When Tom Thibodeau was fired after winning 50 games a season ago, it was to ensure the Chicago Bulls franchise didn’t fall by the wayside in the offensive-minded Central Division.
In that, the Bulls brought on a budding star in coaching circles, Fred Hoiberg, to bring the Bulls’ offense into the 21st century. You know this story by now. Hell, I’ve been harping on it for months.
But with a division like the Central, stacked with offensive firepower from the likes of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Paul George; not to mention Kevin Love, Reggie Jackson and Greg Monroe, it became imperative for the Bulls to foster an offense of similar caliber.
As we stand today, this is where the Bulls and their moves have gotten them.
3rd place in the division, a mere two games above .500 with a negative point differential. The numbers within the parentheses indicate their current playoff seeding, and while the Bulls are currently a playoff team, any sustained losing streak out of the All-Star break would put them behind the 8-ball.
This is to say that the Bulls have, in this time, completely shaken their identity within the Eastern Conference Central Division.
But are they the only team to have done so? Are other teams excelling as a result of the Bulls graceless slip?
Let’s break down every team in the Central, talk about where they’ve been, where they’re headed, and more.
Cleveland Cavaliers — Trending Up
Right now the Cavs sit atop the Central Division, the Eastern Conference, and have the fourth-best record in the entire NBA, but it hasn’t come without lumps.
Kyrie Irving didn’t play until Christmas. LeBron looks older than ever though it’s not like it matters. And who can forget their coaching change that came out of left field (or LeBron’s board room depending on who you believe), leaving David Blatt left by the wayside for Tyronn Lue.
The Cavaliers are the odds-on favorite to win the East again this season and for good reason. When healthy, this is arguably the most complete roster in the Eastern Conference. But some wonder about its ability to beat the top teams in the West.
Are the Cavs really Championship caliber in their current make up? The same team took the Golden State Warriors to six games in the NBA Finals nine months ago without two of its three best players.
The same team took the Golden State Warriors to six games in the NBA Finals nine months ago without two of its three best players.
The Cavs, along with the Raptors, are easy bets to come out of the East, but with a new coach and a heathy roster do they have what it takes to win the whole thing?
Playoff Bound: 1 Seed.
Indiana Pacers — Trending Up
What else is there to say here other than where would the Indiana Pacers be without Paul George? At this point last year (without Paul George), the Pacers were 12 games under .500 and essentially eliminated from the playoff race. They were toast; and ultimately finished the season 38-44, missing the playoffs by tiebreaker with Brooklyn.
Now, while they’re only three games above .500 this season, they’ll still finish somewhere between the four and six range come playoff time barring some sort of unforeseen circumstance.
In fact, they’re just about the only team in the Central yet to sustain some sort of devastating injury.
As the trade deadline looms, I expect them to be in contention for a major change. A true distributing point guard could make George Hill or Monta Ellis expendable as it would serve as a better compliment to George.
Their front line doesn’t have a true starter on it and generally employs a four-man rotation between Ian Mahinmi, Lavoy Allen, Jordan Hill and rookie Myles Turner.
The Pacers and Bulls are fighting for second in the Central and will be the rest of the season; but both are worlds behind Cleveland both on paper and on the court.
Playoff Bound: 5 Seed.
Chicago Bulls — Trending Down
Ask anyone, the Bulls are the most confusing team in the NBA. One night they’ll look like the contending basketball team you expected them to be, the next they’re giving up 120 points in a loss to the 15-win Minnesota Timberwolves.
The type of inconsistency on both ends of the court is something that we never saw under the Thibs-led Bulls, and it’s been the calling card for this hodgepodge roster for the past five years.
On paper the Bulls have always been a cast of misfits they haven’t received much good fortune on the court. Joakim Noah is lost for the season after playing only 19 games, Nikola Mirotic had a sudden appendectomy in late January and his return date is vague.
Jimmy Butler’s sprained knee that he suffered against Denver just before the All-Star break will cost him a month of the season.
The Bulls are capable of winning basketball games, but they’ll need to rally around Derrick Rose if they want to do so; or start preparing for either Cleveland or Toronto in the first round of the playoffs.
Playoff Bound: 6 Seed.
Detroit Pistons — Neutral
What makes the Central so interesting is that it is the only division in the NBA that has four teams at .500 or better, including the Stan Van Gundy-led Detroit Pistons.
This is a team that dealt arguably its best player in the offseason in an attempt to play small ball and stretch the floor on offense. They also played nearly the entire first half of the season without Brandon Jennings — one of the teams stop scorers.
With their current roster, they aren’t a playoff team. While good, I don’t think this team has the ability to consistently win games down the stretch to snatch a playoff spot. However, should they deal a player like Jennings in order to fill another need, I can certainly see it.
The Reggie Jackson-Andre Drummond duo is close to tops in the NBA in combined usage. Stan Van Gundy and his championship experience may have what it takes to get this team to the postseason.
Milwaukee Bucks — Trending Down
The Bucks has been one of the bigger disappointments in the NBA this season after being seven games over at the 53-game mark this time last year.
This is a team built on young talent (they’re the second youngest team in the NBA) as well as newly acquired All Star power forward Greg Monroe.
As a whole, the entire season has been a mess and it started on the defensive end. They are 26th in the NBA in defensive rating, and not much better (23rd) on offense. Despite having a solid core of players in the starting lineup, the Bucks bench is a woefully inconsistent collection of NBA journeymen.
If the Bucks want to make a late season run they’re going to have to pray, and pray hard because it’s likely not going to happen.