With the regular season almost here, theScore basketball writers Joseph Casciaro, William Lou, Alex Wong, and Joe Wolfond sat down to chat about the major storylines impacting the Central Division:
Moderator: So let's kick this preview off with a simple question. Just how good are the Milwaukee Bucks?
Joseph Casciaro: I don't think they're that good. I think they have a transcendent talent who could win MVP, and outside of that, it's kind of the same story it's been the last couple of years where the roster around that transcendent talent just doesn't add up the way it should. Management hasn't done a great job of putting the right pieces around Giannis (Antetokounmpo). I think they're an above-average team that should win 45 games in the East, but I don't think they're a threat to make much noise in the playoffs.
Joe Wolfond: I'm interested to watch Milwaukee this year because I feel like this is a good litmus test for how good coaches actually are. The biggest knock on the Bucks for the past couple of seasons is that they're poorly coached, kind of disorganized, and don't really know what they're doing at all. I actually think they have enough talent to win 50 games.
William Lou: But don't we follow the same pattern all the time with these young, talented teams? It's like, we never want to blame the young, talented guys first, so we always go after the coach for players performing below expectations, and then eventually they fire the coach, and it's like, "Ehhhh ..."
JW: But this is different, because if you watched the Bucks last season, you could actually see that they didn't know what they were supposed to be doing. There were so many games where they just ... I don't know, man. Their offensive possessions looked totally shambolic. They didn't have a lot of flow. They were just so dependent on Giannis to do everything for them.
WL: Their defense was also very bad for a team that should be better.
JW: ... that ostensibly has a lot of good defensive personnel.
WL: But part of the thing with personnel is, they don't have a consistent point guard and they don't have a consistent center. That's just been the case forever. They've always been really terrible at rebounding. Last year, they were second-last in defensive rebounding percentage. They addressed that this summer by getting Ersan Ilyasova to be a small-ball center; he's going to get five boards per game. And then there's Brook Lopez, who is the most anemic rebounder for a center there has been since Andrea Bargnani retired. But at least Lopez boxes out so other people can get rebounds.
JC: I do think the Brook Lopez thing was more about spacing, which is crazy - in 2018, you get Brook Lopez for spacing and 3-point shooting. But I don't know how much they signed Brook Lopez to do big-man things.
Alex Wong: Has Giannis won a playoff round?
JC: No. He's won seven playoff games. He's 7-12.
JW: They've gone to at least six (games) every time.
WL: A badge of honor. At least six. This past season he should have won!
AW: If he's that good, right?
WL: He should have won this past season. Boston started off really poorly in that playoff series, and Giannis couldn't do enough to actually sway that (final) game. You come down to Game 7 ... and I mean, it's at TD Garden, so that's obviously a tough game in a hostile road environment, but Giannis shot 7-of-17 ... he wasn't that great.
JW: In that series, he averaged 26 points, 10 rebounds, over six assists, shot 57 percent from the field ...
WL: He's going to do that in every series! He's gotta do more, man.
JC: He didn't have a great Game 7.
WL: He didn't have a great Game 7, which you can understand. But still - I just feel like, with great players, you have to have great, huge moments.
AW: Like, he should win.
JC: It's obviously easier said than done, but he should have been the best player by far in Game 7. And he wasn't.
WL: And even Khris Middleton was good in that playoff series.
JW: He was incredible.
JC: Middleton is a borderline All-Star.
WL: Middleton is the exact borderline for ... if you're better than Khris Middleton, you should be in the All-Star Game, and if you're worse or equal to him, you shouldn't be.
JC: He's almost as good as you can be without being an All-Star. Really good 3-and-D player who can actually handle the ball now, too; he can kind of run your offense. You can run him off screens as a catch-and-shoot guy.
WL: His mid-range game got a lot better.
JW: He can be a pretty good free-throw guy, too.
JC: Khris Middleton is a very, very complete two-way player in today's game who averaged, I think, 20 points per game last season. If someone read you Khris Middleton's stat line last season ...
WL: 20 points, 5.2 rebounds, four assists ...
JC: ... and a steal and a half. If someone just read you that stat line, and you didn't know who that was, you'd say, "Well, that's a hell of a player." And he plays defense.
WL: And he played all 82 games last year and heavy minutes. Thirty-six minutes.
JC: I think he's by far their second-best player. Their top two is obviously fine. It's the things the Bucks have done around them. Even the Eric Bledsoe thing. First of all, Eric Bledsoe isn't what he was a few years ago. Second of all, Milwaukee did not need a rampaging rim-to-rim guard who can't shoot - that's literally the last thing they needed to surround Giannis with. And that's what they got, instead of finding another shooter.
JW: I still think that was a pretty good trade for them.
AW: Who was their point guard before that?
JW: Malcolm Brogdon?
WL: Matthew Dellavedova?
AW: Jason Terry? (laughs)
Moderator: Let's talk about the Pistons, who made a major coaching move by snagging Dwane Casey. Does this team have one of the largest range of outcomes depending on how the players respond to Casey?
JW: I actually think they have one of the smallest ranges of outcomes.
WL: And what's that range?
JW: Somewhere between 38 and 44 wins, and between seventh and ninth in the East.
WL: That's a pretty small range.
JW: I feel like their roster is so flawed that they can only be so good. But there's also enough talent there, and they play in the East, and they now have Casey, who's a no-nonsense, coach-the-shit-out-of-every-single-regular-season-game kind of coach, they can't be that bad, either.
AW: It's the perfect situation for Dwane, then. Just needs to get the team to the playoffs. That's his whole job. Doesn't matter what they do in the playoffs.
JC: Zero qualified NBA guards.
WL: They have Reggie Jackson, who ... I mean, Reggie Jackson didn't play well individually, but the Pistons were 27-15 with Reggie Jackson in the lineup last year, which is kind of surprising, because he shot terribly as he always does, and was injured. They have Jose Calderon now. Ish Smith is always there, ready to be the best point guard on the team.
JC: I didn't mind the Glenn Robinson pickup.
WL: He's probably the most low-key Slam Dunk Contest winner since Fred Jones, who won the dunk contest on a layup.
JW: Did Glenn Robinson III win a dunk contest?
WL: Yeah! That's what I'm saying.
JW: No he did not! Which dunk contest?
JW: What did he do to win that?
WL: I don't know. He jumped over a guy.
JC: Them trading for Blake Griffin was as much about the product as a marketing thing. They're just trying to reach fans; they moved to downtown Detroit and thought they were going to have this renaissance of Detroit basketball passion ... you know, DEE-TROIT BASKET-BALLLL!
JW: But nobody lives in downtown Detroit! Why would you put an arena there? There's nobody there!
JC: They were wrong. But the owner just wants to get to the playoffs. He just wants to sell tickets again. He just wants to fill that arena. I don't know how much they looked at it that bringing Griffin in was going to be their seminal moment of becoming contenders again. They were trying to put butts in the seats. And I think they quickly realized that Griffin isn't who he was either as a ticket seller or as an impact player. And now they're handcuffed with this roster, and not the cleanest cap sheet. They'll be good enough to hang in the playoff race, bad enough to still not be relevant, but nowhere bad enough to land a great pick.
JC: I know! I'm just saying it's not going to move the needle much.
WL: And also, Griffin has averaged 55 games over the last four seasons. He just gets injured. And if you're in Detroit, and you're injured, you might just take some extra time, enjoy the city, maybe rehab in L.A. I wouldn't necessarily be eager to come back super-quick to push this team to the eighth seed. And because there is this ball-handling vacuum, Griffin is going to have more of the ball. And that could be good, or it could be bad. Griffin, when he has the ball, runs a pick-and-roll, tries to get a mismatch, goes into the post, and tries to go through people. And it doesn't really work great. That's not a really good-looking offense. It produces a lot of tough twos, which is ... I don't know. I want to see what Casey does with the roster, because it's not really something he's dealt with in the past.
JC: The funny thing is ... what we all praise Casey for is, as you said before, "coaching the shit" out of teams in the regular season. Dwane Casey teams are very prepared for every regular season game, they're very up for the challenge, very consistent, they don't really have those lulls. They're very even-keel. And that's perfect for the regular season. But if you think about it, they had Stan Van Gundy. And I know he took on more than he could handle with the dual role. But if you're looking for a guy that coaches the shit out of every single game, is maniacal about preparation and keeping teams on the ball, Stan Van Gundy's that guy. So when you look at going from Van Gundy to Casey, is there really that much of an "oh, we're more prepared" situation? I don't think so.
JW: This will be another one of those situations where we find out a head coach is worth. I also think that Van Gundy tends to grate on players ...
WL: Dwane's the opposite. He's like your dad.
JW: Casey's players have been typically fond of him, and he gets the most out of them, whereas Van Gundy ... he yells a lot, and he sort of puts out this facade of being hard-nosed and demanding, but not so secretly, I think some of his players tend to tune him out.
JC: Also, look at his history. He got replaced in Miami ...
WL: He got backstabbed.
JC: Well, say what you will about Shaq, but at the time what did he say was the reason that all the players in the locker room wanted a change? He said that Van Gundy was the master of panic. I think the fascinating thing with the Pistons is, is Andre Drummond shooting threes? Dude said he was making 200 corner threes per game.
AW: Yo, everyone makes 200 corner threes in the offseason.
JC: I agree with that, but Dwane Casey came out on media day and said two-to-three threes per game for Andre Drummond is within reason. We're talking about a guy who has literally never made more than one three in a game in his career ...
JW: Well, if Dwane Casey said it on media day, then you know it's definitely going to happen.
WL: Can we talk about Dwane Casey's press tour? Because he has said some interesting things.
JW: Dwane Casey also said that Stanley Johnson's the best option to guard LeBron James.
JC: That's pure hyperbole. That's just a coach gassing up his players. We're talking about specifically saying, "I'm giving this guy the green light and he's going to shoot this many threes per game."
JW: He needs to be, like, "If Drummond isn't shooting two or three threes per game, he's getting benched."
JC: He and Blake Griffin were playing 1-on-1 at the USA Basketball camp, and Drummond was handling the ball, and saying that's another thing they want him to do this season. It could end in disaster ...
JW: Dwane Casey is used to running his offense through guards. So, the solution might be to have Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond handle the ball.
JC: It probably also speaks to the desperation of trying to get the most out of this roster. It's almost like you don't know where to turn, so you're like, "Well, all right Andre, you better start hoisting those threes, bud, 'cause we don't know where else the improvement is coming from."
JW: You look at the league, and it's totally guard and wing dominated right now, and the Pistons have no good guards or wings.
AW: Who knew the Pistons were so fascinating?
JC: They're not. That's the point.
Moderator: I want to get your thoughts on Indiana – and specifically, how they were a solid team with Victor Oladipo on the floor and not good at all when he sat. Is that something that changes this season?
JC: I think that Tyreke Evans pickup is really big for them in that regard. Obviously he's not the player that Oladipo has turned himself into, but they really did desperately need another guy who could not just facilitate the offense, but can create his own offense, create his own shot, just get the offense moving. I think that's why they struggled so much when Oladipo went to the bench last season. Evans' ability to do that, whether it's for 15, 18, 20 minutes, whatever, I think that's a huge load off Oladipo's shoulders.
WL: Why didn't Tyreke Evans get a better contract? He only got a one-year, $12 million deal. He averaged 20, five, and five last season, shot well from three as well ...
AW: There's no money out there.
WL: It makes me a little bit curious. Nobody wanted to trade for him at the trade deadline ... he had a really good year. I thought he'd have a bigger contract than this. But what worries me most is that teams this season will be more prepared for Indiana. Coming into last season, everybody thought Indiana was going to be this 25-win team; they didn't take them seriously. And they worked really hard every single night. They have the kind of players to execute that way. Thaddeus Young is a hard worker, (Bojan) Bogdanovic is a hard worker, (Darren) Collison actually turned in one of his best seasons, and obviously Oladipo made this huge jump. I think they surprised a lot of teams. And if teams are going to be more prepared for the Pacers, I'm not sure they're going to be as good as they were last season. But I think that Oladipo has another jump in him, as crazy as that sounds. He is a hard worker.
JW: They definitely got better on paper, but they're one of these teams that had seven different guys have career years. We've seen this happen before. There was that Suns team a few years back where everyone simultaneously had a career year, and they immediately regressed to being a mediocre team again. I feel like the Pacers could be one of those teams, where Oladipo isn't quite as good as he was last season, and Collison doesn't lead the league in three-point shooting ... I think Myles Turner is the biggest X-factor. If he can actually make the leap that everyone expected him to make last year, then they are a top-four team in the East, no problem.
JC: Myles Turner has been Indiana's X-factor for the last three years. They really looked at him as the post-Paul George franchise player; they really wanted him to take that torch. And fortunately for them, Victor Oladipo ended up snatching it and running with it ...
JW: That's probably good for Turner, though, right? It takes some pressure off.
JC: He's not suited to be that guy.
Moderator: Let's finish this off with some Central Division predictions.
AW: The Cavs don't win the east.
JW: The Pacers win the division and finish as the 4-seed.
JC: My Central Division prediction is that this is the season you start hearing Giannis rumblings about not being happy there. With Giannis, it's been very steady and consistent, like, "I love it here, I want to be here." I think this is the year that, with some turmoil in Milwaukee, you start hearing rumblings about Giannis' potential departure.
WL: Zach LaVine averages 22 points.
JW: We didn't even talk about the Bulls.
WL: We don't need to talk about the Bulls.
JC: Yeah, let's not.
Other entries in this series: