Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The Big NBA Season Preview, Round I, Part II - Central Division, CONTINUED


Central Division

Indiana Pacers
Last year, Indiana was the third fastest paced team in the league, behind only Golden State and Denver. They also attempted more three pointers than every team besides Golden State and Orlando. And, despite many weaknesses on that end, they were able to throw out a league-average defense. Despite all the running and gunning, the Pacers were an inefficient offense -- and a huge reason for this was a lack of a legitimate starting point guard. So, in the offseason, they went out and traded oft-injured (and, even when healthy, not fast-paced) Jermaine O'Neal for T.J. Ford (and Rasho Nesterovich), in a trade that made sense for both sides. T.J. Ford suffered in Toronto not only from being an injury risk but from not being Jose Calderon, the efficient distributor. In Indiana, he'll be free to run at all times and dominate the ball for stretches. Pacer fans should be clear from the outset that Ford is more Iverson than he is Nash. That should be fine -- in Indiana, for much of the time he's on the floor all four of the other players will be able to shoot the three, and the pick and roll game won't be much of a factor. Ford will be able to attack at all times, and with his speed, the results should be fun to watch, if not always effective. Given the high speed and the acquisition of Ford, drafting the plodding Roy Hibbert is a bit of a head-scratcher, though.

Outlook: If healthy, this team could be a .500 team. They do lack depth, though, and will struggle to stay with better teams. There is also little margin for error -- if Ford, Danny Granger, or Mike Dunleavy Jr. are injured for any period of time, this team tanks.

Players to keep tabs on: Granger, Dunleavy Jr., and Marquis Daniels. In order: Granger is already well-known and the face of the franchise, improving his game each year. Can he reach all-star status this year? Mike Dunleavy Jr: after years of disappointment as a high draft pick bust in Golden State, he found his niche in Indiana's offense and became a bit of a scoring machine, establishing career highs in FG%, 3-point percentage, and free-throw attempts. So is he for real, or does he come back down to earth this year? And finally -- Marquis Daniels looked like a budding star as a member of Don Nelson's Mavericks, but has been mired in streaky mediocrity ever since. Indiana's style seems like a good fit for him, but he continued to struggle last year. For whatever reason, I continue to hold out hope that he'll become the dynamic scorer and defender that he looked like as a rookie.

Reasons to watch: Besides Granger and Ford, there's not much to tune in for here.

Chicago Bulls
The good news: a team expected to go deep into the playoffs last year ends up with the number one draft pick, and doesn't lose any of their talented players. The bad news: last year's dysfunction was partly blamed on players playing without the security of a contract extension, and now Ben Gordon comes into the year playing on a one-year Qualifying Offer. Hmmn . . .. (Sidenote: I'm actually not worried -- Gordon will be just fine this year and he'll get a payday next summer).

This team really is loaded with young talent. There are more guards than there are available minutes for them to play, and that would be true even if they benched Larry Hughes. Thabo Sefalosha is exciting, skilled, and long, but he may end up completely out of the rotation.

In the front court, I'm hoping the absence of Ben Wallace and Scott Skiles means lots of minutes for Tyrus Thomas and Joakim Noah. Both could be extremely productive this year.

Outlook: They are absolutely a better team than their 33 wins from last season made them look. How much better, though? If Luol Deng shoots over 50%, then they could win 45 or so games. Is that conditional enough?

Players to keep tabs on: Tyrus Thomas should finally get a chance to prove that he can produce in extended time, so he's first on this list. Luol Deng is either a solid but unspectacular swingman (last year), or a budding star (2006-2007), depending almost completely on whether he scores efficiently. We've mentioned here before that shooting percentages are one of the more volatile individual statistics, and last year might have just been a regression to the mean for Deng after his outstanding 2006-2007 campaign.

Reasons to watch: TYRUS THOMAS!

Milwaukee Bucks
The worst defensive team from last year hires Scott Skiles, a defensive stickler who is kind of unimaginitive on the offensive end.


It should be interesting to see whether coaching is enough to get a team with Michael Redd, Charlie Villanueva, and Andrew Bogut to be a great defensive team.

Having Richard Jefferson aboard should mean an improvement over last year. Unfortunately, over the last few years in New Jersey Jefferson's defense has gotten worse and worse -- we'll see if he can turn that around and become the stopper (or just slower-downer) this team needs.

The other big story is of course the loss of Mo Williams. I talked at length about his impact on the Cavs, but in the case of the Bucks I think the biggest result is playing time for Ramon Sessions. He came on strong at the end of last year, and now should have a chance to play 25+ minutes per game.

Outlook: This team can't be very good. They might compete for the worst record in the East.

Players to keep tabs on: Ramon Sessions was called up from the D-League late last year and made a huge splash, averaging 11 assists per game in 10 games in April (including a 20 point, 24 assist effort against Chicago followed by 25 and 14 against Minnesota in the very next game, as well as a tight game against Washington in which Sessions made a steal with a couple of seconds left in the game and hit the game-winning buzzer-beater with Gilbert Arenas' hand in his face). It seems clear that his ascendance is what made Milwaukee feel comfortable sending Williams away. So, can Sessions keep it up for a whole season, or was his performance last year a late-season mirage?

Reasons to watch: I got nothing here. I'm sorry. The only reason I'll be tuning in will be to watch Ramon Sessions' development. I know next to nothing about rookie Joe Alexander, so I guess that's another reason to tune in.

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