The Central division is one that has been completely dominated by the Cleveland Cavaliers recently. It helps that a player named LeBron James was on board, but the Cavaliers have won the last four division crowns. It’ll be much different this year as James has left for the Western Conference. Everyone will soon know how to spell Giannis Antetkounmpo. The Greek Freak and the Milwaukee Bucks highlight this division as they are the betting favorite, but Victor Oladipo and the Indiana Pacers will make them work for it.
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Last Season Record: 50-32, #4 Seed
Projected Season Record: 31-51
According to Cleveland Cavaliers center Tristan Thompson, the Cavaliers are still the team to beat in the Eastern Conference. According to Bovada sports book that is far from the case. They are tied for the ninth best odds to win the Eastern Conference at +8000. To make matters even worse they are tied with the Chicago Bulls for the worst odds to win this division at +3500. It’s fair to say the Eastern Conference isn’t too worried about Thompson and the Cavaliers. They lost LeBron James once again to free agency as he’s headed to the Los Angeles Lakers. Obviously not ideal, but probably a good thing that he went to the Western Conference for the first time in his career. The Cavaliers enter full rebuilding mode. They went from the highest average age of every NBA team last season with 30.1, to now being in the middle of the road at 26.9 average age per player. They still have a solid base of veterans with Kevin Love, J.R. Smith, Tristan Thompson and George Hill paired with some young promising talent in Rodney Hood, Larry Nance Jr., Collin Sexton and Jordan Clarkson. I think they are better than what people are giving them credit for and playing in the Eastern Conference gives them a legit chance of making it back to the playoffs for the fifth straight year. Last year in 209 minutes with LeBron James off the court, Kevin Love saw 33.8% of the team’s usage and averaged 1.36 fantasy points per minute. Love’s role should greatly increase and he is basically a lock to average a double double with James out of town. With James no longer being the team’s babysitter, J.R. Smith has already found himself paying league fees after an altercation in a preseason game. I’m really looking forward to seeing the growth of first round pick Collin Sexton. The rookie point guard will likely come off the bench for the majority of the year, but I could see him averaging close to 20 minutes per game and he’s dynamic enough to fill up the box score.
Last Season Record: 48-34, #5 Seed
Projected Season Record: 48-34
With the Cleveland Cavaliers likely to take a step back this year it’ll be the Indiana Pacers and Milwaukee Bucks fighting for the Central division crown. The Pacers took a step forward last season as they finished 48-34 which was their best record in the last four seasons. They claimed the fifth seed, but were quickly bounced in the first round by the Cavaliers in seven games. It was their third straight season in which the Pacers were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. A big catalyst to the step forward was the off-season trade when they sent Paul George (who was planning to opt out of his contract anyways) to the Oklahoma City Thunder in exchange for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. The trade was honestly great for both teams. In his first season with the Pacers, Oladipo set career highs in points per game (23.1), rebounds per game (5.2), assists per game (4.3), steals per game (2.4), field goal percentage (47.7%) and three point percentage (37.1%). He was finally able to be the star player on a team and he didn’t disappoint as his great play earned him the league’s Most Improved Player award. After last year’s game 7 loss to the Cavaliers, Oladpio texted his trainer “When do we start? I’m ready to take it to the another level.”. I can’t wait to see what he will do this season! Oladipo had the eighth highest usage last season with 30.1%. Sabonis also set career highs in all major categories as he averaged 11.6 points per game and 7.7 rebounds per game despite only playing 24.5 minutes per game. He was a great compliment to the athletic Myles Turner and bruiser Thaddeus Young. Sabonis was second on the team in usage with 22.0%. Lance Stephenson left the Pacers to join the Los Angeles Lakers, however in return the Pacers signed a similar type player in Tyreke Evans. Evans hasn’t played more than 52 games in a season since 2014, but when healthy can provide another ball handler and scorer off the bench.
Last Season Record: 44-38, #7 Seed
Projected Season Record: 48-34
The favorite to win this division is the Milwaukee Bucks at +110. They also have a lot of people’s favorite pick to win the regular season Most Valuable Player award in Giannis Antetkounmpo. It’s been tough sledding for the Bucks as far as the playoffs are concerned. They have made the playoffs in eight out of their last 16 years, but have been eliminated in the first round in every one! It doesn’t help that their best finish in those 16 years was the sixth seed, so they have never held home court advantage. They haven’t made it past the first round of the playoffs since the 2000 season. Newly acquired head coach Mike Budenholzer will look to take this talented team to new heights this season. Budenholzer coached the Atlanta Hawks for the past five seasons before they agreed to part ways after a 24-58 season. Any time you have a player like Antetkounmpo on your team you are going to have high expectations. The Bucks currently have the fourth highest odds to win the Eastern Conference at +2000. Antetkounmpo is coming off a year where he set career highs in points per game (26.9), rebounds per game (10.0) and field goal percentage (52.9%). He was one of three players to average over 25 points and 10 rebounds per game last season and he led the league in points scored in the paint. Antetkounmpo also had a 31.1% usage rate which was the fourth highest in the league last season. The downfall of the Bucks and Antetkounmpo has been the three point shooting. They ranked 25th in three point attempts and 27th in three pointers made last season. Khris Middleton seems to be their lone sharp shooter. Middleton scored a career high 20.1 points per game that included a career high 146 made three pointers last season. The Bucks signed Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova in free agency to help with their deep shooting woes. Lopez led all centers last season with 112 made three pointers making them at a 34.5% rate.
Last Season Record: 39-43,
Projected Season Record: 39-43
It’s been a tough go for the Motor City over the last several years. The Detroit Pistons have made the playoffs just once in their last nine seasons. The year they made it was the only year of those nine that they had a winning record. The Pistons made a big trade to bring Blake Griffin on board in the middle of last season. They shipped away Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley, Boban Marjanovic and two draft picks for Blake Griffin, Willie Reed and Brice Johnson. I’m not exactly sure why they made the deal as they already have All Star Andre Drummond clogging up the paint, but I guess they wanted to be the next New Orleans Pelicans with two great big men like Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins. Unfortunately despite having two great rebounders in Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond, the Pistons still held a negative rebounding differential last season. They also had the fourth least amount of blocks per game, so this duo really isn’t scaring anyone in the paint. I’m old enough to remember when Blake Griffin was dunking over cars and Kendrick Perkins, now he’s getting stuffed by a second year player with an Afro. Life comes at you fast! Griffin was unable to play the last eight games with the Pistons, but they went 11-14 when he joined and played last season. Another interesting note was that Griffin averaged 2.8 less points per game and 1.3 less rebounds per game once he joined the Pistons. He had a lower field goal percentage, but increased his assists per game. When Griffin is at his peak he handles the ball like a point forward. On this team it makes complete sense. The Pistons backcourt has to be one of the league’s least exciting backcourts. Point guards like Reggie Jackson, Ish Smith and Jose Calderon. No Pistons player averaged over two made three pointers per game. From a fantasy perspective it doesn’t help that they played at the 24th slowest pace last season while they only scored 103.8 points per game.
Last Season Record: 27-55
Projected Season Record: 30-52
After nine consecutive seasons without a losing record, the Chicago Bulls had quite the drop off last season as they finished the year with a record of 27-55. It makes sense to have a bad year when you trade your best player for younger talent to build for the future. On draft night in 2017, the Bulls traded away Jimmy Butler and the 16th overall pick (Justin Patton) for Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine and the 7th overall pick (Lauri Markkanen). This ended up being a fantastic trade for the Bulls due to the turmoil in Minnesota with Jimmy Butler now wanting out and Justin Patton who has appeared in just one game for four minutes as he’s dealt with multiple injuries. Dunn, LaVine and Markkanen all had usage rates over 20.0% when they played last season and they all looked really impressive. Markkanen made the NBA All-Rookie First Team as he averaged 15.2 points per game and 7.5 rebounds per game despite playing less than 30 minutes per game. Unfortunately for Markkanen he sprained his right shooting elbow on the third day of training camp. His timetable to return is very much in the air, which sucks for him as he was looking to make a big leap in year two after he put on 15 lbs of muscle in the off-season. With Markkanen out for awhile, it’ll be the Zach LaVine show. LaVine signed a 4 year/$78 Million dollar contract this off-season in hopes to be the man in Chicago. LaVine has already scored more than 20 points in three out of his first four preseason games. He has a chance to put up some big numbers without Markkanen in the lineup for the early part of the season. The Bulls also signed Jabari Parker in the off-season. The former #2 overall pick will likely come off the bench for the Bulls this season, but will be a focal point of the team’s second unit. The Bulls ranked in the top 10 in pace, while allowing exactly 110 points per game last season. I’ll be heavily overweight on Bulls games for the early part of the season.