Deadspin's 2020-21 NBA Preview — Central Division: Giannis & Bucks shall be first, but the rest ...?

Deadspin's 2020-21 NBA Preview — Central Division: Giannis & Bucks shall be first, but the rest ...?

Illustration for article titled Deadspin's 2020-21 NBA Preview — Central Division: Giannis & Bucks shall be first, but the rest ...?
Illustration: AP/Getty

The Indiana Pacers are a pretty good team. They’ve been to the playoffs nine of the past 10 seasons, and they played .616 ball last season — a 50-win pace over a full 82-game season. They still finished 11 games behind the Bucks in the Central Division.

Can a virtually unchanged Indiana roster challenge Milwaukee for the top spot in the Central? Perhaps the Bucks, even with Giannis Antetokounmpo signed to an extension, struggle to jell with a revamped lineup? Maybe? Something like that? Is there any way to manufacture some drama here? No? Okay.

Seriously, the Central might be the dullest division in the NBA, not that divisions even mean that much anymore for anything other than scheduling purposes and the ability to split up responsibilities for season previews at a sports website.

(Ed. note: 😐)

The Bucks are a title contender, the Pacers are a playoff team that isn’t in the championship mix, the Bulls are building back toward mediocrity, and the Pistons have an all-new roster that’s just as bad, if not worse, than the old roster they completely dismantled.

That leaves the Cavaliers, who were the worst team in the East last year. They’re really not so awful, but they’re also far enough away from contending that they’d be smart to trade some of their good players. But if there’s standings drama in the Central, there it is, the question of who will finish last.

Detroit. It will be Detroit.

Sorry to all the other Jesse Spectors for ruining your Google results.

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Chicago Bulls

Chicago Bulls

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Chicago Bulls
Illustration: AP/Getty

COVID Response: “It’s going to be a challenging year with travel and practice and games,” new coach Billy Donovan said after free agent signee Garrett Temple got coronavirus, likely as a result of a Thanksgiving trip to visit family in Louisiana. “It’s going to be really hard. There’s no bubble. The Orlando situation was really a confined, restricted venue where I think everybody felt like, ‘OK, we’re really in a good spot here. The virus is not inside this bubble.’ But right now, we’re back in the real world and you don’t know what can potentially happen.” The Bulls were one of the first teams back in March to assure their game-day employees would be paid during the pandemic, and have worked with and highlighted several Chicago charities for both COVID-19 and racial justice causes.

Staying Away: Chicago won’t have fans in the arena “for the beginning of the 2020-21 NBA season,” and the Bulls said they’d be “working with the league and city and state officials … to determine if there is a timeline that would allow for fans later this season.”

Oh, He’s Here Now? Arturas Karnisovas’ first offseason running the Bulls was pretty quiet. Obviously, bringing in the reigning Coach of the Year in Donovan is huge after his contract expired in Oklahoma City, but on the court, the only new faces are Temple, on a one-year contract, and No. 4 pick Patrick Williams, a 6-8 forward who was the ACC Sixth Man of the Year in his one season at Florida State averaging only 22.5 minutes per game. It’s not like Williams wasn’t a legit prospect dating back to high school, but like everything else with the Bulls, it’s going to take time.

Where’d He Go? Chicago only had one significant offseason departure, but it was one of the best defensive players in the league as Kris Dunn signed with the Hawks as a free agent.

What To Expect: The Bulls aren’t good enough to contend for the playoffs, and aren’t bad enough, especially with Donovan replacing Jim Boylen on the bench, to truly tank. So, they’d better hope Williams becomes everything they project him to be. No pressure!

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Cleveland Cavaliers

Cleveland Cavaliers

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Kevin Love, Collin Sexton
Illustration: AP/Getty

COVID Response: Even though his company was among those raking in money during the pandemic, Dan Gilbert still went ahead and laid off Cavaliers employees, because he sucks. Shoutout to Kevin Love’s focus on mental health during the pandemic.

Staying Away: In accordance with Ohio restrictions, the Cavaliers will start the season allowing up to 300 fans per game in the stands, which makes Cleveland one of only two NBA arenas, along with Utah, where it’s been announced that, yes, against all manner of good judgement, they’re putting butts in the seats. Somehow, 300 people in an NBA arena feels like it will be more depressing than zero, but if Gilbert can get your money, he’s going to take your money.

Oh, He’s Here Now? The Cavaliers stunned the basketball world when they made a trade to get a player with a capitalized third letter of his first and last names, fresh off a world championship with the Lakers. That’s right, JaVale McGee is in Cleveland now, after starting 11 of 14 games in the playoffs and averaging… 9.6 minutes with 2.9 points and 3.1 rebounds. McGee is an effective role player for a top team, having done a similar job for Golden State in 2017 and 2018. And whoever Cleveland trades him to at the deadline will be glad for the addition. Also, Damyean Dotson and Thon Maker signed as free agents, because what you want to do if you’re the Cavaliers is absorb the winning ways of superior teams like the Knicks and Pistons. The Cavs also picked up a 2026 second-round pick in the McGee trade, so they’ve also added some kid who’s logging on for a classmate’s Zoom bar mitzvah this weekend. Mazel tov!

Where’d He Go? While Tristan Thompson has his limitations, he did average a double-double the past two seasons, and now has left for Boston as a free agent. Jordan Bell and Alfonzo McKinnie went to the Lakers in the McGee trade.

What To Expect: The Cavs went 5-6 after J.B. Bickerstaff took over coaching duties for John Beilein, who was a complete disaster. And when you look at it… McGee actually does look like he can be the rotation guy he should be, what with a frontcourt mix that includes Kevin Love, Larry Nance Jr., and, at least for now, Andre Drummond. The guards — Collin Sexton, Darius Garland, and Kevin Porter Jr. — are super young and figure to get better, and that’s not even mentioning Cedi Osman, who’s Cleveland’s best three-point shooter. But there’s a long way between “better than the worst record in the East” and “actual contenders,” and for the Cavs to get to the latter, it’s going to mean building around those young guys and No. 5 pick Isaac Okoro, which is why there already are Drummond trade rumors, with more surely to follow.

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Detroit Pistons

Detroit Pistons

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Blake Griffin
Illustration: AP/Getty

COVID Response: Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer put Blake Griffin on the state’s coronavirus task force as a spokesman to promote adhering to safety protocols and getting people to take the vaccine as it becomes available.

Staying Away: Michigan is one of the places where even the NFL hasn’t been able to put fans in the building, so it’s no surprise that the Pistons are starting the season with an empty arena. But watching on TV might not be an option, either, as Sinclair-owned Fox Sports Detroit isn’t carried on some streaming services.

Oh, He’s Here Now? The Pistons walked into The Sharper Image with a $3,000 gift card, and instead of getting one of those awesome massaging recliners, they picked up four lava lamps, an ultraviolet shoe deodorizer, and even though they live in an apartment, half a dozen Bluetooth-enabled tiki torches. Detroit’s free agent additions were Jerami Grant, Mason Plumlee, Jahlil Okafor, and Josh Jackson, and the Pistons traded for Delon Wright, Dzanan Musa, and Rodney McGruder. Plus, there were three first-round draft picks: Killian Hayes, Isaiah Stewart, and Saddiq Bey.

Where’d He Go? By PER, of the top 10 players to appear for the Pistons last season, in a minimum of 10 games, only Derrick Rose (third) remains on the roster, with Christian Wood, Andre Drummond, John Henson, Reggie Jackson, Luke Kennard, Thon Maker, Markieff Morris, Langston Galloway, and Bruce Brown all elsewhere now. That’s not a great list to begin with, and… whoa, Blake Griffin was not on that list, and is still in Detroit.

What To Expect: Detroit is America’s sports toilet right now between the Pistons, Red Wings, Tigers, Lions, and throwing in Michigan football for good measure. But the Lions fired Matt Patricia, Jim Harbaugh’s days with the Wolverines are numbered, the Red Wings have Steve Yzerman running the show even if their tank didn’t pay off with a No. 1 pick, and the Tigers have one of baseball’s better prospect groups, with a new (cheating) championship manager in A.J. Hinch. Let’s just put the Pistons this way: their first-round pick goes to the Rockets in 2021 if it’s 17th or later… or in 2022 if it’s 17th or later… or in 2023 if it’s 19th or later… or in 2024 if it’s 19th or later… or in 2025 if it’s 14th or later… or in 2026 if it’s 12th or later… or in 2027 if it’s 10th or later, with Houston getting Detroit’s second-round pick in 2027 if the first-rounder remains in the Pistons’ possession that whole time. So, what current seventh grader are the Rockets going to get in the second round of the 2027 draft as the last part of the Wood sign-and-trade?

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Indiana Pacers

Indiana Pacers

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Illustration: AP/Getty

COVID Response: After testing positive for coronavirus in June, Malcolm Brogdon returned for the bubble and looked fine in the playoffs, even though the Pacers got swept by the Heat. At the end of July, the Pacers announced “unavoidable” layoffs, which is a lie, given that Pacers owner Herbert Simon is a multibillionaire and the NBA has TV money coming out of its ears. Maybe what was unavoidable was Simon using any opportunity to keep more money for himself.

Staying Away: The Pacers’ plan is to bring fans back to their arena in January, which sounds much farther off than — (checks notes) — a week and a half into the season. It means they’ve committed to empty stands for four home games. Jan. 2 wouldn’t be the first time that watching the Knicks posed a public health hazard, but… yeah.

Oh, He’s Here Now? A former college star at Butler, Kelan Martin returned to Indianapolis as a pro, signing as a free agent after the Timberwolves pulled his qualifying offer. Indiana also added Jalen Lacque, who has five games of NBA experience last year with the Suns, and only had one pick in the draft, second-rounder Cassius Stanley. So, it’s basically the same Pacers team you don’t really know and don’t really love. Victor Oladipo is healthy. That’s cool.

Where’d He Go? To acquire Lacque, the Pacers sent T.J. Leaf to Oklahoma City, dealing from a T.J. surplus, as the Pacers still have T.J. McConnell and T.J. Warren on board. Indiana also continues to lead the NBA in Holidays, with Aaron and Justin.

What To Expect: A team that wins 40-something games and loses in the first round of the playoffs, just like they’ve been in each of Nate McMillan’s first four years as head coach. The Pacers don’t have a glaring weakness, but with apologies to Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis, they also don’t have the elite-level talent to get to that next level, and Myles Turner isn’t really better at 24 than he was at 20, which had to have been the hope.

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Milwaukee Bucks

Milwaukee Bucks

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Illustration: AP/Getty

Illustration: AP/Getty

COVID Response: The Bucks, owned by private equity and hedge fund goons Wes Edens and Marc Lasry, couldn’t wait for the opportunity to squeeze a few extra dollars out of the pandemic, so they laid off and furloughed employees at the end of June. They’re clearly squeezed financially while playing in a sparkling new arena that was built with $250 million of taxpayer money, as approved by noted tax-and-spend liberal… Scott Walker? Huh. Weird.

Staying Away: Although there were headlines that the Bucks would have “no fans allowed” this season, that is not necessarily the case. There may be fans at some point, just not at the start, as the Bucks issued a boilerplate franchise shrug about the issue with deference to “state and local health officials.”

Oh, He’s Here Now? Having gone 116-39 over the past two seasons, but exited the playoffs in the conference finals and then the second round, the Bucks shuffled the supporting cast for Giannis Antetokounmpo (who we’ll be staying put for the foreseeable future), trading for Jrue Holiday, and signing D.J. Augustin, Nik Stauskas, Bobby Portis, and Bryn Forbes.

Where’d He Go? Many of Milwaukee’s additions came because other players reached free agency and left, including Wesley Matthews, who went to the Lakers, Robin Lopez, and Sterling Brown. The Bucks traded Eric Bledsoe to the Pelicans and George Hill to the Thunder, waived Ersan Ilyasova, and bid farewell to the retiring Marvin Williams. Kyle Korver, who was teammates in his career with Derrick Coleman, Aaron McKie, Chris Webber, and Corliss Williamson, hasn’t retired, but also hasn’t signed anywhere.

What To Expect: Even if it takes a while for the new group to jell, it’s still Antetokounmpo’s team and the Bucks should glide to the division title. It’s the question of what happens to them in the playoffs, and another year of the classic parlor game, Is Khris Middleton A No. 2 Player On A Championship Team Or Just The Best Player Ever To Have Been On The Fort Wayne Mad Ants?

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Sorry to all the other Jesse Spectors for ruining your Google results.