To begin the NBA season, our staff writers took a stab at previewing each team and their division. While some predictions and prognostications have panned out, there is plenty that has been surprising.
This week, our writers will again break down the league, team by team, in order to get ready for the rest of the NBA season. We hope to give insight into where teams are at this point in the year, and with the trade deadline right around the corner, we will try to forecast what move lies ahead.
Next up is our breakdown of the Central division, where the Milwaukee Bucks have uprooted their coaching stewardship during the season and where a young team has captivated viewers. Here’s how our writers, Andy Diederich, Patrick Yen, Nate Powalie, Skylar Rogers, and Matt Strout, think about the Central Division.
(BSP mid-season reports were written prior to Feb. 5, 2024)
Team Record: 24-27 (9th place in Eastern Conference)
First-Half Best Performer: Coby White
First-Half Underperformer: Patrick Williams
Two years ago, the Chicago Bulls held the number one seed in the East halfway through the 2021-22 NBA season. Fast forward to today, and despite having the same core roster, the Bulls need to hold on to a play-in position. The Arturas Karnisovas-led front office continues to preach “continuity” as a key aspect of the organization and has yielded mediocre results. And with star Zach Lavine now sidelined for the year after foot surgery, the future remains uncertain in Chi-Town.
Granted, not everything is doom and gloom for the Bulls. Lavine’s usual partners in crime, DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic, are still posting healthy stats despite moving into their mid-30s. 2021 second-round pick Ayo Dosunmu is currently playing the best ball of his young career, scoring in double figures in 10 straight games leading into this month. The storyline of the year by far has been Coby White, who, in his age-23 season, has emerged as a potential number-one option. White’s increased output helped turn a 5-14 start for the Bulls into a decent record that keeps them in striking distance of a playoff spot.
Still, many of the youngsters and newcomers to this Bulls team have not lived up to expectations. Patrick Williams has yet to consistently find success in his role, barely recording double-digit points per game on below-average efficiency. Recent free agent signees Jevon Carter and Torrey Craig have added little value from beyond the three-point line, something the Bulls have desperately needed for a while. Plus, Lonzo Ball remains out indefinitely with a knee injury that will continue to dampen their offensive playmaking, although he was finally spotted getting some shots up recently. Even without Lavine, the Bulls are likely to at least tread water due to their defensive presence. Alex Caruso has continued to be one of the better perimeter defenders in the league.
It would normally come as a shock to many if the Bulls front office stood firm yet again with this team at the trade deadline. Then again, this is the same front office that sat on their hands during the last two deadlines when many felt they desperately needed a roster shakeup. With reports coming in that the Bulls are unlikely to make any deal before the February 8th deadline, the future that Karnisovas and General Manager Marc Eversley see for this franchise becomes more and more unclear. There’s seemingly no sense of direction: no plans for a rebuild, a retooling, or even a change of scenery for another team’s superstar. The main core of Lavine, DeRozan, and Vucevic continues to grow older, and this front office is essentially indicating they are satisfied with a first-round exit at most.
It remains unknown who will step up for the Bulls for the rest of 2024 amidst Lavine’s injury and head coach Billy Donovan’s certain presence on the hot seat. The higher-ups within the organization need to wake up and realize their days will be numbered if something doesn’t change soon.
Team Record: 32-16 (2nd in Eastern Conference)
First-Half Best Performer: Jarrett Allen
First-Half Underperformer: Georges Niang
It has felt like a whole journey for the Cleveland Cavaliers in just half a season. High expectations going into the season were derailed by injuries to every single starter not named Max Strus. That includes missing Evan Mobley and Darius Garland for more than half the season to this point. That drove the Cavaliers to the play-in spot slums, much further down where they wanted to be. Somehow, though, when things seemed darkest when the only “star” they had left was Jarrett Allen, the scapegoat of last year’s playoff defeat, the season turned around. Since December 15th, when Garland and Mobley were declared out for a month, the Cavaliers have gone 17-4. Allen, in particular, has been crazy, averaging 18 points and 12.8 boards in that span, including a franchise record of 16 straight double-doubles that was only recently snapped by injury.
Donovan Mitchell has been great as usual, too, but Allen (and Max Strus) have been the steady presence anchoring the team. In fact, the Cavaliers are 6-3 without Mitchell and 17-7 without Garland, their two biggest stars.
The Cavaliers biggest need was shooting coming into the season, and between Sam Merrill, Strus, and Niang, they have plenty of extra guys willing to let it fly. Of course, Niang and Strus do happen to be having their worst seasons from the three-point line, but they still need to be guarded out there and provide that oh-so-crucial spacing. It’s been a tad disappointing for the new signings, but Strus at least adds a little bit of everything to the team, the perfect glue guy. On the other hand, Georges Niang has one job only, and if he’s not hitting threes, he’s a detriment. He seems to be turning the corner, though, with January seeing him make 44% of his deep tries on a healthy 5.2 attempts.
The Cavaliers stay in the top four in the East. It’s not the boldest prediction, with Joel Embiid’s injury. Mobley and Garland have come back at the same time, and reintegrating them into an already wildly successful team could be harder. Something to keep an eye on is how the players who have settled into their new roles adapt to others coming back.
Regardless of the rest of how the regular season shakes out, the only real test they have left is the one they failed miserably last year: the playoffs. Come playoff time, whether or not the Mitchell-Garland combo and the Allen-Mobley combo can work will be answered. The question of whether J.B. Bickerstaff can be the coach of a championship team will be found out. Depending on those answers, the Cavs’ future could look very different.
Team Record: 6-43 (15th in Eastern Conference)
First Half Best Performer: Bojan Bogdanovic
First-Half Underperformer: Killian Hayes
*[Note] Written before the reported trade between the Detroit Pistons and New York Knicks for Bojan Bogdanovich*
To say the 2023-2024 season has been an ugly one for the Detroit Pistons would be putting it mildly. They tied the NBA record with 28 consecutive losses (after starting 2-1, mind you) and are currently the worst team in the entire league. At first glance, people would think this team would be a lot better than what their record actually shows. Four of their six wins have been at home, but as a team, they are losing frequently by double digits, as noted by the statistical averages.
The stats show Detroit allows just over 122 points a game through their first 49 contests this season, while the Pistons only average a shade under 112.5 points a night. That stat line will certainly lead to more than a few losses.
However, one guy is certainly doing his part in the midst of all that has befallen the Pistons this year. That guy? Bosnian forward Bojan Bogdanovic. In his second season in Detroit, Bogdanovic is currently averaging 20.4 points per game on 46.9% shooting from the field and a 41% make rate from behind the arc in 25 contests. This after he missed the first few weeks of the season due to a right calf sprain. The best game for Bogdanovic so far this season was a solid 34-point performance in a win over the Charlotte Hornets on Jan. 24.
While the contributions across the team are solid, it’s still surprising to see the Pistons not pass the double-digit threshold in the win column. Detroit has already moved, acquiring Danilo Gallinari and Mike Muscala from the Washington Wizards for Marvin Bagley, Isaiah Livers, and a second-round draft pick in 2025 and 2026. The theme for the rest of this season should be rebuilding and retooling for the Pistons, and the future does not look bright in the Motor City.
Second-Half Prediction: Detroit will pass the double-digit mark but will only finish with 13 or 14 wins en route to the No. 1 pick in the draft in June 2024.
Team Record: 29-23 (6th in Eastern Conference)
First-Half Best Performer: Tyrese Haliburton
First-Half Underperformer: Andrew Nembhard
Notable Transaction: *Traded Bruce Brown, Kira Lewis, Jordan Nwora, and three first-round picks to the Toronto Raptors for Pascal Siakam. [Note:] *This preview was written before the Indian Pacers were reported to have traded Buddy Hield to the Philadelphia 76ers*
The Indiana Pacers drew a lot of attention early in the season by winning the Eastern Conference half of the new In-Season Tournament. Still, they ultimately fell short in the Championship game against the Los Angeles Lakers. The Pacers defeated the Boston Celtics in their first elimination game of the tournament 122-112 and knocked off the Milwaukee Bucks in the semi-finals 128-119. They have performed well in clutch games this season, with a record of 14-10. Recently, they have had quality wins against the Philadelphia 76ers with reigning MVP Joel Embiid in the lineup and Phoenix Suns on the night Devin Booker scored 62 points.
Compared to their success last season, the Pacers have been one of the surprise good teams in the NBA this season. They are currently sitting in 6th place in the Eastern Conference standings. Last season, they finished in 11th place, missing out on the NBA Play-in Tournament. Pacers fans are hoping to get their young team some needed playoff experience that would benefit the growth of their young core going forward into the future.
Tyrese Haliburton has been leading the way for the Pacers this season, earning the start in the NBA All-Star Game for the Eastern Conference alongside Damian Lillard in the backcourt. Haliburton is averaging 22.8 points per game and leads the NBA with 12 assists per game, undoubtedly their top performer this season. Center Myles Turner and shooting guard Bennedict Mathurin have both been having big years for the Pacers as well. This season’s contributors are Aaron Nesmith, Obi Toppin, Jalen Smith, Buddy Hield, and Andrew Nembhard.
Indiana is first in the NBA in scoring, averaging 124.4 points per game. Their offense has been explosive all season, but they are 28th in the league in scoring defense, allowing 122.8 points per game. They are 13th in the league in plus-minus at +1.5 ppg.
On January 17th, Indiana traded Bruce Brown, Jordan Nwora, and three first-round picks for two-time all-star Pascal Siakam of the Toronto Raptors. This trade changed a lot for Indiana, adding another superb talent alongside Haliburton on both the offensive and defensive ends of the floor. Siakam started every playoff game for the 2019 NBA Champion Toronto Raptors, so having that playoff experience in the building will only help with their young players’ development.
Going down the season’s final stretch, the Pacers will be competing with teams like the Miami Heat, Orlando Magic, and others for playoff seeding. They should likely qualify for the Play-in tournament if they are unable to maintain their top-six position in the standings. However, with their defensive struggles, it is hard to judge how deep into the playoffs they can go, with a first-round matchup likely against a top 3 team in the east, unless they can rise up to a top-five finish.
Team Record: 33-18 (3rd in Eastern Conference)
First-Half Best Performer: Giannis Antetakoumpo
First-Half Underperformer: Pat Connaughton
It has been a rollercoaster of a season for the 33-win Milwaukee Bucks. To begin the year, they won the Damian Lillard sweepstakes from the Portland Trail Blazers just a month before the season. It would be a quick turnaround for the Bucks to integrate Lillard. Especially considering that the Bucks were also in the process of transitioning from their old system to one run by Adrian Griffin. The challenges were evident, but the hypothetical end-product was enough for people to ignore the first warning sign, the resignation of assistant coach Terry Stots.
Fast forward almost five months later, and the Bucks are in the exact same place they were at the beginning of the season, with a new coach and a lot to figure out. The Bucks moved on from Griffen after just 43 games. His 30-13 record is the best of any coach to be dismissed mid-season. Below the surface, the Bucks were struggling in areas they traditionally were stellar in. The Bucks rank 19th in defensive rating (they were 4th last year) and are allowing considerably more paint points.
Bringing in Doc Rivers is aimed at reorienting the Bucks. Not much of their personnel from last year has changed; therefore, the defensive drop shouldn’t be as steep, and Rivers hopes to get them back to that. Giannis Antetakoumpo and Lillard are having All-Star seasons, but the offense is still working itself out. there’s less concern on the offensive end as they still have the pieces around their two stars to make a run. Malik Beasley has been a bright spot, as he is one of the league leaders in three-point shooting and has been a durable body playing in 49 games.
The Bucks are in the thick of a tight race in the Eastern Conference. While there is some separation between the Boston Celtics and seeds two through five, the Giannis-led Bucks have plenty of time to work on things. the biggest question for the Bucks is how or if they upgrade their team. There are limits to what they can do financially, so a big splash is out of the question. However, smaller moves that can improve around the edges (another bench guard or wing) would improve depth and blunt any blow to missing Kris Middleton with an ankle injury. Ultimately, the Bucks need an identity more than anything, which is a crazy thing to say about a team winning as much as them.
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