The Central division is where a lot of power in the Eastern Conference has shifted to. Also, some of the teams with the highest team salaries reside here. From best to worst we have the Cleveland Cavaliers, Chicago Bulls, Detroit Pistons, Indiana Pacers, and Milwaukee Bucks. Each of these teams are good teams, but for whatever reason the Bucks just aren't where they should be for a team that made the playoffs last season. But that's Jason Kidd's problem, and not mine. Just like with the Atlantic Division I think each team is going to go into this trade deadline primarily with an eye towards where they are in their individual team life cycles. The Cavs are all in on winning, and are paying a premium for it. The Bulls are currently paying for a better team than the one they have on the court. The Pistons and Pacers are both rising and in a good place with most of the parts they have. And lastly, well, the Bucks are a mystery to me.
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After firing their head coach David Blatt, and promoting Tyronn Lue, you know that this team knows it's win now or never. Three players are making more than $15m this season, and five players are making at least $9m (rounding up). They are in the luxury tax and you worry about the type of depth that they have outside of their most expensive players. Still though, they are the best team in the East and will most likely secure the #1 seed. Getting to the NBA Finals isn't the goal. Winning it is. And I don't know if this team -- as currently comprised -- is capable of beating GSW or SAS. While they haven't been the most healthy team this year it's a fact that some of their lowly paid players may not be good enough to support the stars. And they can't really pay their supporting players more with how much is invested in the top level guys. The question remains -- are all of their top level guys really top level? If not, will they be who the Cavs need them to be by the time the playoffs come around?
Obviously I'm talking about Kevin Love here. He's making $20 million this year, and will be on the books for at least $20 for the next three seasons after before he'll opt out and leave $25m on the table in 2019-2020. Right now he's averaging 16 ppg, 11 rpg, 2 apg, 1 spg, and shooting 42% from the field. Yes, he's shooting 37% from deep and is a unique talent. But is he a $20m a year guy? If he is then you almost have to say that Tristan Thompson, making $15m a year, has to go. He's fifth on the team in minutes per game, but is an 8 ppg / 9 rpg guy who didn't do much else for your team. He had some nice plays in the playoffs. But I don't know if I want to live in a world where you pay $15 million to someone who gets you a solid single double every game. I don't know if the Cavs front office wants to live in that world either. Neither are specifically being shopped around, but you can't be happy with standing pat right now. You're not going to beat the Dubs with such a weak bench. They are a contender, but they may have to make a move in order to get better.
Speaking of teams that are at their ceiling, I think the Chicago Bulls are pretty much as good as they can be with this core. Yes, Jimmy Butler is going to get better. Pau Gasol is still excellent once or twice a week. And, well, Bobby Portis is young. But Derrick Rose is not going to be a game changer again, Joakim Noah (on the last year of his contract that will pay him $13m) seems to have peaked already as a player. Muke Dunleavy and Kirk Hinrich are solid rotation players, but at what stage do you actually try to get something out of Doug McDermott or Tony Snell while they are still in their rookie contracts? I'm not just going to trash the team -- after all the Jazz did that on the court last night, so I don't have to -- but I don't see the Bulls as being a team that will organically improve anymore. They are fighting for home court in the first round and may even get it, but I'm not certain that this isn't a team paying the luxury tax that won't be going fishing much sooner than the loyal Bulls fans think.
They need to make a trade if they want to get better this season. Otherwise they just need to let this season play out, and make some big moves in the off-season. The players have been blaming Fred Hoiberg for their ills, but its' not like Nikola Mirotic is the Michael Jordan of this team and his surgery is what brought on all these challenges. The idea was that they would be a Top 3 team in the East, at their current rate the could be Top 6. That's just not good enough.
Before injuries many predicted that they would have traded one of their bigmen. Now they seem to have had to hit pause on that. So they can't get better and can't make moves without seeing how things work when everyone is healthy. Effectively, Bulls fans are going to have to be happy with an Eastern Conference Finals appearance at best. I don't know if that's what you want when you are paying $90 million for your roster. I also don't know if Taj Gibson should be earning twice as much as Trevor Booker. But that's just me.
Unlike the other two teams ahead of them in the division, the Pistons will grow organically together for a season or two still.Andre Drummond, Stanley Johnson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and yes, even Marcus Morris all have room to grow. Reggie Jackson got paid last summer, and he's just 25 years old. This team is on the rise, and skilled vets like Brandon Jennings and Ersan Ilyasova help out all of the youth when things get a little crazy. But crazy is how Stan Van Gundy wants it. And Detroit is rebuilding something interesting here. Of course, they aren't perfect. And not all the parts fit completely together. Also, you can't trade for better free throw shooting (the Pistons, as a team, are making only 64.8 FT% this year). So with all of the things you can't trade for, I don't think there's a motivating factor to make another trade right now at the deadline.
They are a playoff team in the East right now, and are doing it off the backs of young, developing players leading the way. This is the right way to get it done when you're not that attractive as a free agency destination. Stan should be very proud of the turn around he's brought about in the Motor city, after Joe Dumars just flat out got complacent.
The Pacers are another team on the rise, and doing it without making too many over-corrections along the way. They have a Star player in Paul George, and a very solid stable of guards around him in George Hill, Monta Ellis, C.J. Miles, and Rodney Stuckey. The problem here is that all of those supporting guards are between 28 and 30, while George is 25. This team does not have every important player at the same stage of their careers. And that causes some inherent friction in overall team direction. George is still not at his peak as a player, and when he is most of those guys listed will be on the downsides of their careers. STILL THO! I'm very impressed with Myles Turner, and the 19 year old will be a player in this league. I'm less bullish on Jordan Hill and Ian Mahinmi, but you can't have peak Roy Hibbert and peak David West every season. Overall, Indiana is good now, and rising now, but they will probably reach their peak sooner rather than later unless they attract some more talent around the same age range as Paul and Myles.
If they could get a young bigman who can hits threes to go inside / outside with Turner they would have a higher ceiling. But how many of those players exist in the league? Ideally the Pacers just keep things together this season and try to hold onto their 8th seed in the East. There's no reason to panic now. And rightfully so, no one is on the trading block.
What the heck is up with the Bucks this season? A playoff team last season, and currently sitting in 13th in the East. They are young, but one more year seasoned. They have Jabari Parker back, and added Greg Monroe. It's silly, but I guess when you flip a coin you have to admit that even if things are curiously worse this year, overall the trend is that this team is on the rise. They have six guys 22 years or younger on the roster. And another four that are 25 years old or younger. You just figure they will get better if they hold things together right now.
And, well, whatever is wrong with the Bucks, they don't need to worry too much right now. They have $19 million coming off the books when this season is done. And they have shown a desire to pay people, so someone will want to play here. Are they worried about losing value for nothing, though? I don't really think so, but teams trying to get out of bad contracts may want to contact the Bucks. They don't have cap space, but they have a bunch of expiring deals. (Brooklyn should give them a call...) If I was Milwaukee I would hang up on the Nets though.