By Lorenzo Tanos
LAST YEAR'S LEADERS:
Scoring – Derrick Rose (21.8)
Rebounding –Joakim Noah (9.8)
Assists – Rose (7.9)
Steals – Ronnie Brewer (1.1)
Blocks – Noah (1.4)
Minutes – Luol Deng (39.4)
FRONTCOURT – Although his stats were once again down in his second year with the Bulls, Carlos Boozer was still the only member of the team to play in and start all 66 games last year. He's still the most consistent low-post threat the Bulls have, and with that in mind, we should see another healthy year from Boozer, another 15-17 points and 9-10 boards a game in the bag. He'll start at PF opposite Luol Deng, who made his first All-Star appearance despite shooting a career-low 41% from the field. His impact extends beyond being an underrated small forward who can do a little bit of everything. He hits clutch shots, plays good defense and is the consummate team player. At center, Joakim Noah could be due for the All-Star team if he continues providing the Bulls with tough low-post defense and rebounding. He did backslide a bit offensively, but he still averaged in the low double digits and he's not in there anyway to put up big scoring numbers. Yes, it's going to be more of the same from the Bulls' starting frontcourt in 2012-13.
Off the bench, the Bulls will likely be turning to Nazr Mohammed, Taj Gibson and Rip Hamilton at five, four and three respectively. Mohammed, who has seemingly been around forever, is no longer the effective scorer he used to be, but was still very serviceable for the Thunder last year. Gibson will tease with his upside, block about a shot and a half per game and excite fans when Boozer or Noah take a breather. But despite shooting an accurate 50% from the field, he's still prone to the occasional one-fer outing when he can't get his shooting to work. Hamilton, who's years removed from his face mask-wearing, hot-shooting days as a Detroit Piston, is a natural off-guard who may be forced to play the three. If his injury problems persist, young defensive ace Jimmy Butler could see minutes as a second-stringer. Vladimir Radmanovic, another player whose best days in the NBA are long gone, comes over from Atlanta but may only be worthy of third-string minutes at this point. (B+)
BACKCOURT – As 2010-11 MVP Derrick Rose goes, so do the Bulls. His ACL injury towards the end of Game 1 of the Bulls' first-round series versus the Sixers sealed the team's fate, as they headed towards an early exit despite being top seed in the Eastern Conference. As of now, the Bulls aren't sure when he'll be back, but at least they have some quality reserves who could step up in the event Rose isn't at full speed by opening day. (Which is very likely.) C.J. Watson and John Lucas III will be replaced by returning Bull Kirk Hinrich and high-flying waterbug Nate Robinson. The one-time "Captain Kirk" has regressed since his first run with the Bulls, when he was seriously flirting with All-Star status. There is a chance he could win a starting job at shooting guard, but as a natural point, he could be the first person Chicago turns to in the absence of D-Rose. Speaking of natural point guard play, Robinson finally seems to be getting it. Still, his calling card remains excitement off the bench and a shoot-first mentality that could work for (or against) a team depending on how well he's playing. First-round pick Marquis Teague could also see second-string minutes if and when Rose is out.
Oct 09, 2012; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah (13) shoots the ball over Memphis Grizzlies forward Michael Dunigan (21) during the second half at the United Center. Chicago defeats Memphis 92-88. Photo Courtesy By Mike DiNovo-US PRESSWIRE.
Marco Belinelli was brought in from New Orleans as the top candidate to replace Rip Hamilton as the Bulls’ starting off-guard. The starting job looks to be his to lose, which means he’ll have to take more initiative on offense and put his long-range ability to good use. It may be too much, though, to expect him to improve rapidly in other areas of the game, especially defense. (B+)
DRAFT – The Bulls had only one selection in the 2012 Draft, and they used it wisely on Kentucky PG Marquis Teague (29th). Teague, whose older brother Jeff plays for the Atlanta Hawks, could potentially become the better point guard of the two. But not just yet; for now, he’ll be providing depth as a third-string floor leader on the Bulls’ lineup. (B+)
FREE AGENCY/TRADES – The Bulls reloaded their guard rotation, acquiring Hinrich, Robinson and Belinelli through free agency. All three have the experience to make a difference for the Bulls, although none of them look like clear-cut starters at the two, which the Bulls need as a result of Hamilton’s injury problems. (C+)
SUMMARY – With a talented frontcourt, a deep bench and arguably the league’s most talented point guard, there’s no reason the Bulls shouldn’t repeat as Central Division champs in 2012-13. Still, you can’t help but think that they’re still a player or two short of making a serious NBA championship push.
PROJECTION – 1st in Central
LAST YEAR'S LEADERS:
FRONTCOURT – With Antawn Jamison's departure to the Lakers, the Cavaliers' frontcourt is now effectively led by the energetic, talented, yet injury-prone Anderson Varejao. “Sideshow Bob” was putting up career-best numbers in 2011-12 before his season was abbreviated after 25 games by a broken wrist. A year before that, he played just 31 games due to a right ankle injury. At this point, Varejao is one of the NBA's best rebounders, and it will be a pity if his third season as full-time starter is cut short by another injury. He'll be a good veteran influence to the Cavs' promising young big men – Tristan Thompson, Samardo Samuels and rookie Tyler Zeller. Thompson had a decent, if not overwhelmingly good rookie year, providing energy off the bench through his offensive rebounding and defensive play. He'll certainly benefit from additional exposure and a full-time starting job. Samuels' production slipped a bit in 2011-12, but he should be back to about 20 minutes a game, providing decent low-post scoring off the bench. He needs to work on his rebounding – his 7.9 per 36 minutes is very low for a man with his size and physical tools. Zeller, a 7-foot center out of North Carolina, was the highest-drafted senior in the 2012 NBA Draft. He runs the floor very well, has an underrated jumper and could contribute on the low post, but he may lack the athleticism and skills to be an effective pro defender.
We'd give the Cavs' frontcourt a C or even a C+ if only the four and five slots would be considered. Unfortunately, Cleveland has arguably the worst small forward rotation in the NBA. OmriCasspi, despite starting over half his games for the first time in his career, had his least-productive NBA season last year. Normally a deadshot from long range, Casspi made just 32% of his threes in 2011-12. He might be replaced in the starting lineup by Alonzo Gee, who hustles and defends quite well, but is best suited as a reserve. Jon Leuer, a second-year acquisition from Milwaukee, is a good shooter and may beat out former Laker Luke Walton for the third-string job. (D+)
BACKCOURT – Kyrie Irving was as good as advertised, despite concerns that 11 college games wouldn't be enough to justify his first-overall selection last year. And his rookie numbers (18.5 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 5.4 apg, 47% FG) speak for themselves – he's a future All-Star and a great foundation for the post-LeBron era in Cleveland. Of course, he has his share of weaknesses, such as on the defensive end, but those could be worked out as he matures as an NBA player. Off the bench, Daniel “Boobie” Gibson will be used as a three-point specialist at both guard positions. He's listed as a point guard, but still lacks the skills required to succeed at the one. For his career, he averages only 2.0 apg in 23.9 minutes a game. Ex-Memphis Grizzlies backup Jeremy Pargo will be the third-stringer.
Shooting guard is up for grabs following Anthony Parker's retirement. We don't know how rookie Dion Waiters would turn out in the NBA. At 4th overall, he's a bit of a reach – he's rawer than most of the one-and-done guys from this year's draft. Although the Dwyane Wade comparisons are a bit far-fetched, he could tremendously improve the Cavs' fastbreak game and show some hustle on the defensive end as a starter. Or he could be playing second fiddle to C.J. Miles, the former Utah Jazz swingman known for his above-average scoring and inconsistent play. KelennaAzubuike, who last saw big minutes in 2009-10, has a chance of making the final roster. (C)
COACHING – It doesn't speak well of a coach when he ends up in an ESPN list of NBA coaches you wouldn't want to play for. But for what it's worth, Byron Scott is a tough coach who had once been Coach of the Year, and his Princeton offense is well-suited for this present Cavs team. The question is how well he could get the team to execute it. (C+)
DRAFT – Unlike fellow top 10 picks and fellow off-guards Terrence Ross and Austin Rivers, Dion Waiters (4th) is very raw and looks like one of those boom-or-bust picks. Then again, I said the same thing about Jason Richardson over a decade ago, and look how he turned out from the get-go. At least Tyler Zeller (17th), who was acquired from the Mavs, is almost guaranteed of seeing quality minutes as a top frontcourt reserve, a very safe and solid selection. (C-)
FREE AGENCY/TRADES – The Cavs added quite a few role-playing, mostly young vets to their training camp roster – KelennaAzubuike, Luke Walton, Jon Leuer, C.J. Miles and Jeremy Pargo. Only Miles is expected to start and if he does, he'll probably be platooning with Waiters. Not really a groundbreaking move in terms of rebuilding. (D-)
SUMMARY – This doesn't look like a team that has made steps forward for the new season. With a questionable lottery pick, one key player retired (Anthony Parker) and another with a contender (Antawn Jamison), it looks like another season in the Central cellar for the post-LeBron Cavs.
PROJECTION – 5th in Central
LAST YEAR'S LEADERS:
FRONTCOURT – In his second NBA season, Greg Monroe established himself as one of the NBA's best young big men, leading the Pistons in scoring, rebounding and steals. And his versatility extends to his passing skills, which aren't seen as often with the Pistons as it was in John Thompson III's system at Georgetown. He'll again be starting alongside Mr. Consistency himself, Tayshaun Prince. Prince had another solid season for the Pistons in terms of numbers, but his real value is as team captain; he's still one of the Pistons' best defenders and an effective team leader.
First-round pick Andre Drummond is another one of those raw one-and-done players who could either emerge as a standout early on, or end up as a colossal bust. He's an extremely skilled shotblocker with loads of physical talent, yet needs work on the offensive end. Here's hoping his NBA career resembles that of a slightly similar University of Connecticut big man, EmekaOkafor, rather than that of yet another highly-regarded Husky center, HasheemThabeet.
The Pistons have a reserve frontcourt that has four players (five, counting likely reserve SG Corey Maggette) who can play significant minutes off the bench – Jason Maxiell, Jonas Jerebko, Austin Daye and Charlie Villanueva. Deep as this frontcourt may seem, none of these guys would get the minutes they do for the Pistons on most other teams. Maxiell stands only 6'7”, but is one of the hardest workers in the game who cleans the glass and plays good post defense for a way-undersized power forward. He'll likely be backing up Drummond at center (despite his lack of height) or starting at PF with Monroe at center if the rookie doesn't pan out. Jerebko is a solid shooter and defender off the bench, an ideal reserve glue guy for the young Pistons lineup. Daye, despite being wildly inconsistent and slumping in his third NBA season, is another versatile sort with potential. Depending on whether he progresses this season, he may just beat out the oft-injured Villanueva for a second-string role. Maggette is another possibility at reserve SF. Even 2011 second-rounder Kyle Singler, fresh from a stint with Real Madrid in Spain, could compete for the backup small forward job. (C-)
BACKCOURT – Here's one statistical tidbit about the starting backcourt of Rodney Stuckey and Brandon Knight – both men shared the lead in assists per game for the Pistons with a paltry 3.8 a piece. Despite his subpar passing numbers as a rookie, Knight had a very successful debut for the Pistons, and he can only get better facilitating the team's offense and capitalizing on his strengths as an outside shooter. Minor injuries and coaching conflicts (mainly with former head coach John Kuester) have stood in the way of Stuckey's improvement, which simply means he hasn't evolved into Joe Dumars v2.0 as some had been hoping. If he keeps his mind on the game and stays healthy, Stuckey can rebound from his recent slumps and regain his place among the NBA's best young guards.
Due to a lack of backcourt depth, Maggette will probably be the first guard off the bench. Those days of him consistently scoring over 20 points and occasionally attempting over 20 free throws a game (and making almost all of them) are long gone, but he can still put the ball in the hole. Will Bynum was one of several Pistons who regressed last season. Nonetheless, he's the best they have off the bench at the point. Second-rounder Kim English is not a reserve PG, but if Maggette plays more three than two, he could see backup minutes as Stuckey's primary reliever at shooting guard. (C-)
COACHING – Lawrence Frank's tenure has been a refreshing change from those mutinous, chaotic times under Kuester, but can he help this extremely young lineup gel together and perform above expectations? He's a good coach, but one better suited to guiding more experienced teams to success. (C+)
DRAFT – Drummond (9th) was the best true center available in the 2012 Draft class, and he fills a need for the Pistons. But he's rawer than sushi, especially on offense, and has as much bust potential as he has star potential. Khris Middleton (33rd) might be left out of the final lineup due to Singler (34th, 2011) finally joining the Pistons after a year playing overseas. It's surprising he still got drafted following a subpar junior season at Texas A&M. Singler brings some solid fundamentals and versatility to the table. English (44th) could be a second-round surprise as a talented shooter from long range. (C-)
FREE AGENCY/TRADES – The Pistons were oddly quiet in the offseason, acquiring Corey Maggette from the Bobcats for Ben Gordon and signing rookie free agent center VyacheslavKravtsov. Maggette will get to the line and provide scoring off the bench, but he's not that type of veteran addition to really get excited about. (D)
SUMMARY – One thing holding the Pistons back is the lack of a clear-cut superstar player in the lineup. Ironically, that was what Larry Brown's championship-winning “play the right way” Pistons were known for back in the day, but for such a young team, this is a huge concern. Don't expect Playoffs action in the Motor City in 2012-13.
PROJECTION – 4th in Central
LAST YEAR'S LEADERS:
FRONTCOURT – Have we seen the best from Danny Granger? Injuries have caused Granger's statistics to decline over the past three years, but for what it's worth, he is still the best the Pacers have. He's still good for 20 points per game thereabouts and above-average defense. And he's only 29 years old and healthy since last season, so don't expect another significant drop-off in performance, if any. Granger is sure to start, as is 7'2” center Roy Hibbert, who played in his first All-Star game in 2011-12 and had a sensational Playoffs run which included a 9-block outing versus the Magic. He's come a long way from his days as a tall Georgetown Hoyas project with nary a chance of playing in the pros. That said, he can still be foul-prone and inconsistent; that should be less of a problem as he continues maturing as an NBA center. He'll be backed up this season by ex-Dallas Maverick Ian Mahinmi, who was acquired in exchange for Darren Collison. The young Frenchman played very solidly last season, and was brilliant on occasion, making 55% of his shots and playing within his limits. He probably won't ever be starting material, but he's one of the better backup centers out there. Free agents Sam Young and Gerald Green will compete for minutes as second-string SF.
David West was a disappointment in his first Pacers season after playing his first eight with the Hornets. He was subpar as a rebounder and didn't get as many touches on offense.Still, we expect West to bounce back a bit after that rough debut season with the Pacers.Reserve PF Tyler Hansbrough works hard, gets to the line and makes his free throws, but his lack of speed, athleticism and NBA-caliber defense remain the biggest obstacles to a regular starting job. Oh and he shot 41% from the field last season. (B+)
BACKCOURT – The Pacers finished 42-24 despite, and not because of their point guard situation. Darren Collison was horrid in his second full-time season as a starter, averaging just 10.3 ppg and 4.8 apg in 31 minutes a game. As he'll be hoping to bounce back with the Mavericks this season, his replacement is D.J. Augustin, who regressed even further than Collison as the starting point guard of the hapless Charlotte Bobcats last season. If it's some sort of consolation, his assist numbers (6.4 per) weren't that bad. But that 38% shooting of his?Definite red flag.That's why he just might be coming off the bench and relieving George Hill. No, he's not worth the $40 million, 5-year contract he just signed. He's more of a combo guard than a pure playmaker. But when Frank Vogel played him in favor of Collison, the Pacers were a better team.
There appears to be only one thing stopping Paul George from having a similar career trajectory to Danny Granger, and that's Granger himself. George emerged as a capable starter last season, displaying the same versatility that made Granger a breakout star early on in his Pacers career, with breathtaking athleticism to boot. But he's still very young at 22 and like most players his age, he can be inconsistent. Hopefully he can stay healthy because Lance Stephenson is the best the Pacers have as a reserve off-guard. The one-time high school phenom looks to be remembered most in the NBA by his unsportsmanlike gesture towards LeBron James in the 2012 Playoffs' Indiana-Miami series. He just might be pushed down to third string if rookie Orlando Johnson pans out.(C-)
COACHING – As one of the NBA's younger coaches, Vogel certainly deserves credit for helping the Pacers overachieve despite the lack of a true “alpha dog” player, but he's made his share of head-scratcher decisions in his 1 ½ seasons as coach. Youthful mistakes aside, Vogel has the Pacers' vote of confidence and he's sure to improve even further in the decision-making department.(B)
DRAFT – With the 26th pick, the Pacers drafted Miles Plumlee, who immediately conjures images of every Greg Newton, TaymonDomzalski and Shavlik Randolph who wore a Duke Blue Devils jersey in the past. You get the idea. While he could be better than those three, he's not the type of player you'd select late in the first. Orlando Johnson (36th) was a productive mid-major scorer for UCSB who has the size to play off-guard in the NBA. He's a good athlete with defensive potential who could take minutes away from Lance Stephenson. (C-)
FREE AGENCY/TRADES –Collison out, Augustin in. Basically it's one young point guard with consistency problems replaced with another. At least Mahinmi could play a similar role to recently-retired Jeff Foster off the bench (circa 2003-09, that is), while Young and Green both make decent, athletic backups to Granger.Sundiata Gaines is another veteran role player who could contribute in a pinch.(C)
SUMMARY – The Pacers turned a lot of heads by going 42-24 despite the lack of an elite point guard and less productive seasons from Granger and West. As Augustin is even more inconsistent than Collison, we're not too sure the Pacers' lineup changes would lead to a 50-win campaign in 2012-13. The Pacers still look like a playoff team, but perhaps not good enough to earn home court advantage. (Read: Anywhere between 5th to 8th is likely.)
PROJECTION – 2ndin Central
LAST YEAR'S LEADERS:
* - mid-season acquisition
FRONTCOURT – Whether you want to believe it or not, ErsanIlyasova is the star of the Bucks' frontcourt. Once a reliable backup and part-time starter at both forward spots, Ilyasova earned a starting job for the Bucks midway through 2011-12 and turned into a player with no true weakness. He's a smart player on both ends who made the most out of his time as starting power forward, but this year, he may be moved to the three spot due to the additional options at four and five. We hope last year wasn't a fluke. Ilyasova at SF means Drew Gooden would move from center to his natural PF spot; we must take note that Andrew Bogut's ever-present injuries led to all this happening. At times, Gooden seemed to be playing the best ball of his career. On other occasions he looked nothing like the fourth overall pick he was in 2002. Overall, he had his best season in about five years, but as usual, don't expect anything more than 30 minutes per game. This will be especially true with the addition of first-rounder John Henson. The ex-Tar Heel was twice named ACC Defensive Player of the Year, and he clearly has more upside than incumbent second-string power forward Larry Sanders. He'll contribute immediately on defense but could use a few years to hone his offensive skills.Ilyasova's backups will be Luc Mbah a Moute and Tobias Harris. Harris could beat out Mbah a Moute for second string due to his youth and offensive potential.
EkpeUdoh, who joined the Bucks midway last year in the trade that sent Bogut to the Warriors, is another young big man (like Henson and Sanders) whose defense is far better than his offense. Case in point – 5.7 ppg on 41% field goal shooting in 20.1 mpg for the Bucks. Sad to say, he's looking more like one of the draft class of 2010's biggest busts. And he still might not be starting, as Samuel Dalembert signed with the Bucks as a free agent this season. Though not the best offensive center by a stretch, at least Dalembert has more often than not made more than half his shot attempts. And yes, he's also a pretty good defender. That too can be said about fellow veteran acquisition Joel Przybilla, although he's just about finished at an injury-prone 33. (C)
BACKCOURT – Strange stats from last season – upon joining the Bucks in the Bogut trade, Monta Ellis (17.6 ppg, 5.9 apg) was more of a point guard stat-wise than Brandon Jennings (19.1 ppg, 5.5 apg). But then, it shouldn't be strange – Ellis has always been an underrated passer known first and foremost for his prolificscoring.With Ellis having adjusted to Scott Skiles' system, he should be back to his 20-plus scoring days on a more consistent basis. Jennings, on the other hand, knows the system well and continued improving in every area, especially shooting accuracy. After two sub-40% years, Jennings made 42% of his shots in 2011-12. And just in case you missed it, neither man is an especially skilled defender.
Backup point guard is not a problem, with BenoUdrih serving as Jennings' reliever. Despite struggling on offense, Udrih averaged 7.6 assists per 36 minutes, which is well above his usual per-36 assist numbers. What mystifies is how he followed up five seasons shooting 82% or better from the line with a subpar 71% last year. At shooting guard, rookie Doron Lamb and free agent signee Marquis Daniels will vie for second string. As Daniels is well past his prime, Lamb has the looks of a potential steal at 42nd overall. (B)
COACHING – Scott Skiles is well above-average as an Xs and Os guy. He runs a very tight ship and won't tolerate disrespect. (See: Jackson, Stephen.) Then again, he can get too abrasive for comfort. He's not above suspending players before the third strike or cussing his players out for some infraction or another. Still, we have to give him credit for maximizing the Bucks' talent and shifting to a running game last season. Hopefully that, plus his ever-present commitment to defense will continue. (B-)
DRAFT – If I previously said John Henson (13th) wasn't a smart pick for the Bucks, I take that back. Provided he pans out, he could be better than Udoh and Sanders put together. But he may still be a few years away from making a big contribution; aside from being raw offensively, this 6'11” forward/center weighs just 220 pounds soaking wet.Doron Lamb (42nd) comes over from Kentuckywith a reputation as a top outside shooter. He should make up for his lack of athletic ability with above-average basketball smarts. (B+)
FREE AGENCY/TRADES – Draft-day trade acquisition Dalembert is a short-term solution at center; he's a 31-year-old player who peaked a few years ago. Przybilla could see some minutes if somebody gets injured but otherwise, he too has peaked and those injuries have taken their toll on him. Also, Marquis Daniels apparently still has an NBA job. (D+)
SUMMARY – The Bucks have a talented young backcourt and ErsanIlyasova to look forward to in 2012-13, but still look like a 50-50 bet to make the Playoffs due to their current lack of star-quality big men.
PROJECTION – 3rd in Central
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