The 2019-20 NBA season is just around the corner. After an offseason chock-full of player movement, the title race appears as wide-open as it has been in years.
Over the coming weeks, we will examine one big question hanging over each team heading into the season. We’ll continue today with the Central Division, where the top teams must adjust to life without key rotation members, while a few playoff hopefuls lurk in the shadows.
Chicago Bulls: Is Jim Boylen the right coach for this roster?
GarPax slander aside, the Chicago Bulls have assembled a surprisingly frisky young core.
Zach LaVine erupted for a career-high 23.7 points on 46.7 percent shooting last season. Lauri Markkanen (shot-making) and Wendell Carter Jr. (defensive anchor) appear poised to emerge as frontline steals from their respective draft classes if they can stay healthy. Trade-deadline acquisition Otto Porter Jr. is a do-it-all glue guy forward, while blurringly fast point guard Coby White fell into the Bulls’ laps at No. 7 in this year’s draft.
Although Chicago boasts one of the best 25-and-under cores outside of Denver, it’s unclear whether head coach Jim Boylen is the right person to lead said group.
Bulls players nearly staged a mutiny in Boylen’s first week on the job after he took over for former head coach Fred Hoiberg. Tensions eased from there—in fact, LaVine offered to cover Boylen’s fine for getting ejected in mid-March—but the Bulls had bottom-five marks in both offensive and defensive rating during his 58 games in charge.
Boylen’s “shock-and-awe” approach helped win over a Bulls front office convinced that Hoiberg’s player-friendly style led to complacency, but his X’s and O’s acumen remains an open question. Despite having plus shooters such as Porter, LaVine and Markkanen, the Bulls ranked 27th in three-point attempts and dead last in made threes per game last season. Meanwhile, they were fifth in frequency of mid-range shots, per Cleaning the Glass.
The Bulls gave Boylen a multiyear extension in May, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, so he won’t enter the 2019-20 season on the hot seat. But if he continues to run an antiquated offensive system revolving around mid-range shots and post-ups, he might limit Chicago’s ceiling regardless of how much young talent he has at his disposal.
Cleveland Cavaliers: How will Darius Garland and Collin Sexton mesh?
Rather than prioritizing fit over talent, the Cleveland Cavaliers took a best-player-available approach when they selected Vanderbilt point guard Darius Garland with the No. 5 pick in this year’s draft.
One year prior, the Cavs kickstarted their second post-LeBron James era by taking Alabama point guard Collin Sexton with the No. 8 overall pick. Although he struggled early in his rookie year, he grew more comfortable as the season progressed and averaged 20.8 points on 47.7 percent shooting during his 24 games after the All-Star break.
Pairing two 6’2″ score-first point guards may not be viable long term, but Sexton is optimistic about his fit next to Garland.
“I was very excited,” he told Cleveland.com’s Chris Fedor about the Cavaliers’ decision to select Garland at No. 5. “You watch the NBA now and it’s more like a two-guard offense and [new head coach John Beilein], all he’s ever run is two-guard offense.”
Having multiple capable ball-handlers would be a positive if at least one of the two learns to function well off the ball. However, defense could be a significant hurdle to overcome, as Sexton ranked 103rd out of 104 point guards in ESPN’s defensive real plus-minus last season.
The Cavaliers enter the year with one of the league’s lowest projected win totals, so Garland and Sexton should have plenty of opportunity to develop alongside one another. Whether they turn into the next successful diminutive backcourt (such as Portland’s Damian Lillard or CJ McCollum) or an eventual one-or-the-other decision (like Stephen Curry and Monta Ellis) is anyone’s guess until they log some serious time together.
Detroit Pistons: Is this the last stand for this core?
The Detroit Pistons may be entering a make-or-break season.
Point guard Reggie Jackson is heading into the final year of his five-year, $80 million contract. Andre Drummond also could become a free agent next summer if he declines his $28.6 million player option for the 2020-21 season. Early indications suggest he’s at least considering it.
Despite getting an All-Star season out of Blake Griffin, the Pistons finished 41-41 last year and got swept in their opening-round series against the Milwaukee Bucks. Reggie Bullock and Wayne Ellington, their fourth- and fifth-leading scorers on a per-game basis, both left in free agency, which makes Detroit perilously top-heavy.
The Pistons did sign Derrick Rose and Markieff Morris in free agency to add some firepower to their bench. However, they’re otherwise banking on Griffin, Drummond and Jackson to stay healthy and for young players such as Luke Kennard and Bruce Brown to take a major step forward.
Even in a best-case scenario, the Pistons will likely be scrapping for one of the final few playoff spots in the East and have little chance of pulling off a first-round upset. If team owner Tom Gores isn’t satisfied with that type of a ceiling, or if the Pistons get off to a slow start, it’s fair to wonder whether Jackson and Drummond will be some of the bigger names dangled on this year’s trade market.
Indiana Pacers: Do They have a higher ceiling than last year’s squad?
It’s rare for a 48-win team to radically overhaul its starting five, but the Indiana Pacers did exactly that this offseason.
With starting point guard Darren Collison unexpectedly retiring and Thaddeus Young, Bojan Bogdanovic and Wesley Matthews all becoming free agents this summer, the Pacers lost four-fifths of their starting five. They proceeded to sign Jeremy Lamb, trade for T.J. Warren and acquire Malcolm Brogdon via a sign-and-trade, giving themselves a strong stopgap starting unit while All-Star guard Victor Oladipo continues to recover from a torn quadriceps tendon.
Once Oladipo returns, the Pacers should cement themselves as a top-six team in the East. However, it’s fair to wonder whether this new-look squad has a significantly higher ceiling than the 2018-19 iteration of the Pacers.
Questions remain about the long-term fit of skilled bruisers Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis in the frontcourt. Brogdon and Oladipo are both capable passers, but the Pacers lack a pass-first ball-handler in their starting unit. Warren has yet to play more than 66 games in a season throughout his five-year career.
If Oladipo eventually returns to previous form, the Pacers could even wind up being the third-best team in the East this season behind the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers. But until we see how their new pieces fit together, the range of outcomes for the Pacers varies from dark-horse conference finals appearance to fringe playoff squad.
Milwaukee Bucks: How do they replace Malcolm Brogdon?
If Giannis Antetokounmpo truly is at only 60 percent of his potential, Malcolm Brogdon’s departure this summer may prove to be largely inconsequential. After all, the reigning MVP is fresh off a season during which he averaged a career-high 27.7 points on 57.8 percent shooting, 12.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists in only 32.8 minutes per game.
But if Antetokounmpo doesn’t take a significant step forward this season, the Bucks will have to grapple with the loss of a key rotation piece.
The Bucks did sign Wesley Matthews and Kyle Korver this summer, both of whom could soak up a majority of the minutes at the 2. However, neither is as well-rounded anymore (or youthful or athletic or…) as Brogdon, which means they’ll likely be relegated to a spot-shooting role rather than a do-it-all glue guy.
Brogdon ranked fourth in points and three-pointers, plus fifth in both assists and steals per game last season. Korver is one of the NBA’s best long-range specialists, but Matthews—who figures to start at the 2 in place of Brogdon—has yet to shoot above 45 percent from the field since his rookie season in 2009-10.
Matthews and Korver also aren’t as strong as Brogdon defensively, which means opponents may now have a weak link to attack that they didn’t last season. While that shouldn’t be much of an issue in the regular season—the Bucks will sleepwalk their way to 50-plus wins so long as Antetokounmpo remains healthy—it could become a significant problem during a closely matched playoff series.
The Bucks sign-and-traded Brogdon to the Pacers to stay under luxury-tax territory, but their championship window is wide-open at the moment. If the combination of Matthews and Korver can’t adequately replace him, Milwaukee may rue the day it got rid of a key glue guy for financial reasons.
Check out our other division previews: