This could be the league’s toughest division from a 1-2 standpoint, as outlined in our August Power Rankings. Adding Luis Scola, not to mention Chris Copeland, for the price of next to nothing amounted to balance-tipping moves by Indiana Pacers executives Donnie Walsh and Larry Bird.
Remember, these guys took the Miami Heat to seven games in the Eastern Conference finals – and they did it with Tyler Hansbrough and Gerald Green as two primary options off the bench. Throw that Danny Granger is back after missing nearly all of last season and you have a much improved team that should challenge for conference supremacy.
Of course, the big unknown in all of this is how Derrick Rose looks when he returns to the Chicago Bulls, who made it into the second round last season despite missing three starters. Gotta give coach Tom Thibodeau credit – he gets the most out of his players, even if he burns them all out in the course of doing so.
The three bottom teams in the division all have made interesting changes. Brandon Jennings switched uniforms but stayed in the division with the Pistons, the Bucks lost all three of their primary guards and their best perimeter defender, while the Cleveland Cavs hit the lottery and drafted Antony Bennett – plus will have Anderson Varejao and Kyrie Irving back at full strength. And maybe, just maybe, Andrew Bynum, too. (Cleveland will be our preferred 7 p.m. ET start time team).
So without further ado, our previews:
By Nathan Samples
Health willing, we know what can go right: Paul George breaks out, the bench produces, the Pacers have a realistic shot at being the best team in the NBA. But the floor? We saw that already.
We saw a bumbling offense, a 29th-ranked reserve unit, a 20-point-a-night All-Star playing out all season and a team generally unprepared for the loss of Danny Granger, needing to retool their entire offense on the fly, forcing George into the starring role, working through Roy Hibbert’s wrist injury and try-too-hard-after-the-big-contract level of play, and inserting an unproven Lance Stephenson into the starting lineup to see him flourish.
The result? A Game 7 loss to the eventual champions thanks to Indiana’s one constant: a powerhouse defense led by George and Hibbert.
That’s not to suggest the Pacers playing as they did last season are setting themselves up for an automatic Eastern Conference Finals trip, not with the expected competition at the top of the East. But when the biggest loss in the offseason is an associate head coach while you retool the bench and boast the most effective starting lineup in the league – which is expected to only get better – there aren’t a whole lot of concerns.
By Kevin Ferrigan
The 2012-13 campaign was a bit of a throwaway season. Rose seemingly got the message and took it as an opportunity to sit out the entire season and make sure that he was really, really fully recovered before making his return.
But what a throwaway season it was! The Bulls won a playoff series and a game on the champs’ home floor, despite being undermanned on talent and further hampered by such bad luck on the injury front that it bordered on the tragically comic.
All of that’s over now. It’s time for these Bulls – along with Rose, their leader – to rise from the pack and challenge once again for an NBA title.
Here are five things to watch as the Bulls set their sights on the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
1. Will Derrick Rose be Derrick Rose? This is the most important question for the Bulls this season and beyond. Rose is the franchise player, the youngest MVP in league history and – unfortunately – the guy who will have spent nearly 18 months not playing NBA basketball come October 29 in Miami.
Will all that time off allow Rose to be the same hyperathletic, physically dominant player he once was? Will he struggle to adapt after so much time away from the game? No one can know for certain, and everything hinges on how this question is answered.
By Mike Mayer
te young players on this planet. In just his second NBA season, he averaged 22.5 points and 5.9 assists, making his first All-Star Game.
Irving is an incredible talent, but there are still a couple of fair criticisms that he needs to address this season.
The first is that he is injury-prone. Irving missed most of his freshman season at Duke and has played in only 110 of a possible 148 games with the Cavaliers. In order for him to carry this team to the postseason, he has to be on the floor consistently.
The second criticism of Irving, primarily toward the end of last season, revolved around his maturity. After a blowout loss in Detroit in February, he said that he was “disinterested” in the game. Following the final home game of the season, after which players were expected to remain on the court to give their game-worn jerseys and shoes to some lucky fans, Irving skipped the festivities and went straight into the locker room.
Maybe it is unfair to expect someone who is just 21 years old to carry an NBA team. Some players, like Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose, are up to it. Others, like DeMarcus Cousins, are not. But that is the responsibility that comes with being the face of a franchise.
By Sean Corp
The Detroit Pistons have been one of the most active teams in the NBA this offseason. Of course, that shouldn’t surprise anybody who suffered through the marginal talent base and boring, uninspired basketball on display in Motown the past few years.
But after a whirlwind offseason, Detroit is definitely ready to take a big step forward. The Pistons will feature four new starters on Opening Night, including the team’s big free agent signing – Josh Smith. The Smith signing had many NBA observers scratching their heads, and when president Joe Dumars traded for talented but jumper-happy point guard Brandon Jennings, the rumble of questions just got louder.
Jennings and Smith will start alongside the young frontcourt duo of Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond and a shooting guard to be named later. Other new faces include the returning Chauncey Billups, Italian League MVP Luigi Datome and lottery pick Kentavious Caldwell-Pope on the floor, and Maurice Cheeks and Rasheed Wallace on the coaching staff.
By Frank Madden
The trigger-happy backcourt of Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings predictably proved incapable of lifting Milwaukee beyond the Eastern Conference’s mid-tier, while the lame duck coaching staff of Scott Skiles and later Jim Boylan struggled to manage an ill-fitting roster full of expiring contracts.
In that respect, it’s somewhat surprising that the Bucks didn’t fall apart earlier than they did, although their ability to hang around .500 for most of the season proved a curse once the February trade deadline rolled around.
Loitering at the lower end of the East’s playoff standings emboldened the Bucks to deal promising youngster Tobias Harris for free-agent-to-be J.J. Redick, a move that backfired spectacularly on the court while becoming a lightning rod for criticism of management off it. The Harris debacle was the symbolic last straw for many fans who had begrudgingly gone along with Milwaukee’s annual charge for a low playoff seed, even though the mismatched pairing of Jennings and Ellis had run its course well before that.
Fast forward four long and sometimes confusing months after their blowout first-round loss to Miami, and Hammond and Co. have a reinvented roster better suited for a chance at long-term competitiveness, although the dissonant compete-while-rebuilding philosophy remains largely intact.