2023-24 NBA Preview: Central Division
Everyone here can beat the Bulls
C: Brook Lopez — averaged 15.9 points on 53 percent shooting while minding a top-four defense at age 34, this guy is a Hall of Famer.
PF: Giannis Antetokounmpo — cannot be nice this season, can’t defer and cannot fall back upon launching threes (which he dialed back in 2022-23) off Dame drives.
SF: Khris Middleton — opening round marks against MIA: 24-6-6 on 46/40/87 with Giannis mostly absent,
G/F: Malik Beasley — will take some bad three-pointers on the break but that’s life with Beas, put up with it and he’ll win a few playoff games for you.
PG: Damian Lillard — cannot defer, the Bucks traded for each and every one of those 32 points.
At best, Cameron Payne will play a lot of important minutes this season for Milwaukee, at worst, he’ll start. It will be a ride. , Jae Crowder played 41 minutes over four games in the postseason, fouled five times, missed 10-13 attempts from the floor … Pat Connaughton has a chinstrap beard now which is about all I need to tell you … MarJon Beauchamp is not quite there yet but he can drop occasional buckets and occasional head turned defense () … Bobby Portis hit nearly half his long twos last season, 37 percent from deep, 9.6 rebounds in 26 minutes a night, 81 turnovers in 1818 minutes, tremendous ballplayer … Thanasis Antetokounmpo is an NBA talent, until he hit 30 at least, he wasn’t anywhere near starter-level and is only on the Bucks because of his brother, but he contributes perfectly acceptable 10th-man production.
Bucks fans had a lot of fun watching Andre Jackson Jr. in Summer League and exhibition season … The Bucks also think they have an NBA talent in one-year Kentucky swingman Chris Livingston and from what I’m seeing I believe them. I try to paraphrase as many Huey Lewis & the News tunes as I can, here.
TyTy Washington Jr. was drafted by the Grizzlies, traded to the Timberwolves and then Rockets on draft night. After an undistinguished rookie campaign he was dealt to the Haws and then Thunder before being waived … Lindell Wiggington is 22 points and six assists as a starter for the Wisconsin Herd and I don’t think Cameron Payne could score 22 points for the Wisconsin Herd, let alone start … Marques Bolden started and worked well for Utah’s minor league club in 2021-22 but that doesn’t mean he should steal Robin Lopez’s minutes (unless Marques has a really cool hook shot I don’t know about.
“Did you see the score’s a palindrome?” Mic the man up, every night.
A.J. Green averaged over 21 a game in the minors last season and nailed 44-105 three-pointers as a Buck, he is 6-5 and due for big spacin’ minutes … I like Gonzagian rookie Drew Timme a lot but please, NBA announcers, no more South Park references. I’m convinced South Park is the reason we’ll elect three different non-politicians U.S. President between 2028 and 2052.
Giannis doesn’t want to do this by himself, he doesn’t want to do “it” at all. He’d rather each season act a unique surprise, rather than settling in for five-year plans. The NBA doesn’t work in either form for anyone but superstars, Antetokounmpo discovered this during the 2023 offseason.
The five-year plan isn’t settled, Giannis’ best teammates are all above 30, but this campaign and the next should be a unique surprise: Antetokounmpo learning what it’s like to play next to another major scoring threat, and the Giannis that roars out into 2024-25 smarter than any player has ever been.
So, good trade, Milwaukee. Will it be enough?
Too many other great teams have too many other determined issues with depth that it is tough to tear up too much over Milwaukee losing a guard or two. Especially when one is Grayson Allen. Every team but a few tries to win, the talent in the NBA is stronger than ever but it is spread out over more wannabe-contenders than ever. In this, the Bucks can thrive.
Brook Lopez is more important than Damian, who will score and be important, but the Bucks don’t win without his defense and discussion.
Prediction: 52-30, tied for second in East
C: Jarrett Allen — ankle woes dragged his training camp. Allen and his frontcourt partner have something special and can’t let five games against the Knicks dispel this.
PF: Evan Mobley — prime mover on the NBA’s best defense and won’t turn 23 until next summer, plus Mobley (16 and nine boards, 2.8 assists) had all last summer to think about the New York Knicks. Not as upset as his supposed scoring stagnation as some outlets (Mobley’s points per game average jumped but 1.2 in his second season) considering the caveat culminating in the Cavs adding a 28-point scorer to last season’s lineup.
SF: Max Strus — even if his shot (41 percent from deep in 2022, 35 last season) comes and goes, teams will still lunge at Strus like he’s Ray Allen.
G: Donovan Mitchell — effortlessly adapted to Cleveland, career-high in points (28.3) field goal, three-point and free throw percentage, turnover rate dipped alongside his new backcourt partner.
PG: Darius Garland — cut his turnovers and upped his three-point percentage (41 percent), averaged almost 22 points and eight assists wading through what could have been an uneasy partnership with Mitchell. Wasn’t his fault Mitchell Robinson blammo’ed all over the Cavs in the first round.
Isaac Okoro cannot press off the bench, nor gauge his contributions based upon how two 25-foot shots turn out … Georges Niang plunked over 40 percent of his threes in two postseasons with Philadelphia, more bodies to help … Caris LeVert’s 24 points in a Game 2 playoff win knocked Okoro out of Cleveland’s starting gig, the Cavs lost all three games with LeVert in his club’s opening lineup … Ty Jerome is wildly inconsistent but performed well overall in Golden State last season, he could turn into a luxury at fourth guard.
Dean Wade probably lost his spot in the rotation (36 percent from deep the last three seasons) but, hey, only 66 turnovers in 3154 career minutes … Damian Jones is on his seventh team (Lakers twice) and only 28, 240 games in seven seasons, a drop off as third string center at least he’s better than hey Tristan Thompson how’s it going … Sharife Cooper pumps over 21 a game in the minors.
Rooting for Zhaire Smith, in camp with the Cavs, already 24 and with a blank spot on the “2022-23” listing in his resume … Ah crap I just noticed Sam Merrill and I have the same birthday and my entire day is ruined.
The Cavs worked well together last season, Darius Garland probably cost himself an All-Star spot deferring slightly to Donovan Mitchell, Mobley and Allen minded their elbows among close quarters in the paint, this team really is two point guards and two centers and whatever Isaac Okoro and Max Strus want to transmogrify into.
So a week in and around New York City got the best of them. It happens, surely one can’t expect the visiting Cavaliers to stay inside all evening. Jarrett Allen had rare computer motherboards to seek out, Evan Mobley visited the National Postal Museum and “liked the way it smelled.” The Knicks were as good as any second round team, anyway, no shame in that loss.
The Cavs’ baseball-styled bounce from the first round shouldn’t hinder anyone’s approach. There is 60 wins in this foundation.
Prediction: 52-30, tied for second in East
C: Myles Turner — career highs in TS percentage and scoring and free throw attempts last year and it appears he was a center, all along.
PF: Obi Toppin — improved from deep (30 percent to 34) but shot far more threes last season, Pacers should want him back to the sprightly lad that ran to the rim in his second season with New York. This could work if the Pacers play to his strength, running buckets, don’t make Obi do other things.
SF: Bruce Brown — did not have the ball nearly as much in Denver but everyone loved him, same should exist in Indiana.
SG: Benedict Mathurin — picked up six free throws a game (28 minutes a contest) and deserved twice as many, 16.7 points per game as a rookie, Indiana found another wing.
PG: Tyrese Haliburton — and an All-Star point guard, apparently, 20.7 points and 10.4 assists per game on 40 percent from deep in 2022-23, turns but 24 in February.
Buddy Hield will not like Bruce Brown, Brown’s making the contract ($45 million over the next two seasons) Buddy Hield wants without Buddy understanding that Bruce Brown is the Buddy Hield of doing the look-at-me little things. Really, Brown should be Buddy’s favorite player. Hield is a career 40-percent shooter from deep and teams should be falling over themselves to relieve the Pacers of this headache.
Aaron Nesmith is a strong 3-and-D stalwart, I like his minute … It won’t be easy for Jarace Walker, Myles Turner (28 in March) is a little late in the game to develop a long-term partner at power forward, but the Pacers can stand Walker sitting and learning in 2023-24.
Andrew Nembhard was coach Rick Carlisle’s carry-around Binkie last season as a rookie and for good reason, he makes smart decisions with the ball and talks defensively, terrific rotation piece moving forward… T.J. McConnell and Kelly Dwyer are proof that if you move to Indiana and live there long enough your jumper will still be absolute trash as long as you remain an interloper. True Hoosiers have no place in their hearts for defense, T.J. and I are not True Hoosiers.
Jalen Smith still appears terribly awkward offensively but the skies are cleared for him at backup pivot, where he boards and sweats and could be due for a breakout campaign … At times Isaiah Jackson is one of the better backup centers in the NBA, there are other times, but there are also the better times … Daniel Theis is only 31 and I probably would have gone with 33.
Rookie swingman Ben Sheppard played his way into the first-round with a strong showing at the NBA draft combine, there are NBA gifts here but I don’t know where he finds room in this rotation … Jordan Nwora is on this bench, already looking at the rim …
This is always the NBA stadium NBA fans should go out of their way to see, this season more than ever.
Tyrese Haliburton is effortlessly fast. Not quick, fast. Long strides, early buckets. The Pacers have a top-rank television announcing duo, I get it, go see ‘em run in person.
The Pacer lineup is loaded. The Pacer bench has two certain prospects in Nembhard and Nesmith plus the potential of Walker’s good intentions, alongside Jalen Smith’s increasingly palatable pivot play. Jackson and Theis are enviable reserve centers, Jordan Nwora can score in a fun, little pinch, and the Pacers won’t know what they’ll get from rookie Sheppard or the return for Buddy Hield.
It’s a real gone group, man. Its only issue is everyone else’s, every team in the East but Washington wants to win, and every team in the West can beat anyone in the East.
Prediction: 41-41, tied for seventh in the East
C: Nikola Vucevic — never good news when you trade for a center to act as your “spacing.”
PF: Patrick Williams — cares about playing for the Chicago Bulls about as much as most Chicagoans care about watching the Chicago Bulls.
F: DeMar DeRozan — works harder with Bulls prospects than the Bulls do with Bulls prospects.
G/F: Zach LaVine — Bulls shoulda traded him when they had the chance. They had no chance? I actually believe that.
PG: Coby White — turned in a knockout all-around season in 2022-23 but never played full-time point guard before and will need all season to feel comfortable at a new position. I’m a big fan and glad he’s around but this is one of five positions Chicago has a problem with.
Ayo Donsumu on any other team would be lauded for his ability to spell three positions while dominantly defending just as many, but on the can’t-shoot Bulls his minutes come uneasily. I don’t want him on any team but the Bulls, but sometimes “love” means “letting go” … Jevon Carter is an expert pickup but his best work comes feeding off spacing from others, the Bulls don’t have any “others” … Suns fans: Torrey Craig is now the quickest and most-reliable three-point shooter on the Bulls? Sad, right?
Terry Taylor is a 6-5 power forward from Austin Peay, real underdog-type with no way of helping the Bulls win against good competition … Dalen Terry was terrible in the minors last season and looks like a blown first-round pick after his initial NBA and Summer League dalliances … Rookie Julian Phillips appears to have more potential than Terry but still less than Terry Taylor, 6-5 power forward from Austin Peay.
Carlik Jones and Adama Sanogo are in street clothes this season, Sanogo wears a hoodie as I send this email off, he’s apparently out of clothes by the second game of the season … Andre Drummond will end his career as one of the NBA’s strangest players. I’m not happy it’s happening on the Bulls but I’m also aware of how appropriate it is.
Alex Caruso’ tutelage in the the face of his young teammates will pay off for so many other teams once Williams and Terry and Dosunmu go elsewhere. Even LaVine, if the Bulls could find somewhere to trade Zach. Alex Caruso is simply one of the best defenders I have ever seen.
The Bulls saw the way the team performed in 2022-23, full of good health and anachronistic lineups, and decided to keep it up. A year after entering 2022-23 with full knowledge of Lonzo Ball’s anticipated yearlong absence and doing nothing …
… Chicago has no right to consider itself a playoff contender, let alone a team to take a series or two in the playoffs.
But that’s fine, the Bulls owe a protected (1-10) first-round pick to the Spurs in 2025 so the Bulls will engage in a rebuilding effort after stringing this season along. Unlike the rest of the league, the Bulls’ movements are as obvious and deliberate as a horny divorcee, we can smell them from down the hall. The Bulls won’t make a splash at the trade deadline or draft, preferring the current players float away as free agents before embracing the lottery again during 2024-25.
From there, Paxsonisms. Lose and draft a single person, bank on that person to turn it around. Denzel Valentine or Derrick Rose, it does not matter, single player on cheap labor whom Bulls brass can singularly identify as the problem when the Bulls fail to compete.
In the meantime? Zach LaVine takes poor shots, he drives and begs for a foul and the refs will not give it to him because that wasn’t a foul. DeMar DeRozan takes fun shots but provides poor spacing, Coby White is not a full-time point guard yet, and Nikola Vucevic is utterly inappropriate in any lineup Billy Donovan throws up. Patrick Williams is not motivated and probably shouldn’t be, considering his workplace. That’s it, the Bulls didn’t go after anything or anyone else at last February’s trade deadline, or during the draft, or during the offseason, or during the 2022 NBA draft or the 2022 trade deadline. Or the 2022 offseason. It’s been quiet for a while.
This will continue, Jerry Reinsdorf doesn’t want you to notice his team, he can’t have anyone paying true attention to how badly he’s mismanaged what could have been an addition to NBA’s crown jewel. The Bulls had a quarter-century to align themselves with the Lakers and Celtics, and failed. And made money.
Prediction: 34-48, No. 11 in the East
C: Jalen Duren — still discovering all the little things he likes about the pro game, new coach Monty Williams must take it easy on his teenaged, second-year center.
F: Bojan Bogdanovic — averaged five free throw attempts a game at age 33, 21.6 points on 49/41/88 and he doesn’t turn 35 until the playoffs start at the Pistons and rest of the NBA are truly screwing up not putting this veteran in a situation where he can contribute to a championship run.
F: Ausar Thompson — ready for this life:
PG: Killian Hayes — managed only 203 free throw attempts in 4471 minutes prior to this season. Vaulted back into the starting lineup with a strong offseason and exhibition turn. The notion to retain some value out of a lottery draft pick is a good one, as long as these Pistons don’t pay him like a lottery pick.
PG: Cade Cunningham — plenty to consider with this season with Hayes’ ascension and Jaden Ivey’s looming presence. Can put up numbers but might be best served as a swing guard, may not have the right teammates to test it out.
If Williams chooses to go small and unfurl Isaiah Stewart off the pine, Duren could thrive with fewer expectations, without 32 minutes to fill. Stew fouled fewer times in 2022-23 and attempted a new career as a volume three-point shooter (at Dwane Casey’s request) with iffy results (32.7 percent), but the stroke isn’t bad, and the league demands its spacing.
Jaden Ivey has it in him to develop into one of the NBA’s better two-way guards, but as is the case with most his age the 21-year old is most concerned with developing a dominant scoring streak.
Pistons fans are not happy with Ivey’s ascension thus far and they shouldn’t be, but it is early, he is talented and dutiful and Monty Williams is a weird coach.
Alec Burks enjoyed perhaps the best season of his Quality-Ass Career in 2022-23, scoring 12.8 points per game on 43/41/81, Detroit Pistons fans would like it just fine if the 32-year old plays fewer minutes under coach Monty Williams in favor of the team’s younger guard triptych, but I wouldn’t hold my breath … Jontay Porter averaged a double-double in the minors last season.
Marcus Sasser is the nephew of Jeryl Sasser, which means everything to me, he dropped 40 in the Summer Leagues and will be awfully tough to keep out of rotation … Joe Harris still popped over 42 percent from deep last season but finds it tougher and tougher to peel those looks off post-surgery, he can still really help this club and his deal flies off the cap this summer … Monte Morris will look like the best point guard on this roster on a few nights and Monty Williams is just going to have to deal with that and keep playing the kids … If you’re a Spartan fan you probably have no idea why Isaiah Livers is still on the Piston roster.
Wasting precious time fitting Marvin Bagley III and James Wiseman at their “natural” positions is a major risk. Marvin Bagley III managed a dozen points and 6.4 rebounds bouncing in and out of the Pistons lineup, these are the sorts of players Monty Williams makes millions to bring something out of, not ridicule through the press. It wouldn’t be Monty Williams’ fault if Bagley continues to perform exactly like Marvin Bagley III, or if James Wiseman retains his clueless approach. This is what Williams is here to do, create value out of distressed assets.
This is so frustrating. Dwane Casey was hired to a long-term deal to suffer through the long-term consequences (.549 winning percentage upon entering Detroit, .382 career winning percentage upon leaving) of coaching the Detroit Pistons. A whole contract and all that “continuity” later and we’re still here.
Monty Williams (.518 career winning percentage, and dropping) is in, with a long-term contract, more continuity through the build. What will he be left with? A group of giant contracts for so-so lottery picks, shooting for a play-in after years away from the postseason?
But that’s my prediction for 2025-26. This year? It’s knotty, a lot of guards with their heads down, trying to impress. A few bigs with their heads down, trying to impress. Bojan with his eyes on the rim, thinking about Miami. Monty wondering if Dwane wants his old gig back.
I’ll watch ‘em, this crew is far more entertaining then the Zug Island sludge Detroit presented us with in years’ past. Good-hearted kids with a respected coach, Ausur Thompson ready to win everyone over. The good teams will eat them alive.
Prediction: 28-54, tied for No. 13 in the East
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