Central Division Breakdown: Power Rankings, Team Weaknesses, and Fantasy Goodies

Indiana Pacers point guard George Hill

May 26, 2013; Indianapolis, IN, USA;Indiana Pacers point guard George Hill (3) reacts after hitting a three point shot against the Miami Heat in game three of the Eastern Conference finals of the 2013 NBA Playoffs at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Pat Lovell-USA TODAY Sports

The Central Division might be the most competitive of the three divisions out east. By this time next year, it might only trail the Southwest Division as the league’s most cutthroat sect. Like the Southwest, it is one of two NBA factions that can rightly state that all five of its teams can potentially contend for a playoff spot.

The Southeast has Orlando and Charlotte. Good luck there. The Atlantic is bogged down by the 76ers and to a lesser degree the Raptors. Utah is the glaring non-playoff team in the Northwest. The Pacific has the Lakers, Kings and Suns contending with early summers. But both the Southwest (the Mavs, Rockets, Grizzlies, Pelicans and Spurs) and the Central (the Pacers, Bulls, Cavs, Pistons and Bucks) have a stones throw chance of having all five squads make the postseason. Good times await.

For the time being, here is a unique breakdown of the Central Division—how teams will end up stacked by season end, what weaknesses will keep each squad from playoff success and even what Fantasy Basketball goods you’ll find in each roster.

INDIANA PACERS

Power Ranking: 1

The Pacers won 87 percent of their games against the division last season. And now they’re better. So are the Bulls, Cavs and Pistons but it’s doubtful that they won’t be at least 70 percent effective against Central rivals. They have more cohesiveness than Cleveland and Detroit, and haven’t dealt with the injuries/lineup changes the Bulls have. The only way they lose this is if the Rose-Butler tandem proves to be Thomas-Dumars-like.

Team Weaknesses:

You wouldn’t have known it with how well they scored against the Heat in May but Indiana deserved a dunce cap last year on offense. They were in the bottom 10 when it came to points per game, offensive efficiency and shooting percentage. That will never bode well against conference rivals the Miami Heat who attempt as little shots as Indiana (77.2 FGA to Indy’s 79.4) but who are probably the league’s best offensive team.

A lot of it comes from having such a defense-minded collective but also from a real lack of ball movement. The Pacers have a hard time holding onto the ball which contributes to the league’s worst assist/turnover ratio and which puts them in precarious situations which can translate to non-assisted possessions. In today’s game, an offense cannot coexist with stagnant ball movement. Paul George and George Hill need to turn this around somehow.

Fantasy Goodies:

Don’t Sleep On George Hill – Hill had the best season of his career (although a per-36 glance shows it might have actually been his second-best). At 27, it seems that his ceiling won’t be much higher but it has plenty of more verticality in store as Granger returns, George improves and Hibbert develops more offense. Without those things, Hill posted a 14.2/4.7/3.7/1.1 year while making 1.7 three-pointers per game. Phoenix would be thrilled if Eric Bledsoe can mirror those numbers. Expect something like 14/5.6/3.7/1.2 and 1.9 three-pointers per game from Hill this time around.

CHICAGO BULLS

Power Ranking: 2

Rose-Butler-Deng-Boozer-Noah. Hinrich-Dunleavy Jr.-Snell-Gibson-Mohammed. Rose-Hinrich-Butler-Gibson-Noah. Teague-Rose-Butler-Deng-Noah. This team will be intimidating anyway you cut it. As some bizarre version of a Russian doll set that can fit in any arrangement, the Bulls will be able to exploit the size, or lack of size, of pretty much any NBA team. Coaches beware.

Rose’s health, Butler’s role at the 2, and perhaps a lack of one more big man are the only things working against the 2013 Bulls. If the first two can fall into place, however, they can easily be the best Rose-era Bulls team yet.

Team Weaknesses:

Having a transcendental point guard like Rose is a godsend but it can also be a double-edged sword for a team like Chicago. As playoff bouts with Miami showed, it’s just a matter of shutting down Rose in order to drive the stake through the Bulls’ heart. Deng can sometimes provide a second option on offense but not in ways that befit a postseason offense. Boozer tends to shrink in big moments. With a passable shooting guard, like Butler can be, and a siege’s worth of outside shooters, the Bulls can finally address their biggest concern: a varied offense that is playoff-proof.

Fantasy Goodies:

The Butler Fandom Could Be Right – Even modest projections have Jimmy Butler ending with something like a 12.0/6.0/2.0/1.3 year. That doesn’t seem like much but look at how it compares to Vince Carter‘s statline (13.4 /4.1/2.4/0.9) or the one belonging to Wesley Matthews (14.8/2.8/2.5/1.3). And those guys are very good mid-level shooting guards (in a weak market).

You also have to consider their shooting percentages: Butler (46.7-38.1-80.3), Carter (43.5-40.6-81.6), Matthews (43.6-39.8-79.7). Thing is, Carter will be 37 years old this year and Matthews has a could-be rookie of the year candidate playing behind him.

Sure, Butler’s stats went up from playing more minutes but his per-36 numbers either stayed the same or went up promisingly. In advanced stats, the only thing that went down from the year prior was his turnover percentage, usage percentage (USG%), offense rebound percentage (ORB%) and defensive rating (DRtg). In two out of those four, that’s a good thing. But what’s especially convincing is how everything shot up considerably despite him being used at a lesser clip than his rookie year.

Sharing the ball with Rose on the backcourt will reduce that USG% more but he’s proven that that isn’t an indicator of reduced stats or his oncourt contributions. Under the right circumstances, he can be a major, major fantasy sleeper.

Chicago Rainstorms – In leagues that value the three-point shot, picking from the Bulls will bring about plenty of rewards. Rose has always been a willing passer, and the transition from the year off should see him looking for his teammates considerably at the beginning of the comeback.

Bulls management has made it clear that perimeter shooting has been a concern and a weapon too seldom used. Turning to Deng, Butler, Dunleavy Jr., Hinrich, Snell and perhaps even Teague, will make Rose’s (and their big men’s) life easier while conversely padding the three-point shooting of the listed. It’s not ludicrous to think that from Deng down, each of the mentioned will average 1.0 to 2.3 three-pointers per game.

CLEVELAND CAVALIERS

Power Ranking: 3

It’s been awhile since we’ve seen the Cavs be the third in anything. Experts believe—including XN Sports—that they can be a real playoff threat. Even without Andrew Bynum or Anthony Bennett, they have a nice two-deep unit who will only really be deficient on defense. One can only hope that they can avoid major injuries, and that Jarrett Jack and Anderson Varejao can be the veteran voices they need.

Team Weaknesses:

Health and conditioning. For such a young team, the Cavs appear to have a worse durability than their coaching staff. Adding Jack and Clark should help share minutes and keep their team in tip-top shape. They were pretty deplorable in all stats last year but have the right pieces in place to make a major rebound across all categories. If they can add another veteran or two at the PF and SG positions, they can surprise many a naysayer.

Fantasy Goodies:

Individual Value Will Stay Modest – With Varejao back, Earl Clark taking some of the scoring, rebounding and blocking load, and Jack to share minutes with Irving, don’t expect anyone outside of Irving to have major upshots in stats. Waiters and Thompson can still be serviceable second or third string options in a deep league but will not likely have the growth years that guys like Anthony Davis, Derrick Favors, Gordon Hayward or Jimmy Butler will.

DETROIT PISTONS

Power Ranking: 4

Let’s sum up this Pistons team by saying that they have a lot to prove. Outside of the Nets, Cavs and Pacers, they brought on the most amount of talent (out of the Eastern Conference) in areas that needed extra attending. The problem is that they picked not one but two guys who play at low efficiency, hog the ball and have the shot selection of a carnival attendee. With Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond needing adequate development, Pistons management will have to prove that they didn’t gamble on the wrong high-risk players. Other than that, all they have to prove is that they can make the NBA Playoffs.

Team Weaknesses:

Brandon Jennings. Really.

Think about this: to get Greg Monroe, Andre Drummond and Josh Smith going and playing to their strengths you need a willing passer, with no ego, a good outside shot, that has a history of leadership, and can help keep a range of other egos in check. Is that person Brandon Jennings or Chauncey Billups?

Prior to the Jennings pickup, a starting five of AD, Monroe, Smith, Billups and Brandon Knight at the 2 seemed like a team ready for some noise. If the worry was that Billups might re-injure himself or has too many miles on his legs, then you could plug Knight at the 1 and have Rodney Stuckey, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope or even Kyle Singler at the 2. In this scenario, you let your youth develop, let Billups do his thing and only need to deal with Smith’s ego. Instead, you’ll have two egos to handle, have to explain to Billups why he’ll be playing at the 2 against guys like James Harden and might severely affect the development of Drummond, Monroe, Caldwell-Pope, Singler and Siva.

Fantasy Goodies:

Jennings Over Smith – Despite the detriment that Jennings might bring to the Pistons he can be a real Fantasy treat for the right owner. He’ll have a hard time notching the points average he did last year but his three-point shooting and assists should see a nice boost.

Josh Smith will have a harder time rounding out to be the Fantasy powerhouse he was in Atlanta. Especially if he settles into a role, he can be a great help defender on a scary frontcourt, can poke the ball away from unsuspecting bigs dealing with Drummond and Monroe, and, because of his ability to pass, can be a nice installment in the Detroit offense. But that means that he might see a big dip in points and rebounds.

Jennings might be the better Fantasy option.

MILWAUKEE BUCKS

Power Ranking: 5

Many will disagree but this Bucks team might be just as good as the one from last year. Of course, that’s not saying much, especially with how everyone else has improved in the division. But it does give Milwaukee a fighting chance in a top-heavy conference. It’ll be tough to pull it off in such a heated division, though.

Team Weaknesses:

How much time do you have to kill?

It remains to be seen what this much-changed roster can do but it seems like a matchup nightmare waiting to happen. Last year’s squad was pretty adept at sharing and rebounding the ball but didn’t do much else very well to ever be a playoff threat. No combination of their current players, including their starting five, are exceptionally great at anything and might see themselves having a hard time guarding the NBA’s best teams.

They could also do with a better option at the small forward spot.

Fantasy Goodies:

Don’t Hate On This O.J.O.J. Mayo got a lot of flak for a late season sputtering but does he deserve the hate? His player efficieny rating (PER) was nothing to put on the jumbo screen but still posted strong numbers in a league where the shooting guard position is Giannis Antetokounmpo-thin. Mayo arguably had his second-best season of his career, posting 15.3 PPG, 4.4 APG, 3.5 RPG, 1.1 STLPG, 1.7 three-pointers per game on 44.9-40.7-82.0 shooting, which makes him a top-10 shooting guard. Perhaps even top-5 depending on how your league scores stats.

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Bogar Alonso is a dedicated student of the hardwood, soccer pitch, boxing ring, and tennis court. He is a regular NBA contributor to XN Sports. His work, involving more than just sports, has appeared on The Creators Project, A&E Networks, XXL Magazine, and others. Follow Bogar on Twitter @blacktiles
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