To kick off our 2023-2024 NBA season coverage, Back Sports Page will preview all 30 NBA teams for the upcoming year. Different from years past, however, our previews will be put out according to their respective divisions. In our second edition, our staff looked at the Atlantic division and broke down each of the five teams.
As for the Central division, the five teams all have vastly different expectations and rosters. A couple of the teams are looking to break through into the playoffs, while one team is looking to regain some of its old glory.
Follow along over the next two weeks to see an analysis of the outlooks for teams as they head into the new season.
Cleveland Cavaliers Preview
Record Last Season: 51-31, 4th place in Eastern Conference (Lost First Round to the New York Knicks 1-4)
The Cleveland Cavaliers followed a fantastic regular season with a poor showing in the NBA Playoffs. Losing to the fifth seed as the fourth seed isn’t bad in a vacuum, but the way they lost was disappointing. Losing in five games and looking decidedly ineffective was not a good look. Luckily, they are a young team and have shored up their weaknesses, setting them up for a better showing in 2023-2024. Third-year big man Evan Mobley is the key to the Cavaliers ascending to the next level. Mobley is the one who has the greatest room for growth, which also means he has the biggest holes in his game that need to be filled. This season is where he shows he can become the next Kevin Garnett, as many believe is his potential or plateaus as a defensive maestro with a middling offensive bag.
Either way, Mobley goes, the team will still be led by their backcourt duo of Darius Garland and Donovan Mitchell. Both are bonafide stars with excellent all-around offensive games. If they can continue to mesh together, they have an argument as the best backcourt in basketball.
With four players having All-Star pedigree, the baseline expectations are quite high. Fourth in the East in the regular season should be the minimum, especially with the Philadelphia 76ers in flux. That being said, the regular season is not the focus. The goal now is to win a playoff series. The Cavaliers didn’t look particularly close last year, and they didn’t add immense firepower in the offseason. They did patch up their biggest weakness, shooting, by signing Strus and Niang, but those guys have been complimentary, not game-changing, in their careers. Still, looking at their starting lineup, there aren’t many teams out there that look as stacked on paper. The Cleveland Cavaliers could flame out in the first round again just as easily as they could win the East. I wouldn’t bet against either outcome.
Chicago Bulls Preview
Record last season: 40-42, 10th place in Eastern Conference
After another underwhelming campaign last year, the Bulls (or at least this current iteration of them) are likely entering a do-or-die scenario this season. The front office has stood firm in building around their three stars in Zach Lavine, DeMar DeRozan, and Nikola Vucevic. Simultaneously, they’re looking to continue to develop their youngsters like Coby White, Patrick Williams, and Ayo Dosunmu into the faces of the franchise. Veterans like Alex Caruso and the newly acquired Jevon Carter & Torrey Craig hope to round out a lineup that has not had sustained success since the first half of 2021.
Unfortunately, the Bulls have already suffered a loss before the season’s start, with Lonzo Ball likely unable to play the entirety of the 2023-24 season. Speculation looms on whether the front office will finally blow up this roster if the Bulls disappoint once again. However, there’s no doubt this Bulls team has enough talent to at least tread water within the Eastern Conference.
Their issues with playmaking and outside shooting may not have been fully resolved, but I believe a bounce-back season is in order for Chi-Town. I expect them to win 46 games and reach a 5th/6th seed in the East.
Detroit Pistons Preview
Record Last Season: 17-65, 15th place in Eastern Conference
The Detroit Pistons hired former Phoenix Suns head coach Monty Williams in June. Williams, a former small forward for a handful of NBA teams, won the league’s Coach of the Year in 2022. Detroit selected Overtime Elite guard Ausar Thompson with the No. 5 pick in the 2023 NBA Draft, adding to a youthful core that features guard Jaden Ivey, center Jalen Duren, and guard Cade Cunningham. Cunningham underwent a season-ending surgery on his left leg in December. It will be up to Cunningham, Duren, Ivey, and Thompson to determine the fate of the Pistons 2023-24 season.
The Pistons might not be a playoff contender just yet, but they may have the strength to clear the hurdle of making the Play-In tournament. Its division rival, the Chicago Bulls, defeated the Toronto Raptors before falling to the Miami Heat in last year’s Play-In.
Detroit will play in a division featuring two teams that made the playoffs last season in the Milwaukee Bucks and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Cleveland revamped its roster with extra shooting help and additions at the five. Detroit must work to fulfill the potential of its younger roster and newer additions for its first shot at the playoffs since the 2018-19 season. If they can, Detroit can begin building off its newly assembled foundation for an exciting new era in Pistons basketball.
Indiana Pacers Preview
Record Last Season: 35-47, 11th place in Eastern Conference
Players Lost: Oshae Brissett
The Indiana Pacers finished five games behind the Chicago Bulls for 11th place in the Eastern Conference and one spot out of the East’s Play-In Tournament. They re-signed guard Tyrese Haliburton to a five-year, $260-million contract extension in July. Indiana acquired forward Obi Toppin through a trade with the New York Knicks and guard Bruce Brown through free agency. Haliburton, center Myles Turner, guard Bennedict Mathurin, and forward Jarace Walker will be essential in making a surge for the playoffs in the East.
The Pacers could have the ability to make the playoffs during the 2023-24 season if Walker can address the team’s rebounding issues from last year and if the team’s younger players can tap into their full potential. The Pacers will have a tough start to their season with matchups against the Cavaliers, Memphis Grizzlies, and Boston Celtics in their first ten games. Indiana will play the Cavaliers three times in six games from Oct. 20 to Nov. 3.
At the time of this preview, the Pacers may be close to fighting their way into playoff contention on paper. Still, it will take the test of their first 20 regular season games to determine if Indiana is truly ready to make the leap to the postseason for the first time since the team featured forward Domantas Sabonis and guard Victor Oladipo.
Milwaukee Bucks Preview
Last Season Record: 58-24, 1st place in Eastern Conference (Lost First Round to Miami Heat 1-4)
Are the Bucks nearing the cliff? Or have they fallen off it? Those are the questions circling outside of Milwaukee right now. Inside, the wonder is squarely on their best player, Giannis Antetakoumnpo, and his future with the team. Add those various questions together, and you see that a very consequential season is at stake in 2023-24. One that could shape the Bucks franchise for years to come.
The Bucks are coming off a surprising opening-round playoff loss to the Miami Heat. Injuries aside, the series revealed weaknesses on the Bucks roster around Giannis. The offseason saw Milwaukee add some depth with Malik Beasley and Robin Lopez. Rookie Andre Jackson Jr. could also gain some minutes, but other than that, the additions are not eye-popping. The Bucks retained Khris Middleton and Brooke Lopez for extensions, too. How age and a string of injuries affect those two gives the commitment some risk.
Minor tweaks and the hopes that the quartet of Giannis, Middleton, Lopez, and Jrue Holiday can rekindle the magic of 2021 and return to the finals isn’t out of the question. However, a lot of teams have caught up to the Bucks when it comes to supporting talent and making them more of a one-man show. Add in the fact that rookie head coach Adrian Griffin now coaches the Bucks, and for the first time in a long time, there is a level of uncertainty around this team that hasn’t been felt during the Giannis era. Expectations are in flux, too. Milwaukee could easily fall lower in the standings than in previous seasons, or they could be the kings of the East again. All that is known is that Giannis wants another title. This season will be a test of his will to get them there.
Andy Diederich is a contributor on Back Sports Page. He received a degree from The Ohio State University and now resides in Chicago, covering the Bulls and all things NBA. You can find Andy on Instagram at @tryspellingdiederich and on Twitter at @ndyDiederich.
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