A historic division that brought us some of the best talents to ever grace the hardwood has not seen collective success in a while. This division crowned the best team in the league last year while holding some of the worst teams within its domain as well. How will this division shake out this season?
Will they exhibit the same balance they displayed last year?
Last year’s Milwaukee Bucks squad etched their name into history. With historic playoff performances from Giannis, they beat the odds and conquered the most talented team in Brooklyn and possibly the most balanced team in the Phoenix Suns. They deserve every bit of praise as they justified their case for being the NBA’s best team through a season of adversity.
Their balanced attack on both ends provided them with a counterbalance to each team’s punches throughout the season but can they replicate it again this year? The short answer is yes they can because they are led by possibly the best two-way player in the game along with very talented pieces like Middleton and Holiday. Will they— now that’s a different story.
As I said before they were extremely balanced on both ends of the court last year. As far as statistics go, they had the best offense and a top ten defense in the NBA. They scored 120 PPG which was the highest in the league and had a defensive rating of 110.7 which was good for 9th in the league. They also led the league in defensive rebounds and held teams to only 43 points in the paint per game.
Mike Budenholzer is one of the best coaches in the NBA and has given the Bucks an identity in which they flourished last year. On offense, they like to spread the floor to obtain driving lanes for Giannis and kick out opportunities to the three-point line if offered. Where I think they made their best jump was realizing Khris Middleton is a certified closer. When they needed a bucket as time wound down, Khris Middelton was given those opportunities frequently because he has the most balance to his offensive attack.
On defense, they like to shrink the half-court space with their two effective defensive bigs in Lopez and Giannis making sure there are no easy inside baskets. They’re able to do this with regularity because their perimeter defense is also effective, led by an All-NBA defender in Jrue Holiday. They did add some size at the wing spots with Semi Ojeleye and Rodney Hood, but I think a big loss for them is the departure of P.J. Tucker. He brought a tenacity that is often if ever, unmatched in this league and I think their defensive mentality could end up taking a hit with that loss.
Their offense will continue to perform at a high clip because there is too much talent and shooting on this squad not to put up points but their defense might not share the same success. I do not think their defense will drop off a cliff, as a matter of fact, I still think they will be top 15 but if and when they match up with the Nets in the playoffs, I don’t think they have enough firepower to stop that team.
They remain the largest threat to the Nets out in the East and with added confidence they will never be an easy team to conquer in the playoffs. For now, when you talk about the East it comes down to one question. Can this team beat the Nets? Although the Bucks have a championship pedigree, I do not think they can beat a healthy Nets team and I don’t think they beat the Nets last year if they were healthy.
The only way they can is to maintain that same balance where they are tops in the league in scoring while holding their opponents to below-average numbers defensively. A repeat in my opinion is unlikely for this team, but last year Giannis and this squad showed they don’t give a damn about my unlikelies. They are now a team you must uphold with the utmost respect but that also gives them the largest targets on their back. It will be interesting to see how they respond this year.
When will the team chemistry reveal itself?
On paper, I think the Bulls had the best off-season in the NBA. They acquired valuable assets in Lonzo, DeRozan, and Caruso to pair with their stars in LaVine and Vucevic. Their starting five is one of the deeper ones in the East right now which gives them viable contention for a playoff spot after years of missing the tournament.
Hope is abundant around Chicago as the season rears its head but as the past has shown, talent takes time to work with each other. Even when Miami’s glorified big three assembled, they actually struggled mightily out of the gate for a team with that much talent. In their first 17 games, they started 9-8 with some tough losses to the Hornets, Magic, and twice to the Celtics. This was a team that was supposed to win ”Not 1, not 2, not 3, not 4, not 5, etc.” championships as LeBron put it in their opening press conference, yet they struggled to find chemistry early on.
This Bulls team is not in the same stratosphere as the big three but the blueprint here is similar. You can’t just expect to acquire all this talent and have it seamlessly work together as quickly as you may want it to. It takes time. This team has not had enjoyed and defined itself under a winning culture since the prime Derrick Rose and later on Jimmy Butler days.
Although the pressure is on in Chicago, it is best to stress patience with this team. Certainly there are playoff expectations, but it might take this team time to hit its stride down the stretch. Lonzo needs to find where to put Vucevic in the best positions to score, DeRozan will need to ingratiate his mid-range frequency into the offense, and Zach LaVine will need to take a step back and let others find their rhythm.
There are a lot of moving parts to this team that are yet to be set in stone. The Bulls were actually better than people think defensively in terms of statistics last year, as they were 12th in the league in defensive rating. When you add a farm of new talent, that could end up decreasing their production this season.
Yes, Lonzo is a great defender but DeRozan is not at this stage of his career, so what happens when the opposition runs screen and roll and Lonzo thinks DeRozan is going to switch it but he stays on his man? These circumstances will be plentiful throughout the regular season, and I think this team’s largest issue is obtaining team chemistry and trust as soon as possible.
I’ve always felt bad for the Pacers. When they were at their best, their championship window dwindled quickly thanks to LeBron and the Heat. Now, they have moved on from the Paul George era and have been stuck in the depths of mediocrity. They’re always fairly good, just never good enough. They are a talented team and a very good one on paper in my opinion, but it just seems like they can never stay healthy.
T.J. Warren erupted onto the scene in the bubble and displayed All-Star level performances but now can’t find a way to stay healthy. Myles Turner is one of the real elite defensive centers in the NBA but he has only enjoyed one full season of health in his six-year NBA career. They acquired one of the more explosive scorers in Caris LeVert but unfortunately he has never been able to stay on the court.
When you look at this team, they’re actually incredibly deep for the lack of attention they receive. Brogdon, Warren, LeVert, Sabonis, Turner, McConnell, Holiday, and their new draft pick Chris Duarte are all very valuable players, but they just can’t seem to all play at the same time.
If this team is healthy I think they’re a top-five team in the East. Last year, they were actually 6th in the league in scoring at 115 PPG. They’re usually known for their defense but that was not the case last year. They were a middle-of-the-pack team defensively but an explosive offensive bunch which gives them room for improvement this season.
If they can stay healthy and revamp that defense a bit, they will be a tough out in the playoffs for just about anybody. The Nets? Maybe not, but I can see the Pacers competing with the Bucks in a playoff series as well as the 76ers, Heat, and Knicks.
Will stacking up on bigs be successful for them?
This off-season was a very questionable one for the Cavs in my opinion. They sign center Jarrett Allen to a $100+ million dollar deal and turn around weeks later and draft another seven-footer in Evan Mobley? Not only that, but they signed Tacko Fall, Lauri Markkanen, and they still have Kevin Love at power forward.
They have two nice guards in Collin Sexton and Darius Garland, but the rumor is they will not resign Sexton, so their guard and wing depth will be scarce. I think part of that is because they are confident in Garland’s game, as am I, because he is a great playmaker and can score the ball when needed. With that being said, their backup point guard is Ricky Rubio who is a nice veteran piece but that is not a future asset, that’s a placeholder until someone better comes along.
The Cavs are either naive to the modern NBA or they are some real trailblazers. It seems everybody these days is going to a small ball lineup where the power forward is really a small forward and the center is athletic enough to play perimeter defense. The Cavs said forget that we’re going to stack up on bigs, have four seven-footers and guard the paint with the quadruple towers.
The Cavs do have some good young talent. I think Garland and Mobley are going to be the two main pieces moving forward, I am just not sure if they are setting their young guys up to succeed. It might help Mobley to pair with an athletic big like Allen who can block shots, but why give Allen $100+ million when you know you’re going to pick the best center in the draft? $100 million is a lot of money for a complementary asset and although I really like Allen as a player, I think this move helps reveal the dysfunction this organization has been working under for years.
How do the young players react to adversity?
Like I said last week, the plants aren’t going to grow if you don’t water the soil. The Pistons added some good young talent in the last couple of years with Cunningham, Bey, Diallo, and Stewart but they are stuck in a losing environment. Some have the mental fortitude to acknowledge the team’s lack of success and gather more motivation to help their team win. Others notice the losses and may think, “Well we are definitely not beating the Bucks, so I’m just going to ahead and get mine tonight.”
As frequent as the losses have been for the Pistons, that sentiment creeps into the mind of the players more and more. They are hoping Cunningham is a generational piece that will transform the team into heights unrivaled since the Chauncey Billups days, but we may not be able to see consistent greatness this year. He doesn’t have a lot around him to work with and he does have the tendency to chuck up unwarranted threes, so his mental consistency will be very interesting to watch this year.
Dwane Casey has been a good head coach in the league for a long time and he understands what it takes to set and maintain a culture. I think their young pieces are in good hands with a coach like this. If they can absorb and truly comprehend the knowledge and experience Casey gives them, they will set themselves up for future success, but their response to adversity might also determine their future success.
Adversity will strike early and often with this group. They were in the bottom half of the league in some major categories last year and I do not see that changing drastically unless Cunnigham is the new LeBron. That could be the case because Cunningham‘s potential is through the roof, but I am throwing out any expectations for this young man. My expectations are a blank canvas for him because I think we expect too much out of these young players.
Sure, there are the LeBron’s and the Luka’s of the world that just hit the hardwood and never look back. On the other hand, there are also the Tony Parker’s and the Nikola Jokic’s of the world that take time to grow but once they do they exterminate all previous expectations.
There is a lot on Cunningham’s shoulders as he arrives in Detroit. At only 20 years old, he is handed the keys to a bottom dweller franchise with the expectation to turn it around into a playoff contender. Two things can be true. This team goes as far as Cunningham takes them, but he also cannot do it without the help of key role players. I don’t think they have the pieces to go where they envision yet, but when they do I think that’s when Cunningham will prosper into an elite player.
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