In the NBA’s Central Division, intrigue lurks in plain sight, even if one team is expected to be crowned winner.
The Milwaukee Bucks will rely on a first-year head coach in an attempt to return to the NBA Finals. The Cleveland Cavaliers will try to build on their 51-win season of a year ago. The Chicago Bulls will try to prove they can be relevant with their current nucleus.
Meanwhile, the Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers — a pair of teams with talented, young backcourts — will look to make jumps.
To break down the Central’s offseason and look ahead to the 2023-24 regular season, The Athletic has assembled three of its writers: Pistons beat writer James L. Edwards III, Bulls beat writer Darnell Mayberry and Washington Wizards beat writer Josh Robbins.
Celtics’ gamble, Joel Embiid’s future and more: Previewing the Atlantic Division’s season
What was the best offseason move — a trade, a free-agent signing, firing or hiring — within the division?
James L. Edwards III: From a player perspective, I like the Pacers getting Bruce Brown. Adding winning players when you’re trying to win is always a good thing. From a bigger-picture perspective, the young, rebuilding Pistons hiring Monty Williams, the winningest coach over the last three years, is a big deal.
Darnell Mayberry: James is being modest as our Pistons writer. But in a division in which offseason player movement was lacking, the Pistons easily won the summer by landing Williams. He rivals Rick Carlisle as the best coach in the division and gives Detroit instant credibility, which the Pistons already were accruing with the addition of each young piece they’re quickly accumulating.
If we’re talking players, I like Cleveland snagging Max Strus. He adds depth, shooting and toughness to the Cavs’ backcourt, and gives Cleveland one more kick-out option for Darius Garland and the Cavs’ bigs.
Josh Robbins: I think adding Brown, a quintessential hard-nosed glue guy, to the Pacers’ young mix is the division’s best player addition. He’s someone who can impact a game without needing to take a lot of shots, which is important in Indiana, where Tyrese Haliburton, Buddy Hield and Bennedict Mathurin almost certainly will continue to take the bulk of the shots. As The Wall Street Journal correctly noted when the Pacers agreed to a two-year, $45 million contract (including a team option for 2024-25), Brown is someone who accentuates his teammates’ skills by embracing his defensive role and by moving the ball on offense.
Is adding Brown to such an expensive contract a risk? No, not really, as our colleague David Aldridge recently wrote. If things don’t work out, the Pacers can simply decline their 2024-25 club option or attempt to trade him. But I think Brown will fit in well in Indianapolis.
The Pistons’ decision to sign coach Monty Williams to a massive contract could be key for the team’s young nucleus. (Bradshaw Sevald / USA Today)
Which offseason move has the strongest potential to backfire?
Edwards: There weren’t any groundbreaking moves from the Central Division this offseason, so the only one that could get messy — simply due to the large commitment — is the hiring of Williams in Detroit. Hypothetically speaking, of course, if the Pistons struggle the next two or three years, there isn’t any progress and the vibe isn’t right, would Detroit even consider letting Williams go so early into a six-year deal? Nobody, even the richest of the rich, wants to pay two people to do a job only one person is allowed to do. Pistons ownership and management hope and believe the team will progress under Williams and the vibes will be good. I think both of those things will happen. However, if not, there is strong backfire potential.
Mayberry: The Bulls have declined multiple opportunities to go in a different direction since losing to the Bucks in the first round in 2022. Instead, they’ve doubled down. They chose continuity despite the career-threatening knee injury to Lonzo Ball. They re-signed Nikola Vučević, brought back guards Coby White and Ayo Dosunmu and decided against trading Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan.
Not only has the trio of LaVine, DeRozan and Vučević proven to be insufficient, but it also isn’t a core with a long shelf life. DeRozan is 34 and entering the final year of his contract. Vučević is 32. LaVine is only 28 but has yet to lift the Bulls into perennial contention after six years with the franchise. Will minor additions such as Jevon Carter and Torrey Craig keep the Bulls from being forced to blow it up by the trade deadline?
Robbins: I don’t disagree with the Bucks’ decision to move on from Mike Budenholzer and replace him with Adrian Griffin, but I also think Budenholzer was a convenient scapegoat for Milwaukee’s first-round exit.
For those who say Budenholzer’s 271-120 regular-season record in five Bucks seasons is predicated primarily on Giannis Antetokounmpo’s greatness — well, that’s correct. But if we acknowledge that fundamental truth, doesn’t it also follow that Milwaukee probably would’ve beaten Miami in the first round if Giannis hadn’t gotten hurt in Game 1’s first half and then missed Game 2 and Game 3?
Which Central player is most likely to have a breakout season?
Edwards: “Here goes the Pistons writer talking about the Pistons again. Give it a break!”
Fair, but isn’t the obvious answer here Cade Cunningham? The 2021 No. 1 pick only played 12 games last year. He, from all accounts, was one of the three best players as part of the U.S. Select Team this summer going up against the World Cup team.
Evan Mobley could be the answer, but he’s been visible. Haliburton was an All-Star last year and on the World Cup team this summer. There’s no one to consider in Milwaukee for this. Patrick Williams, anyone? I still have stock, but ehh …
Mayberry: OK, I was wrong. It’s Detroit vs. everybody to James. Cunningham is a star in the making. I think we all get that. I’ll go in a different direction.
I like Strus’ fit in Cleveland, and White has a chance to shine in Chicago. But I’m going to say Obi Toppin in Indiana. A change of scenery might be just the thing Toppin needs to find consistency and another level. He’s joining an up-and-coming Pacers squad and will have a willing passer in Haliburton feeding him the ball. I’m curious to see how Toppin responds.
Robbins: I agree about Cunningham having breakout potential and would have selected him here if James hadn’t done so and Darnell hadn’t seconded that opinion. But my vote here goes to Pacers rookie forward Jarace Walker, who has an NBA-ready physique and a good feel for the game. I’m not saying that Walker is going to amass big stats as a rookie, but I think he’ll have a positive impact. Does that make him a breakout player? No, not by conventional standards, which typically demand a jump in offensive production. Still, I think he’ll be a valuable addition.
Obi Toppin (right) has the potential for a fresh start in Indiana. (Raj Mehta / USA Today)
Heading into the season, which Central player, coach or executive has the most to prove?
Edwards: Initially, I wanted to say Billy Donovan, but I just don’t think that team has great upside. Should they be better than they were last year? Sure. However, I think the Cavaliers have the talent and roster balance to be a legitimate Eastern Conference title contender. J.B. Bickerstaff is a good coach. The coaching business is unfair, though. So, he’s my answer.
Mayberry: Put me down for Griffin in Milwaukee. Griffin has earned a head-coaching opportunity after serving 15 years as an NBA assistant. But when your first head coaching job is with a championship-ready roster, you’re being dropped into a pressure cooker.
Griffin’s hiring reminds me of Donovan’s in Oklahoma City in 2015. Donovan was a first-year NBA head coach tasked with successfully steering what would be Kevin Durant’s final season with the Thunder. When the Thunder fell short in the Western Conference finals, Durant bolted for Golden State.
A more recent example would be Steve Nash landing the Brooklyn Nets job in 2020 despite never having been a head coach or even an assistant. He lasted two seasons. A lot of pressure is on Griffin not just getting it right in Milwaukee but winning it all.
Robbins: It’s Artūras Karnišovas, Chicago’s executive vice president of basketball operations. As Darnell said earlier, the Bulls continue to double down on a veteran nucleus that’s aging and just isn’t good enough to contend in the East. The 2021 trade for Vučević cost the Bulls two future first-round picks, and one of those picks turned out to be Franz Wagner. Unless something changes for the Bulls in the opening months of the season, Karnišovas will be on the spot as the trade deadline approaches.
Which team will win the regular-season Central title? And which team do you think will finish as the runner-up?
Edwards: Is Giannis still a Buck? Yeah? Milwaukee wins the regular-season title. The runner-up is Cleveland, which has the best collection of ready-now and young talent.
Mayberry: I’m with James. Milwaukee wins the division and Cleveland will finish a close second. The more intriguing question is which team will finish third. Chicago, Indiana and Detroit could all be pleasant surprises.
Robbins: As long as Giannis stays healthy, the Bucks will prevail over the Cavs in the regular-season standings. And the Cavs will finish second, with Mobley repeating as an All-Defensive First Team selection.
(Top photo of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Evan Mobley: Michael McLoone / USA Today)