Friday, June 15, 2012

Off Season Needs: Central Division

     This year, the Central Division had some interesting competition early. The Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers were jocking early for first, but ultimately Derrick Rose and company led the Bulls to first place, while the Pacers reached third place. The Milwaukee Bucks made a surprising and intriguing deal at the deadline when they traded a once considered "untouchable" player in Andrew Bogut and disgruntled forward Stephen Jackson to the Golden State Warriors for electrifying scorer Monta Ellis and a developing big man, Ekpe Udoh. The Cleveland Cavaliers started nicely out of the gates, but an injury to rookie sensation Kyrie Irving destroyed all hopes of making a run for the playoffs. And the Detroit Pistons, well, they're in rebuilding mode. How can each of these teams get better over the off season?

A quick key of acronyms used in the entry: RFA = restricted free agent. PO = player option. TO = team option. ETO = early termination option.

1. Chicago Bulls

Players under contract for next season: Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer, Richard Hamilton, Luol Deng, Taj Gibson, Ronnie Brewer, C.J. Watson, Kyle Korver, Jimmy Butler

Free Agents: Omer Asik (RFA), Mike James, John Lucas III, Brian Scalabrine

What they need: A second superstar, or at least a second All Star. I thought the Bulls could have made it to the Finals if Derrick Rose didn't tear his ACL in the first round, but they do need a second All Star caliber player to be Rose's security blanket. I was shocked they couldn't beat Philadelphia, even without Rose. In a system that preaches defense, I don't think Carlos Boozer fits. He's an offensive-minded player who produces efficient numbers, but not for the amount he's getting paid and he is not a good defender. He's not a good post player either. It might be hard to move him, but if the Bulls are able to trade him in a deal for Pau Gasol perhaps, then that can push the Bulls over the top. Gasol is an All Star, has won the championships, and is still a good, tough player who was simply overshadowed by Andrew Bynum the past two years in Los Angeles.

How will Thibodeau respond
without Rose for most of the year?
What to expect: Not as great of a season as this year. Head coach Tom Thibodeau has his work really cut out for him, since Rose will miss at least half the season because of his injury. Unless this team gets a superstar over the summer, they'll be a bit over .500, and when Rose returns, they'll probably climb to the #4 seed or something like that. In free agency, expect them to retain Omer Asik, unless a team overpays him. I think the Bulls will make several other moves, especially in a free agency pool filled with guards. They will probably sign a point guard who can start and mix time with C.J. Watson, like Denver's Andre Miller. Also, don't be surprised if they push for Memphis' O.J. Mayo, who has been on their and Indiana's radar for a while. Getting Mayo will irk the Pacers franchise, after they failed to obtain him in trade scenarios. I don't know if they will trade Boozer, but if they don't, expect only minor moves that will keep this team in playoff contention without Rose.

2. Cleveland Cavaliers

Players under contract for next season: Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson, Anderson Varejao, Omri Casspi, Donald Sloan, Manny Harris, Samardo Samuels, D.J. Kennedy, Daniel Gibson, Luke Walton

Free Agents: Semih Erden (RFA), Alonzo Gee (RFA), Luke Harangody (RFA), Antawn Jamison, Anthony Parker

What they need: They're going to need wing players. They are set at the 1, 4, and 5 with Irving, Thompson, and Varejao. However, they still have voids at the 2 and 3. Casspi is better coming off the bench, and so are the other players on the roster. Gibson is too small to be a shooting guard in any system, and he must learn to be more of a point guard. Every player who is currently on the team, besides Irving, Thompson and Varejao, is an expiring contract this upcoming season. This means that players like Walton, Casspi, and Gibson, who have moderate salaries, are more likely to gain interest at the deadline and can be moved to a playoff contender or a team looking to create more salary cap. They can move these players for picks in the 2013 Draft or for other players with longer deals. I can see this team trading for a player like Detroit's Ben Gordon.

Can Irving (left) and Thompson (right) lead
the Cavaliers back to the playoffs?

What to expect: The Cavaliers are going to build through the draft. I expect them to take Florida's Bradley Beal with the #4 pick. Scouts have highly praised his talents, and some say he has the potential to be the next Ray Allen. With Beal and Irving, the Cavaliers have a set, young back court for the next four years at the least. If Beal is off the board, expect them to take Harrison Barnes out of UNC. The small forward is in good shape and has supposedly impressed at the Draft Combine, and I think he would be a solid fit with the Cavaliers. The Cavaliers also have the 24th pick, and it's been rumored they will take St. Bonaventure's Andrew Nicholson, who is a stretch-four and is very versatile. He does fill a need, so it'll be interesting to see what route they go. In the second round, they can draft a point guard to play behind Irving, like Iona's Scott Machado or Washington's Tony Wroten. In free agency, expect the Cavaliers to sure up their bench with small deals. If they make the right moves and aren't hampered by injuries, they can make the playoffs this upcoming season.

3. Detroit Pistons

Players under contract for next season: Brandon Knight, Greg Monroe, Austin Daye, Rodney Stuckey, Charlie Villanueva, Ben Gordon, Jonas Jerebko, Tayshaun Prince

Free Agents: Vernon Macklin (RFA), Walker Russell (RFA), Jason Maxiell (PO), Damien Wilkins, Ben Wallace (retirement)

Jared Sullinger is an option for the Pistons
in the first round of this year's draft.
What they need: If there's any one thing good about the Pistons, it's that they have their point guard and center in Knight and Monroe. However, everything else is terrifying. Stuckey is a shooting guard in a point guard's body. He plays like a lesser-skilled version of Russell Westbrook. Prince is stuck to the team with a long, expensive contract at the end of his career. Not a smart move. Then you have Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva. Gordon can score amazingly on some nights, but has been dealing with injuries his whole time in Detroit. Villanueva is overweight, and not even close to what he was in Milwaukee. He was overpaid to begin with, and now, it's imploded in Detroit's face. Detroit will need to build through the draft, because they don't have much money to toss around in free agency. At #9, I think they will select Ohio State's Jared Sullinger, UNC's John Henson, or Baylor's Perry Jones III. They need a forward to sure up their front line. I think Sullinger has a ton of potential and is the best selection for them at that spot. Henson, to me, is too frail and not muscular enough to survive in the NBA. Jones III is literally a boom or bust. He was alright in college, but he has major question marks surrounding his game. I don't know if the Pistons can go through another potential failure.

What to expect: The only joyful moment this season for the Pistons was when Ben Wallace retired, because everybody celebrated the championship moments and years they had with him. In the upcoming season, I don't see this team getting much better. They have too many bad contracts that will be hard to move and I can honestly see this team getting even worse. They won't be like the Bobcats, but they are years away from getting back to the playoffs. They'll only make a couple moves in free agency, but they will ultimately be a lottery team again next year.

4. Indiana Pacers

Players under contract for next season: Danny Granger, David West, Darren Collison, Tyler Hansbrough, Jeff Pendergraph, Paul George, Lance Stephenson

Free Agents: Roy Hibbert (RFA), George Hill (RFA), A.J. Price (RFA), Leandro Barbosa, Dahntay Jones (PO), Kyrylo Fesenko, Louis Amundson

What they need: To bring Roy Hibbert back. He's an All Star, and was a huge key to their success this past season. I believe some team will offer him top dollar, and possibly a maximum contract, but Indiana has to be prepared to match it. They are also expected to retain George Hill, but it's not out of the question if he goes elsewhere. I think Hill is a solid player, but is more of a hybrid guard rather than a point guard. I think a great fit for the Pacers would be Toronto's Jose Calderon. The Raptors have been rumored to have him on the trading block, and he is a great passer and facilitator. I think giving up a first round pick for him would be a good move for the Pacers. They also need scorers to come off the bench, so they might target Memphis' O.J. Mayo, Portland's Jamal Crawford, or Minnesota's Michael Beasley. Big men down low coming off the bench are also needed on this team, so I could see them targeting players like Dallas' Ian Mahinmi or Philadelphia's Lavoy Allen.

The future success of the Pacers will be determined by where
Hibbert (left) decides to take his talents this summer.
What to expect: If they can keep Roy Hibbert, another solid season. I think they're capable of claiming the #2 seed in the East. This team will be more developed and ready going into next year, and I think they will be a force to reckon with. They'll make moves this off season to sure up their bench by signing efficient role players. I don't know if they will be good enough to surpass the Miami Heat and get to the Finals, but it's not out of the question. However, if they lose Roy Hibbert, it destroys their post presence. David West will be a nice fill-in, but he could be demanded if the Pacers have a bad start to their season because he is an expiring contract. If they lose Hibbert, they're automatically a borderline playoff team, even in a weaker Eastern Conference. The future success of this franchise is dependent on if Hibbert stays or signs with another team.

5. Milwaukee Bucks

Players under contract for next season: Brandon Jennings, Monta Ellis, Beno Udrih, Ekpe Udoh, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Drew Gooden, Mike Dunleavy, Shaun Livingston, Jon Leuer, Jon Brockman, Tobias Harris, Larry Sanders

Free Agents: Ersan Ilyasova, Kwame Brown, Carlos Delfino

What they need: Their back court is set with Jennings and Ellis, so they really only need to get some bench help. Mbah a Moute and Dunleavy will split time at the small forward position, while Drew Gooden will start at power forward. I think Larry Sanders will start at center. If not, Ekpe Udoh will. This team is somewhat like Indiana, because they don't have any superstars but have the pieces to get in the playoffs. I think all that Milwaukee needs is depth, because next summer they have a lot of free agents, especially at the forward and guard positions. In the draft, I believe this team will select either Baylor's Perry Jones III or UConn's Jeremy Lamb. Both would come off the bench this season, but will be groomed for the future.

How well can Jennings (left) and Ellis (right) coexist next season?
What to expect: I think the Bucks have a lot of nice pieces and will make the playoffs this upcoming season. I don't believe they will contend but they can make it to the second round if they play their cards right. I doubt they will keep any of their free agents. Ilyasova is suspected to sign elsewhere, and Delfino is a sharpshooter on the wing that will be valued more by another team. Brown was simply an expiring contract that they used to clear up salary space. I think they will sign only a couple players through free agency, and maybe look to put some higher-end expiring contracts on the block, like Beno Udrih, Mike Dunleavy, or Shaun Livingston. The Bucks have some talented players and were close to the playoffs this past season, so I expect a productive season from this franchise in the 2012-2013 season.

     This division is unique because it has four playoff caliber teams. It might not shape out to be the most star-studded division next year but it will definitely be competitive. Up next I'll be analyzing the Southeast Division, which features the latest Eastern Conference champion Miami Heat and the worst team (by winning percentage) in NBA history Charlotte Bobcats. Stay tuned!

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