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2016-17 NBA Season Preview: Central Division

Blazer’s Edge continues its trip throughout the NBA, previewing every team’s 2016-17 season. Today, we focus on the Central Division.

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Chicago Bulls Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

In keeping with time-honored tradition, Blazer’s Edge once again will be looking across the entire NBA and offering season previews for all 30 teams. Today, we move on to the Central Division, where LeBron James and the 2016 NBA Champion Cleveland Cavaliers sit atop the throne. Can the Pacers, Pistons, Bulls and Bucks close the gap in what looks to be a competitive division?

Cleveland Cavaliers

2015-16 Record: 57-25 (No. 1 in Eastern Conference)
ORtg: 110.9 (No. 3); DRtg: 104.5 (No. 10)
Roster Additions: Mike Dunleavy, Chris Anderson, Kay Felder (Rookie, No. 54)
Roster Subtractions: Matthew Dellavedova, Timofey Mozgov, Mo Williams
Coach: Tyronn Lue; SBN Affiliate: Fear the Sword

For the first time in their 46-year history, the Cleveland Cavaliers enter the season as defending NBA champions. After losing the 2015 NBA Finals in 6 games to the Golden State Warriors two seasons ago, Cleveland pulled out a historic 3-1 comeback win in a rematch against the same Warriors team that won 73 regular season games.

Little has changed for the Cavaliers this offseason. They return a starting lineup of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson, and J.R. Smith. Smith and the team remained apart on a contract extension until last week, when it was announced that he had resigned with the team on a 4-year, $57-million deal.

While the Cavs are certainly among the favorites to repeat as NBA champions again this season, they did lose a bit of their depth, as fan-favorite Matthew Dellavedova bolted to the Milwaukee Bucks. Coupled with Mo Williams’ retirement, this leaves the Cavs perilously thin at point guard behind Kyrie Irving. After seeing his minutes dip to 31 per game, Irving may see his floor time tick up just a bit this season. Backing up Irving second-round round pick Kay Felder, a 5-foot-9 guard out of Oakland University.

Center Timofey Mozgov, a key piece of the playoff run just two seasons ago, signed a 4-year, $64-million contract with the Los Angeles Lakers after nearly falling out of the rotation altogether as the Cavs transitioned to more of a small-ball lineup in the playoffs last season.

While almost any another team would be wincing at losing several key reserves, everything in Cleveland revolves around LeBron James. Now almost 32 years old and ever-so-slightly down from his prime, James is still devastatingly effective at nearly every facet of the game. His ability to command attention anywhere on the court opens things up for Irving and Kevin Love.

Cleveland’s biggest reason for optimism this season comes from continuity. At this time last year, there were questions about how then-second-year coach David Blatt would continue acclimating to the league and its biggest superstar. After performing well enough by some standards, we found out the answer to that question when Blatt was fired in December, with lead assistant Tyronn Lue taking over head coaching duties. From there the Cavs rolled, and having the same staff from the opening tip will help a team that looks at the regular season as a warmup for the playoffs stay focused.

Beyond the above-mentioned starting five, Cleveland will rely on Iman Shumpert, Channing Frye, and newcomer Mike Dunleavy to play significant minutes. All three are veterans who know their respective roles, the typical type of player that LeBron enjoys working with.

Assuming there are no injuries to key contributors, Cleveland is poised to repeat as Eastern Conference champs. While losing James or Irving for a significant stretch would strike a blow, the Cavs have the talent and championship pedigree to contend for back-to-back NBA championships.

Indiana Pacers

2015-16 Record: 45-37 (No. 7 in Eastern Conference)
ORtg: 104.6 (No. 25); DRtg: 102.9 (No. 3)
Roster Additions: Jeremy Evans, Jeff Teague, Thaddeus Young, Al Jefferson, Aaron Brooks, Georges Niang (Rookie, No. 50), Kevin Seraphin
Roster Subtractions: George Hill, Jordan Hill, Solomon Hill, Ty Lawson, Ian Mahimni Coach: Nate McMillan; SBN Affiliate: Indy Cornrows

The Pacers had one of the more interesting offseasons in the NBA this summer, starting with team president Larry Bird’s decision not to renew coach Frank Vogel’s contract. Bird claims that he believes players eventually tune out their coach and wanted to make a change to a different voice in the locker room, while expressing desire for the team to run more.

With that in mind, the choice to promote assistant coach Nate McMillan seems like a head scratcher on the surface. McMillan may be able to get the Pacers to push the tempo more, but historically he’s known as a slow-it-down, possession-oriented coach.

Further adding to the confusion, the team signed center Al Jefferson to replace departed big man Ian Mahimni. While removed from his prime, Jefferson is still a very effective back-to-the-basket post player. However, this move doesn’t exactly scream “transition basketball.”

Indiana likely won’t be looking at Jefferson to start, as they have budding center Myles Turner on the roster heading into his sophomore season. Only 20 years old, Turner is already turning heads with his play, showing excellent shot-blocking ability and the skills to shoot effectively from 16 feet out to the 3-point line.

The Pacers did make one move geared toward pushing the tempo in the offseason, when they traded steady veteran point guard George Hill for former Atlanta Hawks point guard Jeff Teague. Teague is a more offensive-minded player who can push the tempo, while Hill is a consistent floor general and regarded as a plus-defender.

Outside of all of this, the Pacers still have superstar Paul George. After seeing limited, ineffective action two seasons ago because of a gruesome leg injury, George spent much of the year playing power forward, a new role for him, and acclimated well on the offensive end. Last year he averaged a career-high 23 points per game to go along with 7 rebounds and 4 assists. This season, he will likely move back to his natural small forward spot to make room for Thaddeus Young, a veteran stretch-four who can also help generate points.

Indiana has one of the better offensive benches in the league, with Jefferson and Aaron Brooks joining holdovers Rodney Stuckey, C.J. Miles, and Lavoy Allen. It remains to be seen how well this unit can defend, but the team wanted to make offense a priority and has certainly done so. Pacers fans will have to wait and see how all these pieces fit, as this is a team could realistically finish as high as third in the East come playoff-time. Perhaps almost as likely, it seems, Indy could also finish the year at .500.

Detroit Pistons

2015-16 Record: 44-38 (No. 8 in Eastern Conference)
ORtg: 106.1 (No. 13); DRtg: 105.5 (No. 12)
Roster Additions: Jon Leuer, Boban Marjonovic, Henry Ellenson (Rookie, No. 18), Ray McCallum
Roster Subtractions: Joel Anthony, Steve Blake, Spencer Dinwiddie, Jodie Meeks, Athony Tolliver
Coach: Stan Van Gundy; SBN Affiliate: Detroit Bad Boys

A team on the rise, the Pistons finally found themselves back in the playoffs last season before getting eliminated in the first round by the Cleveland Cavaliers. Detroit has little reason to be upset with the loss, however, as their future is bright. Sporting a core of Andre Drummond, Reggie Jackson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Stanley Johnson, and Tobias Harris (all 26 or younger), the Pistons will benefit from their 2016 postseason experience and will be looking to make some more noise in the Central Division this season.

Detroit is one of the better rebounding teams in the NBA, which is no surprise considering they feature Andre Drummond in the middle. Coach Jeff Van Gundy hopes to utilize Drummond similarly to the way he used Dwight Howard in Orlando; which is to say that he indulges Drummond with post-up moves and while surrounding him with shooters in a 4-around-1 offense. There are two problems that come to mind with this strategy: Drummond has little post game to speak of at this point, being most productive in the pick-and-roll and with putbacks, and the Pistons feature very few strong 3-point shooters. Caldwell-Pope led the team with almost five 3-pointers per game attempted last season, but shot below 31 percent.

To address this, Detroit added sharpshooting power forward Jon Leuer, fresh off a career-year with the Phoenix Suns. Unfortunately, their other big addition (besides 7-foot-3 Boban Marjanovic, who checks in as literally the Pistons’ “biggest” signing) was point guard Ish Smith - one of the worst shooting rotation point guards in the NBA. Even so, he had an effective run for Philadelphia last season. Smith’s signing as a backup guard wouldn’t normally be any cause for concern, but starter Reggie Jackson will be sidelined for at least the first several weeks of the season with knee problems, likely thrusting Smith into a starting role.

Detroit made significant strides last season, and has a young core in place to develop together. They have a group of plus-defenders and a coach committed to seeing them grow. While they won’t be challenging the likes of Cleveland and Toronto for the top of the Eastern Conference this season, things are looking up for the Pistons this season.

Chicago Bulls

2015-16 Record: 42-40 (No. 9 in Eastern Conference)
ORtg: 105.0 (No. 23); DRtg: 106.5 (No. 15)
Roster Additions: Dwayne Wade, Rajon Rondo, Robin Lopez, Jerian Grant, Denzel Valentine (Rookie, No. 14), Paul Zipser (Rookie, No. 48), Isaiah Canaan, Thomas Walkup
Roster Subtractions: Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Cameron Bairstow, Aaron Brooks, Pau Gasol, E’Twaun Moore, Tony Snell
Coach: Fred Hoiberg; SBN Affiliate: Blog a Bull

The Chicago Bulls finally moved on from the Derrick Rose era this offseason, trading the former NBA MVP point guard to the Knicks for center Robin Lopez and pieces. As Rose’s effectiveness declined, there were whispers that he and star wing Jimmy Butler were having issues coexisting and that one would need to be moved. Finding a taker for Rose was big news in and of itself, but the Bulls were just getting started.

Chicago also moved on from center Joakim Noah, allowing him to sign with his hometown New York Knicks and making newly-acquired Lopez the clear starter. The Bulls’ front office then made a pair of splashy moves, signing free agents Dwayne Wade and Rajon Rondo to pair with Butler. While both players are big names, coach Fred Hoiberg will have his work cut out for him making a successful lineup work with all three players.

Wade, Butler, and Rondo are all limited as perimeter shooters. Throw Lopez into the mix and you have a team where four out of five starters struggle from distance. The best 3-point shooter in the starting lineup is 6-foot-10 power forward Nikola Mirotic, who shot 39 percent from beyond the arc last season.

Butler, Wade, and Rondo will need to figure out how to share the ball; each player is most effective with the ball in his own hands and there may be an adjustment period until the starting lineup meshes. More importantly, this team is likely to struggle on the defensive end. Rondo hasn’t played consistent defense in years, and Wade’s defensive real plus/minus last year was -1.78, according to ESPN; this is what Chicago added to a team that was No. 15 in defense last season, but No. 22 after the All-Star break.

The Bulls will get little help from their bench this season, though they did bolster their reserve unit’s firepower very recently by trading Tony Snell for Michael Carter-Williams (who also can’t shoot from outside). Doug McDermott, Taj Gibson, and rookie Denzel Valentine will back up the forward spots, and Cristiano Felicio will see minutes at center.

Chicago has a lot to figure out this season. If Wade and Rondo are able to turn back the clock, the team may surprise most and be relevant into the spring, but even if that happens, the addition of the two former stars is little more than a Band-Aid on a much bigger problem.

Milwaukee Bucks

2015-16 Record: 33-49 (No. 12 in Eastern Conference)
ORtg: 104.3 (No. 26); DRtg: 108.7 (No. 23)
Roster Additions: Mirza Teletovic, Matthew Dellavedova, Thon Maker (Rookie, No. 10), Malcom Brogdon (Rookie, No. 36), Michael Beasley, Orlando Johnson, J.J. O’Brien
Roster Subtractions: Jerryd Bayless, Michael Carter-Williams, Jared Cunningham, Tyler Ennis, OJ Mayo, Johnny O’Bryant
Coach: Jason Kidd; SBN Affiliate: Brew Hoop

Struggling last year after having a breakout 2014-15 season, the Milwaukee Bucks did little to shake up their core, adding supporting pieces Mirza Teletovic, Matthew Dellavedova, and rookie Thon Maker to a young group that includes Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jabari Parker, and Khris Middleton.

Unfortunately for Bucks fans, Middleton suffered a hamstring injury that is expected to sideline him for six months. It will be up to Parker and Giannis to carry the team in his absence. Projected to play point guard this year - at 6-foot-freaking-11 - Giannis is poised to have a breakout season. The Greek Freak averaged 18.8 points, 8.6 rebound, and 7.2 assists per game after moving to the point spot last February. If he and tweener-forward Parker can get some inside-out action going, the Bucks could conceivably tread water until Middleton returns, but his injury is likely going to torpedo Milwaukee’s playoff chances before the season even begins.

With that, this season will likely be more about player development. Greg Monroe’s moving into a reserve role this season, and Parker will likely see all the minutes he can handle while raw rookie Thon Maker, considered by many to be a stretch with the No. 10 pick in the 2016 NBA draft, will possibly see minutes on a team that has somewhat dim chances at making the postseason.

Parker and Giannis are both only 21 years old, though, and the future looks bright in Milwaukee. The present is another story, however. Milwaukee has some fine supporting pieces with Dellevadova, Miles Plumlee, and John Henson, but none of these players is really enough to bail water until Middleton returns.