Our series on candidates for internal improvement on every team in the NBA continues with the Central Division, where most of the action in the Eastern Conference is. After four seasons of wandering in the desert, Cleveland is celebrating the return of their prodigal son, a move which instantly changed the trajectory of the Cavs franchise and the balance of power in the league. So what teams are positioned to be their rivals over the next few seasons?
The last time LeBron James was in Cleveland, the Chicago Bulls were one of the up and coming young teams in the NBA, losing to the Cavs in the first round of the playoffs. A lot has happened in the meantime, but the Bulls have managed to bring along a number of young players and they have a few promising rookies coming down the pipeline. If Derrick Rose can stay healthy and return to form, that could quickly become one of the best rivalries in the NBA.
The Indiana Pacers emerged as LeBron’s chief rival when he was in Miami, but they have been decimated by injuries and free agent defections in the off-season. Like Chicago the last few years, they are trying to overcome a devastating injury to their franchise player while using that time to develop a few young players and position themselves to get back into the fray. It could turn out for the best, as the Pacers might benefit from adding a lottery pick to their core.
Down the road, both the Detroit Pistons and the Milwaukee Bucks have the young talent to conceivable challenge Cleveland. While both are still in the beginning of a rebuilding process, they already have the most important parts behind them - acquiring potential franchise players. The Central Division is interesting now, but it could conceivably become much more interesting in the next few years ... or the Cavs could just steamroll everyone. That’s possible too.
- Cleveland Cavaliers: Dion Waiters:
After receiving a max contract in the offseason, Kyrie Irving is the young player who has gotten most of the pub on the Cavs new super-team. Waiters, meanwhile, is best known for some of the more reckless things he has said to the media. However, if he can continue to improve and live up to being a No. 4 overall pick, Cleveland can be really scary. For all the legitimately goofy stuff he does on and off the court, he is a very good young player.
At 6’4 220 with a 6’7 wingspan, Waiters is a dynamic scorer who can shoot, handle, pass and swing between either guard position. While he will have to play more without the ball in his hands this season, he is going to get a lot of open looks and he is more than capable of capitalizing on them. If he makes the easy play, moves the ball and competes on the defensive end, he could be one of the best fourth options in the NBA and start living up to his boasts.
- Chicago Bulls: Tony Snell:
After being thrust into the Chicago rotation by necessity as a rookie, Snell will have to compete for minutes on a much deeper team. He has all the tools to be a successful wing player in Tom Thibodeau’s system - at 6’7 200, he has the length and athleticism to swing between multiple positions on the perimeter and he has shown the ability to knock down 3’s. While he was only at 32% last season, he was a career 38% three-point shooter at New Mexico.
In order to get on the floor, he will need to internalize Thibodeau’s defensive principles while also becoming a more complete offensive player. He shot 38% from the floor last season, numbers only Kirk Hinrich is allowed to put up in Chicago. In a best-case scenario, Snell makes a leap similar to the one Jimmy Butler made in his second season. If not, with Doug McDermott breathing down his neck for minutes, he may not be long for the Bulls.
- Indiana Pacers: Solomon Hill
Hill didn’t really get a chance to show what he could as a rookie, when he was behind Paul George, Lance Stephenson and Evan Turner in Indiana’s rotation. With all three gone this season, the Pacers will give Hill every chance to eat up minutes and establish himself as a legitimate NBA player. They made their bones as a franchise that drafts and develops, so they have to hope that Hill learned something going up against those guys in practice.
Coming out of college, Hill had a rep as a guy who was a jack of all trades but a master of none. At 6’7 225, he doesn’t have elite athleticism and he was never an explosive scorer at Arizona. He was a very smart four-year player who could do a little bit of everything - shoot, score, pass, rebound and defend. While he probably can’t handle a huge offensive burden, he could become an effective NBA player by just filling in the cracks and playing within himself.
- Detroit Pistons: Andre Drummond
There was only one real reason for Stan Van Gundy to take the Pistons job - the 21-year-old freak of nature on their roster still young enough to be molded into anything. Despite all the dysfunction around him last season, Drummond put up some fairly eye-popping numbers - 13 points, 13 rebounds and 1.5 steals on 63% shooting. Not only is he one of the biggest human beings in the league, he is incredibly athletic for a guy with his monstrous size.
If you close your eyes and project a few years forward, you can see Van Gundy using Drummond in many of the same ways he used Dwight Howard in Orlando. To be sure, he still has a ton of work to do on both ends of the floor and his free-throw shooting is going to have to improve. Nevertheless, for as raw a player as Drummond still is, he still managed to put up a 22.6 PER last season. Spread the floor around him and anything is possible.
- Milwaukee Bucks: Giannis Antetokounmpo
Giannis was one of the best stories in the league last season, but all the positive press has obscured what a raw player he still. For all the flashes of greatness he showed as a rookie, he wasn’t all that effective in his time on the floor, with per-36 minute averages of 10 points, 6 rebounds and 3 assists on 41% shooting. Translation to potential to production is not easy in the NBA, especially for a 20-year-old on a bad team without many veterans to lean on.
For Giannis, this season is all about filling out his body and becoming strong enough to deal with the physicality of the league. If he can handle that, his length, skill and athleticism should take him a long away. Jason Kidd has made noises about using him as a point forward, which might not be a bad experiment for a Bucks team going nowhere. He can conceivably improve every facet of his game, which is exciting but also tells you how far he has to go.