Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 handles the ball against Saddiq Bey #41 of the Detroit Pistons (Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images)
*This article was published before the Utah/Cleveland trade.*The Detroit Pistons finished dead last in the Central Division last season and just one spot off the worst record in the Eastern Conference.
The Central has a good mixture of current contenders and up-and-coming young teams that are knocking on the door of being good.
There are a lot of question marks at the top, especially when it comes to health, and this division may ultimately come down to which team has the fewest injuries.
Here’s what the standings looked like after the 2021-22 season:
There haven’t been any massive changes to the rosters in this division, but the Cavs and Pistons should be better with internal development, so the Bulls and Bucks may have more competition next season for those top spots, but is anyone going to move?
I don’t think this is a bold prediction, as the Bucks are going to be a top team as long as Giannis Antetokounmpo is there and healthy. The Bucks are the only team in the division with a legit MVP candidate, but they didn’t do much to help him out this offseason other than re-sign four of their own guys and add veteran Joe Ingles, who is hurt.
Giannis is a guy you can count on, so the Bucks chances rely on guys like Jrue Holiday, Bobby Portis Jr., Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez staying healthy. If they do, the Bucks are the clear favorite and will be one of the favorites to win the Eastern Conference.
If they can keep these guys healthy to go along with Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan, Nikola Vucevic and Ayo Dosunmu, you could talk me into the Bulls winning this division. But I also see a scenario where they suffer some injuries, decide to trade DeRozan and Vucevic to cash in while they still can and end up plummeting. To me, the Bulls are the biggest boom or bust team in the division and the most difficult to predict.
I was very close to putting the Detroit Pistons here because I think the Cavs have a whole lot of question marks around Darius Garland and Evan Mobley. Can Kevin Love and Jarrett Allen both stay healthy? Can Caris LeVert not only stay healthy but show that he can still play? Will Lauri Markkannen avoid the injury bug as he did for most of last season? What is going to happen with Collin Sexton? Can Rubio bounce back and make an impact like he did before his injury? Will teams figure out how to exploit their big lineups?
Even with all of those questions, it’s hard to see the Pistons completely closing the gap with Cleveland next season, as the Cavs had 21 more wins and also have young players who will be better.
I do think there are scenarios where the Pistons could overtake the Cavaliers and possibly even the Bulls, but they would have to get a huge leap from Cade Cunningham
I think there are really two wildcards here. The first is Cade Cunningham. Does he make the leap to superstar in year two? All signs are pointing towards yes, and if he does, there is a chance Detroit will surprise some people.
The second wild card is the two rookies. If Jaden Ivey is a 15+ point scoring threat and has a Rookie of the Year type season, the restoration could happen faster than expected. Will the Pistons get anything from Jalen Duren? He’s only 18-years-old but the kid is a handful in the paint already. If he can play adequate defense and improve his rebounding, he could make an impact later in the season when Detroit will hopefully be fighting for a spot in the play-in tournament.
There is hope in Detroit and analysts have chosen them as one of the future teams to beat in the Eastern Conference, but they’ll be counting heavily on rookies, second and third-year players, so could get off to a slow start again, which will probably doom their chances of making a big leap up.
The Pacers will also be counting on a young backcourt in Tyrese Haliburton and Bennedict Mathurin to go with a mostly young roster and few veterans. After trading away Malcolm Brogdon, the Pacers are looking way more like a rebuild team than one trying to make a playoff push.
I think Cade and Ivey are better than Haliburton and Mathurin, and when you take away Brodgon, their veterans match up similarly to the Pistons, though the Pacers should have pretty good shooting. There is also a high chance the the Pacers blow it up even more, as both Myles Turner and Buddy Hield have been in trade talks.
If they trade those two guys, then the Pacers are going to be one of the frontrunners in the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes, vying for the worst record in the NBA.
Detroit will have one of the youngest rosters in the NBA, but should move up at least one spot in the Central Division, which is hopefully the start of a consistent rise to the top.
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