2009 NBA Preview: Central Division

This year, we’re doing a division-by-division preview with quick-hitting analysis for every team in the league. If a franchise is a legitimate championship contender, I’ll focus on what stars have to line up for a title run. If a team is a playoff “also-ran,” I’ll identify the weaknesses that have to be shored up via trade, free agency or draft over the next couple of seasons to make it a contender. If a team is likely to miss the playoffs, I’ll take a look at the salary cap, and provide a blueprint for how the team should proceed in the near future to get back in the postseason. At the end of each divisional preview, I’ll provide some (random) thoughts for the fantasy hoopsters out there.

For each division, I’ll pick the order of finish. You’ll also see the team’s league-wide preseason rank in parenthesis. Be sure to check back on Saturday for the preview of the Atlantic Division.

Cleveland Cavaliers (2)
By now, everyone knows that LeBron James is set to become a free agent next summer. Feeling the proverbial heat, the Cavs swung a trade for Shaquille O’Neal hoping that he’ll be able to put the team over the top. It would be tough for LeBron to justify bolting Cleveland if the franchise is coming off of a championship, so the Cavs are “all in.” In addition to acquiring Shaq, they signed Anthony Parker, Jamario Moon and re-upped with Anderson Varejao. It might take some time for this roster to gel, but there’s no doubt that the Cavs have enough talent to go the distance. While making the transition from a declining Zydrunas Ilgauskas to a declining Shaq has its advantages, it’s going to be tough for LeBron to find driving lanes with Shaq and Varejao clogging the lane. Neither can shoot the ball effectively outside of 10 feet, so their defenders will be better able to get to the paint to help on LeBron. Look for the Cavs to run a lot of pick-and-rolls with LeBron and Shaq, which will force Shaq’s defender away from the basket. This should help, but there still is the matter of Varejao’s man defending the basket. It’s crucial that the Cavs get good shooting from Parker, Mo Williams, Delonte West and Daniel Gibson. Those players have to make the defense pay when it sags to help on LeBron. From a salary cap perspective, the Cavs realized that it wouldn’t do any good to have cap space if the payroll number keeps falling, and the Varejao signing ate up whatever space they would have otherwise had. In the unlikely event that Shaq turns out to be a complete disaster, they could always move him before the trade deadline in a last-ditch attempt to retool before the playoffs. For obvious reasons, of all the teams in the league, the Cavs may have the most riding on the 2009-10 season.

Chicago Bulls (11)
The young Bulls gave the KG-less Celtics a great run in last year’s playoffs, and with Derrick Rose looking like the real deal, Chicago is a franchise on the rise. They let Ben Gordon walk this summer, but the return of Luol Deng and the emergence of John Salmons should offset the loss of Gordon’s scoring. The Bulls will likely start Rose and Salmons in the backcourt, with Deng and the up-and-coming Tyrus Thomas framing Joakim Noah on the front line. This gives the team an experienced bench that includes Kirk Hinrich, Brad Miller and Jannero Pargo alongside rookies Taj Gibson and James Johnson. The Bulls are still missing a strong post presence and are probably too inexperienced to upset a healthy Cavs, Celtics or Magic squad in a seven-game playoff series, but Chicago looks like they’ll battle with the Hawks for that #4 seed in the postseason. Financially, the Bulls are expected to have about $13 million in cap space heading into next summer, so they are a real threat to coax Dwyane Wade back to his hometown. D-Wade would look real nice in a backcourt with Rose.

Detroit Pistons (18)
GM Joe Dumars changed the course of the franchise when he traded Chauncey Billups to the Nuggets for Allen Iverson. For a time, it looked like he was going to save the resulting cap space for next summer and make a run at one of the big-name free agents that will be available. Instead, he elected to spend it this summer, giving Ben Gordon a big deal (five years, $58 million) and investing heavily in Charlie Villanueva (five years, $38 million). The problem with these two players is that each has a reputation for being defensive liabilities. Dumars has proven that a team without a superstar can win a title, but those Pistons had a few players on the rise (Billups, Rip Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince, who could all defend) alongside a talented vet (Rasheed Wallace) and a defensive stud (Ben Wallace). Then there’s the issue of Hamilton, who still has four years left on his deal. This means that two of the team’s three-highest players play the same position. That doesn’t usually work. Finally, there’s Rodney Stuckey, whose reputation has exceeded his on-court performance thus far. His presence prompted the Billups-for-AI swap and he needs to raise his game if the Pistons are to be anything more than a postseason also-ran in 2010.

Indiana Pacers (21)
The Pacers have been mired in the 35-36 win range for the last three seasons and don’t seem primed to break out of that rut this year. Danny Granger has blossomed into a star, but he doesn’t have a whole lot of help. T.J. Ford, Troy Murphy and Mike Dunleavy are nice complementary players, but Granger needs a sidekick or two. The Pacers’ biggest offseason acquisitions were Dahntay Jones, who is a good defender, and Tyler Hansbrough, who will probably be a better NBA player than most people think. In short, the Pacers didn’t do much this summer to improve. The good news is that the team has Granger locked up for five years in a reasonable contract and they’ll have a ton of cap space (~$27 million?) in the summer of 2011 to use to build around him. The last few playoff spots in the East are always up for grabs, and it’s not out of the realm of possibility that the Pacers will stay healthy enough to post a 41-41 record and sneak into that #7 or #8 spot. But don’t hold your breath.

Milwaukee Bucks (24)
It’s hard to argue that the Bucks improved this offseason. They gave Richard Jefferson to the Spurs in a salary dump and let Charlie Villanueva and Ramon Sessions walk in restricted free agency with no compensation. GM John Hammond’s position is that the Bucks were not good enough to justify their luxury tax payroll, so tough choices had to be made so that they could gain the financial flexibility to make important acquisitions down the line. Once he drafted Brandon Jennings, the writing was on the wall for the up-and-coming Sessions, who eventually signed with the T-Woves after a long flirtation with the Knicks. He went on to sign Hakim Warrick to an affordable one-year deal that may backfire if Warrick earns a starting spot and wants a big contract next summer. If things go perfectly – Michael Redd and Andrew Bogut stay healthy, Jennings makes the All-Rookie Team, and the Bucks get good play from their bench – it’s not difficult to see the Bucks in the playoffs. But given how riddled this team has been with injuries the last few years, the postseason seems like a long shot. Redd has one more season left on his deal, so the Bucks will have considerable cap space (~$20 million) in the summer of 2011 to build around Bogut and (probably) Jennings. Until then, they’re just going to have to make do.

Fantasy Thoughts: Troy Murphy averaged a double-double last season, and should once again post good numbers even with rookie Tyler Hansbrough stealing some minutes at power forward. Murphy is one of those guys that is far better in fantasy circles than he is in real life because his game (rebounding, accurate shooting) translates well statistically…Hakim Warrick is leading the Bucks in scoring in the preseason and there are minutes available at forward if he can prove to Scott Skiles that he’s willing to play defense. I’d also expect Brandon Jennings to usurp Luke Ridnour as the starting PG. He isn’t going to shoot a high percentage, but he’ll get to the line and rack up the assists…Will Bynum has played really well in the preseason, and he’s pushing Rodney Stuckey for minutes. Don’t be surprised if he rotates in and sees 20-25 minutes per game…Tyrus Thomas is a popular breakout candidate and if he sees starter’s minutes, he should have a very nice year. Many fantasy hoopsters are predicting the fall of John Salmons, but even with Luol Deng’s return, there are still some shots that Ben Gordon left behind. I wouldn’t expect 18 ppg again, but an efficient 15-16p/4r/2a seems reasonable, making him a nice value in the 6th or 7th round in 12-team formats…If Delonte West can’t keep his head on straight, Anthony Parker is going to have every opportunity to become the Cavs’ starting shooting guard. J.J. Hickson could break out, but is still playing behind Anderson Varejao.

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