Indiana Pacers: After years of rebuilding, the Pacers are finally back to the elite status the franchise held during the late-90s and early-00s. But the largest reason to expect Indiana to win the Central Division in the 2012-13 season is not a reason within the Pacers’ control, but because of the issues surrounding Derrick Rose’s ACL injury and how long his rehabilitation will keep him out of action this year. However, Indiana is still a very good team. After the Pacers finished last season with a 42-24 record as the No. 3 seed in the playoffs, and held a 2-1 lead over the eventual-champion Miami Heat in the second round, Indiana seems prepared to leap into the rankings of the elite teams in the Eastern Conference. Indiana has depth at every position, and talent as well. In the offseason, the Pacers locked up Roy Hibbert to a four-year, $56 million deal in which the Association will see the 25-year old Georgetown product become one of the league’s premier centers. Last season, Hibbert put up his best numbers to date in his four-year career at 13 ppg, 9rpg, and 2 bpg, and his production figures to increase again this year. Paired with Hibbert in the post is David West, a 9-year vet who averaged 13 ppg on 49% shooting and 7 rpg in his first year in Indiana. On the perimeter, Danny Granger continues to make his case as one of the league’s best small forwards after averaging 19 ppg last season. Flanking him is swingman Paul George, who made great strides in his sophomore campaign, putting up 12 ppg while shooting 44%. At point guard, George Hill will take over full-time after he earned the starting job late last year over Darren Collison—who the Pacers traded to Dallas to clear the way for Hill. Coach Frank Vogel also has a great deal of bench depth, with Ian Mahinmi—acquired from Dallas in the Collison deal—Jeff Pendergraph, D.J. Augustin, Sam Young, and Tyler Hansbrough all able to give quality quantities of minutes as reserves. Indiana’s rookies also have the potential to contribute early, especially in Miles Plumlee, Orlando Johnson, and Ben Hansbrough.
With all that being said, there may not be a more well-rounded team in the East—and maybe the NBA—than the Pacers this year, both in terms of depth and talent. And as deep as they are, there doesn’t seem to be any other viable candidate to prevent the Miami Heat from reaching their third-consecutive NBA Finals than this year’s rendition of the Indiana Pacers.
Could Make the Playoffs (in order of likelihood)
Chicago Bulls: In 1985, Michael Jordan broke his foot and played in only 18 games. The Bulls did not rush him to return. With doubts surrounding Derrick Rose and his ability to play this season, Bulls fans should expect the Bulls to handle his injury in a similar manner. Rose tore his anterior cruciate ligament roughly six months ago in an April playoff game, and that type of injury requires a rehabilitation period ranging from 8- to 12-months. As a result, Bulls fans should not expect Rose to return to the team until at least the beginning of 2013. But, with the more we learn about the injury, speculation abounds as to whether the 2010-11 MVP will play at all this season.
So what are the Bulls going to do this season, regardless of whether Rose returns or not? At the very least, the Bulls are still a playoff team. Chicago has one of the top centers in the Eastern Conference in Joakim Noah, and Luol Deng will likely be the leader on the perimeter for the Bulls this year. In the post with Noah will be Carlos Boozer and Taj Gibson, who combined with Noah to put up 39 ppg and 26 rpg as one of the East’s best frontcourt trios. Nate Robinson and Kirk HInrich will figure to see most of the minutes left in Rose’s void, and they should be serviceable while Rose is out. Plus, with the lack of depth in the East overall, the Bulls should figure to pick up a seed in the lower half of the postseason.
Milwaukee Bucks: This one is a stretch. But Milwaukee does have a group of talented young players and the Bucks will score a lot of points this year with their starting backcourt of Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis. Ellis led the team in scoring last season with 20 ppg and Jennings was right there with him at 19 ppg. Milwaukee is also pretty solid in the frontcourt, with Ersan Ilyasova, Drew Gooden, and Samuel Dalembert likely to start at the forwards and center spots. Ilyasova put up 13 ppg and 9 rpg last season, earning him a five-year, $45 million deal with the Bucks this past offseason. At only 25-years old, Ilyasova is entering his prime and his stats should show that this upcoming season. The 31-year old Gooden is still productive, as seen by his averages of 14 ppg and 7 rpg last season. Anchoring the Bucks in the paint, Dalembert will also contribute after he put up 8 ppg and 7 rpg with 2 bpg as a member of the Houston Rockets in 2011-12. The Bucks also have a good degree of depth on the bench in Ekpe Udoh—who could end up as the Bucks’ starting power forward in a matter of time—Marquis Daniels, Mike Dunleavy, and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. But what could really put the Bucks over the top this year is the play of their rookies, namely John Henson and Doron Lamb.
Again, this is a stretch, but the Bucks could make a serious run at the postseason this year. Milwaukee finished only four games back of last postseason’s No. 8 seed, the Philadelphia 76ers, and with the weakness of the Eastern Conference as a whole, whoever ends up with the No. 7 & 8 seeds this year will be a total crapshoot.
Detroit Pistons: Like I said with Milwaukee—total crapshoot. But the Pistons have been developing a number of quality young players with a lot of potential that could pay itself off this year. At 32-years old, Piston mainstay Tayshaun Prince and veteran swingman Corey Maggette will be the only players older than 29 this year. Brandon Knight and Rodney Stuckey will likely start in the backcourt again for Detroit, and both have proven to be some of the best up-and-coming guards in the Association. Last season, Stuckey put up 15 ppg while Knight averaged 13 ppg in his rookie campaign, and both should continue to improve this year. Greg Monroe will also be better, after his breakout year last year in which he put up nearly a double-double every night with 15 ppg and 10 rpg. Prince will still be reliable at the three, with his ability to defend the opposition’s best perimeter player still intact. After those guys, there are a number of players who could step up to fill roles this year, most notably first-round pick Andre Drummond, who appears to have the inside track to start at center when Detroit’s season begins. Another first-round pick, Khris Middleton, will likely have the chance to contribute early on, alongside past first-rounders like Austin Daye, Jonny Flynn, Charlie Villanueva, and Terrence Williams.
The likelihood of the Pistons making the playoffs this year is, similar to Knicks, in the slim-to-none area. But the possibility is there, and if some of this team’s young players build off last season, the ceiling is very high for this current group of Pistons. In all reality, the Pistons are likely another year away from being a serious contender for the postseason but that isn’t to say it could happen this year.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Sorry Cleveland, but even though the Cavs have some young talent too, it isn’t close to being able to contend for the playoffs. Kyrie Irving established himself as one of the league’s top-tier point guards last season, averaging 19 ppg and 5 apg en route to earning the title of NBA Rookie of the Year. But after Irving, there really isn’t much to count on for the Cavs. Veteran center Anderson Varejao will man the 5-spot for Cleveland last year, and will be a solid defensive presence until Tyler Zeller develops into what Cleveland hopes he can turn into. Tristan Thompson had rather pedestrian numbers last year, posting 8 ppg and 7 rpg—although he did start 60 games last year. If there’s a player fans should look for to take a big leap this year on the Cavs, it’s Thompson. Fans will also be looking at Dion Waiters, the team’s first-round choice in this year’s draft with the No. 3 selection overall. I’m still searching for answers as to why he was chosen in that spot by Dan Gilbert and general manager Chris Grant, and I’m sure a lot of Cleveland fans are too. That, especially when players like Thomas Robinson and Harrison Barnes were still on the board. Anyway, Waiters will certainly be under a microscope in Cleveland this season. Speaking of rookies, an interesting one to watch will be forward Kevin Jones, who led the Big East in scoring and rebounding last season but went undrafted in June—if he gets any minutes.
Overall though, the Cavaliers just don’t have much. Cleveland is not deep at any position, and there isn’t any single player that can be pointed out as one who could come off the bench and give quality minutes. Cleveland is still a few years away, but this year’s development will hopefully be a step in the right direction.
Top 5 Players
C: Roy Hibbert, Indiana Pacers
F/C: Greg Monroe, Detroit Pistons
F: Danny Granger, Indiana Pacers
G: Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers
G: Paul George, Indiana Pacers (interim for the injured Derrick Rose)