Rising(?) East – Examining the Central Division

Over a month into the NBA season, there are many early returns I didn’t see coming (hello Houston and NoLA), but I will take credit for predicting the rise of the Central Division. Since it’s only been a month I can’t say it’s eclipsed the Southwest Division as the class of the league, but it’s much closer than expected thanks to some stumbling teams (hello again, H-Town & N.O.).

Three of the four Central teams won again last night (Cleveland was off), leaving four teams in the division above .500 on the season. The only other division in the NBA with four teams over .500 is the surprising Southeast, where Charlotte and Orlando have overachieved to 10-8 records. Amazingly, the top eight teams in these two divisions are 35-19 against Western Conference opponents. This is where I remind you that the West has bested the East in regular season record 15 of the last 16 years. It’s only early December, but we can officially raise an eyebrow at the perpetual little brother, the East.

What’s most crazy about these early results is who is not doing well in these divisions. Unquestionably, the two worst teams in the Central/Southeast have been Milwaukee and Washington, two playoff teams that went all in to win this season. We will examine what’s wrong with them in a follow-up post.

But let’s start with the good.

Central Division

  1. Cleveland (13-5)
  2. Indiana (12-5)
  3. Chicago (11-5)
  4. Detroit (10-9)

Cleveland came in as the clear favorite to win the East and that hasn’t changed. I’m loving the all-business version of LeBron we’re getting right now; he has his guys humming and their fast start will allow Kyrie Irving to ease back into the lineup when healthy. Get Kyrie back, get Iman Shumpert back, hit full stride going into the playoffs. That’s the script for Cleveland and nothing has diverted them from it so far.

Indiana is the true surprise of the division early on. Frank Vogel is a great coach because he has shown the ability to adapt. Much like Erik Spoelstra in Miami or Gregg Popovich in San Antonio have done, Vogel has changed to fit the personnel and whims of the front office. Roster turnover is a thing that happens quickly in the NBA, especially when you factor in injuries. Before Paul George went down prior to the 2014-15 season, Indiana was one of the top teams in the West, by playing a plodding, physical style anchored in defense and rebounding. Roy Hibbert and David West were great on the boards but not ideal for spacing on offense. So Vogel shaped a team that wasn’t all that fun to watch but they were damn successful, with those bigs clogging the middle and the versatile Paul George, Lance Stephenson, George Hill wing combo slowing down shooters and creating turnovers. Losing George before the start of the season made last year a lost cause, but Indiana has quickly pivoted into a totally different attack. PG-13 is back playing at an All-NBA level on both sides of the court and the Pacers rank 11th in offensive rating, 9th in pace and 2nd in three-point percentage. The truly amazing thing is that their defense hasn’t slipped a bit when they’ve gone small. I really don’t have a great explanation for that, outside of Vogel’s game planning and George’s all-around brilliance. They are blitzing teams with one lineup that’s featuring Ian Mahinmi and Lavoy Allen as the only “bigs”to the tune of +55 points and +6 rebounds. Another lineup with Jordan Hill as the lone big is +40 in points. I have doubts on whether any of this is sustainable but the Pacers have proven me wrong thus far.

Chicago keeps winning yet I’m not quite sure how they’re doing it. As a Bulls fan I’m very happy with an 11-5 start, but I also worry about sustainability here. Let’s take a closer look. First off, who are the Bulls beating? All the good teams, seemingly. Chicago has knocked off Cleveland, OKC, San Antonio, Indiana, Charlotte and earned a nice road win in Phoenix. They played Golden State tough in Oracle before the Warriors’ practically unfair, Draymond at the 5 lineup torched them in the final two minutes. The Bulls have only scored over 100 points in five of their wins, while ranking 4th in defensive rating. So their well-renowned defense hasn’t been hurt, curiously, by Fred Hoiberg’s new system. Season-long, a Hoiberg team can’t compete with a Thibs scheme in defensive efficiency, right? (However, considering most of the roster has been around for a while, we do need to give them some credit for retaining Thibs’ principles and knowing how to play the game at a high level. They are NBA players, after all). Of their five losses, two have been in overtime and only one occurred at the United Center. So no worries right? All good, moving on…

…OK now taking my head out of the sand. There are a few concerns worth mentioning quickly. A) Derrick Rose is shooting 34% and 19%(!) from three; B) Nikola Mirotic may not actually be a good shooter (which they desperately need him to be), and his incessant pump-faking is ridiculous; C) Hoiberg has them playing 11th in pace yet 26th in offensive efficiency. So they are getting shots up quickly just not making them. If this doesn’t right itself, how can their defense possibly hold up?; D) four of the top five Bulls’ lineups in terms of +/- don’t include D-Rose, but four of the bottom five +/- lineups do include D-Rose. E) As a D-Rose fan, I’m sad.

Detroit raced out to a 5-1 start, lost four straight, then have played about even ball since. They are much improved, but still have glaring flaws, which show up in their multiple blowout losses. Six of their losses have been by nine points or more. It boils down to a serious lack of shooting. Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond can be magic on the pick-and-roll, but when defenses clamp down and force Detroit to beat them from the outside, they simply don’t have the firepower. Marcus Morris is shooting just 28% from three, so not doing his part to stretch the defense, while Stanley Johnson has shown flashes and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has been up and down. On nights when they can be close to league average in field goal / three point shooting they will be dangerous. Once they get Brandon Jennings back, they may get a much needed shot in the arm, at least for small stretches. But basketball is definitely back in the Motor City, and I can’t get enough of Mr. Drummond.

Southeast Division breakdown coming up next…

 

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