The Central Division had several good teams last year, although a more competitive Eastern Conference kept one of its teams with a winning record (the Chicago Bulls) out of the playoffs. Cleveland should be as dominant as ever this year, but some intriguing roster moves and young talent will keep the rest of this division fun and interesting during the 2016-17 season.
For a team with the prestige, market, and talent level that Chicago enjoys, missing the playoffs last year was close to unacceptable. The Bulls were far from bad, but in a suddenly crowded Eastern Conference, the team's 42-40 record (bogged down by injuries to key players) wasn't good enough to crack the top eight. However, Chicago entered the offseason with high expectations, looking to build around its young, prolific star, Jimmy Butler.
In a nutshell, Chicago's offseason started well and then went off the rails. Moving Derrick Rose seems like the right decision given his age and injury history, but signing Rajon Rondo and an aging Dwayne Wade undid all the good that the Rose trade accomplished. This may seem harsh, but it's difficult to see these two players fitting well with Chicago's most important asset in Jimmy Butler. Butler himself is an excellent player, and the Bulls' outlook for this season would look much better if the front office had surrounded him with better-fitting players. Instead, Butler is now surrounded by poor shooters who are both over 30, leading to a multitude of concerns over both shooting and defense. The Bulls could easily prove this prediction wrong over the course of the season, but at this point in the year it's difficult to see these players fitting well together.
After a highly successful season, there isn't much to say about the NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers that hasn't already been said. Cleveland has no glaring weaknesses, and understandably made no major moves in free agency. If Lebron James finally starts to decline, or the Kevin Love situation noticeably deteriorates, the Cavaliers could struggle. Outside of these two possibilities, though, there seems to be little standing in Cleveland's way in the East this season. While it would certainly be interesting to see Toronto, Boston, or any other team leapfrog the Cavaliers in the standings, there just aren't any compelling reasons to expect this. Cleveland is the best team in the East, and will likely occupy the top spot all season.
The Detroit Pistons are a team that is on the rise. Stan Van Gundy has coached this team to a better record every year of his tenure so far, and even though Cleveland swept them in the first round of the playoffs, each of the four games was competitive. Detroit has two fairly young key players in Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond, and went into the offseason hoping to build on this core.
Largely, Detroit was successful in free agency. They added several key backup players, drafted well, and didn't lose any vital pieces. To be clear, signing players like Cameron Bairstow or Boban Marjanovic won't dramatically change this team's outlook going into 2016-17, but adding as many pieces as possible around Jackson and Drummond is a good strategy for this year. It isn't clear what Detroit's ceiling will be, and they aren't guaranteed a playoff spot in the crowded East. They should easily be as good as last year though, and field a competent team that could make some noise next spring.
The 2015-16 and 2016-17 versions of the Indiana Pacers look drastically different from the team that dominated the Eastern Conference just a few seasons ago, and Paul George is really the only remaining link between the team's past and present. Last year the Pacers were a good-but-not-great team, one that struggled to score consistently, but was still able to push Toronto to its limits in the first round of the playoffs. Now, with a new coach, and a dramatically different roster, Indiana looks to compete at a higher level this season.
Indiana's offseason moves helped the team's vision for the future. Getting Jeff Teague from the Hawks should help the offense by giving George more options, and new addition Thad Young should play a similar role. Meanwhile, the young Myles Turner has the potential to add a lot to this team as well. The most important player on this team is easily still Paul George though, a borderline superstar in his prime who can easily take over entire games. Adding more offensive pieces should allow the Pacers to more fully utilize his skill set, and as a result they could field a much more potent offense this year. Indiana looks like a playoff team right now, and while any number of factors (George getting injured, Teague not shooting well) could derail them early on, Indiana has a much higher ceiling now than they did a year ago.
Finally, the Milwaukee Bucks round out the Central Division. Milwaukee only recorded 33 wins last season, but boasts a talented young core that could yield a much higher total this year. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jabari Parker, and Khris Middleton are their key players, and adding Matthew Dellavedova in the offseason addresses some of the team's shooting woes. As odd as it may be to consider Dellavedova a positive force offensively, Milwaukee boasted the sixth-lowest points per game last year and can consequently improve by adding even a decent shooter.
Milwaukee probably still won't be in the playoffs this year, but they improved their roster and should be able to keep building for the future. This team is still constructing its identity, but could be a strong force in the East once its core is more developed. Thon Maker (the team's first-round pick) adds to the long-term positivity surrounding the Bucks, as this is clearly a team on the rise.
After the Cavaliers, this division should be interesting and competitive. Indiana and Detroit are probably both better this season than either Milwaukee or Chicago, but both the Bulls and the Bucks could easily outplay this tentative projection if everything goes right. Out of this group of four, though, Indiana is probably the best. It's easy to forget just how good Paul George can be, and how easily he can become the best player on the court in many games. This was one of the strongest top-to-bottom divisions in the NBA last year, and that should continue in 2016-17.