in a whole lot of sides this season.
Then again, the team has seemingly been looking to move Turner and Hield for picks, while Carlisle has been at the helm for tanks in the past. In 2017-18, Carlisle oversaw a Dallas Mavericks team that won 24 games and was able to parlay that into Luka Doncic, which has gone pretty well. This time around, the draft’s belle of the ball is another franchise-changing international prospect in Wembanyama, the ginormous Frenchman who may somehow be a better prospect than Doncic. There are a whole lot of good teams in the East and it’s very possible Indiana never has a shot at being one of them, no matter how good Haliburton is and will be. Do they take that approach from the jump, wait a little to play for ping pong balls, or try to push for the postseason all year long?
Milwaukee Bucks: Can Joe Ingles give them anything?
Let’s be honest: It’s hard to have too many questions about the Milwaukee Bucks at this point. They won the title in 2021 and damn near beat the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Semis last year despite Khris Middleton being hurt and Jrue Holiday really, really struggling. This is what happens when you have a player like Giannis Antetokounmpo on your team.
Middleton will need a few weeks to come back from wrist surgery, but when he does, Milwaukee will have its top-3 players and should be able to respond to anyone’s best punch, especially considering Middleton and Holiday famously went right from the NBA Finals to the Olympics last summer and got a full offseason this time around. The team’s presumed starting five — Holiday, Grayson Allen, Middleton, Antetokounmpo, Brook Lopez — is rock solid. The guys coming off the bench have been with the Bucks and know what their jobs are.
All that said, let’s go with a bit of a wild card. Joe Ingles joined the team as a free agent this summer on a 1-year deal, and is not expected to suit up for the team until December or January as he comes back from a torn ACL. If he gives them nothing but good vibes as a 35-year-old dude who suffered a major knee injury, it won’t be a catastrophe or anything. But at his best, Ingles provides savvy secondary playmaking, dead-eye shooting from the perimeter, and pesky help defense, all things that fit like a glove alongside Antetokounmpo. It’s a low-risk, high-reward signing, and for a team that really values continuity, it’s possible that Ingles can provide a little breath of fresh air.